Johnny Harris grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and fell in with a bad crowd as a teenager, making it easy for the residents of his small hometown to believe the worst of him the minute something terrible happened. When the girl he was seeing was brutally murdered and Johnny admitted to being the last one to see her alive, nearly everyone thought he was guilty as sin. He was convicted of the crime and spent ten years in prison. Now he's out on parole and back in Tylerville, trying to start a new life, but there's only one person he wants to share it with, his former high school teacher who he's loved from afar all this time.
Rachel Grant is one of the few people who's always believed in Johnny's innocence. When he was her student, she got to know the sensitive young man behind the bad boy exterior, so she knew he could never commit such a heinous crime no matter what his background was like or who he hung out with. When Johnny writes her from prison seeking a job to be eligible for parole, she's more than happy to offer him one in her family's hardware store. Rachel remembers a handsome but sullen boy, but now Johnny's a sexy full-grown man who wreaks havoc on her libido. As attractive as he is to her, though, she believes a real relationship with him would be all but impossible. There are so many obstacles in their way and the scandal it would cause if she gives in to her feelings would rock their small community, not to mention her well-to-do family. Still, Rachel can't seem to resist his boyish charm, vulnerability, and raw sex appeal. He's everything she's always wanted in a man, but never thought she could have.
As Rachel and Johnny are swept up in an explosive passion, the killer strikes again, leaving everyone ready to send Johnny back to jail. Rachel knows he's innocent, and it soon becomes clear that she is the killer's next intended victim. Can they uncover the truth and solve the mystery of who has it in for Johnny before Rachel loses her life?
One Summer has been sitting on my TBR pile for quite some time, and I'm so glad I finally got around to reading it. I'd heard great things about it, and I'm pleased to report that they're all true. The story is a nice mix of contemporary romance and mystery/suspense. I'd say that the romance is definitely more prominent, but the mystery is always there, lurking in the background and slowly unfolding. It just doesn't overwhelm the romance, which to my way of thinking is a good thing. The author does a great job of developing the relationship between the hero and heroine as they navigate the treacherous waters of potential scandal that could be brought about by him being an ex-con convicted of murder and her being his former high school teacher, as well as her being five years older than him. The mystery was well done too, with the author dropping little clues along the way, except it was done in such a subtle way that I almost didn't realize it. Apparently my sub-conscious did, though, because I managed to figure out who the killer was just before it was revealed, which is a rarity for me. The author did surprise me with a nice little plot twist right at the end, which I didn't see coming. The story contains many of my favorite romance tropes too, such as older woman/younger man and opposite sides of the track, so all the elements came together to make One Summer an excellent read for me.
Straight out of high school, Johnny was convicted of the brutal murder of a girl with whom he was romantically involved. There was little physical evidence to connect him to the crime. He basically got railroaded because his semen was found inside her body and he admitted to being the last person to see her alive. Not to mention, he'd been a bit of a troublemaker in his teen years and everyone in his small hometown considered him and his family to be white trash from the wrong side of the tracks. Johnny ended up spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and the only reason he's out on parole is because his former high school teacher agreed to give him a job in her family's hardware store. Johnny had a terrible life growing up, so it's no wonder he fell in with the wrong crowd as a teenager. None of the "decent" people in town would even associate with him. He went into prison little more than a kid and comes out a full-grown man with a bad boy attitude and a major chip on his shoulder. Rachel is one of the few people who believed in Johnny, and not just in his innocence, but also in his goodness, intelligence, and humanity. He's been in love with her from afar since high school, but always thought he was far beneath her and that she would never take notice of him in the way he wanted. It's Rachel's kindness and patience that gradually gets Johnny to open up and trust her, and throughout that process he shows some deeply moving vulnerability. He soaks up her love and acceptance like a sponge and discovers that he'd do just about anything for her. That includes transforming from his bad boy persona into a more respectable young man.
