My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts...
I’m on my usual Carla Kelly book binge, and just finished another of her earlier works, With this Ring. Have to say, this one didn’t quite float my boat. Very unfortunate because I loved it for the first 60% so, then it lost its sparkle and ended with a dull thud instead of the bang I was hoping for.
Lydia, eldest daughter of a somewhat wealthy peer, is no catch at all. Or so her mother keeps drumming into her. She’s too plain, too clumsy, too forward, too this, too that; someone who has nothing to be proud of. On the other hand, her mother’s pride and joy is her youngest daughter, the beautiful Kitty, more like their mother in looks and dubious charms than Lydia will ever be. Lydia probably takes after her meek father (so meek that I forgot his title LOL), who is always afraid of his wife and tip-toes around, hiding away in the library when the sound of tantrums from his wife or youngest daughter is heard from the other side of the house.
Lydia’s ‘mother’ loves abusing her in every way possible, just because she’s not good enough in her eyes to catch an earl or a marquess. The reason why they’re in London right now is to give Kitty a Season, who, according to their mother, will surely catch the best bachelor in town with her golden locks and baby blue eyes. Who is also tall and graceful and....... quite completely ‘empty in the brainbox’ (as someone with some sense termed her in the book). She’s also quite snooty, spoiled, selfish and mean. Her mamma has trained her well after her own shallow self. :D Both of these worthless POS gave Lydia so much trouble, and pain, that the poor girl had no self-confidence left. She was made to become a meek, biddable maid-of-all-tricks without any pay for Kitty and her mother. I mean, at one point, I was thinking how can I even explain the things I’m reading?! There are simply no words!
One day, while accompanying Kitty to the latest ‘cool thing’ that every cool people of the Ton were doing, which was to visit the filthy, stinky wounded or dying soldiers in the equally filthy, rat-infested St. Barnabas, a crumbling church, Lydia had the most eye-opening experience of her life. While her sister was just striking a pose here, and crunching up her face in disgust there (but she had to make herself look ‘cool’ among the other visiting ‘cool’ Ton peeps!), Lydia was overcome with sadness by the sight of these soldiers. Obviously the care they received was extremely inadequate. The few doctors and volunteers couldn’t quite keep up. And death was everywhere. Some soldiers came here almost dead, some stuck around for a few days until one infection or the other took over and handed them over to a slow, painful death.
Some of them were not quite at death’s door but suffering still with a limb or limbs lost, or with a horrible wound somewhere in their body. Much like Major Sam Reed, who was one of the best that fought under General Thomas Picton. Lydia meets him while tending to other soldiers. She couldn’t just stand there and watch them suffer. She felt a visceral need to give them a bit of warmth and whatever comfort she could offer as they lay dying. She was a woman possessed, even when somewhere in her brain she knew her mother would be so mad, she may kick her out of their home for ‘sullying their name’ with these ‘common, filthy soldiers’! But at that time, she simply didn’t care. And Sam Reed, who had a vicious saber wound on his back, was nothing if not honorable... and quite persuasive when the occasion called for it. Who also cared about his own men, so much so he didn’t move to a better care when it was offered cause his men were suffering here. Someone was intent on lopping off his head so he was one lucky bastard to still have that attached is how Sam liked to think about the whole thing to bear the excruciating pain on his back that kept him up day and night. Lydia came into his dreary world with such freshness and so much hope that he had only eyes for her. She felt it too, beginning to care for Sam quite unknowingly.
I will not divulge just how Sam made The General himself to go over at Lydia’s and ‘persuade’ her mother so Lydia could come back and continue to help at St. Barnabas, because that was quite the brilliant scene! It was just so much fun to read. Also, there was the scene where huge bouquets of flowers were send by Sam to impress her mother. It struck the woman into quite a state of speechless; probably her first in so many years. :| It happened when one of his deputies who accompanied her home took one look at her mother (also heard a few choice lines from her mouth) and knew what Lydia has to deal with every single day. To the Major, Lydia coming to St. Barnabas was a fruitful venture for everyone concerned. She won everyone over with her strong personality, which was hidden beneath all those years of abuse, and kindness. For the first time in her life, Lydia felt genuinely needed.
