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.
“Shupe’s unique talents shine in her start to The Four Hundred series as her sparkling light humor mixes with poignancy, danger, heated chemistry and delightful dialogue. This enchanting series starter hooks readers who will be craving more.” —RT Book Reviews
“Shupe continues to raise the bar for Gilded Age romance with the first book in a promising new series.” —Kirkus Reviews
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. She was impressed: even drunk he cared for the animal. 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