Friday, January 31, 2014

**GIVEAWAY** Author Interview Joan Swan - Shatter

Author Joan Swan talks today about her newest Phoenix Rising novel Shatter. Enjoy the interview and then enter to win a copy of the novel sponsored by Joan's publisher Kensington.

  • ISBN-13: 9780758288271
  • Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 12/31/2013
  • Pages: 352

For seven years, Halina Beloi has been in hiding. But she’s never forgotten Mitch Foster, the long, lean man she had to leave behind. Until, that is, Mitch shows up with a list of questions and a 9mm in his hand.
All Mitch knows is that Halina broke his heart and disappeared. But new information has surfaced implicating her as a player in the deadliest game of Mitch’s life. This time, he’s not letting go without answers. Now terror, danger and heat will fuse them together or shatter the future. . .

 Read an excerpt:

Heather Raiden sat on the floor of her darkened home on Lake Washington in Seattle and stared at the midnight blackness through her night-vision goggles. The man she'd been watching for two nights remained huddled in the compact speedboat he'd rented under the name Dane Zimerelli.
He'd dropped anchor in the perfect location to view Heather's living room, kitchen, and bedroom, all on the lake side of the property.
"I hope he's freezing his balls off out there."
At her elbow, Dexter picked up on the bitterness in her voice and whined. Lowering the binoculars, she ran her hand along the shepherd's silky-soft fur. His brows darted with his gaze, making him look truly worried. He was an incredibly sensitive animal, frighteningly intelligent. And her very best friend.
"Don't look at me like that. I can't just sit here and do nothing."
She reconsidered her options. Cops would brush her off. A private investigator would take time. Ignoring Zimerelli had potentially lethal consequences. And she'd spent seven long years preventing those lethal consequences.
Heather hurried through the darkness to her bedroom with Dex's nails clicking behind her on the hardwood. When she stepped through the door, he pushed past her, jumped on the bed, and lay in that alert pose, head up and watching every move.
"Everything I've done will be wasted if I don't act now. All my sacrifices ..."
She stopped and closed her eyes, absorbing the weight of loss that always came with the thought. So many sacrifices. But only one she regretted.
Only one that haunted her.
Already dressed in black, Heather slipped on dark, lightweight running shoes and tightened the laces. In the bathroom, she wrapped her long hair into a bun. Her mind and body immediately slipped back into the training she'd gained. Training she had, admittedly, hoped never to use. Training that was still just training because she'd never utilized it in real life. But she'd also known deep down she'd need it some day.
Resigned, focused, she headed for the door leading to the garage and pulled her slim black jacket from the peg. She slipped it on, crouched in front of Dex standing faithfully at her feet, and hugged him tight.
"Ya lyublyu tebya," she whispered, her throat closing tight around each Russian word, a reminder of the past she'd fought so hard to leave behind. "I love you so much, sweet boy," she repeated in English with more emphasis, because once just didn't feel like enough.
With a kiss to his muzzle, she stood, met his eyes, and firmed her voice when she commanded him to protect the property. "Zashchita."
In the garage, Heather located her black canvas duffel at the base of the stairs. Adrenaline fizzed through her blood. The duffel's zipper ripped the silence and tension pulled at her skin. She clenched a penlight between her teeth, pulled the Heckler & Koch .45 semiauto from the bag, and checked the remaining contents—lock hacker, silencer, extra ammo, rags, bleach-laden wipes, latex gloves.
As she turned the key in the engine of her BMW, Heather experienced fear, resignation, the dark thrill of power. And anger over having to use such drastic and brutal measures to take back control over her life.
"Maybe there's more of my family in me than I thought."
She backed from the garage with the sick realization sticking to her like tar.
Heather left her sleepy Laurelhurst neighborhood for the streets bordering the University of Washington, still dotted with cars and pedestrians. Fear drummed its fingers on the back of her neck. What-ifs teased her mind into tangles. Her neighbors would take care of Dex if anything happened to her. She'd set up charitable trusts to receive her assets.
Heather located the stalker's rental and parked a block down and turned the car off. But as she waited, she realized that having her death in order didn't help her face the possibility.

