Excerpts

AntheaLawson_SonataforaScoundrel_Audio (1)CHAPTER ONE

 

The Maestro Arrives!

In a mere two days, that preeminent virtuoso of the violin, Master Darien Reynard, will grace the stage at King’s Theatre. Ladies, keep your smelling salts close at hand, for Master Reynard is renowned for leaving a swath of swooning in the wake of his performances…

-The London Engager, November 1830

 

The melody threading through Clara Becker’s mind stopped, snipped by the angry voices penetrating the study door. She sat back in the cracked leather chair and put down her pen, the musical notes wavering on the page before her tired eyes. The ache in her shoulders and hand—distant when she was caught up in composing—now pulsed distractingly, vying with the landlady’s shrill tone to fragment her concentration.

“If you don’t deliver the rent tomorrow, you’re on the street. Out, I say!” The landlady’s voice was nearly a shriek. “You’ve been late one too many times, Mr. Becker. I’ve a mind to send my sons over tonight to pitch you out!”

“We will have the money,” Papa said, his cane thumping the floorboards for emphasis. “But now, you must leave.”

The fire in the small hearth had burned down to nothing but sullen embers. Clara covered her ears with her chilled hands and hummed under her breath, trying desperately to recapture the music. If she did not finish this piece, they were ruined.

“Please, Mrs. Tench.” Her brother Nicholas spoke. “By tomorrow afternoon you’ll have two months’ rent in hand. You know we’ve always managed before.”

The voices faded, thank goodness. Nicholas was moving the landlady toward the front door. Clara let out a breath and closed her eyes. The door slammed, and blessed quiet filled the house. It was a strained silence, but it was enough.

The music sprang into her mind once more, bright strands of melody flung against a somber background. She took up her pen and bent to the page, letting the notes inside her mind transport her to a distant, splendid place. A place far away from the reality of their cramped lodging, the worry that shaded her days, the hoarded coals that barely kept the chill of November from biting to the bone.

There was nothing now but the notes unfolding. She sang the refrain under her breath, the dip and scratch of her pen keeping a steady rhythm. Time fell away, until she inked in the final double bar.

Finished. Clara pulled her frayed shawl tightly about her shoulders. The music was complete, the window in her soul shuttered, and she felt like ashes; the dun and dross left by a consuming fire.

She could hear Papa and Nicholas at odds again. Despite their attempt to whisper, her brother’s voice rose in counterpoint to her father’s gruff tone. She rubbed at her forehead. Papa would win the disagreement, in this as in all things. Though she appreciated Nicholas’s support, it would be easier for her to compose if the house were not so often filled with unhappy tension. Still, argument was better than that terrible month when Nicholas had not spoken at all.

She blew lightly across the page until the ink no longer gleamed, then gathered the rest of the manuscript. The chair scraped across the floor as she stood, and the arguing voices stilled. Clara was not surprised to pull the door open and find both her brother and father waiting. Their faces were filled with anticipation, though in Papa’s case it took years of familiarity to identify any change in his usual dour expression.

“Finished,” Papa said. It was not a question. He did not wait for her nod, but gestured to Nicholas. “Give it to your brother, so we may hear it.”

Nicholas gave her a smile, as weak as the light from the single lamp in the room. A lock of his overlong blond hair fell across one eye as he glanced toward the piano.

It was not as though she were incapable of sitting at the instrument and performing the music herself. As children of a music master, both she and her brother were accomplished pianists. But Papa felt it best that Nicholas play the music as soon as she had finished the composition. It was a ritual now. Nicholas would play it, and the music would no longer be hers.

She hesitated, as she always did. Papa cleared his throat and she forced the pages forward, the notes that had been a part of her soul released into her brother’s keeping. The sheets of music shook, ever so lightly, as she released her grasp.

Her throat was dry as parchment. How long had she been in the study? Certainly it had been just past luncheon when she began, but now the curtains were drawn against the heavy night, the sounds of the city quiet around them. It must be very, very late.

