In a romance-reader’s life, nothing is more gripping than a good HP. The HP is the essence of romance, the genre in its barest, most elemental manifestation. If done well, the HP offers the romance reader the genre’s immersive emotional engagement in two hours of reading time.
Miss Bates loved her first Michelle Smart HP, Wedded, Bedded, Betrayed, and says no less for her Christmas HP, Claiming His Christmas Consequence. His, that is, hero Nathaniel Giroud’s “consequence” is the baby he makes with heroine Princess Catalina Fernandez, during one unforgettable night of love-making. Smart cleverly (pun totally intended) ensures we are never privy to the baby-making night, thus ratcheting up Nathaniel and Catalina’s relationship-mystique and making the post-night-of-love agon of working out their relationship the novel’s crux. When the novel opens, Catalina is patiently attending the wedding of the man her father had chosen for her to marry, Prince Helios of neighbouring kingdom Agon. Nathaniel Giroud, her brother’s school-days enemy and Helios’s good friend, is also in attendance. Catalina, in a rare instance of self-indulgence and defiance of her family and royal role, takes something for herself in one night of love with Nathaniel, the self-made French playboy billionaire. She closes the bedroom door behind him the next morning, knowing she can keep this wonderful memory through all her duty-bound nights and days. Nathaniel is moved by his night with Catalina, but eschews commitment.
Catalina and Nathaniel carry many of the typical HP-protagonist traits. Smart, however, excels in their treatment. Catalina is the quintessential princess: she performs her duties with love, generosity, and kindness. She is obedient to her family’s will, even though disgusting brother, Dominic, poisoned her father, ever weak and stingy with his love, to treat her like a possession to be used for his, the kingdom’s, and Dominic’s, benefit. Catalina is never rebellious … except for that one night with Nathaniel. When her father discovers she’s pregnant, he demands that Nathaniel and she marry for the baby’s legitimacy and until the king decides on a quick, discreet divorce and Catalina’s marriage to another neighbouring royal.
Catalina is a wonderful heroine. She is, simply put, a good person, not always an easy feat for an author to depict in an HP. Heroines can be doormats, or they can be shrill, but kindness and consideration, integrity and a strong moral core, don’t mesh with the heightened HP characterization. And yet, one of Smart’s strengths is keeping the HP’s fairy-tale qualities while humanizing the idealized HP protagonists. As a result, the reader experiences a fantasy-realm, but feels genuine sympathy for Catalina’s predicament as she prepares to marry Nathaniel:
In a few short hours she would be moving out of the only home she had ever known and into the home of a man who saw her as an encumbrance. There would be no happy ending for either of them.
What a magnificently sly reference to the genre’s raison d’être, what a gently ironic wink to the genre that ensures a “happy ending.” And yet, at that moment, the reader can feel Catalina’s resignation. She’s the woman everyone admires, but never loves.
Our sympathy only grows for Catalina as the princess in the tower. When she shames the family and must marry a commoner, her father cuts her off from everything she’s known. She was sheltered and pampered, not because she was loved, but because she was useful. On her wedding night, Smart writes a haunting scene of Catalina unable to remove her wedding gown:
Returning to the bedroom, she hunted through drawers and opened cupboards until she found what she was looking for. She took the scissors into her hands and carefully placed them at the sleeves of her dress. And then she snipped. She snipped her dress until the fabric fell away and she could step out of it. It felt like shedding skin.
A wonderful description of the possibility inherent in Catalina’s new life. She was a prisoner in the old and is a prisoner in the new, as Nathaniel leaves her well taken care of but lonely in his magnificent penthouse. In that moment of shedding her wedding gown, Catalina sloughs off her imprisoned identity, her duty and obedience, and becomes a new person: someone who retains her grace but learns to assert her need for self-reliance and self-expression, even if all it means is the ability to make her own cup of tea.
And what of Nathaniel? His characterization is not as strongly drawn and yet, he too inspires our sympathy. He’s a cool man, one who doesn’t engage emotionally. Nevertheless, he is impersonally caring and protective. He knows and reads right from wrong and quickly figures out how cruelly Catalina’s family treats her. When Catalina asserts her freedom and leaves his protection, in true alpha-fashion, he follows. When he finds her, he doesn’t dominate as HP heroes are wont to do. Nathaniel tries to understand Catalina.
Nathaniel finds Catalina in the Pyrenees. It is snowing and they must return to Monte Cleure to foil yet more of her father’s machinations. This is where Miss Bates would say Smart’s narrative surpassed her expectations. Smart shrewdly plays between the HP and Christmas narrative. If Catalina’s father is a reduced Herod, Catalina and Nathaniel are our HP Mary and Joseph. Driving back to Monte Cleure, Nathaniel and Catalin are caught in a snowstorm and must stop for the night. As with Mary and Joseph, there’s barely room at the inn:
Shielding his eyes with a rapidly freezing hand, he saw he’d parked safely enough. A neon sign with ‘Hotel’ on it glowed in the distance like some commercialised North Star guiding them. He opened the car. ‘There’s a hotel up there. I’m going to see if they’ve got any rooms available.’ ‘I’ll come with you.’ ‘There’s no point in us both making a wasted journey.’ She rolled her eyes and unbuckled her seat belt. ‘Can you get my bag for me, please?’ ‘Catalina … ‘ ‘I don’t want to wait in here on my own. They’ll have room for us. Have faith.’
Keeping a firm grip on her hand, Nathaniel led them up the steep deserted road to the hotel, which upon closer inspection was a very pleasant-looking two-storey wooden lodge. They made it there without any mishaps, and opened the front door to a blast of warmth and the blare of distant music. First impressions were good. The reception was airy and spacious, a place that, while maybe not fit for a princess, was good enough for a woman who no longer wanted to be a princess.
Miss Bates adored these passages. Ingrained in them is Nathaniel’s return from the emotional coldness that holds him in its grip from childhood. There be reasons and Miss Bates won’t spoil them. They’re sad, believable reasons and make his character all the more sympathetic to the reader. But what is truly lovely is Catalina’s “Have faith,” her reassurance of love, though she’s known so little of it … and the shedding of her state-imposed princess-persona to take her place with a man worthy of her and a family they will build on love and respect. Michelle Smart’s Claiming His Christmas Consequence shows us “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s Claiming His Christmas Consequence is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on October 18th and may be purchased from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.