Twelfth Night with the Earl
This emotionally charged novella is billed as the third book in Anna Bradley’s current Sutherland Sisters series, although it doesn’t actually feature a Sutherland. It’s linked to the other books by virtue of the fact that its hero, Ethan Fortescue, Earl of Devon, is one of the secondary characters from Lady Charlotte’s First Love. In Twelfth Night with the Earl, Ethan takes centre stage as a thoroughly Scrooge-like figure who returns to his family home in Cornwall (and I did wonder why the Earl of Devon has his family seat in the next county) with the intention of closing it up for good so that he can finally bury the painful memories that reside there. I confess that when I started reading, I thought I was in for a clichéd, grouchy-lord- lightened-up-by-spunky-heroine sort of thing – I’m not a fan – but fortunately, Ms. Bradley doesn’t go that route and I was instead very pleased to read a nuanced story about the importance of facing up to grief, loss and guilt that also included a tender and heartwarming rekindled romance.
Ethan Fortescue hasn’t been to Cleves Court for two years, not even returning there after becoming the Earl of Devon a year earlier. He detests the place and has one object in travelling to the wilds of Cornwall just before Christmas – to close the house down for good. He arrives in a bad mood and somewhat the worse for drink, expecting the place to be dark, freezing and damp with only a skeleton staff of servants on hand; so pulling up to the front of the house to find it well-lit and with some sort of social gathering going on inside comes as something of a shock.
Furious, Ethan storms in and demands to know what’s going on, and is surprised and hurt when he discovers his childhood friend – and the only woman he has ever loved – Thea Sheridan, at the centre of it all. His anger and sense of ill-usage get the better of him, and he berates her in front of everyone, accusing her of acting without permission in holding the party and of stealing from him, accusations she calmly refutes.
Much as Thea has longed for Ethan to return to Cleves Court, the last thing she expected was for him to appear on Christmas Eve, half-drunk, obnoxious and yelling at the top of his voice. She’s cherished a tendre for him since she was a girl – not that anything could happen between an earl and an orphan of uncertain birth – but his haughty, surly manner and insistence that he wants the place permanently closed ruins a few cherished daydreams nonetheless.
In spite of that, his arrival provides the opportunity Thea has long hoped for. She knows Ethan’s memories of the house are painful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he has still not come to terms with the death, years earlier, of his older brother, Andrew. She is naturally upset at the prospect of losing her home, but is even more saddened by the change in the man she’s loved for so long, and wants nothing more than to help him to deal with the distressing memories the house holds for him. She knows that no matter how far he runs, Ethan will never be able to leave those memories behind him, and hopes that by reminding him of happier times, of lives full of love, family and friendship, she might be able to change his mind.
Ethan agrees to stay until Twelfth Night, after which he will return to London and Thea will make arrangements to close the house. At first Ethan behaves like a complete dickhead – he’s demanding and offensive to such an extent that the servants refuse to go near him, leaving everything to Thea – which requires a bit of a stretch of credulity because Ethan would have been well within his rights to sack the lot of them for failing to do their jobs. Still, Thea gives as good as she gets, knowing that if she refuses to rise to his bait, it will drive him nuts. Eventually however, their barbed exchanges turn more towards teasing and a little flirtation, reminding them both of the feelings they have long harboured for each other. Ms. Bradley builds the sexual tension between the pair very well, and brings some real emotional weight to the final part of the story in which Ethan finally opens up to Thea and begins to process the heart-breaking truths he has tried for so long to avoid.
Twelfth Night With the Earl turned out to have a lot more depth than I had been expecting from a Christmas-related novella, and I’m glad I read it, although it nags at the back of my brain that I never found out why Ethan choses to visit Cleves Court over Christmas. He obviously doesn’t want to be there, but he inherited his earldom a year earlier and I couldn’t understand why he’d want to be somewhere he hated and expected to be so inhospitable over Christmas. I also wasn’t wild about the ending; the author decides to inject a bit of last-minute tension by mirroring a particularly upsetting, long-ago event – and it’s contrived and overly dramatic.
The few inconsistencies I’ve mentioned are reflected in my overall grade, but when all’s said and done, I enjoyed reading Twelfth Night With the Earl in spite of those reservations. If you’re looking looking for a quick, seasonally-themed read that isn’t overly saccharine, you might want to consider picking it up.