Perhaps her father and Nicholas had been arguing about letting her stop, letting her rest.

She could not have, in any case. The music had her in its grip. And even if she’d had to scrape and fashion each note with laborious patience, she would have finished her composition before morning broke, cold and hard, over the smudged rooftops of London.

The landlady’s visit had been the final goad. They needed the money her work would bring, far more than any of them were willing to admit. It was their only source of income. Her brother’s piano students among the gentry were long gone.

“Hm.” Nicholas held the first page up to catch the dim light. “It’s in E minor.”

“A minor composition?” Papa’s voice was stern. “Are you certain?”

Clara stifled a sudden, wild urge to giggle. How could the music be anything but in a minor key?

It was winter, almost as cold and dark inside their small house as it was outside in the streets of their dilapidated neighborhood. The pantry was dwindling down to potatoes and cabbages and a sliver of salted meat. They barely had the money to furnish Mary with laundry soap. It was fortunate that Clara’s dresses had been drab colors originally, for they were all brownish grey by now.

The only melodies that could possibly find roost in her mind were in minor keys, shaded with melancholy.

“Yes,” she said. “E minor.” The steadiness of her voice surprised her.

Nicholas lit the candles at the piano. “Have you named it?”

It was impossible not to name her compositions, though Papa invariably changed them. She touched her gold locket, the one that had belonged to Mama, one finger stroking the smooth metal.

“The piece is called Trieste.” Sadness.

A tap of Papa’s cane. “Too feminine. Better we name it…” Another tap while he thought. “Air in E minor. Yes. Now, let us hear it.”

Nicholas settled himself at the keys. He leaned forward, fingers poised, then began.

Slow and quiet at first, the phrases dipped and turned like smoke, like unvoiced dreams, while his left hand kept a steady, tolling beat. Then the middle section—the music seeking the light like a flower, straining upward. Nicholas hit a wrong key and she winced, but held her tongue. Onward… and now to the part where the brightness faded into a series of descending notes, the flower curled into itself, and the piece finally came to rest.

Silence, and utter stillness, followed the last note. Nicholas’s hands lay motionless on the keyboard. On the whole, he had done it justice. Clara tugged a strand of her pale hair loose and tried not to look at Papa.

“Well.” He gave a sharp nod. “It should fetch a decent price. Nicholas, make a copy, and I will deliver it to the publishers in the morning.”

It was the closest he would come to a compliment. It was enough. The landlady would not need to send her burly sons on the morrow. There would be food on the table, with a little left over to keep the creditors at bay.

Nicholas stood and crossed the room to take her hands. “It’s lovely, Clara. I know the exact feeling it conveys.”

Clara nodded at him. Her brother was familiar with other feelings, far bleaker than the ones she had set to music. But that was behind them now.

“You should rest,” he said.

“Yes.” Eyes heavy with exhaustion, she dropped her hands and turned away.

The stairs were steeper than ever, and creaked under her feet as she mounted into the darkness, not bothering to take a light. Behind her, the music began again as Nicholas familiarized himself with the composition. The bright and sorrowful notes twined about her, following her into sleep.

 

***

 

The ticking of a metronome in her dream transformed to someone knocking insistently at the front door. Clara blinked at the gray light seeping through the curtains and struggled up, pushing the warm blankets away. Mary, their distant cousin and maid of all work, would answer. And surely Papa was home from delivering the rent by now, but Clara’s curiosity was even more insistent than her desire to burrow back beneath the covers.

Cold air against her skin pulled her completely awake. The fabric of her dress was chilly as she hurriedly slipped it over her chemise. She pulled the brush through her hair, grabbed her woolen shawl, and hastened to the landing in time to see Papa open the door. Peeking over the railing, she could make out the legs and shoes of a finely dressed gentleman.

“What is this?” Papa was never gentle with strangers.

