In keeping with its melodramatic ethos, the HP romance thrives on a good revenge story. Revenge is lurid, dramatic, passionate, and more tangible than hate. Hate is nebulous; revenge is concrete and action-driven. New-to-Miss B. Michelle Smart’s Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed is powered by the hero’s vendetta against the heroine’s family. Gabriele Mantegna served two years in prison to save his innocent father from doing so. When he emerged, his father was dead, mother a ghost of her former self, fiancée a no-show, and business, Mantegna Cars, rudderless. For the next four years, Gabriele pursued “a subtle one-man vendetta against” the Riccis, the family who set up his father to take the fall. One night, seeking incriminating evidence at Ignazio Ricci’s Caribbean island villa, Gabriele rescues a maiden-waif captured by thieves. This woman-sprite is Elena Ricci, Ignazio’s beloved, over-protected daughter. What sweeter revenge than blackmailing his enemy’s precious princess into marrying and bedding him? Otherwise, Gabriele exposes her father’s corruption. When desire and love enter a picture where they had no place, what is a wrong-headed alpha-hero to do but the dumb-ass thing – cling to revenge and vindication.
HPs are made of familiar, moveable parts: the billionaire alpha-hero and ingenue, or virginal heroine, glamour, money, paparazzi, and tragic back-stories. On the relationship front, the power imbalance between hero and heroine is gargantuan. The fantasy and fairy-tale elements must be strong to withstand this ethos. It’s easy to say the HP is formulaic and satisfies a dedicated romance reader’s reading id: the quick and easy way to a romance fix is our HP. So what distinguishes a run-of-the-mill HP romance from a memorable or great one? Given its stock nature, two things can make an HP transcend its “formula”: some quirk or twist in the conventions and good writing. Michelle Smart’s Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed has both.
Smart’s one of two strong elements in Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed is characterization. Miss Bates must say she found Gabriele and Elena eminently likable and nuanced. Even though the revenge circumstances are far-fetched, Gabriele had a plausible grievance. His pain over his beloved father’s death and mother’s breakdown were genuinely moving. His demands on Elena are ridiculous: marry him, have a baby with him, all in the name of exposing her father. And yet, from the moment he brings Elena to safety, his guilt over his manipulative actions was sincere. This rendered Gabriele sympathetic and notched down his alpha-ness to near-beta-mild.
Elena is equally simpatico. Her virginity and innocence are fairy-tale convincing. Her father wasn’t a coddler, but he did, after losing his wife, keep her close and cloistered. Consequently, Elena is disingenuous, unaware of the world. Her competition with her four macho brothers and lack of mother left her without female role models: “Even now she struggled with other women. She just couldn’t relate to them.” Elena is convincingly awkward, delightfully fey, and surprisingly ferocious. Smart did a clever thing with these two: she brought them together at a time when both were out of character. Their proximity and growing liking for each other, despite their enemies-FOREVAH avowals, bring out their true and congenial selves. Moreover, Gabriele and Elena don’t share the dense stubbornness so many HP heroes and heroines exhibit. Simply put, Gabriele and Elena aren’t stupid. They know when they’re wrong, when they’re morally compromised and they’re willing to admit it.
Lastly, Miss Bates enjoyed Smart’s pithy writing. Her phrasing displayed the acute emotionalism that done well in an HP satisfies a romance reader. Here’s a snippet for your enjoyment from Gabriele and Elena’s first public appearance. Elena hasn’t yet recognized the rightness of Gabriele’s claims, but agreed to marry him to help save her father. Gabriele makes sure they’re seen at a paparazzi-ridden restaurant, so that the subsequent pictures hurt Ignazio in his most vulnerable spot – his family – as he hurt Gabriele’s:
” … you look like you have something in your eye.”
“I’m trying to look adoring.” Smiling brightly, she said, “Is that better, you savage bastard?”
Mimicking her action and with a full-wattage beam, he replied, “It’s a start, you poisonous viper.” … With mutual antipathy, they both sipped their drinks, both smiling, but firing ice and loathing from their eyes.
Isn’t that just sheer fun? The epithets alone are a delight. And that phrase, “mutual antipathy”: isn’t it the essence of the enemies-to-lovers trope? What this initial heart-stabbing dialogue does is, of course, have the reader anticipate Gabriele and Elena’s fall from hate to love, from lust to tenderness, from wariness to care, from banter to friendship. Because when the genre is done well, as it is in Smart’s romance, then the falling in love part comes with other joys, care, compassion, understanding and being understood, bringing out the best in each other, and having hope that the past can be transcended by possibility. At the end of a week’s worth of life-dragging-you-down, Miss Bates inhaled Smart’s Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed in one glorious lounge-reading afternoon. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Smart’s Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed, ’tis “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on May 24th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.