Seventh Key (Silhouette Bombshell #121)

Seventh Key (Silhouette Bombshell #121)

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by Evelyn Vaughn

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Married to one of the richest men alive, she was a kidnapping target. But Maggi Sanger-Stuart never took the threat seriously—until she and her baby were abducted. It wasn't her husband's fortune they demanded. No, the notorious Adriano family wanted Maggi's expertise on ancient artifacts—and they'd hold her daughter until Maggi obeyed their orders. … See more details below


Married to one of the richest men alive, she was a kidnapping target. But Maggi Sanger-Stuart never took the threat seriously—until she and her baby were abducted. It wasn't her husband's fortune they demanded. No, the notorious Adriano family wanted Maggi's expertise on ancient artifacts—and they'd hold her daughter until Maggi obeyed their orders.

But if Maggi does bring them the mysterious Black Madonna mosaic, the Adrianos will use its legendary power to destroy Europe. Millions will die. Now, with the help of her powerful husband, Maggi has just hours to find the key to the mosaic's power before all she loves is lost forever.

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Madonna Key
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Once, not long after the Romans crucified a prophet and kindled a religious revolution, a handful of woman refugees arrived in Southern Gaul. Their leadership revived an ancient tradition of priestesses, spreading good news and wisdom while guarding against the rise of patriarchal fears, in hopes that their descendents would survive and someday save the world.

I regained consciousness slowly. For a while, I hung in grayness, almost able to believe this was only a nightmare.

Then I tasted the very real gag in my mouth--folded silk against my tongue--and I knew better. Fear hit me, the reality of my situation almost too awful to face through the disorientation of the drugs. Yet despite the temptation to drift back into that painless place, even my addled brain knew there was one precious thing that made facing reality worth any price.

I concentrated on finding my hands. I had trouble with even that, through the haze. Fingers. I had fingers, right?

Pretty basic thought processes for someone with a Ph.D., but a struggle. A memory of baby talk flirted with me: Are those your fingers? Whose fingers are those...?

No, Maggi. Concentrate. I'd been in tight spots before, hadn't I? My fingers curled at my command.

A mechanical purr surrounded me. An engine. Was I in a truck? A plane? I fought all distractions, even the memory of how I might have gotten here or who had taken me. Freedom first. Now that I'd established fingers, I focused on my tied hands. I began to flex my wrists, just a bit. If I figured out the bonds, maybe I could slip them. Once I freed my hands, then I could consider--

"She's moving," said amale voice, nearby.

A sharp pinch in my shoulder--crap!--and I slid back into memory....

And motherhood.

Having a baby is life altering--and I don't just mean the leaky breasts, time off work or baby-proofed house. I mean, it changes you. Me at least. I was still Magdalene Sanger-Stuart, a comparative mythology instructor for a small northeastern college, still somewhat tall, still brown-haired. I was still a grailkeeper, intent on finding the sacred cups of ancient goddess worshippers for the empowerment of women. I was still very much in love with my new husband, Lex Stuart.

Yes, that one. Billionaire Alexander Rothschild Stuart III, and you don't know the half of it.

But all of that, all of it, was now filtered through the ever-present awareness of my baby daughter, Kestrel.

One of the many ways this manifested was that I now kept track of time by how old Kestrel was.

I first learned about the Black Madonnas after getting home from the hospital with my two-weeks-early redheaded offspring. Of course I'd heard about Black Madonnas--comparative mythologist, remember? "Black Madonnas" are black-skinned representations of the Virgin Mary. Usually the term refers to older works--they were the big thing during the Middle Ages, at the same time that a record number of cathedrals were named Notre Dame and subversive troubadours sang of a divine and unattainable lady. I've always believed there was something pagany about that gothic fad--see above: goddess grails.

But the Black Madonnas that my friend Rhys Pritchard called about from Paris sounded different from the norm.