Clara edged to the window at the top of the stairs and glanced outside. A large coach was parked before their house, the black lacquered doors and gilt trim as out of place in their neighborhood as a raven among sparrows. In the windows of the row houses across the street, faces stared out like pale, curious moons.

“Sir.” The visitor appeared untouched by Papa’s manner. “Do I have the pleasure of finding the Becker household?”

“Who is enquiring?”

“I am Peter Widmere, agent for…” He made a dramatic pause, and she could hear Papa’s cane thump impatiently.

“Get on it with it,” Papa demanded.

“Agent for Darien Reynard.”

Papa’s cane stilled, and Clara drew in her breath. Darien Reynard! The most famous musician on the Continent! What was his agent doing here?

“Darien Reynard? The maestro?” Papa’s forbidding air had faded entirely.

Clara peeked out the window again, trying to see inside the coach. Was it possible Reynard himself was within? She lifted a hand to her hair, the fine strands still dream-tangled. Her heart accelerated, sending a tremble of indecision through her. Should she dash back to her room and finish dressing properly?

But if she left now she would miss everything.

“The very same,” Mr. Widmere said. “Now, tell me. Are you Nicholas Becker’s father?”

“Yes,” Papa said, “I am Herr Becker. Tell me why you have come.”

“I was sent to deliver these tickets.” The man reached into his coat pocket and drew out an envelope. “As you are no doubt aware, Mr. Reynard performs tonight at the King’s Theatre. He directs your family to attend.”

Clara covered her mouth, silencing a gasp. She and her brother had spoken of attending Darien Reynard’s concert, as one speaks of traveling to Italy, or dining with a duke. It had been as out of reach for them as the clouds.

Papa’s back stiffened, as if to deny that any man could command him, but he held out his hand for the tickets. “Very well. We will come to the concert.”

“Excellent.” The agent made a crisp bow. “Mr. Reynard will be gratified to hear it. Good day, sir.”

Papa stood, leaning on his cane as the man marched back to the coach and pulled open the door. The interior was empty. Clara let out a silent sigh of disappointment—or perhaps relief. Of course the maestro would not grace them with his presence, especially not in such a quarter of London.

But they would get to see him perform, this very evening! The clatter of wheels as the coach pulled away echoed the excitement pulsing through her. Darien Reynard, the legendary violinist, had sent them tickets. It was dizzying.

She did not care what they said of him, the stories of his excesses and vices, the whispers that he colluded with the devil in exchange for the power to move men’s souls with his playing. The only thing that mattered was that tonight, tonight, she would see him take the stage and hear him play. A thrilled vibration settled in her chest, then expanded until her whole body hummed, like a piano string struck by a velvet hammer of anticipation.

Papa shut the door, then thumbed through the contents of the envelope.

“Hmph,” he said. “Come down, Clara. Three tickets.” His tone edged on disapproval, as though their benefactor knew too much about them already.

There was so much that must be kept secret.

Clara drew her shawl more closely about her shoulders as she descended to the chilly parlor. She was so very tired of being constantly cold. Surely the tickets had put Papa in a generous mood? And since he had not said otherwise, he had been able to sell her composition to the publishers and pay the landlady her due.

“May we light a fire, Papa?” It was a shocking waste of coal to light the hearth in the daytime, but her fingers were nearly numb. “I will bring the mending down and work beside it.”

He gave a single nod.

She did not wait for more, but bent to the fireplace, carefully wielding the tongs. Perhaps she could send Mary to the bakery to bring home a fresh loaf. What a splendid day it was already. She hardly dared imagine the evening to come.

First, however, was the pressing issue of the mending. Her best gown had a tear in the hem, and Nicholas’s good wool coat needed a button. Papa, of course, would be turned out in his usual severe black suit. Though they rarely could afford to attend concerts, Papa insisted they maintain the proper appearances.

They would do well enough. After all, it was not as though they would be seated in one of the grand boxes reserved for the ton.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

They were seated in one of the grand boxes reserved for the ton.

