Ostensibly, the HP category romance is all about the glamour: heroes are nothing less than billionaires, their looks, physical and intellectual strengths, and sexual prowess are super-human; heroines may occasionally be a little less than, but more often than not are virginal, breathtakingly beautiful, possibly secretively super-accomplished, and loveable. Moreover, the attraction between the hero and heroine is of fireworks calibre. Jennifer Hayward’s The Italian’s Deal For I Do has all the trappings an HP reader could wish for in the glamor department: wealthy, good-looking hero running his family’s Milan fashion house and a super-model heroine. But, in the HP, while glamour reigns, its true success lies in the writer’s ability to convey the hero and heroine’s humanity: all that fantasy building up has to be brought down, vulnerabilities and fears and feelings have to crack open the glamour to expose the hero and heroine’s less-than-super-human soft “just-like-us ordinary mortals” cores.
We meet hero Rocco Mondelli and his sister, Alessandra, as their beloved grandfather, Giovanni (the man who succored them after their mother died and grief-stricken father went off the rails into gambling and drinking) lies dying. Rocco holds the company reins and takes care of his sister and grandfather. He’s brought the family business to new heights of success and wealth. Though devastated by his grandfather’s loss, Rocco must keep strict control to ensure a smooth transition for Mondelli House. What a surprise and disappointment when he learns his grandfather left him only a 50% controlling interest in the company, leaving the board chair, Renzo Rialto, in charge of deciding when Rocco’s matured sufficiently to be handed the 10% that will give him majority control.
Enter party-girl, super-model heroine, Olivia Fitzgerald, for whom Giovanni provided a Milan apartment when she broke down, broke expensive contracts, and disappeared from the public eye a year ago. Rocco jumps to the conclusion Olivia and Giovanni were having an affair, Olivia the gold-digger who ensnared his grandfather. When Rocco machinates a meeting with Olivia, he discovers a stunning woman quietly designing fashion masterpieces, working as a barista, and avoiding the limelight. Her protestations about Giovanni as her mentor, not lover, are dismissed by the tough Italian businessman. BUT, Rocco can gain the board’s trust by proving his maturity to them with an engagement (and snagging the fashion world’s most successful hermit as the new representative of Mondelli fashions). Rocco compels Olivia into agreeing to his plan by: one, telling her, though destitute, she’ll still be evicted and his grandfather, on his death bed, asked him to take care of her and, two, promising to make her designs central to Mondelli’s fall line. It’s obvious to the reader, however, (not Rocco, of course he’s convinced she’s a superficial opportunist) that something is terribly wrong with Olivia. She’s a wonderful person: funny, loving, and generous, but she’s in distress. Rocco is oblivious to everything about her, except his attraction for her. On Olivia’s part, because heroines are so much more forthcoming than steely emotionless heroes, her attraction is equally strong, but acknowledged.
This sounds as outlandish and convoluted as we expect from the HP romance: the test for Miss B., however, is how well the HP writer can imbue her hero and heroine with depth, bring them from stock to three dimensions. This takes the form of showing them to be other than what appearances would have us believe, by scratching away at their surface to expose what makes them vulnerable. Hayward has done this especially well, in some ways conventionally and others, not. Most romance writers create a family background and past for their characters that elucidate their present behaviours, especially their ability, or blocks to commitment and love. Hayward’s characters’ backgrounds are typical: Rocco and Olivia suffered from morally negligent and absent parents. When Rocco lost his mother, his father, Sandro, did not take on the responsibilities of being a parent. Sandro’s grief was such that he went onto self-destructive behaviour, leaving his children to fend for themselves. As the eldest, Rocco took on his sister’s care until Giovanni rescued Rocco and Alessandra. As a result, Rocco fears love because of the pain its loss entails. He is cold, hard, and treats Olivia as a commodity. His response to family trauma is to be impervious to emotional entanglements and focus only on work. Olivia, on the other hand, is a woman subject only to her emotions. Her father left her mother, Tatum, when he realized she cheated on him and has been largely absent from Olivia’s life since she was eight. Her mother, a spendthrift, was more concerned with her career, money, and men than she ever was with Olivia. She used Olivia’s beauty and talent to live the high life. When Olivia abruptly left the high-paying fashion world, she had no one to turn to. She left because she saw it destroy, nay kill, her “rock,” best friend, Petra. When Rocco and Olivia meet, they’ve both lost the one person in their lives who’s played a loving and steady influence. This “adriftness” only makes them more vulnerable and loveable to the reader. Their opposing responses to their losses, emotional shutdown on Rocco’s part, and unresolved fear and grief on Olivia’s, make their fraught courtship/relationship dance more compelling.
