Selected Works

Historical Fiction
Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance's most notorious family, three outsiders must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power.
The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
The Year of Four Emperors - and four very different women struggling to survive
A brilliant and paranoid Emperor, a wary and passionate slave girl – who will survive?

Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

The Lion and the Rose: The Movie

February 26, 2014

Tags: the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, movie

I always have fun with my yearly “Let's cast my latest book as a movie!” blog post. But with my Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose,” I have a particular dilemma not faced before with any of my other books: there have been a LOT of movies already about the Borgias. Who to cast when so many have been cast already? Here's my version, a mixture of old faces and new:


His Holiness the Borgia Pope has been played, among others, by John Doman and Jeremy Irons. Jeremy Irons was excellent as always, but a bit too languid and refined for the explosive Rodrigo Borgia (in my opinion). John Doman was better, but that flat L.A. accent . . . I think I'll go with Sergi Lopez, who not only can play both sensual and scary (“Him and Her,” “Labyrinth of Pan”) but is a Catalan Spaniard just like the Borgia Pope. Rodrigo's Spanish pride, Spanish temper, and Spanish enjoyment in life's sensual pleasures were defining traits.


Giulia La Bella was sweet, bubbly, petite, voluptuous, and extravagantly blond, so in the Showtime series she was portrayed as a moody redhead (Lotte Verbeek), and on the European series as a bitchy brunette (Marta Gastini). I'm going with Holliday Grainger, who played Lucrezia in the Showtime series. But doesn't she look quite a lot more like the alleged Raphael portrait of Giulia Farnese? And after three seasons of watching her on The Borgias, we know she can show both sweetness and steel.


Giulia's bodyguard is a dwarf, which does limit the question of who can play him. I wouldn't want to shrink an actor down with CGI; dwarfism poses limits on the body—and on Leonello's character—which are critical to his particular brand of cynicism, idealism, and courage. Peter Dinklage is the too-obvious choice, but he's busy playing Tyrion Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” Let's find another fabulous actor with dwarfism and give him a great role as my knife-throwing butt-kicking dwarf with the love of books and the biting tongue.


My secondary heroine is a tall skinny Sicilian girl; a professional chef with a knife up her sleeve, a pocket full of secrets, and a biting tongue. How about Coral Amiga, who not only has the perfect sharp-edged face, frizzy curls, and lanky frame, but showed serious chops on “Rome” as Kevin McKidd's embittered eldest daughter.


There's nobody to play Cesare Borgia but Francois Arnaud. His sexy, sinister Showtime stint as history's ultimate bad boy puts all others in the shade.


Lucrezia goes from twelve to seventeen, so we need an actress who can play both innocent child and sophisticated young wife. Kaitlyn Dever fills the bill—on “Justified” she plays a pretty but cynical fourteen-year-old, and nearly steals the show from Timothy Olyphant. Blond her up a bit and she'll be a great Lucrezia.


David Oakes was Juan Borgia in the Showtime series, and he was fantastic: vicious, handsome, ultimately pathetic. No need to mess with a good thing here.


Jonathan Jackson would work as Giulia's pretty but weak-willed husband. Orsino Orsini is just the type who would have a soul patch and no spine.


Not only is Eddie Redmayne a true ginger with plenty of freckles, just like Carmelina's chef protege Bartolomeo—but he can play younger than his years. Good for a teenage apprentice who bides his time on his crush until he's eighteen, then mounts a campaign to sweep his 7-year-older lady off her feet.

So, that's my fantasy cast for my mythical movie. If you've read my Borgia duology and have your own casting ideas, I'm all ears!

Virtual Potluck, Part II!

February 10, 2014

Tags: blog tour, the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, inn at the crossroads, long past remembered, little white apron, heather webb, outlander kitchen, island vittles, taking on magazines

I'm a foodie at heart—you can always count on there being delicious food in my books. (And the best part about fictional food? Zero calories!) My Borgia duology “The Serpent and the Pearl” and “The Lion and the Rose” has the most mouth-watering food out of anything I've written, because one of my heroines is a chef: Carmelina, a tart-tongued girl with near-magical skill in the kitchen, who has the job as maestra di cucina for the Borgia Pope's mistress.

Serving under her is teenage apprentice Bartolomeo Scappi, a historical figure who will grow up and become one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance—his cookbook is still in print today! Now, it's a curious thing that most of the world's mega-chefs tend to be men, but ask any of them how they learned to cook, and it's always a female name that comes out. (Most usually “Mom” or “Grandma.”) So when I leafed through Bartolomeo Scappi's cookbook, I asked myself “Who taught him all this?” And the answer presented itself: “I'll bet it was a woman.”

Fortunately we know very little about Bartolomeo's beginnings, when he was born, or where he trained, so I was free to invent Carmelina as the girl who teaches the greatest culinary genius of the Renaissance everything he knows. When these two get together in a kitchen, sparks fly, knives are sometimes hurled, and magic happens—along with a lot of great food!

When “The Serpent and the Pearl” was released, I put together a virtual pot-luck with six fabulous food bloggers who combed the book for recipes and trooped off to their kitchens. The results were mouth-watering, and I know we had to host a re-match for “The Lion and the Rose.” Today I'm joined by Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon's fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on "Game of Thrones" recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of "Better Homes and Gardens" and "Bon Appetit" utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Lost Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her
recent smash-hit novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we're all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads: the Roman-style tenderloin Bartolomeo makes when Carmelina's stuck in a convent with the Pope's daughter Lucrezia.

Island Vittles: the candied nuts which all the Borgias are constantly snacking on as they plot. And as a bonus? The fried tubers from the New World, which feature heavily in a scene my readers have taken to calling simply “the aphrodisiac potato scene.”

Little White Apron: the salad of blood orange, fennel, and olives served to the Duke of Gandia, and the beef en brochette served at a very illicit Vatican party.

Lost Past Remembered: the fish pie flavored with oranges, nutmeg and dates which Bartolomeo whips up after changing Carmelina's menu behind her back (and boy, does he get in trouble for that!)

Taking On Magazines did TWO posts! The venison in cream and brandy sauce served after Juan Borgia's latest hunt, and the tortellini with basil and parsley filling with which Bartolomeo hopes to woo Carmelina.

Between The Sheets: the endives stuffed with cheese and drizzled in olive oil which are served at the Menagerie Masquerade Ball, and the pastries layered with honey and blood oranges on which Lucrezia nibbles while waiting for a divorce.

As for me, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled a recipe from Chapter 17 of “The Lion and the Rose:" a walnut and pecorino cheese tourte Carmelina muses on to keep herself sane during a dull period stuck in a convent.

From the book:

"Three eggs, whisked together with a mixture three parts sugar to two parts strawberry honey," I recited aloud as I swept the convent courtyard. "Add two cheeses, a soft sheep's milk cheese and a very fresh pecorino cheese from Pienza, and then a double handful finely chopped walnuts . . ." The lay sisters were supposed to recite their prayers as they went about their work--a rosary, or perhaps an Act of Contrition if they were feeling guilty about anything. I recited recipes.

This is a recipe I got from a little volume of Vatican recipes through the ages, and supposedly dates from the days of Pope Pius II. Given that a handful of walnuts and a hunk of cheese are just about my favorite snack of all time, I was intrigued by the idea of putting them together in a pie, and dying to tackle this for the virtual potluck! I made a few modifications to the ingredients--Wegman's does not carry strawberry honey--but the result is still delicious: a sort of early-Renaissance version of a classic cheesecake. The texture is identical, and the flavor mild and nutty, the saltiness of the pecorino melting into the honey and sugar. If you would like a bolder flavor, dust the top of your tourte with cinnamon instead of powdered sugar. The perfect holiday dessert for that one family member who isn't big on sweets.

Serves 12 -- Prep time 30 minutes -- Cooking time 55 minutes, plus at least 2 hours for chilling

3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/3 cup very fresh grated pecorino cheese
1 cup ricotta cheese
3 cups flour
1 1/2 cups shelled walnuts, finely chopped
12 egg whites, whipped stiff (to avoid the mess of breaking 12 eggs, just use those egg whites that come in cartons for low-fat omelets)
Whole walnuts and powdered sugar or cinnamon, for garnish
Pre-made pie shell or short-crust pastry of your choice

1. Whipping egg whites into peaks takes both time and muscle if done by hand. If you don't have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god (Carmelina does), then use a stand mixer and get your egg whites beating with a whisk attachment as you prepare the rest of the pie. If you do have a hunky kitchen apprentice with arms like a god, what on earth are you doing in the kitchen?

2. Make your pie-crust if you are making from scratch (use a pre-made shell if you're low on time). Either way, pop the crust into the oven at 325 degrees and do a pre-bake for a few minutes, so you don't end up with a soggy bottom crust once filling is added.

3. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, and honey in a large bowl.

4. Gradually add the pecorino cheese, ricotta, flour, and chopped walnuts, and blend together. When egg whites have been whisked stiff, add bit by bit to the walnut and cheese mixture, and blend.

5. Give mixture one final stir (the nuts will want to sink to the bottom) and then pour into pie shell. There will be enough for two pies.

6. Bake 55 minutes at 325 degrees, checking frequently toward the end. You want a nice golden top, not a burned blistered pie.

7. Let cool, sift with powdered sugar, and decorate with whole walnuts. Chill thoroughly before eating.


Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project - Theresa, Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, and Deana - thank you all so much!

"The Serpent and the Pearl" On Sale For Less Than 1 Cent Per Page!

January 17, 2014

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, the lion and the rose, giveaway

I've got a surprise for you--the book that started my Borgia series is now on sale for less than a penny a page! The Serpent and the Pearl is now, for a limited time only, on sale for all e-readers for only $2.99.

This first book in the series is on sale in support of sequel The Lion and the Rose, just released and probably still sitting near the front at your local bookstore, so if you start reading now, you can swing by and pick up your copy of the sequel with no delays (and no howling at me for any cliffhangers, ahem.)

Buy The Serpent and the Pearl
Amazon | Barnes & Noble (Nook) | Kobo


Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous—or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web…

Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for Pope—and passionately in love with her.

Two trusted companions will follow her into the Pope's shadowy harem: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the enemies begin to circle, Giulia and her friends will need all their wits to survive in the world of the Borgias.

LR final cover

Meet The Heroine II: A Chef Contemplating Murder

January 3, 2014

Tags: character q&a, the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

My secondary heroine from “The Serpent and the Pearl” is usually very tough to track down—as a working girl (cook to the Borgia Pope!) she's always on the move and on the job. But now she's at loose ends, and consented to be interviewed!

Carmelina: Ask as many questions as you want. As long as we're held captive here, I haven't got anything to cook.

Me: You know how many readers accused you of ruining their diets?

Carmelina: Diet? What's that?

Me: It's when people swear off butter or cream or pasta—

Carmelina: Why would anybody ever do that? Swear off pasta? Pasta is delicious!

Me: Well, it's fattening. People stop eating it so they can be thinner.

Her: Who wants to be thin? My mistress Giulia Farnese is the most renowned beauty in Rome, and she's a solid size 14 in your sizing charts.

Me: Jesus, I wish I lived in the Renaissance.

Her: No, you don't. I'm the best cook in Rome, and I don't even get paid for it because I'm a woman.

Me: Fair point. So, how are you faring in captivity?

Her: Madonna Giulia has managed to keep the French from raping us all, God bless her. If she can hold them off a few more days, the Pope should have us all ransomed and home. Can't be soon enough for me.

Me: Leonello said that you—

Her: That little bastard talked about me?

Me: A little. He said he knows things about you . . .

Carmelina: How dare he!

Me: Look, I'm your creator. Believe me, I already know all your secrets. What people really want to know is this—are you really planning to poison Leonello before he outs you? Because you were looking pretty determined . . .

Ok, Carmelina just stomped out. Looks like you'll have to wait till tomorrow to see if she put hemlock in our hero's wine or not!

Meet The Hero: A Dangerous Dwarf On His Deathbed . . .

January 3, 2014

Tags: character q&a, the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

My “Lion and the Rose” hero is still flat on his back on a stretcher, but he consented to an interview. :D

Leonello: Consented, hah. You cornered me, woman. It's not exactly like I can run away when I'm full of broken bones.

Me: Yes, I'm sorry about that.

Leonello: Nothing to do with you. I'm a bodyguard and I defended my charge, simple as that. My own decision, I assure you.

Me: Well, I am your creator—

Leonello: As if you ever made me do anything I didn't want to do.

Me: Fair point. How are you feeling?

Leonello: Like a French army stamped all over me. Which it did. I'm probably dying.

Me: Surely not—

Leonello: If the blood loss doesn't kill me, the cook probably will. She hates me.

Me: What did you do to her?

Leonello: Carmelina? I know a few things about her that could make life very uncomfortable. I may have rubbed it in, when I pointed that out.

Me: Was that entirely necessary?

Leonello: Just because I am small does not mean I am cute, kind, or cuddly.

Me: No, it certainly doesn't. Not only do you have a tongue like a razor, you kick a surprising amount of butt for a person of reduced height—

Leonello: Dwarf. Call it what it is.

Me: We're more politically correct in this century.

Leonello: Dio, I don't even want to know what that is. Am I done now?

Meet The Heroine: The Pope's Mistress In Captivity

January 3, 2014

Tags: character q&a, the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

“The Lion and the Rose: a novel of the Borgias” releases in just three days! Usually I'm nervous for my release days, but this time around I just can't wait. Because this book is sequel to “The Serpent and the Pearl,” which came out last August and ended on just a leetle bit of a cliffhanger, and I'm delighted that this time around, I didn't have to leave my readers hanging for too long. (I really am sorry, “Empress of the Seven Hills” fans.)

And my three main characters of “Serpent and the Pearl” were all in a very tight spot on the last page—captured by the French army, with their lives very literally on the line! Over the next few days I'll be interviewing each of my characters here on my blog as a promo. Today let's welcome Giulia Farnese, mistress to the Borgia Pope and currently a French captive when she got waylaid by an invading army on her way home from a family visit . . .

Giulia: Do you have any of that stuff called chocolate which you introduced me to at our last interview? You left me in a very bad place, sticking me with the French between books, and frankly if a girl ever earned an out-of-her-century treat, it's me.

Me: Yes, of course. Try a Snicker's bar, you'll love it.

Giulia: Thank you. I always eat when I'm being held hostage.

Me: I truly am sorry about leaving you in enemy hands for five months . . .

Giulia: Oh, that's all right. It's not as long as five months in my world. “Snickers,” why is it called that? Nothing to snicker about, being a French captive. They're pigs.

Me: Are they really?

Giulia: Well, they've been relatively nice once they realized what Rodrigo—

Me: Can you tell the readers who that is, for the ones who didn't read the first book?

