Desert Isle Keeper
One Good Turn
I am convinced that Carla Kelly doesn’t have it in her to write a bad book, or even a mediocre one, and her latest effort only confirms that impression for me. One Good Turn marks her return after several years’ absence from publishing, and it carries all her trademarks: complex and sympathetic characterization, an unflinching glimpse into the reality of war, and over everything a spirit of persistent optimism in the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of love.
Benedict Nesbitt, Duke of Knaresborough and veteran of the Peninsular War, is drifting through an unsatisfactory life. It’s been a year since he climbed out of the bottle he was hiding in and made an unsuccessful bid for the hand of Elizabeth Ames. Now he’s begun mending fences with his sister Augusta, as his friend and former rival Anthony Cook has suggested. When Gussie’s house falls victim to an outbreak of chickenpox, Nez takes his apparently still healthy niece Sophie out of harm’s way to his estate in Yorkshire, but alas, it’s too late: on the journey the child begins to show signs of the illness. This is more than Nez can handle on his own. Fortunately for him, though, the enigmatic woman whom his butler Luster shamed him into picking up in a downpour proves more than up to the job. That one good turn of his leads to another, then another, and soon his acts begin to pay him unexpected dividends.
The group – Nez, Sophie, Luster (who’s also come down with the disease), and the mysterious Miss Liria Valencia, along with the little boy who is accompanying her – stop for several days at an inn. In between seeing to her patients, Miss Valencia lets on that she’s on her way to Huddersfield, to seek work in the mill there. Moved by the innate compassion he tries to deny, but telling himself that it’s just the wish to avoid the unpleasant task of taking care of Sophie, Nez persuades Liria to accompany them to Knare. Upon their arrival, they learn that Nez’s housekeeper has just died. Nez acts on impulse and offers the position to the capable Liria. To his surprise and great relief, she accepts.
Bit by bit, Nez comes to learn about Liria. By deduction and inference, he comes to the conclusion that this is no mere Spanish camp follower adrift at the end of the war, but how did she end up in England, with a child in tow? His suspicions dredge up old wounds in himself, forcing him to recall incidents when he himself behaved shamefully. A crisis he can’t ignore forces him – and Liria – to confront her past. It will demand all his strength, and all her trust, to carry them through the dark memory of horror and pain into the light of a shared future.
This book is not for the squeamish. There are realistic descriptions of the horror of battle and its aftermath. Liria’s surface calm is just a shell, and a brittle one at that, under which there seethes deep hurt and a rage she’s suppressed for years, as well as irrational guilt over having survived. In spite of all this, however, she’s anything but a passive victim. Mrs. Kelly succeeds in presenting her readers with an intricate portrait of a strong woman who’s getting on with her life, even if she can’t face up to her past.
Having read Libby’s London Merchant, which precedes this book, I was predisposed to like Nez, and I wasn’t let down. The Duke of Knaresborough is a man who truly doesn’t understand why the people around him love him, but it’s easy for the reader to see the caring man who hides behind a façade of selfishness. There are ghosts in Nez’s past, too, and once he realizes that he has to deal with them, he does so with courage and honesty.
Mrs. Kelly has a knack for populating her stories with memorable and three-dimensional secondary players, and she does so once more in this book. We meet the charming Sophie, who refers to herself with the “royal we,” and Luster, a butler who’s more of a father to Nez than the former duke ever was. Then there’s Juan, a child who exhibits an adaptability and calm beyond his years. Each character is drawn with swift, sure strokes, so that the reader gets a complete picture in just a few words. Yet none of them for so much as a minute overwhelms the two main actors in the drama.
There are also moments of gentle humor, another Kelly trademark, so that even in the roughest spots there’s something to alleviate the pain. Fans of other books by Mrs. Kelly will recognize a couple of names: Dr. Cook and Libby, of course, as well as Scipio A. Butterworth (Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind); and at one point Nez considers a purchase from the Waterloo Seed Company (The Lady’s Companion). A couple of very minor inconsistencies pulled me out of the story – but only for a moment, and if I hadn’t just finished reading Libby’s London Merchant I wouldn’t even have noticed them. And while it deepened my enjoyment of this book to have read the first, it’s possible for readers who haven’t done so to appreciate this one on its own merits.
While it may not be true that everything happens for a reason, it is possible that good things can arise out of bad or even tragic events. One Good Turn is testament to the belief that love can grow out of tragedy. It’s exciting to see that one of the romance genre’s finest writers is back, and she’s done readers a good turn by offering a moving story of a couple who learn to see the strength in each other, and in themselves. The least we can do is return the favor.