An arranged engagement destined for disaster . . .
A hard-hearted tycoon.
A romantic dreamer.
An engagement set up to fail.
The charismatic and vivacious Katherine Delafield should be married by now. Her father arranged an engagement to the much sought-after tycoon Preston Clarke ages ago. The only problem is Preston refuses to acknowledge it. But this isn’t going to stop Katherine from living life to the fullest as she ditches all silly notions of love and marriage and sets out to sample all the excitement New York City has to offer . . . the more scandalous the better. Because no matter what happens, she and Preston will never marry.
After his family nearly lost everything, Preston is done letting his late father ruin his life—including choosing his bride. But when a mysterious lover at a masquerade turns out to be his would-be fiancée, Preston’s resolve begins to crumble. He hadn’t expected Katherine to be so charming. Or beautiful. Or passionate. And seeing her out on the town with other men is driving him crazy.
What happens when the wrong bride turns out to be the right woman after all?
Coming May 24, 2022.
“The Mrs. Astor of Gilded Age romances provides another smart and sexy read.”
—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)
“Joanna Shupe is the queen of historical bad boys!”
—Julia Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of the Bridgerton series
It was a fine day to ambush a fiancé.
Well, perhaps ambush was too strong a word, Katherine Delafield thought as she carefully descended from the hack to the street. She hadn’t contacted him beforehand or made an appointment with his secretary, but certainly he would make time for her. While Preston Clarke was a busy man, with his many properties, he and Katherine were betrothed.
Clutching her journal, she made her way toward the tall building bearing her fiancé’s name. They hadn’t seen each other since a brief introduction a year ago during the season. It wasn’t until after said introduction when her father informed her about the betrothal agreement between her and Preston. Years ago, when Henry Clarke and Lloyd Delafield were still business partners, they decided their only children would wed once they were of age.
This hadn’t come as much of a surprise, as Katherine always expected her father would choose her husband. That was how most marriages worked in their world. What had surprised her, however, was how much she was looking forward to being Preston’s wife.
She could still remember spying his tall and striking form across a ballroom, a giant warrior in a sea of bland and banal. With his windswept hair falling over his brow, he’d laughed at something one of his friends said, and she watched his smile transform his face from stern into breathtakingly handsome.
From then on she’d looked for mention of him everywhere. Followed the progress of his company. She even learned the names of his mistresses. At first, she hadn’t minded waiting on him to announce the betrothal. But Katherine was more than ready now, and Daddy was tired of fielding her questions about when and where this marriage would take place. He finally urged her to visit Preston and iron out all the details.
This was not a hardship. Details were among her favorite things.
Now inside the ornate lobby, she gave a polite nod to the elevator operator. “Good afternoon, sir. I’m here to see Mr. Clarke.”
“Ah, then you’re going to the top floor, miss.” He closed the iron door and started the lift. “Gets visitors all day long, Mr. Clarke does. None as pretty as you, though.”
“That’s very kind of you, thank you.” She supposed she would be seeing a lot of the building employees in the years to come. “What is your name, sir?”
“Nice to meet you, Reginald. I am Miss Delafield. Soon to be Mrs. Clarke.”
His brows shot straight up. “Well, now! Congratulations. I wasn’t told he was getting married.”
“Oh, there’s been an understanding between our families for years. I’m here today to work out the details.”
“Then I wish you luck. He could use a little sunshine in his life, if you ask my opinion. Never seen a man scowl so much.”
Poor Preston. She sensed that he worked very hard. She would change all that once they were married and settled.
They stopped and she waved goodbye, then headed toward the office with Preston’s name on it. When she opened the door, a secretary looked up from behind her desk. There was a man sitting in one of the chairs in the anteroom, likely waiting for an appointment with Preston, and he stood politely at Katherine’s arrival.
“How may I help you, dear?” the secretary asked. “Are you lost?”
No doubt Katherine looked out of place here. She tried for a bright smile. “No, I’m here to see Mr. Clarke.”
The older woman blinked. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but he’ll want to see me.”
