My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
I was reading something else, needed a distraction and found it in the sweet and beautiful Summer Campaign, one of Carla Kelly’s books that I’ve had for a while but haven’t had a chance to read. From the very first page I was hooked and kept thinking why didn’t I turn to this one before!
Summer Campaign is a traditional regency or what you call “clean” historical romance. It’s a reissue of Ms. Kelly’s 1989 release. I recently noticed that the book has been reissued once again this year, though until I read my 2012 edition and discussed with a friend who bought the latest edition, I hadn’t any notion of any changes. I’ll talk about that later... but first, into the review.
Major Jack Beresford, a veteran of the Peninsular War (of 1807–1814), is just returning to England. He’s bone weary and disillusioned and just wants to go home to his elder brother Adrian, the current Marquess of Sherbourn and SIL Emily. Jack has seen it all, done it all in the field of war. He has been touted as a hero many times but he doesn’t feel worthy of any of it. All he sees is death and destruction... blood and gore. Bloated dead bodies of young boys who fought under his command and died, trying to swallow him whole. Yes, Jack has PTSD as we find him telling Onyx that he “dreams in red”. He also stutters, something I assumed started happening after his traumatic experience in the war.
On his way home, Jack finds two women stranded on the road, in the mercy of a rag-tag gang of brigands, who, if one looks closely, are impoverished soldiers returned from the same war. They’ve gone rogue as no one would give them work, food or shelter. Jack finds himself, once again, at the position of a hero; a savior, because the youngest of the two was on the verge of getting raped. Unfortunately, when a fighting ensues, he gets shot and now it’s up to the young woman to save the day. Even though she was shaking, Onyx Hamilton proves to be someone with more steel in her nerve than he initially gave her the credit for. Even in this situation, he can’t help but start this silly banter with her, more to distract her from her ordeal, something Onyx seem to understand and reciprocate. His soft directions works and she shoots the leader of the group, the one who was about to rape her.
As the group disbands, Jack discovers that one of the younger men from that group used to be a Private under him. He’s not a bad man, just was desperate for a bit of food. Once he recognizes Jack, no one can make Private Petrie leave his side. His consternation about getting caught by his Major, guilt and the remaining loyalty to Jack makes him stay and help Onyx and her companion, April, to find a shelter and help for Jack who was already bleeding profusely from his wound.
Now you wonder how exactly Onyx found herself in this quandary. She and her twin brother, Gerald, were the adopted children of the village Vicar Mr. Hamilton. The then Mrs. Hamilton never cared for Onyx or Gerald because they were illegitimate. No one came forward to ever claim them since they were left as infants at the vicar’s doorstep. But Mr. Hamilton never treated Onyx any different than his own daughter, Amethyst, who is younger than her. Same goes for Gerald. But when Mr. Hamilton died, the widowed Mrs. Hamilton decided that she needs to remedy her “impoverish” situation. She was the daughter of a viscount (I think), married down. Now she needed to marry *up*, to someone her own station. That’s how Onyx, at 12, found herself living with now Lady Dagget and Sir Matthew Dagget.
Very unsurprisingly, Sir Matthew adopted Amethyst. Since Onyx and Gerald were illegitimate, they were treated no better than servants. No one mentioned them in polite company, always in the shadows as if their presence would sully everything. In fact, Matthew Dagget was always very rude to Onyx, as was Lady Dagget, always reminding Onyx that she was simply a “nobody”. It has grown tenfold ever since Gerald went away to war. Not a day went by that Onyx was reminded that she should be happy to have food in her belly and a roof over her head. That she should always do what was told, never protest. She should just count herself lucky that Sir Matthew hasn’t turned her out as her mere presence could ruin the Dagget name. Amethyst was as spoiled a brat can be since Matthew Dagget had no children of his own. Onyx tolerated her because she had no other option. The whole “family” was insufferable, seesh!
When the news came about Gerald, Onxy wasn’t even given a chance to mourn his passing because of that a$$ Dagget. He won’t let Onyx cry, instead she was forced to sweep away Gerald’s memory as if he never even existed. She was forbidden to even take his name, his body remained unclaimed..... Instead, now Onyx keeps Gerald’s few possession returned from Spain close, secretly trying to feel her brother, her only friend and family, through his fading smell. It was so heartbreaking, can’t explain. I couldn’t even imagine the hurt she must’ve been feeling.