Giulia: Rodrigo Borgia. His Holiness, Pope Alexander VI. I'm his mistress.

Me: Wow. Our current pope, um—well, he's a little different. I don't really know what would happen if he came out and told the world “Hi, I have a twenty-two year old girlfriend with floor-length hair.”

Giulia: Maybe he'd be more relaxed. It's a very tiring job, being Pope.

Me: Well, anyway. The French?

Giulia: They've been relatively nice to me once they realized what the Holy Father would pay to get me back.

Me: So you're going home?

Giulia: On page 1. God knows if it'll be in time to save my bodyguard, though. Leonello, his name is, and he nearly killed himself protecting me—the French beat him so badly. I'm making them pay for it.

Me: How?

Giulia: I've acted like an utter haughty bitch ever since they captured me. I'm normally quite an easy-going sort of person, but I've been complaining and pitching fits for that French general ever since he laid hands on me. He'll be quite glad to see the back of me, I assure you.

Me: Sounds like you have things well in hand, then. Good luck, Giulia!

Giulia: Can you do me a favor? Pray for my bodyguard. I'm going to be all right—I just want to get home to Rodrigo, who isn't nearly as frightening as people seem to think all the Borgias are. But I really don't know if Leonello's going to live or not.

Me: I could tell you, but that would spoil the surprise. Thanks for dropping by!

A Renaissance Thanksgiving Feast

November 26, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, thanksgiving, little white apron, taking on magazines, inn at the crossroads, heather webb, outlander kitchen, island vittles, long past remembered

Happy Turkey Day! Guests are about to descend on us all like locusts devouring everything in their path, and I'm sure we're all starting to sweat about the oyster dressing and the pumpkin pie and the turkey, my God, it will never be done in time. Me no exception. What I'd love to have for Thanksgiving is the services of my last book heroine, a pro chef who could whip out a Thanksgiving dinner for thirty without even breaking a sweat. Even if they didn't have Thanksgiving in Renaissance Italy.

Still, a Renaissance Thanksgiving Day feast from Carmelina's talented hands would be quite a spread. And if you're bored with the usual turkey-and-mashed potatoes fare, why not throw yourself a Renaissance-themed dinner instead? Here you are, complete with recipes straight from The Serpent and the Pearl!

The Appetizers
Most of my recipes for this book were culled direct from real-life Renaissance chef extraordinaire, Bartolomeo Scappi—and il maestro had very specific directions when it came to the pre-dinner spread:

The side-board should be furnished with these things: with jellies, visciola cherries, morello cherries, quince and quince pastes, Neapolitan and Roman mostaccioli, several shapes of marzipan creations . . . always rolled wafers and small ciambelle of raw dates, pistacios, pinenuts, and Milanese almonds, dried figs of various sorts, several sorts of olives and small capers, compote of fennel and other fruits . . . caravella pears, papal pears, acciole pears, riccardo pears, rough pears, bergamot pears, Florentine pears, and other sorts of pear . . .

Clearly seven kinds of pear aren't enough to fill up your guests, because he goes on to list the types of cheeses (March, Florengine, Romagnola, Roman, Ligurian, Majorcan, fresh and dry, ewe's milk, mozzarella) and salamis (salsiccioni, mortadelle, prosciutto, sowbelli, salt ox tongues, buffalo tongues, pork tongues, semi-salted cow meat, salted steer meat, salt pork belly, and pork jowl) you should stock up on as well. By the time a typical Renaissance side-board was set up, your guests would be full and waddling home without even touching the meal.

For your Thanksgiving, keep it simple and stick to a classic tray of cheeses, meats, fruits, and nuts. Come to think of it, Scappi is probably where we got the idea in the first place.

The Soup
Try the asparagus soup in beef broth which Carmelina serves to a visiting archbishop. Heather Webb (of upcoming debut novel on Empress Josephine) made a wonderful creamy modern version for a blog hop.

The Salad
Renaissance salads couldn't be simpler: a big dish of lettuce sprinkled with bright blue borage flowers, like the one Carmelina muses serving to the College of Cardinals. (Borage gives you courage, according to legend—just what scheming cardinals and family get-togethers alike both need). Dress this lovely simple salad with a plain vinaigrette.

Elaborate entrees are par for the course in Renaissance cuisine, where meals were set to impress as much as nourish. If you're feeling ambitious (and have a good butcher on hand like d'Artagnan's or Savenor's) try this gorgeous shoulder of boar with dates, prunes, and cherries, as cooked by food blogger Deana of Long Past Remembered in my last blog hop. Or if you want to stick with something fowl for Thanksgiving, go with a capon or big free-range chicken instead of the usual turkey. Just cook two if you've got a crowd coming, and then you can cook both the Capon in Coriander and White Wine recipe which is Carmelina's favorite (replicated here by Lori of Little White Apron) and the Capon with Lime version Carmelina plans for Cardinal Borgia (replicated by Sara at Cupcake Muffin, and it's delicious).

The Sides
A cheese and onion tourte like the one Carmelina made her first five minutes in the Borgia kitchens will fill the bill nicely, and Theresa of Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles made a beauty! Round things out with a dish that makes an appearance in the forthcoming “The Lion and the Rose”—baked macaroni layered with provatura cheese and butter. Kitchen apprentice Bartolomeo offers to make it for Carmelina when she's feeling blue “because pasta with a great deal of butter and cheese cures all.” Amen—so dust off your mom's tried-and-true mac n' cheese recipe.

The Desserts
They loved their sweets in the Renaissance, and they weren't afraid to get fancy! Marzipan, molded sugar subtleties, cakes and tarts of all kinds . . . but keep things simple at the end of a heavy meal with these light and autumnal desserts: the peaches in grappa Giulia Farnese eats at her wedding feast, the spicy baked apples she comfort-eats the next morning to get over a disappointing wedding night (another recipe from Lori), and the milk-snow (a sort of glorified, stiffened medieval whipped cream reproduced gloriously at Inn at the Crossroads) she takes to bed with a much more satisfying lover later down the line.

To Drink
A hot posset with red wine and spices, of course! Chelsea from “Inn At The Crossroads” has a lovely recipe. And to go with, how about some sugared Renaissance biscotti from Christiane at “Taking On Magazines”?

Happy eating, and happy Thanksgiving!

DON'T Write What You Know!

November 16, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, writing advice

“Write what you know” is probably some of the worst advice for writers ever. Even authors of modern-day fiction have their problems with that old chestnut. Tom Clancy may have set all his books in the same 20th century America in which he lived, but he didn't write about writers, he wrote about spec-war operatives, even if he'd never been one. And historical novelists do a special kind of hair-tearing when we hear “Write what you know” because we really don't know what we write about. No amount of research will make me know what it's like to watch slaves die in the Colosseum, and Margaret George will never know what it's like to be Helen of Troy either, and that didn't stop either of us from writing about it anyway.

I sometimes like to think “Write WHO you know” instead. As long as I can remember, I've indulged in an idle game called “When Should They Have Been Born?” Any serious fan of historical fiction harbors the conviction from time to time that we were really born in the wrong century. So whenever I was bored to tears in class, or weekly meetings, or family gatherings (which was most of the time), I'd go around the room deciding what century everybody really belonged in, according to their personality. And boy, did the book ideas start flowing.

My acerbic librarian mother who prefers dogs, books, and herbs to the company of people? A Benedictine nun in medieval England, brewing up herbal tinctures and illuminating manuscripts and breaking her vow of silence to coo at the dog she isn't supposed to keep in her monastic cell. A great character for a Middle Ages novel.

My husband, a Navy sailor who'd have made a great Viking raider, swinging a sword over one shoulder and taking his longship out to the edge of the known world and never, ever getting seasick. A made-to-order hero for an epic battles-and-blood Norse tale.

My long-deceased feminist grandmother with her paisley scarves and her wry wit: a born reformer who should have been a 1912 suffragette. She'd be chaining herself to the railing of Number 10 Downing Street and going on hunger strike at Holloway Prison; a dowager in a fabulous hat and a “Votes For Women” banner who could have mentored Lady Sybil from “Downton Abbey.”

My much-tattooed kickboxing instructor has a streak of benign sadism that could definitely have belonged to a Roman centurion . . . my other grandmother is one of those Depression-era Steinbeck matriarchs in black and white who keeps her family together through disaster after disaster . . . my jazz musician father could have doubled for a handsome court musician under Empress Maria Theresa . . . how many book ideas have I gotten, just from looking around at a family gathering or a gym class?

Now, I may not end up writing all those books. I don't really see myself writing a blood-and-battle Viking epic, largely because Bernard Cornwell with his Saxon Stories (among many others) has already covered it so well. But sometimes you do get a solid book idea out of a real person. Case in point, my husband's grandmother: a fiery Sicilian whose cooking could make angels weep, and who would absolutely smack you on the head with a wooden spoon and threaten excommunication if you committed the crime of breaking the pasta into the pot instead of folding it. I had a “eureka” moment and transplanted her personality more or less intact to Renaissance Italy. My husband's grandma ended up personal chef to the Borgia Pope in my last book—and she may be in her nineties now in the 21st century, but she's absolutely tickled to think that in some alternate life she got to cook for a Pope, defraud a convent, and have a one-night stand with Cesare Borgia.

Don't write what you know—write who you know. Look around you at the next boring board meeting or family gathering. What century do these people really belong in? Maybe you'll find the hero of your next historical novel.

Win An Advance Copy of "The Lion and the Rose"

October 17, 2013

Tags: the lion and the rose, the serpent and the pearl, giveaway

It's about two and a half months until “The Lion and the Rose” is released—the second half of my Borgia duology about papal mistress Giulia Farnese and her two friends, the cynical dwarf bodyguard Leonello and the sharp-tongued female cook Carmelina. If you'd like to get your hands on an early copy of L&R, here's your chance, because I'm running a very special kind of giveaway.

Lots of readers have written to tell me how much they swooned over all the delicious food in “The Serpent and the Pearl” - I even set up a virtual potluck with food bloggers cooking dishes straight out of the book. I had such a blast seeing the food pics that came out of my own pages that I'm extending a challenge: any reader who cooks a dish out of “The Serpent and the Pearl” will be eligible to win an advance copy of “The Lion and the Rose.”

So, here are the rules:

1. Choose a dish out of “The Serpent and the Pearl” that hasn't been made yet.

2. Cook your chosen dish. Just be aware that some of the things my Renaissance heroines eat are illegal in the 21st century—don't get fined for trying to cook a swan!

3. Email a pic of you with your finished dish to, along with a few words on how you cooked it and how it turned out. (Even if it's a disaster. Because kitchen disasters can be hilarious!)

4. For every dish you cook, I'll enter your name into a random drawing. And if you attempt something truly awesome, I'll enter your name in twice. Because let's be fair—if someone makes a stab at spit-roasted peacock or whole truffled sea bass in champagne-caviar sauce, they deserve a double entry.

5. And that's it! On November 1, I'll pull two names out of the hat and mail my two winners an advance copy of "The Lion and the Rose."

So, who's ready to start cooking?

The Page 69 Test

October 4, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, page 69 test

By the time this posts, I'll be in Bermuda on the first vacation out of the US that I've had in four years - to Bermuda, where I was four years ago on my honeymoon! But I've got a guest blog post scheduled on Campaign For The American Reader, this one "the Page 69 Test." Namely, what would any reader think, if they opened your book to page 69?

Anybody who did that that for "The Serpent and the Pearl" would probably think "Why's this chick talking to a severed hand?" Or maybe they'd think they wandered into an Addams Family spin-off. Who knows? But to read more, click here!

The Too-Beautiful Heroine: Blah, Blah, Snore

September 25, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, enchanted by josephine

Guest blogging over at Enchanted by Josephine/HF Book Muse today! Topic? One of my pet peeve cliches in historical fiction:

"So here's a pet peeve of mine when it comes to books: I'm tired of drop-dead gorgeous heroines. I have nothing against attractive characters in books, mind you. We watch movies in part to enjoy the sight of pretty people, after all, and books have a similar escapism. But too often in bad books, we have to wade through a lot of repetitive rhapsodizing about the heroine's flawless profile and perfect skin, and she can never enter a room without every man in it falling with a thud at her feet. In real life, beauty that spectacular is rare—so why does it have to be so common in books?"

(Wish fulfillment, anyone?)

To read the rest, click here! And be sure to check back tomorrow, because Lucy's doing a review and giveaway (thank you, Lucy!)

Guest Post: Writers Read

September 24, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, writers read

Busy week! I've got the Baltimore Book Festival this Friday - come see me at the Maryland Romance Writers tent for a panel on the ins and outs of writing historical fiction! (1pm sharp; see you there.)

And today, I'm over at Writers Read, talking for a nice of pace not about my own book, but about other people's. What's on my reading list? Tudor spies, Venetian glass, Elizabeth Bennet, and nanobots. Yep, that's how I roll.

For titles (and these are some great titles), click here!

A Virtual Potluck!

September 16, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, inn at the crossroads, long past remembered, little white apron, heather webb, outlander kitchen, island vittles, taking on magazines

I don't know about you, but I adore food blogs. I've got an entire list that I drool over follow. And the fun part is how food and books are mixing these days: food bloggers are hitting the pages, cooking favorite recipes out of food-heavy books and blogging about it.

So when I wrote my own food-heavy book, I knew I had to at least try to set up a virtual pot-luck. I never dreamed the result would be so mouth-watering: six fabulous food-bloggers dove into "The Serpent and the Pearl" in search of recipes. Theresa from Outlander Kitchen and Island Vittles, who cooks from Diana Gabaldon's fabulous Scottish saga; Chelsea from Inn At The Crossroads, who recently co-authored a fabulous cookbook based on "Game of Thrones" recipes; Christiane from Taking On Magazines, who cooks her way through the likes of "Better Homes and Gardens" and "Bon Appetit" utterly undaunted; Lori from Little White Apron who is a pro chef as well as a blogger extraordinaire; Deana from Long Past Remembered who recreates food from myriad centuries gone by; and Heather Webb from Between The Sheets who took time off from her upcoming debut novel on Empress Josephine to indulge her foodie hobby.

And today, we're all posting our results! Recipes included.

Inn At The Crossroads - The crostata of summer peaches that Carmelina is making when Juan Borgia decides to make a pass at her. (Big mistake: cooks always have cleavers on hand.)

Island Vittles - The tourte of sweet cheese and Genovese onions that Carmelina cooks for Giulia's wedding feast.

Little White Apron - The baked apples that Carmelina serves Giulia the morning after her wedding, and the capon with garlic, coriander and white wine that is her favorite chicken recipe.

