Antonia drew aside the silken drape at the window of her father’s carpentum and scanned the flat Britannia countryside as they traveled along the straight Roman road. It was late spring but the day matched her mood—cloudy, with a hint of restless despair on the horizon.
“Antonia.” Her father clasped her hand and his smile warmed her frozen heart. How she longed to make his dreams for her come true. But she was no longer a young girl with a glorious future ahead. She was a matron, past her prime. She feared her beloved father might never recover from the disappointment of his only child’s failure to shine like a star in the Rome of his imagination.
She returned his smile. For him, she would endure this visit. For him, she would play the perfect Roman lady despite the fact her former husband had tossed her from his life with degrading disregard.
“My beautiful child.” Her father sighed, and Antonia knew of whom he was thinking. “You are so like your mother. I see her face every time I look at you.”
Her heart squeezed in her breast in reflected sorrow. She had never known her mother. But even after all these years her father still loved her. Still missed her. What must it be like to be loved so faithfully?
“I will find a man worthy of you,” he said, and she tried to ignore the way her stomach churned and chest constricted at the thought of being given to another man. “The noble blood of your mother runs through your veins. You deserve nothing less than to take your rightful place in the highest echelons of Rome. And befriending this tribune’s foreign wife is the perfect way to achieve our ends.”
If she had her way, she would remain by her father’s side for the rest of their lives. And she intended to have her way. But there was no need to distress him with her unconventional plans. Not when they were within moments of arriving at their hosts’ villa, situated a few miles south of the town of Camulodunum.
“I confess I’m intrigued to meet this foreigner who appears to hold such sway over her husband.” The tribune, Tiberius Valerius Maximus, was a member of one of the most powerful families in the Senate. It was a mystery to Antonia how he had been allowed to marry a native of a conquered land.
“There are rumors,” her father leaned toward her in a conspiratorial manner, even though they were alone in his lavishly decorated carpentum. “She is a barbarian princess from the wilds of Cambria. But don’t let this concern you. If she takes a liking to you, I know she will look favorably on finding a suitable match for you.”
Antonia gazed into the anxious eyes of her father and swallowed the words of denial that threatened to spill free. She would use every weapon at her disposal to turn him from his dream of seeing her wed once again. Only as a last resort would she confess the ultimate reason that would ensure her continued freedom from the shackles of forced matrimony.
Once again, she turned to the window and saw a large white villa set back from the road. It was grander than anything she had yet seen in Britannia, but was modest compared to the villa her former husband, Amulius Cornelius Scipio, had owned.
The land in front of the villa was cultivated but devoid of ornate statuary. As the carpentum slowed she glanced over the surrounding land and, although some attempt at order had been imposed, in the main, the estate looked little different from the countryside that surrounded it.
As she contemplated why a Roman should leave his estate in such rural disarray, a rider galloped past the window, pulled to a halt and leaped from the horse. Antonia tilted her head to get a better look and as she did so, the dismounted rider swung around and glared in her direction.
Their gazes clashed and Antonia’s heart slammed against her ribs as her fingers clenched around the sill of the open window. His eyes were dark, and although a strip of leather bound his long, dark blond hair, loose tendrils whipped across his unsmiling face giving him a wild, savage appearance.
The carpentum drew to a stop but the rider did not move out of the way despite how close he now was to her. Nor did he incline his head in a gesture of respect for her rank and Antonia continued to stare at him, mesmerized by the hostile air he projected her way.
Was he a slave of the tribune? Surely not. Even though he wore a neck ring, no slave would behave with such lack of deference toward a Roman. Was he then a trusted servant?
She heard her father say they had arrived, but still she couldn’t tear her fascinated gaze from the surly Briton. He held the bridle of his mount, his attention riveted on Antonia, apparently oblivious to the young stable lad who ran toward him.
Unease crawled along her spine, although she could not think why. She was in no danger from this Briton. But why did he continue to stare at her?
With slow deliberation, the Briton’s lip curled in open disdain and shock punched through Antonia’s chest at his sheer unabashed nerve. Was this the way he treated all visitors to his master’s estate? Or just her?
Heat flooded her cheeks as she realized how blatantly she had been staring at him in return. Hastily she averted her eyes, smoothing her blue woolen palla as she rose to follow her father.
She was no longer a girl who might blush and giggle at the bold stare of an undisciplined man. She was a divorced woman of twenty-five and had no wish to draw the attention of any man, undisciplined or not.
Slaves unhooked the back door of the carpentum and she took a deep breath, still unaccountably shaken by the look of contempt the Briton had given her. She’d grown used to the derision heaped upon her head by Scipio, but what had she ever done to this stranger that he should look at her so?
And why was she still thinking of him? He would be gone now to his tasks. She would never see him again.
Her father stepped to the ground and as she held out her hand for a slave to assist her, awareness skittered over her skin. Before she could jerk back in self-preservation, the Briton took her hand, and his grasp was not light as protocol dictated.
He gripped her fingers as though he possessed the right to touch her, to hold her, and for one terrifying moment, Antonia had the mortifying certainty that she would stumble into his arms. Once again, their gazes clashed and once again, she was unaccountably captivated by the deep brown of his eyes.
