The Black Madonna: The Coffee Pot Book Club Blog Tour.
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.
While Eden begins courting Celia, Kate meets Signor del Santi for the first time.
With Tom Tripp at his side, Eden eased off the falcon’s hood. She blinked and absorbed the world out of great, black eyes. Very gently, he released the soft leather straps from his fist and waited.
Jezebel was in no hurry. She shifted a little to the music of the small bells on her legs and continued her measured stare. Finally, she spread her wings and, with a power that jarred Eden’s shoulder, rose swiftly to circle the air above. Smiling – and completely unaware that Celia, having decided to make Sir Hugo work a little harder, had ridden over to join him – he shaded his eyes against the light and followed Jezebel’s progress as she climbed steadily up and up to become no more than a dark speck in the sky.
‘Isn’t she superb, Tom?’ he murmured.
‘Aye. Could be the best we’ve flown. Only you’d best start training her soon or –’
‘Do you think,’ interrupted Celia brightly, ‘that we might ride?’
Eden started and his eyes left the sky.
‘I’m sorry. Yes – of course. Shall we go to the beacon?’
‘Why not?’ Petulance vanished and she laughed. ‘Race me!’
She was a competent rider but no more than that and her mare was no match for Eden’s long-tailed grey. By the time she caught up with him, he had reined in and was facing her, smiling.
Flushed, breathless, and with her dark curls in charming disorder, she said plaintively, ‘A gentleman would have let me win.’
‘Oh?’ Eden contemplated the elusive dimple by her mouth. ‘And is that what you like? To be patronised?’
‘That isn’t patronage – it’s gallantry.’
‘Is it?’ He appeared to consider the matter. ‘Don’t you find that rather confusing? For if I deceive you with courtesy, how are you to know when I’m sincere? And when I say you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen – how will you tell it from flattery?’
‘By intuition,’ began Celia firmly. And then. ‘Oh. Am I?’
Eden bent to adjust his stirrup and arose faintly flushed.
‘Knowing my graceless bluntness as you do, how can you doubt it? Shall we go? I’m not sure how easy it will be to bring Jezebel back … and I don’t suppose you’ll care for becoming food for the gossips.’
‘Oh Eden.’ She gave a gay, rippling laugh. ‘How can you be so ridiculous? I’m as safe with you as I would be with Francis.’
‘Of course. But there is a difference.’ His smile was slightly crooked. ‘I am not your brother.’
* * *
Kate watched Celia’s scarlet habit streaming in Eden’s wake and then looked away, giving a mental shrug. If Eden didn’t mind being picked up and put down as bait for Hugo Verney, it was entirely his own affair. Not that Kate had anything against Sir Hugo. He was pleasant enough company; not exactly stimulating, perhaps – but pleasant. Indeed, she was discovering that they all were, these witty, fashionable people she had expected to dislike. Mother had been right about that. Only Celia had not improved upon closer scrutiny; and someone really should have taught her not to jerk on her bridle like that. She was ruining that nice little mare’s mouth.
‘You find my servant interesting, Mistress Maxwell?’
The beautiful voice sent a peculiar sensation slithering down Kate’s spine and caused her to snatch at her own reins before she turned to meet the impersonal gaze she’d hitherto encountered only a distance. It was no less unnerving close-to; more so, in fact. The long-lashed eyes were an incredibly deep cobalt – so dark that, on first glance, they appeared almost black. And when added to his other perfections, they rendered the signor even more spectacularly good-looking than she’d first thought.
She swallowed and said weakly, ‘Your servant?’
The man known to London as the Italian assented with the merest suggestion of a nod.
‘Also myself, I suspect. But you were staring so hard at Selim just now that I felt impelled to ask why.’
Too late, Kate realised that she had indeed been staring – but not consciously. She also realised that he was not going to believe her if she said so. Recovering herself a little, she said, ‘Yes … well in England our grooms don’t commonly ride about armed to the teeth. Unless that pretty knife is a toy?’
‘Far from it.’ A wayward gleam appeared. ‘Would you care to inspect it?’
‘No thank you.’ She set her jaw and attacked. ‘You know my name. I’m surprised.’
His brows rose and he said with irritating urbanity, ‘Yes? But then, you also know mine, do you not? And, by now, probably a good deal more.’
Kate found that she was beginning to feel foolish and suspected that he meant her to. She had laughed at him in the garden – thus somewhat spoiling his little spell – and he was taking his fee. They were right about him. He wasn’t a gentleman. She said, ‘You take a lot for granted. But if the thought worries you, you should try to be less … theatrical.’
His mouth curled in a slow smile. ‘Very little worries me, Mistress.’
Kate believed him. She was also coming to see why he might find it handy to have his groom carry a knife.
‘That’s nice,’ she said coolly. ‘But if it’s true, why are we having this conversation?’
‘You’re not enjoying it?’
‘Am I supposed to?’
‘Of course. I’m giving you the chance to decide precisely why I intrigue you.’
Kate shut her mouth and allowed her lungs time to re-inflate. Then she said sweetly, ‘There you go again. Making assumptions.’
‘I don’t think so.’ And with an apparent change of subject, ‘You were not enjoying yourself yesterday afternoon.’
Disconcerted, she said, ‘How do you know?’
‘You looked bored. And a little irritable.’ This time the smile was different; as provoking as it was attractive. ‘And then you sat up and looked neither.’
Kate flushed. ‘You think that was your doing?’
He really was outrageous. Outrageous, conceited, utterly infuriating … and right.
‘Not,’ she snapped, ‘in the way you obviously think.’
He said nothing but his expression of subtly amused disbelief made Kate want to hit him. She said, ‘If you must know, I wondered why your face seemed familiar. And then, of course, I realised. You look like Lucifer.’
Against all expectation, laughter flared in the dark eyes and he said, ‘You’re by no means the first person to think that … but not, usually, without some degree of prior acquaintance.’
‘I believe you,’ replied Kate. A second ago she’d wanted to hit him; now she was trying not to laugh. The switch was oddly exhilarating. ‘But I wasn’t actually calling you the devil incarnate.’
‘Should I be relieved?’
‘Perhaps. I was referring to our chapel ceiling at home. There’s an extravagant but rather beautiful painting of the Fall of Lucifer … and the resemblance to yourself is quite uncanny.’ She smiled cheerfully at him. ‘If you care to visit us some time, I’d be delighted to show it to you.’
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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 has a fondness for men with long hair – hence her 17th and 18th century heroes.
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Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stella-Riley/e/B0034PB7UU/