Kate Quinn's Blog: Ave Historia, page 6

July 12, 2013

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!


To read on to the end of the first chapter, click here on my website. (I couldn't post the full chapter here due to Goodreads length regs).

And if you want a chance to win a free copy, Enter here before July 15th!
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Published on July 12, 2013 11:09 • 691 views • Tags: the-serpent-and-the-pearl

July 2, 2013

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 . . .
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Published on July 02, 2013 14:41 • 986 views • Tags: lady-of-the-eternal-city, the-lion-and-the-rose, the-serpent-and-the-pearl

June 27, 2013

With only two writer conferences under my belt (Historical Novel Society Conference 2011, and Romantic Times Convention 2013), I am far from a veteran. But when I packed my bags for the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I knew enough to anticipate a few things: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.

Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that's printable. So here it is: HNS 2013, The Recap.

Just like Vegas, what happens at the conference stays at the conference. Mostly.


4:11 a.m. Having spent the previous week fussing over the two panels on which I'm speaking, and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for Diana Gabaldon's ever-popular Saturday Night Sex Scene event, I'm packing LITERALLY at the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives. I am not an efficient packer. I throw things into my suitcase with such random logic that my first thought on unpacking is always something along the lines of “Why did I pack a set of wind-chimes and an abacus, but no pants?" Hubby and Facebook friends proceed to mock me mercilessly.

7:31 a.m. For Romantic Times I had Stephanie Dray as a traveling companion; this time around, buddy and critique partner Sophie Perinot. We mainline coffee and spend the flight yakking it up about our respective books-in-progress. The guy in our row keeps giving us weary glances: maybe he didn't really feel like overhearing a complete run-down on the Divorce Satyrique and Suetonius's Twelve Caesars before he'd even gotten his airline peanuts.

11:39 a.m. St. Petersburg, Florida! Good god, the humidity is even worse than Maryland; it's like walking into a warm wet sponge. The hotel shuttle turns out to be picking up not just Sophie and myself, but Stephanie Dray, Kris Waldherr, and a number of other conference-goers. We debate proper classical names for Stephanie's stuffed hippo, a gift from me. Don't ask.

1:12 p.m. Rooms aren't ready yet, so we plop down to lunch, and are promptly joined by Adelaida Lucena-Lower, Hope Stewart, Barbara Beck (all fellow HNS Chesapeake Bay chapter members), and Stephanie Cowell. Stephanie and I find out that we are both former opera singers, and promptly get into the musical weeds. (“What fach are you?” “Isn't that E natural in Blonde's aria a bitch?”) We've managed to be nerds at a nerd-fest.

2:46 p.m. Unpacking. Can anyone tell me why I packed sixteen pairs of earrings, but no toothpaste?

5pm Reception! I run around shrieking greetings to people I haven't seen, in some cases, since the 2011 conference in San Diego. I wear my red patent-leather stilettos; the 4-inch ones that turn my toes numb, but give me a Joan-from-Mad-Men strut. They're my good luck charm from the last conference, which I attended as a tongue-tied fan-girl—they were by far the most memorable thing about me. Even more than my name-tag, people at the reception glance at my feet and exclaim, “I remember you!”

5:58 p.m. In San Diego, I bonded with five or six other ladies in one of those late-night spill-your-secrets gab-fests that welds people together for life. We christened ourselves the Lobby Posse, and haven't lost touch since. We're missing some members — Michelle Moran is settling into a new house in Texas — but Marci Jefferson, DeAnn Smith, Teralyn Pilgrim, Sophie, and myself all drink a toast to happy reunions.

6:02 p.m. And more additions to the posse: C.W. Gortner of the Oscar Wilde one-liners, Christy English of the sweet southernisms, and Donna Russo Morin of the stilettos even more sky-high than mine. They were Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to my star-struck D'Artagnan when we all congregated at RT last month.

6:16 p.m. When Christopher hears that Stephanie Dray's writing idol is Margaret George, he promptly hauls her off for a face-to-face meeting. Stephanie's eyes are the size of Cleopatra's pearls, the ones she dissolved in vinegar and drank down to impress Mark Antony.

6:32 p.m. Sophie gives Stephanie a mini smiling hippo toy. Don't ask.

6:49 p.m. Finally get a chance to meet some of these people I've only known online, like Amy Phillips Bruno of book blog “Passages To The Past.” As somebody comments, it's easy to recognize people in this room as long as you picture their faces as little thumbnail jpegs.

7 p.m. Dinnertime. Announcements from the saintly Vanitha Sankaran, who heroically chaired this year's conference, and then we head for the buffet line. Several tables are sternly scolded for getting up out of order; we return meekly to our seats. All except for Margaret George who calmly declines to be scolded, and moves to the line like an empress. Over veggies in pastry, she and Stephanie Dray gabble happily about Emperor Nero, the end of Cleopatra's dynasty in Mauretania, and whether Agrippina the Younger really swam out of a collapsing boat.

