Set in New York City’s Gilded Age, Joanna Shupe’s Avon debut introduces an English beauty with a wicked scheme to win the man she loves—and the American scoundrel who ruins her best laid plans…
Lady Honora Parker must get engaged as soon as possible, and only a particular type of man will do. Nora seeks a mate so abhorrent, so completely unacceptable, that her father will reject the match—leaving her free to marry the artist she loves. Who then is the most appalling man in Manhattan? The wealthy, devilishly handsome financier, Julius Hatcher, of course…
Julius is intrigued by Nora’s ruse and decides to play along. But to Nora’s horror, Julius transforms himself into the perfect fiancé, charming the very people she hoped he would offend. It seems Julius has a secret plan all his own—one that will solve a dark mystery from his past, and perhaps turn him into the kind of man Nora could truly love.
Releasing October 31, 2017.
The pressed tin ceiling was about to cave in on their heads.
Lady Honora Parker glanced upward once again, fascinated by what was taking place on the second floor of Sherry’s, one of New York’s most exclusive restaurants. Each raucous thump and horrific crash from above shook the huge gold and crystal chandelier in the main dining room and caused the black-coated waiters to wince. It sounded as if a herd of elephants were up there.
From what Nora had seen and heard of the reckless Americans in the last month, she would not be surprised if it were elephants. Nothing seemed off limits here, no idea too big or too wild. Giant houses, like English country estates, lined Fifth Avenue. Imported marble, bright limestone, and shiny gilding blinded from every street corner. Tall buildings stretched high up into the sky. There was a sense of urgency in New York to buy more, build more, do more. It made her long for the dirty, crowded, yet civilized streets of London.
“Nora, dear,” her aunt’s gentle voice interrupted her thoughts. “Mr. Van Rensselaer asked you a question.”
She turned to the older, heavyset man on her right. Her uncle had arranged the dinner, one of many meetings designed for her to find a “suitable” man. But the idea of marriage to a man old enough to be her father made Nora’s skin crawl. Even her aunt disapproved of Van Rensselaer, saying he was, “a set of heavy eyebrows with a stick up his behind.”
It must be said that Nora adored her aunt.
More importantly, Nora did not desire a suitable American man, not when a perfectly suitable artist awaited her back in London. Her father hadn’t approved of said artist, unfortunately, which is how she now found herself in America, being trotted around New York like a prized thoroughbred up for auction. That’s the earl’s daughter, they whispered behind her back. Here to find a husband.
No, she absolutely would not. Nora had no intention of marrying anyone here. “I apologize,” she replied to the eyebrows. “You were saying?”
“Perfectly understandable.” Mr. Van Rensselaer smiled tolerantly at her, as if Nora were some flighty nitwit incapable of following a conversation. Commence additional skin crawling. “I asked if your ladyship missed London.”
Yes, I miss Robert terribly. Her heart squeezed in a tight grip, an ache settling in her throat. A young painter, Robert Landon had no money or title to speak of, but she didn’t care. He’d been the first person to see Nora for who she truly was, not just her father’s daughter. He was sweet and romantic and all she desired in this world. After they married, they planned to travel across Europe so Robert could hone his craft. She would keep him company and continue to serve as his “muse,” as he often called her.
Her father, the Earl of Stratton, hadn’t approved. He’d been horrified when Robert and Nora were caught together—a scene orchestrated for the earl’s benefit at a dinner party—and from there, things had taken a disastrous turn. Instead of forcing the young lovers to marry, as she’d hoped, her furious father rushed Nora off to his sister in New York. “No one there will have heard of the scandal yet,” he had said. “Your aunt will help you find a proper husband in America. Do not return without one. Now, do not disappoint me, Nora.”
Was that not what she’d been doing her entire life, disappointing him? He’d wanted a boy; she’d been born a girl. She had studied, practiced, and tried to be the perfect daughter, and he’d only ignored her. She’d smiled through her debut, eager to make him proud, and he hadn’t bothered to attend any of the balls or dances.
Attempts at playing the good daughter, the proper society young woman, had gotten her nothing. Worse, they’d resulted in a trip to a strange city to be dangled in front of every fortune hunter and insufferable snob twice her age.
