The performance finished in a flourish of technical brilliance and the young man rose from the harpsichord to a storm of applause…
Julian Langham was poised on the brink of a dazzling career when the lawyers lured him into making a catastrophic mistake. Now, instead of the concert platform, he has a title he doesn’t want, an estate verging on bankruptcy … and bewildering responsibilities for which he is totally unfitted.
And yet the wreckage of Julian’s life is not a completely ill wind. For Tom, Rob and Ellie it brings something that is almost a miracle … if they dare believe in it.
Meanwhile, first-cousins Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden embark on a daring escapade which will provide each of them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The adventure will last only a few weeks, after which everything will be the way it was before. Or so they think. What neither of them expects is for it to change a number of lives … most notably, their own.
And there is an additional complication of which they are wholly unaware.
The famed omniscience of the Duke of Rockliffe.
This sixth book in Stella Riley’s Georgian Era Rockliffe series introduces a handful of new characters and, as in Hazard (book five), weaves together a pair of romances. While the seemingly omniscient Duke of Rockliffe has a pivotal role to play in them both and there are cameo appearances by characters from the other books in the series, Cadenza works very well as a standalone; anyone new to the series and unfamiliar with all the relationships and strong ties of friendship among Rockliffe’s set of friends and relations will be able to enjoy the novel without needing to have read the rest of the series. (Although you really should, because they’re all excellent reads!)
A harpsichordist of virtuosic skill, Julian Langham has devoted his life to music, focusing on achieving his ambition of being a concert performer while pursuing his studies before finally getting his big break. Julian makes his concert début in Vienna and receives a rapturous reception, leaving him poised on the brink of the career he’s dreamed of. Still giddy with joy, Julian is brought quickly down to earth by news he neither expects nor wants. He is informed that he is the fifth Earl of Chalfont and that he must return to England at once. Julian refuses. He doesn’t want to be an earl and doesn’t care what happens to the title; he’s Julian Langham, musician, and that’s all he wants to be. But he’s persuaded that all he needs to do is to sign some papers and put the earldom’s affairs in order – after that he can return to Europe and to his musical career.
But of course, it doesn’t work out that way.
Completely unequipped to be an earl, let alone to administer a large, debt-ridden estate, Julian has no idea what to do after his lawyers leave him in the lurch. The estate is entailed, and there is nothing of value left to sell to raise funds in the short-term; Chalfont Hall is in a dreadful state of disrepair, the lands have been neglected, the tenant’s homes are dilapidated, and the old earl’s reputation as a debauchee and defiler of women means that Julian is viewed with intense suspicion by the locals. When Julian discovers that his predecessor left three young, illegitimate children without provision, he does the only thing that makes sense to him and takes them in, although they continue to run wild about the village and generally make nuisances of themselves. But the worst thing, by far, is that the only musical instrument in the house – an old harpsichord – is completely unplayable, and without the ability to make music, Julian is slowly dying inside.
At Brandon Lacey in Yorkshire, (anyone familiar with the author’s Roundheads and Cavaliers series of historical romances set during the English Civil War will no doubt find themselves smiling at the references to Gabriel and Venetia from Garland of Straw as we catch up with the family a few generations on), Arabella Brandon is hoping to avoid a London Season. Still smarting after her fiancé of three years – an army officer currently stationed in America – married another woman completely out of the blue, Bella has become rather withdrawn and content to hide herself away, believing herself unmarriageable because she and her betrothed anticipated their vows before he left with his regiment. When her mother tells her she has written to the Duchess of Rockliffe – a distant relation – to ask if she will sponsor Bella’s début, and that of her cousin, Bella becomes a little more enthused, reasoning that even if she can’t marry, at least Elizabeth deserves the chance to find herself a good husband.
But Elizabeth Marsden is facing a very different prospect. The eldest of the three daughters of the local vicar, she doesn’t expect to marry and has instead decided to ease her family’s financial burdens by seeking a position. She responds to an advertisement for a mature lady required to oversee the running of a gentleman’s establishment and also regulate the care of young children and is surprised to receive a response offering her the position for a trial period.
When the Duchess of Rockliffe offers to sponsor both girls in London, Bella is delighted – but that is short-lived when Elizabeth tells her that her father will not accept the duchess’ offer. Disappointed, Elizabeth tells Bella she has accepted the post she has been offered at Chalfont Hall in Nottinghamshire; after all, if she is going to have to work for her living, she might as well get started and get used to it.
But Bella isn’t going to just drop the idea of Elizabeth’s getting a chance to experience what London has to offer and comes up with an audacious plan. She and her cousin are about the same age and size, and nobody outside their immediate locale has met them – certainly not the Rockliffes or any of the people they are likely to meet in London, and definitely not Elizabeth’s new employer. She suggests they swap places for a few weeks – until the end of Elizabeth’s trial period – so that Elizabeth can experience some of what London has to offer and Bella can avoid the marriage mart. At first, Elizabeth is horrified at the idea – it’s far too risky and it will never work – but eventually she allows herself to be persuaded, and all too soon, it’s time to depart.