Now that Onyx has turned 23, Sir and Lady Dagget wanted nothing to do with her. After all, Amethyst has a match to make and Onyx’s presence can only ruin her chances! Since no one of a better station would ask for her hand, the Reverend of their parish, Littletree, proposes to her. Andrew Littletree was another self-righteous prig who treated Onyx like everyone else; a nobody. He also had no compunctions about reminding her of her “unfortunate background” and how lucky she was that he was willing to marry her! I wanted kick that guy so hard every time he opened her mouth, can’t blame Onyx for getting annoyed. Moreover, it seemed as if he (and the rest of the world) was equally unhappy about Onyx’s “unfortunate” background as much as the unfashionable size of her “generous bosom”. *eyeroll* But Onyx was resigned to her fate. Her future, it seemed, stretched on before her in years after dreary years. She has been dreading it since the day Littletree proposed and she was forced to accept that ridiculous proposal.
At the time she met Jack, Onyx was on her way to another parish in Chalcott, where Sir Matthew’s elder sister, the widowed Lady Bagshott reigned supreme. He made sure that Onyx is transferred far away from their own home at Bramby Swale. April Banner, the woman who practically brought her and Gerald up, was the only one who now cared for Onyx. She was thankful for her presence. And when an accident happened, leaving them stranded on the road, Onyx had to face those brigands all alone. April was of no help in these matters, until Jack Beresford galloped in to save them... well, er, close enough.
Jack and Onyx’s silly banters were so much fun. From the first moment, you know that these two belong together, they were so well matched. As they find shelter with a farmer, Onyx is forced to call Jack her husband, wailing about “little Ned losing his father” to convince the suspicious farmer, I couldn’t help laughing my a$$ off. More so were Jack’s subtle but sexy teasing of Onyx about her ruse even though he was in much pain. Onyx was the one who took care of him for the next few days, trying to soothe his pain. It didn’t take long for her to discover Jack’s PTSD, the horrific dreams that kept him in a trance in the middle of the night. But Onyx’s presence seemed to have a calming influence on him.
Jack knew he was falling in love with the “plain” Onyx Hamilton with the eyes of the color of Wedgewood; the one stunning feature of her entire face (he adored Onyx’s eyes!). A face Jack now sees would only grow beautiful with age. On the first look, no one would call Onyx beautiful. But the more you look at her, and the more you get to know her, you realize her subtle beauty and you know that she’s a wonderful woman. World weary Jack couldn’t find any happier place to be than with Onyx, not wanting to end the fun he was having by simply having her close. Bantering away about little Ned who doesn’t even exist. He couldn’t imagine a finer place to rest at peace but on Onyx’s bosom (oh he has already heard of her unfortunate background, has certainly noticed her quite generous bosom :p). Jack simply didn’t care. All he wanted Onyx, even though he knew she was engaged to another.
The connection forged on by this incident stays with Jack and Onyx even after Jack was good enough to travel to his estate. They were already in Chalcott as Onyx thought it would be for the best for all. But none has any good news waiting for them. While Onyx expected that Andrew Littletree would dump all the work of the dilapidating vicarage, where they’re supposed to live after the wedding, on her, Jack wasn’t expecting to find his brother at the death’s door. And in a terrible way too! The doctor assigned wasn’t doing much but letting him slip away each day with big new dosage of morphine.
Inside Adrian’s room, the sight that greets Jack was so bleak that even he, a war-hardened soldier, couldn’t bear. There was nothing left of the stylish, handsome marquess people used to know. In fact, there was nothing left on that body. Adrian didn’t look like a man of 32, instead a hollowed out old man with a big belly. And the stench surrounding him...... Oh God! Jack was forced to relive an incident that taught him that if he ever comes across the odor of rotting human flesh, he’d know it anywhere. And that odor permeated around Adrian’s room. Jack simply doesn’t know what to do. He saw people dying in Spain but in England, he wasn’t supposed to face death once again! There is indeed no consolation, no logical thought left to ponder when one’s loved one is dying.
Emily, the once silly girl who couldn’t put two thoughts together but matched Adrian perfectly because she was so beautiful, was a shell of her former self too. She had no idea how to take control of the situation. The quack had bullied her into submission... Jack had never imagined that the situation was so dire.
Indeed Jack wasn’t ready for any of it. He wasn’t ready for Adrian to die when he’d just returned home after 4 long years. His mother has already passed since then. He wasn’t ready to take the onerous responsibility of the whole marquisate when it’s revealed bit by bit that Adrian had indeed lived a life full of frippery, never bothering to take care of what was his to begin with. Jack couldn’t think at all, let alone who to turn to until he was reminded of his Onyx B. He knew she might not come but Jack wasn’t above subtle manipulation using his charm to get his way. Besides, he wanted Onyx beside him to weather the coming storm. Before leaving Chalcott and Lady Bagshott’s house, Jack had proposed to Onyx. It seemed like a spur-of-the-moment thing but inside Jack knew there’d never be anyone but Onyx because she <i>understood</i> him like no other, without even telling... just as he understood her. Onyx was left speechless. She said “no” but very, very reluctantly. She was taken by surprise because she didn’t think a rich man, a member of the peerage actually want to marry her! All her life she had been told otherwise. She knew Jack was probably serious but Onyx just didn’t think it would ever work out.