Long Past Remembered - The shoulder of wild boar that Carmelina ponders serving a visiting archbishop.

Taking On Magazines - The sugared biscotti that form a staple munchie throughout the book, and the elderflower fritters Giulia tries to make (and ends up nearly destroying Carmelina's kitchen)

Between The Sheets - The asparagus zuppa and the zabaglione which Carmelina's apprentice Bartolomeo whips up on a country trip to impress her.

As for me, I donned my sous chef apron and did a lot of "Oui, chef" fetching and carrying from the fridge as my husband (he's the culinary genius of the family) tackled a recipe from Chapter 2 of The Serpent and the Pearl:

Hot Sops With Cherries

From the book:
It's a bit tricky, knowing what to send up to the bride's chamber the morning after her wedding . . . If you hear giggling and whispering through the door, you send up something light than can be eaten by two, preferably fed to each other with the fingers while making a great deal of mess that can be kissed away with more giggles. A hot sop with morello cherries works well--strips of butter-fried bread and a dipping sauce of cherries and sugared wine always goes down a treat with hungry young lovers.

This is a recipe I got direct from that classic Renaissance cookbook "L'Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi." Hot sops are a dish that has gone out of fashion in the modern era: toasted bread with some kind of dipping sauce that could be meat-based or fruit-based; sweet or savory. It was a popular Renaissance snack, and a staple food for those who had trouble eating (the old, the ill, the very young). Happily, this dish is just as delicious in the 21st century for gourmets of any age. The cherries are both sweet and spicy, and the bread fries up crisp and mouth-watering. Carmelina is right: this is a dish to be shared between two, with kisses in between bites.

Serves 2 -- Prep: 15 minutes

1 can cherries in water (NOT cherry pie filling)
4 slices good fresh-baked artisan bread
1 cup red wine
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg

1. Butter the bread slices on both sides, and fry in a skillet over medium heat, flipping once. Set aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium. Drain the cherries and add to a medium saucepan (we improvised with a wok) and add the wine plus 4 tsp sugar, and 1 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until liquid reduces down to thick syrupy texture, adding more sugar or spices to taste.

4. Serve in a bowl with fried bread for dipping. Messy in the best possible way!


Be sure to check in on the others for some more great recipes! And as for the food bloggers who kicked in on this project - Lori, Heather, Christiane, Chelsea, Deana, and especially Theresa who was chief in helping put the whole thing together - thank you all so much!

Cooking From The Book: Peaches In Grappa

September 8, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, mystery lovers kitchen

For today's guest blog, I'm over at Mystery Lovers Kitchen - and they challenged me to cook a dish out of my own book! Challenge accepted: the hubby and I donned aprons and whipped up the peaches in grappa dish that Giulia Farnese eats at her wedding. And let me say, it came out delicious. Peaches are in season, and this dish makes a fabulous finish to any summer dinner menu.

Want the recipe? Click here!

7 Authors To Wreck Your Diet

September 5, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, writerspace

If there's a constant I keep hearing in the reviews for "The Serpent and the Pearl," it's "This book made me so hungry!"

And I'm delighted. Because bibliophiles do things differently - it's authors who ruin our diets, not fast food commercials. And over on Writerspace today, I'm guest blogging about a list of authors whose books can be counted on to ruin your diet, my diet, anybody's diet. First on the list? George R.R. Martin:

"The guy known by embit­tered fans as `the fat bas­tard' cer­tainly knows his food. Maybe he’s prepar­ing to slaugh­ter a fic­tional bride­groom at his own wed­ding feast, but Mar­tin is always happy to slow down first and tell you what’s on the table: roast herons, sweet­corn frit­ters, swan poached in saf­fron and peaches, soup with mush­rooms and but­tered snails, and pigeon pie with lemon cream. At least the poor bride­groom died well fed. (Want the cook book? There’s an offi­cial ver­sion fea­tur­ing a for­ward from Mar­tin him­self: The Feast of Ice and Fire.)"

If that's not enough to get you to click here to read the rest, how about this? Most of the authors listed come with companion cookbooks if you feel like tackling some fabulous fictional food in your own kitchen!

So Two Blondes Walk Into A Book . . . And Meet Two More Blondes

August 30, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, marci jefferson, the girl on the golden coin

It was a case of the blonde leading the blonde when I sat down with my friend and fellow author Marci Jefferson for a Q&A: not only do the two of us belong to the fair-haired demographic, but so do our book heroines! My Giulia Farnese had gold hair down to the floor, and Marci's Frances Stewart is the girl with the golden hair in the golden dress on the golden coin in Marci's forthcoming debut novel. So in between all the other Q&A talk on self-editing and Borgia gossip, we traded a Renaissance recipe for lightening hair - straight from Caterina Sforza, yet another famous blonde!

Me: Some of the Renaissance cosmetics recipes I found are absolutely vile, like a face mask that calls for dove entrails. Others, like a rinse for blondifying hair which was made out of saffron, cinnabar, and sulphur, sound a bit nicer. Renaissance ladies were all mad for fair hair, so a favorite girls-day-out back then was to head up to the rooftop and put on big-brimmed crownless sun hats so you could spread your hair out under the sun to bleach it, but still keep your skin white!

To read the rest, click here!

Talking Bull with Sarah Bower

August 23, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, q&a, sarah bower

I had a bit of a fan-girl moment when I met Sarah Bower (well, virtually met through email). Her "Sins of the House of Borgia" was one of the first Borgia novels I read, a lush and gorgeous evocation of the Renaissance with a twist ending that sucker-punched me right in the gut. I was more than delighted to do a Q&A with Sarah for the Historical Novel Society website. I have to say, any resolve we may have had to keep this interview solemn and professional swiftly crumpled in the assault of our mutual enthusiasm!

Sarah: I never imagined the Borgia Pope as much of a reader – too busy talking!

Me: Definitely. A blogger on my blog tour asked me a fun question – if the Borgias could have used social media, what would they use? And I immediately saw Rodrigo Borgia on Twitter, thumb-tapping away on his iPhone between papal meetings: “College of Cardinals has no idea what just hit them” at his @IamPope handle!

Sarah: That’s fabulous! And I can imagine Lucrezia posting photos of her kids on Facebook, and really wishing those selfies she took at Borgia orgies weren’t still doing the rounds elsewhere on the net . . .

Me: What an image. “Me at the Banquet of Chestnuts – lolz!”

To read the rest, click here!

And remember - I'm down at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore tomorrow evening, talking Borgia rumors and more fun stuff. Come join me for champagne and chocolate!

The Serpent and the Pearl: The Cookbook

August 20, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, food challenge, Cupcake Muffin

Pretty much all the reviews for "Serpent and Pearl" agree on one thing: this book will make you hungry. I aim to make you hungrier, and I'm enlisting a slew of food bloggers to help me. Sara over at Cupcake Muffin is first on board to make a recipe straight from the book: a spit-roasted capon with lime which my chef heroine recommends for the papal conclave. ("The cavities of birds are excellent for passing bribe offers back and forth.")

I cooked this myself, adapting the recipe from a Renaissance-era cookbook before passing it on to Sara, and I assure you it's delicious! Get the recipe here, and enter the giveaway too.

Come Join Me For Champagne, Chocolate, and Borgia Talk!

August 16, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, author event

Mark your calendars! I've got an author event coming up in one week in Baltimore, and I'd love to see you there if you're in the area.

The Borgias Unmasked: come join me next Saturday for champagne, chocolate, and the truth about history's most notorious family. I'll be speaking (not too long) about the good, the bad, and the scandalous about history's most infamous family - and did I mention the champagne and chocolate?

Saturday August 24th, 6pm
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road
Baltimore, MD 21209

Hope I see you there!

The Crimes and Redemption of the Borgia Pope

August 15, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, romantic times book review

Romantic Times Book Reviews had a doozy of a question for me: name the worst AND the best things about the Borgia papacy. A question I found fascinating, because even after you discard the rumors that aren't strictly provable (incest! poison!) you're still left with a puzzling conundrum: one of the most worldly popes who ever sat the throne of St. Peter's, who scandalized his flock yet still did some very good things for them.

Just imagine the media blowback if our new Pope Francis announced, "Hey, I've got a girlfriend. And she's 18." Well, Pope Alexander VI made no bones about it - here's a (non-poisoned) taste from my guest post at RT Book Reviews:

"Sexually insatiable as a younger man (he hosted famous debauches known as `garden parties'), Rodrigo Borgia didn't slow down once he became Pope. He openly kept a mistress 40 years his junior, who was nicknamed `The Bride of Christ.'

To read the rest, click here!

Inside The Writers' Study . . .

August 14, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, donna russo morin

A fun Q&A this time around, and with one of my dear friends Donna Russo Morin. Not only does Donna have more fabulous leopard-print stilettos than Angelina Jolie, but she writes fun and fast-paced Renaissance romps - she was number 1 on the list as a reader when I went to the Renaissance to write, too!

And she's got fun questions here, taken from the famous "Inside the Actors' Studio" series. Purpose? "To expose aspects of a personality with short but intrinsically revealing questions." (You can find all kinds of actors doing this on YouTube--Daniel Radcliffe's answers are a hoot!) Not sure I'm as funny as Harry Potter, but here's a taste with the first two questions . . .

"What is your favorite word?"
Can I have two? “Check enclosed,” to borrow a bon mot from Dorothy Parker.

"What is your least favorite word?"
`Mew.' I read a book where a character mewed with passion, and it scarred me for life.

For more, click here!

Older Men, Younger Women: The Historical Dilemma

August 13, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, passages to the past

I'm guest blogging over at one of my favorite book blogs today - Passages to the Past. And the topic? The dilemma of how to write around age differences in historical fiction, or rather, how my teenage crush on Sean Connery helped me understand how a teenage Giulia Farnese could hop into bed with the 40 years older Rodrigo Borgia:

"For idle fantasy, men have it all over boys. When Sean Connery from “First Knight” picks you up for the evening, you know he won't show up driving his mother's mini-van littered with fast-food wrappers. When Colin Firth from “Pride and Prejudice” invites you out to eat, you know he doesn't mean a 99 cent Frosty and a small fries at Wendy's. If Liam Neeson from from “Rob Roy” gives you a present, it wouldn't be a mixed-tape of grunge bands you've never heard of. There's no awkward pauses in the conversation because Jeremy Irons from “The Man in the Iron Mask” knows how to carry on intelligent discussions and not just stare at your chest, and there's no fumbling on the doorstep because Sean Bean from the Richard Sharpe series most assuredly knows how to kiss you goodnight without getting saliva on your chin."

To read the rest, click here - and don't forget to enter the giveaway!

Would The Borgia Family Be On Facebook Or Twitter?

August 8, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, the reading frenzy

I'm chatting with Debbie over at The Reading Frenzy today, and she had some great questions! Including my favorite: "If the Borgias could use social media, would they prefer Facebook or Twitter." My answer:

"Lucrezia Borgia is just a teenage girl during “The Serpent and the Pearl,” so she'd be a Facebook junkie: `OMG, just saw portrait of Prince of Aragon; he's like Henry Cavill gorge!!! Fingers crossed this betrothal goes through!!!` And my heroine Giulia Farnese, papal mistress and the most fashionable woman of the Renaissance, would be a Pintarest girl: `Here's the hairstyle I wore to Mass last Sunday; you need six strands of pearls and five feet of hair.' 300,000 women have repinned this!”

To read the rest, click here. And don't forget - I'm showing up at the Writerspace Reader's Chat Room at 9pm ET tonight for the Berkley Jove Author Chat, so drop by to say hi or ask a question if you feel so inclined!

Wife, Nun, or Whore: The Three Fates

August 7, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, queen anne boleyn

I'm joining the Berkley Jove author chat tomorrow night! Drop by the Writerspace Reader's Chat Room at 9pm ET if you've got a question for me, or would just like to say hello.

I'm also over on the Queen Anne Boleyn site today, talking about the three fates for Renaissance women: wife, nun, and whore. How much do you know about how each variety of woman led her life? A snippet . . .

"Women born to the respectable but not ruling classes, like my heroine Giulia Farnese, simply didn’t go anywhere. Unmarried girls were kept firmly sequestered in the house to guard their virtue; the only place they might go to see and be seen was church. Even after marriage, Renaissance matrons were expected to keep to their own households, their lives a round of domestic duties, the occasional family party, and of course, more church. And that’s if you were lucky enough to get married in the first place—if you weren’t, your life was nothing but church."

To read the rest, click here!

The Blog Tour Begins!

August 5, 2013

Tags: blog tour, the serpent and the pearl, flicks and food

Night gathers, and so my blog tour begins. It shall not end until my death.

Okay, maybe it only FEELS that way when you're trying to make sure you're prepared. :D

Publication day for my new book "The Serpent and the Pearl" isn't until tomorrow, but my blog tour has already begun. I'm very excited to be visiting some new blogs as well as returning to some favorites. I'll be updating here, so check in if you want to follow me around the blogosphere.

Today I'm over on Flicks and Food today, talking about Renaissance food, my fiery heroine who would totally win Top Chef if she wasn't six hundred years too early, and the aphrodisiac menu she creates which gets a certain Borgia bad boy's heart racing.

To read, click here!

Meet The Heroine II: Trying To Interview A Busy Chef

August 3, 2013

Tags: character q&a, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

My secondary heroine from “The Serpent and the Pearl” proved to be a bit hard to track down . . . in fact, I had to run her to earth in her kitchens, where she's up to her elbows in a bowl of flour.

Her: Look, I don't know about this interview business. I have a dinner for twenty to get on the table.

Me: Just a few lines for the readers? Your name, what it is that you do—

Her: My name is Carmelina Mangano, and I'm the best cook in Rome.

Me: You are?

Carmelina: Yes. They say a woman can't be maestro di cucina, not professionally, but I was hired to cook for the household of Giulia Farnese, the Pope's mistress. I've fed the Pope Himself, and half the illustrious people of Rome—I've carved my own place in the world with nothing more than the skill in my hands, and I'm proud of it. Hand me that bowl, will you?

Me: What are you making?

Carmelina: Elderflower fritters. Giulia Farnese eats them by the basketful; she's a cook's dream to feed. Loves food, eats everything, pays on time.

Me: Any bad parts about working for the Borgias?

Carmelina: That little bodyguard Cesare Borgia hired for Madonna Giulia. Leonello. He's a devil.

Me: Because he's a dwarf?

Carmelina: No, because he's dangerous. And because he asks too many questions.

Me: Questions about what?

Carmelina (glowers): Hand me the butter, will you? These fritters need to go into the frying pan.

Me: Of course. Now, I have to ask—maybe it's one of those things you don't want to talk about, but what is that horrible shriveled up thing on the spice rack?

