Reading Michelle Smart’s Once a Moretti Wife was balm to Miss Bates’s reading soul after its wounding by Knox’s Madly. Admittedly, if you’re an HP reader, you’re going to recognize some of the line’s pernicious elements in Smart’s novel: a hero and heroine plagued by abusive and/or disappointing families, a heroine the nonpareil to the hero’s usually negative views of women, and a gargantuan mis. MissB. had one of two choices: cling to every accusation thrown at the HP, even though conventions are givens and if you don’t like them, don’t read them, OR revel in its wit and characters’ vibrancy. Add a dollop of amnesia to the heroine, show her disoriented and weak, even while the dark, nasty hero conjures his revenge against her, then catches her when she collapses at his feet and nearly has a heart attack from his fear over her well-being. Marvelous, thought MissB., this is going to be great! And it was.
How can an HP-aficionado resist this introduction to the eponymous Moretti, Stephano, and his feelings towards estranged wife: “Anna Moretti, née Robson, the woman with the face and body of a goddess and the tongue of a viper. Clever and conniving, sweet and lovable; an enigma wrapped in a layer of mystery. He despised her. He missed having her in his bed.” Meanwhile, Anna wakes in her sister Melissa’s apartment, adrift in every way: she doesn’t even recognize herself in the mirror, surprised when she notes how much her hair has grown.
Anna may be nauseous with the hang-over from frat-party-hell, but she’s also late for work. Her boss, the brooding, dark Stephano Moretti awaits. She staggers to his office, noting, bewildered, that an assistant has usurped her desk. Stephano confronts her with the FACT of their marriage, while he seethes with internal anger and revenge against her perfidy (she accused him of infidelity, LEFT him, and then, sued him for billions). Anna is flabbergasted at the news she married Stephano: ” ‘Why would I have married you?’ He shifted his chair forward and leaned over to speak directly into her ear. His warm breath stirred the strands of her hair, making her pulses stir with them. ‘Because you wanted my body.’ His nearness meant she had to concentrate hard to form a response. ‘This is no time for your jokes. I wouldn’t marry you. I have self-respect.’ ” (A passage that only hints at Smart’s protagonists’ wit.) Anna falls in a dead faint. Stephano takes her to hospital and she is diagnosed with concussion-causing “retrograde amnesia.” Anna has lost the last year of her life: that is, her and Stephano’s marriage. Stephano seizes this as an opportunity to exact revenge: pretend their marriage is intact, seduce his wife, and then humiliate her publicly, as she did him.
Once A Moretti Wife is outlandish, unlikely, and so entertaining. Smart’s ability to make her characters vibrate with temperament is wonderful. Miss Bates loved Stephano’s blunt charm: he was always roguishly lopsided grinning. He was big, funny, cut-to-the-chase and had a penchant for entertaining endearments: MissB. loved his “bambolina” for Anna. He was cynical about love and yet so deprived as a child that he’s totally dense when he is heartbroken over the havoc he wreaks on his beloved Anna and their wedded idyll.
There is nothing languorous or idyllic about their relationship, however. While Stephano is ruled by his cynicism, which drives his urge for revenge, Anna is ruled by her exuberant temper. Anna rails, yells, rants, and breaks expensive bottles of alcohol (one of Miss B’s favourite scenes). Stephano and Anna’s bickerish banter and melodramatic scenes are evidence of Smart’s ability to write humorously and with great pathos in one romance. Another quality to her characters that MissB. loved was their honesty. Yes, they’ve been tainted, by abandonment issues in Anna’s case and a violent life on the streets in Stephano’s, but they have an innocent admittance to truth that endears. Witness, for example, Anna’s thought about her attraction to Stephano: “She just wished her body didn’t sing its delight at his new proprietorial manner with her.” But it does and she embraces the experience with gusto. And witness Stephano’s thoughts about Anna: “He received desire from women and enthusiasm from men, both sexes looking at him with dollar signs flashing in their eyes. Anna had looked at him with disdain.” Her nose-in-air, confrontational style, despite her bambolina size, attracts him, distracts him, entertains him, and completes him. Stephano and Anna are always honest about their feelings, unafraid to admit when they’re wrong. And, even though they’re strong characters, they’re also tender and vulnerable to and for each other.
Miss Bates adored every moment of Once A Moretti Wife and didn’t want it to end. When it did, the inane epilogue disappointed, but from page one to the betrayal, grovel, and love avowals, it was marvelous. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Smart’s Once A Moretti Wife, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s Once A Moretti Wife is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in March and may be procured from your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.