Read an Excerpt
The Flavian Amphitheater, Rome, 81 AD
"Blood is sure to stain the sand today!"
Adiona Leonia shuddered at Claudia's gleeful prediction. As insidious as a spider, Claudia rarely approached anyone without nefarious intent. Unfortunately, the older matron had begun to spin her web around Adiona the moment she'd approached the entrance gate.
"The gladiators face war elephants and chariots this afternoon," Claudia continued. "I can hardly breathe with anticipation!"
Scanning the mob of enthusiastic spectators swarming into the massive arena, Adiona pretended not to hear the other woman over the roar of the crowd and motioned her bodyguards to clear a way to escape. Surrounded by the fragrance of burning pinecones meant to keep the stench of blood and death at bay, Adiona needed no reminder of who faced what in the arena. Her attraction to one particular gladiator both mystified and rattled her. Other than her friend the famed lanista, Caros Viria-thos, she neither liked nor trusted men. Yet she'd been inexplicably drawn to Quintus Ambustus since the first time she'd seen him train at the Ludus Maximus five months earlier.
"One of the gladiator troupes is Viriathos's men." Claudia spoke louder, refusing to be ignored. "That should make the day more delightfully gruesome."
"It explains the crowds," Adiona agreed absently. "Caros trains the best."
"You would know."
Claudia's suggestive tone earned Adiona's full attention. Had the bloodhound somehow learned her guilty secret? Her pulse quickened with dread. All of Rome knew of her contempt for the opposite sex. She'd be a laughingstock if anyone—especially Claudia and her mindless patrons—discovered her unrequited fascination for one of Caros's slaves.
Irritated by the woman's nosiness, Adiona clenched her fists in the weighty folds of her blue stola. "What do you mean, Claudia? Everyone is aware of Caros's talents. I'm not special in that regard."
The spider's eyes gleamed with wicked pleasure. "True, but not all of Rome is on intimate terms with the great lanista."
"Are you jealous?" Adiona smiled, misleading her adversary on purpose. Eager to disappear before Claudia sniffed a hint of the real scandal clinging to her cloak, Adiona bid the other matron good day before she could be drawn into more uncomfortable conversation.
Glad to be free of Claudia's web, she relied on her trio of guards to lead her through the mob. At the top of the steps, she located her row. Reserved for senators, their families and other wealthy citizens, the prized seats closest to the arena floor were usually off-limits to women, but she and other rich matrons like Claudia were among the few privileged females whose wealth and social influence guaranteed them the best of everything the city offered.
Squelching the lust-filled glances men cast her way with a disdainful glare of her own, she took her place on the polished marble bench. The scent of cinnamon-roasted almonds infused the cool afternoon breezes, while wine flowed freely, encouraging the wildness that crackled in the air like heat lightning.
Adiona groaned inwardly when Claudia's rotund form appeared at the top of the steps. An overburdened slave carrying a large basket trailed her.
"We meet again!" Huffing from the exertion of her short climb, Claudia waved the wooden ticket she held. "It seems we've been assigned seats next to one another."
"Who did you bribe?" Adiona asked coolly. "I'd like to know who I should have whipped."
The spider chuckled as she plopped down on the bench, leaving Adiona no choice but to slide over or be crushed by the woman's girth. Within moments, Claudia's poisonous chatter made Adiona's head throb.
Dreading Quintus's arrival on the field, Adiona stared at the amphitheater's sandy floor. In the past few months Quintus had trained long and hard, but today he battled seasoned gladiators for the first time. Thanks to Claudia, she now knew he also faced war elephants and chariots…
A wave of anxiety swept over her. What if he died?
Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.
"Are you well, Adiona?" Claudia's sharp eyes probed her face as though searching for buried secrets. "You seem…troubled. Talk is, until Caros and his bride left for Umbria, you'd become quite a regular at the gladiator practices. I assumed you'd come to enjoy the violence—"
"Talk?" Snapped out of her dark thoughts, her patience with the older matron vanished. "You know very well I despise being talked about, Claudia. Or did you seek me out today solely to dig up more dirt for your discussion?"
Claudia wrinkled her nose and reached for a glass bottle of water from the basket beside her feet. "Why are you so sensitive about a little harmless chatter?"
Remembering all the times she'd been maimed by gossip, Adiona snorted. "I'm not convinced there is such a thing as 'harmless chatter.'"