Carmelina: It's a holy relic—the hand of my patron saint, the most blessed Santa Marta.

Me: You keep a mummified hand in your kitchen?

Carmelina: Of course. Santa Marta is the patron saint of all cooks. She prepared a meal for Our Lord while Mary and all the apostles were busy sitting at the feet of Christ.

Me: And for that she got made the patron saint of cooks?

Carmelina: Why not? Maybe Our Lord was happy to get a home-cooked meal for once, rather than everybody just looking at Him to provide all the food by transforming loaves and fishes. Besides, somebody had to get dinner going while everybody else sat around worshipping at His feet. I'll bet not one of those apostles helped Santa Marta with the dishes, either.

Me: You know, I think you're probably right.

Carmelina: Of course I'm right, I'm the best cook in Rome. Now, not to throw you out of my kitchen, but I've got to pay attention while these fritters fry. And if I burn them up because I'm answering questions, I'll fry up your gizzard in white wine and coriander, and serve that to Madonna Giulia instead.

Me: I'm going, I'm going!

Meet The Hero: A Dangerous Dwarf Gets Interviewed

August 2, 2013

Tags: character q&a, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

My “Serpent and the Pearl” hero is a reclusive sort, but I dragged him to my blog today for an interview. :D

Me: Why don't you introduce yourself for the readers?

Him: My name is Leonello. (Props his boots up on my desk unasked)

Me: Leonello what?

Leonello: I'm distinctive enough that I don't need a last name.

Me: You are distinctive, I must say. Dark hair, hazel eyes, about thirty years old, a sarcastic expression—

Leonello: Are we going to ignore the elephant in the room? I'm a dwarf.

Me: True, you are. How has your stature affected your life?

Leonello: I've managed so far not to get stomped to death by drunks, or have to take a job as a jester for layabout Renaissance lords. I count myself a success.

Me: What is it you do for a living?

Leonello: I used to be a card-sharp. Sit down at a game of primiera with me, and I will be very happy to relieve you of your money. But I don't have to play cards for a living anymore.

Me: What is it you do now?

Leonello: The Pope's son Cesare Borgia hired me. I'm to be a bodyguard for his father's mistress.

Me: Aren't you—wait, the Pope has a mistress?

Leonello: Why, doesn't your current pope have one?

Me: Definitely not. Um, aren't you a little atypical, as a choice for a bodyguard?

Leonello: Because I'm short? You can go ahead and say it.

Me: Ok, because you're short.

Leonello: I may be short, but I'm dangerous. I throw knives.

Me: How well can you throw knives?

Leonello: I could put a blade through each of your eyes at ten paces, before you could blink your lids shut.

Me: Don't demonstrate, please.

Leonello: Wouldn't dream of it. I love being underestimated. Everybody underestimates a dwarf.

Me: I think Tyrion Lannister said something very similar on “Game of Thrones.”

Leonello: Now you're being lazy. Just because we're both dwarves doesn't mean I have anything else in common with Tyrion Lannister.

Me: What's the principal difference between the two of you, then?

Leonello: He wants to be liked, and he tries to make people laugh. That's fine; it works for him. I don't care if I'm liked, and I'm nobody's jester, and that works for me.

Me: Are you always this sarcastic?

Leonello: You know I am. You invented me.

Me: Yes, but you're not allowed to be sarcastic to me. I created you; you're supposed to be nice to me.

Leonello: Dio. Am I done now?

Meet The Heroine: Giulia Farnese Gets Interviewed

August 1, 2013

Tags: character q&a, the serpent and the pearl, blog tour

“The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias” releases in just five days! (I'd bite my fingernails, but I don't have any left.) I've been lucky enough to get some wonderful early reviews—the Historical Novel Society reviewers had this to say about my narrators: “Three compelling characters weave a tangled trajectory through the life and politics of 15th-century Rome. Carmelina’s sharp tongue, Leonello’s caustic wit, and Giulia’s unconditional good humor in the face of danger play off each other beautifully to create another riveting novel from Kate Quinn.”

Want to meet these three very-compelling but very-different folks? Over the next few days I'll be interviewing each of my characters here on my blog as a promo. Today let's welcome Giulia Farnese, who was more than happy to drop by and tell you a little about herself!

Me: Lovely to have you here, Giulia.

Giulia: Thank you for inviting me. Do you have anything to nibble? I've never been interviewed before and it's making me nervous, and I always eat when I'm nervous.

Me: You don't know about chocolate, do you? That's a little after your time. Here, try this.

Giulia: “Reese's Pieces” what's that? Holy Virgin, they taste heavenly. Can I have the recipe for my cook? Her name's Carmelina, and she's an absolute gem.

Me: She's not going to be able to do much if chocolate isn't invented yet. Let's have your full name, for the readers.

Giulia: Right, sorry. I'm Giulia Farnese, but nobody calls me that anymore. I'm either “Giulia La Bella,” which is very nice; or “the Venus of the Vatican,” which is sort of nice; or “The Bride of Christ” which isn't nice at all. I have a sneaking suspicion my bodyguard Leonello came up with that one, since he finds it so side-splittingly funny.

Me: Why do they call you that?

Giulia: Well, Giulia la Bella comes from the fact that I have floor-length hair. I don't really think I'm much prettier than anybody else, but I do have this hair that comes down to the floor, and everybody seems to think it's terribly romantic. I don't know why; it takes forever to wash and even longer to dry, and it's always getting tangled around everything. I don't know about you, but I don't call that very romantic.

Me: What I meant was, readers might like to know why you're called the Bride of Christ.

Giulia: It might be a reference to the Holy Father.

Me: You mean the Pope? The former Cardinal Borgia? Who is he to you?

Giulia: (demurely) He's my mother-in-law's cousin.

Me: So you're married?

Giulia: It's complicated.

Me: How complicated?

Giulia: How long do you have? We'll be here all day before I've even finished telling you how strange the wedding night was.

Me: Just tell me about the Pope then. People say he's paying court to you . . .

Giulia: Do you have any more of those Piece of Reese things?

Me: Reeses Pieces. Now, about the Pope—

Giulia: You know, you have hair the same color as mine. And two feet of hair is much more sensible than five feet. I'll bet yours doesn't choke you when you sleep.

Me: All right, keep your secrets!

Giulia: All will be revealed August 6. Are you sure chocolate hasn't been invented yet in my time?

Me: Sorry. I wrote about you, but I can't change history for you.

Giulia: That's too bad. Do come visit again. And bring more chocolate! I always eat when I'm visiting.

Sneak Peek: The Serpent and the Pearl, Chapter 1

July 11, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl

Dark theatre. Deep cheesy voice.

"In a world where darkness reigned and The Borgias got cancelled after only three seasons . . .”

It's Preview of Coming Attractions time: a little less than a month till publication date of my fourth book “The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias.” And as usual, I'm posting Chapter One as a sneak peek. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

“Before all else, be armed.”—Machiavelli


When I first came to Rome, I had nothing to my name but a tattered bundle of recipes and a mummified hand. One was my shame and the other, with a little luck, was my future. “Santa Marta, don’t fail me now,” I murmured, patting the lumpy little bundle under my skirt, and knocked.

I had to knock four times before the door yanked open, and a serving woman with a face like an angry walnut appeared. “Yes?” she said shortly, looking me up and down. I might be tall, long-faced, and plain at best, and I certainly did not look my best that morning, but she didn’t have to make it so clear.

I pinned a smile into place. “I seek Maestro Marco Santini. He is maestro di cucina here?”

“You’re not the only one seeking him. He owe you money? He had to pay the last one in spices, and Madonna Adriana wasn’t happy—”

“He’s my cousin.” All true so far, though anything else I told her would likely be lies.

“Well, he’s not here. Madonna Adriana’s son is to be married, and Madonna Adriana palmed the feast off on that cardinal cousin of hers. Maestro Santini, he’ll be at the Cardinal’s palazzo now with the other servants, making preparations. Dio,” the serving woman muttered, “let him be there.”

“Where?” I felt my smile slipping. I’d crossed half the city already in too-tight secondhand shoes; my feet hurt and sweat collected between my shoulder blades because a late-May morning in Rome was far hotter than it had any right to be. And if this stupid woman kept blocking my way I’d cut off her thumbs and fry them in good olive oil with a little garlic and make her eat them. “It’s very important that I find him, signora.”

She set me on my way with a grudging set of directions, so I spared her thumbs and plunged back into the chaos that was Rome. At any other time I would have gaped at the noise, the crush, the din, so different from the silent waterways I’d always called home, but life for me had narrowed. Carts rumbled past me on one side, swaggering young bravos in parti-colored doublets shouldered past on the other, sharp-eyed servant girls counted coins to wheedling vendors, and stray dogs sniffed my skirts as I passed—but I saw none of it. I plowed through the crowds as if blind, walking a tunnel of noise and color I’d followed south all the way from Venice to Rome. A terror-laced tunnel with Marco at the end of it: a cousin I hadn't seen in five years who had somehow become my only hope for survival.

Well, my eyes might not have registered much, but my nose did. Even as my heart thudded and my feet ached and my frightened thoughts yammered in my brain telling me I was a fool, my nose was busy parceling out the scents and smells of Rome. You can’t turn off a cook’s nose: My whole life was fracturing around me like one of those impractical Murano goblets that break the instant you look at them, but my nose was happily telling me Manure, yes, from all the carts; ox blood, my, you don’t get that in Venice; let’s see, that smell there feels like sun baking on marble, and what’s that dusty sweet scent? Incense? Yes, incense, of course, considering there’s a church or a shrine in every piazza in this city. Even with my eyes shut, my ever-busy cook’s nose could have told me I was no longer in Venice. Venice was sulfur and brick and the hot, melting-sand smell of sun on glass; rot rising from the canals and salt from the lagoon. Venice was home.

Not anymore, I reminded myself grimly as I passed the Ponte Sant’Angelo where they hung the bodies of those thieves less fortunate than me—those, in other words, unfortunate enough to get caught. I saw one fresh corpse, a thief who had had his hands and ears chopped off and strung about his neck before being hanged. He had a smell too, the rich stink of rot. Beside the thief was a heretic who had been hanged upside down and was now little more than a few picked bones. The crows were busy all over the bridge, pecking and gulping, and I said a quick prayer that they’d never peck and gulp at my bones. Which at the moment was far from certain, and for a moment I thought my queasy stomach would heave up what little food I’d been able to afford that morning.

But then I saw my goal: the Cardinal’s palazzo rising rich and arrogant midway between the Campo dei Fiori and the Ponte Sant’Angelo. “Can’t miss it,” the sour old walnut in the apron had told me. “Not with that huge shield over the door. Got a bull on it—what kind of crest is that for a man of God?” And even if I’d missed the bull, there was no mistaking the crush of people flowing through the great doors. Ladies in figured velvets and air-light veils; clerics in red and purple robes; young dandies with jewels on their fingers and those huge slashed sleeves—yes, a wedding party awaiting the arrival of the bride.

Those grand double doors weren’t for me, not in my too-small shoes and the patched ill-fitting dress I’d gotten used off a vendor who tried to tell me the stains at the hem were embroidery and not old mud. But there’s always a separate entrance for servants and deliveries, and soon I was knocking on another door. This time I didn’t even have time to pat the little bundle under my skirt and mutter a prayer before the door wrenched open.

“Thank the Madonna, Maestro, you’re—” The young man in the apron broke off, staring at me. “Who are you?”

“Carmelina Mangano.” I felt a lock of short black hair spring loose on my forehead, the heat frizzing it out from under the headdress I’d improvised from another length of stained cloth. “My cousin, Maestro Marco Santini—”

“Yes?” the apprentice said eagerly. “You know where he is?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

“Oh, God in heaven,” the boy moaned. “He flitted out to play zara this morning—just a round, he said, no more than an hour, just to relax him before the feast. Saints help us, it’s been hours now and we’re sunk—”

Sounded like Marco was up to his old tricks. “A nose for sauces and a hand for pastry,” my father had often complained about my cousin, “and nothing between the ears but cards and dice!” But the apprentice had turned away from the door, yammering and moaning to a cluster of flour-aproned serving girls, and my nose started swooning.

Saffron. Sweet Santa Marta, how long had it been since I smelled saffron? Or the sweet sizzle of duck being turned on a spit and sauced with honey and the juice from an orange? A sharper smell, that would be fine vinegar, the good stuff from Modena so tart and yet so mellow on the tongue it could bring tears to the eyes . . .

I’d spent the last weeks breathing fear like air, the sour taste of it and the acrid smell of it—and now I smelled something else, something good, and the fear was gone. Without meaning to I’d followed my entranced nose inside the kitchens, past the cluster of agitated apprentices. All around me was a kitchen thronged with people, but I just closed my eyes and sniffed rapturously. Olive oil. Good olive oil sizzling in a pan rather than lurking sullen and spoiled in a jar; olive oil so fresh from the pressing it would still be bright green when it was poured . . . the sweet burn of pepper just ground . . . the smoky saltiness of cheese fresh-cut from the wheel—I hadn’t smelled good cheese in at least a year. Flour, the fine milled stuff so light it drifted in the air, and something savory baking in a crust . . .

Or burning in a crust. My eyes snapped open, and I saw a telltale puff of smoke from the nearest oven. I flew across the kitchen, lifting double handfuls of my stained skirt to seize the hot pan and whisk it out of the heat. The pastry shell bubbled black and scorched, and before I could think twice I was shouting.

“Santa Marta!” I yelled, and the agitated cluster of white-aproned apprentices and serving girls turned to stare at me. “Letting a tourte burn? If you worked for me, I’d dice you all into a pottage!”

“Who are you?” one of the serving girls blinked.

“Who cares who she is?” an apprentice snarled. “Maestro Santini's scarpered off to play zara again, and if we can't get that bloody wedding feast ready—”

They began to argue, and I just let my eyes travel the kitchens. What a sight. Small, cramped kitchens, for one thing—the Cardinal with the bull over his door might have spent a fortune on that fine tapestried entrance hall I’d glimpsed as the wedding guests streamed in, but he hadn’t spent a ducat on his kitchens. Still, the cramped smoky fireplace and bowed spit and inconveniently placed trestle tables weren’t what made me start cursing. It was the sight of the roast birds not being turned and basted on their various spits, the bowls of flour not being kneaded into pastry, the eggs not being whipped into delicious frothy peaks. The sight of iniquity, immorality, pure evil, and possibly the world’s end: a kitchen in disorder.

“If we just send out the roast peacock,” one of the undercooks was saying, “do you think they’d miss the veal?” But I cut him off.

“How many wedding guests?”

Blank looks passed between them. I wouldn’t need to cook this lot into pottage; it was clearly all they had between the ears. “The menu,” I snapped. “Tell me.”

