The Heiress Hunt – Joanna Shupe

No one hated being poor more than a rich man. Harrison Archer, dressed in his shabbiest suit, tapped his knee with two fingertips and struggled for calm. It was nearly impossible in this house, the place where he’d grown up, surrounded by a family who made vipers seem friendly. Remember why you’re here. Indeed, everything he’d been working toward was close at hand. Vengeance. He’d been plotting for a long time. Three years, in fact. Three years of studying and scheming in Paris, doing everything he could to amass a fortune large enough for the right moment. That moment was now. The Archers were weak. Nearly broke. Their company’s stock value was the lowest in twenty years. Through investigators, Harrison learned that his father, who’d died eight months ago, had been borrowing company funds to cover personal debts for a decade. Thomas Archer, Harrison’s brother, apparently had the business sense of a lump of coal, because he’d only worsened the situation when he took over as company president.

All that suited Harrison just fine. The destruction of the Archers was under way. They’ll never see it coming, not from a son they consider nothing more than a wastrel and lackwit. His mother sucked air through her teeth, her cold stare sweeping over her second son. “I cannot fathom why it has taken you this long to return home, Harrison. Your father died more than half a year ago.” Harrison smoothed the rough wool of his old trousers. “You mean the father who disowned me three years ago? Funny, but no one sent me passage home to attend the funeral.” “Why on earth would we send you a ticket?” She lifted her nose as if a foul odor had overtaken the room. “Between all the mistresses and parties we hear about, no doubt you can afford passage on a steamer.

” He could afford damn near anything, but he wouldn’t tell his family as much. They had to think him poor and shiftless, no threat whatsoever to their precious little world. “That hardly matters, as I am here now.” “And thank God for that.” Thomas rocked in his chair behind the desk, acting like the king of the kingdom he was raised to become. The panic lurking in his blue gaze gave him away, however, and Harrison relished the hint of desperation in the room. He wanted to soak in their anxiety, savor it like a fine wine. Thomas nodded once at him. “Just in the nick of time, I might add. I assume you received my telegram.

” There had been six telegrams, actually, all asking the same thing, but no use quibbling. Instead, Harrison reached into his coat pocket and withdrew the last one. He tossed the paper on the desk. “I came to New York just to tell you no to your faces.” And bankrupt them, of course, but he couldn’t play that card quite yet. Shares of Archer Industries stock were still being located and purchased. But soon. So very soon. Today’s visit was merely to watch them squirm when he refused their request. “You cannot say no.

” Thomas slapped the smooth top of the walnut desk. “We need you to marry an heiress—quickly.” “Why would I bother?” “Is it not obvious?” “Not to me.” “We will lose the family company if you don’t. Our grandfather founded Archer Industries before the war. We cannot be responsible for losing it.” Harrison lifted a brow. “We?” Their mother huffed and thumped her cane on the floor. “Harrison, for once in your godforsaken life, pay attention.” The barb stung, a reminder of his childhood and the misery of living in this house.

Why can’t you be more like your brother? Why can’t you sit still? Why can’t you ever do as you’re told? As a boy, he’d been energetic and unable to focus his attention for long stretches of time. That seemed to annoy just about anyone he encountered, including his nanny and tutors. His mother dealt with it through ice-cold silence, while his father’s approach had been to use a heavy hand. A very heavy hand. As they grew, Thomas took to ridiculing Harrison, riling him up at every turn and causing him to lash out, which made Harrison appear increasingly more ill-mannered, an embarrassment to the family. His father began focusing more and more on Thomas, the perfect brother, until Harrison became an afterthought. Harrison stroked his jaw. “Oh, I have been paying attention. You think I care about saving a family who disinherited me.” “Disinherited or not, you are part of this family,” Thomas said.

“Our name won’t be worth anything in this city if you don’t help us. What of my wife and family?” Married eight years ago, he now had three children. “We will lose the house, the company, the cottage in Newport. The racehorses, the yacht—everything we own will disappear, Harrison. We’ll be out on the street.” “I fail to see how that is my problem.” He checked his pocket watch for the time, feigning boredom to annoy both of them. “Considering my access to those luxuries was cut off years ago.” “Well, now.” Thomas had the grace to appear sheepish.