Clara fingered the simple gold locket about her neck and curled deeper into the plush velvet seat, trying to make herself invisible. Sitting in the upper-level boxes changed the entire feel of the theater. The noise and heat rose around them, a dozen conversations buzzing in her ears.

“Do you think the king is here?” Nicholas could not stop glancing into the other boxes. “Look, Clara, surely that is the Duke of Kent, and next to him… the lord chancellor, is it not?”

She did not know, though she was pleased to see Nicholas so animated. The adjacent box was occupied by a grandly dressed lady, gems glittering at her throat and ears, who lifted her lorgnette and surveyed the family with a contemptuous air. The woman nudged her companion, a distinguished-looking fellow wearing a coat decorated with medals. His eyes slid past them as if there were only empty seats in their box. Face heating, Clara pretended to study the program, though she had memorized it already. Beethoven for the first half, then a selection of shorter pieces for the second.

But they were here because Darien Reynard himself had sent them tickets. The thought lifted her chin again, and she met the woman’s stare with an even smile. They belonged, because the maestro had made it so.

Nicholas leaned out to view the crowd, his eyes bright. “Everyone is here. There’s Mr. Cramer from the publishing company, and Henry Bishop. I hear he’s working on a new opera.”

“Hush,” Papa said. “They are putting out the lights.”

Dimness descended and Clara let out her breath. Anticipation pulsed from her toes upward, coiling bright and warm in her chest. Only moments now, and she would see him perform. Darien Reynard. She tasted the syllables of his name as though they were chocolate upon her tongue.

The gaslights at the front of the stage flared and a hush spread through the audience, the last conversations sputtering out.

A man walked onstage and Clara leaned forward—but no, it was the accompanist, an older, sandy-haired man who took his place at the piano. He swiveled and looked back into the wings, and the audience burst into expectant applause.

Now Darien Reynard strode forward, claiming the appreciation as his due, and there was no mistaking that this was the man. Violin tucked easily under one arm, he moved with a contained grace, his tall, broad-shouldered frame poised and full of energy. A shock of wavy black hair nearly touched his shoulders, and his elegant coat was even darker—pure shadow, as though the light could find no purchase upon it.

He surveyed the crowd, gaze penetrating, then halted at center stage and flicked a glance up toward their box, almost as if he could he see them in the dimness. Clara moistened her lips, barely breathing, until his attention sheered away.

His mobile, sensual mouth set in a half smile that only added mystery to his handsome face, Darien Reynard inclined his head to the audience. He set his instrument on his shoulder. With a dramatic sweep of his right arm he raised his bow, then held it motionless above the strings. Instantly the murmurs and rustles ceased.

The first chord sprang from the instrument and rippled into the air, followed by another, another, as he caressed his violin, the notes throbbing with passion. The piano joined in, and the music moved into a sprightlier theme. Clara’s heart beat in time; ached and sighed while the figure on the stage led her forward into rapture and mystery. This, this, was how she heard music. A doorway into another land, a place where everything was luminous with emotion.

He was never still. Even in the andante sections he swayed, as though the music was weeping through him, the notes pulled forth from his body through the gleaming golden wood he held in his hands. Clara was certain her eyes were not the only ones blurred with unshed tears.

The final movement burst like constellations through her, jubilant sprays of notes flung out over the audience. He took the melody at a blistering speed, the bow now flying over the strings so quickly she half expected to see smoke following in its wake. The music exploded about her, rushing upward as Darien Reynard drove the piece forward. The accompanist could barely keep up with him as Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 thundered to a breathtaking close.

Instantly the audience sprang to its feet, shouting approval, the rush of sound raw and graceless compared to what had just gone before. Clara rose, program fluttering to the floor, and applauded as loudly as she could through the muffling of her gloves. Glorious. Simply glorious.

“That was Beethoven as he ought to be played,” Nicholas said. “Reynard could repeat it for the second half and I’d be well satisfied.”

Even Papa unbent enough to agree, though his approval was tacit. “The acoustics up here are improved.”