8:04 p.m. Anne Perry is our guest speaker tonight, and she's got the voice of a born story-teller: low, lulling, spooky; absolute mistress of the dramatic pause. She paints such a vivid picture of Robespierre in his tumbril on the way to the guillotine, I can practically smell the blood between the cobblestones of the Place de la Greve.

9:21 p.m. Out on the veranda with Eliza Knight, Teralyn Pilgrim, and Richard Scott. Eliza and I talk highland warriors (she's the queen of hunky Scottish heroes), Teralyn and I muse about Vestal Virgins, and Richard scolds me sternly for moving away from San Diego. Given that it's 85 degrees and 85% humidity at 9:21 at night, I'm missing the San Diego weather right about now.

11:13 p.m. I hit the dance floor briefly with Heather Webb, Amanda Orr, and DeAnn. As we boogie, I grill Heather about her upcoming book on Empress Josephine, and Amanda asks for the latest bon mot from my mom, who is known on my blog by the sobriquet of “the Dowager Librarian.” (Because my mother is basically the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey,” if the D.C. worked at your local library. A typical bon mot: “You want to know why librarians are always cranky? Because they do nothing anymore but put holds for people on “50 Shades of Grey.”)

11:32 p.m. DeAnn has a hospitality suite on the top floor with room for a party. I long to head up and continue gabbing, but I'm exhausted from my 5am packing session, and opt for a reluctant early bedtime. I'm speaking on two panels tomorrow, and I need my beauty sleep.


7am Breakfast. The hotel has wisely set up about 16 massive coffee dispensers taking up the entirety of one long wall. Good move. Run out of coffee at a writers convention, and the hotel will be burning like Rome.

8:15 a.m. First panel: “Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction,” with Stephanie, Teralyn, Mary Sharratt, and the fascinating Kamran Pasha who speaks in rapid-fire staccato bursts like a particularly erudite automatic rifle. “It's too early to be this scholarly,” Stephanie moans, but this turns out to be one of the most fascinating panels of the conference. Mary calls Hildegard von Bingen a “power frau,” Kamran skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn't mean it's wise.”

9:30 a.m. Second panel – “Is `Genre' A Dirty Word? Commercial vs. Literary HF.” Anybody else notice that as soon as historical novels start winning prizes/accolades, they are quickly adopted as “literary” by high-brow critics who don't want to admit that they like historical fiction? See “Wolf Hall.”

10:15 a.m. I'm torn between “To Trump Or Trumpet The History Police” and “Cliches in Historical Fiction: the Feisty Heroine Sold Into Marriage Who Hates Bear-Baiting.” So I hit both, half an hour each. For the former, a resounding “NO!” sounds when the moderator asks if writers should respond to critics accusing them of historical inaccuracy.

12:01 p.m. Lunchtime. Can somebody explain to me why the glass sculpture hanging from the ballroom ceiling looks like Medusa's head?

12:48 p.m. We finish up our pasta salad and sandwiches as keynote speaker C.W. Gortner speaks warmly, wittily, and with self-deprecation about his experiences as a writer of historical fiction, from the many many many rejection slips to the importance of the writer community. “Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.” Standing ovation, well earned.

1:30 p.m. And GULP: the first of my two panels. Fortunately “Sex In Historical Fiction: How To Make It Hot” is a repeat performance, since Christopher, Donna, Christy, and I did this one for RT. We add Sherry Jones this time, who brings down the house with a well-timed joke about a cod-piece.

2:45 p.m. No rest for the wicked; my second panel comes right away. “HF Set in the Ancient World: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” All the bawdy sex talk has loosened my nerves, however, so the panel with Stephanie Dray, Margaret George, and Vicky Alvear Shecter goes easy-peasy. I'm the odd man out on this panel: the only one at the table who didn't write some version of Cleopatra's suicide.

4 p.m. Book signing! I stake out a spot with T.K. Thorne, whose biblical epic Noah's Wife I enjoyed immensely. I've got two spare ARC's of my forthcoming “Serpent and the Pearl,” and I keep an eye peeled for readers I can give them away to. Audra Friend walks away happily with the first one—and if you want more hilarious conference recaps via Twitter, read Audra's compilation here.

5:13 p.m. Finally get a break to run to the book-selling room. I remind myself sternly that I have very little room in my suitcase for new purchases. Very proud that I only walk away with 13 new books.

5:42 p.m. Stephanie Dray receives an angry-hippo mug from a mutual friend. Don't ask.

6:33 p.m. One of the joys of having writer friends: receiving grammatically correct text messages.

