LOST CALLING is not a Grailkeeper
Book. Not exactly.
True, there are definite goddess elements 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. And Book 7, Maggi's story, will have a Grailkeeping subplot.
There is definite overlap.
But all that said? These are still part of their own miniseries, 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!
However, read on for:
"I read this book with such glee, with such delight, that I had a hard time putting it down to take a shower, to brush my teeth, to live my life.... A+. Superb!!! This book is a freaking masterpiece."
This book had everything you could ask for in a romantic suspense--non-stop adventure, sizzling sexual tension, and a poignant emotional grip that will keep you glued to the pages.... LOST CALLING is the perfect showcase of Ms. Vaughn's talent and proves, without a doubt, why she is a master of the genre. I can't wait for the next book, and when you read it, neither will you.
"LOST CALLING by Evelyn Vaughn is a fast-paced, gripping tale."
"With chilling situations and an intriguing mystery surrounding the main characters, Evelyn Vaughn has penned a story which is riveting on every page... LOST CALLING is absolutely a must-read, plus it is an outstanding beginning to a compelling miniseries."
ONCE, during the terror of the French Revolution, a handful of women fought for starving citizens, rescued innocents marked for deathand watched their dreams drown in a sea of blood. They risked their lives for a collection of ancient Madonna artifacts, in the hopes that someday one of their descendents might use them to save the world.
That first earthquake was not my fault.
Even if God did smite sinners, would He not use the usual thunderbolts? I am no saint. But even I haven't the conceit to claim an entire natural disaster!
My grandmother could. One of her favorite sayings was, "This is your fault, Catrina." But I digress.
A rush of feathers and coos startled me from self pity as I strolled from the hospital. Grateful for the distraction, I looked up. Doves burst from the sycamore trees lining the avenue and scattered into the blue Parisian sky.
I glanced over my shoulder to see that, certainement, the slight, gray-haired figure who'd been following me on and off for more than a week had returned as well.
I ignored him to look back to the birds.
"What is wrong now?" I whispered--by the way, I am French, but I will translate for you.
I snorted at my understatement. A great deal was wrong. I had gone months without a lover. My job as curator at the prestigious Musée Cluny dissatisfied me of late. That damned old man really was following me, though I had yet to manage a confrontation--I feared he had something to do with a past mistake of which I am not proud. And the grandmother who had raised me, no matter how poorly, lay dying in the nearby Hôpital Saint-Vincent de Paul.
But did I mention, months without a lover?
Fine. If you must know, my grandmother was of even greater concern than my sex life or the mysterious old man, at the moment. Grand-mère disliked me even more than I disliked her, but in a rare attempt at decency, I had just visited her.
Who would have thought so old and sick a woman could shout so loudly or throw flowers with such vehemence? But today, our mutual disdain had held a terrible undercurrent of finality.
Far easier to worry about birds.
At first, I thought I heard the rumble of a truck's approach. But I saw only automobiles and scooters darting along the Avenue Denfert Rochereau. A young couple, strolling and cuddling ahead of me, looked about in concern. Springtime in Paris meant music and sunshine and love and flowers and birds
Fleeing, frightened birds.
My legs trembled, as if the visit with Grand-mère had upset me more than I cared to admit. Unlikely. Finally, I recognized the sensation from my two years in the USA.
In California, to be exact.
Logic denied my unsteady legs. Surely not. In Paris?
Then the sidewalk rolled, buckled. I fell hard against an iron fence circling a sycamore and caught at it, clung to it. Other pedestrians ran or stumbled, their shouts half-lost beneath the earth's alien growl.
So much for logic. An earthquake. In Paris.
Losing my balance on the pitching pavement, I managed to secure one elbow around an iron bar, trying to take everything in. The old man had caught himself against a lamppost. Even in the chaos, his stare unnerved me. The young couple stumbled together. Her hand wrenched from his as she fell to the asphalt.