“Whole peacock in its plumage—”

“Veal with morello cherries—”

“Bergamot pears with cloves—”

A menu pieced itself together out of the disjointed chorus. A good one, too—Marco was a dice-rolling pazzo, but the pazzo had trained under my father, and he could cook.

So could I. And there wasn’t a recipe here I didn’t know as well as my own name.

“Someone get me a small knife.” I looked around the kitchens, found a discarded apron, and tied it over my disreputable dress. “And where are the onions? Genovese onions, if you have them.”

The pot-boys gazed at me as they perspired in the heat of the banked fireplace; the white-aproned apprentices stood behind the long trestle tables with their haphazard arrangement of pots and bowls and looked at their toes; the serving maids whispered behind their hands before sinks mounded with dishes. “Who are you again?” one of the apprentices said at last, rudely. “We aren’t taking no orders from you.”

Ah, the sound of an insolent apprentice. How long had it been since I’d put one in his place? Even longer than the last time I’d smelled good cheese.

“I’m Maestro Santini’s cousin.” I smiled benevolently, finding a small knife and beginning my hunt for Genovese onions. “And who are you?”

“Piero. And just because you say you’re his cousin—”

“The wedding guests approach, Piero,” I interrupted him, leaching the sweetness out of my voice and letting it sink to a venomous whisper. My father’s whisper, the one that could whip round a kitchen shriveling spines as it traveled along. “The wedding party will soon arrive, and the peacock isn’t even off the spit yet. The pastry hasn’t even been rolled. The one dish I see plated in this ninth ring of hell you call a kitchen is a very nice shad over there. And the cat is eating it.”

The maids and scullions just looked at each other and mumbled. The cat hissed at me: an enormous tom with a tattered ear who bent to give a leisurely swipe of his tongue along the length of the fish. Beautiful shad, impeccably braised in what I suspected was the sauce of cinnamon and cloves that my father detailed in the packet of recipes in my pouch (page 386, Chapter: Sauces). Though when I made that sauce I liked to add a dash of salt and vinegar for bite, and just a few threads of saffron to give it color . . .

“Out!” I shooed the cat to the floor, helping it toward the door with my foot. “Out, unless you want to end up on the spit! Now, if you batch of parboiled fools can tell me—”

“Maestro Santini?” A woman’s voice sounded behind me. I whirled and then hastily followed the example of the maids and curtsied before the stout gray-haired matron in her elaborate headdress. “Maestro Santini, where—” Her eyes traveled apprehensively around the kitchens, as though she were afraid something would explode all over her maroon silks.

“Madonna Adriana,” Piero the sulky apprentice said, and then apparently ran out of inspiration. His eyes hunted desperately around the mess of pots and pans, the piles of flour, and the blackened pastry.

“Madonna Adriana da Mila, I take it?” I swept forward with my most radiant smile, hoping she wouldn’t notice my stained dress under the apron. “Maestro Santini has spoken to me often of how honored he is to work in your household.” No one had told me anything about her, actually—just her name, the employer in Rome who had been fool enough to hire Marco as her cook. Just an idle line of gossip from my father, but I’d followed the slender thread of that name all the way south to Rome. “I am his cousin Carmelina Mangano, newly come from Venice. Naturally I agreed to assist my cousin for such an illustrious occasion as this.”

She reared back. “I agreed to pay for three extra pairs of hands in the kitchens, not four—”

“I work free, madonna.” I crossed myself. “As is a girl’s most sacred duty.”

Madonna Adriana brightened—ah, yes, one of those illustrious silk-clad ladies whose eyes shone not for sweets or jewels or compliments, but for the thought of getting something cheap. Better yet, free.

“Your son’s wedding, madonna?” I continued in my creamiest tones. It’s an art, oiling the patrons—my father had no sweet words for his family but he was a master at oiling up his customers. He could have a cheap old bitch like this one sweetened, spiced, and on the spit before she even knew she’d been skewered. “A happy occasion! All is as it should be here, I assure you.”

“I heard, er, shouting.” My cousin’s employer hunted about the borrowed kitchens with her keen peppercorn eyes. “You’re certain all will be ready soon? The wedding procession has crossed the piazza—”

“And your son will hardly taste a bite of any dish we make, he’ll be so eager to see his bride, but all will be ready anyway.” I pinned a smile into place like a capon’s little trussed legs, not breathing until Adriana da Mila gave a last dubious look.

“Be careful with that good sugar,” she warned over her shoulder. “So expensive!” And then, thanks be to God, she was gone.

“So.” I turned on the now-cowed cluster of undercooks and maidservants, foot tapping beneath my aproned skirts. “You know who I am. I am the one who can pull this wedding feast out of thin air.” Can you? my traitorous thoughts whispered. You haven’t done any real cooking in two years. But too late to think of that now. “I am the one who is going to save your position in Madonna Adriana’s household,” I continued in the most confident voice I could muster. Their positions, and Marco’s with them. Normally I’d have threatened to cut my cousin’s ears off and toast them with basil and pine nuts for abandoning a wedding feast midflow, but now I could kiss him. I hadn’t even laid eyes on Marco yet, but already he owed me a favor. Or he would, if I truly managed to deliver this wedding feast.

I’d have to. Because it was quite a favor I needed out of him in return.

My heart began to hammer and I tasted fear again in my mouth, sour and rancid, as I thought of just what I was risking. But I had no time for fear, not now. I was Carmelina Mangano, daughter of a great cook in Venice and cousin to another here in Rome even if he was a card-playing fool. I was twenty years old and maybe I all I had to my name was a mummified hand and a keen nose, but I had a houseful of hungry wedding guests coming and may Santa Marta herself cook me and eat me if I sent them away unfed.

“Everyone listen.” I clapped my hands, and when that wasn’t enough to stop the apprentices’ grumbling, I stamped one foot. “I want to see mouths shut, mouths shut and hands moving, because if the wedding procession has turned out into the piazza, we’ve no time to waste. Piero, get that peacock off the spit, brush the breast with honey, and stick it all over with candied pine nuts. You, what’s your name? Ottaviano, the bergamot pears; peel them in hot wine and roast them with some ground sugar and whole cloves. Serving girls, the credenza. If it’s groaning with things to nibble, they won’t notice if the first dishes are late. Dried figs, olives and capers, those small Neapolitan limes and pink apples over there, Ligurian cheese if you have it—”

“I don’t know where—”

“Start looking.” My own fingers were flying over the pot of zuppa someone had left over a low fire. I took a sniff, and my ecstatic nose told me pepper, verjuice, sautéed truffles—ah, yes, the oyster stew on page 64, Subsection: Soups and Stews. I found a small knife and began shucking oysters into the sizzling mix. Tiny roasted chicks were supposed to go into the pot; had anyone roasted any chicks? All that came to eye was a spit of roasted squab. I tossed the knife down and fished out the packet of papers from my pouch (the other pouch, not the one with the dead hand) and flipped to page 84. Squab may be used in place of chicks, my father had written in his tight scrawl. Add more verjuice and some ground Milanese almonds to thicken the broth. It was the first time I’d looked at his collection of recipes since the day I’d stuffed the loose-bound ragged-edged pile of handwritten paper into my pouch when his back was turned. For a moment I blinked, looking at the tightly packed lines of text, written in the odd shorthand code he’d employed to keep his secrets from thieving rivals. But not from me—I’d read all his recipes, and now the black penned lines of coded spices and meats was all I’d have of him.

Never mind. We’d never shared much, my father and me, besides recipes. If he could see me now, he’d be the first to drag me back by the hair to face the justice of Venice.

Signorina, the credenza—” The harried maids were hovering around me now, too resigned or too desperate to object to taking my orders.

“Put the cheeses out, all of them, and the cold meats.” I finished with the oysters and took swift stock of the pantry, calculating dishes. Salty nibbles to make the guests reach for their wine—once they had enough wine in them they wouldn’t notice how late the roast peacock was. “The mortadelle, the sow belly, the salt ox tongues—that prosciutto, slice it very thin first so it looks like marble—skin those pears, ox-brain, skin them before you add the sugar!” A steward stumped past muttering, trailed by a stream of servants with wine flagons. “Keep that wine pouring,” I called after him.

Was that the clamor of guests upstairs already? I flung another prayer heavenward as I threw myself on an onion and began to chop. “Help me now, Santa Marta. You know what it’s like to cook for important people.” Of course, Santa Marta had cooked for our Lord, but I suspected He would be a lot more patient if His food was late than Adriana da Mila’s son and his new bride.

On the other hand, maybe not. Hungry guests are hungry guests, and I very much doubted if the heavenly ones were any more useful than the earthly kind when it came to helping in the kitchen. They say Mary was wiser than Marta, sitting at the feet of Christ and worshipping, but I always had more sympathy for Marta. Somebody had to do the dishes while everyone else was worshipping at the feet of Christ. Christ must have thought so too, since He made Marta into a saint, and not just any saint but the patron saint of cooks like me all over the earth. Maybe He was grateful to get a good meal for once, instead of having to do all the work Himself conjuring up fishes and loaves.

We understood each other, Santa Marta and I, long before I’d started carrying her dead withered hand around in a pouch under my skirt.

Despite my flying thoughts, I couldn’t help smiling as my fingers sealed a crumble of fresh cheese and sweet olive oil and Genovese onions into a pastry crust. The cramped little kitchens were humming like a beehive, the apprentices were working like hired mules, and I imagined I could hear the murmur of guests upstairs: the whisper of expensive silks, the peal of laughter from a happy bride. The clink of fine glasses, the crunch as salted nuts and honeyed dates and morsels of Ligurian cheese disappeared into the mouths of cardinals and wedding guests and bridegroom alike. The oohs and aahs that went up as the roast peacock, my roast peacock, came swaying in at last on the backs of two serving men, proud and feathered and sweet-cooked and not at all looking like it had been whipped together in a quarter of the time it needed (at least if you didn’t look too close).

My heart was hammering, my hair was frizzing out of its scarf again, I had no past and only the barest of futures—a future I was trusting to luck, and to my own rusty skills. If either failed me, I'd probably end up on the Ponte Sant'Angelo hanging next to all the other thieves and renegades whose luck and skill had failed them. Or sent back to Venice where an even more gruesome fate lurked, God help me. But my cheese and onion tourte was already bubbling sweet and golden in the oven; I had the smell of olive oil and cinnamon in my nose again; my hands and no doubt my face were covered in flour. I hadn’t cooked in two years, but I was cooking now—my old skills were rusty, but not gone. I hadn’t lost my touch. And for now, that was enough to call happiness.


The man across the table from me was proving a bad loser, but most of my opponents are. Men who play for money do not like to lose, and even less do they like losing to a dwarf.

“Fluxus,” I said, laying four cards down across the wine-sticky table. “All hearts. The pot is mine.”

“Wait now,” the heavy fellow on my left protested. “You haven’t seen my cards yet!”

“Doesn’t matter. You have nothing higher than a numerus.” I leaned forward and began to scoop coins from the center of the table.

He flung his cards down, swearing. A numerus—three diamonds and a spade; a hand that wouldn’t win you enough to buy a cup of the rotgut wine they served at this tavern, much less the pot in the middle of the table. I grinned and began counting my winnings. “Another round,” I told Anna the tavern maid. “Three of whatever my friends are drinking, and my usual.”

Anna winked. My usual was water darkened with just enough wine to make it look like the real thing. With Anna’s expert hand mixing my wine, I could keep a clear head all through the night while my partners got drunker and drunker. She was the best thing about the tavern, which otherwise wasn’t much but a dim little room, ill-lit from dirty windows, its long tables grimed by smoke and rickety at the legs. Besides myself and the three players I’d just fleeced, a pair of drinkers grumbled and swigged wine and rolled grubby sets of dice, and two boys in black velvet sat by a sullen fire playing zara and swearing over the game board. The usual mix for a tavern like this: drunks looking to lose the money they’d earned driving carts or working the docks, and rich boys ducking their tutors in search of whores, wine, and a little low-quarters fun.

The heavyset man on my left was still staring at me, flush mounting in his raddled cheeks. “How did you know what cards I held?”

Dio. I gave him a flat look. No one wants to have lost to a dwarf; therefore the dwarf must have cheated. I could cheat, of course—I could palm cards invisibly from my sleeve to my hand; I could deal games that were all hearts, all jacks, anything I wanted. But I didn’t. Tavern cheats are too often beaten to a pulp and tossed out the door, and a beating for a man my size was like to kill me. “I used no tricks, I assure you,” I said in a bored voice. “Merely mathematical certitude.”

“What’s that?” Suspicious. “Magic?”

“It means I count, good sir, when I play primiera. I count the cards that are dealt, I count the cards that are played; I calculate the certainty of the cards not shown. Calculation produces mathematical odds, not magic, and thus I knew what cards you held in your hand.”

“Big words for a little man,” one of the other players guffawed. “You got as many words as you’ve got magic tricks, little man?”

“Counting must be magic for some.” I swept the last coins into my purse. “Do you wish to try it for our next game? I understand you will need to take off your boots when the count passes ten.”

I waited patiently while he worked his way through it. My insults are wasted on the drunk. When he figured it out, the flush rose dark to his hairline. “You stunted little piglet!”

Not so stunted as your skill at cards, I could have said. Or that shriveled prick you keep wheedling Anna to grab. But I didn’t say it. No man likes his uglinesses pointed out; it’s a sure way to a bloody mouth or a broken nose. Dwarves don’t like it either, but a dwarf’s looks belong to everyone. Children, men, women; they’re free to point and laugh, to say what they like. I’d known that ever since I was small—or rather, since I was very small and first realized I was never going to grow big.

“Another game?” I said instead, and fanned the deck of cards faultlessly with a flick of my wrist.

The drunk slapped one meaty hand down on the table with a crash of cups, and the zara players by the fire glanced up. “You runty little cheat, I’ll have your guts round your filthy neck—”

The knife thumping down into the table silenced him. I’d slammed the blade down into the wood precisely between his two first fingers without drawing even a whisper of blood—a pretty trick, if I do say so myself, and one that’s bought me many a fast exit. The drunk looked down at the knife in the table, and by the time he realized its point had trapped the wood and not his hand, I’d yanked up my blade and Anna had slipped fast between us.

“Another drink?” she wheedled in that tired sweet voice that was the prettiest thing about her. “The little man already paid, you might as well drink it. Here, our best red—”

He allowed her to pull him away and fold the cup of rotgut wine into his hand, and she allowed him to grope a little at her flat breast while giving me a stern look over his shoulder. I made an apologetic face, sliding a coin across the table in her direction, and turned to my other two partners. “Another game?”

