Review: The Reluctant Princess

The Reluctant Princess (Champagne Book Group November 2018)
Book One in the Charm City Hearts Series
by M. C. Vaughan. 270 pages.

Five stars in romance.
Recommended for the contemporary romance reader, New Adult fans, and any reader wanting to enjoy a steamy, heartfelt, well-told love story.
Reviewed by Claire Matturro

The Reluctant Princess (Champagne Book Group November 2018) by M. C. Vaughan is a pure charmer. With a New Adult gloss, it’s a contemporary romance with a sensual quality, definite humor, just enough edge, plenty of heat, and breezy but insightful writing. The story concerns two young Millennials struggling to find themselves, boost their careers, and yet dive through multiple conflicts toward love.

The heroine, Zara Kissette, aka the reluctant princess, is an intense, beautiful, 25-year-old artist, aiming for the top in Baltimore’s art scene. She lives with three wonderfully-supportive roommates, women she calls her “team, her squad, her posse.”
Zara is determined to make it on her own as an artist. If she fails, she must return home to her parents’ shoreline B & B and be their unpaid help until she repays the college loan they made her.
Hence, with her independence at risk, she’s highly motivated.

And, as she and her posse know (even if her parents don’t), she is truly talented.

The hitch—it’s hard to make a living as a young artist. Zara has a collection of part-time, art-related jobs. Then her big break comes when a top gallery offers to include some of her paintings in its next show. Bolstered by the opportunity, Zara is described as “happyish, which was why she should have known the universe was about to punch her square in the lady junk.”
Yep. She gets punched. There’s a fire in her art studio. Those paintings the top gallery was going to include in the next show: toast.

But Zara isn’t one to ring her hands and give up. Landing a coveted slot in the gallery’s show would be her career’s turning point, and she’s not going to lose that chance. She decides to paint new works of art—even though the deadline for the show is rushing at her sooner than she’d like.

To raise funds to restock her canvas, paints, and art supplies, Zara dons her princess gear. One of her part-time money earning endeavors is to face-paint children at parties while she is dressed up as a popular cartoon princess, the Princess Ravenna from Rising. And the thing is, Zara actually looks like Ravenna.

Zara, armed with her roommate the photographer, heads out in full princess paraphernalia to a party. This particular party is for Emma, a five-year-old girl whose charm, honesty, and energy come close to stealing center stage in the novel. Emma’s father, 27-year-old Brendan Stewart, a computer guru who writes code at home, however, manages to hold the stage for more than a few scene-stealing moments himself.

From the first minute Brendan first sees Zara, he is smitten. Seriously so. “Brenden widened his eyes. The face painter, Zara, could be Ravenna’s twin. Authentic black-and-purple hair, glacier-blue eyes, porcelain skin, and Ravenna’s signature scowl. …This girl was perfect.”

Zara is equally smitten, but she is also guarded. First off, the man has a child, and Zara doesn’t want a child—or children—in her life because her career comes first. For reasons later explained, Zara believes she can’t be a successful artist and have a child or children in her life.

Emma is an immediate stumbling block between Zara and Brendan. And, as Zara soon discovers, the ex-wife is going to be a problem to anyone Emma and Brendan become involved with.
But the real conflict between Zara and Brendan is…Zara and Brendan. Neither is ready to dive into a real relationship. Or, are they?

Despite their first-meeting concerns, the two stumble through their awkward, guarded attraction and manage to go on a first date. A funny first date. On Valentine’s Day.

Too much honey wine at an Ethiopian restaurant, and Zara blurts out things she shouldn’t. Brendan isn’t much better. He’s too busy not staring lustfully at Zara to watch what he says.
While what they blurt out in their first-date nervousness adds sly humor to the story, their inner dialogues are plain funny. And effective, showing their youth and personalities. The two cure their verbal blunders by taking a walk, and ending up in Zara’s studio, where soon enough they are engaged in hot sex. Safe, but definitely hot sex. Great sex. Plenty of it. Well-written. Not erotica per se, and definitely not porn, but graceful, enthusiastic sex.
From this beginning, the lovers will have to work through several conflicts and threats to their relationship. Each will wound the other, but not through any intentional or spiteful act but rather through career-driven actions. The ex-wife, misunderstandings, family misinterpretations, and Emma herself, all fuel the building tension as Zara and Brendan dance around whether this is a temporary, hot fling, or the real thing.
While none of that sounds particularly unique, the author finds a fresh perspective and creative situations that move the story out of the ordinary. For example, Emma’s accidentally spilling apple juice on Brendan’s computer creates an unintended consequence that nearly ends Zara’s success before she achieves it.
And Zara’s own pursuit of success threatens Brendan at a very intimate level. Brendan wants a private life. His first wife invaded his comfort zone by blogging with too much information about Brendan and Emma. This contributed to their divorce, and creates ongoing tension between them.
Zara doesn’t blog, but Brendan is still going to be exposed. By Zara. In her paintings.
In her zeal to replace the destroyed paintings in time to have work included in the gallery show, Zara struggles. Before being with Brendan, she paints crap. And she knows it.
But after hot sex with Brendan, she’s inspired. He is her muse. She paints two stunning paintings of her and Brendan. Having sex. And like the writing in the book, the paintings are explicit, but tasteful, art not porn. Described as “gorgeous. Intimate. And …sexy as hell.”

The gallery owner is so impressed with the paintings that he offers Zara an exclusive contract and decides to make the paintings the focus of the show.

Great. Except Brenden, who desires privacy, doesn’t know he has been exposed in the paintings. And when Zara tells him, he blows up.

If they can move forward from that conflict without giving up what they want is the central tension in the story. The author does a delicious job of showing two-steps-forward, three-steps-back in their dance toward a lasting love. Within the give and takes, there are moments of suspense as Zara and Brendan both have many things at risk besides their ultimate relationship.
Breezy, flirty, endlessly clever, the book also finds a real, genuine heartfelt center. The three main characters, Zara, Brendan and Emma, are well developed and should capture readers’ attentions. The conflicts are modern, very human, and readers should relate to the tensions that threaten the couple.

All in all, The Reluctant Princess is delightful, steamy, witty, and a pleasure to read. M. C. Vaughan is a fine story teller, with a gift for conveying emotions and sensual delights. This is a good read for the New Adult crowd, millennials, and even for a more mature audience who can look back with pleasure and amusement at the stumbling path of young love. Well done, M. C. Vaughan.
This is also the first book in a planned series of romances set in modern-day Baltimore. Readers should be alert for the next book in the Charm City Hearts series.