The bastard ran on without her. Over the woman's screams for him--his name, it seems, was Eduard--the very earth began to shriek in protest, like something huge and maddened.
Clinging beside the sycamore, on my knees to lower my center of balance, I watched a crack open and dart into the road, quick, like the run in a nylon, but not as straight. This was worse than I'd seen in California.
It ran right under Eduard's lover's hips.
Her screams choked into horrified whimpers.
The crack widened beneath her. Jagged chunks of concrete crumbled into the fissure spreading, gaping across the avenue. Dust plumed upward. A smell of tearing cement burned the air. Once-solid ground shifted, sagged. The din crushed my ears.
And that foolish, abandoned girl had to look over at me, wide eyes brimming with terror.
I am no saint, but merde.
I tried reaching toward her with one hand, hoping the little fence would hold "Quick! Come here!"
Since she may have been a tourist, I repeated the command in English. Then exasperated German.
Surely the little fool understood something!
All she had to do was crawl toward me. Instead, as one of her knees dropped into the widening crevice beneath her, she began to weep.
Better her than me. Lest it escaped you, I am not a very nice person. And yet she looked so very helpless.
With a groan of disgust, I loosened my elbow-hold on the fence and attempted to hang on with one hand, tight and sweaty on the iron. I stretched closer toward the girl. "Now!"
She stared at me and trembled. My fingers began to slip on the age-pitted iron. I wanted my elbow hold back.
"Fine," I screamed at her. "Die, then!"
The motivational ploy, were it one, had no effect. Suddenly the ground heaved harder, surging up, then dropping. The crack stretched wider, now gushing dust. Steel reinforcing bars ripped from the buckling concrete they had once supported. The girl's legs dropped into the opening, as if the earth were swallowing her. Her nails tore on the pavement as she tried to hold on.
Gravity sucked her downward.
And unexpectedly--under some sisterhood impulse?--I let go of the fencing and dove for her. Spread flat across the walkway, I reached for her wrists with both hands and actually succeeded in catching one. That gave me purchase to grab the other and hold on
As she dropped deeper into the fissure and my chin slammed into the asphalt, I recognized my mistake. I swore. Loudly.
I was not saving her. She was dragging me down.
This is why I avoid being nice! Now I could not let go even if I tried, not without beating her off. The idiot dug into my wrists with what nails she had left, sweat stinging the wounds she inflicted. Straining, to escape as much as hold her, I tried to bury my face into my own shoulder, to catch even one breath that wasn't thick with debris. I choked instead. I couldn't get my knees beneath me. I couldn't find purchase. My body slid inexorably toward the widening hole.
With a final shriek, the girl vanished into the road's gaping maw. I lurched forward with her, then caught on the edge. Jagged asphalt cut me under my arms as I momentarily held her. She kicked and writhed upward--now she struggled to live?
My arms felt pulled from my shoulder sockets as I inched forward. Downward. The lip of torn rock dragged past my breasts. Past my ribs. I was hanging headfirst, into depths I could only imagine. For the record? I dislike heights. And then--
Then I dropped into the void.
This is your fault, Catrina, I thought, as dusty darkness swallowed me. Worse, I knew of nobody who would even care.
Except perhaps the mysterious old man. Depending on why he was following me in the first place.
* * *
Regaining consciousness was a pleasant surprise, relatively speaking. I ached from scrapes, bruises and pulled muscles. My wrists bled from the helpless girl's nails. I'd landed on something hard and uneven, so my back half felt little better.
On the plus side, I was alive. I am quite the fan of survival. Especially my own.
The earth no longer pitched. It loomed in total stillness, as earth should. Compared to the chaos of before, the muffled cries from the street above and the distant car horns and wailing sirens seemed almost peaceful.
Dust-thick sunlight and sycamore leaves filtered down past broken pavement perhaps four or five meters above me. Nothing more damaging seemed in immediate danger of crashing down. On the ground just in front of me....
Amidst some dirty white fragments, a small key gleamed.