Primiera’s not for me.” A big affable fellow, handsome and black-haired, who had grinned when I slammed the knife into the table. Marco, his name was, and for some reason he always smelled like cinnamon. I’d taken a good deal of coin off him in the past months, but he never seemed to hold it against me. “I’m a man for zara, myself,” he confided.

Zara is a game for idiots. I never played zara, or any game of chance for that matter. Chess was the game I liked best, but chess is for aristocrats. Not many chessboards in the lower kind of Roman taverns, the ones where I made my money. “Fortune be with you,” I told Marco, though I knew well enough that he’d lose, and snapped my cards together. Old worn cards by now, frayed about the edges and greasy with thumb marks and wine stains, but I’d made good money from them over the years. I might look like a seedy fellow down on his luck—my leather doublet was battered, my shirt had patches on the threadbare elbows, and the hose stretching over my crooked legs fit very ill—but it didn’t do for a dwarf to look prosperous. We’re easy enough marks as it is without wearing embroidered sleeves or fine cloaks. Besides, the less coin I spent on clothes, the more I had for books. I fingered the coins in my purse, enough for a good meal tonight and a flask of wine to go with it, and tucked my cards away. “I think I will try my luck elsewhere today,” I told Anna as she came back, wiping her hands on her apron. “Your friend is still giving me black looks from the fire.”

“You can carry my basket to market for me, that’s what you can do,” Anna told me, hands on hips. “Least you can do after I sweetened that fellow off the idea of choking you. The cazzo had his hand up my skirt like he was fishing for gold.”

“The flesh of fair Anna is sweeter far than gold,” I said, and offered my arm. Anna laughed as she took it, but not at me. Anna never laughed at me, and that made her a rare girl indeed. Woman, really—she claimed twenty years, but I would have bet twenty-five, and she looked thirty. Life serving drinks in a tavern is quick to put a slump in a woman’s shoulders, a sag to her breasts, and lines around her eyes. But she still had a sweet dent of a dimple beside her mouth, and it flickered at me as we left the tavern.

“You’ll get yourself killed one of these days,” she warned as we slid into the crowd. Men and women alike were pressing eagerly along the street, craning their necks toward something I was far too small to see—there must be a dancing bear up ahead, or a cardinal on procession. Maybe a dancing cardinal; I’d pay to see that. “You don’t have to twit them after you take their money, Leonello. You’ll jape at the wrong person someday, and he’ll put a knife in your ear.”

“Not before I put one in his.” Card play wasn’t the only skill I’d picked up over a dubious life of scraping by. Knife play was handy for a little fellow like me who didn’t have a prayer in heaven of using a sword or flattening his enemies with a punch. I always kept a knife at my belt, sharpened to a whisper, and two or three more in places that didn’t show.

“There’s easier ways to make money than playing drunks for it,” Anna argued. She slowed her steps to match mine, something for which I was always grateful. I tried not to scuttle when I walked, striding firmly and keeping my toes straight even though it made my misshapen joints ache, but forever running after longer-legged people made it near impossible not to scuttle like a crab. “The tavernkeeper yesterday,” Anna went on, “he was going on how he wants some entertainment in the common room in the evenings. You could juggle walnuts, tell jokes, make people laugh. Maybe even get yourself a suit of motley, be a proper jester. Coins would come rolling in, you’ll see. You’re funny when you want to be, Leonello.”

“Anna,” I sighed. “Anna of the amber-bright gaze and kind heart, I esteem you greatly, but I fear you mistake me. I do not juggle. I do not tumble. I do not jest, joke, or jig, and for no price in all God’s created world do I wear motley.”

“You’re a touchy little man, you know that?”

“Just as every rose has its thorns, every dwarf must have some claim to distinction besides his height.” I kissed her hand formally as thought I were one of the swaggering bravos in slashed doublets and curled hair roistering and laughing in the crowd ahead. Tall swaggering bravos. “Perhaps you would care to share my meal tonight? The pleasure of your company would be most welcome, at table and bed.”

“A fishmonger already asked me,” she said, regretful. “I’d rather it was you—you don’t smell like fish and sweat between the sheets.”

“Another time, perhaps.” Anna made a pleasant bedmate every now and then, when I was in the mood for company more lively than my books. She was affable rather than passionate, but a dwarf learned not to expect passion in the women he bought. Affable was good enough, and she would even take a half hour afterward to massage my stunted legs until the crooked muscles loosened. “I can’t go giving it to you for free,” she’d said the first time I took her to my bed. “I may not be pretty, but even a plain girl like me can’t go giving it away, not if she wants to get by in this world.”

“Give it away?” I’d snorted. “You’re the first woman in years who hasn’t wanted double payment to make up for my deformities.”

“You’re a little man, true enough,” she’d said, taking my chin and turning it toward the light. “But deformed don’t say it right. You’d be handsome, Leonello, if you didn’t scowl so much.”

And she’d be pretty if she had the coin for a silk dress and a pair of velvet slippers, but she didn’t. I didn’t say it, though. I had a viper tongue that enjoyed spitting cruel words, but not to the one friend I had in all Rome.

Anna was craning her neck at the crowd lining the street. “I hear music—do you think it’s a wedding procession?”

“You’re the tall one, sweet lady. You tell me.”

She pressed her way into the crowd, me sliding after her among all the legs like a fish negotiating the currents of the Tiber. “The bride, the bride,” someone whispered over my head. “I can see her horse!”

“It is a wedding procession,” Anna said down to me, delighted.

“Pity. I was hoping for a dancing cardinal.”

“I don’t understand half the things you say.” Anna tucked a limp strand of hair back behind one ear. “You think she’ll be pretty? The bride, I mean.”

“It’s some rich boy’s new wife,” the man behind me disagreed before I could reply. “Five scudi says she’ll be pockmarked and plain.”

I wriggled my way past Anna to the front, with half an eye to following the bride and her retinue from her father’s house to her new husband’s. Wealthy brides toss coins into the crowds along the way, if they aren’t too shy, and I wasn’t too proud to pick a coin off the ground. Close to the ground as I was, I could get the lion’s share—a lion’s share for Leonello the little lion.

Liveried servants were trotting along in columns now, forcing back the crowds on either side of the street as the procession began in earnest. A troop of pages with chests of the bride’s belongings—a critical buzz went up at the sight of the elaborate painted wedding chest, wide as a coffin, elaborately gilded and painted with saints. Yes, this was a wealthy bride. Grinning boys tossed flowers into the streets, musicians thrummed lutes not quite in tune with each other . . .

“There she is!” Anna breathed. “Blessed Virgin, will you look at that?”

A white mare wreathed in lilies and roses, clopping along impassively under the most glorious of Madonnas.

“Holy Mother,” a voice behind me whistled to the man who had bet the bride would be plain. “You lost your five scudi!”

A cat may look at a king, they say—and a dwarf may look at a beautiful woman. Most men will be reprimanded for staring at a beauty, warned off by menacing looks from her husband, or a brother’s hand clapped on a dagger, or a cold glance from the beauty herself. A man’s stare means desire, and the good women of Rome must be safeguarded from the desires of men. But dwarves have no desires, not when it comes to beautiful women, so no one minds if a dwarf gawps. Besides, a beautiful woman’s nose rides the air so high she is not likely to look down far enough to see me. Caps were doffed across the street, men bowed outlandishly in hopes of catching the bride’s eye, and I just crossed my short arms across my chest and stared coolly.
Dio, but she was a beauty. Perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old, laced into a rosy silk gown draped over her mare’s white flanks in suchabundant pleats that I could list at least three broken sumptuary laws. Breasts like white peaches, a pale column of a neck, a little face all rosy with happiness—and hair. Such hair, glinting gold in the sunlight, twined with pearls and tucked with cream-colored roses.

Most brides look shy, flustered, bemused. Some cry, some titter nervously, some sit stiff as jeweled saints in a niche. This one laughed like a pealing church bell and kissed her hands to the crowds as she bounced in her velvet saddle with sheer pleasure. She was having far too much fun to cast her eyes down in a crowd like a girl of good birth should, too much fun drinking in everything the world had to offer. Perhaps that was why her dark eyes traveled far enough to see me, looking back at her instead of doffing my hat.

She grinned at me—no other word for it. Grinned and blew me a kiss as if I’d been a tall and handsome man, and then the mare swept her past in a billow of silk and rosewater. I wondered what her new husband was paying for her. Likely he’d decide she was worth it.

“I wouldn’t be stuck pouring drinks in a tavern if I looked like that,” Anna said wistfully. “I’d be dressed in silk and dining with cardinals, and they’d be pouring drinks for me.”

“That’s Madonna Giulia Farnese, I heard.” The man who’d lost his bet whistled as the last of the liveried servants hurried past, and the crowd began to disperse back to its usual business of shopping, thieving, and gossiping. “She’s for one of the Orsini. A dowry of three thousand florins!”

“I heard it was five thousand,” someone else disagreed. “And the Orsini are the ones who paid it—”

“Cheap at the price,” the first man said lustfully, nodding after the white mare. I could still see a glint of gold where the bride’s head bobbed above the crowds.

“Cheap at the price,” I agreed, and escorted Anna to market. She chattered on about the pearls in the bride’s hair, and the cost of the rose-colored gown, and wouldn’t she look pretty in rose-colored silk too if she could ever afford it.

“Not as pretty as the bride did, though,” she conceded, and I couldn’t help but agree with her. Not many women could match Giulia Farnese, later known to all Rome as La Bella. They should have called her La Bellissima, because from that day to this I’ve never seen a woman lovelier.


In all the world, there was surely no girl as happy as me: Giulia Farnese, eighteen years old and married at last!

Mind you, weddings aren’t always such occasions for bliss. Isotta Colonna cried all the way through her wedding last year, and I’d have cried too if I’d been standing next to a man so fat he was practically a sphere. Lucia Piccolomini cried even harder; her husband was a pimply boy of twelve. And my sister, Gerolama, looked sour as a prune when she said her vows, but then Gerolama usually looked sour, and at least she was a good match for her wizened raisin of a husband. “She’s lucky to get him,” my brother Alessandro had told me privately at the wedding banquet. “A razor tongue and a nose like a blade—we haven’t got enough ducats to dower her past all that.” He’d pinched my chin judiciously. “You’ll do better, I think.”

And I had! It had taken time, of course—I’d have been married at fifteen or sixteen like some of my friends, but my father’s death (God rest his soul) had put a halt to all the various negotiations, and then my brothers had spent another two years scraping together a better dowry for me. “And wasn’t it worth the wait?” Sandro asked, gleeful. “Not just another provincial merchant for my little sister, but one of the Orsini. We’re lucky for this match, sorellina—you’ll live in Rome now, and better than a duchess.”

Orsino Orsini: my new husband. I had to wonder what his family had been thinking, naming him that, but he was young! Just a year older than me, and not a sphere either, thank you. My new husband was lean as a rapier, fair-haired, with eyes like . . . well, I hadn’t gotten close enough to see what color his eyes were, truth be told. We met at the exchange of rings, and his gaze had been downcast the whole time as he fumbled the ring onto my finger and murmured the vows. He took one shy glance at me as I recited the words that made me his wife, and he blushed pretty as a rose.

He was blushing now, stealing shy glances at me from across the splendid sala. Oh, why couldn’t we sit together at our own wedding feast? We’d be sharing a bed in a few hours; why not a table now? But Orsino in his slashed blue doublet with green-embroidered sleeves sat at one long table with the rest of the men, swamped by a lot of cardinals like fat scarlet flowerpots, while I was immured across the room with the other women, wedged between my stout mother-in-law in her maroon silks and my sister, Gerolama, who sat finding fault with everything. “I’ve never seen such display. There must be ten different kinds of wine at least; I only had three at mine!” I ignored her, smiling across the room at my new husband and boldly raising my glass to him, but he just blinked nervously.

“Did you notice the glass, Giulia?” Madonna Adriana whispered. “All the way from Murano, diamond-point engraving—from my cousin the Cardinal, as a wedding gift to you. You would not believe the expense!”

Judging by the sala of his palazzo, he could well afford it. The ceiling was high-arched and gorgeously painted; my slippers rested on a wonderfully woven carpet instead of plain flagstones; the long tables were covered in blue velvet and set with gold and silver plate. I tried not to stare, tried to look as if I were used to such careless luxury—after all, the Farnese are a family of noble birth in Capodimonte, I’d been raised in a castello overlooking Lake Bolsena in surroundings of great comfort, if not precisely this level of pomp and glitter. But I lost all ability to look blasé when the stream of dishes began appearing, carried in by sumptuously liveried serving men and wafting such tantalizing smells that I had to stop myself from gobbling like a pig at a trough. Yes, my mother-in-law’s cardinal cousin was a man of God, but he certainly believed in his luxuries. He had bowed and kissed my hand when my procession arrived in his courtyard, but I couldn’t remember which one he was—all cardinals look the same in those red robes, don’t they? Fortunately you don’t really have to remember their names since they’re all “Your Eminence” this and “Your Eminence” that. I flashed my dimples across the room at the whole flock of them, a gesture of coquettish thanks I’d practiced before a mirror as a little girl. At least until my brother Sandro had told me to stop fluttering my lashes because I looked like a drunken hummingbird.

“I didn’t get any Murano glass at my wedding,” Gerolama was grumbling.

“So kind of His Eminence,” I whispered to Madonna Adriana. I was already determined to get on with her—Orsino and I would be sharing the spacious quarters in her family’s palazzo, at least to start, and I was going to have my widowed mother-in-law eating out of my hand if it killed me. Fortunately, she didn’t seem hard to please: just commiserate with her now and then about the rising cost of everything, and she purred like a cat in the cream. Later I supposed Orsino and I would have our own home, but I was in no hurry. Madonna Adriana could bustle with the keys and the account books all she liked; I had no interest at all in fighting her for control of the household. I was going to spend the rest of my days with my feet up in the loggia and my hair spread out in the sun, eating candied figs and playing with my beautiful fat babies. And the rest of my nights in bed with my handsome young husband, making more babies and committing plenty of carnal sins to tell the priest at confession.

“The first of the desserts, sorellina.” Sandro crossed the room with a flourish of a bow, presenting a dish for me. “Peaches in grappa—your favorite.”

“You’ll make me fat, brother,” I complained.

“Oh well, I’ll eat them then.” He popped a soft spiced peach into his mouth.
“Delicious. Madonna Adriana, your cook has outdone himself.”