But when a letter from Jack arrived, detailing Adrian’s news in it, Onyx knew she must go. Nothing and no one can hold her back when she felt the desperation emanating from Jack’s letter. Thankfully, Lady Bagshott knew Jack’s family well enough to give her permission for Onyx to do her ‘Christian duty’ as the future wife of a Reverend. Onyx didn’t care how it came to be but she was certainly happy to be returning to Jack. Even if it was because of a dire circumstance. What mattered most was that Jack needed her and he reached out to <i>her</i> for help. Once again, Onyx felt <i>needed</i> thanks to charming rogue who kept her awake at night.
Think I don’t have to explain the fact that Adrian was left completely without supervise, no thanks to the quack in charge of him. He hasn’t been cleaned up for a long time, and developed bed sore. He was already ill with what I assumed was maybe liver cirrhosis(?), so he didn’t have much time left anyway. When Onyx arrived, and took in the condition, a rage as she’d never experienced before simply took over her. The guy was bullying everyone, charging big amount of money but was doing nothing for Adrian. Onyx knew something had to be done. She was so MAD at the “doctor” that she chased him out of the house never to return again. When Jack later arrives with a new, and genuine, doctor he confirms their fear. But... but, they can bring Adrian back for a while from his morphine induced stupor and make him as comfortable as possible on his last couple of days, or weeks, depending on how long his body holds out. And that won’t be a pleasant task by any means. It seems Jack is at war once again; only this time his was fighting against an unseen enemy.
But Jack wanted that so much! He wanted to know his brother once again, to talk to him, have a chance to say goodbye like he hadn’t with his mother. This guy loved his family and much like Onyx, it broke my heart to see him suffer so much. As if he hadn’t suffered enough during the war! Onyx tells Jack that she’s not going to leave him in such distress and will weather whatever comes to along the way this Summer, together. As they fought together for Adrian, Onyx found herself falling in love with Sherbourn and its people... also Jack Beresford. But what good would it do? She’d still have to return to Chalcott, still have to marry Littletree. Still can envision her dreary future spread before her, already planning away by Littletree to his own satisfaction (what an idiot!).
The rest of the story was short and swift, stressing more on Onyx and Jack’s struggle with Adrian and how they came thru together. It was a tough read but very rewarding at the same time. Adrian didn’t survive in the end but he had a couple of weeks with his loved ones, among whom, by the time he died, Onyx counted.
For me, apart from its heartbreaking elements, I loved every bit of the interaction between Onyx and Jack, when they were having a moment together. Even when they were not. I can go on and on, even then it wouldn’t be enough. I loved it so much I wish there were 200 more pages of Onyx and Jack. They almost didn’t have any time alone, though I had no doubt that Jack and Onyx loved each-other. What they went through, together, made their bond even stronger. There was a twist at the end that totally took me by surprise and I applaud Ms. Kelly’s efforts in tidying up all the loose ends.
I’ve noticed this in the past in Ms. Kelly’s books that her heroes are no dashing, “sinfully handsome”, rakish men. And I LOVE them that way. Jack was not traditionally handsome (though certainly handsome enough in Onyx’s eyes) but it was his personality that blew my mind. He was so goofy and playful and sexy when the occasion called for it that you can’t just NOT love him. Onyx was an equally wonderful heroine, lovely in her own way.
My 2012 edition had this fantastic little scene between Jack and Onyx, the only scene that came close to being anything remotely intimate. It still was a clean read mind you (no sex at all, scenes or mention). However, while discussing with my friend, I found that that scene was cut off from the latest edition to make it squeaky clean. I think I’m lucky that I got to read it because the one line Jack says to Onyx gave me the shivers. I could see why she blushed. *heehee* Now even if some reviews say the original was ‘steamier’, in my estimation (bet, to any of you who read the regular HR or contemporary, not to mention erotic romance) it was nowhere near steamy, though how I wish it was! Trust me, I would’ve loved one single love scene between Onyx and Jack just to hear him cracking another joke about little Ned while they’re at it. :p OMG that would’ve been SO GOOD! And fun!! hahaha
Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen unless in my own imagination... But that doesn’t mean I’d give Summer Campaign anything less than a 5 star. It was a beautiful story. Then again, Carla Kelly’s writing can make you laugh, cry and sigh simultaneously and effortlessly. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.