7 p.m. Dinner and festivities. A table full of friends both old and new – I'm delighted to meet David Blixt and his fiery ginger wife Jan Blixt, Shakespearean actors both. David ran a seminar on swordplay this morning which I was sincerely disappointed to miss, and Jan keeps me in stitches with one-liners that could come straight from Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

8:11 p.m. Costume pageant, hosted by our very own Gillian Bagwell, rigged out in outrageous English accent and salmon-pink 18th century finery as “Joan, Lady Rivers.” Given that this crowd is more likely to watch “The White Queen” than the Oscars, I'm surprised people aren't turning to each other with comments of “Is that a relative of Elizabeth Woodville's brother Lord Rivers?”

8:38 p.m. Grr. First my phone dies, then I realize my shuttle arrangements to catch my flight tomorrow have fallen through - during the costume pageant, I'm hopping up and down between my room and the table like a jack-rabbit on meth. Thank God I don't miss Teralyn Pilgrim, who steals the show in a demure Vestal Virgin outfit — worn serenely over a noticeably pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches. Teralyn, if you ever for some reason decide to give up writing, you've got a future in stand-up comedy.

8:52 p.m. HF fans all wear great jewelry, I've noticed. Chandelier earrings, BC gold bracelets, Greek coins fashioned into necklaces, antique cocktail rings . . . there's enough bling in this room to deck out a dozen Roman emperors.

9:10 p.m. Steve Berry, keynote speaker straight out of a John Grisham novel: former trial lawyer with southern charm and southern accent. He's got some great lines - “I'm not a historian, I'm just a guy who read 400 books on the subject” and “Don't write what you know, that's bad advice! Write what you love.” But his pet project right now is the current theory that Elizabeth I died at thirteen and was replaced by a male impostor who was also somehow the illegitimate grandson of Henry VIII, and I have to wonder if it was the best topic for this particular audience. On the other hand, it says something about the level of awesome at HNS that here is a roomful of people who will leap to defend the reputation of a woman 400 years dead.

9:21 p.m. Diana Gabaldon's sex scene readings come right after this—I'm reading this year, and I realize I've left my scene upstairs. Hightail it back up to my room in a panic, missing the Q&A after Berry's speech, and skid back into the banquet hall just in time to see Teralyn the Vestal Virgin graciously accepting her prize as winner of the costume pageant. Well-deserved.

10 p.m. Saturday Night Sex Scene readings kick off with Diana Gabaldon reading a hilarious essay on the do's and don'ts of writing sex. I'm not nervous at all.

10:08 p.m. Margaret George in a fabulous Titanic-inspired gown reads a Henry VIII scene, noting that Henry is considerably less accomplished with women than Jonathan Rhys Meyers would have us think — as Henry trysts with Bessie Blount, he reflects that his friend Henry Cavill Charles Brandon would at least have had a bed prepped.

10:32 p.m. Anne Easter Smith makes us all sigh with a tender scene between Richard of York and his Proud Cis . . . Bruce MacBain has a Viking sauna scene that steams everybody up . . . and holy **** it's my turn. I'm not nervous at all.

10:58 p.m. Ok, my knees are knocking. Maybe the 4-inch stilettos weren't such a good idea. My sex scene is from my upcoming Serpent and the Pearl. Let's just say there's aphrodisiac food, and Cesare Borgia pins somebody to a table.

11:09 p.m. Jan Blixt leans over as I collapse into a chair: “Now that you're done reading, would you like a drink?” Straight scotch, please, and bless you.

11:48 p.m. Suzy Witten narrates an eerie Salem witchcraft erotic dream, Leslie Carroll gives us Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette spooning in the Tuileries . . . but the night's honors have to go to Erika Mailman, who has us all choking with laughter at her Irish-accented diatribe of a prostitute on a job that goes epically, comically wrong. Bloody brilliant.

The wee hours: It's after midnight by the time Diana Gabaldon wraps everything with a sigh-worthy Jamie Fraser scene in her trademark smoky voice. I get up to my room to find that my darling spouse has sent two bottles of champagne so I can celebrate. I round up every friend I can find to share — my phone is still dead so I can't locate Deann or those others of the Lobby Posse who have gone up to bed, and Stephanie is off with her own white knight hubby, so I end up drinking my bubbly with Christopher, Donna, Christy, Sophie, and the Blixts. My husband is toasted many times in absentia, and everybody adores the story of how he dressed up as a gladiator for my appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival last year. (“ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!”) This is the part of the conference that stays at the conference — but as a final note, I will say that you should never pass up the opportunity to swing-dance with David Blixt around a coffee table at 2:30 a.m.

3:10 a.m. Too wired to sleep as I finally drift back to my room. I open up Christy English's The Queen's Pawn to read myself to sleep, and end up reading wide-eyed for another hour about the adventures of Princess Alais and Eleanor of Aquitaine. God damn you, Christy, I'm on four hours of sleep already.


