Estranged spouses struggle to rebuild their marriage in the third installment of Browning’s Thornbrook Park Edwardian romance series (after An Affair Downstairs). Despite a passionate beginning, the relationship between Gabriel, Earl of Averford, and his wife, Sophia, swiftly cooled and grew brittle. After a moment of weakness in which Sophia kissed another man, Gabriel left her to run their estate for a year while he traveled the world, intent on improving himself as a husband. Sophia soon came into her own as a businesswoman, revitalizing Thornbrook Park. But when Gabriel comes back, ready to woo his wife like she deserves, Sophia means to make him work for every intimate moment. Given the obvious affection and simmering desire between the leads, many of their obstacles to happiness feel artificial. Browning excels at developing the setting and conveying the genteel, charming nature of her characters and their interactions. Sophia and Gabriel’s reunion is a nice payoff for those who’ve read the earlier books, though some of the final revelations feel a little rushed. Agent: Stephany Evens, FinePrint Literary Management. (Aug.)
"Sherri Browning writes with a wicked wit and an enormous talent. The Great Estate is...full of fantastic characters, interesting storylines, and a very humorous courtship."Reader to Reader
Lady Sophia Averford's plans to turn her marriage of convenience into one of fiery passion are thwarted by the unexpected arrival of her mother-in-law. But unbeknownst to Sophia, Lord Averford has a few seductive plans of his own.
Sophia Thorne was young and inexperienced when she married the dashing Earl of Averford...and through dark and troubled times, their relationship nearly came to an end. Now she's determined to transform herself into the fiery, ardent lover she always wanted to be, giving them a second chance at love... before they're lost to each other forever.
It took nearly losing Sophia for Gabriel to realize he had allowed his love for his great estate to distract him from his beautiful wife. But that time is over. Despite all the obstacles standing in their way, Gabriel vows to teach Sophia what it is to truly love...and to be loved by a husband devoted heart and soul to her every desire.
Thornbrook Park series:
Thornbrook Park (Book 1)
An Affair Downstairs (Book 2)
The Great Estate (Book 3)
Praise for Sherri Browning:
"A sweet, natural chemistry." Publishers Weekly on Thornbrook Park
"Browning gives the reader a most beguiling story and a classic plotline while capturing the atmosphere of the era." RT Book Reviews
"Browning excels at developing the setting and conveying the genteel, charming nature of her characters and their interactions. " - Publishers Weekly
"A lovely read that sets the stage for more to come. " - RT Book Reviews
" I read the last third of THE GREAT ESTATE in one sitting. I was invested in the novel and I loved the ending. Sherri Browning skillfully sets the stage for a reunion for this couple." - Fresh Fiction
"Sherri Browning writes with a wicked wit and an enormous talent. The Great Estate is the third in this delightful Edwardian Thornwood series, and is full of fantastic characters, interesting storylines, and a very humorous courtship." - Reader to Reader
A long-married earl and countess are estranged after the death of their infant son several years before, but their mutual love for their estate brings them together. This Edwardian novel by Browning (An Affair Downstairs, 2015, etc.) returns to her Thornbrook Park series with the story of Gabriel and Sophia, the Earl and Countess of Averford. When their baby boy died suddenly, shortly after birth, they both retreated into their private grief. Gabriel threw himself into the management of Thornbrook Park, his ancestral estate, but Sophia had no such outlet and eventually made a mistake that almost cost her her marriage. In a moment of weakness, she kissed a family friend, and Gabriel witnessed the kiss. His resulting temper tantrum caused him to flee England altogether and spend a year with his mother in Italy. For Sophia, his absence allowed her a crack at managing the estate, which she did with great aplomb. Gabriel's return threatened to undo all the good changes Sophia had made, and the two of them tussle over the reins, using various members of their household staff as co-conspirators against each other. A dotty old aunt, Gabriel's mother, and a bevy of relations make it difficult for them to find any privacy, but the real problem is that both Sophia and Gabriel have poor communication skills and poorer impulse control. Gabriel spends a lot of time orchestrating surprises for Sophia instead of simply talking to her, and Sophia tries to fill the hole left by her lost son by adopting a foundling child instead of simply trying to conceive another baby with her husband. In spite of their obtuseness, both Gabriel and Sophia are likable-enough characters, and the estate around which the plot revolves is charming enough to make the book a tolerable read.
