Subplot. So it is both a Madonna Key book and a Grail Keeper book. Remember: Never trust either/or's!
There are definite goddess elements in the Madonna Key series as, through the seven books by six authors, the heroines investigate who, exactly, the image of the Black Madonna DOES represent. And the heroines of Book 1 and Book 6 will be familiar to readers of Evelyn Vaughn's Grailkeeper series.
But all that said? These are still part of their own miniseries as well, THE MADONNA KEY. This miniseries was put together not just by Evelyn Vaughn but by Jenna Mills, Lorna Tedder, Sharron McClellan, Cindy Dees, Carol Stephenson, and Vicki Hinze (whose schedule did not allow the writing of a book). For more information about the entire series, click on the Key, up top. And be sure to check out the FREE ONLINE PREQUEL, False Idols by Jenna Mills, available on eHarlequin!
"Evelyn Vaughn is a master of suspense and SEVENTH KEY is just one example. This stunning conclusion of the MADONNA KEY series is one heart stopping turn after another. Her characters will draw you into their lives as though they were your family, and your emotions will become completely entwined with theirs."
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 someday their descendents would survive to save the world.
I regained consciousness slowly. For awhile, 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, almost too awful to face through the disorientation of the drugs—except for one thing. Despite the temptation to drift back into that painless place, even my addled brain knew 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 PhD, 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 a male voice, nearby.
A sharp pinch in my shoulder—crap!—and I slid back into memory…
* * *
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 swordfight—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. "You… you 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 uncomforttable… but I couldn’t concentrate, anymore.
My second-to-the-last thought, as I faded to oblivion, was to notice the pressure in my ears. We were on an airplane....
1)Consider the title of the book. In what way does the concept of the "seventh key" fit the story?
2)The word "Madonna" literally means "my lady" in Italian. In what way are female energies and interests emphasized throughout the book?
3)The Madonna is also a mother figure. What examples can you find of mother issues within this novel? Does the fact that Maggi is a mother in any way enhance or detract from the adventure?
4)How does the fact that Maggi and Lex are already in a committed relationship enhance the romantic aspects of the book? In what ways might it detract from the suspense?
5)How does SEVENTH KEY resolve the current pop-culture debate about the status of Mary Magdalene? Do you agree, disagree, or fall somewhere in-between?
6)Have you read any previous books in the "Madonna Key" series? If so, in what ways did the author maintain consistency of character to the heroes and heroines of those previous books?
CAST OF CHARACTERS: Maggi’s List of Who is Who
•There’s me, Maggi Sanger-Stuart. I’m a Comparative Mythologist in Connecticut, practically a newlywed, and a new mother to boot. Oh, and I’m really into researching and looking for goddess grails. But that doesn’t seem to count as much, this time around.
•Lex Stuart (Alexander Rothschild Stuart III), my husband. Yes, that Lex Stuart. He’s a lot more wealthy, powerful, and secretive than I would have initially chosen, but you can’t fight love. Or in this case, why would I?
•Kestrel Stuart, our beloved baby daughter. We would both die for her if necessary, but we’d rather live for her.
THE MARIANS AND THEIR FAMILIES:
•Nadia Bishop, Lex’s childhood friend from England, a sexy former MI-6 agent.
•Lexie Bishop, Nadia’s two-year-old daughter. Yes, her name really is Alexandria Bishop, like my husband’s is Alexander Stuart. But there’s a reason for that.
•Olga Ward . She’s an older woman, but still kick-butt, especially for a nanny. Really. She was Nadia’s nanny, and now she’s Lexie’s nanny, and I think there’s an even closer connection, but I could be wrong.
•Joshua Adriano, Italian, little Lexie’s long-lost father. Nadia kept him unaware of Lexie’s existence because he’s an Adriano (see bad guys, below). Luckily, he’s a good guy now, and they’re engaged. He also has a son, four-year-old Benny Adriano, by his first wife Pauline.
•Ana Reisner Fraser, who works with Interpol. Or, she does when she’s not on maternity leave. She’s an even newer mother than I.
•Robert Fraser, Scottish, is Ana’s husband. He seems to have done some time for art theft. He also seems to have gone straight.
•Mara Fraser, Ana and Robert’s newborn daughter. Adorable, but frighteningly fragile.
•Catrina Dauvergne, French, is a museum curator. There’s been bad blood between us in the past, but she’s come a long way. So why do I still dislike her so much? Probably….
•Rhys Pritchard, Welsh, former priest and current archeology student. Rhys and I are very good friends, and once even flirted at a romance. Now he’s “living in sin” with Catrina. Go figure.
