A Daring Arrangement
I’ve read all of Joanna Shupe’s novels (I believe) and have enjoyed them to differing degrees. Looking back at my review of her début novel, The Courtesan Duchess, I said that while flawed, it was an engrossing read and that I was looking forward to reading more of her work. Several books later, I’m still reading her and while we’ve had our ups and downs, she’s firmly on my radar and is pretty much a ‘must read’ author for me these days. A Daring Arrangement, the first in her new Four Hundred series, tells the story of the fake-engagement between an English Lady and an American scoundrel and is quite possibly her best novel yet.
Lady Honoria (Nora) Parker, the daughter of the Earl of Stratton was sent to New York in order to avoid scandal after she was caught in a clinch with the man she loves, Robert Landon, an aspiring – and penniless – artist. Nora is currently staying with her aunt and uncle, James and Beatrice Cortland, a thoroughly amiable couple who are only too delighted to have her with them, and Nora is enjoying the chance to get to know her aunt, but unhappy at being separated from Robert, to whom she writes almost daily. She is determined to get back to England as quickly as possible, and to that end has come up with a plan; she will find the most disreputable man in New York and enter into a false betrothal with him. Once news of it reaches her father’s ears, he will summon her home immediately and she hopes she will be able to persuade the earl to permit her to marry Robert.
First of all, however, she has to surmount the major problem of not knowing any suitably debauched men; she can hardly ask her aunt to introduce her to some, after all. But one night at dinner at an exclusive restaurant, she learns that the raucous party taking place on the floor above is being hosted by the well-known financier, Julius Hatcher and it seems as though she’s found the answer to her prayers. She has been in New York for only one month, but is already familiar with Hatcher’s name because it is rarely absent from the gossip columns.
A handsome, brash swell with more money than sense, he threw elaborate parties and associated with a string of high-profile actresses… he’d even built a replica of a sixteenth-century French castle on Upper Fifth Avenue – complete with a moat.
Naturally, while high society looks down its collective nose at Hatcher’s exploits, its members are only too happy to be entertained by them while simultaneously denying him entrée to their sacred halls, so Nora hasn’t actually met the man. But she can’t let this chance slip by, so makes an excuse to her party and immediately hurries upstairs – to discover the ballroom full of men on horseback! When Nora finally manages to locate her quarry, he is more than three sheets to the wind, but she is undeterred. He’s also utterly gorgeous, but she refuses to let that worry her, either. She quickly outlines her proposal – if he will agree to pose as her fiancé long enough to garner her father’s ire, in exchange, she will gain him entry to all the society events from which he has so far been barred – and is relieved when he accepts. Just before he passes out.
Julius Hatcher is a mathematical genius with a real talent for reading the markets and making shrewd investments. He’s a self-made man who has worked hard for his success and has, for the past thirteen years been trying to uncover the identities of the three society gentlemen who screwed over his father in an investment deal. With the entrée to the higher echelons of society provided by his new not-fiancée, Julius hopes to find those men and somehow punish them for what they did to his father. Unfortunately, his desire to gain society’s acceptance is diametrically opposed to Nora’s desire to cause a ruckus; her plan hinges on the fact that Julius is a walking scandal, but obviously she forgot the old adage that one shouldn’t believe everything one reads in the papers, because it very quickly becomes apparent that there’s much more to Julius Hatcher than she’s read in the gossip rags and that he’s far from being as black as he is painted.
I’m always up for a good fake-relationship story, and this is a very good one that came quite close to being a DIK. The writing is excellent, the chemistry between the leads is fabulous and Ms. Shupe develops their slow-burn romance beautifully. Her descriptions of New York’s Gilded Age are evocative and vivid, putting the reader firmly in the midst of glittering society ballrooms and the seedier venues down in the Tenderloin district. Julius is a swoonworthy hero; handsome, sexy as hell and highly intelligent, he is quick to work out Nora’s reasons for wanting a fake-engagement and is determined to save her from herself by protecting her reputation even though she is equally determined to throw it away if it will get her what she wants. But he’s yet another marriage-shy bachelor who avoids anything long term because he doesn’t want that sort of responsibility and believes it will only lead to disappointment. (Although to be fair, once we meet his mother his position becomes more understandable.) Nora is a spirited, intelligent young woman, and for the most part, I liked her; yet she puts herself and others in danger because of her desire to marry a man the reader knows from page one is not worthy of her. Fortunately, she does learn from her mistakes and exhibits character growth as the story progresses; I ended up admiring her for her honesty and the fact that by the end, she is unwilling to settle for anything less than a man who loves her for herself.
The sub-plot relating to Julius’ search for the men who destroyed his father is nicely done, too, but my biggest issue with the story overall is with the final section, which risks over-egging the dramatic pudding by adding on a hero/heroine-in-peril type of plotline. The tacking-on of a mystery or melodramatic dénouement is something that seems to be almost de rigueur in historical romance these days, but rarely do such things feel integral to the story, and often they smack of contrivance. Whereas up until this point the characters have been driving the story, here, the plot takes over, and it’s a noticeable shift in gear which I found somewhat jarring.
Overall though, A Daring Arrangement is a great read, packed with wonderful dialogue, strongly-drawn secondary characters, a well-developed romance and sensual love scenes. I’m more than happy to recommend it to others and am eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.