"You should be with your baby," he insisted, once I told him the good news. Considering that we'd once flirted at a romance ourselves, barely a year earlier, Rhys's congratulations sounded remarkably heartfelt. "I can call at a better time."

"This is a perfect time," I insisted. Actually, I had uncomfortably engorged porn-star breasts and was wearing a sanitary napkin manufactured for a race of giants. But I'd dropped into a comfortable chair in my embarrassingly fine new Connecticut home when I answered the phone. Compared to other adventures I'd had--like being thrown in front of a subway train in France, scuba diving in storm conditions off Egypt and more than one real sword fight--this was bearable.

And I couldn't help but think that maybe, just maybe, I ought to spend a few minutes focusing on something other than the timbre of my baby's cry or the color of her poo. "Kestrel's asleep with her daddy. So tell me about these Black Madonnas."

"The iconography's unique. She's wearing a sword, and holding not just the child but a key. She has a white jug or jar at her feet, similar to--"

"Mary Magdalene," I finished for him, about the jar. Intriguing! Having had that name my whole life, it was good to see the Magdalene finally getting some good press and losing the trumped-up prostitute image. But despite recent rumors about her own motherhood...a Madonna? I wasn't quite ready to go that far. Rhys and I talked for a few minutes about the similarity of Madonnas to Isis statuary--Isis had been popular for thousands of years before Mary. She held a child, and was often represented as black. We speculated on the possibility of her blackness being symbolic--a mix of all colors, or the absence of all colors. Then Rhys mentioned a more disturbing bit of information. "The relics are Catrina's, actually. Catrina Dauvergne's. She found them. We're...together now."

There'd been bad blood between me and that museum curator.

"Ah," I said, and shifted with lingering discomfort. Just afterpains and muscle soreness, I think. Catrina Dauvergne seemed surprisingly unimportant just then. "Good for her."

That's when my husband, Lex, made his entrance, wearing only pajama pants, cradling our tiny darling against his bare, scar-etched chest. Lex's hair was a ginger brown, though it had been red in his childhood, and he carried himself like royalty. Kestrel's head was pointy, her eyes barely focused and her little mouth hung open, as if to taste the world around her.

They were beautiful together.

Their presence seemed easily as important as Rhys saying, "You heard about the earthquakes here in France? We suspect they may have been induced, and that they're somehow related to the Black Madonnas Catrina and I found."

"Are you okay?" I thought to ask, but when Rhys assured me that they needed nothing more than my mythological expertise, I let it go.

See what I mean?


Moisture in my mouth. That's what pulled me back toward consciousness the second time. The gag had been shifted, replaced by a cool, wet cloth. I sucked greedily on it out of pure instinct, like an infant myself, before I even remembered.

I'd been kidnapped. I was being held against my will. And something worse...

I tried to protest, tried to form my cracked lips around words while I could. " have to let us go. My husband--"

Rough hands slid the gag back into place, muffling my cry of protest. I began to thrash then, my hands and feet still tied. I had to escape. I had something precious--

Again, the sharp stab of a hypodermic needle slowed me. My husband.Was this because of Lex? His wealth had always made me uncomfortable. But I couldn't concentrate anymore.

My second-to-last thought as I faded to oblivion was to notice the pressure in my ears. We were on an airplane.

Kestrel was about three months old when I heard from Ana Reisner Fraser, an art specialist for Interpol's Cultural Property Division, with questions about ley lines.

"I hope you don't mind," she said over our speaker phone.

"Rhys Pritchard gave me your name. He said you specialize in mythology of the, er, feminine persuasion?"

"Goddesses." I grinned as I turned down the radio in the midst of a newscast about the second big storm to hit Europe in a week. I'd been moving around the spacious kitchen, chopping and storing snack vegetables. In the adjacent dining nook Kestrel lay on her tummy, on a quilt, lifting her head to look at the dog. Our huge Irish wolfhound lay three feet away with his nose on his paws, watching her right back. "Yes, he said you might call."

