Today, I am pleased to welcome Stella Riley to my blog to share an excerpt from her novel, “The Black Madonna.” Thank you, The Coffee Pot Book Club and Stella Riley, for allowing me to be part of this blog tour.
A rescue … and the beginning of a close and unusual friendship.
Richard and Eden turned north through the labyrinthine alleyways of Bridewell in order to cross the Fleet. It was an insalubrious area and, fully alive to the possibility of robbery, Richard kept a watchful eye around them – which was how he came to notice the savage proceedings, illuminated by fitful moonlight, in a yard off to his left.
What was happening was happening in near-silence – largely due to the gag which had been stuffed into the victim’s mouth while two pairs of hands held him roughly upright to receive the blows of a third. Richard broke his son’s lethargy with one sharp jab of his elbow and then went plunging in at the assailants with a sort of flying dive that Eden, plunging swiftly in behind him, still found time to admire.
Dropped like a well-roasted chestnut while his captors met the unexpected attack, the victim slithered down the wall into an inert heap on the cobbles. His fall passed unheeded.
Finding himself bereft of his cudgel without quite knowing how, the first man launched himself at Richard and collided with a fist that broke two teeth and loosened several others. Eden, meanwhile, in a series of flawlessly executed moves learned in the Hotel de Cazenove (and a couple of effective but less genteel ones picked up in the taverns outside it), laid one man out cold against a water-butt and sent the other into staggering, retching retreat up the lane with Gap-Tooth in unsteady pursuit.
Richard flexed the fingers of his right hand, winced and grinned companionably at his son.
‘Well. It’s nice to know that your time at Angers wasn’t completely wasted.’
‘And almost as comforting to discover that you’ve still got the hardest fist in three counties,’ retorted Eden with a grin. Then, in a very different tone, ‘The only satisfaction, I suspect, either one of us will get. Have you seen who we’ve rescued?’
Richard dropped on one knee, pulled the gag from the victim’s mouth and peered into the battered, unconscious face.
‘Ah. Didn’t I see him at Far Flamstead last summer? A money-lender, isn’t he?’
‘Amongst other things,’ came the dry response. ‘Aside from pegging him up on the bridge, what do you suggest we do with him?’
Richard looked up, his brows lifting in mild surprise.
‘You don’t like him?’
‘I’ve no idea. But if they don’t, one presumes they have cause. Have you?’
‘Only indirectly. Not as much as whoever ordered this … but enough to understand why they might want to.’ Eden bent to disentangle one wrist from the human wreckage on the cobbles. ‘He’s not dead, at any rate.’
‘Nor even dying,’ added a thread-like voice with commendable distinctness. ‘Though I confess it feels like it.’
Slowly and with extreme caution, Luciano del Santi opened his eyes on Richard’s face and achieved the ghost of his usual sardonic smile.
‘Ah. Mr Maxwell, I believe?’
‘Yes – but never mind that now. If you’ll tell us where your house is, we’ll endeavour to get you there.’
‘Cheapside.’ The heavy lids fell again, as if in an effort to conserve energy. ‘The corner of Friday Street. It’s too far.’
‘Malt Lane … near Blackfriars Stairs,’ came the fading response. ‘The sign of the Heart and Coin.’
Eden met his father’s quizzical gaze with a carefully neutral one of his own.
‘The Heart and Coin?’ he said. ‘It sounds like a bawdy-house.’
‘The word,’ said Luciano del Santi, ‘is brothel. Don’t be shy. Just knock three times and ask for Gwynneth.’
* * *
On the mercifully short journey to Malt Lane, the Italian lapsed in and out of consciousness with a frequency that made his bearers greet the sign of the Heart and Coin with profound relief. It was a modest property but looking more like a comfortable country inn than the stew they had expected and inside, the cosy well-lit room was full of people.
The dark, beak-faced individual that Eden remembered from the hawking party was there, one hand on his knife. In front of him and involved in heated discussion were a slender, soberly-dressed woman with the whitest skin Eden had ever seen and an expression of desperate anxiety, and a small dynamic person who waved his arms wildly as he talked but still managed to look like a large brown nut with moustaches. Behind these three and collected into little tearful huddles were the girls. Girls with skin of every shade from lustrous pearl to ebony, hair of gold and copper and jet … and apparently only one thing in common. They were all uniquely beautiful.