So that proper society young woman was no more. A new Nora had emerged on the cross-Atlantic voyage four weeks ago, one who had decided to take matters into her own hands by concocting an infallible way back to London.
The plan was simple. If her father wanted her to find a husband, she’d find the most outrageous man in New York, a fiancé noteworthy and unsuitable enough to land in the papers. An actor? A politician? She hadn’t quite settled on how to achieve it yet . . . but she would. She had to. The news must become public enough to reach the earl’s ear across the Atlantic, horrifying him enough to summon her home.
Three sets of eyes were staring, so she returned her attention to the conversation at hand. “I do miss it. Certainly not the weather, however.”
Aunt Beatrice, Uncle James, and Mr. Van Rensselaer laughed, and conversation droned on until another loud thump sounded from above. Her uncle’s mouth flattened. “I cannot comprehend why that hullabaloo is permitted to continue.”
Mr. Van Rensselaer wiped his mouth with the linen serviette. “From what I understand, Mr. Hatcher is up in the ballroom. Some sort of exclusive dinner. This is why your country is superior to ours, Lady Nora, because the undesirables here have no idea how to conduct themselves properly.”
By “undesirables,” it was clear he meant men who had earned their wealth, not inherited it as he had. Had he any idea how pompous that made him sound? Though Robert had no money, he was a kind, decent, and loving man with brilliant wit and unshakable morals. That was the perfect man, not one like Mr. Van Rensselaer, who’d visibly sneered at the modest blue silk gown she wore tonight. While it might be conservative compared to the fancier American gowns throughout the dining room, she believed the color showed off her dark chestnut hair and golden-brown eyes.
“Mr. Julius Hatcher?” Aunt Bea asked. “The financier?”
“Indeed. The man’s a scourge on everything decent and upstanding in this city.” Van Rensselaer cut into his asparagus spears. “Do not worry, though. He doesn’t exactly run in the best circles. In fact, he’s tried numerous times to buy his way into polite society over the years, but they won’t have him.”
Though she’d only been in New York a month, Nora had heard of Julius Hatcher. A handsome, brash swell with more money than sense, he threw elaborate parties and associated with a string of high-profile actresses, at least according to the gossip pages. He’d even built a replica of a sixteenth-century French castle on Upper Fifth Avenue—complete with a moat.
While the newspapers touted his exploits with glee, society thought him outrageous and improper. A society he’d apparently tried to buy his way into—and failed. And here her father had disapproved of Robert when there were scoundrels like Julius Hatcher running amok. However was that possibly fair? It would serve the earl right if she brought Hatcher home for—
Her brain froze for an instant, stuck on the delicious idea. Oh, indeed, it would serve the earl right. Her father would never approve of Hatcher as a husband, a scoundrel who would bring shame to the venerable Parker name. Surely that would force her father to see Robert in a more favorable light. It would certainly prove that a hardworking, decent man like Robert was good enough to marry the earl’s only daughter.
Moreover, the second her father caught wind of her connection to Hatcher and the depravity of his reputation, he would undoubtedly bring her home posthaste.
Mr. Hatcher sounded like the answer to her prayers.
Another thud sounded from above. This is my chance. She had to find Hatcher and try to convince him to help her. Right now. Immediately. Before she lost this opportunity. She started to push her chair back and a waiter rushed over to assist her. “If you will excuse me, I am feeling a bit overheated.”
“Shall I come with you?” her aunt asked as the two gentlemen politely rose as well.
“No, please,” she rushed out a little desperately, then tempered her tone. “Enjoy your meal. I’ll put a cool cloth to my neck and return in moments.”
Nora soon located the main stairs and hurried up, holding her skirts with both hands to keep from tripping. A waiter appeared just as she reached the top step. “Ma’am, are you lost?”
Even here in America, women were not supposed to dine upstairs, alone. No doubt he thought her a hussy, strutting about without a male escort. She gave him a blinding smile and spoke rapidly. “Oh, I am ever so sorry, sir. We just finished dining and I believe I left something in one of the upper dining rooms. Would you mind terribly if I quickly searched for it? I promise I shan’t take long.”
