Never Beguile a Bodyguard, Book One in Fortune's Brides: Guarding Her Heart
January 16, 2023 (Edwards and Williams)
When elite soldier Finn Huber was released from his duties to his king and crown prince to start a new life in Regency England, he never dreamed his first position would be bodyguard to a governess whose sweet nature calls to him. He fell for a lady he was guarding years ago, with devastating consequences. He learned the hard way that bodyguards must be vigilant, valiant, and in control, always. Loving who they guard is strictly forbidden.
Governess Abigail Winchester beguiles her charges with warm smiles and gentle words, but her composure is hard won. Someone knows about her connection to a family scandal and is bent on destroying her. How kind of her benefactress, Lady Belfort, to hire Finn to keep her safe as she hides at the lady’s country estate. He is everything a lady might admire, but she cannot give in to her growing feelings for him. Finn’s honor and her past can never be reconciled.
But Lady Belfort and her cat, Fortune, are renowned for making matches—in employment and in romance. With their help, Finn and Abigail must uncover who is threatening her and stop the villain before it’s too late. In the end, will honor or love prevail?
5 Stars! "Very highly recommended reading!" The Huntress Reviews
"Highly recommend this enjoyable start to a new clean Regency series." Melissa's Bookshelf
"This sweet romance and Ms Scott's enthralling but peaceful writing were exactly the calming optimistic focus I needed to get me through this season. I absolutely adore these tales featuring Meredith and her cat, Fortune. They're a dynamic duo that you won't want to miss." Hott Book Reviews
"This was a cute, light, enjoyable read. The plot was engaging, and the characters were lovable. The romance that blooms between Finn and Abigail is heartwarming. Regina Scott has again written a romance that entertains and intrigues. Never Beguile A Bodyguard is a fantastic way to begin a new series!" Reading Rebel Reviews
"A well-written page-turner." Author Susan Marlene
"Witty, fun, and romantic." Britt Reads Fiction
When all else failed, a lady had only her composure to rely upon.
Abigail Winchester believed that, but all else had failed, and she felt far from composed as she clutched the edge of the hack’s worn leather seat. The hired carriage had come to a stop before a tall, elegant townhouse in a fashionable square. Nothing about that green-lacquered door hinted of danger. But she why she expected it to come leaping out
She glanced up and down the street. A footman swept the stairs at number eleven. A governess exited number nine with her two charges for an outing, a governess like she had been until a week ago.
“You getting out, miss?” the hack driver called from the bench. “This was where you paid to go.”
It was. A week in a ladies’ lodging house in a far less fashionable part of town had put a considerable dent in her meager funds, and she could not shake the feeling that she was being followed. She needed help, and the list of people who might be willing to extend that help was pitiably small. Everyone had distanced themselves from her—family, friends, acquaintances—since the full extent of her father’s scandal had become clear. Even Preston had defected, and she’d thought to be married to him by now.
And so, here she was. Staring at the door of a house belonging to a lady to whom she could scarcely claim acquaintance. Her only hope for help, unless she was willing to approach him.
Yes, to her shame, she had considered that. Finn Huber of the Batavarian Imperial Guard had shown her considerable kindness when she had been tending to the children at a house party given by the Duchess of Wey. He had been guarding the crown prince and his brother, who had been attending the party with their betrotheds, the duke’s two oldest daughters. But he had made time to come visit the children, who had positively doted on him. So had she, truth be told. And she could not ascribe the feeling entirely to the glitter of gold braid crossing that broad chest.
But there she had even less claim to acquaintance. And the papers she studied so assiduously for news of the scandal had reported that the Batavarian delegation had departed England, homebound at last. She liked thinking of him among the mountains he had so eloquently extolled.
“Miss?” The hack driver’s voice had become more insistent. “If you’re going to loiter, I’ll have to charge you.”
Enough dithering. She had survived her parents’ deaths and the scandal by keeping her head high, her smile pleasant, and her feet moving. She slid the top bolt, pushed open the door, gathered her blue poplin skirts, and climbed down onto the pavement.