Another deep shiver wracked his body, and Mitch Foster clenched his teeth around a growl. "My dick's turning into an icicle."
He lowered the night-vision binoculars and reached for the thermos of coffee, but it was empty. He chucked the container at the floor of the boat, glaring at the darkened house. "Screw this."
Halina Dubrovsky had turned out the lights over half an hour ago and he couldn't see shit. Her boyfriend, some dude named Dex, hadn't shown up for two days. Didn't matter. Even if the guy did appear, Mitch had enough information on Halina's daily activities now to confront her without running into him.
When Mitch cornered her, she wasn't going to have anywhere to turn. Anywhere to run.
Not this time.
He started the motor and crawled toward shore, holding his speed down for silence and warmth. Huddled behind the windshield, he pulled his phone from his pocket and hit the speed dial for Kai Ryder.
"What's new?" Kai answered.
"Genital hypothermia," Mitch said. "My nuts are buddying up with my kidneys."
"You have two? Balls, I mean. I thought you were down at least one."
"Shut the fuck up. How are Lys and Brady?" he asked, hating himself for missing the birth of his first nephew.
"Great. You'd never know Alyssa had a baby last week, and Brady and I are totally bonding."
"I hate you." He was only half joking.
Kai laughed, the asshole. "Was it worth it?"
"No." His teeth were starting to chatter. "No sign of the boyfriend. No friends. No activities. She rows in the morning, works all day, goes to the gym, runs with her dog."
And she played with her dog. And cuddled with her dog. And freaking slept with her dog. She was so damned sweet to that animal it made his teeth grind. And that was just one of the behaviors he found incongruent with what he'd learned of her over the last few days.
"Mmm," Kai hummed. "Bet she's got a killer bod."
"Ryder," he warned.
He didn't need any reminders. He'd been watching her for two days and she wasn't particularly discreet when it came to changing clothes. But then, under normal conditions, she wouldn't need to be. From the street, her home was virtually nondescript, the only entries the front door and one curtained window. Lakeside, the house was nearly all glass, but its orientation and landscaping created a seclusion Mitch could only get around with a boat specifically positioned on the lake and a pair of binoculars.
He hit a dense patch of fog and another tremor gripped him bone deep. "Shit. I thought I knew fog, but this place is colder than San Francisco. What intel did you get? I'm going to confront her in the morning before she goes to work."
"She's a secretive little thing," Kai said.
"No shit," Mitch muttered.
"From what I've found, she's not using her real name for anything. She's completely dropped it. The alias Heather Raiden goes back seven years, and I still think her using your middle name for her last name is ... odd. Kinda creepy, actually. I mean, it's almost like there's a message there or something."
Mitch got that feeling, too, though he kept vacillating over the possible meaning. "Like, 'Fuck you, Foster. You're too stupid to find me even when I'm using your name?' That kind of message?"
But even as he said the words, he didn't believe them. Not at gut level. When she'd walked out on him, she hadn't been cruel. She'd been ... withdrawn. She'd been ... resolute. Keeping her husband a secret from Mitch—yes, that had been cruel. But when she'd admitted it, when she'd broken off her relationship with Mitch to go back to the husband, she hadn't done it in a careless or vicious way.
Even now, seven years later, his gut told him that if the man hadn't been there with her, silently standing sentinel when she'd confessed and broken it off, she wouldn't have been able to do it. Wouldn't have been able to resist his pleas for an explanation. For a chance to talk to her—in private.
God, he'd been such a fool for her. And remembering still both hurt and angered him.
Kai made an indecisive sound in his throat. "I don't get that."
Hope percolated to the surface. "You're picking up emotions from her?"
Kai was only one of seven firefighters exposed to radioactive chemicals in a military warehouse fire six years before. The way the chemicals had warped their DNA gave each member of the team paranormal abilities. Kai was empathic, but generally only picked up on emotions from those close by or those endangering the team. And at the moment, Kai was eight hundred miles away.
"No," Kai said, but he didn't sound convincing. "I think this is more intuition."
"Screw intuition." If Mitch clenched his teeth any harder, they'd crack. "Either use your powers or get me hard intel. I don't want to hear any shit in between."
"Damn, you're irritable. You're bringing me down, dude."
"Ice cubes generally aren't warm and fuzzy." Neither were men tracking down exes for explanations about conspiracies ruining their lives. He pulled into the slip designated for the rented boat and tied off. "And what the hell's up with your new attitude, Ryder? Did you get yourself a new lay or did you just finally get that stick out of your ass?"
"Someone sounds jealous," Kai said, singing the last word. "I know where you can find a good stick ..."
"Got that covered, thanks."
"Ah, good point. Back to said stick—her job at the university deals with vaccine research. She's evidently making headway in this new wave of DNA vaccines. She's well respected in the field. Travels, lectures, publishes in trade journals."
"How nice for her, but hardly scintillating." Although that remnant of her altruistic personality was just another annoying paradox. "Move on."
"She's low, low profile. No scandals. No legal disputes. No community work. No charity work. No family. No deep personal ties that I can find at all. I think Keira's abilities went askew here. I can't find anyone named Dex or Dexter in her life at all."
Keira O'Shay, another firefighter in the team, was clairaudient and had been trying to pick up thoughts from Halina by using a photograph Mitch had dug up from their time together.
He jumped to the dock and rain tapped his face as he jogged toward his rental. He couldn't understand why it wasn't snowing. It was sure as hell cold enough. He unlocked the car with a press of a button on the key fob and slid in.
"The more I need all your so-called powers, the more limits pop up," Mitch complained. "Talk about annoying."
"Dude, she's not working with an ideal candidate. Why don't you call me back when you warm up."
Mitch cranked the heater and revved the engine. "Tell me about her finances. Her house is small, but in a prime location. Comparable properties run well over a million bucks. She's driving a nearly new, fifty-thousand-dollar BMW."
"Don't bite my head off, okay?" Kai said, irritation deepening his voice with warning, "—but I don't know. She makes a little over a hundred grand a year at U of W. She rarely gets more than her expenses paid when she lectures. And we haven't been able to find any strange influx of cash. So, unless she's drug running on the side—"
"Or got a big payoff seven years ago ..." Mitch muttered. That probability twisted the hot knife that had already plunged to the center of his body. As if she hadn't betrayed him enough in their relationship, the discovery of Halina's involvement in this conspiracy was beyond any sick plot he'd witnessed in his criminal law practice.
"Jessica has been combing through Schaeffer's financials," Kai said, referencing another team member. "She hasn't found evidence of a payoff."
"Yet." The car's heater melted the chill from the interior, but not from Mitch's soul. Halina's immersion in this conspiracy meant everyone who mattered to him was living in fear because of something that had involved him. "She will. I have no doubt."
"And I thought I was jaded," Kai said.
"So, basically, you've got nothing I can use."
"You're so welcome for giving up my week and researching this chick fifteen hours a day, dude. Though, I have to admit, the pictures were worth it. Where do you find these women? One is hotter than the next. This one, though ... she may be my favorite. She's got a really exotic look—"
"I'm tempted not to tell you what Ransom discovered about her trainer," Kai said, "and let her kick your ass tomorrow morning."
Mitch braked hard before turning out of the parking lot. He idled there, his mind suddenly consumed by this flash of information.
"Ransom" was Luke Ransom, another team member and former firefighter who now worked as an ATF agent.
"What kind of pictures?" Mitch asked. "And what trainer? Why do you save all the good stuff for when I'm ready to hang up on you?"
"Just a few photos, really. Considering how long and deep I had to look to find them, I'd bet she doesn't even know they're on the Internet. A couple are from her lectures. A couple are of her with the U of W rowing team. She's given clinics there in the past.
"Luke says her trainer is a retired marine Special Forces guy with a company called Precision Tactical. He teaches everything from hand-to-hand combat to marksmanship. Gives classes out of Halina's gym. Runs clinics around the country for both military and civilian groups. Has a dojo in the back of his storefront where he sells the highest tech weapons and surveillance equipment between San Francisco and Seattle."
Mitch's brow fell. This was the strangest information of all.
"That's ... weird. Halina was so antiviolence she wouldn't let me kill a bug in the house."
"Hello," Kai said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "No one on the team but me had even held a gun before Schaeffer came into their lives. Now look at them—everyone but Seth is a near expert in every weapon from handguns to hand grenades, and even Seth carries when he feels the need. Schaeffer has a way of turning people violent."
That was very true. And Mitch didn't like the way this information was shaping up. He'd walked into this planned confrontation on solid ground: Halina was a traitor. And even while 80 percent of the information still pointed in that direction, he was getting undercurrents of something amiss.
Mitch joined light traffic on the main street, still alive with college students. "She hasn't gone to the store since I've been following her. But she's at the gym every day. What kind of classes does he teach there?"
"Krav Maga," Kai said. "Luke says her instructor is an expert. Learned the techniques directly from Israeli Defense Forces during his time in the military."
Mitch's mind flipped back to his last sighting of Halina in a sports bra and shorts before she'd disappeared into the bathroom, then emerged in a silk slip of nothing before turning off the light for the night. The memory of all those sleek lines, the hint of ab and arm muscles created by subtle shadow, the fullness of her breasts against that dark silk ...
At a stoplight, he squeezed his eyes shut and shook the image from his head. Yes, she definitely had the toned body of someone training hard. But the radical nature of Krav Maga, an aggressive self-defense technique focused on brutal counterattacks and utilizing a myriad of fighting techniques from street-grappling to judo was extreme, to say the least.
"Ryder, are you just screwing with me again?"
"No, dude, what I'm telling you the woman Dubrovsky was before is very different from the one we're collecting information on now. This shit isn't adding up. Which is why I think I'm getting these bizarre vibes."
"Vibes." Mitch rubbed tired eyes. "Really? You can't give me something better than vibes?"
"She has two weapons registered in Heather's name."
Mitch swerved to the side of the road and stopped. He couldn't drive with all this shit flying."What?"
"Twenty-first-century update," Kai said. "Chicks shoot guns. Even chicks who aren't freaking snipers like Keira. And, I have to say, it really turns me on."
"TMI. I don't want to know what twisted shit turns you on, Ryder." Mitch's fingers had gone white around the steering wheel. "And Halina wasn't any chick. I had one nine millimeter seven years ago and she hated that thing. When she found out I owned a gun, she got really weird for, like, days. Kept breaking dates with me. Refused to sleep with me until the damn thing was locked in a safe in the closet. She bought the freaking gun safe for me. Wouldn't look at the gun, let alone touch it."




Joan Thanks for visiting The Reading Frenzy
Thank you so much for having me! I always love visiting new places and meeting new readers!

Tell my readers a bit about Shatter
Shatter is the last book of the Phoenix Rising Series, and Mitch’s book, a secondary, but integral character to the series. He also turned out to be reader’s favorite. Guess that intelligent, smart-ass, hotter-than-sin really catches a girl’s imagination! In Shatter Mitch faces demons from the past and must use every ounce of smarts and charm he’s got to both save his pseudo-family and rekindle love with the one woman he has never forgotten.