Read an Excerpt
Sophia, Countess of Averford, ended up exactly as she'd always suspected she would: completely alone. She glanced up at her enormous portrait, hanging larger than life over the drawing room's marble fireplace, and sighed.
"We've done it now, darling girl," she said, looking into her own eyes, which were fixed in an imperious stare. "We've really done it."
What she had done was to give in to a kiss. No more than that. One passionate, toe-curling kiss. With a man who was not her husband. Didn't she deserve at least one kiss? Her husband hadn't kissed her in the longest time. When the Earl of Ralston had declared himself impossibly, irretrievably in love with her and had taken her in his arms, how was she to resist him?
Unfortunately, Gabriel, her husband, had walked in at the precise moment when she'd stopped pushing Ralston away and had pulled him to her instead. That one second of pull was all she'd needed, what she'd craved. In the moment, it didn't matter who'd taken command of her senses. But afterward?
Looking up over Ralston's shoulder and straight into the direct gaze of her husband in time to see his bright eyes cloud over with icy darkness, she knew that she had broken something in Gabriel, perhaps irreparably. He didn't storm, rail, or threaten murder, as she'd always suspected he would in such circumstances. He'd simply dropped his arms and walked away before she could regain her bearings and run after him.
They'd never spoken of it. They barely spoke at all. Her marriage had fallen into a shambles, and after months of few words and mounting hostility between them, Gabriel had packed his things and had joined his mother in Italy, leaving Sophia alone at Thornbrook Park. To add insult to injury, he hadn't entrusted her with command of his beloved estate.
He probably didn't believe her capable of organizing much beyond her own closet, and that only with the assistance of her reliable lady's maid. Gabriel's land agent, Cornelius Kenner, reported to Gabriel by letter once a week and then executed all of Gabriel's orders as they came in by telegraph. Or so Gabriel had been led to believe.
In her husband's absence, Sophia had taken charge. Why shouldn't she? Thornbrook Park was her home too, and Cornelius Kenner was dreadfully not up to the task. Sophia would have sacked him if not for fear that news would get back to Gabriel and he'd return on the next boat to give her hell. She wanted her husband back, but not until he was ready to return. Not until he was so desperate to see her that he would beg her forgiveness for running off and promise her the moon and stars for want of her affection.
Until then, she welcomed the challenge of keeping the estate in the best possible condition, perhaps even improving it where she could. For all intents and purposes, every servant needed to believe that Kenner was managing the estate, with Sophia only offering an opinion from time to time. Kenner was none too eager to publicly acknowledge his own incompetence and thus agreeable to Sophia's plan. His salary remained the same, and he maintained his successful image.
A year later, the lawyers, the butler, the footmen and maids, even Mrs. Hoyle, Kenner's cousin by blood, remained convinced of the ruse. Only once Gabriel returned would Sophia admit the truth. She would show her husband, and everyone, that she was a woman of sense and substance, a woman who would not be denied her heart's desire.
After a year on her own, she knew beyond any doubt that her heart's desire was to win back her husband's love, or at least to earn his respect. Respect should be guaranteed, considering the estate was thriving after a year in her capable hands. In fact, Thornbrook Park had been running at an increased profit, thanks in part to Mr. Wesley Grant, a brilliant strategist she'd lured away from Mrs. Alva Belmont, a visiting American.
Mr. Grant had come along filled with ideas of how to more effectively manage and find new economic opportunities for Thornbrook Park. Economic opportunities? Such a vulgar concept, but one she easily forgave from an American. She'd politely listened to Grant's ideas over tea, and she'd agreed to give him a chance after consulting her brother-in-law, Logan Winthrop, for his opinion.
Before Mr. Kenner, Winthrop had been their most capable agent until he married Alice and swept her off to Stratton Place and then to India, the Orient, Africa... Sophia lost track of where her sister was at any given moment. The Winthrops seemed to have plans to cover the whole world before coming home again.
Winthrop had suggested she hire Grant and send Kenner on his way. The Winthrops had gone off to India before confirming whether Sophia had taken the chance. Grant's official position was as Sophia's personal secretary, and Kenner's was estate agent, but each performed the other's job and neither seemed to mind it. Gabriel had raised questions when Mr. Kenner wrote to him regarding Mr. Grant's salary, but the earl had agreed to it in the end.
