Sixteen years ago, Richard Ashbrook’s life was ruined by his lover, Sherborne Clarke. In a fit of jealousy, Sherborne wrote a letter that exposed their relationship and, when it was published, Richard was forced into exile. He still manages his estate remotely, but he cannot show his face back in England and now lives in Sicily. Richard cannot forgive Sherborne, but he also knows that the connection between them can never fully be broken. A part of Richard will always be bound to Sherborne, whether he likes it or not. So when Richard receives a message from Sherborne about a “matter of life or death,” he travels back to Sherborne’s remote estate to help.
Sherborne was born into poverty, but somehow destiny smiled upon him and he found a benefactor who believed in his poetry and helped him get the education he needed to become a part of society. But Sherborne has always been a bit wild, a bit provocative, and fits in mostly by being entertaining. Just as Richard feels tied to Sherborne, Sherborne feels the bond in return. He has spent the last 16 years feeling like part of his life is missing, and so that is why he allowed Richard to believe it was Sherborne’s life on the line so he would come in person. In reality, Sherborne found an infant abandoned on his doorstep and he wants Richard to take the child to an orphanage his cousin, Beth, runs in London.
Richard is furious when he learns the truth about Sherborne’s message. Furious at Sherborne, and furious at himself for once again being pulled into Sherborne’s orbit. He is determined to leave for London as soon as he can, but the harsh weather makes traveling impossible. One extra day leads to another, as it seems despite Richard’s best efforts, the world is conspiring to keep him from leaving. And while the men have been at odds for years, the connection between them has never dwindled. The more time they spend together, the more impossible it is for Richard and Sherborne to ignore the need to be with one another. But Sherborne is hiding a secret, one that may both condemn him and redeem him in Richard’s eyes. Even as the men are finding themselves once again dreaming of a life together, their past may too easily tear it all apart.
A Winter’s Earl is an intense enemies-to-lovers story with a Shakespearean twist. So before I go too far, let me note that I had no idea this was loosely based on A Winter’s Tale, nor was I familiar at all with the play. So I came into this one totally cold from that sense and the story still worked fine for me. Having read a little about the play after the fact, I do see where there are some similar elements, so I assume readers who are familiar with that story would get a bit more out of this one, but I don’t think you will miss it if not. Sherborne is a poet, and the bard comes up quite a bit throughout the story, including the men quoting poetry to each other in a lead up to a sexy night together.
While this may be based on the play, the real focus of this story for me is the enemies-to-lovers element, as it is so strong and almost heartbreaking. We learn that Richard and Sherborne were lovers as young men in school and there was almost a brutal intensity to their relationship. The men had such a compulsion for one another, and when things went bad and Sherborne penned his letter exposing their relationship, everything just exploded. But despite Richard’s hatred for Sherborne, despite how the life he had been born to live was wrenched away, Richard can’t stop feeling connected to the man. Greene does such a wonderful job here really showing that bond, that intense need these men have for one another, so that even as they are separated by years and miles, I could believe they can’t stop thinking about each other. As the story continues, the men slowly begin to find their way back to each other, first through physical desire, and then through emotional connection. And by the time the book ends, it is clear that they have each found that happiness together they have long been missing.
The conflict here is based on Sherborne’s exposing Richard’s interest in men to the world, but we learn that there is more to this story than Richard knows. As readers we find out the truth of what happened pretty early on, and most of the plot relies on the fact that Sherborne doesn’t reveal it to Richard. So this is definitely a story that relies on lack of communication, and at times I found it frustrating to see so much riding on the failure to clear up a misunderstanding. Especially as there are a few times where Sherborne is about to speak up and something happens to prevent it. But I will say that I think Greene does a nice job making it clear why Sherborne chooses to keep the secret. It is very much in keeping with his character, as well as his feelings about both himself and Richard that he chooses not to reveal the full story. I also think the author nicely conveys the fact that as much as these men were drawn to one another in the past, that relationship was all fire with so little else. We see them frequently note the differences in their current relationship in the way they behave and relate to one another. It was clear to me that they needed this time to really grow so that they could build a healthy, strong relationship that could last rather than burn out.
The relationship is very much the focus of the story and there is not much else happening plot-wise. But we do get some other side elements going on, some that work better than others. Richard’s cousin, Beth, shows up, apparently (and coincidentally) nearby when she learns he is visiting Sherborne, then she too gets snowed in. There is also the bit about the baby, as well as the question of who left her on Sherborne’s doorstep (which I’ll admit, I figured out almost right away). And then we get a whole troop of actors who appear, complete with animals and a chained bear and yes, get snowbound too. On one hand, a story of this length needed more going on than just watching these men fall back together and finally have a much needed conversation. But at times this sort of felt like a lot thrown into a pot and stirred around without a lot of focus, particularly the troop of actors. I am not sure they added anything to the story at all other than an excuse to have them put on a Shakespearean play. Maybe had I read the original play, these various side elements would have felt more grounded, but as it was, some of it felt distracting, or at least needed more development.
Overall, however, I really enjoyed this story. I think where Greene is most successful is really showcasing this intense relationship between Sherborne and Richard. I could really feel the pull between them and I enjoyed seeing the way their dynamic grew into something much more real now, sixteen years later. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, and particularly if you are a fan of A Winter’s Tale or Shakespeare’s plays, I think this one is worth the read.