And the unmistakable gleam of contempt that he made no effort to conceal.
By rights, she should pull free, reprimand him for his insolence. But instead, she remained paralyzed as his calloused fingers burned her flesh and sparks of fire danced in her blood.
His eyes darkened and the heat from his hand radiated along her arm, feeding the fire and searing the breath in her lungs. Blessed Juno, what was happening to her? Writhing serpents blazed through her breast and coiled low in her womb. Liquid heat bloomed between her thighs, the fiery path a strange blend of pain and pleasure. She had never experienced anything like it in her life before. Yet instinctively she knew what this was, no matter how she tried to thrust the knowledge from her.
The raw desire the Roman ladies of her acquaintance had whispered about during feminine gatherings. The graphic confidences shared and stamina of lovers compared, during the many scented bathing rituals she had attended.
She had always believed the scandalous tales to be amusing exaggerations. Yet between one shocked heartbeat and the next, all her preconceived notions of passion sizzled into ash.
“Come, Antonia.” Her father’s voice penetrated her dazed contemplation and she wrenched her gaze from the Briton to focus on descending the two steps to the ground. She wouldn’t let him see how his intensity affected her. Would not give him the satisfaction of stumbling, even though her legs shook beneath her gown.
Her father smiled at her, apparently oblivious to the way the Briton continued to hold her hand. Why did he still hold her hand? Without turning to him, although every nerve she possessed screamed that she should turn to him, Antonia pulled free from his burning touch.
And then she couldn’t help but glance his way.
His dark eyes mocked her, the tilt of his lips confirming his low opinion of her. She couldn’t imagine why his opinion should matter and yet she discovered it did. Unnerved, she tilted her head at him in an unmistakable gesture of dismissal, but she wasn’t surprised when he didn’t back away or lower his own bold stare.
Her father was speaking, threading her arm through his, and Antonia dutifully walked by his side as they approached the villa. But his words flowed over her head, unheeded. Because, fanciful or not, she knew the Briton was staring at her. She could feel the fiery heat of his gaze on her back and she struggled not to look over her shoulder, just to confirm her suspicion.
Her flesh tingled where the Briton had clasped her hand and she battled the urge to flex her fingers. If she did, he would know the reason why. And it was of the utmost importance that she gave him no clue as to how deeply his careless touch affected her.
Her husband had stripped her of almost everything she possessed during their time together, but she retained a shadow of her former pride. And she had no intention of allowing this uncouth native of a foreign land to breach the flimsy façade of serenity she’d fought so desperately to maintain during the last torturous year.
They entered the villa’s atrium where the exquisite mosaic floor, exotic stonework and beautiful statuary boldly declared the high status of its master. She forced a smile to her lips as the tribune, in his purple striped toga, came forward to greet them. How her father coveted that cursed purple stripe. How mistakenly he imagined there could be no higher honor for his daughter than to be welcomed within the elevated patrician rank.
How she longed to tell him of the putrid stink that seethed beneath that lofty veneer of civilized sophistication. And knew she never would.
The risk was too great.
As the tribune welcomed her father, she looked at the Roman’s face and shock slammed through her. Why hadn’t her father warned her? Only years of successfully hiding her true feelings prevented her from gasping aloud.
Ancient scars distorted the tribune’s face yet they were like nothing she had seen before. But in spite of the disfigurement, his haughty patrician beauty was enough to take any woman’s breath away.
How fortunate she was immune to such base stirrings.
And instantly the dark, condemning glare of the Briton invaded her mind.
“Welcome to our home,” a feminine voice said in perfect Latin and for the second time in as many moments, Antonia’s senses reeled in disbelief. The tribune’s wife sounded as though she had lived in the upper echelons of Roman society her entire life. With her golden hair, slender figure and dressed in an exquisite silken stola, she would not have looked out of place in the emperor’s entourage.
“Thank you.” Antonia inclined her head in greeting as a slave took her palla. “It is most kind of you to invite me.”
“My wife has been looking forward to making your acquaintance,” the tribune said, and Antonia watched, fascinated, as he turned to his wife and bestowed a smile of such love that her heart ached. Never had she seen a man look at his wife in such a manner. Men of Rome would never allow such feelings to show, at least not in public. What enchantment had this foreigner weaved around her husband?
“It’s true,” the foreign princess said as she turned back to Antonia with a smile that could surely rival Venus herself. “There are very few young women of Rome here and I am most eager to learn all I can of your city.”
“It would be my honor to enlighten you,” Antonia said, and she tried not to stare at the princess’s mis-matched eyes. She had never encountered such a phenomenon before, although it was whispered one of the sacred Vestal Virgins also possessed such an anomaly.
“Come. We will leave the men to their business and take refreshments in the courtyard.”
Antonia fully expected the Cambrian beauty—no one in their right mind could call her a barbarian—to take her arm as if they were the dearest of friends. In Rome all the ladies in her social sphere kissed and hugged no matter how slight their acquaintance, but regardless of how she looked, this tribune’s wife obviously knew nothing of such customs.
