The Black Madonna
(Audiobook narrated by Alex Wyndham)
As England slides into Civil War, master-goldsmith and money-lender, Luciano Falcieri del Santi embarks on his own hidden agenda. A chance meeting one dark night results in an unlikely friendship with Member of Parliament, Richard Maxwell. Richard’s daughter, Kate – a spirited girl who vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead – soon finds herself fighting an involuntary attraction to the clever, magnetic and diabolically beautiful Italian.
Hampered by the warring English, his quest growing daily more dangerous, Luciano begins to realise that his own life and that of everyone close to him rests on the knife-edge of success … for only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna and offer his heart to the girl he loves.
From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is an epic saga of passion and intrigue at a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.
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Enjoy an Excerpt: The start of Luciano’s quest and the significance of the Black Madonna.
Vittorio scowled at him. ‘What makes you think I’d lend you the price of a hair-cut – let alone a sum of this size?’
‘Because you know I don’t fail,’ said the distant voice simply.
This was too much for his cousins. Carlo and Giuseppe burst into a torrent of impassioned speech and young Mario – who alone of the three had been born with a sense of humour – gave a long appreciative whistle. Then Carlo’s voice emerged triumphant.
‘Arrogant upstart!’ he spat. ‘You’ve already wormed your way far enough into this family’s intimate concerns to learn financial details that even I – the eldest son – don’t know!’
The ghost of a sardonic smile touched the lean mouth but its owner said nothing.
It was left to Vittorio to observe that, if Carlo had any interest in finance beyond having sufficient money to entertain his fine friends, it was the first he’d heard of it. Then, bidding him be silent or get out, he looked back at his nephew and said slowly, ‘Now, Luciano … let us know what we say. You are asking for a family favour? A massive loan on no better security than my faith in your abilities?’
‘Not at all,’ came the cool reply. ‘I am asking you to advance me fifty thousand in gold for a period of ten years, at a rate of interest in accordance with your normal transactions and to be repaid annually. Should I fail to meet this obligation, you are entitled to terminate our agreement and reclaim the whole. As to the matter of security …’ He paused and, moving for the first time, produced from the folds of his cloak a narrow, irregular-shaped package. ‘For security, I offer you this.’
Giuseppe looked up from buffing his fingernails long enough to snigger.
Carlo said derisively, ‘Some bauble you won in a dice game?’
With the same unshakeable impassivity that had maddened Carlo for eight years, Luciano ignored him and crossed the room to lay the parcel before his uncle. ‘I understand that you once held this in some esteem … but perhaps you no longer care to have it.’
Vittorio reached out a hand but, even before he touched the package, knowledge of its contents rushed in upon him and he said hoarsely, ‘You – you have it still?’
‘Of course.’ A vagrant smile flickered across the remote, finely-boned face. ‘Did you never suspect it?’
Without seeming to be aware of what he was doing, Vittorio rose from his chair saying, ‘You said everything was put under seal – confiscated by the English Crown. The house, land, money, papers … everything. I thought that this, too –’ He broke off, a surge of colour staining his skin. ‘You deceived me!’
‘No. You deceived yourself.’
The admission implicit in this speech caused Vittorio’s flush to assume choleric proportions and prompted sixteen-year-old Mario to say quickly, ‘Father? Won’t you open the packet?’
‘Yes,’ drawled Carlo. ‘By all means let us see if what our dear cousin offers us against several years’ profit is worth it.’
There was a long pause and then Vittorio said quietly, ‘It is worth it – and your cousin knows it very well. He has brought the Black Madonna home.’
The effect of this announcement on Carlo and Giuseppe was not prodigious but Mario said eagerly, ‘The Madonna? Truly? May we see it?’
And finally, with an odd reluctance, Vittorio sank back into his chair and, taking the parcel between his hands, slowly unwrapped it.
The Madonna was not large – nor did it possess any obvious feature to suggest that it was, in fact, a Madonna at all. There was no enamelling, no gilding, no jewels; only the slender form of a young girl, simply fashioned of dark, red-veined obsidian. Her hair was demurely covered, her hands clasped in the folds of her robe and her mouth curved in a sweet, secret smile.
For the first time in twenty years, Vittorio’s eyes caressed the smooth glossy surface of the stone and marvelled afresh at the mystery of it. He was not a sentimental man and nowadays he had a house full of beautiful, expensive things; but not one of them held a fragment of the lure contained in this austere and probably valueless piece.
All he knew of the lady was that she had been in his family for generations and had been treasured through years of obscurity and squalor since before the Falcieri had left their native village of Santi. He had been bred to revere her – as had his brother, Alessandro. But Alessandro had stolen her and, in doing so, brought about his own destruction. Or so Vittorio thought. Yet the wheel of Fate had ground on … and the Madonna was home at last.
‘Is that it?’ Carlo shattered the silence with three supremely disparaging syllables. ‘How dreary! It’s no more than a crudely-worked lump of stone.’
Vittorio came to his feet with a force that sent his chair grating back across the floor. For a long moment Carlo was subjected to a wave of intense, silent fury. Then, sweeping round to face his nephew, Vittorio said, ‘And you? Do you see only a lump of stone?’
‘No.’ Luciano looked on the Madonna with hooded eyes. ‘I see something which, once lost, I can never replace.’
Some of the wrath left Vittorio’s face and he growled, ‘Then you’d better be sure of what you do.’
‘I am sure. I’ve had eight years in which to plan it.’
‘And I propose, signor, that we gamble.’ Again that chilly, impersonal smile. ‘You hold the Madonna and advance me the money. If I use it successfully, you regain it in full and with interest – but return the lady. If not, you take what I have and keep her. Either way, you can’t lose.’
‘Not particularly. It’s my only option.’
Unexpectedly, Vittorio laughed.
‘You don’t favour your father, do you? He hadn’t a calculating bone in his body.’
Luciano replied with the merest suggestion of a shrug, a gesture he rarely permitted himself because it emphasised the slight irregularity of his left shoulder. He said merely, ‘I have read Il Principe.’
‘Machiavelli? Yes. You would. But there’s more to this than a desire for your own enterprise. What is it? A girl?’
The dark, cobalt gaze filled with derision. ‘Hardly.’
‘Then what? I think I’ve a right to know what my money will be buying.’
It was a long time before Luciano spoke and, when he did, each word arrived sheathed in ice.
‘It will be buying justice, signor. I’m surprised that you needed to ask.’
‘Justice? From the English? After so long?’ Vittorio snorted. ‘You have no hope.’
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not.’ Another pause, and then, ‘But fortunately, if justice fails, one may look for revenge.’
Stella Riley. Winner of three gold medals for historical romance (Readers’ Favourite in 2019, Book Excellence Awards in 2020, Global Book Awards in 2022) and fourteen B.R.A.G. Medallions, Stella Riley lives in the beautiful medieval town of Sandwich in Kent.
She is fascinated by the English Civil Wars and has written six books set in that period. These, like the seven-book Rockliffe series (recommended in The Times newspaper!) and the Brandon Brothers trilogy, are all available in audio, narrated by Alex Wyndham.
Stella enjoys travel, reading, theatre, Baroque music and playing the harpsichord. She also has a fondness for men with long hair – hence her 17th and 18th century heroes.
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