After her parents died in a car accident, Naledi Smith was raised in a series of foster homes, but no one ever cared enough to make her a permanent part of their family. Now she's learned to rely only on herself. A grad student in epidemiology, working multiple jobs, she also hasn't the time or patience for the silly emails she keeps getting, telling her she's betrothed to an African prince. Yeah right, like that would ever happen to her. Then one day, a gorgeous man shows up at the restaurant where she works. Naledi thinks he's the new waiter, but when he turns out to be a total disaster, she has to fire him. Coincidentally, though, he sublets the apartment right across from her own. Living so close to him, she can't help being charmed by his flirty banter, and soon they share some passionate nights together. But when she discovers he's been lying to her about his identity, Naledi doesn't want to have anything to do with him anymore.
Prince Thabiso is the crown prince and sole heir to the throne of Thesolo. As a young child he was betrothed to Naledi, but she disappeared with her parents shortly after and hasn't been seen since. Now his parents are pressuring him to choose a princess, but Thabiso has the soul of a romantic that's never quite forgotten the little girl who used to be his friend. Through determination, he finally locates her in New York. He had every intention of being up front with her from the start, but when she mistakes him for the new hire, he can't resist playing along. He just wants to get to know this beautiful woman without the pressure of the crown that sometimes weighs heavily upon his head. But when it all falls apart after she discovers the truth, he's left scrambling to convince her to give him another chance. The people of Thesolo, including Naledi's grandparents, have been coming down with a mysterious illness, so when Naledi's summer study program falls through, Thabiso makes arrangements for her to visit her home country and help identify this baffling new disease. Will having her on his home turf finally give him the advantage he needs to persuade Naledi to trust him again and become his princess ever after?
A Princess in Theory is the first book in Alyssa Cole's Reluctant Royals series. This story is a beautiful fairy tale melding of Wakanda, Cinderella, and The Prince and the Pauper. Years ago, when they were very young children, the goddess decreed that Prince Thabiso of Thesolo and Naledi were to be betrothed, but not long after, Naledi's parents fled the country, leaving everyone thinking that they'd betrayed the throne. Thabiso still remembers Naledi and has never quite given up on finding her. When his assistant gets a hit from a genetics testing site, it looks like they've finally succeeded. What they don't know, though, is that Ledi's parents died in a car accident shortly after they moved to America and she was raised in a series of foster homes. She's now working two jobs while attending grad school, studying epidemiology. When Thabiso shows up at the restaurant where Ledi works and she mistakes him for the new waiter, he decides to play along, hoping to get to know her as a commoner before dropping a bombshell on her about her heritage and her being a future princess. However, the longer he plays the game, the more guilty he feels and the more he fears how she'll react. But every time he tries to tell her the truth, they keep getting interrupted, until she finds out in the worst possible way. Ledi no longer wants anything to do with Thabiso, but when he offers her the opportunity to study a potential novel illness that has broken out in Thesolo, she can't resist. The more she learns about her home country, the more she falls in love with it, but although a part of her still cares for Thabiso, forgiving him for his deception and trusting him again are another matter. Not to mention, the mystery illness may also prove a threat to their burgeoning love.
Naledi remembers nothing of her early childhood before her parents' car accident. After they were killed, she spent her formative years in a series of foster and group homes, but no one ever cared about her enough to make it permanent. This has led her to a theory that she's defective Velcro, because no one ever seems to stick around. Ledi has few friends and has learned to rely on only herself. She has a tendency to care a little too much about those around her to the point that they sometimes take advantage of her, leaving her longing a little for someone to take care of her for once. When a gorgeous stranger shows up at the restaurant where she works, Ledi thinks he's the new waiter, Jamal. Although she tries to be patient with him, he turns out to be a complete disaster, who she fires on night one. But then he shows up again, subletting the apartment across the hall from her. At first, she's wary, but he turns out to be irresistibly charming. Soon Ledi has let her guard down with him in a way that she never really does, but when she learns the truth about him actually being the Prince of Thesolo, she's understandably angry with him and doesn't want anything to do with him anymore. But Ledi just lost her summer practicum and is scrambling to find a new one, so when Thabiso makes her an offer to come to Thesolo to study an outbreak of a new disease while pretending to be his prodigal betrothed, she reluctantly accepts. The country, and being treated like a princess, prove to be more than she ever could have dreamed of, but forgiving Thabiso for his deception is difficult even though he pulls out all the stops to continue romancing her and proving that he really can be her Prince Charming.
I loved and related to Naledi so well. Her geek-girl-ness was the bomb, and the way she's always doing for others in part because she knows she can do those things well is a very familiar refrain to me. Sometimes, when heroines are a bit stubborn about accepting the hero's love, I can get annoyed with them, but not Ledi. I totally understood where she was coming from. Because of her background, she has trust issues and feels like no on ever chooses her, so Thabiso's initial deception, coupled with her having to learn to be independent in life, make her wary of his overtures. I also like that when she arrives in Thesolo and is being treated like a princess, deep down, she's still just ordinary Ledi, the wicked-smart grad student, who lives in a crummy apartment back home and works as a waitress. She simply doesn't let any of it go to her head. I also like that she makes Thabiso grovel a bit, but ultimately she can't resist him.