8:30 a.m. I sleep through my wake-up call. It's all Christy English's fault.

9:10 a.m. I pack frantically, but still end up missing Marci Jefferson's panel on “Author-Agent Talk: the Inside Scoop.” I adore Marci, whose novel Girl on the Golden Coin, a Novel of Frances Stuart comes out 2014 — it's Marci's debut novel and I know she's nervous, but she has no cause to be. Girl on the Golden Coin is a sensational Restoration romp about a gutsy young duchess who turns down three different kings, and I encourage everybody to pre-order it here

10:58 a.m. One final lunch with Stephanie and Vicky Alvear Shecter before the plane. Stephanie gets yet another little hippo figurine. Don't ask.

12:41 p.m. I trail through the lobby trading good-byes and vows of friendship with everybody I meet, suddenly in a panic that there's a friend, colleague, or reader I've overlooked in this whirlwind two days. If I missed you somehow in St. Petersburg, I swear I'll catch up with you at the next conference.

4:23 p.m. Home at last. Dog greets me rapturously, with yips and tail wags. Husband greets me rapturously, with flowers and pasta. But it feels oddly . . . quiet.

There it is in a nutshell: HNS 2013. HNS 2011 was my first conference, and it was an eye-opener: I'd been a professional author for less than two years, and I was going it entirely alone. It was in San Diego two years ago that I first found out what a wonderful community there is of writers, readers, and friends in this business. I don't think I realized how lonely this job could be, when you don't have that community. Two years later, and I couldn't imagine being without it. Christopher said it best in his keynote lunch address: “Conferences are about community, not book promotion.” Amen—and as I unpack my red stilettos and my 13 new books, I already can't wait for HNS 2015.
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Published on June 27, 2013 11:54 • 1,091 views • Tags: conference-recaps, historical-novel-society-2013

June 17, 2013

In a few days I'm off for a weekend at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I'm speaking on two panels: "Historical Fiction Set In The Ancient World: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (with Stephanie Dray, Margaret George, and Vicky Alvear Shecter) and "Sex In Historical Fiction: How to Make It Hot" (with C.W. Gortner, Sherry Jones, Christy English, and Donna Russo Morin).

St. Petersburg; here I come!

Great fun - and if you're attending the conference too, look me up! First, however, I'm a guest over on Elizabeth Caulfield Felt's blog, answering such questions as coffee vs. tea, Darcy vs. Heathcliff, and of course, the dirt on my next release, "The Serpent and the Pearl." To read, click here!
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Published on June 17, 2013 08:17 • 149 views • Tags: guest-blog, historical-novel-society

May 31, 2013

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!)

[image error]
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!
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Published on May 31, 2013 16:14 • 597 views • Tags: cosmopolitan, the-serpent-and-the-pearl

May 24, 2013

Good afternoon, everyone. Or good morning, good evening, whenever you are reading this.

Regular followers of my wife's blog have noticed that she has a soft spot for military men. This works out pretty well for me, being a proud US Navy Petty Officer First Class; we tend to define ourselves as so bad-ass that when we wake up in the morning and our feet hit the floor, the Devil himself looks up and says, "Oh, s**t, they're awake." We think highly of ourselves, but it's not entirely unearned.

My wife's soft spot for military men usually results in a Memorial Day blog post that jerks tears from your heart. Kate's understanding of the demands, the almost overwhelming burden of military service, is beyond compare. She understands the Cost, capital C. However, this year, she let me take the helm for her Memorial Day post.

I'm not as eloquent as she is. I don't have the tools or the vocabulary or the experience to lay out words in such a heart-rending way that people sit still for a contemplative moment and think, ".......WOW." That skill, I am afraid, is beyond me. However, what I can do is speak about Memorial Day, and why I would submit that people should take a contemplative moment or two themselves: remember those who have served, those who have lost and been lost, those who have stood at the front. Those rough souls have a unique perspective lacking in much of the populace, and it is that perspective I wish to provide. For what is Memorial Day if not a day of remembrance? Granted, it's a day for family, a day for friends, for BBQ, for relaxation, and for celebrating the start of summer. But........the blunt fact is that the origin of Memorial Day is sacrifice. Sacrifice of life, sacrifice of limb, sacrifice of peace and tranquility and sanity. It's the sacrifice of everyone who has gone before, everyone who has stood nearest to that deep line in the sand and proclaimed, "This far, and no further.”

So here I am with my soapbox. Not out of intent to shame, nor intent to incite guilt, nor attempts to tug at heart-strings, but a simple intent to provide perspective. It is the view from the Other Side.

I have lost. My father. My best friend. Shipmates. Partners. Strangers without names.

My father served in the Army 82nd Airborne Division. He was drafted into Vietnam, and served his time in that quiet Hell known as Alaska. He served honorably for his term, and then was honorably discharged. He was lost almost 4 years ago of natural causes. For him and his honorable service, I lift my glass.

