Carla Kelly hands her legion of fans a wonderful early holiday present with One Good Turn. Though itís been several years since her last release, Kellyís trademark depth of characterization and witty prose are as sharp as ever. And thereís a depth of emotion in this story that will leave you reaching for a tissue.
Benedict Nesbitt, Duke of Knaresborough and runner-up to the hero slot in Libbyís London Merchant, is pondering his lonely existence. Heís still in love with Libby, though sheís happily married to his good friend and expecting her first child. Nez hasnít an understanding ear to turn to, either. His sister Augusta is a shallow, self-absorbed twit. His loyal butler, Luster, is the closest thing he has to a confidant. When an outbreak of chicken pox throws his sisterís home into an uproar, Nez decides to take his eight-year-old niece, Sophie, and head for his country estate. Augusta will join him shortly.
Unfortunately, Sophie succumbs to the inevitable and breaks out in red spots halfway into the journey. Nez is beside himself. He must get her to an inn and find some help, someone who knows about caring for a sick child. When he reluctantly picks up a young woman and a small boy walking along the road in the rain, Nezís first thought is to simply drop them at the inn and let them take their chances. But Liria Valencia has a magical, motherly touch with sick little Sophie, and besides, Luster is falling ill as well. Nez offers Liria a sum of money if she will stay at the inn and help care for the two invalids until they are well enough to travel.
Liria is happy to agree. Sheís nearly at the end of her rope, and the possibility of a mill job in Huddersfield holds little appeal. Liria is a veteran of the war in Spain, and her unhappy circumstances are revealed little by little. I wonít spoil it; suffice it to say that Liria Valencia is much more than she appears, and her proud Spanish heritage has enabled her to surmount a most horrifying brutality with her spirit intact. Now her lifeís purpose is to care for her little boy, Juan.
Nez feels a deep empathy with this proud Spaniard, and on impulse, takes her along to his country home where he announces to his enraged sister that Liria is the housekeeper. The story takes on a slightly comic tone as Nez halfheartedly courts a neighbor heís known all his life, while gradually realizing itís Liria he loves. The climax is very nearly heartbreaking.
Kellyís clever prose is a hallmark of her writing, and itís here in spades. Her style is such that a reader can breeze along, engrossed in the plot, and then be brought up short by a small phrase which reveals a great deal. Take this example, early on, when the hapless Nez observes Liria caring for Sophie:
I am in the presence of female competence, he marveled. God bless the ladies.
Nez has many such epiphanies during the course of this book, as he slowly re-awakens from his emotional tomb. Heís a multifaceted character, and not all the facets are particularly admirable, but when the chips are down heís a decent and kindhearted man. Call him complex. As for Liria, less time is spent in her point of view, but itís enough to establish her as an optimist at heart. Life has not been kind to her, but sheís determined to focus on the good things that have come her way, namely her little boy, and not dwell on things she cannot change. Liriaís quiet stoicism shakes Nez out of his self-pity, and once he figures out her past, his sense of shame is nearly overwhelming as he realizes his possible part in her trauma.
The lightning-fast turnaround of Augusta from spoiled shrew to understanding sister didnít work well for me, and neither did the scene accompanying it. Later Nez makes a promise to Liria that it seems heís already broken. I couldnít quite figure that out.
The ending is guaranteed to bring a lump to your throat. When Nez and Liria break down the final walls and confront the past, have tissues handy. Itís a masterful piece of writing.
One Good Turn is exactly that, and Regency readers will be overjoyed that the grandmistress of the genre is back. Letís hope sheís planning to gift us with more of her work!