Prince Thabiso is under pressure from his parents to either find a bride or they'll find one for him. He hasn't been in a hurry, though, because he still remembers the little girl who was his friend and who he was betrothed to as a child. The hopeless romantic in him still believes that Naledi is meant to be his, even though everyone in Thesolo thinks that her parents betrayed the country by leaving. When his assistant finally locates Ledi in the nick of time, Thabiso intends to remind her of her heritage and find out why her parents took her away all those years ago. However, the Prince sometimes wishes that he could just get away from the stresses of royal life and be an ordinary guy, and he also worries how Ledi might react to such a bombshell pronouncement. When she mistakes him for the new waiter she's supposed to train, Thabiso takes on the persona of Jamal to get to know his betrothed. He thinks it certainly can't be that hard to wait tables, but as it turns out, he sucks at it, which is a new experience for guy who's used to having to project perfection. When Ledi fires him, he regroups, sending her next-door neighbor on an all-expenses-paid vacation to visit her family in Puerto Rico, so that he can sublet her apartment and still be close to Ledi. Eventually his charm wins her over, and he discovers that she's exactly the kind of woman he's been looking for, but the longer the charade goes on the more guilty he feels. Yet every time he tries to tell her the truth, they're interrupted by some pressing matter until the entire act blows up in his face. Back home in Thesolo several people, including Ledi's biological grandparents, have fallen ill from a mysterious disease, so Thabiso offers Ledi the opportunity to perform her summer practicum there in exchange for pretending to still be his betrothed to keep his parents off his back. She agrees, and although he expects her to leave once the medical mystery is solved, it doesn't stop him from still trying to romance her, hoping against hope that she'll forgive him for his deception.
I adored Prince Thabiso. He may have made the wrong decision in the way he initially handled the situation with Ledi, but I fully understood why he did things that way, and it's entirely possible that she wouldn't have reacted well if he'd just gone in as himself. At least he felt bad about it and tried to make things right, even though in classic rom-com fashion, everything blows up for him. I love that he's a romantic, though, and that he doesn't want to give up on Ledi. Even though the situation seems rather hopeless, he keeps showing up, romancing her, and intuitively understands her reluctance, given all that she went through growing up. I loved the way he always takes care of her with such tenderness, as well as his enthusiastic embrace of consent, checking in with her several times to make sure she's fully on board with any physical intimacies. I think the most swoon-worthy moment, though, is when this prince quite literally bows at Ledi's feet. That alone would have won me over. Although not perfect, Prince Thabiso is an all-around great guy who I totally fell for. It didn't hurt either that he reminded me in some ways of King T'Challa (minus the superhero persona), because I'm a huge Black Panther fan.
A Princess in Theory introduces several characters who go on to get their own books in the series. Ledi's best friend, Portia, a high society girl with some issues of her own to work on, but who has a good heart, becomes the heroine of the next book, A Duke by Default. Thabiso's right hand woman, Likotsi, has a fling with a woman she meets on a dating app while they're in New York, but it appears to have ended badly. They reunite in the novella, Once Ghosted, Twice Shy. Portia's twin sister, Regina, a geek girl who runs a successful blog, becomes the heroine of Can't Escape Love, another between the books novella. Then frail schoolteacher Nya, Ledi's cousin she meets in Thesolo, is paired with Thabiso's playboy prince friend, Johan, in the third book, A Prince on Paper. And finally, Shanti, the woman Thabiso's parents choose for him, finds a royal to call her own in How to Catch a Queen, the first book of the spin-off Runaway Royals series.
I'd heard a lot of good things about Alyssa Cole and several of her books had caught my eye. I'd also read and enjoyed a few articles she wrote, so I was really looking forward to trying her books. I'm so glad I finally picked one up, because A Princess in Theory was a delightful read. I loved both Thabiso and Naledi and think they fit together well as a couple. I'm crazy about the fact that Naledi is studying in a STEM field. I personally think we need more heroes and heroines like this. When it comes to business and running a country, Thabiso is an intelligent man in his own right, and I very much enjoyed how he could exhibit the confidence of an alpha male while also being sweet and kindhearted. I'm sure it might not work for everyone, but all the geeky references were so much fun for a geek girl like me. But beyond that, I thoroughly appreciated just how incredibly well-written the book was. The descriptive prose really brings the settings of both New York and the fictional Thesolo to life, and there are simply a lot of rich, intelligent word choices with minimal errors which was a refreshing change of pace from some other books I've read. I'm a total sucker for fairy tale reimaginings, so that combined with the Wakanda-style fictional country was just the bee's knees for me. It was all woven together beautifully into a fun story that also had emotional depth. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the humor. Some books can occasionally make me smile or chuckle, but I honestly can't recall the last time a book made me LOL. And that's exactly what the scenes of Thabiso trying to be a waiter did. So kudos to the author for that. I can't think of a single thing I didn't like about A Princess in Theory. It hit all the right notes for me and left me with a smile on my face and very much looking forward to continuing the series soon, as well as checking out Alyssa Cole's other work.
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