Several years ago, while underway on a destroyer, my best friend hanged himself during the night. The reasons were asked. Hands were wrung. Everyone had an idea. I was one of the last people to speak with him - and the simple truth, from what I knew, was that stress of his particular situation proved too much. The service asks everything of you. Absolutely everything, some cannot flex accordingly, and many more fall through the cracks waiting for help that never comes. For those that can't flex, for those that don't get help, the cost can be, in horrific fashion, fatal. For him and all the others lost in such a way, for their honorable service I lift my glass.

I've had friends die. I've been in position under fire. I've almost kissed Death on the mouth so many times I've lost count. Not all of them were because of the service, I'll admit. But a lot were. On several occasions, my shipmates and I have charged into traffic to save dying men, as a matter of duty. And unfortunately, most of the time we failed. But that is the fundamental tenet of military service: you give your all. Flat out. No brakes. Even if it appears hopeless, you Give. Your. All. And for many, that includes their lives.

So........here's my point. If you know someone who has served, look them in the eye, don't say a word, and (symbolically, if you need to), raise a glass. Because Memorial Day is a day to remember the most noble and honorable sacrifices of those who have served, and are serving. Yes, there is BBQ. Yes, there is a celebration of summer. Yes, there are pools and games and joy and delighted screams from children encountering water far too cold for their liking. But the quiet truth behind the thin veneer of constructed glee that we enjoy on a long weekend, is the fact that the this day would not exist if not for sacrifices of those gone before. We stand, this Country stands, on the honor of those rough souls standing watch, who, when asked the cost they would be willing to pay, calmly replied, "Sir, any and all." I would not have them forgotten, and neither should you. I leave you with the immortal words of William Henley, as I see describing Those In Service:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

And as my beloved wife has mentioned in previous years, we will both take a moment on Memorial Day to raise a glass, and offer the toast: "To the fallen. Our Honored Dead."

If you made it all the way through, thanks guys. Have a great weekend.
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Published on May 24, 2013 13:51 • 478 views • Tags: memorial-day

May 15, 2013

Here's a shout-out to those of you in northeastern Maryland and southeastern PA--I will be appearing with my marvelous friends-and-colleagues Sophie Perinot and Stephanie Dray at the FREDERICK BOOK FESTIVAL this coming weekend (Saturday, May 18th). Our panel on "Prejudice and Preconceptions - What you think you know about historical women" (at 11 a.m.) always brings down the house. Come out and see us!

And if you're busy on Saturday, stop by Barnes & Noble at the FSK Mall on Friday, May 17, 2013 from 4:00 PM - 7:00 PM. I'll be there for a signing with lots of other wonderful authors and friends!

Can't wait to see you there. :D
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Published on May 15, 2013 14:45 • 115 views • Tags: author-signing, frederick-book-festival, sophie-perinot, stephanie-dray

May 11, 2013

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” One could say the same for the Romantic Times Convention: a jam-packed five days in Kansas City where thousands of the writers, editors, agents, and readers of romance came together to learn, listen, and of course gossip. I've attended the Historical Novel Society Conference before, but this was my very first RT, and (gulp) I was also a speaker. There were shenanigans galore, and for some of the scandals, I'm sworn to silence – but there's plenty that's printable, and here it is!


6:10 a.m. There are some people who manage to travel chic, but I am not one of them. Forget stylish Louis Vuitton carry-ons or even matching Samsonites; I'm hauling a tattered faux-Coach tote from my college days, a neon floral gym bag circa 1987, and a massive black and yellow sports bag that could hold every hockey stick the Boston Bruins own. Given the fact that said black-and-yellow bag is missing both wheels, I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn it was used to bash a goalie's head in during the last Bruins-Maple Leafs scrum.

8:23 a.m. My deep ingrained displeasure at having to rise at What The **** O'Clock is off-set by the fact that my pal and fellow author-of-the-ancient-world Stephanie Dray has agreed to fly out to RT with me in adjoining airplane seats. Stephanie is a marvelous traveling companion; even with a massive tote over one arm and a boarding pass clutched in hand she has the air of one being borne along on her journeys by slave-borne barge.

10:48 a.m. Get two authors together on an airplane with nothing to do but talk shop, and the facts start to fly—after an hour's breathless natter over the airline peanuts about the building of Monticello, the guerilla tactics of Tacfarinas, and the common poisons and antidotes used in Imperial Rome, the man in the seat ahead finally turns around and fixes us with a certain wary interest. “Just what is it that you ladies do?” After assuaging his fears that we are not in fact planning real murders, only fictional ones, we manage to brainstorm and plot a book each. If we're this productive on the return journey, we'll probably have sample chapters and a full outline prepped for our respective agents.

