Clara Becker is a supremely gifted composer--a talent of little to use to a woman in 1830s Europe. Her compositions only have worth when they are published under her brother's name, yet this deception barely enables them to scrape out a living in the poorest quarter of London.
Meets the Master...
Darien Reynard, the most celebrated musician in Europe, pursues success with a single-minded intensity. When he comes across Becker's compositions, he knows that this music will secure his place in history. Darien tracks the composer down and, with some difficulty, convinces the man to tour with him. Mr. Becker agrees, but with the most unusual condition that he bring along his sister...
Set against the glittering backdrop of 19th century celebrity, Sonata for a Scoundrel is the newest full-length historical romance novel from RITA-nominated author Anthea Lawson.
RITA-finalist Anthea Lawson and I were in an anthology together (Fiction River’s Christmas Ghosts) before we knew each other. We finally met in person at a writing workshop, where she was taking a break to play her fiddle—something she does impossibly well. Her command of the Regency period and bringing heat, fun, and music to enrich the past has been a joy to read. – M.L. Buchman
"Mesmerizing and addictive ... this highly engrossing read will keep historical fiction fans clamoring for more."–Library Journal Starred Review
"I really enjoyed Sonata for a Scoundrel. So many lovely telling details ... I'd recommend Sonata for a Scoundrel to any and every classical music lover..."–Dear Author
"This story is filled with angst and joy and, most of all, with passion - for music and for love. I was mesmerized and highly recommend this story."–Over the Backyard Fence
"Anthea Lawson named one of the 'New Stars of Historical Romance'"–Booklist
The Maestro Arrives!
In a mere two days, that pre-eminent 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...