"Give her what she wants," he had written, full stop, leaving Sophia to guess at his mood or his intentions when he wrote it. She imagined him railing to his mother about all of his wife's supposed failings.
"Lord knows, she will take it without any regard to my feelings on the matter..." Or "She hasn't the sense to know she's overpaying..." Or worse, "What do I care what that woman does now? She's nothing to me..."
For all Sophia knew, her husband had consulted with his solicitor to discuss the possibility of divorce. She sat at the brink of despair, mulling over the possibility, until her aunt Agatha swept into the room as if to remind Sophia that she would never be completely alone, should everyone else abandon her.
"Dear girl, light some lamps! Nothing good can come of sitting alone in the dark." Agatha paused a moment as if to reconsider. "Not entirely true, of course. I've had some of my best moments alone in the dark, but we're very different, aren't we? The dark doesn't suit you, my dear."
"Has it grown dark? Indeed you're right. I hadn't noticed." Sophia remained as limp as a discarded doll in her chair.
Agatha closed the distance between them, switching on lights as she approached. Even before Sophia's eyes could adjust to the light, she had a clear image of Agatha in her fire-orange and aubergine ensemble. Her aunt settled on the sofa beside Sophia.
"I've had a letter from your mother."
It wasn't unusual for the sisters to be in communication, but something in her aunt's tone told Sophia that unexpected information was to follow. She straightened up a bit. "Yes? And how is everyone at Delaney Square?"
"They're all well. Even your father." Agatha didn't hide her disappointment with that bit of news. She'd never gotten on with Sophia's father. Sophia had done her best to keep them apart at Alice's wedding to avoid any unpleasantness. "It seems that she wrote with news that concerns you. She always was such a gossip, you know."
Sophia waved her hand dismissively. "I know. Her intricate web of tittering busybodies could rival the king's own network of spies."
Brow furrowed, Agatha placed a hand on Sophia's knee. "Gabriel's back."
Sophia looked left and right. Agatha considered herself in communication with the spirit world and liked to read fortunes, but she probably didn't mean her comment in the literal sense. Sophia assumed she meant that Gabriel's essence was in the air, or some such nonsense. "Where?"
"In London, dear."
"At Averford House?" Sophia tried to contain her surprise. She hated London. Their house in town stood empty most of the time, unless Gabriel went to London to tend to parliamentary affairs. "In London? Now?"
Agatha nodded. "Lady Levesque told your mother that he has been there this past month. A fortnight at least. I'm not certain exactly when he arrived."
"But he's there. And he didn't see fit to inform me that he'd returned to England?" Her heart dropped like a lead ball to the pit of her stomach. She rose and began to pace, no longer bothering to hide her distress at the news. "Not a word to me. Not a word to Mr. Kenner? Or do you think he knows? Kenner knows. And who else? Have they been instructed not to tell me? Or do they pity me too much to say a word?"
Agatha stood and came to her side. "Don't become agitated. I don't think anyone knows. Of course, the people in London know. Or so it seems. He has been carrying on as usual."
"As usual?" Sophia cocked a brow. Only now did it occur to her to ask what her husband did in London when she did not go with him. "Carrying on?"
Dread, cold as ice, snaked up her spine.
Agatha shrugged. "Attending dinners. Musicales. Perhaps the theater? He's a respected man, an earl. There are always invitations and the responsibility for a man to attend such things."
"Of course." Sophia gripped the back of a Chippendale chair. "Responsibilities. He must have come back for a vote. Parliament. How long could he stay away, after all? A man in his position."
"Exactly." Agatha clapped her hands. "That sort of thing. How long could he avoid such business? There's talk of reform..."
"There's always reform, dear. The Trade Boards Act, the Labour Exchanges Act..."
Sophia narrowed her eyes. "You follow politics, Aunt Agatha?"
Agatha tilted her head. "As one does. It's important to keep up with current affairs, don't you think?"
"As one does." Suddenly, Sophia felt more inadequate than usual. She'd never paid attention to such things. It simply wasn't ladylike to follow politics, as Mother always said. But Mother had been wrong about so many things, and they weren't living under Queen Victoria's rule any longer. It was a brand-new day.
