Arthur Shelton, Earl of Macklin, has helped four young noblemen recover from grief and find love, but he’s learned to live his own life as a widower. Yet when he returns home after traveling, his estate feels too empty, and he quickly heads to London. There, he encounters Teresa Alvarez de Granada, a charming Spanish noblewoman and is immediately entranced.
There is no room for earls in the quiet, safe life Teresa has finally found for herself. The earl might be charming and handsome, but she knows firsthand how dangerous attraction can be. The more determined Teresa is to discourage Arthur, the more entangled they get, and it’s only a matter of time before her respect for him starts to feel a lot like love.
It was a lovely spot. The carpet of blue blossoms wound back into the trees like rivulets of color, beckoning one deeper into the shade of branches in new leaf. A stream ran nearby, the gurgle of water blending with birdsong. The blossoms’ sweet scent filled the air.
Senora Alvarez turned in a circle to take it all in. “Maravilloso!” She held out her arms as if to embrace the landscape and laughed.
It was the first time Arthur had seen her really laugh, and he found it glorious – the musical sound, the flash of her dark eyes, the joyous gesture, the curve of her lips. She seemed lit from within, as if a shadow had been whisked away and the brilliance inside revealed. This was how she should always be, he thought, glowing, carefree. To be the thing that made her happy – that would be an achievement!
“I have been meaning to take up some cobbles behind my house and make a place for a garden,” she said. “Why have I put it off? I must do it at once. This is…comida para el alma. Food for the soul.”
Removing a few cobbles sounded meager. Arthur had gardens galore at his estates. He wished he could give her one. But a garden wasn’t like a jewel, to be handed over. Even if she would easily accept gifts, which she would not.
“I think Mr. Dolan would be glad to pull them out,” she went on as if the plan was unfolding in her mind.
Senora Alvarez turned as if she’d forgotten he was there. “One of my neighbors is a builder.”
“Ah. Friend of yours?” He was not, of course, jealous. That would be ridiculous.
The query seemed to arrest and then amuse her. “He is, along with others on my street, ever since we rid ourselves of Dilch. That canalla bullied Mr. Dolan’s son.”
And she had stopped it. Arthur had never known a woman so self-sufficient. She had a life he knew nothing of, a network of friends. He felt he wasn’t quite one of them, and this galled.
“People talk and do small favors for each other now. It is pleasant.” She walked deeper into the wood, looking right and left as if to drink everything in. She was enraptured, and Arthur found himself envying a swathe of flowers. The idea made him laugh.
Senora Alvarez looked over her shoulder at him. “You find this amusing? That people should be kind?”
She raised dark eyebrows.
“I was laughing at myself.”
“You were?” She sounded surprised.
“Why shouldn’t I? In particular.”
“You are an earl.”
“And that means I cannot be ridiculous? The title conveys no such immunity. Alas.” He smiled at her.
For some reason, she looked uneasy.
“And I have found laughter the remedy for a great many ills,” Arthur added. Senora Alvarez seemed mystified, or…annoyed? That couldn’t be right. Why should she be? Just a moment ago she’d been delighted. “Is something wrong?”
“You puzzle me…sometimes.”
“But I am the most transparent of men,” he joked. He was so pleased to learn that she thought about him that he added, “What do you wish to know? I have no secrets.”
Her expression revealed his mistake. Senora Alvarez didn’t care to discuss secrets. She had too many of her own. “I ask nothing of you,” she replied, turning to walk on.
Disappointed, with her and himself, Arthur followed. Tom had wandered off, as he tended to do. There’d been no sign of him since they left the carriage. They were alone in a world of color and birdsong and scent. Perhaps the peaceful beauty of the place would soothe her temper, Arthur thought. But he didn’t know what would gain her confidence.
The gurgle of the stream grew louder, and then there it was, a thread of clear water tumbling over rocks. Bluebells, ferns, and mosses bent over the banks. Soft moisture wafted through the air. Senora Alvarez breathed it in. “Hermosa,” she said.
She was, but Arthur was not foolish enough to voice his opinion. He could not resist stepping closer.
A partridge erupted out of the bracken with a violent whirr of wings. Arthur started, twisted one boot heel on a stone, missed his footing with the other, and stumbled toward the stream.
She caught him with an arm about his waist, stopping his slide to a certain dunking. They teetered together on the bank. He held onto her shoulders to regain his balance. Though she was much smaller, her grip was strong, her footing solid. She could hold her own and more. Her body felt soft and supple against his as they came safely to rest.
Arthur looked down. Her face was inches away. Her dark eyes were wide, her lovely lips slightly parted, as if primed for a kiss. She raised her chin. He bent his head to touch them with his, an instant of exquisite pleasure.
She jerked away, nearly sending him reeling once again. Her expression had gone stark. All the beautiful animation had drained out of it. “Do not play such games with me,” she said.
“I told you that what I said at the theater meant nothing!”
“So you did,” replied Arthur, stung. “And I heard you.”
“Yet you try to take advantage.”
“The bird startled me. I tripped.”
“Into my lips.” Her tone was contemptuous.
“I beg your pardon. In the moment I thought you…”
“You know nothing about me. But I will tell you that I despise tricks like that.”
“It was no such thing.”
She made a derisive sound.
She had no grounds to address him with such disdain, to practically call him a liar. “Do you doubt my word?”
“I observe your actions,” she answered, moving away from him. “Where has Tom gone?”
“I have no idea.”
“Tom?” she called. “Where are you?”
“Here,” came the reply from downstream “Come and see. There’s a waterfall.”
Senora Alvarez walked away.
Excerpted from Earl’s Well That Ends Well by Jane Ashford. © 2020 by Jane Ashford. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.