Just when I think I’m done with the HP, Michelle Smart comes along with The Sicilian’s Bought Cinderella and hauls me back in …
The HP is romance at its most undiluted and when it’s good, it’s totally sigh-worthy immersive. The last two greats I read were Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules (possibly my favourite HP ever) and Caitlin Crews’s Bride By Royal Decree. Smart is a contender thanks to this latest. In typical HP fashion, the premise is ludicrous, the trope-ishness over the top … and reading it, sheer delight. Bought Cinderella opens with hero Dante Moncado in Palermo. He’s fuming over an aborted business deal. Billionaire Riccardo D’Amore won’t let his son, Alessio, sign a deal with Dante because Dante lives fast and loose with women. He’s a player and a playboy. He’s also grieving his father’s death, conflicted though he is about a dad who was both loving and loyal, yet gambled and needed Dante’s constant bailouts. Dante’s called to his abandoned childhood home, a cottage he can’t seem to give up, because an intruder was detected.
Said intruder turns out to be a shower-head-as-weapon-yielding beautiful banshee, Aislin O’Reilly, bearing news for Dante. Turns out Dante’s father had a daughter and that daughter happens to be Aislin’s older sister, Orla (it’s convoluted, but Orla and Aislin share a mother, while Orla and Dante share a dad). Orla, Aislin, and Orla’s son, Finn, are in dire straits. Orla had an accident, gave birth to Finn prematurely, was in a coma for months, Finn has cerebral palsy, and they’re broke. Aislin cared for them these past months. She’s here to ask Dante to give Orla and Finn their modest due of Dante’s father’s family estate. Dante is shocked at Aislin’s revelations and reluctantly agrees to give Orla half the estate’s worth. He also offers Aislin an opportunity to help her tiny, precious family even more: by agreeing to pose as his respectable fiancée when he attends the D’Amore wedding this weekend, thus redeeming his reputation with the D’Amores, thanks to Aislin’s fresh-faced beauty and brainiac ways. Of course, the proximity of sharing a room and pretend fiancé(e)-touching lead to giving in to their attraction, getting to know each other, love feelings surfacing, and emotional intensity between them stretching to the breaking point.
It sounds mundane and HP-typical, but Smart’s masterful hand draw Aislin and Dante in at times hilarious, at times heart-wrenching, at times, incredibly sexy, lines. Aislin is a hoot of integrity, throwing truths like spitballs onto Dante’s arrogant, gorgeous face and physique. Dante, in turn, is as vulnerable as he is an overbearing eschewer of love and commitment. Smart constantly surprises and delights with droll writing and by turning many an HP-convention on its head (more thoughts on that later). Firstly, here’s a funny bit I loved, Aislin’s thoughts on Dante’s superb looks: “She would hazard a guess that, if he asked a roomful of women if any wanted to go with him, ninety-nine per cent of them would bob their heads up to agree like over-caffeinated meerkats”. When Aislin tells Dante about Orla and Finn’s circumstances, though he wants some proof, he also reasonably agrees to help, “She had expected an arrogant monster and found, instead, an arrogant man who could be compelled to listen to reason.” So many surprises.
More tropish upending occurs when we realize Aislin doesn’t possess the HP-required virginal state, but sports a healthy attraction to Dante: “Aislin was attracted to Dante Moncado. Properly, heart-beatingly, swoon-makingly attracted.” They’re so funny together, especially Aislin who has a way of speaking that is no-nonsense and a hoot. Witness their conversation at Dante’s offer of a million euros to pretend to be his fiancée:
“Am I to assume you’re going to accept my offer?”
“A million euros to act as your arm candy for a few days? Yep, I can do that … But before I can accept your deal, I should point out that no one is going to believe we’re engaged. You’ve only just dumped your last girlfriend.”
He winked, sank onto the sofa and stretched his legs out. His legs were so long his feet slid under the coffee table. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m a fast mover.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of,” she said tartly.
“Trust me, I know when to go slow.”
Heated colour spread like wildfire over her cheeks. “I won’t accept any funny business.” She needed to make that very clear. Just because her body reacted so strongly to him did not mean she had any intention of allowing anything to happen between them. She would not be one of those overcaffeinated meerkats.
This pretty much sets the tone for Dante and Aislin and Aislin really makes the book. She’s funny, honest, open, and boy, can she scream and fight and make her point. It’s quite marvelous. Dante’s a good match for her, laconically funny and smoldering. He gives as good as he gets. But he’s no match for her wit, smarts, and chutzpah. She doesn’t wilt, or resign herself, or play the dewy-eyed innocent. She’s simply a good person, loving to her family, giving of herself, but she doesn’t suffer fools or hypocrites. Inevitably, Dante will run scared. He puts a time-end to their affair and doesn’t admit to his feelings. In Aislin’s immortal words in one of their earlier fights: ” ‘You, Moncada, are an eejit.’ ”
The discourse around romance these days is that it needs to prove itself to so many, to gain legitimacy, to convince that it’s worthy, that it’s intellectually healthy to consume it. But no one bothers to say how much fun it can be, until a romance like Smart’s comes along. Yet, it still has something to say. I’ve thought long and hard about the HP and the scorn that is often heaped upon it, rightfully so when its practitioners hide behind the tired, droopy tropes like overblown Polonius fools. Or you can use it in a lively, thoughtful, tongue-in-cheek way, without losing sight of the HP’s raison d’être, the confrontation of corruption with innocent goodness.
The HP hero is a man who lived and is living in a corrupt, rapacious world of venal values. He’s a survivor, keeping a tiny core of standards (Dante’s are he won’t gamble, sleep with married women, or cheat at business), but he can navigate this world just fine. He can’t, however, navigate the heroine’s decency, too often focused on her virginity. Thank goodness for Aislin: she can debate and defeat Dante and therefore, in time, when he returns for a truly humble grovel, win him. Dante describes his corrupt world:
“I look at my extended family and see nothing but misery; siblings hating and bitching about siblings, spouses cheating, hypocritical parents moralising, all pretending that their lives are great, when underneath it’s all rotten.” [Emphases mine.]
Instead of soothing him and “there, there”ing him, Ailsin laces into Dante with his own participation in that corrupt world, a world that knows “the other” only by transaction:
“You’re just another selfish bastard but you have the money to throw at your problems and make them go away. Ooh, I need to fake an engagement … let’s pay someone. Ooh, a sister I’ve never met … have some money. Job done, because obviously that’s all they would ever want from you, and it’s a good thing that’s all you have to offer because you’re not fit to lick my sister’s shoes.”
I loved Aislin’s moral truth-telling. Dante’s life can’t be redeemed, nor his heart resurrected, unless he realizes and acts on giving of himself. Happily, this hero rises to all occasions beautifully and Aislin gets the committed husband and father she deserves. With Miss Austen, we say that Smart’s The Sicilian’s Bought Cinderella is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Michelle Smart’s The Sicilian’s Bought Cinderella is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on January 15th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.