“It was much more than better acoustics,” Nicholas said. “That was a master at work.”

Clara nodded. She could not speak yet, not while Darien Reynard’s playing still echoed through her, but she was in complete agreement. She had never heard anything so splendid.

“I’m going to fetch some refreshment.” Nicholas turned to her. “Coming?”

The thought of journeying through the glittering crowd that swirled outside their box made the skin between her shoulders tighten.

She shook her head, preferring to sit quietly and savor the memory of the man and his music. Clara glanced up toward the gilt ceiling, imagining that the notes were still gathered there, spinning and dancing in the shadows. If she listened closely perhaps she could catch their bright echo.

She closed her eyes, but there were too many voices between her and the trapped strands of melody. Snatches of conversation floated past.

“…in Madrid he couldn’t even go out in the street, the crowds followed him everywhere…”

“…the crown princess fainted at his performance. Of course now it is the fashion for everyone to faint at his feet.” A feminine giggle. “I wouldn’t mind swooning anywhere upon his person, I declare. Such a magnetic man!”

It was true enough. Darien Reynard was impossibly handsome, even without the power of his musical mastery. She did not think any woman could avoid being captivated by him.

Nicholas returned with tea and she sipped at her cup. The warmth of the beverage joined the memory of music still curling about her, the heat of the theater wrapping about them. She was warm from her head to her toes. It was a delicious sensation.

Finally, the house lights were extinguished again and the crowd became an expectant, eager presence in the softly lit dark. This time Darien Reynard strode alone onto the stage, as self-assured as a man entering his own kingdom. He held up his hand, and the audience obediently stilled.

“Ladies. Gentlemen.” His voice was rich and resonant, filling the space as effortlessly as his playing had done. “It is not on the program, but this evening I have a special treat for you.”

The audience buzzed happily. Darien Reynard waited for silence to fall again.

“Tonight, I am pleased to introduce the work of a composer, little known, but of great talent. This piece moves me deeply, as I know it will move you.”

A hum of speculation moved through the audience at his words, and Clara straightened. She did not often have the chance to hear new compositions.

Darien Reynard gave a single nod. “I give you Rondo, by Nicholas Becker. Attend.”

She fell back against her seat, astonishment pinning her to the velvet. Rondo? Her Rondo?

The first notes confirmed it. Heat flashed through her as the music she had penned surged from Darien Reynard’s violin. She was insensible to everything but the man before her, the genius who played her very soul out into the open, who took the sweet, spiraling melody of her piece and transmuted it into pure emotion.

Yearning etched the air as he leaned into the notes, his unruly hair falling about his face. Clara breathed with the movements of his bow, and the entire audience breathed with her. She suddenly believed all the rumors. If he wished, the riveting figure before them could steal all their souls without a single protest.

The last note faded into stillness, an awed hush of perfect quiet. Her heart beat, knocking against the silence, three, four times. Then cries of “bravo!” and wild applause thundered down, like a dam giving way before the torrent. Darien Reynard held his head high and let it wash around him, seeming unconcerned that the force of such adulation might sweep him away. Surrounded by the tumult, Clara sat transfixed, unable to make even a pretense of clapping.

Her music. Her very heart.

Then Darien Reynard raised his arm, palm upwards, and gestured to the box where they sat, bidding the composer to rise and take a bow. Without meaning to, without any thought at all, she gathered herself to stand. Only the weight of Papa’s hand landing heavily on her shoulder kept her in her seat. Turning her head, she met Nicholas’s eyes.

Wonder and pride shone there. And then guilt. His gaze slid away from hers and he stood, cheeks growing pink as he acknowledged the applause washing over him, the shouts of approval.

Darien Reynard nodded, a sudden smile flickering across his face. Throat tight, Clara swallowed and tried to remember what was most important. It didn’t matter that Nicholas must be the one taking the credit. Darien Reynard had played her music. Played it before all of London, and played it splendidly.

