Authors: Carla Capshaw
He inhaled sharply, desperate enough to offer all that he had left of himself. He grasped her shoulders and eased her back around to face him. “What if I give you my heart?”
Her lips began to tremble. The muscles of her face twitched as she worked to maintain her composure. Her huge dark eyes watered with unshed tears. “Please don't, Caros. As much as I want to, you know I can't accept any part of you as long as we have no future together.”
iberia waited impatiently in the covered litter while one of her slaves announced her arrival and obtained entrance into the gladiatorial school. Surrounded by thick, gray stone walls and a massive iron gate, the school reminded her of a military fortressâperfect for training men to kill or die in honor of the emperor.
Without a hint of softness to be seen from the front street, the formidable compound sent a quiver of unease through her already agitated nerves. Perhaps Annia had been correct when she'd recommended bringing Antonius along with them. A part of her wished she'd listened to the older woman she'd sent home earlier, instead of simply sending word to the senator by way of a messenger.
Her fingers tapped a rapid tattoo on the fat silk pillow she reclined against. Through the thin lavender veil shrouding her litter, she watched the throng of pedestrians scurrying to and fro. If her slave didn't return soon, she feared she might burst from all the restless energy frothing inside her. She couldn't wait to see Pelonia again.
Spying her slave the moment he stepped outside the gate,
she held her breath in eager anticipation as the tall Lycian sprinted toward her. It didn't bode well that sweat beaded his upper lip despite the afternoon's mild weather.
She snapped her fingers. Her bodyguard pulled the curtain back and helped her alight. “Well?” she demanded of the slave. “What news do you have for me?”
“The steward, Gaius, welcomes you, but he warns the
mood is far from pleasant. He recommends you return another day.”
Her lips thinned into an agitated line. “He does, does he? What day does he suggest?”
A trickle of sweat seeped down the slave's temple. “The ides of December, my lady.”
“The ides of
That's six weeks away!” Infuriated by the obvious rebuff, she drew her shawl tighter around her stiff shoulders and marched toward the massive front gate, her slave hard-pressed to keep pace with her.
“Open up!” she commanded the guard at the gatehouse. “I am Tiberia, wife of Senator Antonius Tacitus. I'm here to speak with your master.”
After much debate, the guards opened the gate, its hinges creaking from the weight of the massive iron piece. The Lycian ran ahead to announce her presence, gaining admittance into the
just as she arrived on the doorstep.
“It's an honor to welcome you, my lady.” The elderly steward bowed low as she crossed into the entryway.
“Where is your master? He has much to answer for,” she said, biting her tongue to keep from calling the old man a liar.
The ides of December indeed!
“In the herb garden, my lady.” He led her to a sitting room off the atrium. “Please, make yourself comfortable. I'll inform him you're here.”
Refusing to be put off any longer, she pursued him at a
short distance, careful not to draw his attention to her presence behind him. Leaving the cool interior of the
they followed a path past the kitchen, through a gate and into a connecting garden rife with lemon trees and an abundant variety of herbs.
The delicate scents of rosemary and mint mingled with the sound of voices emanating from a spot around the kitchen wall beyond her view.
“Pelonia, wait!” A deep male voice sliced through the warm afternoon.
Tiberia ran toward the voice, concern for her cousin pressing her onward.
The sight that greeted her could have been plucked from a tragedy. The
s hands clutched Pelonia's shoulders like the talons of a great winged beast. An expression of such forlorn agony creased Pelonia's visage, Tiberia felt her own throat close over and her heart pinch from the pain of it.
“What are you doing to her?” Tiberia demanded, racing to her cousin's rescue. “Get your vile hands off her this instant!”
stilled, but didn't release his prey as commanded. Pelonia's gaze darted toward her, her eyes wide with shock. As recognition dawned, her countenance brightened by degrees with elated disbelief. With little effort, she shrugged off her captor's hold. “Tiberia? Is it really you?”
The steward began an immediate round of apologies to his master for not having known she'd followed him.
“Fetch Cat before he frightens our guest,” said the gladiator. “He's in the corner beyond the fountain.”
Unconcerned about a cat, she held out her arms to Pelonia in welcome. “Yes, dear cousin, I'm here for you. I came the moment I learned of your whereabouts.”
Pelonia launched herself into Tiberia's embrace with a jubilant shriek. “The Lord be praised for bringing you here!
You can't imagine how happy I am to see you. Marriage must agree with you. You're even lovelier than the last portrait you sent me.”
Unwilling to let go, Tiberia held on tighter, tears of thankfulness burning the back of her eyes. “I believed you were dead. I can't thank the gods enough you're alive.”
“How did you find me?”
“Iâ¦” Momentarily struck speechless, she watched in amazement as the steward led a tiger from behind the fountain and up the stone path. “By the gods, what is that beast doing in the garden?”
“The tiger is Caros's pet. He's fairly harmless.”
a tiger.” Pelonia laughed. “You should have seen the look on your face just now.”
“And how did you react the first time you saw him?”
“I confess, much the same way. The tiger sneaked up behind me and breathed down my neck. It was a curious sensation to say the least.”
Regaining her wits, Tiberia giggled. “I can imagine.”
Pelonia linked arms with her, apparently unconcerned by the
black expression. “Now, tell me, how did you find me?”
“Your friend Annia visited me this morning. I didn't know whether or not to believe her at first, but any positive word of you was most welcome. Marcus, that weasel, led us to believe you were kidnapped. I lost countless nights' sleep, I was so worried about you. The scouts we sent to search for you reported you were dead. I've been racked with grief for weeks, blaming myself forâ”
“No, no, you mustn't blame yourself. You aren't responsible for anything that's happened,” Pelonia assured her. “I'm sorry I didn't send word of my good health. You were
never far from my thoughts, but circumstances prevented me from contacting you.”