The tips of the waiter’s ears turned red and he moved aside to let her pass. “Of course, ma’am. Go right ahead. I didn’t realize you was a proper British lady. We get a lotta questionable characters on the upper floors. Would you like me to come help?”
“No, thank you. Undoubtedly, you are quite busy. I’ll be but a moment.” Relieved, she glided past him toward the private dining rooms.
After he departed, she began searching for the source of the noise. The ruckus grew louder as she approached a pair of large wooden doors on the right. Pressing her ear to one of the panels, she heard more thumps and booming male laughter emanating from within.
She thought of Robert and their future together. Traveling Europe and spending lazy mornings surrounded by him and his paints. A man who wanted her,not the heirs she might expel from her womb or the status associated with her father’s title. Taking a breath for courage, she turned the knob and slid into the ballroom. Then she came to an abrupt halt.
Good heavens. There were . . . horses everywhere.
Horses. Inside. The. Ballroom.
With men in the saddle.
All twenty or so male guests were dressed in black evening suits, silk hats, and eating off trays secured to saddles. Waiters, outfitted as grooms, scurried back and forth. The room smelled like a barn drenched in cigar smoke.
Dinner on horseback? Had these Americans lost their minds?
She could not wait to tell Robert about it.
One man broke off from the group and maneuvered his horse to where she stood. He tipped his hat, an affable grin on his handsome face. “Good evening, miss. May we help you?”
“You have horses. In a restaurant. On the second floor.”
He chuckled and lifted one shoulder. “It’s my friend’s birthday, and he never does anything in half measures. Believe it or not, the horses were fairly easy to get up the freight elevator.”
She couldn’t imagine how much this all cost, though she would never ask. Better to stick with her purpose. “I am looking for Mr. Hatcher.”
“Of course you are. All the pretty ones do.” He pointed to a hatless man waving a champagne bottle and weaving in the saddle. “He’s over there, the blond one with the bubbly. Shall I fetch him for you?”
The ballroom floor had been covered in hay and dirt—and that was before one considered the horses. In hopes of preserving her shoes, she nodded. “Yes, if you would be so kind.”
He wheeled his horse around and walked to where Hatcher was holding court. Hatcher appeared to be telling a story, gesturing wildly with his hands, which he moved to his chest as if cupping a pair of large breasts. Nora felt her skin heat as she turned to the wall. His obnoxious behavior only solidified this plan in her mind. I’ll see you soon, Robert.
A few seconds later, the earth shook under her slippers. Glancing up, she found Mr. Hatcher trotting toward her. He was handsome. She hadn’t expected that—not that such a trivial thing mattered. She forced herself to study him not as a woman, but as Robert often studied a rival’s art: with a detached sense of curiosity.
This was a man designed to gain attention, with his rumpled, wheat-streaked hair and strong, chiseled features. As he drew closer, she noted the high, prominent cheekbones and sharp nose. Broad shoulders atop a lean build. But it was more than that. As the Americans said, he had dash—a certain panache that lent him an air of superiority. Perhaps it was the money, but Nora didn’t think so. New York was dripping with rich men and none of them looked like Julius Hatcher.
In a word, he was perfect.
He brought his horse to a stop and peered down at her. His blue eyes were glassy and rimmed red. Full lips slid into a confident, impish grin, and some sort of bizarre reaction occurred in Nora’s stomach. “McDaniel’s outdone hisself this year.”
She blinked. Though his speech was slightly slurred, she had heard every word. “McDaniel?”
“The man who paid you, sweetheart.” He leaned forward in the saddle and let his eyes linger over the length of her body. Extra attention was paid to her bosom, which she knew was nothing more than average. Still, he must have liked what he saw because he said, “Damn, but whatever you charged him wasn’t enough.”
“Charged him?” she repeated. “I am—”
“You’re the best birthday present I’ve ever received. Give me an hour or so to sober up and then I’ll take you somewhere nice. We’ll get a suite at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.”