Eyes burning, she smiled, while her heart twisted equally with pain, with joy.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Master Reynard Captivates!

All London is abuzz in the aftermath of the maestro’s stunning performance—and the sudden elevation of Mr. Nicholas Becker’s compositions into the public eye. One hopes the attention will not go to the previously unknown composer’s head…

-The London Engager

 

“Are you certain this is the place?” Dare looked out the window as his coach rolled to a halt.

Underfed children played in the street beneath sagging roofs, and a blanket of coal soot dimmed all the colors to dullness. It was too much like the neighborhood he had clawed his way out of at a young age, vowing never to return to such poverty. Memories perched on his shoulders like hunched ravens. With a deep breath, Dare shook them off.

“Yes. Becker lives there, with his father and sister.” His agent, Peter, nodded to the faded house before them. He crossed his legs and made no move to leave the vehicle. “Dare, are you quite certain you wish to proceed?”

Frustration beat a rough rhythm through Dare, though he was careful to make no outward show of it. He valued Peter. In truth, his agent was one of the few people who would speak honestly to him—bluntly, if necessary.

“I must. We will convince Becker.” Dare’s hands ached from clenching.

He slowly unknotted his fingers. Control. He was in control. He had proven himself against life for decades now, although it had been years since he’d wanted something so badly and been unable to simply impose his will and achieve it. But he could not kidnap Becker and throw him into the coach, away from these dreary environs. No, he must have the man’s cooperation.

Dare wrenched open the coach door and dropped to the ground before the footman could set the steps. He could not bear another moment of inaction.

“Come,” he said to Peter.

A larger fear pressed against Dare than dusty memories of his miserable childhood. Was Becker indeed the musical genius he hoped? What if he had spent the entirety of his inspiration on that single composition, the Rondo? What if there was no more?

The thought spiked painfully through Dare. What if there was no more?

Three months ago he had been performing for an exclusive group in the Duke of Salzburg’s drawing room. The duke, a music aficionado who collected little-known works, had placed the music before him.

“How about something obscure and English?”

The audience had laughed, but quickly hushed as Dare played the first notes. The music that had lain silent and waiting on the page leapt to his instrument and then into the room, taking life as it took flight, a spiraling twist of melody that held them all spellbound. The brilliance and power of the music caught him by surprise. It was unlike anything he had ever played before. Each note vibrated through him, shook away the soul-deep unhappiness lodged in his heart, the memory of the sacrifices he had made.

When he reached the end, he began again. They told him later that he played it three times in succession. Each time the music gained in power and emotion, becoming more and more his own. At the end he simply set down his violin and walked out of the room. There was nothing else to be said. The Rondo had spoken for itself.

That night he retired to the opulence of the duke’s best suite. Late, a woman had slipped into to his chamber. A click of the latch, soft footsteps, a cool touch on his forehead followed by a warm, lingering kiss. She was one of the duke’s guests, a softly curved woman with dark, unbound hair. He could not remember her name, but it did not matter. He lifted the covers and she slipped in beside him. Warm, feminine, willing.

He had moved on and into her, languorous and dreamy, the music of the Rondo still alive and singing in him. They strove together, naked bodies by candlelight, yearning for fulfillment, finding that moment of bliss in the arms of a willing stranger.

She was gone from his chamber when he woke, but the Rondo sang on.

Word of his performance in the duke’s drawing room spread like flames through dry summer fields. In great halls, in theaters and palaces, they clamored to hear him perform this new work, the Rondo. Each time he played it was a new birth. He stood before the multitudes and found his way into that pure, perfect heart of the music. Then he led the audience there, giving them a taste of heaven, leaving them at the end, eyes shining, voices hoarse from cheering.

This was why he had made that impossible choice so many years ago—and lived with the raw burden of its consequence ever since. Music. Not love, but music.

He must find Nicholas Becker. The conviction had grown until it had filled all the spaces of his waking. He must find the composer and see what else the man was capable of. With this music, Dare could be redeemed. He felt it in the depths of his soul.