Eden found that his mouth was open and resolutely shut it. Luciano del Santi opened his eyes, summoned his dwindling resources and said vaguely, ‘Pardon my intrusion … but if there is a chair, I believe these gentlemen would be glad to put me in it.’ And promptly passed out again.
There was a brief silence; and then the occupants of the room surged forward on a tide of exclamation. Predictably, the fellow with the knife got there first by the simple expedient of brushing the others aside. Nor did he waste time talking but merely removed his master from the hands of Richard and Eden and carried him inside to lay him carefully on the rug in front of the hearth.
The woman in grey, surrounded by the girls like a dove amongst humming-birds, followed issuing a stream of lilting orders during which
Richard and Eden found themselves sitting on a cushioned settle while a dazzling blonde pressed glasses of brandy into their hands
Kneeling on the hearth and having cautiously examined the unconscious man’s ribs, Gwynneth looked up at the hawk-faced fellow and said, ‘There’s some damage but we’ll need a doctor to say how much. Certainly it’s worse than last time and I really don’t like the look of him.’
‘And that, as they say, adds insult to injury,’ breathed Luciano del Santi from behind closed lids. ‘But I forgive you. I’ll even allow Selim to put me to bed. The only question is – whose?’
A sudden flush stained the lovely skin and Gwynneth lost her calm façade.
‘You fool – you fool! Why do you do it? It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. You promised not to stir after dark without Selim – you promised us all. One day they’ll kill you.’
The Italian opened his eyes, his mouth twisting with wry amusement.
‘No. Haven’t you realised yet that the devil looks after his own. I’m indestructible.’
‘Yes. You look it.’
He managed a long, extremely careful breath.
‘My looks again? You’re unkind, cara. Don’t cry.’
‘I’m not crying! You think I’d waste my tears on you?’ She sniffed and cradled his hand in both of hers. ‘Don’t think I care what happens to you – I don’t. But you might spare a thought for what’s to become of the girls and me if you get your throat cut.’
A faint laugh, abruptly checked, caused him to close his eyes again until the pain receded and made Gwynneth reach for the brandy.
‘Here,’ she said roughly. ‘Drink it all. And, if you must talk, say thank you to the good gentlemen who saved your worthless life tonight.’
Luciano del Santi turned his head to locate Richard and Eden, his brow furrowed with the effort of it. Then he said, ‘Forgive me. I thought you had gone.’
Richard crossed to his side, followed more slowly by Eden.
‘Think nothing of it. The brandy is excellent, so I’ve no complaints. And I’m sure that – for other reasons entirely – my son has none either.’ He paused briefly and then said, ‘Tell me … does this kind of thing happen to you often?’
‘Not often, no. Only when I grow careless.’
‘Only when you go out without Selim, you mean,’ said Gwynneth tartly. ‘There’s scarcely one of those fine gentlemen of the Court who buy their dinners with your money who wouldn’t stick a knife in your back given half a chance.’
‘You talk too much, cara.’ The beautiful voice, though faint, was pleasantly final. ‘There’s no reason why Mr Maxwell should interest himself in my affairs.’
‘None,’ said Richard, ‘save that I’ve already done so.’
‘And thereby placed me under an obligation to you.’
‘Are you suggesting that as my motive?’
The Italian stared inscrutably back at him.
‘No. I’m saying that if there is anything – either now or in the future – that I may do for you, you have but to name it.’
An arrested expression crossed Eden’s face and he opened his mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it.
Richard said, ‘I appreciate the offer and the fact that it isn’t made lightly. But not quite everything has to be paid for, signor.’
‘I know it.’ Luciano del Santi’s smile was crooked but oddly infectious. ‘But you must allow me to observe that you are the first Englishman I have met who knew it also.’
As England slides into Civil War, master goldsmith, and money-lender Luciano Falcieri del Santi embarks on his 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 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 realize 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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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 is fond of men with long hair – hence her 17th and 18th-century heroes.
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