Understanding perfectly, Tiberia narrowed her gaze on the
She'd heard stories about Caros Viriathos. Her husband enjoyed the games and was an avid admirer of the great champions. This close to the infamous former gladiator, she could guess why he'd never been beaten. He was a colossusâbattle-hardened, massive and formidable. A long scar ran down his cheek and his tunic did little to hide the marks of battle on his arms and legs. She imagined the hostile gleam in his eyes alone had sent many confident challengers into early graves.
Silently reminding herself of her position, that the man wouldn't dare harm a senator's wife, she began to lead Pelonia from the garden.
“Wait,” Pelonia said, not so easily led. “I want you to meet Caros.”
With no desire to greet the man who'd enslaved her favorite relative, Tiberia wrinkled her nose with distaste, but submitted to propriety for Pelonia's sake.
“Caros,” Pelonia beckoned with an outstretched hand. “Come and meet my cousin, Tiberia, my dearest friend in the world.”
Struck by the informality between them, Tiberia marveled at the way the
severity softened each time he glanced at her cousin. Was it possible Annia had been mistaken in thinking he'd kept Pelonia as a slave?
“It's an honor to meet you,” he said.
Sensing his insincerity, she inclined her head, but didn't return the sentiment.
Pelonia attempted to fill the awkward silence. “Tiberia is a recent bride.”
“Yes, Pelonia was to be one of my special guests.” She
didn't bother to dull the edge of accusation in her tone. “Apparently she was otherwise detained. How long have you had her enslaved?”
“Almost three weeks,” Caros replied. “She was unconscious when the slave trader brought her here. I had no way of learning who she was or who awaited her.”
“And, of course, you searched for us the moment you learned her true identity?”
He shrugged. “No.”
“You honestly planned to keep her as a slave?”
“My plans are none of your concern.”
Incensed by his audacity, she glanced at Pelonia, who watched from beneath one of the lemon trees, arms akimbo, her eyes fixed on the
her expression unreadable.
“Whatever your plans, you must realize they've been altered,” Tiberia said, at the end of her patience. “No relative of mine will be chattel in your possession.”
“How do you intend to take her from me?”
“Through the front door, of course.”
As though he enjoyed baiting her, he smirked with infuriating calm. “I'll warn you now that's a risky scheme.
you make it past me, there are armed guards at every exit who've been threatened with severe punishment if she escapes.”
“Don't toy with me,
She stamped her foot in vexation. “What kind of fiend are you? You can't honestly hope to imprison her here now that you know who she is and the importance of her family. My husband, the senator, will never tolerate it.”
“Obviously, you place more value in your connections than I do. I broke no laws when I bought herâ”
“If it's a matter of coinâ”
“I'll gladly repay you with interest.”
“I've no need of your money.”
“You're just being stubborn!”
Pelonia joined the fray. “That's enough, both of you.”
Caros reached for Pelonia and led her to a spot by the fountain, too far away for Tiberia to overhear their conversation. Confused by the gentleness in the brute's manner toward her cousin, she acknowledged there was a stronger tie between the two of them than she'd originally been prepared to admit.
Her lip curled in disgust at the idea of
relative being entangled with anyone of the gladiatorial trade. Her friends and neighbors, even her husband, might be consumed with the games and its champions, but only from a spectator's distance. The gladiators were revered for their skills and entertainment value, but they were still lowly slaves and their
did little more than pander flesh.
A jewel like Pelonia deserved a man similar to her own dear Antonius, a man of prominence and wisdom who knew how to appreciate a woman of Pelonia's rare qualities and strength of character.
At the first possible opportunity, she'd see that Antonius arranged a proper marriage for Pelonia. Her gentle cousin deserved nothing less than the best.
an animal like Caros Viriathos.
Still overwhelmed and giddy with happiness from Tiberia's unexpected appearance, Pelonia sat beside her cousin on the long cushioned couch in the house's main sitting room. Warm sunlight filtered in through the open shutters, bathing the frescoed walls and potted plants with a golden hue.
“What did he say to you just now?” Tiberia asked, feigning an interest in the folds of her
“Nothing dire, I assure you.” In truth, Caros had reminded her of their bargain, that she'd promised not to leave.
“Are you certain?”
“Of course, Iâ¦ah, here's Gaius with some refreshments for you.”
Gaius placed a glass goblet of spiced wine and a charger filled with oatcakes, honeyed dates and fresh grapes on a low table within Tiberia's reach.
“What's the meaning of this?” her cousin demanded. “Did you intend to insult
or Pelonia when you thoughtlessly brought a single glass?”
“Tiberia,” Pelonia groaned. “Don'tâ”
“I meant no insult, my lady. I'll fetch another.”
“See that you do, and be quick about it.”
Once the steward left, Pelonia shook her head at the younger girl. “I appreciate you taking my part, but I wish you hadn't berated him. His manner is a bit distant, I admit, but Gaius carries out his tasks with great care. He thinks of me as a slave. Naturally he didn't bring me any refreshment.”
“That, my dear, is the crux of the problem.” Tiberia reached for one of the smaller oatcakes and placed a fig on top. “You're not a slave. You're the victim of an outrageous misunderstanding. If that twice-cursed gladiator weren't such a stubborn brute, you would have been returned to the protective bosom of your family weeks ago.”