Was that the kind of thing she wanted Antonia to tell her about?
“You must call me Carys,” the other woman said as they entered the large courtyard. An impressive colonnade surrounded the four sides giving protection from the weather and a central fountain, of Venus rising from the waves, was an oddly discordant note of formality in the otherwise wild, undisciplined garden. “And I shall call you Antonia.”
“Of course.” For all that Carys was a native of a conquered land and younger than Antonia, she was still the wife of an influential patrician. And Antonia, despite the blood of her mother, was nothing but a divorced woman, once again under the protection of her father.
There was no question that Antonia would presume to dispute anything Carys might request.
Unless it involved matrimony.
They sat on a stone bench and slaves brought out an array of edible delicacies and arranged them on a low stone table.
“I hope you enjoy living in Britain,” Carys said, and it was a shock to hear her call the province by its barbaric name. “I know we are going to be such good friends.”
Antonia smiled, as etiquette dictated, and recalled the women she had once thought were her friends back in Rome. How quickly they had faded from her side once it became known that her husband no longer had any use for her.
“I’m sure we will be.” But friends confided their deepest secrets and Antonia would never share hers with another living soul. How often had she thanked the wise Juno for preventing her from telling her intimate circle in Rome of her treacherous plans? If she had followed her heart in that matter, they would have betrayed her to Scipio. And she had no doubt, he would have taken her life.
Carys’ smile faltered and for one surreal moment, Antonia had the certainty that the other woman had guessed her thoughts. Heat shot through her and she broke eye contact, smoothing the flawless silk of her stola. She had to forget about the women she had once called her friends. Their fickle natures did not matter and would never touch her again. There was only thing she had to concentrate on, and soon, with Juno’s blessing, her stealthily laid plans would come to fruition.
Awareness prickled along her exposed nape and in the same instance Carys leaped to her feet in a manner most unlike any Roman noblewoman. Antonia refused to grip her fingers together in her lap, refused to glance over her shoulder, and instead focused with deathly intensity on the tranquility of the tinkling fountain.
The Briton had not just entered the courtyard. Why had her thoughts instantly turned to that possibility? And besides, if he had, Carys would most certainly not have jumped up with such lack of decorum.
And despite herself, Antonia glanced over her shoulder.
It was the Briton. Disbelief pulsed through her as she watched Carys rise onto her toes to kiss his face. Paralyzed, she saw his grim expression relax into a semblance of a smile as he wound his arm around her shoulders and gave her a brief hug.
Was he Carys’ lover? Did the tribune know? Many of her former friends had enjoyed illicit liaisons with slaves or those in their husband’s employ. But even the most brazen would not display her unfaithfulness before a complete stranger.
“Come, Gawain,” Carys said, still speaking Latin, as she tugged the Briton by his hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Antonia tried to ignore the way her stomach churned and she gripped her fingers together in spite of her best intentions. Why would Carys wish to introduce her to this Briton? Why did she have the sudden urge to be violently ill?
“Antonia, this is Gawain, my beloved kin from my homeland.” Her kin? Antonia stared at Gawain’s long sleeved shirt and the braccae that encased each of his powerfully muscled legs. Outside she had merely noted his clothes were not those of a Roman but now she realized that they were, in fact, of good quality linen. How had she imagined for even a moment that he was a slave? “Gawain,” Carys continued, turning to the now unsmiling Briton—Cambrian. “This is Antonia, daughter of our esteemed merchant, Drusus Antonius Faustus.”
For a long agonizing moment, Antonia looked up into his dark eyes as insane images of fleeing this courtyard flashed through her mind. He towered over her, a threatening presence of pure masculinity, and everything about him radiated a raw, primitive danger. Only now did she acknowledge that the torque around his throat was nothing like a slave ring. It gleamed like silver and its intricate engravings were similar to those that adorned his savagely compelling earring.
“My pleasure.” His husky voice and erotically seductive accent caressed her skin like a lover’s touch and sank into her blood like a dreaded fever. His free hand reached for her and panic thudded through her blood, squeezing the air from her lungs and making it hard to draw breath.
Years ago, as a young bride, she had dreamed of a man such as him. One who could ignite her senses with barely a glance and cause her flesh to smolder with a single sultry word. But she had been a girl then. She was a woman now. And she could not afford to indulge in foolish fantasies that would lead nowhere. He had made his contempt for her clear. His attitude now was nothing but an insincere display so as not to offend his kin.
She could ignore him. And disgrace her father’s name.
But she had disgraced her father enough. It wouldn’t kill her to allow this Cambrian to take her hand. She would endure his touch one last time. The gods knew she had endured far worse.
Yet it took every particle of nerve she possessed to unclench her fingers and raise her hand.
She caught the mocking gleam in his eyes as he took her hand in his calloused grip and lowered his head toward her. Her mouth dried as his lips brushed across her knuckles, his touch deliberately languorous as though he knew full well how she battled not to tremble at the contact.
Then, still holding her hand, he looked up at her and the lust and fury blazing in his eyes scorched her like a furnace to Hades.