"I'll get right to the point, then. Are you aware of any connections between the divine feminine and ley lines?"

That was an interesting question, and for a while we happily discussed all the possibilities. Supposedly, ley lines are channels of power just below the surface of the earth. Imagine a topographic map of the world. Then imagine a huge, rough net of string. Imagine laying the net over the map, and the earth sort of...soaking it up, to hide it. And now imagine currents of energy, running through those threads like underground rivers. That's what ley lines are.

"The main connection to goddesses would be an Earth Mothery Gaia consciousness," I suggested. "If the earth is a woman, the ley lines are her circulatory system. Or maybe her nerve network. Iffy analogy. this connected to the Black Madonnas Rhys mentioned?"

I hadn't been actively involved in any goddess quests since the week of my wedding--long story, that. I'd been four months pregnant at the time, so that adventure hadn't been on purpose. A few months later I'd given financial assistance to a nurse from Chicago who was doing the work I'd temporarily abandoned, and we'd kept in touch. Other than that, I'd been on a sabbatical.

Ana confirmed my guess. She and a group of friends, including Rhys, Catrina and Ana's new husband, Robert, were pursuing proof that a cult of women they called "Marians" had worshipped an unorthodox version of the Mary figure. The movement seemed to have existed since the Middle Ages, and even included queens such as Elizabeth I of England and her rival, Mary Stuart of Scotland--a distant ancestor of my husband's and thus my baby's.

That explained the sixteenth-century embroidery of a Black Madonna that Catrina Dauvergne had unexpectedly given us for Kestrel, done by the hand of Mary Queen of Scots herself. It was now in the Cloisters museum, being worth millions, and had gone a long way toward easing the bad blood between us.

Now I felt the oddest twinge of...envy? My baby was related to these Marians, but I wasn't. This wasn't my adventure.

Kestrel chose the middle of my conversation withAna to roll over, all by herself, onto her back. She began chortling and blowing raspberries at this accomplishment--a huge milestone for a three-month-old. So she wasn't just Gerber-ad adorable, but quite accomplished, and I knelt to quietly tell her so.

"You've got a baby?" asked Ana, no slouch as an investigator. "How wonderful! Boy or girl?"

As it turned out, Ana had recently discovered she was pregnant, after being told she couldn't conceive. To say our conversation "degenerated" from there would buy into the societal denigration of feminine power. Having a baby is about creating and protecting life, thank you very much--if you think it's easy or unimportant, let's see the guys give it a go!

But I'll admit we got distracted by the benefits of breast-feeding, our preference for the word mother over mom from anyone but that mother's child, and our distaste for women telling labor-and-delivery horror stories to first-time mothers.

"Big surprise--it hurt," I admitted, though I didn't know Ana enough to share that even making love had hurt afterward, the first few times after we'd passed the six-week prohibition. It had been nothing we couldn't overcome.

"But some things are worth the hurting. My husband survived childhood leukemia, and later a knife attack that left him in the hospital for a week. He never complained, through either one. I wanted to show that women can be just as tough."

"So did you?" Ana asked.

"Damn right I did. Not always quiet--" I grinned "--but tough. Nature can be a bitch sometimes, but she usually knows what she's doing."

"Which brings us to..." she said, in reluctant segue, and we were back to ley lines. She feared they were somehow being manipulated to threaten Western Europe. There had been the earthquakes that spring. Then power outages. We could only wonder if the strange weather of late had any connection.

"If only we knew who was doing it,"Ana sighed. "And how!" I considered suggesting an ancient, secret society of powerful men, but decided not to go there. When Lex got home from work that night, he vetoed the idea, as well.

"Dominant powers prefer the status quo," he reminded me, using a bottle to feed pumped breast milk to Kes. He enjoyed his father-daughter time. "People who want more power, or who fear they're losing power--they're the ones who go for desperate measures."

And my husband knew from dominant powers. He was still very much involved with a few of them--maybe too involved--even as I stayed home with our child in our perfect new life.

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