This is in your Phoenix Rising Series
How are the books related?
The books have an overarcing conspiracy plot—a black government agency fighting to keep their darkest secrets hidden. Each book focuses on the firefighters injured in the government warehouse fire that blew their lives apart and their struggle for the truth while finding love in the process.

For new fans should the novels be read in order?
New readers to the series will get the deepest experience by reading them in order: FEVER, BLAZE, RUSH and SHATTER, but each book is fully involved and someone starting in the middle won’t feel lost or left out.

Joan your bio tells us that you write what you like to read romantic suspense.
What exactly is it about this genre that pushes all your buttons?
It’s the combination of sexy times and danger. There is an actual chemical component to the appeal of this genre, as the intensity of both love and stress release similar brain hormones. :)

It also mentions that your day job is a sonographer at UCSF Medical Center.
Is it your dream to write full time or do you like that slight insanity you say you find in your day job?
My day job is rich and challenging and meaningful, but working at a referral hospital, which is also one of the top teaching hospitals in the nation is extremely stressful. Recouping from the physical, mental and emotional demands of the job takes a lot of time away from my writing, and after over twenty years in this field, my dream now is to channel all that intensity to my writing.

So when do you have time to write?         
Writing is a lot more than sitting down and getting words on screen. There is a huge amount of thought involved, planning, research, daydreaming, plotting…all of those can be done anytime—driving in the car, jotting notes in between patients, on line in a down moment. I do that while I’m at work and focus on getting words in on my off days.

Joan you’ve been happily married to your personal hero for over twenty years. Congrats!!
Do your hubby’s qualities ever show up in your novel heroes?
He’d like to thinks so :) And in some ways, sure. He’s a career firefighter and all firefighters have similar personality characteristics. Those definitely come into play in my Phoenix Rising series. He also likes to contribute a zinger now and then – most of which I veto…but he doesn’t need to know that.

How have you changed as an author from the first released book to this one?
I thrive on learning new things and am always working to better my craft. If my next book is better than my last, I feel successful. In that way, I feel like my writing is deeper, my plotting stronger. I hope I’ll never lose the love of learning and striving to give readers characters and stories that stay with them long after they’ve finished the book.

Joan you’re a very socially connected author, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest
What’s your favorite social media outlet?
Twitter is my favorite. Something about the immediacy of it. The quick, tight tidbits of information, the quips and jokes and fun draws me.

Do you find yourself spending too much time there?
Of course. Writers are stellar procrastinators – because the actual act of writing is both hard work and anxiety inducing. The longer we can avoid it, the better.

Joan Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. Good luck with Shatter!
Do you have any upcoming events you’d like to shout out about?
So fun to be here! I’ll be at Authors After Dark in Charlotte this year in August…and I think that’s it this year. I’ll be spending a lot of time at the keyboard!

 Connect with Joan Website - Facebook - Twitter- Goodreads - Pintrest

A triple RWA Golden Heart finalist as well as a double Daphne Du Maurier finalist, I am a lover of craft and closet-hoarder of writing craft how-to books.

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Review of our February read The Road To You by Marilyn Brant

One last post to whet your whistles about our February featured read
here's my review of The Road To You.
If you're still on the fence about joining in, remember the digital book is only .99 at both Amazon and B&N
See You Monday!!!

The Road To You by Marilyn Brant

Aurora Gray knows what it’s like to imitate life, she’s been doing it for two years since her older brother Gideon and his best friend Jeremy McCafferty disappeared without a trace. Now in the summer of her high school senior year a new clue brings her hope that the boys are still alive when Gideon’s personal journal miraculously appears with what seems like new and cryptic entries. With her intuitiveness and her inquisitiveness on red alert she begins to de-code these mysterious entries only to discover that they’re leading her to specific destinations. Knowing she’ll need help she turns to the only person who’ll understand her turmoil, Jeremy’s older brother Donovan.
Donovan’s not convinced Aurora’s discovery is anything but a coincidence but he also knows that he can’t let her go on this adventure without him, not because he believes their brothers are alive but because the protector in him is yelling not to let her.
As they begin this journey they will make discoveries that will change them forever, that will make them question wrong and right, that will take very difficult to believe twists and dangerous turns, that will take them along the path of the mother of all highways, and will also lead them into a personal relationship that may determine their future; if they survive to experience it.

Marilyn Brant’s beautifully written new novel takes her talent to a new and darker level. It’s a heartrending tale of loss and of love, a masterful mix of mystery and romance with a good dose of a coming of age tale thrown in. Her meticulous and descriptive narrative paints a perfect picture of landscapes and scenes and gives a realistic look at a crime drama from the 70s, which just happens to be my personal hey-day and a road-trip on the historic Route 66 that will keep readers on the nail-biting edge of their seats until she decides to solve the puzzle and let her audience breathe again. Her characters are all superb but none better than her stars Aurora and Donovan who play their roles perfectly. Those of us who know her well will also see very personal qualities inside these pages and we will be yet again amazed at her talent, her storytelling and her knowledge of the human condition.
Marilyn we’ve been on many novelistic trips together and I’ll remember each of them but this one will resonate especially because of its emotion and passion. Thank you for this story and I can’t wait to see where you lead me next.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Interview with Marilyn Brant author of the February Book Club Read The Road To You

Okay peeps here's the interview you've all been waiting for. Marilyn's novels Friday Mornings at Nine and A Summer in Europe were both features of my book club features previously and I'm so excited and happy that she's come back for another visit. This time I'm featuring her YA/New Adult coming of age story, The Road To You.
Marilyn Take it away!!

Remember the read starts Monday Be There!!

And the e-book is still on sale for .99 at Amazon and B&N

  • ISBN-13: 9780989316040
  • Publisher: Marilyn Brant
  • Publication date: 9/28/2013
  • Pages: 298


(Limited time $0.99 sale! Regular price $3.99.) A coming-of-age romantic mystery -- that takes place, in part, along historic Route 66 -- written by USA TODAY bestselling author Marilyn Brant! ~Sometimes the only road to the one you've never taken.~ "Until I found Gideon's journal in the tool shed -- locked in the cedar box where I'd once hidden my old diary -- I'd been led to believe my brother was dead. But the contents of his journal changed all that."

Marilyn, I’m so happy to be welcoming you back to the forum and to be featuring The Road to You as our February book club read.
Thank you, Deb!! I’m thrilled to be here and so glad you invited me over to chat with you and your readers about my latest novel :). Since The Road to You is a road trip book—and you’re already aware, from having discussed A Summer in Europe, how much I love travel stories—I know this is going to be especially fun!!

First of all congratulations on being named Illinois Association of Teachers of English (IATE) Author of the Year for 2013. Congratulations!!!
This isn’t your only award, but is there one above all that stands out?
Is there one you still lust after?
The IATE Author of the Year Award was a really big one in my world—English teachers are like family to me—so this was a huge honor. My debut novel, According to Jane, won the RWA (Romance Writers of America) Golden Heart Award and that, too, was really exciting.
As for awards I still lust after, well, there’s really only one biggie: My fantasy is to win the Oscar for either Best Original or Best Adapted Screenplay for one of my stories, which are the only Academy Awards I even have a prayer of winning, since I’m not an actor, director, cinematographer, etc. and I know nothing about makeup, costumes or special effects. I would, of course, have to learn how to write and/or adapt a screenplay first. I expect that to be tricky.

Marilyn, tell us what led you to write this novel?
A few years ago, I had the idea to write a book where the heroine found the journal of her missing brother and embarked on a road trip to try to find him...which is exactly what happens in The Road to You. But, originally, I wrote the first chapter as set in the present day. I soon realized that kind of codes and clues that I wanted to use would work better in a prior era, one where the characters had significantly less access to computer technology and traceable forensic evidence. And I also have growing love for our country’s historic Route 66, which was in much more drivable condition back in 1978 than it is now. So, entwining a road trip on a famous American ribbon of highway with a life-n-death mystery and a burgeoning romance was, for me, such a compelling combination that I couldn’t help but keep writing it :).