1:05 p.m. The hotel is massive, connected to the world outside with glass walkways, and the conference is already in full swing. I barely have a chance to dump my bags before I'm subsumed into a mass of new friends. Over quick burgers at the hotel pub, I commiserate with Jeannie Lin, who writes Tang dynasty romance. “Concubinage is underestimated as a happily-ever-after,” she says thoughtfully. Where else in the world would you hear that and not be fazed?

3:47 p.m. I'm late for my very first workshop: “How To Work With Your Publisher on Publicity and Marketing.” Sourcebooks puts on a marvelous talk, but everything is overshadowed by meeting yet two more new friends, fellow HF authors Christy English and Donna Russo Morin. We've bonded through Facebook and have been dying to meet face to face—and Christy turns out to be a southern-born charmer with a curtain of brunette hair and a beaming oft-repeated exclamation of “You're so sweet!” while Donna is a vibrant Italian hugger-and-kisser in leopard pumps. I'm somewhat proud of my own ability to walk in 4-inch heels but Donna has me beat by a Florentine mile: the woman wasn't just born in stilettos; I think she was born with spike-heeled feet like Angelina Jolie in “Beowulf.”

5 p.m. “Using Theme To Strengthen Your Brand.” Stephanie's speaking at this one, and I haul Donna and Christy along for the fun. It's one of the best talks of the conference: Stephanie is joined by Norah-Roberts-To-Be Laura Kaye, and Queen-of-the-Highland-Warriors Eliza Knight for a thought-provoking talk on theme that produces its share of “Eureka!” moments in the audience. “Everything I write has the same theme!” Christy exclaims midway through. “How did I not realize that?” I'm stuck on what my overall theme could possibly be; Stephanie offers a suggestion of “Karma's a bitch.” I think she may be onto something there.

6:31 p.m. Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Donna, Christy, and Stephanie. Prosecco flows. Secrets are exchanged. Also much swearing over recent trends in historical book covers.

8:37 p.m. E.L. James is supposedly here, but under an assumed name. Resolve to keep my eyes peeled.

9:14 p.m. C.W. Gortner and I meet up and fall on each other with happy cries of joy—we hit it off at the San Diego HNS conference, but haven't met face-to-face since. Not only is Christopher the best dinner companion on earth—he's got more one-liners than Rupert Everett in an Oscar Wilde play—but we're both writing Borgia books. We trade plot details happily: his “Borgia's Daughter” focuses on Lucrezia, and my “Serpent and the Pearl” takes a wider angle on the Borgia Pope's mistress Giulia Farnese, so we've managed to cover the same era without stepping on each other's hems. Excellent.

10:02 p.m. Do I really want to go to the Ellora's Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party bash? Is Christopher giving me an imperious stare? Looks like I'm going to the Ellora's Cave Disco-Themed Cocktail Party.

10:36 p.m. Oh dear God. Six male dancers get up for a bump-and-grind routine to “Stayin' Alive,” wearing unbuttoned sequin shirts and white spandex bell-bottoms so tight that, in the words of Robin Williams, you can tell what religion the men are. Brain bleach, brain bleach!

10:41 p.m. “Stayin' Alive” gives way to something else from “Saturday Night Fever,” as the gyrating continues. “Clearly the only thing to do,” Christopher counsels between fits of laughter, “is to take pictures and send to your husband with the caption `Missing you, honey!'” Two flutes of Prosecco later, this seems like an excellent idea.

12:09 a.m. Slide into bed with a sore stomach from laughing so much. Am wakened an hour later by a text from the hubby: a pic of him and the Navy cadre from his division, all dressed in drag and holding skirts up to show hairy legs. “Missing you, too.” Well played, sir.


8:30 a.m. I notice that the only event scheduled before eleven is the breakfast for inspirational romance authors. I think inspirational clean-living sort are going to be the ONLY ones at this conference up that early.

2 p.m. Lobby Posse reunion! At the Historical Novel Society in San Diego, the stars aligned to throw six or seven women together in the lobby for shop-talk and insta-bonding. I was lucky enough to be one of those ladies (along with Sophie Perinot, Michelle Moran, DeAnn Smith, Marci Jefferson, and Teralyn Pilgrim), and we've none of us lost touch since. This is a rare opportunity to catch up with DeAnn, a KC native, and bless her, she was even able to set up a quick interview for me on KCTV. As Christy English would say, “You're so sweet!” I even manage to sound reasonably coherent. Thanks again, DeAnn!

(I'm in the video on the lower left)

2:45 p.m. Christopher and his agent present a sensational panel on self-marketing. Twitter; blog ads; Goodreads; Facebook; nothing is overlooked. I take copious notes. Let it be known: C.W. Gortner is not only the king of insightful fictional portraits of historical bad girls; he is the king of marketing.