Perhaps I could not think clearly. Oddly drawn, still gathering my senses, I reached, touched it...
A sea of red--red hats, that is. A drumroll. Uncertain steps to the scaffold. She clenches her teeth, tries to breathe past the stench of blood-soaked wood. She mustn't vomit the swallowed key, or the soldiers will find it, might find everything. If she must die, her secret must go with her.
Better it lie dormant than be destroyed.
They strap her, standing, to the bascule. It, and she, drop into place. Now her neck fits easily into the lunette, sticky with the fresh blood of her sisters, her friends, blood that stains the basket into which she must stare.
It is either that, or close her eyes. And her eyes will close soon enough.
The crowd shouts encouragement to the executioner and insults at her. They call her a traitor--she, whose idealism helped launch the utopia that has now maddened into slaughter. Here lies proof that her ideals were born too soon. Such savagery is no way to change the world.
Certainly not the way to change it into any place she would wish to live.
As ever, she tries to distract herself with story. This is when the hero should arrive, sword flashing and musket barking, to save her. It does not work. Her hero is long gone.
The drum roll reverberates louder, louder, or is that her racing heart? Then, worse--it stops. Does the executioner move? Is that the sudden slide of the blade?
Somehow--impossibly, wonderfully--she pushes herself backward. She wrenches free of the ties binding her to the bascule--were they not properly fastened?--and rolls to her feet, blind to the deadly thud behind her.
There remains a chance. Still a chance!
I blinked, swallowed hard and quickly pushed myself into a sitting position. Something bit into my hand. I looked down to realize that I had cut my palm on a broken rib bone. Not mine.
That was somewhat less disturbing than the vision of blood and guillotines that had shaken me. Even when I shifted my gaze.
An unattached skull leered back at me as if delighted for the company. Near it, arm missing and chest half shattered....
Apparently, I had landed on a skeleton. Perhaps a victim of the Revolution? To consider that would involve remembering the vision, which I was not ready to do. Instead, I drew my knees beneath me. Now I noticed a second skeleton, and a third. They lay in a hewn cave the size of a freight elevator, cluttered with rubble and debris.
I stopped counting when I noticed the girl who'd dragged me down. Unlike my other companions here she moaned, alive.
Absently pocketing the key, I crawled past another skeleton to reach her and touched her shoulder.
She opened her eyes with a start, looked past me...
...and began screaming. Loudly. With echoes.
"Stop that!" I've often wondered if slapping hysterics will really silence them, or if that is merely dramatic convention. I was quite ready to try it, but she slumped to the floor, unconscious. So instead, I looked over my shoulder.
A white avalanche of skulls and femurs and hipbones sloped downward from the remaining rock overhang to the floor. We'd fallen into the catacombs.
We weren't wholly safe. There might still be aftershocks. The earthquake itself.
My cat, I thought fleetingly. The museum. My flat.
Those had to wait.
The catacombs are not as popular a tourist site as the Tour Eiffel or the Moulin Rouge. But I'm no tourist. As a teenager, I'd played at being a "cataphile," dating a budding anarchist who'd delighted in urban exploration beyond the city's "do not enter" signs. We'd found hidden routes into the labyrinth from Metro tunnels and sewer systems, him for the sheer thrill of it. Me, I'd gone for the history, too, and the defiance.
And for the unabashed sex.
Thus I was familiar with the catacombs' raison d'etre. By the late eighteenth century, the cemeteries of Paris had overflowed with remains. The solution? Quietly disinter several graveyards and move the skeletons into deserted limestone quarries. Over the next few decades, approximately six million bodies were relocated and stacked for maximum efficiency into an estimated 300 kilometersthat means 185 milesof tunnels.
"Hello?" called a female voice from above. "Are you okay?"
I squinted upward but, against crumbling bits of rock and the mote-thick sunshine, I could only tell that our would-be rescuer could not be much older than methirtyas she leaned well over the edge of the rift with no apparent fear of falling.