Now tell us about the soundtrack.
How did you pick the songs or did they pick you?
About half and half on that! I chose the decade—the music of the 1970s—since that was the timeframe of the story. But several of the specific songs that came up in the novel, like “Pinball Wizard” by The Who, “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” by Boston, and “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen...well, they seemed to choose me. Certain lyrics or melodies just fit with what I was trying to show in various scenes. I have a long list of songs that were part of my mental musical soundtrack for the story on this page of my website here:

Now that it’s been out awhile, is there something that you would change about it if you could?
What and why?
In the Young Adult/New Adult version I released in October, the only thing I’d change is the wording of a math reference in one sentence of the story that a lovely reader (*waving to Katrina!*) pointed out to me. I made that correction in one of the ebook versions, but wasn’t able to make any changes to the print version. Aside from that, though, I’d keep the story as it is, set in 1978 and revolving around Aurora during the summer of her 18th birthday.
However, because this was a project that I’d been working on for about 3 years, I’d done some experimenting with the narration. I actually have a different version of the novel that kept the YA/NA story intact but, in between each of those 1970s chapters, there’s a short Women’s Fiction story woven in that’s a parallel tale, involving the adult Aurora in 2014. I find myself very tempted to share that expanded version with readers, too. I think the most memorable things that happen to us in the past take on great significance later in life when some present-day event triggers those recollections. That’s one of the ideas I was able to play around with in the longer version of the book.

Was it harder writing about these younger characters than your norm of more mature adults?
No, not at all. I love this “coming-of-age” time in life! The heroine of my debut novel, According to Jane, was a young adult at the start of the book, and I really enjoyed writing those scenes, too.

Will you be revisiting this genre in the future?
I really hope so. I’ve always been a mystery lover (I lost count of how many Nancy Drew Mysteries I read as a kid!), so it was an exciting challenge to write my first real mystery. I got hooked! I’ll always love romance and women’s fiction, too, though, so I plan to write more of those as well...and, hopefully, mix them together. I’m particularly drawn to stories that blur the lines between genres. They’re the most interesting to me of all.

Now for something a little personal. We’ll be reading this during Valentine’s Day. Tell the readers about your most romantic Valentine’s Day.
I really like *simple.* Aside from the very first Valentine’s Day my husband and I celebrated together, we haven’t exchanged gifts on that day over the years nor do we do anything more elaborate than pick up carryout for dinner, but we always exchange cards. My hubby has found some really funny ones, particularly with themes that a writer would find humorous. One of my favorites involves Will Shakespeare trying (and failing) to pen romantic saying on the top of candy hearts. And there’s this one that’s got a leftover piece of chocolate inside a heart-shaped box, narrating the demise of its fellow chocolates, LOL. I still laugh whenever I reread those!

Marilyn, the last time we talked you were telling us about an anthology. Is that available now?
Tell us about your story in it.
Yes! I’ve got a novella called “All About Us” in the new adult/contemporary romance anthology All I Ever Wanted, which is a project I worked on with authors Rhonda Helms, Caisey Quinn and Lexi Ryan. All four of the stories take part in a small Ohio town during their annual “Winterfest” celebration. It’s a little community, so we have a lot of crossover between the events that happen that weekend and the characters involved in the town, but each of the novellas is a complete story by itself and can be read independently from the others.
Here’s some info about mine:
Winterfest is heating up in Abbott Springs... 

As the town’s yearly festival kicks off, cold days turn into steamy nights, new flames will be ignited, and old romances will be rekindled. 

“All About Us” by Marilyn Brant—All Sami Abbott ever wanted was permission to be herself. At home, she aims to be the perfect daughter but never measures up. At college, she’s the bold girl who had a one-night stand with sexy musician, Alex Hamilton. When he arrives unexpectedly in Abbott Springs, her worlds collide and she must reconcile the girl she tries to be with the person she really is. 

What next for you?
I’m currently working on the sequel to my short contemporary romance, Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Match—it’s called Pride, Prejudice and the Perfect Bet. I’m having a lot of fun with it and, since it’s a sequel that was requested by readers, it’s been exciting to get some input from them on the direction of the story! Perfect Match is a light, modern tale about two people who meet on an Internet dating site and are less than truthful with each other about their motives for “looking for love.” The two secondary characters from that story are the hero and heroine of Perfect Bet, so I knew a little bit about them before I even started writing. I’m also playing around with the idea for another travel-esque mystery, so that may be ahead, too...

Marilyn, Thanks again for answering these questions and for agreeing to be with us in February as we read and discuss The Road To You!
Chat with you soon!!!
Thank YOU, Deb!! Looking forward to getting a chance to discuss the story with you and your wonderful readers! Feel free to ask me anything ;).


Marilyn Brant’s Website:

Marilyn's Other novels

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Interview with Paige Harbison- Anything To Have You

Please welcome Paige Harbison celebrating her third published novel for Harlequin Teen. She's talking today about her latest release Anything To Have You!

  • ISBN-13: 9780373210886
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 304


Nothing should come between best friends, not even boys. ESPECIALLY not boys.

Natalie and Brooke have had each other's backs forever. Natalie is the quiet one, college bound and happy to stay home and watch old movies. Brooke is the movie—the life of every party, the girl everyone wants to be.

Then it happens—one crazy night that Natalie can't remember and Brooke's boyfriend, Aiden, can't forget.


"The dialogue is fast paced....The issues she presents are real and the consequences which occur are life-changing." -VOYA
"[An] entertaining and believable drama....Harbison makes it easy to sympathize with and understand both girls.....A realistic look at the difficulty of searching for a direction in life and pursuing one's desires honestly." -Publishers Weekly
"Harbison's good, solid prose displays real insight into the dynamics of the girls' friendship." -Kirkus Reviews

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Guest Post by Kate Quinn -The Borgias - The Lion And The Rose

Please welcome Kate Quinn to The Reading Frenzy today. She's talking to us today about her second novel in her new series about one of the most notorious families in history, The Borgias and she tells us a bit more about her heroine, Giulia Farnese.


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 . . . 


            “Quinn creates memorable and authentic characters who embrace the aura of the era, and still speak to the modern reader's sensibilitity. Beyond these remarkable people there are lush backdrops, fascinating historical details, and everything from espionage to murder, passion and piety. Quinn makes history accessible and unforgettable with her storytelling. Four and a half stars!”
            – Romantic Times Book Reviews

 Read an excerpt:

Chapter One
You are as wise as you are perfect.
—Rodrigo Borgia to Giulia Farnese
You’d think that the Holy Father would have an all-seeing gaze, wouldn’t you? Being God’s Vicar here on earth, surely he would be granted divine sight into the hearts and souls of men as soon as that silly papal hat everyone insisted on calling a tiara was lowered onto his brow. The truth is, most popes don’t have divine insight into much of anything. If they did, they’d get on with the business of making saints and saving souls rather than pronouncing velvet gowns impious or persecuting the poor Jews. Blasphemy it may be, but most popes have no more insight into the minds of humanity than does any carter or candlestick maker walking the streets of Rome in wooden clogs.
And my Pope was no exception. He was the cleverest man I knew in some ways—those dark eyes of his had only to pass benignly over his bowing cardinals to know exactly which ones were scheming against him, and certainly that despicable French King had learned not to cross wits or swords with Rodrigo Borgia over the past year and a half since I’d been ransomed. But when it came to his family, His Holiness Pope Alexander VI was as dense as a plank.
At least at the moment he was a very happy plank.
“Mi familia,” he said thickly, and began to raise his goblet but put it down again to dash a heavy hand at the water standing in his eyes. “My children all together again. Cesare, Lucrezia, Joffre—Juan—”
The loathsome young Duke of Gandia preened, sitting at his father’s right where Rodrigo could easily reach out to touch his favorite son’s shoulder. Juan Borgia, twenty years old now and returned from his lands in Spain. Although he was a duke, a husband, even a father (Holy Virgin, fetch me a basin!)—that auburn-haired young lout looked no different to me, lolling in his chair fiddling with his dagger hilt, already halfway through his cup of wine and giving me the occasional leer over the rim. I’d heaved a great sigh that afternoon, watching him strike a pose before the cheering crowd as he disembarked from his Spanish ship. My lover’s second son had been wearing silly stockings embroidered in rays and crowns, and I’d realized just how much I’d been hoping never to see Juan or his ridiculous clothes or his leer again. As soon as I heard Rodrigo had summoned Juan from Spain to take command of the papal forces against the French, I prayed so devoutly for a shipwreck. You’d think someone nicknamed the Bride of Christ could get the occasional prayer answered, wouldn’t you?
But if I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see Juan or his silly stockings again, my Pope was—he had rushed from his elaborate sedan chair across the docks to embrace his son in a great sweep of embroidered papal robes, kissing both his cheeks and uttering a great many ecstatic things in Catalan which he saved for moments of high emotion. Nobody else had missed Juan when he departed Rome for Barcelona to take possession of the Spanish duchy and the Spanish bride my Pope had inveigled for his favorite son—but my Pope certainly had. And nothing would do but to gather the whole family together for an intimate evening cena in the Holy Father’s private apartments at the Vatican.
And what apartments! Just a modest little nest of rooms in the Vatican where the Holy Father could remove his jeweled cope (along with the weight of all Christendom) and relax at the end of the evening like any ordinary man. But Rodrigo Borgia would have nothing ordinary. He had declared he would have the papal apartments new-made, stamped and decorated with a flair that said nothing but Borgia. It had taken two years, but that little painter Maestro Pinturicchio had finally finished the frescoes that had been designed especially for the Holy Father’s personal rooms, and the resulting splendor left all Rome gasping. Our small cena tonight had been set in the Sala dei Santi: the long table draped with sumptuous brocades and set with solid silver dishes and fragile Murano glass; the ceiling arched overhead painted in double crowns and the Borgia bull; the frescoes framed with geometric Moorish patterns in a blaze of colors, imported straight from Spain.
Pinturicchio had used us all as models for his various scenes—Lucrezia dimpled and tossed her blond head under the beseeching figure of herself on the wall as Santa Caterina; inscrutable Cesare lounged under his own image as inscrutable Emperor Maximilian in a massive throne; fourteen-year-old Joffre pranced in the painted crowd as one of the background figures; and Juan cut a ridiculous figure on the wall in a silly Turkish mantle as a turbaned heathen. I was a Madonna in one of the other chambers, with my Laura on my lap for the Christ child. “Surely it’s blasphemous to have a girl sit as model for our Lord!” Maestro Pinturicchio had protested.
“Any more blasphemous than to have a harlot sit for the Madonna?” I’d countered, the Holy Virgin’s blue veil swinging about my face like a joke. I’d never asked to be a notorious woman; I’d been raised for a husband and children like any other girl of noble birth, but here I was. I’d made my own choices, and I made no bones either about what it made me—but I’d been determined to have my Laura in the frescoes along with all the other Borgia children. Maestro Pinturicchio had taken one look at the set of my chin and begun sketching. A nice little man, ugly as the day was long, but skilled. His wife was the most notorious harpy in Rome, and I gave him a rose-quartz and crystal bracelet to give her in the hopes it would sweeten her temper. It hadn’t, but he thanked me anyway, and he made Laura look very pretty indeed in our Madonna-and-Child fresco. Though the halo certainly didn’t suit her; she was a full three years old now and a proper little imp!
Rodrigo was still looking about the table with misty eyes, and I ceased my musing. “It’s not just Our own children here tonight,” he continued, beaming like any proud father despite the regal papal We. “Our new children as well. Sancha—”
Young Joffre’s Neapolitan wife, Sancha of Aragon, was making doe eyes at Cesare through the candlelight, but she dropped her lashes demurely at her father-in-law.
“—and of course Lucrezia’s Giovanni Sforza is here in our thoughts, if not the flesh. A pity he could not join Us—”
Lucrezia giggled behind her hand, not looking very put out about that. My Pope had called her back from her husband’s home in Pesaro last winter for a long visit, declaring he could not do without his dear daughter any longer, and certainly I’d been delighted to see Lucrezia again, both of us chattering and gossiping in the Palazzo Santa Maria just like the old days when she’d been a little girl dreaming of marriage—but she had certainly not seemed inclined to go back to her new home now that she was married. I suppose Pesaro’s provincial pleasures had worn rather thin after two years. Lord Sforza had stamped off home this spring, muttering of duties that could not be put off, and he’d stamped off alone.
“And a pity your beautiful Maria Enriques could not travel with you from Spain,” Rodrigo continued, giving Juan’s arm another pat. “We would have liked to see Our new daughter.”
“She begged to come, but she’s breeding again.” Juan shrugged, rotating the silver stem of his wine goblet between restless fingers. “I’m happy enough to leave her behind. The cow is always weeping and praying.”
“Now, now,” Rodrigo chuckled. “She’ll be mother to another Borgia prince soon!” He gave an indulgent shake of his head and raised his goblet. “No matter. All of us are together again. As it should be.”
His children raised their goblets too, but I couldn’t help noticing that not everybody looked entirely pleased to see la familia Borgia reunited. Joffre was sulking, squashed in beside Juan and ignored by Sancha, and as for Cesare . . .
“La familia,” said the Holy Father.
“La familia,” everyone echoed, and the look Cesare sent his brother across the table could have kindled the napkins.
“So,” I said brightly as a stream of papal servants entered with massive silver dishes, “how was the crossing from Spain? Did the waves stay smooth for the Duke of Gandia?”
“Smooth enough,” Juan said, eyes flickering to my breasts.
“I suppose your Duchess will be very much distressed to have you gone.” Myself, I’d have thrown a great party in celebration.
Juan shrugged again, clearly not interested in his wife. His eyes went to Cesare as the first dishes were laid before us on the cena table. “So, brother. Hostage to the French, were you? I hear you ran away.”
“Escaped,” said Cesare. He was a dark shadow among the candles—in his plain black velvets he seemed to eat the light and refuse to give it back again. “The Holy Father and I arranged it all. I escaped as a groom shortly after we set out from Rome.”
“Ran,” Juan grinned.