“I am certain, after you marry, we can come to some sort of an agreement, after the family debts are settled.” “I can change my will,” their mother added, “to give you half of my stock upon my death.” Harrison nearly laughed. He would acquire everything they owned in less than a month. “What you are proposing is ludicrous. Even if I had an heiress in mind, it would take time to court her and plan the wedding.” He started to get up. “We’re done here—” “You could compromise her,” his mother said. Harrison’s stomach churned with disgust at those words, a horrific reminder of what he’d witnessed his father doing three years ago. He’d tried to stop Winthrop’s abuse of the housemaid, but in the end it hadn’t mattered.

The police had been paid off and Harrison disinherited. Now his mother had the nerve to suggest he compromise a woman. Christ, he could not wait to destroy these people. Thomas slid a piece of paper forward on the desk, obviously misinterpreting Harrison’s silence for acquiescence. “Here are the names of every heiress of marriageable age who is not yet promised.” “Including that girl,” his mother said. “The mannish one you followed around as a boy.” Harrison reacted instantly. Violently. The muscles in his body clenched and his lungs constricted as his system locked in disbelief.

Even the dust motes seemed to pause in midair. Was it true? She hadn’t married? Maddie Webster had been his closest childhood friend and the girl he’d planned to wed. Until she broke his heart. He had tried to forget her in Paris, not even inquiring after her with their mutual friends. He assumed she’d married some boring swell and settled into an East Side town house by now. So what happened? Not a lack of suitors, surely. Maddie’s smile could transform a room, drawing in everyone just to bask in her joy. All of New York adored her, the golden girl of high society with more friends than Harrison could count. She’d been his opposite in nearly every way, yet the two of them had been inseparable as children. Thick as Five Points thieves—until the day he’d left for Paris.

“Though there are rumors,” Thomas said absently, tapping his pen on the desk. “They say the Duke of Lockwood is soon to propose. Perhaps I should cross Miss Webster off—” “Leave her.” The words were out of Harrison’s mouth before he could stop them, the order cracking throughout the cavernous space. That got everyone’s attention. His mother’s expression turned calculating. “Does this mean you’ll do it?” His mind spun with possibility and he resisted the old urge to fidget. Before he left, Maddie had thought of him as a brother . but three years was a long time. They were adults now.

He was no longer the supposed lazy and privileged second son, but a wealthy, hardworking businessman with property and interests all over Europe. He’d proven himself. She would notice the difference, wouldn’t she? Perhaps she’d see him as a man now. How could she not? After all, no one knew him better—and he would ensure the word brotherly never entered her mind during their interactions. Moreover, soon-to-be-engaged was not engaged. There was still time. Just barely, it seemed, but he and Maddie had a special bond, one even a duke could never rival. Reaching out, he snatched up his brother’s list. Over the next few weeks, he could devote all his attention to winning Maddie while the plans for Archer Industries fell into place. By summer’s end he could have everything he’d ever wanted.

Every. Single. Thing. His heart thumped with a familiar rush of determination. He’d accomplished the impossible in Paris, building a fortune from almost nothing. He could triumph once again with Maddie. He stood and buttoned his coat. “I’ll find an heiress and marry her.” “Thank goodness,” his mother declared. “Finally you’re of use to this family.

” “Which one?” Thomas pointed to the list. As if Harrison would tell them. “I haven’t decided yet,” he lied, and started for the door. “But I know just the person to help me figure it out.” Maddie twirled a lawn tennis racket in her hand and studied her childhood friend from afar as he approached the court. He was back. Three years had passed since she’d seen Harrison Archer, with no word from him in all that time, and now he’d written a vague note last night to request her help. She wasn’t certain how to feel about that. While she was happy to see him, part of her still bristled that he’d dismissed their friendship so easily. She wasn’t accustomed to being forgotten by those whom she considered close friends.