The author spun Lydia and Sam’s relationship over the couple chapters in such mastery that I was anticipating every single page to see what happens next. It was a slow built but the attraction and something else was there no doubt. Sam would stare at her quite intensely at times and Lydia would feel butterflies, especially when they all told her she’s quite beautiful and smells wonderful. That she’s quite tidy and hardworking, and very careful with the soldiers’ wounds while giving them a wash or trimming their hair and shaving them.
Then one day, Lydia does the unthinkable. While attending a soiree with her mother and Kitty, she finds herself with the so-called ‘cool people’ of Ton who had been around St. Barnabas. Those were the people who stood apart from the stinking solders, made faces then went away without offering anything at all. Recently, two POS snobs made a horrible wager on a dying soldier, something Lydia couldn’t even imagine someone with a little soul doing to another human being. It didn’t end well when Major Reed got involved, and Lydia knew she will have to pay for it. Words spread quickly, and in that soiree things took a terrible turn. First, she finds out those were Kitty’s bosom buddies and her mother is enraged when Lydia tries to warn Kitty off those imbeciles. In that soiree, they start ignoring Kitty because of Lydia, which inevitably turn into a tantrum from Kitty. But the worst was yet to come. When it turned out that one of those wagering a$$holes were going to be mentioned in honor for ‘visiting the wounded at St. Barnabas’ is when Lydia lost it. She was so angry that she forgets that she’s the meek and biddable Lydia. That after this, her mother will certainly kick her out. Lydia stands tall and narrates what has REALLY been happening in St. Barnabas. The pain, the suffering, the horrible condition in which the Heroes of this country are kept until they’re released; either from the hospital or from this world. And the humiliation they took from the so-called high profile visitors.
While Lydia’s little speech earns the soldiers still at St. Barnabas the much needed comfort and help, it earns Lydia a slap on her face so hard that she was bleeding from it. Then there was that inevitable threat from her mother, a subtle-but-not-so-subtle ‘I will make you pay for what you did to my poor Kitty’s chances at the marriage mart’. From her own mother, the woman who gave birth to her! I couldn’t even imagine....... *SMH* Lydia knew either she’d be kicked out or made to leave for Devon, their country home and will never see London again. She’d probably be exiled there for the rest of her life, alone and ignored.
So Lydia had to think fast. She gathered her meager belongings and a few coins her father gave her and ran out when no one was watching. Major Reed wasn’t there at St. Barnabas, so Lydia finds herself in a big dilemma. What will she do? Where will she go? She has no help, barely any money to speak of. She doesn’t know anyone here and the skills she possess, she doubts will help her get a decent, honorable job. She’s good at mending and does excellent haircut. She could even stretch her expertise and shave men. But there was no way she could earn anything with these skills!
Fortunately, she does find Major Reed, who took one look at her and knew what has happened. He has heard of the debacle of the other night, and knew, despite everything, Lydia already had quite a few admirers. But at that moment, she had no one and she sought him out. Incidentally, there was one other pressing matter that Sam needed to attend to. He needed to find a wife, and soon, before he could travel to his home at Northumberland. You see, it all started as a joke from one of his good friend Percy. Sam needs the money from his elderly and rich as Croesus maternal Aunt to take care of his own estate. His Aunt is childless so Sam is supposed to inherit it all. However, because his father was a notorious womanizer, her Aunt gave him the ultimatum. He must marry and work to produce an heir as soon as possible to show that he’s settling down and serious about the matter at hand.
Now Sam, though not a saint, hasn’t ever been anything like his father. But he had no time to court anyone or produce anything in between the bouts of war in the past 6 yrs since he’d joined the army. But Percy, damn his hide, had made sure through some letters that he had a wife whom he’d married somewhere in the battlefield. Not only that, he and his Delightful (they were drunk, don’t ask) now had a daughter as well! Now where will he find a wife and make a daughter in such a short notice? What will he do if his Aunt is put off and crosses him off her will? Sam had a lot on his mind and it wasn’t just that nasty wound on his back which, he felt, was festering because it wasn’t taken care of well.
