The Princess Trap by Talia Hibbert made me feel really good. It was the read I needed for a crappy day and it went down like a hot cup of tea followed by a cookie. The pacing was a little off at the end, but my appreciation for an emotionally-fluent hero let me overlook that. Also the heroine wears a Dolly Parton tee shirt to bed and fuck yea, Dolly Parton. I do want to add a trigger warning for depictions of child abuse in this book.
Cherry Neita works in human resources at an elite private school in England. She hears whispers one day about a very handsome visitor and goes to scope it out. She has lunch with the potential donor, Prince Ruben of Helgmøre, never knowing he’s royalty. They hit it off and agree to go on another date, which somehow leads to Cherry and Ruben making out in front of her apartment and getting caught by the paparazzi.
Cherry is pissed that Ruben didn’t say, “Oh, BTW, I’m a prince” and rightfully so. She’s also not thrilled when he asks her to pose as his fiancée for damage control reasons. Ruben was recently involved in a scandal where a lover of his recorded some of their sexy talk and then released the tape to humiliate him because he didn’t want to marry her. Ruben is into power play and the tape also contained a reference to his bisexuality (although the fact that he’s bi is never explored further in the book). In order to appease his brother, the king and a real asshole, Ruben offers Cherry a boatload of money to pretend to be his fiancée for a year.
Cherry accepts because her entire family is strained with putting her brilliant younger sister through an Ivy League school while also paying for said sister’s chronic illness. The offer Ruben is making her would alleviate the pressure on everyone.
So of course while they are in Helgmøre pretending to be in love, they start actually feeling things for each other.
I really love Cherry. She’s smart and tough and she stands up for herself and the people around her. She’s not sucked in by the Cinderella fantasy of living with Ruben. She expects a respectful partnership from him, and she won’t accept less.
Cherry is Black and Ruben is White, so they both have to navigate having a biracial relationship in a traditional, conservative White environment (Helgmøre is in Scandinavia somewhere). Cherry faces down microagressions from Ruben’s family, including his half-sister Sophronia
“What an interesting name,” Sophronia continued, her voice dripping with mockery. She was one to fucking talk. “Where does it come from.”
“Sophy,” Ruben said, his tone warning.
“Calm yourself, little brother. I am speaking with my future sister-in-law.”
Sophronia’s real sister-in-law, the pale and birdlike Lydia, had spent the first half of this strained dinner doing everything she could to avoid Sophronia’s attention. And her husband’s. Cherry rather thought that said it all.
Still, she forced herself to smile at Ruben’s painfully beautiful sister. She faced off the porcelain skin, the ice-blue eyes and the golden hair, so unassuming on Lydia and so very devastating on Sophronia. “The Caribbean,” she said.
“Ah! You’re from the West Indies.”
Cherry’s jaw set. How strange; the colonial name sounded fine coming from the lips of her migrant grandparents, but corrosive from Sophronia.
“I am a British Jamaican,” she said slowly. “Third generation.”
“Is that what they call it? Fascinating.”
Fuck you, Sophronia.
Cherry never backs down in front of Ruben’s exceptionally shitty family, never buckling. She’s remarkably strong, and I adore a badass heroine.
Ruben, though, was really the star for me as he was an example of what is sometimes missing in dominant, confident heroes. Ruben is an alpha hero. He likes to be dominant in the bedroom. He’s wealthy and powerful, but even when he proposes a fake engagement to Cherry, he doesn’t wield that power or wealth in a way felt manipulative or exploitative. He’s also very aware of his emotions and of how his actions impact others. He’s not perfectly self-aware (who is) but he demonstrates that you can have a sexy, alpha hero who is also perfectly capable of not being an emotionally constipated asshat.
I get so sick of “tough” heroes who can’t sort out their feels and as a result hurt other people. Or who have been through trauma and as a result can’t have an emotion again. Or who use the fact that they are wealthy/ powerful/ sexually dominant to steamroll the heroine. Whenever I meet that guy, the guy who has zero emotionally fluency, I think of this:
Ruben has past trauma. His older half-brother, King Asshole, abused Ruben as a child and their relationship is still fraught and full of pain. Sophy, as evidence from the earlier passage, is genuinely awful person. Their father abdicated the throne to be with Ruben’s mother, a commoner, and the scandal of that has always followed Ruben around. Ruben knows he was abused. He knows that the abuse helped form who he is as a adult. He doesn’t use that as an excuse to totally close himself off or hurt anyone else.
Ruben is also sexually dominant, but again, there’s no steamrolling, and this book is an excellent example of how consent is sexy:
“Can I kiss you?”
Four words. His voice was as soft as his eyes. He was all folded up into the tiny car’s front seat, his long legs bent, his powerful thighs straining at his suit trousers, and…oh.
Something else strained at his suit trousers, too, hard and thick. She let her eyes rest on his erection for a second before looking back up at him. He met her gaze easily, making no move to hide his arousal, and Cherry’s nerves disappeared. Anticipation was a red-hot weight in her chest, and desire thrummed through her pulse.
He raised a hand and grasped the back of her neck, pushing her hair aside. The warm weight of his palm rested against her skin, and then he leant over the centre console towards her. His forehead bumped gently against hers.
“You have to tell me,” he whispered. “Yes or no. Can I kiss you?”
And she sounded embarrassingly breathless when she said, “Yes.”
Most of the conflict in this book is Cherry and Ruben really falling in love while faking an engagement, but there’s a fair dose of external conflict coming from Ruben’s truly terrifying family. They make the Borgias look like a fucking delight. There is a lot packed into the end of this book, which I think made it feel a little uneven at the end, but it didn’t drastically impact my enjoyment of the romance.
So if you want a sexy, fun contemporary romance with a really fantastic pair of main characters, you should totally check out The Princess Trap.
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