“He was ever so brave,” Sancha cooed in her milky-sweet voice. She and Joffre had been recalled from their official seat in Naples to Rome that May, and it hadn’t taken me more than a week to start despising that velvety purr of hers. I’d met Sancha only once, at her wedding to little Joffre when he was twelve and Sancha four years older, and that occasion had been quite enough to make me think we weren’t destined to be the best of friends. And when Sancha took an idle look at Leonello at her welcoming banquet and told me, “Your dwarf is a fine specimen; have you ever considered breeding him? I have the most cunning little juggling woman—” Well, after that I’d started calling her the Tart of Aragon, and I knew I’d happily watch her choke to death on a fish bone. “Try the carp, Sancha,” I suggested, but she was talking over me and toying with the pearl pendant about her neck to draw attention to her breasts.
“Cesare left all his baggage behind, you know.” She left off the pendant long enough to hold her wine cup to be refilled again—she certainly could put it away! “And when King Charles went to look, he saw that all those chests that were supposed to be filled with coin and silver plate had nothing but stones under a top layer of ducats! You could hear the scream all the way in Rome.”
Juan gave Sancha’s breasts an automatic glance, but his attention was all for his brother. “I expect I’ll do better than run when I see the French, brother.”
Cesare toyed with his table knife.
“You’ll send the French packing, boy!” my Pope said warmly. He’d left off his ecclesiastical robes, and in his embroidered doublet and linen shirtsleeves he could have been any merchant father or ducal paterfamilias: the proud and swarthy Spaniard surrounded by children who all looked like him. “We taught them a lesson at Fornovo; now you’ll finish them off.”
Really, after all that fuss the French had made declaring they would annex all of Naples and the papal territories too before they were done, everything had petered out so embarrassingly. Well, embarrassing if you were French. After they got their poxy noses bloodied at Fornovo and had to flee back north, my Pope made me a present straight from the French King’s own abandoned baggage: a certain diary in execrable handwriting, detailing the ladies who had shared the royal bed on campaign, with descriptions of their skills. “No, thank you,” I’d said, wrinkling my nose.
“Are you sure?” Rodrigo had turned the pages with great interest. “There are a few ideas here. Requiring a bit more flexibility than I’m capable of at my age, to be sure . . .”
“Really, Rodrigo,” I’d scolded. “Dirty stories? Whatever happened to giving a woman flowers?”
“Then flowers you shall have.” And I’d acquired a pretty little set of diamond roses to clip into my braided hair. Every time the Tart of Aragon looked at them I could see her little nose twitch with lust. Her little nose was usually twitching with lust of one kind or another. For the past two months it had been twitching for Cesare, in whose lap she appeared to be dandling her hand under cover of the damask tablecloth. She didn’t have a glance for poor little Joffre—he’d grown to a tall gangly youth, but he still seemed like a child to me, sulking in the shadow of his voluptuous wife and his taller, handsomer brothers. I tried to engage him in the conversation—“You’ll be next on the battlefield after your brothers, Joffre!”—but he pushed his lip out in sullen silence and I finally gave up and stabbed at my roast capon, which had been taken off the spit too soon and was now oozing red juice all over my plate like it had been wounded rather than cooked. You’d think the Pope would eat better than anyone else in the Holy City, but you’d be wrong. It wasn’t fair, this reputation he’d acquired for dissipation and luxury—my Pope was so indifferent to what he ate, he didn’t care if the Vatican cooks fed him or his guests on bread and water. Anyone who wanted a decent meal at the Pope’s table had better hope they were eating at the Palazzo Santa Maria, where I presided over the table and my fierce Carmelina Mangano held sway in the kitchens. Carmelina would have taken one look at this half-raw chicken and the burned focaccia and the salad with too many capers and gone down to the Vatican kitchens to whack off a few heads.
I pushed my plate away. All this la familia tension was giving me a headache, and I always eat when I have a headache, but this food was past enjoying. Besides, I was starting to get just a bit plump again—some women might be able to stay wand-slim no matter what they ate, but my dresses got tight if I even looked at a plate of tourtes. So very unfair. At least food like this was easy to push away.
“So you’re to be Gonfalonier?” Sancha was bubbling now at Juan. “Our bold leader against the French! I see bravery in the Borgias isn’t limited to just one brother!”
“One might doubt that,” Cesare murmured.
“My husband wanted to lead the papal forces, you know.” Lucrezia laughed. “Can you imagine? He has trouble enough with those Pesarese captains of his, and now he wants papal soldiers! He thinks he’s Alexander the Great, you know; too ridiculous—”
Sancha tittered and Juan guffawed; even Rodrigo had a chuckle at his son-in-law’s expense, and I couldn’t blame him either because Lord Sforza had gotten very sour this past year and spent most of his last visit pestering my Pope for money. But I couldn’t help looking at Lucrezia—sixteen years old now but as poised as a woman of twice as many years, wearing a purple-and-crimson gown cut as low as Sancha’s, rubies in her ears and rouge patted on her cheeks and a ring on every finger. She looked eager and glittering, greedy for every eye to be on her, and I thought back to the gently glowing girl who had first blushed at her new husband over my cena table.
Well, such girls grew up. And Lucrezia had acted alongside me as her father’s hostess this past winter, finally old enough to take her place as the star of the papal court—perhaps it had gone to her head just a little. It certainly would have gone to mine at her age. I had only twenty-two years to my name, but sometimes I felt distinctly world-weary.
They were talking of that mad priest Fra Savonarola now, the one preaching and frothing at the mouth in Florence and getting everyone to give up their cards and their fine clothes and all their other luxuries. “Only in Florence,” Juan snickered. “That would never happen in Rome!”
“My Giulia might give up cards,” Rodrigo said, giving my cheek an affectionate tweak. “But never her pearls!”
“As if anyone would go about in sackcloth just because one sour old man said puffed sleeves were heretical!” Lucrezia laughed.
“I don’t know about heretical,” I said, sipping my sour wine. The vintage wasn’t up to Carmelina’s standards, either. “But puffed sleeves are certainly unflattering. And really, what’s more heretical than that?”
Sancha plucked at her puffed sleeves, shooting me a nasty look.
“You’d be the only one safe under Savonarola, eh, brother?” Juan cast an eye over the unadorned black that Cesare usually wore instead of his red cardinal’s robes. “Maybe you should have been a Dominican! I’ll fight the French and you’ll preach hellfire.”
“Careful, brother,” said Cesare. “Or you might taste it.”
Juan just beckoned in invitation, laughing. The two brothers should have looked alike—both tall and lean, both auburn-haired, both handsome—but they didn’t. Not at all, and Juan’s jittering overbright eyes met Cesare’s still, black-steel gaze like a cross of swords. Sancha looked between them with parted lips, and Lucrezia cast her eyes up to the ceiling and said, “Really, you’re both such children!” But I felt a twinge of disquiet.
“You’ll have seen the new frescoes, Juan,” I jumped in brightly. “But surely not examined them yet? Perhaps we can take a closer look, before the biscotti are brought in. Your figure shows to great advantage . . .”
I took my wine cup in one hand, tucking the other into Rodrigo’s broad arm, and we all rose from the cena table and flocked to the walls with our painted images . “I love me as Santa Caterina,” Lucrezia sighed over her own beseeching golden-haired figure. “I still have that dress . . .”
“I don’t see why Joffre and I were just figures in the crowd,” Sancha pouted. “I could have been a saint too, you know!”
“Or Salome,” Juan leered. “The Dance of the Seven Veils—we’d get to see what you look like under the last one, new sister—”
“Juan!” Joffre burst out, flushing, but Sancha laughed and struck Juan a playful blow with her fan. One of those tiresome girls who is always doing something flirtatious with her fan. How I longed to smack her with it.
“My likeness is to be in the Resurrection fresco,” my Pope was saying, oblivious. “When I have time to sit for it, that is—”
“And you really should make the time,” I scolded. “Poor Maestro Pinturicchio has already finished everything else!”
“I don’t like being painted,” Rodrigo complained. “An utter waste of time!”
