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apThe Accidental Princess (2008), by Nancy Robards Thompson, is a charming mix of reality and whimsy.

This is part of the Harlequin NEXT line, generally featuring older women such as divorcees and widows, who “discover that an unexpected fork in the road can be exactly what you need.”

Sophie Baldwin was married for fifteen years to Frank, but he left her for a younger woman, moved away, and doesn’t pay child support to their fourteen year old daughter. Sophie is a social worker with a second job waiting tables, and she occasionally dates men she meets at the second job, but there’s not much excitement in her life.

One day she comes home to discover six men in black at her modest home, along with her parents. They confess that they are not her parents, they just raised her, out of loyalty to their king. Sophie is the granddaughter of the King of tiny kingdom of St. Michel, which is apparently off the Mediterranean coast of France.  Born out of wedlock, she was spirited away, but now she’s the only surviving heir, and her country needs her. How’s that for an unexpected fork in the road?

Luc Lejardin is head of the security detail charged with bringing her home. He’s attracted to her the moment he sees her picture, and her independence and lack of interest in the power and wealth of royalty further impresses him. A relationship would certainly be advantageous for him, but he’s so concerned about protocol that he avoids her as much as possible.

Sophie reluctantly agrees to visit her kingdom. Among other issues, she’s worried about giving up her social work job and her clients. However, she soon finds herself occupied improving the working lives of the underpaid and overworked palace staff. Other reasons to stay include her daughter’s new-found attention to school, her daughter’s appreciation of royal privilege when it comes to smartphone acquisition, and her attraction to Luc. Sophie also becomes the target of various palace intrigues. Not everyone is pleased to see the return of the Queen.

With news of her birthright, the ex-husband Frank takes a sudden new interest in Sophie. He’s bought off with a lump sum payment, and four fully paid visits a year to see their child. This is the first romance I’ve read where the father stays involved in the child’s life, however distantly or reluctantly, and it’s a nice touch.

This is a fun read. Thompson deftly mixes the secret princess fantasy plot with the realities of being a single mother social worker, and smoothly shifts to a well-integrated suspense plot for the climax. The sex is minimal and discreet – enough to make is clear that physical desire is part of the relationship, but no more. Although Sophie is an accidental princess, she is a strong character, and it’s her strength of character that makes her attractive to Luc. Escapist, but guilt free, this is part romance and part ripping yarn. The bubble bath rating is Ombra Vanilla.

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