I adore Michelle Smart’s category romances. The HP is my romance-ice-cream-tub of choice, so good while I’m reading it and then, disoriented and nauseous from melodramatic hangover. My forehead-slapping reaction: “Did I really just read that?” Yes, dear reader, I read them: the romance guilty pleasure, outlandish, overblown, eye-rollingly breaking every smidgen of feministic progress the genre has made. Some HPs are out there and so badly written, they’re easy to ridicule. Some are written with elegance and humour: I’m looking at YOU, Sarah Morgan. Smart’s HPs usually elicit the latter response, but A Bride At His Bidding? Well, this is one of the strangest HPs I’ve ever read … and that’s saying a whole hell of a lot if you’re one of the category’s aficionados as I am. I’m having a hard time making up my mind whether A Bride At His Bidding is a laughable mess, or brilliant. Maybe both? All I know is that its idiosyncratic narrative and character about-faces gave me reading whiplash, goggle-eyed reactions of gasping disbelief, derision, and heart-clenching delight and enjoyment.
What is this wonder about, you rightly ask? Cray-cray premise and plotting are what it is. Self-made Greek billionaire Andreas Samaras is looking forward to a life of dissipated freedom now that his ward-niece is grown and studying medicine. Unfortunately, a “viper” enters Samaras Fund Management, an investigative journalist, masquerading as his new domestic PA. The “viper” is Carrie Rivers, one of the Daily Times‘s best reporters and a woman on a mission, Andreas in her investigative cross-hairs. Carrie isn’t driven by professional ambition. She comes seeking revenge: years ago, in a bid to protect his niece from Carrie’s drug-taking, promiscuous younger sister, Andreas had Violet, Carrie’s baby sibling, kicked out of their private school. Violet fell into the terrible hands of an older, rich guy, became a drug addict, and things went from one melodramatic bad to worse. For some reason, Andreas became associated with all the unsavory types that’d surrounded Violet … and part of Carrie’s grand revenge plan.
Carrie’s infiltrated Andreas’s life to seek a reckoning … except Andreas knows her game. He plays a gleeful cat-and-mouse game with Carrie and follows it up by blackmailing her into marrying him, ostensibly to do damage control for what she’s cost his reputation and how she’s threatened his success and livelihood. By half way, Carrie and Andreas begin experiencing the BIG-FEELS for each other: the sex is transcendent; their conversation exposes their vulnerabilities, there are many “aw, she/he’s really sweet” moments and sympathy grows as misery-fests are shared. I don’t know why HP authors feel compelled to endow their hero and heroine with lives of screaming tribulation. Is it a ploy to gain our sympathy? Why does it often end in cringing embarrassment? At one point, Andreas’s mother, amongst other hardships (financial ruin, family deaths, etc.) also suffered from NOT ONE, BUT FOUR types of cancer. There’s SO MUCH CANCER between these two that it’s a miracle either one is still standing. This did not endear either to me. I disliked them: Andreas’s smirking, eye-twinkling blackmailing heart had me screaming “cad!” and Carrie’s judgemental hysteria had me yelling “shrew!” And then, it struck me, these two are like Petruchio and Kate: Andreas enjoying bringing Carrie to heel and Carrie enjoying behaving like one.
At some mysterious heart-clenching point and because Smart is a romance-magicianette, I started to like them. And I started to see how there were redemptive qualities to the narrative, like, FINALLY, no make-over. Carrie earns her own way and Andreas’s attempts to throw his money around are rebuffed. She can’t be bought, or charmed, I LOVED that. Both narrative and characters were mercurial, but Smart’s ability to build sympathy on tenderness, humour, and connection, when they kicked in, well, it did me in. I ended up invested in these two who at first I disliked and found myself rooting for and celebrating with them. Frankly, the mutual grovel scene was GREAT, both romantic and practical! Yes, practical, listen to this from Andreas, ” ‘I need to learn patience. You know what I’m like. I want something and I want it now. You need to think things through. I have to accept our brains work differently.’ ” See what I mean about being won over? In the end, Miss Austen and I would say that Smart’s A Bride At His Bidding is “real comfort,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s A Bride At His Bidding is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on January 16th and is available at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.