"Define 'okay,'" I challenged. The girl beside me moaned.
The woman up top laughed an infectiously bright, musical laugh, as if I had intended to amuse her. I had not. "I saw you help that girl. That was so noble!" Perhaps she thought that excused her informal tu. She spoke fluently, but was not French.
Since I do not laugh so easily, I said, "Is it bad?" The only sirens I could hear remained distant. I imagined collapsed buildings, broken gas mains, fallen trees. Emergency services were likely too busy to get to us, just yet.
"The landlines aren't working, and nobody's mobile phones will turn on. But some men are bringing a fire hose," the woman said. "I'm Scarlet, by the way. Scarlet Rubashka. I was on my way to the observatory to watch the solar flares when the earthquake hit. Can you believe it? An earthquake in Paris. I never would have imagined I'd get pictures of something like that. I'm a photographer. What's your name?"
A nearby gasp distracted me from this seemingly endless exposition. The girl beside me had come to again. Her eyes widened--
I put my hand over her mouth, before she could start. "I am Catrina Dauvergne," I told them both. "And my head hurts."
Only when the younger woman recovered herself enough to blink a few times did I carefully move my hand.
"My ankle hurts," she said forlornly. Then she gasped and recoiled. A huge fire-hose nozzle landed beside me, its heavy canvas hose flopping across my head, and I understood what had frightened her this time.
"Oops," called Scarlet Rubashka, from above. "Sorry!"
They'd tied knots into the hosemore like loose loops, fire hoses not being particularly flexibleas hand- and footholds for us to climb. Because of the girl's twisted ankle, I wrapped the hose around her so that the men up top could lift her.
More crumbs of pavement rained down as they did. I backed into a shadowy corner, out of the worst of the stony deluge, and tried to convince myself I wouldn't be buried alive. Alone.
Then again, with five or six skeletal friends lying about me, not counting the thousands of partials that made up the debris of the back wall, I would not be alone, would I?
"Eduard!" exclaimed the girl happily from above me, as she reached safety. "You're safe!"
I rolled my eyes--and Scarlet, again leaning over the edge to keep watch on me, laughed. I could make out her fiery red halo of short, dyed hair.
"Now you, Catrina!" she called, as soon as they'd freed the hose and again dropped it. This time it did not hit me. "Hurry, before this place caves in!"
As I stepped forward, I kicked something. Under centuries of dust and dirt, in the filtered light, it looked like a large jar, cracked but held together with wire wrapped around it. Near it lay the rotting remains of a wooden form with the sloped top of a letterbox, like a portable writing desk. How very odd.
The catacombs only held bodies, not belongings. Who would be buried with her writing desk?
"Please, Catrina," called Scarlet, as if she truly cared. Considering her easy smiles and laughter, she probably was one of those women who truly did care. About almost everything. Especially puppies and bunny rabbits.
I sighed, shook my head, and reached to catch one of the loops in the fire hose. My cut hand hurt as I tested my weight. Then I found a foothold in the lowest loop, and pulled my aching body upward.
Once my feet left the ground I began to spin in long slow circles. More debris broke loose from where the hose rubbed the edge of the broken pavement, and I ducked my head. This would be more difficult than I'd anticipated. Groping above me, I found another loop of canvas, steadied myself as much as I could while spinning, and rose upward for a better foothold.
"Is the damage extensive?" I called, thinking again of my cat.
"Only right here, that I can see," Scarlet assured me. "It's odd that this one spot was hit so hard. Only three windows were broken, across the street. You're halfway there."
Dangling two meters from the ground, ducking my face away from the hail of dust and rock, I got my first full view of the underground vault into which I'd dropped.
Five skeletal bodies lay there, all beheaded. But unlike most residents of the catacombs, their heads had been kept with their bodies. So had a jumble of belongings--not only the letter box and the jar, but a whole scattering of moldy books, dishes, cutlery, even piles of rotting clothing. Clothing! From an era when it was unpatriotic to waste goods that other citizens could use, and when unpatriotic activities got one killed.