“Mr. Clarke has a full schedule today, miss. Perhaps we could put you down for next week?” Oh, no. Next week would not do. She had decided they would do this today, so today it would be.
“Please tell him his fiancée is here.”
The secretary’s mouth dropped open. “I beg your pardon, but did you say . . . ?”
“Yes, fiancée. Miss Katherine Delafield.”
That was happening a lot today. “Yes. He will want to see me.”
“Oh, I have no doubt,” the secretary said, the edge of her mouth kicking up. “Would you care to wait? He’s just finishing up with a meeting. However, I should be able to slide you in before his next appointment.”
Katherine glanced at the man already waiting. “But wasn’t he here first?”
“Mr. Vance won’t mind letting you go in ahead of him. Will you, Mr. Vance?”
“Have I a choice?” Mr. Vance asked, frowning.
“No, not if you want to be seen at some point today.”
Mr. Vance huffed and went back to his reading. Katherine assumed the secretary knew best, so she nodded. “That would be lovely. Thank you, Mrs. . . . ?”
“Cohen, dear. It’s Mrs. Cohen.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Cohen. By the way, I love your dress. That color is very becoming on you.”
Mrs. Cohen softened and gave her a wide smile. “Aren’t you the sweetest thing? Please, have a seat.”
Settling in the empty chair, Katherine placed her journal on her lap and tapped the cover with her fingers. Once this meeting was done, she had a hundred tasks awaiting her in regards to the wedding. Hopefully, she and Preston could come to an agreement on most of the bigger decisions today.
A loud conversation began drifting through the closed door. Katherine wasn’t typically an eavesdropper, but she could hardly prevent herself from overhearing it.
“You don’t understand, Mr. Clarke. I . . . I cannot lose my home. Where will we go?”
“That is not my problem,” another man, clearly Preston, snapped. “You gambled away all your money, took out a loan and used the deed as collateral. When you couldn’t pay the bank back, I bought the deed, fair and square. If you have an issue with any of that, take it up with Gotham First National Savings and Loan.”
“The bank told me to talk to you!”
“I am not running a charity, Mr. Harris. This is a business.”
A heavy feeling settled in Katherine’s stomach. Mrs. Cohen continued working, while the man in the chair next to her focused on a stack of papers, both seemingly unbothered by the conversation. Was this sort of thing a usual occurrence around here?
“My family has nowhere else to go,” Mr. Harris was saying. “Does that even matter to you?”
Katherine held her breath. Dear God. This was terrible. Did Preston not feel even a tiny bit of compassion for this man and his family?
She couldn’t hear her fiancé’s response, but the door quickly opened to reveal an older man in an ill-fitting brown suit. He shouted, “I hope all that money keeps you warm at night,” over his shoulder just before slamming the door shut and storming out.
Mrs. Cohen rose and nodded at Katherine. “I’ll see if he’s ready for you, Miss Delafield.”
Katherine tried to calm her racing heart and forget what she’d overheard. Preston had a reputation as a ruthless businessman, but perhaps she could soften those rough edges over time.
“Miss Delafield,” Mrs. Cohen said a minute later from the open office doorway. “Mr. Clarke will see you now.”
Katherine stood and smoothed her skirts, then bit her lips for color. Her friend Nellie claimed this made one’s smile appear brighter. Pushing her shoulders back, Katherine walked into Preston’s office.
A man rose from behind the desk. He was every bit as handsome as she remembered. More so, actually.
Lord, he was even bigger up close. He made her, a woman taller than most, feel tiny. Her chest fluttered as she shook his hand. “Hello, Mr. Clarke.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cohen,” he said to the secretary, who nodded and closed the door. Then to Katherine: “Won’t you have a seat?”
She gracefully lowered herself into a chair, while at the same time taking a peek at the room, curious about her future husband’s domain. The office was sparse, with a walnut desk and chairs, bare walls and a giant safe in the corner. He needed some decorations in here, some artwork at the very least. She put it on her mental list to hang some paintings in his office after the wedding. Something serene and soft, like a Manet, perhaps.
Meeting his gaze, she said, “I apologize for coming unannounced like this.”