"Lord Osborne probably urged him to return for one cause or another." Agatha shrugged. "An important vote on the line or something of the sort. Men do get so caught up in it all. There probably wasn't enough time to send word."
"Or even telephone? It wouldn't take more than instructing Sutton to telephone Finch and have Finch let me know. Or a telegram, if he couldn't be bothered with more." The butlers of their London and Yorkshire houses remained in communication as needed. As much as Finch had been hesitant to use the telephone, he had finally come around.
Agatha closed her eyes and fluttered her fingers in the air. "The spirits are active. I think we can trust that Lord Averford will be finding his way home soon."
"How do you know? Do the spirits share such information?" Sophia cast another glance around the room. "Are they here now? Ghosts?"
"Just Miss Puss." Agatha gestured across the room. "She's sitting in Lord Averford's favorite chair, a sure sign she is anticipating his return."
"Just Miss Puss," Sophia echoed. Miss Puss was Agatha's most devoted companion, a ghost cat that she had brought with her when she moved from the Dower House to a suite in Thornbrook Park. In fact, Sophia had resorted to sending a footman over to "catch" the elusive Miss Puss in a hatbox when Agatha threatened not to leave the Dower House without her.
Fortunately, Agatha believed Miss Puss had taken a liking to Bill, the footman, and showed up to follow him without need of the box. They'd all come to accept the cat as real, whether or not she lived only in Agatha's imagination. No one but Agatha had ever seen Miss Puss.
"I wish I had more of a sign," Sophia said. "Miss Puss could simply be missing Gabriel."
Agatha shrugged. "Perhaps it's time to take matters into your own hands, my dear. Write to him. Or telephone."
"You're right, Aunt. Of course." She filled with sudden inspiration. "Why didn't I think of it right away?"
"Think of what? Telephoning or writing?"
Sophia rang for Mr. Kenner. "Nothing of the sort. I don't want Gabriel to have any warning of my arrival."
"But you don't mean to-" Agatha was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Kenner.
The man hesitated in the doorway as he awaited orders, pushing his spectacles up on his nose in a manner that added gravitas, if not age, to his thin frame. He still parted his fair hair in the middle, like a schoolboy, and slicked it back at the sides.
"Yes, Lady Averford?"
"Kenner, make the necessary preparations. I'm going to London."
"London?" Kenner and Agatha echoed at once. "But you hate London."
She nodded. "Yes, I know. Apparently everyone knows." Kenner must have heard it from the other servants, the gossips. She didn't remember ever sharing the information with him directly. "But if that's where Gabriel intends to stay, then I mean to join him there. Our estrangement has gone on long enough."
Or at least she'd let him stay away long enough. It was time to remind him what he was missing before he concluded he could very well get on without her. She only hoped it wasn't too late.
* * *
The Earl of Averford's boots slammed the cobblestones with force, a somewhat jarring sensation considering the worn state of his soles. New boots, fine Italian leather. He should have known not to relent to wearing such frippery, but for once he'd listened to his mother.
"A fine man needs fine clothes," she'd said. "Delicately spun silks. The softest kidskin. Textures sensual to the touch. You want to impress Sophia with how much you've changed."
A man could only change so much. He was a man of sport, not style. Good English boots could stand up to months of traipsing through wilderness. The foppish Italian riders had given out after a mere fortnight of pacing London's streets.
In truth, he had done an extraordinary amount of pacing since leaving Thornbrook Park. He'd worn a crevice in the stone floors of his mother's Italian palazzo. In London, he preferred to channel his pent-up frustrations into walking the streets instead of treading his Aubusson carpets threadbare. He had determined that he wouldn't return to Sophia until he'd become a better man, a romantic man, someone who knew about paintings, music, literature, and the art of love.
He aimed to show her that he cared about the very things that impressed her most, the finer things, and that she needn't look any further for a skilled lover than in their own boudoir. It had taken him years to understand that he had gone about being a husband all wrong. Only catching her in the arms of another man seemed to have wakened him to the reality that he'd failed her. Miserably.
Once he'd gotten over his anger, of course. His first reaction had been one of murderous rage, but one glance at his former estate manager, who had stumbled on the scene at the same moment, calmed him. Winthrop, a man shadowed by an act of rage for half his life, had learned to face any challenge with level-headed shrewdness. In that instant, Gabriel became determined to follow Winthrop's stoic example.