Christopher “Kit” Ward, had tagged along with Harrison this morning, but Maddie hardly noticed him, her gaze remaining locked on Harrison. The morning sun framed his face, illuminating his sharp cheekbones and strong jaw. While full lips and a straight nose complemented his perfect face, it was his piercing blue eyes that had caused debutantes to swoon. Maddie hadn’t thought much of his appeal back then, they were friends for so long, but this Harrison was . different. He walked with more confidence, his back straight and proud. His frame was bulkier than the college boy she remembered, with wider shoulders and a broader chest, and thick thighs that pulled tight against his white trousers. A spark caught deep in her belly, a flare of appreciation that was entirely new—and unwanted. You shouldn’t be ogling him in such a crass manner. Yet she couldn’t stop.

Goodness, he’d become a fully grown man—and a beautiful one, at that. Exhaling, she stared at her feet and pushed away any fascination with his appearance. There had never been anything resembling desire between them—and she would not embarrass herself by starting now. After all, they had known each other forever. She’d been an only child desperate for a friend and he’d been a boy eager to escape his family. They had explored, swum, ridden bicycles and played together each summer since she was ten and he was twelve, the two of them nearly inseparable. Until he’d left without a word during her debut. He hadn’t returned to college for his senior year, instead disappearing to Europe. Soon, stories of his Parisian escapades began reaching her ears. Women, parties, friendships with artists and cabaret dancers .

Then she stopped listening because she didn’t recognize this reprobate, the one arrested by Parisian gendarmes for cavorting with anarchists. Oh, yes. She’d heard that one, too. Meanwhile, life in New York had carried on. Maddie threw herself into her love for tennis and decided to craft a plan for her future: Practice every day without fail. Hire Valentine Livingston, the finest doubles player in America, to act as her coach. Push of marriage for two years so she could play competitive tennis across the country. Marry at the end of her third season, making the very best match possible. Thank goodness her mother and father had agreed. This past spring, three years of hard work and carefully laid plans had finally paid off.

She had qualified for the All-Comers competition at the Philadelphia Cricket Club at the end of June, also known as the U.S. National Championships. It was her ultimate dream to become the top women’s tennis player in the country. “About time you arrived,” she said as the men walked up. “I was afraid I’d need to play alone.” “Good morning,” Kit said, kissing her cheek. “Have we thrown off your precious schedule?” “You know you have. My whole day is booked and I must get in my practice.” “Blame this one.

” Kit jerked a thumb in the other man’s direction. “He made me wait forever.” “I had to dig out the tennis whites.” Harrison’s voice was a deep rumble that rolled through her chest. “It’s been a while since I’ve played. Hello, Maddie.” “Hello, Harrison. I see you’ve returned from Paris.” “Just yesterday.” “Ah.

” Silence stretched. There was knowledge in his blue eyes, all their shared conversations, the sly smiles. A hundred jokes, a thousand secrets. He was at once so familiar and yet a complete stranger. Her throat burned with questions and recriminations, as well as stories of what he’d missed while he was away. But that was for her old friend. She had no idea what to say to the man standing in front of her now. She willed him to offer up something—an apology? An excuse? Anything to help her understand his absence—but he remained silent, watching her. Was he also taking in the changes since they’d last seen each other? Thinking of their past history and wondering what happened? One thing was clear. Their friendship hadn’t meant as much to him as it had to her.

He’d moved away without any warning, with no goodbye. He hadn’t even written her a letter in all this time. “Shall we play?” Kit pointed to the court. She cleared her throat. “I’m ready if you are.” Harrison shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. “I’ll pour some coffee and switch out with Kit in the second set.” “There’s no need for that,” she said. “I’ll play you both.” Harrison blinked several times, and Kit slapped him on the back.

“You’ve been gone a long time, pal. She’s better than the two of us combined, trust me.” He wandered off to select a racket, leaving Maddie and Harrison alone. “You look well,” he said. “Thank you. I was sorry to hear about your father.” The edge of his mouth hitched because they both knew better. “Were you, really?” “No. He was not a nice man. I daresay Hell is grateful to have him.

” Harrison chuckled. This was familiar territory, with bits of her old friend showing through in his amused expression, and the knot between her shoulder blades eased somewhat. “Pick up a racket. Let’s get started.” The three of them soon stood on the court, with Maddie on one end and the men on the other. “You may serve first,” she told Kit. “I need to work on my return.” Kit hit a slow serve that Maddie sent up the line for a winner. Harrison whistled. “Excellent shot, Mads.

