You will be my wife…
Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!
Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!
I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.
Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score. Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience completely plausible.
Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left. Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.
But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea. But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy. Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter. Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.
Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical. It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.
Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing. His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness. At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her. He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children. He pretty much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully. He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control. Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want. When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther – fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.
I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom! But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap. He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.
Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair. He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.
The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it. It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.