“I admit, my curiosity is piqued.” He leaned back in his chair. “What may I do for you?”
She took the list from her journal and handed it to him. “Here are the items on which we must decide. I’ve been pestering my father with these questions and he suggested I just come to see you. So, here I am.” She gave a small laugh, the kind that came out whenever she was nervous.
He accepted the paper without looking at it. “What questions would those be?”
Edging forward, she found her pencil and began reading off her notes in the journal. “First, I’d like to discuss the time of year. Most people prefer the spring, but I quite like the idea of the fall. September, perhaps. We’ll decorate with orange blossoms, of course.”
He glanced at the paper, his lips parting slightly as he read her list. “Wait, what?”
“You’re right,” she hurried to say. “Spring might be better. Let’s set that aside and return to it later. Now, let’s discuss food. I would prefer to hire Louis Sherry over Delmonico’s.”
He grimaced and placed the piece of paper on his desk carefully. A muscle moved in his jaw as he held up a hand. “Please, we should talk about this.”
“Would you rather decide on the music? It’s unconventional, but I like the idea of a single harpist for the ceremony.”
“You must stop.”
Uneasiness compounded in her stomach. Men typically didn’t participate in wedding preparations, but she hoped to arrange everything to his liking. She wanted to be the perfect wife. “I know, it seems trivial. Silly little things women like me worry about.” She lifted a shoulder. “But I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot by ignoring your input. That is, unless you prefer for me to make all the decisions—”
“I’m not referring to the plans, per se. I’m referring to the wedding. We’re not getting married. Not in the spring, not in the fall. Despite what you have been told, this is not happening.”
A shiver of fear and embarrassment slid through her. “I don’t understand.”
“I am not marrying you.”
“But . . .” She blinked at him and bit the inside of her cheek. “We are betrothed. Our fathers agreed on our marriage years ago.”
“You didn’t really believe them, did you? They had no right to make that betrothal on our behalf. This isn’t medieval Scotland. We aren’t two rival clans that must be joined in marriage to keep the peace. It’s nearly the twentieth century.”
“I suppose, but I always expected my father would choose my husband. It’s how things are done.”
“Not for me,” he said firmly. “Even if he were alive I wouldn’t allow my father to choose my wife.”
Air trickled into her too-tight lungs, like they’d been wrapped in twine, and a strange ringing started in her ears. “Is it because of the way I look? Too tall? Not tall enough? Is my hair too plain? My eyes are too close together, aren’t they?”
“Good God, no. It’s not about how you look. You’re lovely. It’s about me. I’m not ready to marry anyone. I may never be ready to marry. Do you understand?”
There had to be a reason. Most men his age were married. It was what people in their circles did. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Miss Delafield. Katherine,” he said, his tone gentle but firm. “I apologize, but I cannot marry you. I really am sorry if you believed otherwise, but believe me, it’s for your own good.”
For her own good? And he was sorry? This was like a terrible dream, worse than the one where she was running and couldn’t find her way home.
Mouth dry, she swallowed. “Perhaps you need more time to come to terms with the idea. I can wait.”
His lips flattened into a thin line, the skin above his collar turning a deep red. “I do not need time, Miss Delafield. Not a year, not a decade. I cannot marry you, ever. Is that clear enough for you? Or shall I write it down in list form?” He gestured to her forgotten paper on his desk.
Realization hit her like a douse of cold rainwater. She finally understood. He didn’t want to marry her.
She had been waiting for . . . nothing. Absolutely nothing. For one year she’d believed herself betrothed, putting off her future until he was ready. How silly. How stupid.
Hot prickles gathered behind her eyes, every breath scraping like needles inside her chest. She couldn’t pull enough air into her lungs, and the urge to flee overrode everything else. “I see. I’m terribly sorry for bothering you.” She snapped her journal closed and shot to her feet. “I won’t trouble you again. Good day, sir.”
“Wait,” he called behind her, but she didn’t listen. She kept right on walking. She’d already given Preston Clarke too much of her time.
She wasn’t about to waste one second more.
© Joanna Shupe 2022