Bella’s journey goes smoothly, but not so Elizabeth’s. When the carriage she is travelling in veers off the road into a ditch, she and her maid are rescued by a passing gentleman and his servant and conveyed to the nearest inn. Elizabeth’s rescuer introduces himself as Ralph, Lord Sherbourne, and he clearly isn’t the sort of man to inspire warmth or friendly feelings. He’s darkly handsome but rather cold and aloof, and clearly isn’t pleased at the interruption to his journey, but as a gentleman, could do no less. Unfortunately, however, the terrible weather that caused the accident continues and means that Elizabeth and Sherbourne are forced to spend a couple of days in one another’s company, which could put Elizabeth’s reputation at risk.
Meanwhile, Bella arrives at Chalfont to discover that her employer is not the older gentleman she had expected, but is a heartbreakingly beautiful and somewhat unworldly young man who doesn’t seem to know how to dissemble and says exactly what he thinks. But then, she’s not at all what Julian had expected either – she’s too young, too beautiful and too terrifying; women tie his stomach and his tongue in knots and he is inclined to ask her to leave, but his friend –the local doctor – points out that he needs help in the house and with the children and that he should at least allow her to complete her trial period. Julian – somewhat reluctantly – agrees, and although he finds interacting with her difficult at first, he quickly finds himself looking forward to seeing her and to spending time in her company. ‘Lizzie’, as she has asked to be called, is surprisingly easy to talk to and seems to understand so much about him and his need for music in his life; she listens to him, gently draws him out, and before long he’s tumbled head-over-heels in love for the first time in his life.
Although both romances get pretty much equal page time, I admit that I found myself more invested in Elizabeth’s with Sherbourne, mostly because tall, dark and sarcastic is my catnip and I was eager to see how Ms. Riley was going to redeem him and turn him into a romantic hero, considering he was such a git to Genevieve (his half-sister) in Hazard. Needless to say, she does it with aplomb, giving readers more background about his relationship with the two good-for-nothing brothers he keeps having to haul out of the messes they make, and about the woman he’d loved and intended to marry who turned out to have been manipulating him in order to conceal a particularly unpleasant secret. It’s not your typical ‘she-done-him-wrong-so-he-has-sworn-off-women’ trope; Sherbourne is certainly emotionally walled-off, but there are pretty good reasons for that, and it quickly becomes clear that while his reputation is somewhat tarnished, he is a decent man who is nowhere near as black as he is painted.
Pulling the strings and putting all the puzzle pieces together is Rockcliffe, one of the few among the plethora of dukes in today’s historical romance who is actually and properly ducal. He can be arrogant and is fully aware of what is owed him courtesy of his position, but he’s also fair, compassionate and fiercely loyal to those he cares for. He’s prepared to allow himself to be the butt of society’s jokes and goes to great length to protect Elizabeth’s reputation, drawing Sherbourne into his inner circle for her sake (and allowing him to remain there for his.) One thing worth noting is that there is no villain in this novel – well, not in the sense of someone who is out to do harm to our heroes and heroines. Instead, Arabella and Elizabeth are faced with the censure of society, its rumourmongers and its insatiable desire for gossip, Julian is the victim of his own generous nature and Ralph loved unwisely and bears the weight of a reputation that he doesn’t deserve.
Ms. Riley skilfully interweaves her different storylines together while displaying her customary eye for period detail and for creating engaging characters it’s easy to care about and root for. She’s clearly done her research when it comes to Julian’s musical abilities and repertoire, definitely captured Julian’s dedication and that sometimes otherworldliness that can be associated with those who are intensely gifted and creative. I very much liked the contrast we were given between the Julian who was trying to find his feet as an earl, and the ultra-confident, assertive man he became when performing; off stage, he’s endearing, on it, he’s compelling, and with time and experience that’s the man Julian is capable of becoming in everyday life as well.
The one problem I had with the book was with the character of Arabella. I can’t think of another heroine by this author that I haven’t liked, but I just couldn’t warm to her. And that being the case, I wasn’t as invested in the romance between her and Julian as I’d like to have been – and much as it pains me to say it – I found their chemistry somewhat lacking.
Fortunately, the romance between Elizabeth and Sherbourne has plenty of chemistry, and ultimately, Cadenza’s many good points far outweigh that one drawback. Extremely readable with a pair of very different but likeable heroes and a fabulous supporting cast, the writing bristles with intelligence, warmth and humour and I’m more than happy to recommend the novel to fans of the author’s and of historical romance in general.