As I mentioned Rachel was Johnny's high school English teacher. She got to know him pretty well in that capacity and they even formed a friendship of sorts over their shared love of poetry and literature. Before Johnny's life fell apart, they spent hours discussing the written word and other deep topics. Rachel was always aware of Johnny's attractiveness and that many of the girls in school admired him, but as his teacher she never would have dreamed of becoming involved with him. When Johnny was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Rachel was one of the few people who staunchly believed in his innocence, which is why she offered him a job so he could make parole. The intense, brooding man who returns home after ten years is far more dangerous and sexy than the teenager who left, affecting her in unexpected ways. Even though she's now wildly attracted to him, she's keenly aware of his status as an ex-con and hers as his ex-teacher and what that might look like to the residents of their small town. She also can hardly believe that a gorgeous man like him would even give an ordinary woman like her, and an older one to boot, a second glance. I could totally relate to Rachel as the introverted bookworm who doesn't feel like anyone fully understands her, as well as her having friends but still searching for that one kindred spirit. She definitely finds that in Johnny. I especially love that her belief in Johnny's innocence never wavered. Even though he does intimidate her a little at first, she's strong enough to not let him get the upper hand, and I think he respected her for it. I also like how she stands up for him, defending him to her family and even the whole town, anytime someone tries to put him down.
Rachel and Johnny share a beautiful and deeply emotional romance. Rachel has been in a few previous relationships, but by and large, they were dull and boring, never truly lighting a fire of passion within her. She lost her first serious boyfriend to her younger sister, although as it turns out, in hindsight, that wasn't much of a loss. She wants to get married, settle down, and have kids, and she feels her biological clock ticking. Rachel is convinced she's going to have to settle for a lackluster marriage in order to fulfill her dream of being a wife and mother, until Johnny comes back to town. He's everything she wants in a man, but he comes with more than a few complications and a whole lot of baggage. Once she overcomes the idea that he might only be using her to fulfill his own high school sex fantasies, she's willing to brave those issues with him for the excitement and passion he engenders in her just by being around. Johnny was known as a bit of a player in his youth, but there's no one he truly wants more than Rachel. So when he finally gets her, his single-minded focus on her and his willingness to do anything for her is very romantic to me. There's a wealth of emotion in their every interaction. Their love scenes are deeply sensual and also rather steamy for a romance written in the mid-90's, which was the icing on the cake.
Since One Summer is a stand-alone novel, there aren't any secondary characters that are deliberately being built up in preparation for their own stories, but the supporting cast is still stellar. There are a lot of them and each play their own roles. The most memorable ones were Rachel's family and Johnny's old friend, Glenda, who was also from the wrong side of the tracks, and her son, Jeremy. What I really liked about the supporting players, though, is how they bring the little town of Tylerville to life. Small-town romances have become pretty commonplace these days, but in most cases, the town is a mini-utopia where people are kind and helpful to one another. You may get one or two bad apples in the bunch to stir up a little trouble here and there, but by and large the townspeople are good and trustworthy. In this book, the author takes a look at the darker side of small-town life in which everyone knowing every else's business isn't such a good thing. Gossip and rumors spread like wildfire, and in some cases contribute to ruining lives or at the very least, making them difficult. Johnny in particular finds it very hard to live in Tylerville anymore, because nearly everyone is convinced that he's guilty as charged and even though he paid his debt to society, the townspeople aren't particularly inclined to let bygones be bygones, which of course, as an innocent man, he doesn't deserve. So this was an interesting twist on small-town dynamics that I enjoyed exploring.
For me, One Summer ended up being a perfect read. I related extremely well to both Rachel and Johnny. Even though I'm not often a big fan of bad boys in romance, I fell for Johnny, because even though he starts the story with an angry attitude problem, the author builds his character in such a way that it's easy to see that his anger is fueled by issues in his past. Not to mention, he grows and changes throughout the story, becoming a better person because of Rachel's influence. The mystery is well-done, keeping me engaged in trying to figure out who the real killer was. I also very much enjoyed the romance, which was my favorite part. In spite of the age difference and the problems they faced, it was obvious that Rachel and Johnny were made for each other. One Summer was my first read by Karen Robards, but it most definitely won't be my last. I very much look forward to reading more of her books in the future.
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