After suffering through a torturous childhood, Darius Santiago was freed from captivity by Lazar di Fiore, a pirate prince who turned out to be the long, lost king of the island nation of Ascension. Darius grew to manhood at court, treated like Lazar's own son. He trained to be a soldier and soon was entrusted with the safety of Lazar's young daughter, the princess. Eventually he rose through the ranks to become the king's right hand, the commander of Ascension's military, and the best spy and assassin in Europe. The ladies at court all but fall at his feet for the chance to share his bed for he has a famed reputation as a skillful lover. But none of these things can erase the pain of Darius's past. The only person he feels has ever known and loved him for himself is the princess, and although his affections for her have grown as she has flowered into womanhood, he believes that he'll never be anything but a worthless street urchin unworthy of a beautiful and pure young woman like her.
Serafina di Fiore has always had the best of everything. A bit spoiled and used to getting her own way, she, nevertheless, harbors a heart of compassion for others, none more so than her beloved Darius. She's loved him from afar since childhood and even ventured to tell him as much at her come-out ball when she was seventeen, but he ran away, leaving her heartbroken. Serafina recognizes how hard Darius pushes himself and wants nothing more than to help him find rest from the demons that drive him, but he won't let her in. Now she finds herself betrothed to a man she doesn't love for the sake of saving her country from falling into Napoleon's hands. When assassins come after her and Darius insists she must go away to a safe house, she contrives to have him be her bodyguard once again. Living in close quarters during their sojourn in the country, their feelings come to a head, leading to a sensual and passionate exploration of their love, but their happiness cannot last. Darius believes that the only way to save Serafina from a loveless marriage to a cruel man is to assassinate Napoleon himself before her wedding, which he knows is a suicide mission. But to ensure Serafina's well-being, he would gladly give his life for the only woman he's ever loved.
There are a few of my favorite authors who've not yet failed me once (meaning I've not yet rated any of their books below four stars and the majority of them were keepers). Gaelen Foley is one of them, and Princess just became the latest book I've read by her that has earned keeper status from me. It was an incredible read full of adventure, passion, and romance. I'm always up for a tortured bad boy hero, and Darius is definitely one of those. His torment runs deep and the love of only one woman can satisfy and heal him. Unfortunately that woman is the princess he's been guarding for most of her life, and he believes that to give in to his feelings for her would be to betray his king. Our heroine, Serafina, has worshiped the ground Darius walks on since she was a little girl and he was her personal bodyguard. When she was twelve, he nearly died, taking a bullet meant for the king, and she sat by his bedside praying for his recovery and threw a tantrum when she was asked to leave. When Serafina declared her love to Darius at her come-out ball on her seventeenth birthday, he ran the other way, fearing not only his king, but also the depth of emotion she stirred within him. Despite their considerable age difference, theirs was a love written in the stars that was always meant to be. It just took a lot of determination and courage on both their parts to finally grasp their happily ever after.
We met Darius in The Pirate Prince, the previous book of the Ascension Trilogy, when he was just a boy. He was the slave and plaything of the same Arab prince who had once captured Lazar, but he was rescued by Lazar and Allegra. He grew up in the royal palace on Ascension, where he was well-educated and treated like their son. When he reached adulthood, he was assigned to be the young princess's bodyguard, a duty he initially resented, but as she grew, so did his affection for her. Eventually Darius became Lazar's right hand man and the commander of his military, as well as a brilliant spy, assassin and businessman, amassing a small fortune of his own. But despite his place of privilege, his past still deeply torments him. Abandoned by his father and mother as a young boy, he ended up on the streets, surviving by becoming a pickpocket. Somewhere along the line, he was molested and eventually came to believe that was all he was good for. He's desired by most of the ladies at court for his gorgeous good looks. With his reputation as a skilled lover, the ladies all but fall at his feet for a chance in his bed, but he derives little satisfaction from his sexual encounters. It's so sad that he feels like everyone he's been with only desired him for sex but never really wanted him as a person, leaving him feeling like he's being raped all over again. The only person who has ever seen him and appreciated him for himself is Serafina, but he won't betray Lazar's trust by giving in to his feelings for her. Not to mention, he feels worthless and not fit for the likes of a royal, which really tugged at my heartstrings. Darius is a very controlled and organized military man, pushing himself to do everything perfectly even at the risk of his own health and life. It was utterly heartbreaking that much like Lazar, Darius also has a death wish, except that rather than committing suicide when his mission is done, he plans to go on a suicide mission to assassinate Napoleon and go out in a blaze of glory. He loves Serafina so much, he's willing to die for her, convinced that the only way to stop her impending wedding to a cruel Russian prince is to eliminate the threat that necessitated the marriage pact in the first place.