Though he pronounced it “shweet” she well knew what he meant. God above, he believed her a loose woman. For his birthday. And he had a friend who gifted him with such each year? Hatcher was even more odious than she’d been led to believe.
“Sir, I am not your birthday present. I am dining downstairs.”
“Yes, I am. My name is Lady Nora Parker. I am staying with my aunt, Mrs. Cortland.”
The horse shifted, shaking its large head in impatience. Hatcher absently stroked the animal’s neck. “Know her husband, Jim. Big in oil stocks. And you’re a lady, you say?”
“Indeed, I am. My father is the eighth Earl of Stratton and a bunch of lesser titles not worth repeating at the moment. May I speak with you?”
He glanced over both shoulders dramatically. “Are we not speaking now?”
“I meant . . . Forget it.” Staring up at him pained her neck. If he were a true gentleman, he would’ve dismounted and addressed her properly.
Sighing, she searched the room and noticed a chair resting near the wall. She strode over, grasped the chair back, and dragged the piece closer to Hatcher. Before she’d even placed her slipper on the seat, a waiter rushed over to assist her up. In seconds, she stood nearly eye to eye with her quarry. “I have something I wish to discuss with you.”
The sly smile returned. “Anythin’ you want, sweetheart.”
She took a deep breath and ignored the insinuation. The man had filth on the brain. “For reasons that are irrelevant to this conversation, I should like to return to England as quickly as possible. However, my father wishes me to find an American man to marry. I need an outrageous fiancé—are you asleep?”
Hatcher jerked, his eyes stretching wide. “No,” he lied, as if she hadn’t seen him clearly dozing off. “I’m awake. But p’haps you could get to the point.”
She did need to hurry. No doubt her aunt was growing concerned in the dining room. “I’d like for you to pose as my fiancé, just long enough to anger my father and get me summoned home.”
“Fiancé? Me?” His voice had turned shrill, startling his horse. With a competent press of his knees, he steadied the beast and then stroked its neck with a gentle hand. He shook his head. “I am never marryin’ anyone, not even a woman as gorgeous as you.”
“We would not marry. I merely need my father to think we will.”
“Reasons. Meanwhile, I’ll gain you entrance into all the society events. When my father learns of our association, he’ll summon me home and then you’ll be released from our agreement.”
He swayed, his brow lowered in concentration. She had no idea if he were attempting to stay in the saddle or contemplating her offer. His hooded gaze stared at her mouth. “Would I be allowed to kiss you?”
A strangely exhilarating wave of heat rolled through her. The idea of kissing him should not tantalize her under any circumstances. She pushed those thoughts aside, permanently. “Absolutely not.”
The lines on his forehead deepened. “Hardly seems fair.”
Life was not fair, she wanted to tell him. Falling in love with a decent man her father refused to accept was unfair. Being a woman and not having the right to decide her own fate was unfair.
She could go on.
“Nonetheless, that is my offer. Do you accept?”
“You and me, showin’ up those Knickerbockers?”
It took her a minute to decipher the words. “Yes, precisely. Showing up those Knickerbockers. Will you do it?”
“Hell, yes! Where do I sign?”
God save her from inebriated men. She just prayed he remembered this conversation come morning. “No papers, Mr. Hatcher. Merely your word.”
“I like papers,” he murmured. “But for you, I can make an ’ception.” He thumped his chest with his fist. Hard. “My word, then. You and me, sweetheart.”
Relief flooded her. “Thank you. I knew you were just the man to see. I am so grateful I was in the dining room when you—”
Hatcher’s lids fluttered and he slumped forward, his body becoming lax. Before she could do anything, his horse sidestepped and Hatcher slid out of the saddle. He fell onto the floor with a thunk.
Horrified, Nora covered her mouth. Was he dead? She stepped off the chair and rushed closer, ready to assist in whatever way necessary . . . and then he groaned.
“We’ve got him, miss,” one of the grooms said as he hurried over.
Certain her new fiancé hadn’t expired, Nora slipped out of the ballroom and briskly walked back to the dining room. Her heart pounded with newfound hope.
Based on what she just witnessed, she’d be back in England—and Robert’s arms—before the month was out.
© Joanna Shupe