Princess From the Past
I often finish an ordinary-heroine, imperious billionaire/prince/etc. Harlequin Presents title and, with a roll of my eyes, think, ‘Well, that’s never going to last.’ Caitlin Crews took this reaction and made it the starting point for her second-chance romance, Princess from the Past.
Bethany Vassal had been her father’s long-term caregiver, and when he passed away, she traveled to Hawaii to fulfill his request that she scatter his ashes on Waikiki Beach. There, she meets Prince Leo di Marco. After a whirlwind courtship, he sweeps her off to his Italian castle, where she becomes utterly miserable. Their eighteen-month marriage ends when Bethany flees to Toronto, where Leo finds her again and receives her ultimatum: Bethany wants a divorce. He tells her she has to return to Italy to achieve it, and that sets up our current, present plot.
Everything the author examines here is exactly what I always worry will happen to the ‘fresh’, ‘ordinary’ heroines who capture cold elites – especially when there’s also an age and experience gap. Leo came to ridicule the very traits which attracted him to Bethany, from her informal manner to her plebeian wardrobe. Bethany, meanwhile, was achingly young, and responded to his high-handed arrogance with increasingly erratic and explosive tantrums, of the shrieking, vase-shattering type. I appreciated that, because it’s exactly the sort of toxic behavior I could see developing in a Presents heroine desperate to break through to a hero.
Marriage-in-trouble books attract me because they force the author to grapple with characters who have made bad decisions and hurt each other. The two of them talk with increasing maturity and thoroughness, addressing everything from Bethany’s potential search for a replacement father to Leo’s dispatch to boarding school at age four. Bethany has already done most of her maturing off-camera, and her main task is to demonstrate this new hold on her temper as Leo tries all his old provocations (although yes, the ‘I can’t resist him sexually’ trope is still in play). Leo, however, starts this book unchanged, and in full ‘cold and controlling’ mode. Over the course of the story, he has to hear and accept that their marital issues go beyond ‘Bethany was immature and childish’, and include ‘I was a hypocrite, and I have unresolved issues about my father and the type of prince he raised me to be’. Marrying Bethany was an act of rebellion, but what he refused to see was that he had to continue rebelling alongside her once he brought her home. Leo’s internal shift here is the part where the book is at its strongest.
Beyond hearing and accepting that he is culpable, though, he also has to change his behavior, and here the book falls short, because he is high-handed almost to the very end. I wish the author had extended (or been allowed to, since Harlequin has strict word/page counts) the book for at least another two or three chapters to allow for a less rushed finale.
I have a soft spot for books which I find interesting, books which play with tropes and reward readers with thorough knowledge of the genre. They capture my attention even when the execution has some issues. Anybody who has ever suspected that a Presents HEA might be more of an HFN, and absolutely anybody who is considering writing academically on the royal marriage trope, should read this book.