Their destinies were connected, whether Nicholas Becker knew it or not.

And now here Dare stood, on a worn stoop in a decaying quarter of London. Beside him was Peter, who had steadfastly cancelled twenty-five performances and booked twenty new ones to bring them to this place. Here he stood, Darien Reynard, called the greatest performer of his generation, with his heart hammering in his throat. Unable to lift his hand to knock. The powerlessness infuriated him.

What if he had come all this way and there was no more?

“We won’t find out anything by standing on the doorstep.” Peter stepped past him and rapped loudly at the door. “And stop scowling so fiercely,” he added. “You don’t want to frighten the poor man to death.”

After an endless pause, an older gentleman answered, his thin silver hair combed back from his stern features. “Yes?”

Peter inclined his head. “Good afternoon, Mr. Becker. Please excuse the unannounced visit. Mr. Reynard would like to have a word with your son. Is he at home?”

The older man’s gaze went to Dare, and his eyes widened. “Master Reynard! We are honored. Come in, both of you.” He pulled the door wide and called back over his shoulder, “Mary! Bring tea.”

Dare exhaled and strode past Peter into a chilly entryway that smelled of mildew. Mr. Becker gestured them into a sparsely furnished parlor where a handful of coals smoldered on the hearth, lending the barest hint of warmth to the air.

“I will fetch Nicholas.” Leaning on his cane, the father turned and stumped up the staircase.

Dare listened to the fading notes of the father’s passage, the muted sound of voices. Soon. Soon. To distract himself he glanced about the room. The walls were bare, only brighter squares on the dingy wallpaper to show where pictures had once hung.

A piano dominated the back half of the parlor. He went to it and ran his fingers along the cool mahogany, wrestling back the impatience that coiled through him.

“A Broadwood.” He nodded to Peter. “No doubt Becker missed meals to purchase the thing.” Compared to the mismatched chairs and faded settee, the piano stood out like a sapphire in a box of cheap jewelry.

His agent raised his brows. “That instrument cost a pretty penny.”

No doubt Peter was calculating the exact number of pennies it had cost, and the things the family had clearly gone without in consequence.

Dare shifted his attention back to the keyboard. Had Becker sat in this very spot to compose the Rondo? The melody tingled in Dare’s fingertips. When a single piece of music had such power, just think what the man might be capable of.

And then consider what he, himself, could do with that music.

“Sir!” A young man hurried down the stairs. “Forgive me for keeping you waiting. I am Nicholas Becker.”

Dare stepped away from the piano to shake the composer’s outstretched hand. Nicholas Becker—at last.

Becker’s clasp was firm, though he flushed and dropped his gaze to Dare’s shoulder after his initial greeting. His disheveled hair was the color of wheat, and his dark blue eyes held an expression both reserved and sincere. An odd disappointment moved through Dare. Once again, this was not what he had expected, although he could not say precisely what he had expected.

Perhaps it was that the man was so young. He didn’t seem capable of composing the intense melodies that had caught Dare’s interest.

The father followed more slowly, his cane thumping down the treads. “Offer our guests a seat.”

“Yes, please sit.” Nicholas Becker gestured to the well-worn settee. “This is just… It’s an unexpected pleasure to have you here, sir. My sister will join us shortly. She is eager to meet you, as well.”

“Of course. I would be delighted.” Dare knew his voice was cold. He did not want to sit about, meeting sisters. “Let me introduce my agent, Mr. Peter Widmere.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the composer said. He waited for his guests to settle, then perched in one of the armchairs opposite. His fingers were laced taut. “Thank you, maestro, for the concert tickets. And for playing the Rondo. You performed it splendidly.”

Dare looked the young man squarely in the face. “The Rondo is worthy of a far wider audience. It has met with acclaim on the Continent—at least, with the select audiences who have had the opportunity to hear it.”

Nicholas Becker’s eyes opened wide, and he looked to his father.

“Thank you,” he said at last. “We had no idea.”

