The Poison Keeper: The Coffee Pot Book Club Tour.
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
‘Her characters so real they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf’ Historical Novel Society.
Extract from Chapter 17
Villa Bianca – The Courtesan’s House
Isabetta picked up a horn spoon and carefully measured out a few grains of the powder into the pipe before screwing the lid shut. Heating it over a flame released the smoke. A few long inhalations, and she was calmer, less fractious. Giulia arriving like this had brought back the past, and now her memories would not lie quiet. Truth be told, she was afraid.
The thought she would never see Theofania again seemed impossible. Though she’d been estranged from her sister for more years than she cared to count, she always thought the rift would be mended one day. But now that day would never come. The poppy was a comfort, though she needed more of the stuff now than she used to, and it all cost money. There were occasions when she regretted the life she’d chosen, the days when she couldn’t buy the powder and life became its true unbearable self. On those days she knew herself to be an addict and a whore, and a woman rotten from the inside out.
She thrust these thoughts aside and was just dropping a little belladonna into her eyes when she heard the faint rap at the downstairs door.
Bella’s client, she thought. She’d let Alessa go to deal with him. She continued to make up her eyes, rimming them with charcoal powder and adding a ground of pearly seashell to the lids.
A clatter of shoes. ‘Beg pardon,’ Alessa said, ‘but it’s a boy. He brought this.’ She held out a sealed letter. ‘It’s from Domenico de Verdi.’
Isabetta froze. ‘How do you know?’
‘The livery, mistress. It’s his green and gold. The boy’s waiting for a reply.’
Not another demand for more money. She couldn’t survive without her poppy powder. She tore off the seal and read the message.
By favour, to book me an appointment with Signora Tofana. I am free this evening after seven, or on Thursday at the same time. I will take her to supper by the harbour and then we will return to your chambers. Please ensure a private room is available on our return. My boy has my purse. You may keep it as proof of my good intentions.
Signor Domenico de Verdi.
So polite. It was as if he had never stood on her doorstep like a bull, and taken her throat in his hands. As if he’d never used a pickaxe on her best tapestry. As if his cursed stick insect of a brother had never pushed her sister to a crushing death. What to make of it? She didn’t know, except that it was the worst possible invitation. Why must his eye have fallen on Giulia?
She clenched a fist, knowing it couldn’t be refused. Even for the sake of Giulia, her own flesh and blood. Nobody refused Domenico de Verdi. Even his name struck fear into every Neapolitan’s heart.
‘Wait.’ She pinned Alessa with a glare, though it was hardly her fault. Then she took quill and ink and wrote a hasty reply. ‘This evening at seven with Giulia Tofana. Appointment confirmed. S Isabetta Boveri.
‘Take the boy this,’ she said.
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Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner.
Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.
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