“Forgive me for delaying you,” she said to the driver. “I merely had to screw my courage to the sticking place.”
He must never have read Shakespeare, or seen MacBeth at the theatre, for he frowned at her. “Good day, then.” He clucked to his horses and drove off.
Abigail focused on the door again, which seemed unaccountably far from the edge of the street. She had faced down demanding creditors, newspaper reporters seeking secrets, and curious children in a schoolroom. What was this to all that?
She marched to the door, climbed the few steps, seized the brass knocker—which was shaped like the head of a snarling lion—and rapped at the panel.
An elderly butler with a ring of wispy white hair opened the door. He was tall enough that he could look down at her with his rheumy blue eyes, or perhaps it was only the way his long nose pointed in her direction, as if accusing her of some crime.
“Miss Winchester to see Lady Belfort,” she said, pleased that her voice came out confident and cordial.
“Her ladyship is currently engaged,” he wheezed. “But if you will wait in the entry, I will determine whether she will admit you as well.”
It was the time of day for calls. She should have thought of that. Once she would have had a withdrawing room full of ladies and gentlemen to entertain or would have been out calling herself, her mother at her side.
What a charming bonnet, Miss Winchester. The flowers suit your sunny temperament.
May I importune your hand for a dance at the ball on Tuesday evening, Miss Winchester? I vow you are light as eiderdown on your feet.
Why would your father agree to fund a charlatan, Miss Winchester? Did you aid him in making such a disastrous decision?
“Delighted,” she said, stepping over the threshold. The butler turned to start up the stairs. She tilted her head to follow his path, but the movement was echoed beside her, and she turned to meet her own gaze in the mirror next to the door. The young lady looking back at her had warm blond hair tucked up inside a straw bonnet lined with satin that matched the blue of her eyes. She looked entirely comfortable in the luxurious surroundings.
She seemed to have developed a knack for dissembling.
Below the mirror stood a mahogany bench. Did her ladyship have so many petitioners who must wait for a moment of her time? At the very thought, her legs folded to deposit her on the seat as if having done their duty by getting her here.
But something else was moving on the stair, a streak of grey that resolved itself into a cat. It dropped onto the marble-tiled floor and padded closer. A lovely creature, with a plumed tail and white wound round its throat and down its belly like a gentleman’s cravat, the cat stopped directly in front of her and regarded her with eyes the color of copper pennies.
Abigail smiled. “Good morning. And how are you faring today?”
he cat cocked its head. Was it wondering why she spoke to it? Surely others had been tempted to pour their troubles into those alert ears.
The cat straightened, stalked closer, then hopped up into her lap.
“Well, aren’t you a darling?” Abigail said. “Thank you for making me feel welcome.”
The cat turned twice, then settled on her skirts as if preparing for a long nap.
The fears clinging to her burned away like mist in the sunlight. She ran a hand gently down the fur. A purr rumbled against her thigh. Why were her eyes stinging? She’d known kindness before. It simply seemed so long ago.
A noise above had her peering upward once more. The butler was making his stately way down the stairs. He did not appear concerned to find the pet of the house curled up in her lap. Indeed, she thought she caught a hint of a smile on those thin lips.
“That is very good,” he said with a nod, as if she had passed some sort of test. “Her ladyship will be delighted.”
Interesting how he stressed his employer’s title. Was he trying to impress upon her the unsuitability of her claiming acquaintance? Or was he so very pleased about the lady’s elevation to the peerage? Lord and Lady Belfort had been awarded their titles only recently, as the papers liked to remind their readers, and by the King of Batavaria, for services to the crown. His lordship was a savvy solicitor with connections in high places.
“Then she will see me?” Abigail asked.
“She will see you,” he promised. “And she has sent an escort.”
Abigail glanced down at the cat in her lap. “So I see.”
“Not that escort.”