“But part of a pope’s duty is to be preserved for posterity. You’ll look magnificent, just wait and see.” My pope was sixty-five now, and he had put on weight now that he had no more time for the hunting and riding that had long kept him lean. But his massive shoulders were imposing as ever, his swarthy hawk-nosed profile just as confident, his vigorous dark hair only threaded with gray. The papal bull at the height of his powers.
“This marks the beginning of everything.” My Pope beamed all about him: his children painted on the wall, his children clustered around him. “La familia reunited! Let’s drink to it again.”
His eyes were once more full of emotion, but I saw Cesare still glaring at Juan, saw Lucrezia biting her lips to make them redder, saw Sancha aiming hot looks at both her brothers-in-law, and Joffre staring vengefully at Sancha. I saw it all, and all I could think was a horribly, woefully inadequate Oh, dear.
But Rodrigo was looking at me expectantly, so I raised my goblet. “La familia reunited,” I echoed and drank in a prayer along with the wine.
“Such gloom, Giulia!” Rodrigo leaned back on his elbows against the pillows with their papal crest embroidered in gold. “When did you turn doom-cryer?”
“I’m only saying that it’s vastly overrated, having all one’s family together.” I plucked the diamond roses out of my hair and began unlacing my moss-green velvet sleeves. “Holy Virgin knows, it’s a disaster whenever my family are all in the same room. In no time my older brother is telling Sandro he’s a prancing lightweight even if he is Cardinal Farnese now, and my sister is telling me I’m a harlot. And your children are even worse! Juan and Cesare looked ready to draw daggers over the biscotti.”
“Brothers compete. It’s what they do.” My Pope waved a careless hand, and his massive papal ring glinted in the soft light from the tapers. “It brings out the best in both of them.”
“I’ll remind you of those words when the blood hits the walls,” I said tartly, letting both my sleeves drop. “Why ever did you settle on Cesare for the Church? Anyone can see he’s born to lead armies and swing swords—”
“But he’s cunning, and one needs that in the Church.” Rodrigo poured out a cup of wine for the two of us to share. “To survive in the College of Cardinals, you have to be able to outplot a spider.”
“But he’s not suited for priestly vows. Not in the slightest!”
Rodrigo laughed, gesturing around him. “Are any of us?” His private chamber was dim and rich, the walls hung in painted canvas that had been laid over in elaborate gilt designs, the bed elaborately curtained in crimson velvet embroidered with the papal crest again, silver brackets everywhere lighting the room with sweet-smelling beeswax tapers. My Pope used to visit me in my official domicile at the Palazzo Santa Maria, by way of a certain passage so very private that all Rome knew about it. But his wave of protectiveness after my return from the French army still hadn’t abated, and now I slept more than half my nights at the papal apartments here in the Vatican, where Rodrigo had the sheets scattered with petals from my favorite yellow climbing roses, which he claimed looked like me. I looked around at the silks, the rose petals, the gilt and the glass and the velvet, all overlaid by that somber papal crest, and had to concede that it was not really very papal at all.
“Is your conscience bothering you?” Rodrigo made the sign of the cross over my forehead with his thumb. “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. There, you are washed clean of all your sins. Come kiss me.”
I smiled and kissed him. The state of my soul had bothered me a great deal when I first became a harlot, a fallen woman, a foul adulteress, take your choice of epithets. But it’s difficult to worry about the fires of hell when I get my divine forgiveness expressly from the Holy Father whenever I want it. I kissed him again, and then turned my back so he could unlace my moss-green velvet gown with the gold vines embroidered about the bosom and hem. “So you chose Cesare for the Church—”
Rodrigo groaned, his fingers deft on the laces down my back. “Let it be, Giulia!”
I persisted. “—but why ever did you choose Juan for the military life?”
“Because that’s how it always is.” Rodrigo tickled the back of my neck with one of my golden bodice ribbons, making me squeal. “One son for the Church, one for the battlefield.”
“You men!” I couldn’t help saying. “Slotting your children into various spaces the moment they’re born, as if they were vases to be put into a niche! Just because you have two sons doesn’t make them automatically fit for the Church or the battlefield, you know.”
“Juan’s full of fire. He’ll make a fine Gonfalonier.”
“Juan is interested in nothing but carousing, drinking, and chasing after women. I know how you’ve missed him while he was in Spain, but I have to say I have not missed the way he ogles me.”
Or the way Juan teased Lucrezia for the spot on her chin she had tried to cover up with powder, or jeered at Joffre for padding the shoulders of his doublet in an effort to look more the man for Sancha. Or aimed a kick at my little pet goat who trailed me on a gilt leather leash. I loved that goat, had loved him since I’d rescued him from ending up in one of Carmelina’s pies when he was just a floppy-eared baby kid, and Juan had put him bleating into the wall with one boot!
“Juan’s just a boy,” my Pope was saying with all his usual tolerance, unknotting a tangled ribbon at my back. “Perhaps he ogles you, but he ogles every beautiful woman he sees! He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
He’d cuckold you in a heartbeat, I thought, but didn’t say it. To some things Rodrigo was entirely blind, and when it came to his favorite son . . . he hadn’t even noticed this evening after cena when Juan flung an arm about my waist, looking at my likeness in Pinturicchio’s fresco. “Our family harlot as the Madonna,” he breathed hotly into my ear, and his fingers stole down to cup my hip. “How’s that for irony, eh?”
I’d just smiled, giving his hand a good covert smack. “And this harlot will knock your ears around the back of your head if you touch her again, Juan Borgia.”
I’d been able to intimidate him when he was sixteen, but not now. He’d just given me another lingering up-and-down look and swaggered ahead to join Lucrezia and Sancha as they studied the Annunciation fresco with its angels and arabesques.
“Did you see Juan slavering over Sancha?” I said over my shoulder to Rodrigo, feeling the last of my tight laces come loose. “I thought poor Joffre was going to pop with outrage.”
“She’s a flirt, that one.” Rodrigo chuckled, sliding the gown off my shoulders.
“And now all three of your sons are competing for her!” I stepped out of the circle of my gown on the floor. “If that’s not a recipe for disaster—”
“Bah,” Rodrigo said dismissively, and pressed his lips to my shoulder above the edge of my filmy shift. “Take your hair down, mi perla. It’s a sight I never tire of seeing—one of the great wonders of the world, your hair.”
I attacked my pins, and he fell back on his elbows again, happily watching the first of my coiled plaits slither loose over my shoulder. My Pope clearly had no interest in hearing any more about the shortcomings of his sons. He had lost his eldest son, Pedro Luis, many years ago in Spain, a memory that still veiled his eyes in grief whenever he spoke of it, and after that old loss I suppose his indulgence to his surviving children was understandable. “A pity Lord Sforza couldn’t join us,” I said by way of changing the subject. “I know he misses Lucrezia in Pesaro.”
“Let him miss her. He’s a waffling fool, and more than that, he’s turned out to be a mediocre condottiere who does nothing but ask me for money. I wish I’d known that when I was considering his offer for her hand!” My Pope reached out to catch a lock of my loosened hair and bring it to his nose, inhaling deeply. I had expensive perfumes by the dozen in glass vials, but part of me was still a country girl, the girl who grew up in a tiny town beside Lake Bolsena and boiled flowers to make perfume, and I still preferred my old homemade scents of honeysuckle and gillyflower to all those expensive mixtures of frankincense and bergamot. “I heard from another mediocre condottiere today, you know,” my Pope went on, inhaling my hair again.
“That’s a cruel nickname, Rodrigo. He is not one-eyed; it’s just a tiny squint.” But I couldn’t help a faint smile as I unraveled the last of my plaits. At least my Pope could joke now about my husband. Rodrigo was not jealous when other men looked at me—he just chuckled when envious archbishops ogled my bosom, or florid young lords paid me honeyed compliments. He liked being envied. But Orsino Orsini, he of the tiny squint, still worried my Pope sometimes. Orsino was my wedded husband, a man with the legal right to demand I return to his side, if he ever grew a spine and chose to exercise that right. Even the Holy Father could not really excommunicate a man for demanding that his wife cease committing adultery.