4 p.m. I'm signed up for the e-book Expo signing. As one of my Goodreads blog followers once wondered, exactly how does one sign an e-book? I'm not exactly sure, and I'm not sure anyone else is either. But I sit here gamely, and hey, somebody does ask me to sign their Kindle.

6:10 p.m. Fast dinner with the new posse. More swearing about covers, more dark secrets—and we plan to invade the 30th anniversary RT Formal Ball this evening en masse. We all try to persuade Donna to unearth her Three Musketeers costume, the one with the tabard and the thigh boots.

8:42 p.m. An evening of mad primping, followed by a dash to the ball. I'm going va-va-voom with something strapless, scarlet, and very Liz Taylor. Christopher has fabulous Italian leather shoes, Stephanie sports a 20's feathered headdress and a long Audrey Hepburn cigarette holder, and Donna may have decided against wearing her Musketeer tabard, but she flashes an Angelina “leg” pose when we stop for pix. We are one fabulous bunch, if I do say so myself.

From right to left: DeAnn Smith, Donna Russo Morin, Christy English, moi, Stephanie Dray, C.W. Gortner, and his agent Jennifer Weltz

9:39 p.m. Why is it that so many parties decide that the moment of greatest merriment among the guests is EXACTLY the time to stop for a 90 minute speech? Jay Gatsby would not approve. Fortunately, we're all at a table in the back where we continue to drink champagne, eat chocolate, and dish. We argue about whether Plantagenet history is more of a minefield for the fans or the writers, and whether anyone reads American-set HF anymore at all. Christopher withstands all my blandishments, blackmails, and bribery for a hint on his next project, damn him.

10:46 p.m. Trail upstairs at last to watch TV in my pj's and pearls. Donna has raved about the show “Vikings,” in particular its hero - ”eyes like blue lasers!” - so I give it a try. Donna's right about the lasers; Travis Fimmel is one tasty Viking, even with his hair strapped into a tight ponytail braid that could easily make him look like a really muscular prep-school girl.

Travis Fimmel: my RT date

11:59 p.m. When you get a midnight text imploring you to head out for an emergency group bitch session on the Worst Publisher Ever, as well as the real story on whether E.L. James is at the conference or not — you pack up and go. This part stays in the Cone of Silence.


Noon I take a long morning to prep for my one speaking gig: a panel with Donna, Christy, and Christopher titled “The Hottest Sex In History.” Are those butterflies? Why yes, they are.

1:15 p.m. Piteous pic sent from the spouse: him and the dog, both looking sad. Aww, my boys are missing me.

3:45 p.m. “The Hottest Sex in History” is scheduled opposite a vampire meet-and-greet, so attendance is light, but we ham it up and have a great time. “What's the raciest tidbit you've ever found in your research?” asks Christopher's agent Jennifer Weltz, who is moderating. I relate a bit of real-life banter where a medieval courtier teased a lady when she asserted that women like herself did not have hair upon their bodies like men did, even in intimate places: “Certainly not; grass would never grow on such a well-beaten path.” Ouch.

5:13 p.m. Third time back at that Italian restaurant. The waiters know us all by name by now; they have Donna's prosecco ready to go, and the waiter is writing “chicken marsala” before I can form the words.

7:42 p.m. Ok, the real story on E.L. James? She came to the conference under an assumed name to support a writer friend, but blew her cover almost immediately by standing up at a panel in which her books were mentioned, and getting huffy with the moderator because she didn't like what they were saying. I don't know about you, but if I could buy an island in the Caymans with my last royalty check, I wouldn't be getting huffy about anything.

9:51 p.m. Have resolved that I am going to make this an early night: pj's, hotel room, maybe a little more “Vikings.” So naturally I'm up till 1:15 a.m talking shop with Christopher and Stephanie, who are meeting for the first time and hitting it off famously. Screw it; I'll sleep later.


9:15 a.m. Wake up looking like I spent the night under a collapsed building. Shriek at reflection in mirror; reach for concealer. It's the giant book fair this morning: three hours of signing and selling. Knowing me I will walk out with an armload of new books, even though I'm the one who's supposed to be selling them.

10 a.m. Is that Mary Jo Putney sitting right next to me? Why, yes it is. She could not be nicer; signing for her legions of fans, she steers them gently my direction — and in between the fans, we gab. “I like a book hero with real problems,” she says, and points to two of her latest. “This one's an alcoholic and this one's nearly feral from solitary confinement.” I point at two of mine. “This one's an inarticulate killing machine, and, well, this one's just kind of a jerk.” We trade books: her feral ex-prisoner for my inarticulate killing machine.

2:13 p.m. And yes, I am walking out with a stack of books. Text the husband: “Need another bookshelf.” Get a text back: “Running out of walls.”

