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.
Kate and Eden visit Luciano del Santi … trailed by their younger brother who makes an unexpected discovery
Giacomo beamed. ‘I tell Signor Luciano you are ’ere. ’E is in ’is workshop but for you ’e will come out. Scusi – momento!’
‘Workshop?’ said Toby, on just the right note of appeal.
Giacomo stopped and regarded the boy with benevolence.
‘Si. You ’ave interest? You like to see?’
‘Well,’ said Toby in the tone of one reluctant to give trouble but willing to be persuaded, ‘it’s just that I’ve never – ow!’
Having discreetly trodden on his brother’s foot, Eden smiled at Giacomo and said, ‘Another time, if Signor del Santi permits. We’ve no wish to inconvenience him.’
‘Is not inconvenience – is pleasure!’ cried Giacomo, expansively. ‘Please – you come. The signor will be so ’appy. You come.’
There was no help for it. They went, Toby clattering on in front at Giacomo’s heels.
‘Damn,’ said Eden softly to Kate. ‘Why didn’t I drop him overboard while I had the chance?’
‘No resolution,’ she replied. ‘But don’t worry. You heard what the man said. The signor will be so ’appy.’
She rolled expressive eyes and said nothing.
Ahead of them, Giacomo opened a door and embarked on a vivacious flow of Italian which was immediately stemmed by a brief, pungently delivered sentence in the same language. Kate and Eden exchanged glances and then, arriving in the doorway, looked past Giacomo to the scene within.
His face still marked by fading bruises, Luciano del Santi was in his shirt-sleeves, sitting at a large trestle on which reposed an impressive array of small tools. His concentrated gaze was wholly taken up with the gleaming object held in one long-fingered hand. In shape and size it resembled a chalice, being set upon a delicately slender stem; but the bowl was composed of intricately pierced lattice-work … a spider’s web spun in gold.
The clever hands stilled and, without haste, the Italian looked up at his visitors. The impassive eyes held Kate’s gaze for a couple of seconds and then he said, ‘In a few minutes you will be welcome … but, until then, I would appreciate silence.’ And he turned coolly back to his work.
Somewhere at the back of her mind, Kate discovered the first twinges of respect. If the lovely thing in his hands was of his own creating, then there was more to this man than malicious wit. It did not, she told herself firmly, make him any easier to like; and, with equal firmness, squashed the sneaking suspicion that it added another dimension to the signor’s inexplicable fascination.
Toby, meanwhile, had approached the table so stealthily that no one had noticed him doing it. And when Luciano del Santi finally set the piece down, it was Toby said, ‘Did you make all of that? Yourself, I mean?’
The Italian looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Yes.’
‘How long did it take?’
‘In hours of work? I don’t know. It isn’t important. These things are finished in their own time.’
Toby nodded, apparently understanding this.
‘And is it finished now?’
‘Not quite. There are still some slightly roughened edges here – and here.’ He lifted the goblet for the boy’s inspection and pointed to it in various places. ‘You see? These must be smoothed and polished. And then I shall engrave the base along this curvature here.’
‘And then?’ asked Toby. ‘What is it?’
‘What does it look like?’
‘A wine-cup. But you couldn’t drink out of it. It’s got holes in it.’
Luciano del Santi reached to his left and picked up an object wrapped in a soft cloth. Then, opening it, he placed its contents gently inside the golden web of the chalice.
‘So,’ he said, apparently unaware of the faint breathiness that had suddenly afflicted Kate. ‘The finest amber … I carved it myself. And the gold, you see, is no more than a shell.’
For probably the first time in his life, Toby took at least two minutes to decide what to say. The amber was beautiful and so thin that the light shone through it; and, set in its fragile tracery of gold, it glowed with almost uncanny life. And Toby, looking at it, was consumed by a sudden thirst for knowledge. Drawing a long breath, he stared the Italian straight in the eye and said, ‘Can … can anyone learn to do that?’
‘No.’ The word was bland and unequivocal.