“That chinless little snip can’t even scrape up the courage to ask me himself when he wants money,” Rodrigo continued with a snort. “Instead he applies to his mother and gets her to ask me. This time, it’s to pay his soldiers. They don’t listen to him unless their pay is current. Or even when it is current. There’s one son who should not have been slated for the battlefield!” My husband’s family, the Orsini, had been among those to side with the French upon their march south—at least, the more illustrious and prosperous branches of the Orsini. Not Orsino, however, whose mother was cousin and firm friend to Rodrigo Borgia. Where his mother led, Orsino followed.
“We don’t need to discuss Orsino, do we?” I shook my hair down, rippling clear to the floor, and Rodrigo clapped a hand to his chest as though pierced through the heart by the sight. I climbed onto the vast bed, sitting cross-legged like a child, and pulled his feet into my lap. People think it’s all jewels and gowns and keeping yourself pretty, being a mistress, but I’ve found it’s a good deal more about peace. Powerful men, whether kings of vast nations or lords of uncounted wealth or fathers of the world’s souls, are tired men. A thousand voices clamor every moment for their attention, their time, their favors; everyone wants something and they all want it now. When my Pope came to me at the end of the day, he could at least relax with the knowledge that I wanted nothing but him. “Your feet are hurting you again, aren’t they?” I scolded softly, rubbing his toes. “Why can’t you sit still when you’re dictating letters to your secretaries, instead of pacing like a madman?”
He gave a groan of pleasure, but his eyes were serious as they looked at me. “Does Orsino still write to you, Giulia?”
“He does,” I said.
“What does he write?”
Still a note of anxiety in my Pope’s deep voice. “Nothing very much,” I said, kneading my thumbs into the arch of his right foot. “Read the letters any time you wish.”
“Oh, I trust you. It’s Monoculus I don’t trust. He wants you back.”
“Always,” I admitted. It had been a bargain my husband had made, or his mother Adriana da Mila had advised him to make: Take little Giulia Farnese for a wife, let Rodrigo Borgia have her for a concubine, and he will advance your career, my dear boy! Orsino had regretted that bargain since the day he saw me at our wedding, but he still took the rewards, didn’t he? A condotta to give him soldiers, a hefty annuity, a castello in Carbognano and governorship over the town to go with it . . .
My husband had been everything a girl could dream of: handsome, young, and he even said he loved me. I didn’t know if I believed that, really—he didn’t even know me. But he said he’d loved me since the moment he’d laid eyes on me, and he certainly had his heart in his eyes whenever he looked at me, and that would be enough for most girls. But it wasn’t enough. What no one bothers to tell dreaming girls is that a handsome and adoring young husband isn’t any use if he’s gutless.
Still, a gutless husband is better than a brutal one. I’d have to go back to him someday, when either my Pope died or his passion for me did, and I gave a little sigh at the thought. Hopefully the first of those fates wouldn’t happen for many, many years—and maybe the second wouldn’t happen at all.
“That’s enough about Monoculus, eh?” Rodrigo ran a hand over my shoulder, the edge of my shift sliding down my arm. “My children too. It’s making you morose.”
“That batch of quarreling pups you fathered would make anybody morose!” I said lightly, and Rodrigo brightened just as I’d intended.
“I’ll have you know my children are perfect.” He pulled me up into his arms. “Shall we make another? A Borgia prince this time, a brother for Laura.”
“Juan won’t be very happy about that,” I murmured between kisses. “He went into such a sulk when I was carrying Laura . . .” Worried any child of mine would supplant him as the Pope’s favorite. In truth Rodrigo had always been just a trifle veiled in his affection for Laura. She was his daughter, of that I was perfectly certain—you had only to look at the nose (though I did hope she wouldn’t grow up with his bull shoulders). But she’d been christened under my husband’s name, and in truth when I counted backward from nine months there had been a time when I was trying to persuade Orsino to show just a little courage, enough to fight for his wife if he truly wanted to keep her . . .
But I couldn’t think of Orsino, not with Rodrigo bending his dark head to plant unhurried kisses across my naked shoulders. “Come to me,” he whispered in his Catalan Spanish, and I threaded my arms around his neck and slid myself over him, making my hair into a candlelit curtain shutting out the world.
When I was a foolish virgin girl, I’d prayed very earnestly not to be married off to an old man as so many of my friends were. I dreamed of lean cavaliers and dashing poets, and what girl doesn’t? But girls are fools. Poets aren’t much good when it comes to love play, when you really think about it—all Dante ever managed to do after years of mooning after Beatrice was fantasize that she might one day give him a guided tour of Paradise. And as for lean cavaliers, well, Orsino was the picture of a dashing young suitor, and our coupling had been awkward, clumsy, embarrassing, and brief. And afterward, he had stood back and given me away.
My Pope savored me every time he took me in his arms, tasted my skin and inhaled my hair, kissed me and cradled me and found something new in me every time to caress. “The curve of your spine is like a string of pearls,” he would muse, and trace his lips over my back until I was vibrating down to my toes. Or he would drop slow tantalizing kisses over every part of my face from my ears to my chin, everywhere but my lips, until I dragged his mouth down against mine. He liked me bold and never accused me of being wanton; he tossed me and teased me, made me laugh and made me cry out—and my husband might have given me to Rodrigo, but Rodrigo had never forced me. “I’ve never had a woman by force, and I don’t intend to start now,” he’d told me on our first meeting, and then stood back in utter confidence to let me choose. It’s not often a woman has a chance to choose, let me tell you. And I’d considered my options: the handsome young husband with the clumsy hands, or the ecclesiastical lover of more than sixty years who could curl my whole body up in shudders of pleasure?
“My papal bull,” I whispered, and felt the rumble of laughter deep in his chest above me.
He slept afterward, his head heavy on my breast, my arms showing pale about his swarthy shoulders in the flickering candlelight, my hair coiling over us both. “Everything will be perfect now,” he murmured, half-asleep. “You at my side, Juan returned, la familia reunited . . . the French defeated . . .” A yawn. “God has been kind, mi perla.”
Unease twinged at me again, and I didn’t know why. Not until I rose and dressed and tiptoed out, back to the Palazzo Santa Maria so the Pope would be found alone in his bed in the morning by his entourage, as was proper (even if they all knew I’d been keeping him company there). I yawned as I trailed through the darkened papal apartments, and my feet slowed in the Sala dei Santi as I looked again at the finished frescoes all the Borgia family had admired last night at cena. I looked past the frescoes this time, Juan as proud Turk and Cesare as merciless emperor and Lucrezia as pleading saint, to the Borgia bull motif repeated over and over in the floors and the walls. Not the placid grazing ox that had been the family emblem when they were merely the lowly Borja of Spain, but a massive defiant beast gazing about with arrogant eyes. In public appearances Rodrigo displayed his papal emblem of the crossed keys, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But here there were no keys and no heaven either. There were saints on every wall, but it was the Borgias who dominated—the Borgias and their pagan bull.
“God has been kind,” Rodrigo had said. La familia united again, as they had not been for years, and the French had been swindled and outplayed by my wily Pope who had played that spotty French King like a harp, vowing eternal friendship and whispering confidential promises, and all the while he had been piecing together a Holy League to oppose them. Rome, Spain, Milan, Venice: all allied against the French, who had found themselves outnumbered and surrounded in Naples. What a victory—and with the French fleeing their shattered campaign, what enemy was there to oppose my Pope and his family?
And last night they had celebrated in these rooms, which might have an Annunciation and a Nativity and a Resurrection painted on the walls . . . but which glorified not God, but Borgia.