2:17 p.m. Meet a darling teenage girl in the line who has brought a suitcase full of books to be signed by all her favorite authors, and is mourning the fact that three hours wasn't enough to get to them all. I ask who she missed; she takes a gander at my name tag and says, “Well, for one, you!” I end up signing for her in the checkout line.

3:45 p.m. Meet up with Eliza Knight, a friend from the local Maryland writers group. She looks cheerful but a trifle haggard — as well she might, considering she is the mother of three who can turn out six bestselling books a year. “I don't know how she does it” doesn't even begin to cover this woman's work ethic. She ends up dragging me, and Donna as well, to a Hunky Highlanders panel where we listen to Scottish ghost stories while sipping Scotch whiskey and sampling haggis. Not bad (the haggis).

9pm Harlequin Dance Party! Donna can not only walk around all day in those fabulous leopard-skin stilettos of hers; she can dance all night in them. She has all the cover models salivating. When I'm too tired to dance, I flop down with Christy and we talk Princess Alais of France, one of Christy's book heroines and historical co-star in the epic Katharine Hepburn movie “Lion in Winter.” Was Alais seduced by Henry II, or vice versa? Christy thinks Alais went for him. “He's charming! He's handsome! He was the king! And,” Christy adds, “we know he didn't wear riding gloves. Who could resist a king who has working-man calluses?” Good point.

12:09 a.m. And it's another late night for me! Laura Kaye dishes details on the Cinema Craptastique event; where an epically bad movie is picked for viewing with hilarious voiceover. Stephanie volunteers a howler of a horror movie called “Bad Sheep” for next year's event, and Christopher contributes a campy old vampire flick. Who knew he could do such a dead-on parody of Marlene Dietrich? “Are you hungry, daaaaahlings?”


3:55 The conference is done; Stephanie and I fly out in the evening. But we squeeze in one last farewell coffee with Christopher, and an epic barbecue lunch with Lobby Posse pal DeAnn. I'm 90% convinced this is the same barbecue joint where Kevin Spacey plots world domination in “House of Cards.” And how can Kevin Spacey make such an ominous prop out of a bottle of barbecue sauce?

6:15 Stephanie and I board our plane over-caffeinated and exhausted, finely tuned to a state somewhere between Zen and stoned. I say something vague about our flight connection in Atlanta and she stares at me for a moment. “Was that English?” Me: (thinking seriously): “Possibly not. In my sleep I speak French, and currently I'm three-quarters asleep.” (True story about the French.)

10:55 p.m. Both Zen and exhaustion are replaced with fury as airline screw-ups causes us to miss our connecting flight. Neither of us will be arriving home until at least one-thirty in the morning. It's not wise to upset historical fiction authors. Know this, you apathetic, chinless, pimpled cretins in the Customer Service Department of AirTran, and know it well: you will all turn up in Stephanie's and my next books, and you will be crucified along the Appian Way.

1:47 a.m. And I'm home. The hubby is asleep. The dog is asleep. The conference is over.

There you have it, in a nutshell: the 2013 Romantic Times Convention. I anticipated the fun panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips — but what gets me every time about these writer conventions is the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write for a living. We work alone, curled up on our couches or at our desks, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. Put us all together in one room for a change — people who all give the same knowing nods when somebody exclaims, “Don't you just hate it when you get a historically inaccurate dress on your cover?” - and we party like nobody's business. A few more days of this, and Kansas City might have been burning like Rome.

Next year's RT is already set for New Orleans. I confidently predict shenanigans, madness — and fun.
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Published on May 11, 2013 07:39 • 839 views • Tags: romantic-times-convention

April 30, 2013

I'm headed out for the Romantic Times Book Convention in Kansas City tomorrow morning at No-One-Should-Be-Awake-This-Early-O'Clock. This is my first time at RT, and I'm already round-eyed at some of the shenanigans I've heard rumored. (Faery masks? Bare-chested cover models? Sign me up!)

It's a big convention, but if you're in Kansas City this week, you'll be able to find me. On Friday May 3 at 3:45 I'm speaking with C.W. Gortner, Christy English, Donna Russo Morin, and Jennifer Weltz on "The Hottest Sex In History." I'll also be signing books, first at the Expo for e-releases on Thursday May 2 from 4-6pm, and the regular paper books at the Giant Book Fair on Saturday May 4 from 11-2pm (and you're free to bring your own books from home). Even if you're not coming to the conference, the Expo and the Book Fair are open to the public - so if you're in the area, get your ticket at the door and drop by to say hello.

Hello, Kansas City - here I come!
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Published on April 30, 2013 14:08 • 206 views • Tags: romanic-times-convention

April 16, 2013

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!)

My hero

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!
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Published on April 16, 2013 14:41 • 522 views • Tags: ronan-vibert, the-serpent-and-the-pearl

Ave Historia

Kate Quinn
An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents.
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