Title: The Bodyguard
Author: Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
She’s got his back.
Hannah Brooks looks more like a kindgerten teacher than somebody who could kill you with a wine bottle opener. Or a ballpoint pen. Or a dinner napkin. But the truth is, she’s an Executive Protection Agent (aka “bodyguard”), and she just got hired to protect superstar actor Jack Stapleton from his middle-aged, corgi-breeding stalker.
He’s got her heart.
Jack Stapleton’s a household name—captured by paparazzi on beaches the world over, famous for, among other things, rising out of the waves in all manner of clingy board shorts and glistening like a Roman deity. But a few years back, in the wake of a family tragedy, he dropped from the public eye and went off the grid.
They’ve got a secret.
When Jack’s mom gets sick, he comes home to the family’s Texas ranch to help out. Only one catch: He doesn’t want his family to know about his stalker. Or the bodyguard thing. And so Hannah—against her will and her better judgment—finds herself pretending to be Jack’s girlfriend as a cover. Even though her ex, like a jerk, says no one will believe it.
What could possibly go wrong???
Hannah hardly believes it, herself. But the more time she spends with Jack, the more real it all starts to seem. And there lies the heartbreak. Because it’s easy for Hannah to protect Jack. But protecting her own, long-neglected heart? That’s the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Katherine Center excels at creating fascinating women as lead characters and placing then in challenging, unusual situations. In The Bodyguard, there’s quite a bit of humor, and yet the heart and emotions of her previous books still shine through.
As the book starts, main character Hannah has just been dumped by her boyfriend, who also happens to be a coworker. Awkward! He’s a total jerk, says terrible things to her, has cheated on her with her best friend… and yet she still needs to see both of them at the office on a daily basis. All Hannah wants is to escape, and begs her boss to send her off on a new assignment, preferably one somewhere on the other side of the world.
But Hannah is a depressed, emotional wreck, and her boss has other plans for her. She’ll stay in Houston working on their new high-profile client’s protection assignment, and if it goes well, she’ll be up for a promotion to head the agency’s new London office.
The assignment is movie star Jack Stapleton, who’s coming home to Texas to be with his mother while she undergoes cancer treatment. Jack has been living off the grid for the last couple of years after a scandal, but he still pops up in the tabloids whenever the paparazzi can track him down and catch shots of him with his latest Hollywood-appropriate girlfriend. But now, Jack is leaving his North Dakota retreat to be with his family, and it’s the agency’s job to keep the crazy stalkers at bay, or preferably, in the dark.
Jack most emphatically does not want a bodyguard, but the studios insist, so he adds his own stipulation: Hannah can protect him, but only by posing as his girlfriend at his parent’s ranch. They simply do not need the stress of knowing he’s in danger, not while they should be focused on his mother’s health.
What follows is equal parts silly and serious. Hannah is small but powerful. She may be able to kill someone with a ballpoint pen, but if she has to fight or injure someone, she’s already failed. Her job is to protect and keep safe, and never let her “principal” anywhere near being in danger. She’s used to being in the background, a serious presence in a pantsuit and an earpiece, not there to be noticed. But to meet Jack’s requirements, she finds herself in a “girlfriend” outfit, sundress and sandals, engaging with his family, holding hands, and even sleeping in the same room as Jack (although, per her insistence, on the floor rather than in his bed).
As the story unfolds, we learn about both Hannah and Jack’s past traumas, which influence so much of who they are now. Hannah’s history with her mother was painful, full of neglect and danger, seeing her mother descend into alcoholism and endure a series of abusive relationships. Jack is haunted by the car accident that killed his younger brother and has driven a wedge between him and his older brother. There’s a secret there, but Jack refuses to discuss it, instead reliving it through regular nightmares. As Hannah spends time with Jack, she sees beyond the Hollywood surface to the vulnerable person underneath, and becomes determined to help him.
The Bodyguard has plenty of light moments too — silly encounters on the ranch, moments of joy and laughter as Jack relaxes around Hannah and gets Hannah to unwind a bit too — as well as scenes of family connection, simple pleasures, and true warmth and emotional reality. At the same time, Hannah second-guesses her growing chemistry with Jack. After all, he’s an actor, and she’s seen him on screen many, many times — she’s knows he’s good at his job. So when he seems to care for her, is it real, or is he just acting?
I really enjoyed Hannah as a character, and loved that this petite woman is a strong, dangerous, accomplished defender who can hold her own, and then some. Her outer toughness and professionalism hides her inner vulnerabilities, but she’s awesome at her job and her abilities are absolutely never in doubt. Seeing her fall for her principal and sort out who Jack is and whether he’s being truthful with her is fascinating, and I loved seeing their relationship blossom.
There are some familiar and well-loved tropes here — fake dating, Hollywood star falling for a regular person, love on a ranch, just one bed, etc. The author does a terrific job of incorporating these elements while also keeping them fresh and new.
One of my very favorite things about The Bodyguard was the laughter. Despite the many scenes and discussions focusing on the character’s painful pasts, they also laugh together — a lot. And when Jack laughs, it’s a full-bodied, all-out experience that strips away all his outer polish and shows his inner good nature, and it’s just so much fun.
A dangerous scenario toward the end of the book brings the story back into a more serious focus and gives Hannah a chance to shine — I was on the edge of my seat! But beyond this situation, the book’s focus is on the relationships — romance, friendship, family — what they mean to the characters, and how Jack and Hannah are changed by them.
The Bodyguard is a refreshing, engaging, light-hearted but also emotional summer read. Don’t miss it!