Serafina is the daughter of Lazar and Allegra. She's a little spoiled and used to getting her own way, but she doesn't really lord her position over others. She does pull rank on Darius a couple of times, which leads to some trouble between them the second time, but her heart was in the right place when she did it, feeling that it was for his own good. She basically has her daddy wrapped around her little finger, but at the same time, she feels like she was something of a disappointment to her parents because she was the firstborn girl rather than the hoped-for son and heir. I admired Serafina for her boldness in knowing what she wants and going after it, namely Darius. She doesn't let his protestations stop her, nor does she allow him to scare her away with his intense moods. If anything, she's pretty intuitive about knowing when he's deliberately trying to drive her off, and it only further steels her resolve to get him to open up to her and accept her love. I love her free-spirited nature, how she runs around barefoot half the time and has an affinity for plants and animals. She doesn't feel like anyone has ever truly understood her except Darius. Serafina may be bold and feisty when the situation calls for it, but she still has a sweet and gentle side. I love the way she wants to take care of Darius, because she knows and recognizes that he doesn't take care of himself. Even though she doesn't know the full extent of his plans or his background, she senses that he's in pain and that he needs her to heal him and embraces that role wholeheartedly.
Darius and Serafina together as a couple and their love for one another is a beautiful thing. It's so sweet that they've known each other all Serafina's life and that she's been in love with him since childhood. Their personal history and deep emotional connection shows in their every interaction. The sexual tension is exquisite, intensely palpable from the opening pages and carrying on throughout the rest of the story. Darius may have taken Serafina to the country for her own safety following an attempt on her life, but their sojourn there turned into one of the most wonderfully romantic interludes I've ever read. I savored watching Darius finally give in to his feelings for Serafina, but he's still every bit the man in control of his own life and destiny. He just couldn't go to his death not knowing the sweetness of being in her arms. Their love-making is sweet and sensuous, but he's very careful not to deflower her even though she wants it. It was one of the most if not the most beautiful love scene I've ever read that didn't actually culminate in intercourse. When Darius is with Serafina, he's a different man, able to cast off his cares at least for a little while and become more playful and boyish. He basks in her love, like a starving man, but at that time, he believed it wouldn't last and that he would soon die. It's not until later when he realizes he can't live without her, but also can't quite be fully honest with her about his past and allow her to love him, that he comes to a crossroads, a place that scares him more than anything he's ever done in life. It was hard to watch them at odds during this time, but also glorious when he finally gives in. The ending couldn't have been sweeter, showing Darius as a new man who is so much lighter and freer than before.
Overall, Princess was an incredible love story that was perfect for me. I enjoyed seeing Lazar and Allegra again. They aren't perfect parents, but they do love their offspring and want what's best for them. The scene when Lazar and Darius reconcile after the big scandal was flawlessly done. Lazar's acceptance went a long way toward Darius being able to accept himself and Serafina's love. We're also introduced to Serafina's younger brother, Rafael, who's a rakish charmer, but at the same time, he has an honorable and gallant side, ready to step up to fight for his sister so she wouldn't be forced into a marriage she didn't want. He struggles with feeling like his father is too hard on him and that he can't do anything right, but he gets a chance to prove his worth in the next book of the series, Prince Charming. I really like what I've seen of Rafael so far, so I'm looking forward to reading his book. Here's hoping the final installment will make this series a clean sweep of perfection for me.
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