Jennifer Hayward’s Carrying the King’s Pride, first in the Kingdoms and Crowns series, opens with a break-up. ” ‘We should end it now while it’s still good. While we still like each other. So it doesn’t get drawn out and bitter. We did promise ourselves that, after all, didn’t we?’ “, says heroine Sofía Ramirez to lover and hero Prince Nikandros Constantinides. Hmmm … then, they have mind-blowing sex, “exit Sofía”. Whirl-wind sex is followed by a dizzying sequence of events: Nik’s brother dies, father suffers massive heart-attack and Nik’s spare-heir, billionaire-businessman-playboy status goes down like ebbing fireworks. Meanwhile back in Sofía-World, our heroine is working hard at her fashion-design and boutique business and eating A LOT of chocolate. Poof, add a little nausea and Sofía is preggers. Little does she know … Nik had her watched all along and knows immediately when she sees a doctor to confirm the pregnancy. He flies back to Manhattan and scoops her away to his Akathinian island-kingdom-paradise. All improbably delicious events and the premise to Hayward’s marriage-of-convenience romance: how can King Nik, though engaged to a Countess whose family’s wealth can save the island-nation, give up his heir? He can’t, of course, but fully expects Sofía to give up her life to marry him. Sofía puts up a feisty fight. Alas, she loves the arrogant ass and wants to have this baby too.
Hayward is very good at creating sympathetic, human-sized backstories for HP heroes and heroines who, we all admit, live in Fantastical-La-La-Land, or as my good friend and fellow-blogger puts it so brilliantly, judge an HP rom by its “As-O-If” metre. Nik and Sofía have this sympathetic narrative that makes them who they are. From the get-go, though alpha-powerful and seemingly impervious to feeling, Nik suffers from ennui:
… he wasn’t himself, had been consumed by a restless craving for something he couldn’t put his finger on … he, manager of a multibillion-dollar portfolio for his nation, a prince of unquestionable influence who could flick his fingers and have his heart’s desire at a moment’s notice, was having an identity crisis.
Nik’s identity crisis is, as every rom-reader’s knowledge of rom doublespeak will tell you, an indication of his unadmitted feelings for the heroine. So it’s particularly poignant that Sofía looks to be “the one who got away”. Hence, accidental pregnancy. But Sofía didn’t get to where she is without speaking her mind. She’s the product of Chilean immigrant parents who fought for every moment of their American dream. Sofía is outspoken and smart and she calls Nik on his frigid emotional ways before she walks out on him:
“You hide yourself under this smooth veneer, Nik. No one ever really gets to know the real you. What you dream of. What you hope for. Tonight, what you said … it was the first time you’ve admitted anything truly intimate about yourself to me. And soon, my time will be up, won’t it? You’ll decide I’m getting too close, your attention will wane and I’ll receive a very nice piece of jewelry to kiss off and fade into the sunset.”
Sofía is as vulnerable as she is tough and a truth-teller. She suffered loss, deprivation, and even negligence as a child. She won’t let her child suffer the same. She makes her peace with marrying Nik and being the next Akathinian queen, but she never gives up a chance to say her piece. Miss Bates liked that about her a lot.
Sofía and Nik settle into a push-pull “engagement”. She demands his emotional engagement and he evades. He’s kind, solicitous, and sexy as heck. But Sofía holds out for his heart and soul. While this interpersonal conflict plays out, Hayward puts Nik into one on the national and international scale to up the emotional stakes for him. And it works quite nicely as Mr. Icy is frazzled. But he’s also right: he’s holding out against the old king’s ways and dealing with a threat of war, which his father would foment if Nik allowed him to. Nik enacts for his country what he also, when he’s doing his best, does for his impending marriage: negotiation, conciliation, and understanding: “He was progressive, rooted in his experiences abroad; they [father and deceased brother] remained stuck in the past, preferring to cling to outdated tradition.” Forces come at Nik from all angles, but the one force that puts him off his game is the sublime Sofía.
One of the marriage-of-convenience trope’s best moments is the turning-point: when two seemingly incompatible, possibly antagonistic, or simply resigned, people reach out for understanding, a plea to make the “best of things” and express sympathy and affection for the other. Nik browbeats and dominates Sofía, or tries to, but he knows when to fold his hand. He is a good negotiator (and kudos to Hayward who doesn’t have the oft-disconnect between what her characters say and what they do). Nik approaches the righteously fuming Sofía by “telling” her what she’s going to do, at least initially:
“You know that’s no choice.”
“Then stay. Marry me.”
She gave him a frustrated look. “You don’t understand what you’re asking.”
He studied her for a long moment. “Then tell me. Make me understand.”
Miss Bates loved this exchange as much as Sofía’s subsequent plea to Nik: “We need to have trust between us if we are going to be able to do this.” Hayward’s Sofía and Nik began with all manner of wrong, but it’s not where they end up. And for the reader, what a great combination of all the HP’s fantasy elements, glamour, sublime locale, larger-than-life circumstances, and yet two people working things out, learning to give and take, defining trust, commitment, and love.
With her rom-reading sidekick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Jennifer Hayward’s Carrying the King’s Pride is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Jennifer Hayward’s Carrying the King’s Pride is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on February 23rd and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.