Her head jerked up at the voice from the stairs, and for a moment, she was certain she had conjured him from thin air. Finn Huber, dressed today like a London gentleman in a navy coat and fawn trousers instead of the black and gold of his uniform, was descending toward her, dark hair combed back from his face, smile warm, and amber eyes alight.
Hope leaped up, then crashed.
How was she to explain her deplorable situation to Lady Belfort in front of the one person whose admiration she most craved?
Finn’s heart seemed to be pounding louder than the drum calling the march. He had expected to feel elation knowing he was moving into a new future in England, but instead, his thoughts had persisted on dwelling on what he was leaving behind.
On who he was leaving behind.
And now she was here, against all odds. He couldn’t seem to stop his smile.
He came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and clapped his fist to his chest in salute. “Miss Winchester.”
“Mr. Huber.” She started to rise, then seemed to recall the cat on her lap. Lady Belfort’s pet reached out her paws in a leisurely stretch, and cast him a glance as if chiding him for depriving her of such a pleasant place to nap.
“Forgive me, Fortune,” he said with a bow. “But I have need of the lady.”
The cat deigned to drop to the ground and stalked off toward the stairs.
You speak to her too?” Miss Winchester asked, rising at last.
A distinguished member of the Batavarian Imperial Guard, who had fought in the war with Napoleon, should not blush, yet heat burned his cheeks. “You will come to understand that Fortune holds a special place in this house.”
Mr. Cowls, the butler, snorted, then turned the noise into a genteel cough. “You may tell her ladyship that Fortune approved of Miss Winchester.”
He would never have doubted that. Since coming to know Lady Belfort and her circle, he had been regaled by any number of stories about the cat. Fortune was said to have matched the Duke and Duchess of Wey, the Earl and Countess of Carrolton, the Marquess and Marchioness of Kendall, and Sir Matthew and Lady Bateman. He had seen for himself how the cat had helped orchestrate the match linking his prince to Lady Larissa, and Count Montalban, the prince’s brother, to Lady Calantha, both daughters of the Duke of Wey. It was said that if Fortune approved of you, your character must be very fine indeed.
He was honored to have earned that approval himself.
Small wonder the woman before him had earned it. From the first time he had met her, in the schoolroom at the duke’s estate, he had appreciated her gentle smile, her kind way of guiding the children under her care. And who would not admire hair as rich as honey and eyes as blue as the sky over the Batavarian mountains?
He held out his arm. “May I escort you to Lady Belfort?”
“As it appears to be a little distance, I think I shall contrive.” Her smile took the sting from the words, and Finn contented himself with walking beside her up the stairs.
“We have been seeking you,” he told her.
She started, but her voice remained pleasant. “Seeking me? Whatever for?”
“Sir Matthew and Lady Bateman require a new governess,” he explained. “But when they approached the employment agency that placed you, they were told you had disappeared from your last position, and no one knew where to find you.”
He would not admit that the thought of her alone and friendless in the great metropolis had made sleep difficult since he’d heard she’d disappeared. He had felt helpless twice in his life. He did not intend to put himself in a position to feel that clammy sickness again.
She did not answer, but then, they had reached the landing and the withdrawing room that opened off it. She stopped in the doorway, as if unable to go on.
Tanner, Keller, and Roth, his comrades who had also decided to remain in England when the prince had sailed for home, stood at the sight of her and clapped fist to chest. Her gaze darted from them to the lady seated on the sofa.
“You remember Mr. Keller and Mr. Roth from the house party,” Finn encouraged her. “Mr. Tanner is also a member of the Imperial Guard.”
“Former member,” Tanner said with a smile. “And it is a pleasure to meet you at last, Miss Winchester. I have heard nothing but praise for your skill.” He nudged Keller beside him. “Though I would have thought someone would have mentioned your beauty.”
Keller, the youngest of them, blushed. He could get away with it with those guileless blue eyes and round cheeks. Many had underestimated him, to their sorrow.