•Eve Petter is better known as Eve St. Giles, the epidemiologist who helped stop that outbreak of the Spanish flu in Switzerland last autumn.
•Nick Petter, her old boyfriend and new husband, is a security specialist but was once in the Swiss Guard until he took a bullet for the Pope. That’s why he walks with a limp.
•Laurel and Phillipe Fouquet, ten and eight respectively, are Eve’s niece and nephew. Eve and Nick are in the process of adopting them, since they lost their mother—Eve’s sister—in that same outbreak.
•Tru Palmer turns out to be “of the Boston Palmers,” but Lex caught that, she’s not advertising it. She is a geo-physicist by profession and a dowser by nature. And she is engaged to….
•Griffin Sinclair, who apparently does security and liaison work for the oil company that formerly employed Tru. He’s got similar military bearing to Nick Petter. They have no children.
•Aubrey de Lune, when she’s anywhere near the Marian headquarters, tends to stay away from the windows or even in the basement, that’s how serious she is about the Adriano family not knowing she’s still alive. Apparently she worked with them for some years as an antiquities thief, before recognizing their true villainy and turning on them. There’s something sweet going on between her and….
•Eric Cabordes, one of the Adriano guards. Really. He was little Benny Adriano’s bodyguard until everything started falling apart for the family, and now he’s acting as a kind of double-agent between the Marians and the Adrianos.
•Scarlet Rubashka is no longer with us, but much of what the Marians discovered, they learned through her ideas. Also, it turns out she was Nadia’s long-lost twin sister!
Simon Adriano is the current head of the family, and because of his determination to use ancient secrets to bring about an apocalypse, leaving Europe ready for new leadership—him—he’s lost almost all of the rest of them, including his youngest son Joshua (Nadia’s fiancé). And he’s turned on the rest, including Benny (Joshua’s little boy) and….
Max Adriano, Simon’s eccentric old father. He’s been helping the Marians for awhile now, claiming to have had a change of heart, but in the past he was only a few degrees nicer than Hitler, so you have to take that with a grain of salt.
Pauline Adriano is Joshua’s ex-wife and Benny’s mommy. Her current relationship with former father-in-law Simon is hard to grasp just now. We don’t like her.
Aaron and Caleb Adriano were Simon’s first and second sons. They died, Caleb quite recently.
SEVENTH KEY is my third book to feature Maggi and Lex. Check out AKA GODDESS and HER KIND OF TROUBLE if you want to see how their relationship developed to this point.
I like to put together playlists when I'm working on a book--songs that bring the characters and their situations more closely to the surface. Some songs fit better than others! But if you're curious, take a look!
For the MADONNA KEY situation, a couple of songs that fit too well were "Age of Aquarius" (by the 5th Dimension) and "The End of the World as We Know it" (REM).
MAGGI songs have, in the past, included "Promises in the Dark" (Pat Benatar) and "Holding out for a Hero" (Bonnie Tyler) -- in fact, a working title for AKA GODDESS was PROMISES IN THE DARK. LEX songs have, in the past, included "White Flag" (Dido) and "Wild Horses" (The Sundays) -- his level of devotion to Maggi amazes me. Together, their songs are: "Let's Stay Together" (Al Greene); "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" (Barry White); and "Everything" (Lifehouse). But connected specifically to the Madonna Key series? Check out "Song of Songs" by William Ackerman. Is that cool, or what?
Be sure to check out the website for the entire Madonna Key series!!!
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Okay, admit it -- some of you think Kestrel is a weird name for a child! And yet that's what Maggi and Lex have named their daughter. What's up with that? Remember that they got pregnant while in Egypt, on an adventure concerning the goddess Isis. "Isis" seemed too exotic a name for the baby. "Cairo" sounds like a stripper! While "Alexandria" would include her father's name (Lex is an Alexander), it's a problem in that a) Lex still wants to name any son they have Alexander, and b) He has a beloved goddaughter named Alexandria--for more on her, check out Jenna Mills VEILED LEGACY. When Isis and Osirus had a child, he was the hawk-god Horus. So Maggi and Lex started looking at neames related to hawks and falcons--which led them to Kestrel. While it's an unusual name (per Apple and Suri?), she frankly wouldn't have a normal life even if they named her Jane. So Kestrel it is!
About the Cover....
This is not how I picture Lex, at all. I just wanted you to know that. Lex should be somehow... golden. And he doesn't wear ascots! But that said? I love how earthy Maggi looks, and I love how distinct her chalice-well pendant is. I love the way the jar has been featured, and the plane in the background, and Edinburgh castle beneath. All in all, it's a good cover!