“Give me those!” I snatched the plate, smiling at my elder brother. He was six years older than I, and we shared two other brothers as well as sour Gerolama, but Sandro and I had always been each other’s favorites. We had the same dark eyes that snapped laughter even when we were trying to be serious, and we’d grown up making faces at each other during Mass and getting smacked by our harried mother whenever we smuggled a grass snake into the priest’s shoe. It had been Sandro who held me when our mother died giving birth to a baby that didn’t live. Two years ago when my father joined her in heaven, my older brothers had been the ones to assume the mantle of family authority, but it had been Sandro who stroked my hair and vowed that he’d look after me now. I’d missed my brother terribly when he went to the university at Pisa to begin his career as a cleric, but now he had come back to Rome to start work on the lowest ecclesiastical rung as a notary. He wasn’t a very good notary, and I didn’t imagine he’d be a very good cleric either—Sandro adored chasing girls too much to ever abide by any vow of chastity, and he had a theatrical streak better suited to a jester. But even if he was the worst churchman on earth, there was no better company to be had at the evening cena table.

“So tell me, Sandro—” I lowered my voice as Madonna Adriana began telling Gerolama how terribly expensive the roast peacock had been. “Why isn’t my husband getting up from his chair to give me peaches in grappa?”

“Have some pity for the poor lad! Married at nineteen, and not to some cross-eyed convent girl he can intimidate, but to a nymph, a Helen, a Venus!” Sandro thumped a fist to his heart, a dagger from the heavens. “As Actaeon was struck down for daring to gaze upon Diana in her glory, so young Orsino fears to gaze upon his bride in all her glory—”

“Shut up, Sandro. Everyone’s looking.”

“You like everyone looking.” Sandro grinned, coming back down to earth. “My little sister is the vainest creature in all God’s creation.”

“You sound like Mother.” God rest her soul, she had always been scolding me for vanity—“You think the Holy Virgin worries how she looks, Giulia mia?” But from what I could see, the Holy Virgin didn’t need to worry how she looked because she was always beautiful, in every painting I’d ever seen of her; beautiful and serene in some becoming blue gown-and-veil combination that had probably been sewn by angels. We earthly girls had to put a bit more thought into our appearance if we wanted to look half so fine, so I just said an extra Paternoster every morning in repentance for the sin of vanity as I plucked my eyebrows.

“Never mind,” Sandro was saying. “Young Orsino will get up his courage soon enough after another dance or two.”

“So let’s encourage him.” I gave the dish of peaches a regretful look, sucking the sweet grappa off one fingertip, but really I’d already eaten heartily as a peasant tonight (oh, that roast peacock, and there was some kind of delicious pastry thing with sweet cheese and onions!). “Dance with me, Sandro.”

“Does a priest dance?” Sandro rolled his eyes up to the heavens with great piety. “You offend my clerical dignity, not to mention my vows.”

“Your vows weren’t too offended when you were flirting with Bianca Bonadeo earlier. During my vows, mind you.”

“Then a basse-danse at once.”

“The basse-danse is boring!” Orsino and I had already opened the floor with a basse-danse earlier in the evening. All that decorous gliding around palm to palm, and he hadn’t quite had the courage to look me in the eye. I preferred something livelier from the viols; a tune that got my blood running, and maybe gave me a chance to show a flash of ankle in the turns. “Let’s dance la volta.”

“You’re the bride, sorellina.” A word to the musicians, and a smattering of applause rose as my brother led me out to the floor. I gave a graceful half spin, flaring my airy rose-colored skirts to acknowledge the applause before the lively beat of the viols began, and I seized Sandro’s hand. A beat or two as we pirouetted through the first steps, and then Sandro put his hands to my waist and tossed me into the air in the first lift. I knew how to land so my skirts belled, throwing my head back and laughing, and I dipped my bare shoulders into the candlelight in the direction of my new husband. Look at me, Orsino, I begged silently. Look at me, dance with me, love me!

Gerolama tried her best to get me good and scared before the bedding. “The duties of marriage are heavy,” she whispered as she helped Madonna Adriana and the other laughing women unlace my rose-colored dress. “Very heavy indeed.”

“Only as heavy as the man,” I giggled, and she limited herself to martyred glances after that. I felt giddy, high-sailing as a full moon in the sky, flushes coming so hot to my cheeks that I pressed my hands to my face to cool it.

“You’re far too excited, child,” Madonna Adriana clucked at me as she unlaced my sleeves. “Try not to expect too much.”

Expect too much? I was about to be a woman at last! I’d heard dark whispers of how much it hurt, of course, but I didn’t believe a word. Mares didn’t shriek pain when they were ridden, and I didn’t think I would either.

Oooof, what a relief to get out of that tightly laced dress. I really had eaten too much, but those little marzipan tourtes that had circulated at the end of the night on brightly colored majolica plates really had been too delicious to resist. Besides, I always eat when I’m happy. Orsino had summoned the courage by then to offer me the dish himself. “You’re beautiful, my lady,” he’d said shyly.

“Your lady wife,” I’d corrected, and saw with delight that he had blue eyes.

“Into bed with you now.” Gerolama had tied my shift up tight around my neck again, and she held the weight of my hair out of the way as I dived between the sheets. Silk sheets, not linen—I was hard-pressed not to gape again at the sheer openhanded richness of everything around me. Was Madonna Adriana’s household as sumptuous as this? I wriggled my toes against the soft silk and dearly hoped so. I’d been raised in simpler surroundings—the trees and lakes of Capodimonte instead of the basilicas and loggias of Rome; provincial simplicity instead of urban luxury. I longed for urban luxury.

“Such hair you have,” one of the other women admired as Gerolama piled my hair into the bed beside me. “So long!”

“You wouldn’t believe how much trouble it is to comb,” I confided, but I did adore my hair. Dark blond, the color of crystallized honey, but I sunned it every day in the garden over the brim of an enormous straw hat, and the sun shot streaks of yellow-gold and apricot-gold and white-gold through the mass of it till it looked (a certain besotted page boy had told me once) like it had been mined out of the earth instead of grown on my head. And it was long hair, too—when I shook it out loose as I did now, it covered me in great slow ripples all the way to my feet. “Only because you’re so short,” Gerolama told me, but it wasn’t my fault I got the blond waves and she got the meager tufts. I’d spent hours when I was little massaging her scalp with chamomile paste so her hair would grow in faster, and what had I gotten for my pains? Slapped hands when it didn’t work. I ask you.

Surely Orsino would like my hair. I wished I could strip off this filmy shift and greet him in nothing but my hair, but I didn’t quite have the courage. “Tomorrow night,” I promised myself, and settled for tugging my shift off my shoulders again as soon as Gerolama and the other women left. What was the use of having nice firm white breasts like mine if no one saw them? Besides, they were Orsino’s breasts now just as much as they were mine.

My bed had a striped cover of black and white velvet, and the sheets were damp with crushed rose petals. The tapers threw flickering golden shadows around the chamber, striking glints off my hair, and I experimented with various poses. Reclining or sitting up? Hands folded, or arranged beneath my cheek? Hair pulled forward over one shoulder, or both? Oh, Holy Virgin, would he just get here? I’d had quite a lot of wine at the wedding feast, and if Orsino dawdled too long I’d be fast asleep.

I yawned. The candles had burned down halfway.

In the end, he caught me dozing. The creak of the door brought me bolt upright in bed, wiping frantically at the corners of my mouth (Holy Virgin, please don’t let my husband catch me drooling!) and biting my lips to give them color. Just think, tomorrow I’d be a married woman in her own right, and allowed to wear lip color if I wanted, instead of bite-bite-bite till my mouth was chapped.

He entered the room tentatively, the candle in his hand casting wavery shadows. His neck looked skinny above his fine nightshirt, and his fair hair was mussed. He was chewing the inside of his cheek nervously, until he caught sight of me sitting in the big bed with my hair all around me, and then he just stared. He had a slight squint, I saw, but hardly noticeable when he dropped his eyes and blushed as he was doing now.

I brushed my hair back away from my bare shoulders and smiled at him. “Orsino,” I started, and didn’t really know what to say next, so I just laughed softly. Look at the pair of us—I think he was more nervous than I was.

Never mind. We’d figure it out together.

I lifted my hand with a smile and held it out to him. “Come to bed, husband.”

He stared at me a long moment. Just stared, and then he gave a resigned little sigh.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled. “I wish—I’m very sorry, believe me, but I’m not allowed.” And he turned away with his candle and rushed out of the room. The click of the door closing seemed very loud.

I gazed at the door, stupefied.

Don’t expect too much, Madonna Adriana had told me.

Whatever I’d expected of my wedding night, it certainly wasn’t this.


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Surprise! Two Books Coming Up . . .

July 2, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, the lion and the rose, lady of the eternal city

I've gotten the ok from my publisher, and I can finally let slip some news I've been keeping quiet for a while.

My usual writing schedule is simple: one 450 page book per year, give or take. But that's going to be different this year. I didn't write one 450 page book last year — I went on some kind of insane hyper-drive, and wrote two.

And they're both going to be released in the next six months.

As for one more bit of news? Both books are Borgia novels. I know some of you are looking ahead for the sequel to Empress of the Seven Hills (more on that later) but all I can say is, I took what was intended to be a one-book vacation to the Italian Renaissance, and my one-book vay-cay turned out like a high-school kid's two-day sight-seeing trip to Paris which somehow morphs into two years of backpacking through Europe. The Borgia world grabbed me like a vise, and so did my characters. Giulia Farnese, mistress to the Borgia Pope and my irrepressible heroine, had far too many real-life adventures to confine to one book. A standalone novel became a duology instead—and to avoid leaving poor Giulia (and my readers) on another cliff-hanger, I wrote both books of the duology back to back. The Serpent and the Pearl is the first installment, set for release five weeks away on August 6, 2013 (though if you want to enter the new Goodreads giveaway for an advance copy, click here.) The concluding installment of Giulia Farnese's story will be titled The Lion and the Rose, and it's slated for release January 7, 2014 - just five months later.

And for those looking for news on the Empress of the Seven Hills sequel, I can tell you that I'm busy writing it now. It has no fixed release date yet, but it will be titled Lady of the Eternal City. Hopefully the Borgia novels and their trio of heroes will tide you over: Giulia Farnese, the Renaissance's most beautiful woman; her cynical bodyguard Leonello who duels with Cesare Borgia and hunts serial killers for fun; and a fiery cook named Carmelina who has a genius for gourmet food, a mummified hand in her pocket (don't ask), and more secrets than she can count.

Take a look here at my duology's two gorgeous covers, and two (spoiler-free) descriptions:


Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous—or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web . . .

Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for pope—and passionately in love with her.

Two trusted companions will follow her into the world of the Borgias: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the bodies begin to mount, Giulia and her friends must decide if they will flee the Borgia dream of power—or if they can even survive it


From the national bestselling author of "The Serpent and the Pearl" comes the continuing saga of the ruthless family that holds all of Rome in its grasp, and the three outsiders thrust into their twisted web of blood and deceit . . .

As the cherished concubine of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, Giulia Farnese has Rome at her feet. But after narrowly escaping a sinister captor, she realizes that the danger she faces is far from over—and now, it threatens from within. The Holy City of Rome is still under Alexander’s thrall, but enemies of the Borgias are starting to circle. In need of trusted allies, Giulia turns to her sharp-tongued bodyguard, Leonello, and her fiery cook and confidante, Carmelina.

Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance’s most notorious family, Giulia, Leonello, and Carmelina must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power. But as the shadows of murder and corruption rise through the Vatican, they must learn who to trust when every face wears a mask . . .

Cosmopolitan: Special Renaissance Edition!

May 27, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, cosmopolitan

Since my next book is moving from ancient Rome to Renaissance Rome, it's time for some Renaissance-themed blog posts! Starting with something fun for the weekend: a circa-1492 edition of Cosmopolitan. Because why not?

Plenty of mentions here of my heroine from the upcoming The Serpent and the Pearl, Giulia Farnese, and all her various Borgia companions . . .


On the cover: GIULIA FARNESE: The Pope's Mistress Spills Her Secrets

Furred gown (price upon request). Paris hat with plume (price upon request). Pearl earrings (on loan from Vatican treasury). To get Giulia's subtle-but-sexy look, try kohl in Botticelli Blue and lip rouge in Raphael Red, and luminescent skin powder in Da Vinci Diamond. (Use actual diamond dust for extra glow.) Hair: wear a pearled snood for this sophisticated look, or just let those gorgeous golden waves hang all the way to your feet! Don't have floor-length hair? Try Giulia's secret weapon: a weekly mask rubbed into the scalp to encourage fast growth. (Details page 88) You'll have those locks down around your knees in no time!

Cosmo News
35 Hot Sheet
Trends we're buzzing about! Are dagged sleeves here to stay?
44 Sexy vs. Skanky
Botticelli's Venus—he left her naked, but should he have painted a dress on her? You decide!
56 The Real Story: A Nun Escapes The Convent
Why she risked everything to break her holy vows

Trust us—you don't want to know what the penalty is for running away from a convent.

62 Confessions
She lied to her confessor about sleeping with a condottiere!
64 Guys Spill: The Little White Lies They Tell You
He promised to marry her—but forgot to mention that he's a priest!
66 Beauty Evolution: Lucrezia Borgia's Style Progression
Our Pope's little princess is all grown up! Lucrezia Borgia trades her pastel frocks and girlish slippers for daring necklines and (gasp!) towering stilt clogs! Get this look for less than 300 ducats.

Lucrezia likes hers a full ten inches tall! Scandalous, but good for keeping skirts out of the mud!

Cover Story
69 The Bride of Christ
Lean in close for some girl talk with Christendom's most notorious woman! Giulia Farnese spills to Cosmo about that famous floor-length hair, not to mention Pope Alexander VI, her surprising friendships with his children, and the five things you should never tell your guy (even if he's the Pope!)

The question only Cosmo would dare to ask: does having the Pope as your BF damn you to hell, or is the Holy Father's absolution the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card? Read her answer here!

Fun Fearless Fashion
74 In-Style Indian
In honor of our recent discovery of a new continent, everything this season is coming up native! Fringes, beads, and leather equals hot, hot, hot—all plundered cheap and chic from the New World! (Allow six months for trans-oceanic shipping.)
75 10 Steals at the Piazza
Bargain-price accessories at the Piazza Navona—replica silver saint's medals, every possible saint guaranteed!
78 Not Your Mother's Snood
Pearls and spangles put a sexy spin on the old-married-woman hairnet!