There was a long pause. Then, ‘If you mean, could you learn to work gold – yes. Perhaps. It is a skill and can therefore be taught. If, however, you are asking if you can become a master … then the answer is no. Master-goldsmiths are born, not made. And if you don’t already have the ingredients within you, no one can put them there.’
Again and much to the surprise of Kate and Eden, Toby seemed to accept this without question. He just nodded slowly and said, ‘Will you teach me?’
Luciano del Santi leaned his elbows on the trestle and regarded Toby steadily over his hands. ‘No.’
‘That’s enough, Toby.’ Eden stepped forward and dropped a hand on his young brother’s shoulder. ‘Signor del Santi has been more than patient – so just take no for an answer and stop haranguing him.’
Toby shook off Eden’s hand and stood his ground.
‘Why not?’ he said again.
For the first time since they had come in, a vagrant smile touched the sculpted face.
‘Because I don’t know anything about you. In the last five minutes, you’ve decided you want to be a goldsmith. For all I know to the contrary, yesterday you may have yearned to be a blacksmith and tomorrow, a pastry-cook. I’m not inclined to waste my time.’
‘All right.’ The boy shoved back an unruly lock of dark brown hair from his face and thought about it. ‘I suppose that’s fair. But if I prove I really mean it – then will you teach me?’
‘Toby.’ Eden was beginning to see a chasm yawning ahead. The Italian had been amazingly tolerant so far but it couldn’t last. ‘Toby … for God’s sake, stop arguing.’
‘I’m not arguing,’ said Toby. ‘I’m enquiring.’
Kate stared hard at the floor and tried to straighten out her face.
Luciano del Santi startled them all by laughing.
‘I don’t see what’s so funny,’ Toby objected. ‘I just want to know whether you’ll ever agree to teach me – or whether you’re just making excuses. Because if you won’t teach me, I’ll just have to find someone who will.’
Something in his voice broke through Kate’s amusement and caused her to unlock her tongue. She said, ‘Stop and think what you’re saying, Toby. If you’re serious about this, you’ll need Father’s permission and a formal apprenticeship. You’d have to live away from home and sign away your life for years to – to someone like Signor del Santi. It’s not something to be decided on a moment’s impulse.’
‘I don’t care,’ came the stubborn reply. ‘I want to know how to make things like that … and I shan’t change my mind, no matter what you think.’
Giacomo chuckled and said something in his own language. His master replied with what appeared to be dry humour and then relapsed into silence. Kate decided that a basic grasp of Italian might come in useful.
‘Very well,’ said Luciano del Santi crisply. ‘I’ll make you no promises. Perhaps I’ll teach you – perhaps not. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll allow you the freedom of my workshop. You may come here when you wish and pick up what knowledge you can by watching. I am not always here; but my assistant, Gino, will answer your questions. If you wait for half an hour or so, you can meet him. But what you will not do is to touch anything at all without either his permission or mine. Break that rule even once and there will be no second chance. And if, in the end, I refuse to take you as a pupil, you must accept that I mean it and will not change my mind. Do I make myself quite clear?’
‘Yes.’ Toby flushed and grinned widely. ‘Yes. Thank you.’
Laying his fingers on the table-edge, the Italian rose from his stool and replaced his coat with a caution which reminded Kate that the attack had done more than mark his face. Strangely, she was conscious of a twinge of sympathy that hadn’t been there when Eden had first told her of it.
‘Don’t thank me. Just remember that I’ve promised you nothing. Yet. And now, Giacomo will introduce you to Gino when he comes, while I take your brother and sister upstairs for some refreshment.’ And without waiting for a reply, he crossed a little stiffly to Kate’s side and offered his arm.
She took it, felt herself colouring and was annoyed. It was this, more than anything, that made her say abruptly, ‘Why are you doing this for Toby?’
‘Because he reminds Giacomo of someone.’
Kate shot him a suspicious glance. ‘Who?’
He sighed and, for a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to answer.
Then, ‘Me,’ he said.
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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 7-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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