Desert Isle Keeper
I just finished Carla Kelly’s Summer Campaign and have to spread the news to the few who haven’t had the joy of meeting Onyx and Jack; those of you who’ve already read it can sit back and say, “what took her so long?” Simply put, there has seldom been a hero and heroine who more deserved their HEA than these two. As another reader has said, “it is the most wonderful and most painful book.”
Major Jack Beresford of His Majesty’s 45 Foot is tired, underfed and finally headed back home to England after four horrendous years of fighting the French in Spain under the command of General Wellesley. He’s also fighting his own inner battles, ones that come nightly to haunt his dreams and wake him screaming with the memories of what he’s done and what he’s had to order others to do. He’s been called the hero of Badajoz but all he wants is to go home. Pushing himself riding alone to get to Yorkshire, he interrupts a highway robbery and is shot while defending the lives and virtue of the two women passengers.
Onyx Hamilton is 22 and has been told and shown repeatedly by her step mother, Lady Daggett, that as a young woman with nothing to recommend her, she should be grateful to receive a proposal of marriage from the Reverend Andrew Littletree. Never mind that Onyx privately thinks him a pompous bore, she knows she’s not likely to get any better offer due to the fact that she and her beloved twin brother Gerald were born illegitimate. Gerald, a soldier who also fought in the Peninsular Wars, has been dead for two years, leaving Onyx at the mercy of a household that was embarrassed by them and is frankly glad to see her go. Resigning herself to her fate, she is traveling to the neglected vicarage where she will live in order to spend the summer before her marriage setting it to rights when the highwaymen attack.
After the Major is injured, Onyx can’t see leaving him at the mercy of strangers and stays with him to help nurse him. It is during these few days and during the continuation of her journey that Onyx feels herself attracted to a man for whom she has far fonder thoughts than she has ever had for her self-important fiancée. And Jack discovers a wonderful young woman who has never felt herself of any worth but who has the capacity to help ease the physical wound he received and the mental wounds which torment him. Upon arriving at his ancestral home, he discovers that his elder brother Adrian is slowly dying, the family estates have been sadly neglected and his sister-in-law Emily is exhausted from trying to cope with both. His letter of appeal to Onyx finds her near despair over the shape of the vicarage and the shabby treatment from her fiancée and his patroness, Lady Bagshott. Glad to escape her fate even is only for a short time, she answers the call for help.
Let’s see now, the estates are quickly restored, Adrian miraculously recovers, Onyx is joyfully reunited with her aristocratic parents who’ve been searching for her since gypsies stole her at birth then she and Jack declare their mutual devotion – The End. Well, not quite. This is a Carla Kelly book and she’s too good an author to think her readers will swallow that pabulum.
What follows is a painful summer during which Onyx attempts to ease the burden of Jack’s sister-in-law and make his dying brother’s last weeks more bearable – all while fighting her attraction to a man she knows would be scorned and ridiculed by his class should she yield to the temptation to accept his proposal. She knows what she is, a nonentity who has lived in the shadows and fringes all her life taking “pleasure in little things because it is little things she is used to.”
But this is not the person with whom Jack falls in love:
She was the kind of woman, he decided, who would grow more beautiful as the years passed. She would probably always be shy around strangers, but around those she loved, her eyes would shine and she would be animated, even as she was dignified. Those dear to her would know the full, blinding force of her love and devotion. Others would only wonder what her husband saw in her.”
What Jack sees is the woman he loves, her background be damned and his frustration in trying to convince her of her worth and his love for her is agonizing.
Mrs. Kelly doesn’t give them an easy road to happiness but it is a believable one. Jack has to struggle with the guilt he feels about his anger towards his brother’s spendthrift ways even as he has to endure watching this beloved brother’s slow painful death. Once she is in a place that truly needs her, Onyx’s deep inner strength (which withstood years of neglect and abuse) comes out. But she has to come to the realization on her own that she won’t settle for a loveless marriage. And her admission of this earns her the key to her past and the hope for her future.
As usual, Kelly’s book is filled with wonderful characters who act and think realistically for their time. Some of the best are the servants, such as those of the Beresfords, who work tirelessly to help ease the burdens of Adrian, Emily and Jack, and who take Onyx to their hearts for her efforts to do the same. Also memorable are Lady Bagshott’s servants, who attempt to make the vicarage fit for habitation, and those at the Daggett household who conspired with Onyx to retain the last mementos she has of her dead brother, Gerald. As for Gerald himself, he is one of the book’s most important characters and though we never see him alive, he is still a vivid and vibrant personality. You know from everyone’s reminiscences that he was a wonderful person. And it is some of these same remembrances of him that help to heal both Jack and Onyx.
Carla Kelly is known for basing her characters on real people and it shows in Summer Campaign. But two of her other strengths are also prominently displayed – those of military historian and hospice worker. Her references to war are one of the best parts of her books. She never glorifies war. Instead she lets you see how truly horrible it is through Jack’s dreams. So very often, romance writers treat death as nothing more than a plot device, as if they haven’t a clue about its reality. Kelly understands that death is part of life. That things must be done to bring peace and dignity to the dying and that survivors must face the grieving before they continue with their lives.
An added bonus of Summer Campaign is the way Kelly weaves strands from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice throughout the book even while her heroine reads it aloud to the dying Adrian. And just when my handkerchief was soaked, she throws in a bit of her wry sense of humor and starts me laughing. It took me awhile to finally start reading all the Kelly books I’ve collected but good Lord, I’m hooked now. Once I’ve finished devouring the few I have left, I’ll have to wait with bated breath for her complete annotated grocery lists to be published. I love her characters and hate to close the books as I’ve come to think of them as friends and want to know how they’re doing. And I do hope that Onyx and Jack name their first son Ned. (Read the book and see why.)