As Hayward adroitly chips away at Olivia and Rocco’s surface, especially Rocco’s, our sympathy and sheer liking for her characters grow. Olivia is most likeable to us because she is unafraid to express her vulnerabilities and limitations. It is particularly interesting that Hayward also is honest in portraying how Olivia’s anxieties are debilitating and how a therapist has, in the past, helped her cope. There are no magic peens to make everything all right. There is the fact that Olivia’s anxiety has been exacerbated by her grief for her friend. But it is Rocco who must make an about-face where Olivia is concerned: and it doesn’t only come about because of his “raging” attraction to her, but through genuine care and affection for all the wonderful things that Olivia is and has to offer. His care and Olivia’s own desire to confront her fears and challenges help her. As Olivia gains in strength, Rocco then has to confront his prejudices and fear of relinquishing control over his emotions.
Hayward’s character portrayals are psychologically compelling and believable, but they are not unique. Most romance writers understand that characters gain in sympathy as they’re painted in deeper colours. What Miss Bates loved about Hayward’s take is her use of a wonderful metaphor, thereby showing us something about her characters instead of telling us something about her characters. Miss Bates has desisted from spoilers, but she cannot resist Hayward’s beautiful recurring “dragon-slayer” metaphor. Here is how Hayward introduces it by the shores of Lake Como, as Rocco confides his childhood fears to Olivia in an attempt to help her “slay” hers:
“Everything seemed so big and vast at seven without two parents. I was trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense in my father’s defection and my mother’s death. To control the chaos around me. So I made up sea creatures, sea friends, to keep me company … ”
An ache in her throat joined the one in her chest. “You were doing your best to cope.”
She swallowed. “I bet they were pretty amazing sea creatures. What did they look like?”
His mouth twisted. “Big, green scary-looking things with scales and long tails. But they had great smiles. That used to make them okay.”
… “You’re telling me this because you want me to slay my dragons.”
He turned his head, his dark gaze sinking into hers. “You’ve already slayed half of them, Olivia. Now slay the rest.”
Great romance, like faith, is in the details and Hayward’s details are charming … and more importantly, they are sustained. As Olivia strengthens, as Miss Bates has said previously, Rocco is more and more at the mercy of his feelings … until all that is left of him is what he feels for Olivia. There are trials, tribulations, as we expect, but the moment when Rocco gets Olivia back, the moment he sees her arrive, he knows she’s his salvation, and that is, once gain, couched in the “dragon-slaying” metaphor: “She looked like a mermaid come to life. His mermaid emerging from the steps he’d sat on as a boy, a living, breathing piece of perfection who had come to save the man.” Having saved herself, the stronger, reconciled Olivia is ready to do the same for Rocco when she says, ” ‘I don’t have any scales, and green wasn’t appropriate, but I do love you, Rocco. I’d like to help you slay your dragons if you’ll let me.’ ” What Hayward has managed to convey, in lovely, gentle metaphoric terms, is the perfect equilibrium, emotional and physical, that romance brings as a possibility to the world. As Olivia concludes, of her resurrected life and Rocco’s resurrected heart, ” … sometimes you needed to fight your own battles, and sometimes you needed a warrior to help you along your way.” Miss Austen says, of The Italian’s Deal For I Do, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.”
Jennifer Hayward’s The Italian’s Deal For I Do, published by Harlequin, has been available in “e” and paper since March 17 and may be obtained from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.