Well... perhaps from that era. Nothing of the debris denied my guess at the late eighteenth century.
This was not part of the standard catacombs. With no way in nor out, it had remained hidden for over two hundred years. A story waited here, a mystery. A history in danger of being obliterated by either a cave in or road crews.
"Can't you make it?" called Scarlet, sounding worried. "Shall we try to pull you up too?"
Once I left, how would I keep their story from vanishing?
The history of it called to me--and history is one thing I can never resist. I adore everything old, except my grandmother. So if neither my cat nor my employer immediately needed me....
I secured my handhold on the fire hose, hung for a long, spinning, thoughtful moment, swallowed hardand let go.
This time, at least, I landed feet first.
"Catrina!" cried Scarlet.
"This is an archeological find," I called upward. "Someone should document and clear it before the city fills it in."
"Or before it collapses on your head?" Ah, so the redhead wasn't merely sweetness and light. That was somehow a relief.
"I will take that chance. I'll need lumber to shore up the walls. Lights of course. Photography equipment."
Merde. What I needed most was someone with true archeological training. Someone whom I could trust not to contaminate the site or to steal from it. And I trust so few....
To complicate matters, the professionals might be more concerned with damage suffered by the older Notre Dame or Sacre Coeur than this little time capsule.
One face flashed through my memory, as forcefully as my earlier vision of blood and beheadings. My immediate enthusiasm for the idea worried me, as he would not want to come--but come he would. The echoes of the past, from every corner of this little lost cave, worried me more. This was their chance to be understood, to be heard.
I will do anything to protect the past. Anything.
"Scarlet," I called, as if this new stranger and I were indeed friends. "I need to send for somebody at the Sorbonne. His name is Rhys Pritchard. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes, but Catrina, your grandfather." Scarlet paused, looking around. "That's strange. He's gone."
I have no living grandfather--but I suspected I knew whom she meant. That damned old man. "What about him?"
"He said for me to tell you that he's now convinced the Black Madonna lives. Does that make sense to you?"
It did not. But neither did his very presence.
Or an earthquake. In Paris.
(For Readers' Groups)
1) Consider the title of the book. There are several characters or situations which involve the loss of a spiritual calling, either a personal calling or a whole movement. What examples can you think of? In what ways do the callings remain lost, and in what ways are they rediscovered?
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 in Catrina? How about in Scarlet?
4) The Black Madonna of the "Marians" in the Madonna Key series is distinct from other Black Madonnas in three main ways: 1) she has a key, 2) she has a sword, 3) she has a large white jug. What do you suppose each of these items could mean, symbolically speaking?
5) How many examples of keys and locks can you name throughout the book? Did you notice Pierre Grimaud's profession?
6) Catrina presents herself as abrasive and unrepentant. However, LOST CALLING allows us to see behind that hard front to the uncertainties beneath. How does reading the story in first person, from her point of view, mold your perception of Catrina? How might you react to her if you could not see the thoughts and feelings motivating her words and actions?
7) Could you keep track of the flashback story involving Lisse and the Sisters of Mary (Soeurs de Marie)? Did anything surprise you about it? What did it add to the book? Would you have liked to see more, or less?
8) Rhys Pritchard is a virgin and a pacifist. Does this make him come across as a wimp? Why or why not? In what ways is he still a strong hero?
9) Would you have thought characters like Rhys and Catrina would make a good romantic pairing? Do you think so now? Why or why not?
10) Were you surprised by the secret revealed about Joshua Adriano, during the Black Madonna Exhibit at the Cluny? What do you suppose is the symbolic significance of Joshua and Rhys favoring each other (in body types and coloring?)
11) Book #2 in The Madonna Key series, HAUNTED ECHOES, features Ana Reisner, from Interpol. Book #4, DARK REVELATIONS, features Aubrey de Lune, the antiquities thief. Any guesses what their stories might be about?