Lydia came as a solution to him of course. He liked her, no make that adored her. But he wasn’t good with words, yet she seemed to be amenable to his offer of a MOC, which could be annulled secretly later if they didn’t want to make it real. As for Lydia, she had such a crush on the not-quite-handsome-but-there’s-something-about-him Major Reed that she would do that and more for him. Plus there was the matter that she had nowhere to go. At least, now she’ll have a husband and a country estate until she could think of something else. Cherry on top, Major Reed was also an Earl, even if impoverished, titled as Lord Laren. How surprised her mother would be now?!
So they were Mr. and Mrs. Reed AKA Lord and Lady Laren on the same day. They even adopt a small child from an orphanage to complete the ruse. Up until that bit, I was really enjoying the story. Actually I was loving it when they started their journey together towards Sam’s estate. It was quite a bit of ride, at another side of England, and Lydia became increasingly worried about Sam’s injury. He was in constant pain. Even though General Picton’s surgeon had a look at his wound and cleaned it, he couldn’t do it well cause Sam couldn’t handle it. Lydia knew something had to be done or else it could prove to be fatal. But Sam was stubborn as hell and wouldn’t let her do anything.
Break came in the form of a robbery where Sam is wounded again. This incident marks as a prominent part of the story which will later push Lydia’s boundaries as a woman to see how far she’ll go to keep her husband and child safe and sound. From a meek, abused girl, her transformation into someone with amazing willpower and grace would make anyone happy for her. Lydia will also learn that people like her mother and sister aren’t the only type in the world. Thankfully, there are people out there, who may not be rich with coins, but they’re rich with kindness and goodwill.
As Sam got well, Lydia does her best to keep him that way. They even manage to consummate the marriage at one point. However, even as the days passed and the time nears when they’d have to leave this village where Sam was recuperating, Lydia becomes increasingly demoralized. Even when she was happy, Sam seemed to remind her of the origin of their marriage quite often. Not with any malicious intent, but still... The reminder was there like a millstone. She was reminded that all these were the part of a greater plan, and not because they were crazy in love. Well, she certainly had fallen in love with Sam but does he love her at all? She couldn’t tell. Nor could she hide her anxiety, stemmed from the years of battered self-confidence. She wasn’t sure if she could pull this ruse off successfully cause in her mind, it wasn’t a MOC any longer. She loved her husband and wanted a complete marriage where she won’t have to hide her identity to anyone.
My doubt over Sam’s intentions was also beginning to pile up at this point. Did he really like her or just took advantage of her vulnerability? Yes, he seemed to care for her but I wasn’t quite sure of anything any longer. After all that Lydia has done for him, Sam was quite rude to her a few times, his mind full of various plans to make this work at any cost. It can’t fail; something he had emphasized upon a few times to Lydia. That’s all he could think of. I could try to understand him but I decided I was more concerned for Lydia’s state of mind than his financial woes. He came off as someone very self-centered. He knew how beat-up Lydia was psychologically, yet he did basically nothing to soothe her or tell her how he felt. It ruined my image of him to a certain extent. Actually quite a bit.
After that, with the intro to Sam’s family when they reach his estate, the story began to rush. Their relationship at that point seemed rather dismal. Well, the physical aspect of it was not harmed but emotionally Lydia was dying a bit inside each day with so much uncertainties weighing in; with trying to keep up with such a gigantic ruse not of her making, yet she’d become an inescapable part of. She got involved thinking of Sam, because he made her feel so good, so wanted. Only she didn’t know how deep it would’ve gone, couldn’t imagine how much it would hurt her. She was still very unsure of her place in Sam’s life, even after all they’ve been through together, and it almost killed me that he was so SO callous knowing she needed assurance. It seemed he became so completely immersed in his homecoming glory that he almost didn’t notice Lydia’s feelings about it all. The relationship that took so many pages to build, full of such trials and tribulations, didn’t seem quite as strong as I had initially thought. It hurt me almost as much as Lydia herself, and it’s no joke! I was in pain for her and wanted to box Sam’s ears!
The author didn’t do enough to make me like Sam again cause the story ends pretty fast after the last bit of ‘drama’ which was unnecessary IMO, and kinda stupid. I needed more pages of pure, unadulterated groveling. Nothing else would’ve worked. Sam should’ve kissed Lydia feet twice a day, which I didn’t see him doing, so it was a disappointment of supreme proportions. 3.5 stars. :(