If Gabriel's wife wanted to kiss another man, who was he to stop her? Killing her lover wouldn't win her affection back. Besides, Sophia craved drama the way some yearned for a tincture of opium. She might have arranged the whole performance specifically to get a reaction out of him. For the entire holiday season, she had been out of sorts.
"Who could blame the poor woman, out of her mind with fear for her sister?" His mother had defended Sophia.
Sophia's sister had been thrown from a horse and was recuperating from serious injuries at Thornbrook Park. That accounted for the presence of Lord Ralston, a supposed admirer of Alice's. Gabriel was not surprised that the bounder had been using Alice as an excuse to stick close to the real object of his affection, Sophia.
Admittedly, Gabriel had practically ignored Sophia in her time of need and had allowed the situation to escalate by giving Ralston every opportunity to turn Sophia's heightened emotional state to his advantage and attempt a seduction. Gabriel had realized the man's intentions too late and then failed to act on his suspicions in time. It shouldn't have come as a surprise to find the man attempting to woo his wife and yet...Gabriel had been flabbergasted at the sight of them.
Nearly from the start, he'd blamed no one but himself, but he'd been too ashamed to address the subject with Sophia. He wasn't accustomed to failure, particularly at such a personal level. Communication between them had been difficult at best since the loss of their infant son, neither of them knowing quite what to say to the other.
"These things just happen sometimes," the doctor had explained. "You put a perfectly healthy-looking newborn to bed, and he simply never wakes up."
Their little Edward and all of their hopes and dreams had been buried in the ground. Gabriel had been at a complete loss about how to comfort his wife when his own grief had pierced like a flame-hot dagger through his raw heart. And now, like then, Gabriel had found he was at a loss for words.
Gabriel's brother, Marcus, had been born with their father's silver tongue. Gabriel had learned to make use of more physical skills to make a point, but he'd clearly become a better fighter than a lover. In that way, he hoped he had changed. He aimed to show Sophia what he'd learned in Italy from paying close attention to the masters of love: poets, musicians, philosophers, and artists. The only way to make amends was to seduce her, body and soul.
"What's on your mind, Averford? You're dreadfully quiet." His companion, Lord Wilkerson, struck the ground pointedly with his walking stick as they made their way back to a parliamentary session from the pub. "But then, you've never been one for idle chatter."
Seducing his own wife? Hardly a confession to make to one's peer. "Boots. I'm thinking of my boots, Wilkerson. Damned uncomfortable."
"Boots are passé, Averford, but then you would hardly know that, staying away from London for so long. What you need is a good pair of shoes with bulldog toes, maybe some spats." Wilkerson stopped walking and pulled his trouser leg up an inch to display his footwear, black shoes that bulged up a little at the rounded toe.
Gabriel laughed. "You think to make me into a fop like you, Wilkie?"
"Not a fop." Wilkerson colored at the suggestion, his thin mustache looking more white than silver in contrast with his brightened cheeks. "A man of style."
"Have you met my mother, Wilkerson? It occurs to me that the two of you would make quite a pair."
"Your mother?" He stroked his pointed chin. "Can't say that I've had the pleasure. In Italy, isn't she?"
Gabriel shook his head. "Paris. She's ordering a new wardrobe."
"Yes, ladies and their finery. I do appreciate a well-attired woman."
"To each his own. I prefer them without a stitch." Gabriel flashed a roguish grin. The idea of making love to Sophia had become a constant distraction. He'd meant to stay in London for a few weeks, enough time to make up for neglecting his parliamentary responsibilities, but nothing mattered more to him than making up with his own wife. "If you'll excuse me, I think I'll look into new shoes. Bullfrog toe, you say?"
"Bulldog, man. Bull. Dog. You'll thank me. But don't run off now! We're almost there. We've got to vote."
"The vote will pass without me, Wilkie. You make a very persuasive argument on the rights of the poor and the good of all men, and so on. I simply can't wait another minute for those shoes. Good day." Gabriel tipped his hat and ran off before Wilkerson could make another argument to stop him.
If he hurried back to Averford House and urged Sutton to pack only the most necessary things, he could be on the train back to Thornbrook Park in no time.