Cosmo Look
86 Beauty News
Crownless sun-hats allow you to sun your hair and keep that skin white—genius!
88 His Picks
Gentlemen prefer blondes, so wash your hair in Giulia Farnese's special saffron and cinnabar rinse
92 Beauty Q&A
Use our special bean-flour and pigeon-dropping face mask to tighten and tone!
93 Wiggin' Out?
Four wig styles that flatter everyone

Guy Watch
102 Stud Meter

Cesare Borgia hits the top! We can't get enough of this scary-but-sexy bad boy who makes a bishop's robes look so damn hawt. Meet his companions in . . .
104 Deadly Dreamboats
Henchman-in-chief Michelotto has stone-cold killer eyes and the abs to match, but don't overlook the latest addition to the Borgia stable of assassins: smart-mouth Leonello. Sure, this little man's only up to your shoulder, but we hear he's got wicked knives, and a wicked tongue to match!
10 The Other Borgia Boys
Cesare's younger brother Juan has a wife, but who cares? She's in Spain, and he's looking for a new mistress! And don't neglect little brother Joffre—his memoir “Growing Up Borgia” comes out this year!

Juan Borgia: ok, so he has a reputation for rape, murder and killing stray dogs. But who can resist a guy in a plumed helmet?

107 Bad Hair Days Around The Papal States
Come on, priests—we know church law mandates tonsures, but shaving the crown of your head is so not sexy. Keep it minimal like Cesare Borgia with a short patch at the top, and let your curls go wild!

Love and Lust
110 21 Relationship Tips From Venice's Most Successful Courtesans
You can't be seen associating with these women, so we did the research for you.

You won't believe her Tip #19!

112 Arranged Marriages: Getting It Right
Learn to love the man your parents picked for you
116 Ask Him Anything
Will your husband mind if you breast-feed your baby? Yes! Remember, ladies, he needs heirs, so he'll want you pregnant again as soon as possible.
121 He Slept With A Courtesan—Does It Count As Cheating?
First question: did she give him the French pox?

You, Even Better
138 How To Be An Artist's Muse
Botticelli's famous Primavera dishes tips on posing nude, holding still, and dealing with the artistic temperament. Everlasting artistic fame will be yours in no time!

Getting a crick in your neck during those long modeling sessions - occupational hazard!

139 6 Tips To A Perfect Basse-Danse
Just remember to keep your back stiff during this classic after-dinner dance—but don't be afraid to show a flash of ankle in the turns. So daring!
142 How To Be Noticed In Church
Everybody knows men scout for future brides during Mass—with these subtle-but-sexy tips, you'll be engaged by the time the Offertory comes around!

Health Check
150 The Cosmo Health Report: Your Sexual Health
Here's the real truth about the French Pox, and how to spot the bad boys who have it. (Hint: avoid men with rotting noses.)
154 Cosmo Gyno
The new birth control: half a Neapolitan lime, and you won't believe what we tell you to do with it! (Just don't tell your hubby.)
155 Your Body
Ten exercises to keep that waist tiny, even after the tenth childbirth!

Need To Know
161 Bull Through
Our fail-safe guide to the bullfights our Spanish Pope has made so trendy. Impress your man with your bull-fight know-how the next time he takes you to an afternoon of bloodshed!

Cesare Borgia bullfights for fun - and he can take a bull's head off in one stroke! Now that's sexy.

Fun and Fearless
164 The Naughtiest Thing I've Ever Done
Lucrezia Borgia hired courtesans to entertain at her wedding—and they picked up chestnuts off the floor with their what?
166 Are You There, Sancha?
Sexy Sancha of Aragon might be married to little Joffre Borgia, but this sexpot Borgia daughter-in-law moonlights as our resident bad-girl columnist! This issue, she spills on papal conclaves, world domination papal-style . . . and just what she thinks of all these Borgia incest rumors.

Cosmo Life
170 Weekend
Lent is just around the corner, but you know what comes first: Carnival! Get in the spirit by putting on a mask (Giulia Farnese likes a unicorn mask) and running wild through the city!

Go ahead, make out with a masked stranger - you can always atone once Lent begins!

172 You and Him
Men may like floor-length hair, but it sure gets tangled around everything whenever you and your man get frisky. Pause your sexy time long enough to make a quick braid.
178 At Your Place: Carmelina's Cena
Giulia Farnese's private chef is a woman who knows her business. Copy her menu for Lucrezia Borgia's (first) wedding banquet, and impress your guests with an all-sweets buffet: miniature tourtes of caravella pears and summer strawberries, honeyed pastry stars stuffed with blood orange segments, sugared violets and apple blossoms, creamy swans with candied almond feathers . . . yum!
181 Healthy Sexy Strong
Muscle tone is so not sexy—here's how we keep you looking soft all over

Cosmo Astrologer
188 Your priest disapproves of astrology, but we won't tell!
A bad month for Taurus (don't fall for a sweet-talking artist who swears he'll make you famous if you only take off your clothes!) but a good month for Sagittarius (a rich suitor is waiting just around the corner with a marriage proposal. Already married? Then the proposal will come for your twelve-year-old daughter!)

It's never too early to settle her future!

Red-Hot Read
192 Swoony Sonnets
You'll sigh for Petrarch's latest dreamy lyrics—and just who is this mysterious golden lady he calls his Laura?

Cosmo Quiz
193 The Three Female Fates: Nun, Wife, or Whore. Which Are You?
Mostly A's: nun. Let's hope you look good in veils.

Mostly B's: wife. But wives can be sexy too! Just ditch the bad hat.

Mostly C's: Courtesan! Get yourself a sexy dress and start charging by the hour!

Hope you enjoyed this special Renaissance edition of Cosmopolitan. Next up: Renaissance Maxim!

The Serpent and the Pearl: The Audio-Book! Starring . . .

April 16, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, ronan vibert

Some news I've been bursting to spill: my forthcoming Borgia novel "The Serpent and the Pearl" will also be released in digital audio-book form!

This is my first audio book, and even more exciting, "The Serpent and the Pearl" is getting the deluxe treatment: not just one reader but three. Two female readers who will provide the voices for my two heroines, and a male reader who will voice my hero.

Not just any male reader, either: my hero in "The Serpent and the Pearl" will be read by none other than Ronan Vibert, who is currently co-starring on Showtime's series "The Borgias." (He looks considerably more unshaven and villainous there, as Lucrezia Borgia's brutal first husband, than he does in the picture here!) You may also remember Ronan as Lepidus in HBO's "Rome," as Robespierre in "The Scarlet Pimpernel," as Mira Sorvino's dissipated English lord in "The Buccaneers," and from a thousand other BBC productions. I've already heard clips of his reading, and he's going to be marvelous as my cynical hero Leonello. (Looks not unlike him too, except for a leetle height difference.)

The ladies sound wonderful too, both of them young stage-trained British actresses with lots of Shakespeare in their background. The reader for Giulia Farnese has a husky alto drawl that would charm any Pope to his knees.

So come August 6, download the audio edition of "The Serpent and the Pearl" and listen to the fun!

Habemus Papam: We Have A Pope!

March 12, 2013

Tags: the serpent and the pearl, rodrigo borgia, giulia farnese, papal conclave

As I type this, 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church are trooping into the Sistine Chapel to begin that most holy of voting procedures: the conclave which will result in a new pope. I'm not Catholic, but I still find myself inordinately excited. I've spent the last year researching another papal conclave: the conclave of 1492, in which the characters of my next book The Serpent and the Pearl: a novel of the Borgias have a great deal at stake.

The conclave of 1492 was the first to be held in the Sistine Chapel, a tradition that continued afterward to this day. The chapel hadn't yet been painted by Michelangelo—a certain Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who sat in several papal conclaves over the course of his career, might well have stared vengefully at the ceiling and thought to himself, “Ok, if I ever win one of these things, I'm putting some decent paintings in here.” Della Rovere was one of several cardinals who probably considered himself papabile, which roughly translates to “pope-able.” Papal conclaves were held in strictest secrecy, but you could generally tell who thought they had a shot at the papal throne by seeing which cardinals had their palaces cleaned out beforehand: Roman tradition during the Renaissance dictated that any new Pope promptly had his palace sacked by a celebratory mob (the reasoning being that the guy didn't need a private residence anymore, since he was moving into the Vatican). That's one tradition that has fallen away over the centuries, but it was highly appreciated by the bettors and bookies of the Renaissance, who touted the odds on the next pope according to which cardinals had all their best belongings carted away pre-Conclave, just in case things swung their way. Cardinal della Rovere had his hopes up for the conclave of 1492, and so did his arch-enemy, a certain affable Spanish cardinal named Rodrigo Borgia.

Modern conclaves have streamlined the voting process for efficiency: votes can be held up to four times per day, as opposed to the Renaissance when conclaves could last for weeks. (There was one conclave which supposedly lasted several years, and the cardinals were finally restricted to bread and water to hurry them along. When even that didn't work, the roof was removed from their voting room. A few showers of rain later, a pope was chosen with remarkable speed.)

But in 1492 as in today's conclave, a two-thirds majority was required. Also identical in process is the expulsion of outsiders, the ceremonial locking of the doors, and the oath of silence. Vegas has nothing on the Vatican: on pain of excommunication, what happens at the Conclave stays at the Conclave. Voting ballots are still hand-written (you don't want to put in computers to tabulate this vote; wouldn't it be embarrassing if Anonymous posted “Dude, I hacked the Vatican!” on Facebook?) and no cardinal can ever vote for himself. But both today and in 1492, fierce jockeying occurs behind the scenes as cardinals angle for Christendom's ultimate prize.

The conclave of 1492 was notorious for the bribery that went on among these supposed men of God. If you think the clergy today has a bad reputation, the cardinals of the Renaissance had them outdone by miles. There were only twenty-three present in the Sistine Chapel that summer day in 1492 (travel distances being what they were, cardinals didn't tend to make flying visits from France or England as they do today), and all twenty-three were known less as men of God than as princes of the church: worldly men who ate and drank like kings, made merry with women, slept in luxurious palaces, promoted their families, sponsored great art, and lived it up. The poster child for this system was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, an unabashed sensualist who played proud papa to at least four notorious illegitimate children—and at the time of the conclave, was head over heels in love with a gorgeous eighteen-year-old blonde by the name of Giulia Farnese. In my version in The Serpent and the Pearl, Rodrigo is more distracted during the conclave than he should be, tabulating possible votes with one half of his mind as the other half wonders if he can make Giulia his mistress. Not a good time for a man of God to be distracted, but Rodrigo Borgia always made time for love.

When he wasn't dreamily doodling Giulia's profile on his ballot, Cardinal Borgia made other arrangements. Four mule-loads of silver and the office of Vice-Chancellor reportedly went to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in return for his papal vote; fortified towns and bishoprics and revenues were handed out like party favors among the other cardinals in exchange for their support. Cardinal della Rovere must have been very tight-lipped indeed during the four votes that followed: with every cast of the ballots, his enemy's star rose. The first three sets of ballots were burned ceremoniously, releasing the black smoke above the Vatican roof that to this day symbolizes to the watching crowd outside that yet another vote has been unsuccessful. On the sixth day of the 1492 conclave, a hot summer day in early August, the crowd saw white smoke: a pope had been elected.

In Rodrigo Borgia's day, tradition had it that the newly elected pope demurred modestly when offered the papacy, then formally accepted before taking his oath and making his first public appearance. Supposedly Rodrigo Borgia was too excited for modesty, and just let out an exultant yell of “I AM POPE!” This tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Rodrigo Borgia.

After accepting his title, the new Pope goes at once to change into his papal vestments (several sizes are usually laid out, then as now, since no one knows what size man will be climbing into those vestments). He then goes out to give his first official blessing to the crowd outside, announced officially by his chosen papal name. The official announcement, unchanged through the centuries, is Habemus Papam, or “We have a pope.” The assembled crowd of 1492 heard the words “We have for Pope, Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia of Valencia.” To the surprise of no one who knew the man, he had chosen the name of a conqueror rather than a saint.

After the blessing, preparations are always made to crown the new Pope in an official ceremony, but everyone has a few days to prepare first. The new Pope Alexander would have had time to go home, celebrate with his exultant sons Cesare and Juan and Joffre, and tell his daughter Lucrezia about the splendid marriage plans he arranged for her as part of the bribe to Cardinal Sforza. The new Pope would also have made time to kiss the golden-haired Giulia Farnese—whom, to the scandal of all Rome, he refused to give up after taking the papal throne. And the new Pope probably would have heard the scurrilous epigram that soon made its way through Rome after the election: “Alexander sells the Keys, the Altar, Christ Himself—he has a right to, for he bought them.” Rodrigo Borgia never minded trash-talking; he probably roared with laughter. Besides, it was true: the conclave of 1492 became famous as one of the worst examples of bribery and simony in conclave history. When Cardinal della Rovere finally became Pope Julius II two conclaves later, he passed stringent anti-bribery laws for future conclaves (in between bullying Michelangelo about that Sistine Chapel ceiling).

The papal conclave of 2013 is already famous: it's the first time since the Middle Ages, long before Rodrigo Borgia or any of his colleagues were born, that a conclave has been held on a pope's resignation rather than his death. Who knows if it will be famous for any other reasons? All we can do is wait and watch for that plume of white smoke.

Habemus Papam.

My Next Book!

November 12, 2012

Tags: the serpent and the pearl

I treasure the memory of my three days at the 2011 Historical Novel Society Conference for many reasons – watching Diana Gabaldon trot around with a glass of wine in one hand and a broadsword in the other; laughing as C.C. Humphreys narrated a blow-job scene in his mellifluous English drawl; bonding late at night with a gaggle of new best friends – but one of the best pieces of advice I took home with me came not from a discussion group or advice panel, but over a bagel and a cup of coffee.

“What historical era are you doing after ancient Rome?” the lovely Michelle Moran asked me. “It's something to think about – you don't want to be writing the same book over and over, after all.” Since the queen of ancient Egypt novels had recently made a very successful switch to revolutionary France, I started thinking. I have written three books set in ancient Rome, and while it's an era I adore, I was starting to fantasize about writing a book in which I never, not one single time, had to type the word t-o-g-a. Emperors and legions, chariot races and consulship campaigns, atriums and slave girls and silk stolae – I needed a break. So, after much thought and discussion with my editor and my agent, it was agreed that my next book would stay in Rome, but not the 1st century. I've jumped forward a millenium and a half, and have landed smack on the Borgia bandwagon.

My fourth book, slated for release in August 2013, revolves around the minor historical figure of Giulia Farnese, a Renaissance beauty with floor-length hair who became mistress to the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. (Yes, another mistress!) Giulia's story is joined by that of her cynical bodyguard and her fiery household cook – and of course, the Borgias themselves in all their mysterious and murderous glory.

Goodbye, ancient Rome (at least for now). And hello, Renaissance!



Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous—or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web . . .

Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for pope—and passionately in love with her.

Two trusted companions will follow her into the world of the Borgias: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the bodies begin to mount, Giulia and her friends must decide if they will flee the Borgia dream of power—or if they can even survive it.