Roth, the eldest, sent Tanner a dark look and crossed his arms over his chest. With raven hair and eyes like the steel of his sword, he still looked like what he was, a battle-hardened fighter of an elite band of warriors, who suddenly found themselves in need of a different future.
“Yes, welcome, Miss Winchester,” Lady Belfort said. She also looked her part: a grand lady, with dark hair piled up in complicated braids at the back of her head and tailored skirts the same shade of lavender as her eyes. Her smile broadened. “And here is the final member of our party.”
Fortune wound past them, somehow managing to brush both Miss Winchester’s skirts and Finn’s boots before making her way to her mistress’ side.
“Mr. Cowls asked me to inform you that Fortune approved of Miss Winchester,” Finn told her.
“Well, of course she would,” Roth said with a shake of his head.
Lady Belfort waited for her pet to jump up onto her lap before resting a hand on the fur. “That is very good news indeed. I have come to rely on Fortune’s insights, as my own are sometimes colored by wishes instead of reality. Please, Miss Winchester, be welcome. The gentlemen were just leaving.”
“Dismissed,” Roth agreed, with a nod to nudge them all toward the door. “We will be here at first light, as requested, your ladyship.”
“I’m fairly sure I said half past eight,” she corrected him as he started toward the door, Keller and Tanner in front. “But you will be welcome, regardless.”
Keller shot Finn a grin as he passed. Tanner tipped his head toward Miss Winchester and widened his eyes as if impressed. Roth sent him a look as sharp as a cutlass.
He was expected to fall in line. Something in him protested. But he would not question his duty. It had kept him sane for too many years. He turned to follow them.
“A moment, Mr. Huber,” Lady Belfort called. “I may require your advice.”
He hesitated. So did Roth.
“She is our patroness,” Roth hissed. “Do what she asks of you. We will await you in the park across the street.”
Finn nodded, and his leader continued down the stairs.
Finn ventured into the room and took the chair Roth had vacated, next to the sofa and across from Miss Winchester, where he could see both ladies and the exits easily. Habit. A bodyguard to the king must always be on the alert for danger.
“Now, then,” Lady Belfort said, leaning back on the sofa as if she had no such concerns. “How might I be of assistance, Miss Winchester?”
She glanced between them, then must have come to a decision, for she raised her chin. “I find myself in a difficult position, your ladyship. I have been fortunate in my employment thus far, but I was forced into resigning from my last post, and I believe I am being followed now. I was told that you help gentlewomen down on their luck. I would seem to qualify.”
Finn’s shoulders tightened with each word. “Who would trouble you like this?”
She kept her gaze on Lady Belfort. “I do not know who has been following me, but I can guess why. My father was involved in a scandal a few years ago. My previous employer apparently discovered the fact and made things unpleasant for me. Others seem to think I might have been involved. I can assure you, I had no knowledge of the scheme.”
A father’s decisions affected all those around him, he had cause to know. Some of his agitation must have been evident, for Fortune dropped to her feet to pad closer. He would not allow himself to come under the calming sway of those copper eyes. That anyone would wish Abigail Winchester harm was serious.
“Then I am very glad you came to me,” Lady Belfort said. “I intend to find the four Imperial Guards positions here in England. They will be joining me tomorrow at my estate in Surrey, Rose Hill, in the guest cottage next to my home. As my husband is currently out of the country, traveling with the Batavarian delegation to Württemberg to ratify the agreement between the countries and England, I would benefit from having a lady companion, like you.”
Miss Winchester’s lower lip trembled. “How kind, your ladyship.”
How kind indeed. And how fitting. With Lady Belford her patroness as well, he would not have to concern himself with Abigail Winchester’s safety. He could move into the future with no fear of losing his heart again. It had never fully healed from the last time he had been assigned to guard a lady.
“A temporary position only, you understand,” her ladyship continued, “but it would allow me to assess your skills and find you a more suitable position when it is finished. In the meantime, to ensure our safety, I will ask you to act as her bodyguard, Mr. Huber.”