” The forgotten nickname nearly caused her to trip. Only Harrison had ever called her Mads. She didn’t respond, and there was no more discussion for the next twenty minutes as play went back and forth. She focused on her swing, perfecting the spin and angles that made lawn tennis so exciting. “So, Maddie,” Harrison said between points. “Tell me about this duke of yours.” The question surprised her, and she bounced the tennis ball several times while considering a response. To be precise, Lockwood wasn’t her duke—at least not yet. When the Duke of Lockwood took New York society by storm in March, Maddie’s mother reminded her of their agreement—that it was time for Maddie to choose a husband. After all, a fourth season was practically unheard of, even if the reason for not settling down was justified.

Everyone knew that an English duke was the most powerful aristocrat save the queen, so Lockwood became the catch of the season. The challenge excited her, with the title of duchess as the final prize. She wasn’t alone, however; the matchmakers went into a tizzy to get their daughters near the duke. Maddie angled to attend several dinners where the handsome Duke of Lockwood was a guest, and the two of them got on well together right from the start based on a shared love of the outdoors and sporting pursuits. Since then, their relationship had blossomed and they now went driving in the park every Monday at four o’clock. Rumors of a betrothal raced through Fifth Avenue receiving rooms, and Maddie had every confidence she would soon receive Lockwood’s ring. When that happened, she would become a duchess and go on her own grand adventure across the pond. What more could a girl in her position possibly ask for? Still, she and Harrison had never discussed other women or men in a romantic sense. The topic had been avoided, though she’d always assumed he chased bosoms and bustles, as had every other young man of her acquaintance back then. He left and slept with half of Paris.

Why should you feel the least bit awkward in discussing your future husband? “He’s a bit of a bore,” Kit said, sotto voce, when Maddie didn’t speak up. “He is nothing of the sort.” Maddie lifted her chin as she readied to serve the ball. “His Grace is kind and intelligent, a good conversationalist. We share many of the same interests.” “He’s a hunting and fishing sort of chap,” Kit said to Harrison. “Probably has hounds that chase foxes.” He did, actually. Lockwood had explained the practice to her one afternoon. She served the ball, starting the point.

“Sounds awful,” Harrison remarked and hit a return to the left side of the court. Maddie’s skin prickled with irritation and anger. No one had the right to disparage Lockwood, least of all Harrison, a former friend who’d dropped her like a roll straight from the oven when he left town. Before she could stop herself, she sent the ball whizzing toward his head. He dove for cover and hit the ground, his chest flat on the grass, as the ball sailed over. “Good God, Maddie. What on earth was that for?” An apology burned on her tongue but she swallowed it. “You have no right to criticize me.” “I am not criticizing you.” Harrison rose and put his palms out.

“I was criticizing the duke.” “Whom you’ve never even met.” “That never stopped us from criticizing your mother’s guests during her garden parties.” Though she tried to stop it, her lips twitched as she fought off a smile. That had been one of their favorite games, to hide in the bushes just off the lawn and watch the guests, then invent names and backstories for each of them. “Remember the time she caught us and made us come out so she could introduce us?” He grinned while he brushed dirt and grass off his white suit. “You were the color of a tomato.” “As were you, Harrison Archer.” He laughed, and Maddie suddenly realized how much she’d missed the sound. How much she’d missed him.

She started to tell him as much, but quickly closed her mouth. He didn’t miss you. He never even wrote. Stop thinking you matter to him. The only reason he’d reached out to her now was for a favor. Perhaps it was time to get to the point of the morning’s reunion. “Your note mentioned you needed something.” “Yes, I need your help.” Harrison ambled to the net. “I realize it is an imposition, but I am desperate.

” “Then I promise to keep an open mind.” “Good. I need you to help me find a wife.” Her jaw fell open. Out of everything he could have asked, she hadn’t expected that. Questions whirled in her mind like a spinning ball, yet she fought to keep her voice even as she drew closer. “A wife?”

.

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