“Have you…” Dare’s shoulders tightened, and he leaned forward. “Have you written more?”

He felt Peter shift beside him. It was too blunt, but the question had been burning inside him for so long it could not remain unspoken a moment longer.

“More?” Becker sounded as though a mouse had lodged in his throat. The look in his eyes seemed more panic than pride.

“Other compositions,” Dare said. “Have you written other compositions?”

“Um… well, yes,” Becker said. “Other published pieces. If that is what you mean.”

It was not quite, but Dare nodded.

“May we see them?” Peter’s tone was dry.

“Certainly.” The composer jumped up from his seat and fetched a small stack of music from a nearby shelf. Wordlessly, he held it out.

Dare took the sheaf. For a long moment, he could not bring himself to open the first piece. He stared down at the frontispiece, an ornately scrolled border that contained the words Etude, by Nicholas Becker.

The father cleared his throat, and even Peter leaned over to look, though he would not be able to read the music scribed within.

Inhaling deeply, Dare turned the page. He forced his hands to remain steady, despite the bitter urgency that said hurry, hurry!

It was a simple, lovely piece for solo piano. Brief and sweet, something a young lady might play in her parlor for admiring suitors. Not the Rondo by any stretch. He felt his mouth turn down in a frown.

“That was written some time ago,” Nicholas Becker said. “When, er, when I was practically a child.”

Pulse beating in his temple, Dare turned to the next piece, titled Scherzo. He scanned the notes within, and let out a breath he had not been aware of holding. The restless mood of the written music stirred him, even unheard.

“Yes.” He had not meant to speak the word aloud. “This one has potential.”

“Potential?” Peter raised an eyebrow. “We came all this way for potential?”

The composer kept his gaze fixed on Dare’s shoes, as if they held the answer to some great mystery. “That one was also written some time ago. I had quite a few, um, small pieces. The publisher sorted through and selected what he thought would sell.”

Dare set the printed music aside. Damnation. He wanted to take the composer by the shoulders and shake him until more brilliant music came out.

“Yes. But what about now? What are you working on now?” He could not keep the raw demand from his voice.

“Ah…” The composer still did not look up, and for an instant Dare felt panic stab through his chest. He had been wrong.

No. He would not allow it. He fixed his gaze on Nicholas Becker, willing the man to speak.

The silence in the room teetered into discomfort before the father spoke. “Play the Air in E minor.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Nicholas Becker stood, one hand plucking at the side of his trousers. “The newest composition. Papa took a copy to the publishers only yesterday.”

“Let us hear it.” Dare could not look at Peter.

If this new piece was not brilliant, then they had come for nothing. Nothing. All his plans and hopes, dashed. Bile rose in his throat, anger at the universe for showing him a glimpse of perfection, and then snatching it away.

The composer took an inordinately long time to settle himself at the piano. The hush and crackle as he arranged the pages before him was the only sound in the silence. Dare was not certain his own lungs remembered how to breathe as he waited. Finally, after sending another anxious glance at his father, Becker began.

It was a thoughtful, meditative opening, and the room was immediately transformed by the aching sweetness of the melody. Relief flared through Dare, a smoldering ember leaping to flame. He let the music wrap round him, and closed his eyes in fervent gratitude.

As Becker continued to play, two things become quite clear. This newest work was every bit as inspired as the Rondo, and the composer was also an excellent pianist. Now Dare could look at his agent, his smile laced with triumph. Peter pressed his lips together, but he returned a single nod. Even he must hear the truth of it.

The notes sang through Dare as the piece ascended. His hands ached with the need to play that brightness into being, to sing it with the throat of his violin. It would sound exquisite; himself playing the theme while Nicholas Becker anchored the piece with those bell-like chords. With music like this, they could set the world on fire.

Victory glowed through him. He had been right, and everything would come about just as he had imagined it. The last shadows of fear and poverty slunk away.

His soul would be eased, and his mark made on musical history. Forever.

 

 


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