"Of course there is." Claudia pulled the cork and sipped from her bottle. "For instance, what's the harm in wondering aloud if you're upset about the lanista's marriage? It's common knowledge Caros Viriathos is the one man you're fond of. Rumors say you're jealous of his pretty new wife."
She blinked, suddenly understanding why Claudia had sought her out. The other social matrons must be riotous with the hope of her languishing from a broken heart. They lived for gossip, sharpening their words behind her back and spreading their vicious chatter like a disease.
Happy to spoil their amusement at her expense, Adiona turned to the older woman and spoke loud enough to be heard over the excited crowd all around them. "Surely you jest. Caros is my friend. I wish him and Pelonia eternal joy."
Disappointment flitted across Claudia's bulbous features before she hid her displeasure behind a sly grin. "But he slighted you for a slave girl? If I were ever abandoned so heinously, I'd—"
"Cease, Claudia. Pelonia is no mere slave girl. She's cousin by marriage to a senator. And though it's none of your business, let me be clear. Caros and I are friends, nothing more. As far as I'm concerned, he's one of the last decent men in the Empire. Even so, I'd slit my wrists before I wed him."
Claudia patted Adiona's tense shoulder. "Gods forbid you'd married him. He may be rich at present, but he spent years as a lowly gladiator. They're fine for trysts, mind you, but marriage? No—at least not for you. You may not have been born of noble blood, but who's to care when your beauty and riches can buy a royal husband?"
The trumpets' blast drowned out Adiona's tart reply. She'd vowed never to wed again. The six years of torture she'd endured in Crassus's depraved hands had cured her of any childish notions concerning love or marital bliss. She no longer prayed for a happy home filled with children or a husband who cared for her. For whatever reason, the gods had deemed her unlovable and she'd grown almost numb to the sting of loneliness she'd borne for as long as she could remember.
The announcer's voice echoed across the amphitheater, proclaiming the opponents of the afternoon's main event. The mob erupted as portals in the arena floor slid open. Lifts deployed gladiators onto the field. Gates at the far end of the amphitheater rose and a dozen war elephants, a beast master on each of their backs, charged onto the sun-drenched sand.
Adiona slid forward on the marble bench. Her lungs locked. Her heart hammered against her breastbone louder than the bellowing mob. Straining to see Quin-tus, she recognized him instantly. Black hair, square jaw, golden skin. His height, the breadth of his shoulders, his presence drew her attention to him with an immediacy that was both intoxicating and frightening.
The wild crowd jumped up in unison. Adiona surged to her feet. Her every muscle as tight as one of the archer's bows, she held her breath, promising the gods endless sacrifices if they kept Quintus safe. With her gaze fastened to Quintus on his troupe's front line, she watched him lead his men across the field toward her where they took up an attack position.
Dressed in a simple brown tunic, his bare feet buried in the sand, he carried a shield and spear, looking woefully unprotected against the war elephants' massive tusks.
One of the beasts charged toward Quintus and his men. Adiona clamped her hand across her mouth to contain the scream that burned in her throat. The huge animal raged on, tossing its head from side to side, its gold-covered tusks gleaming in the sun as they sliced through human flesh and bone.
Quintus's troupe attacked. Taking the brunt of the spears, the elephant faltered and fell. As the behemoth struggled to regain its footing, Quintus vaulted onto its back. He tossed the beast master to the ground and took up the reins, just as the animal lurched to its feet.
Another gate lifted. Chariots thundered into battle, deploying more archers. Arrows soared through the sky before finding their targets with horrible accuracy. Dead and wounded gladiators littered the sand.
Seemingly unconcerned for his own safety, Quintus positioned the elephant between the advancing chariots and his men. His muscles straining to control the enormous animal, he was so close she could almost see the green depths of his eyes.
Another wave of arrows pierced the elephant's hide.
One skewered Quintus in the leg, another in his shoulder. A cry erupted from deep inside her, as if the arrows had hit her instead of her man.
The elephant fell to its knees, its trunk trumpeting in one last painful wail. Giddy madness raced through the crowd. Despite the many battles taking place on the field, the mob focused on the drama unfolding around Quintus. Riveted, she watched him struggle to pull the arrow from his thigh.
She begged the gods to save him. Pinned atop the fallen elephant and exposed to the hateful whims of Fate, Quintus made a clear target for the archers taking aim. The sounds of rapid horses' hooves filled her ears, competing with the spectators' cries and fist-pumping demands for death.
In desperation she begged every deity she could think of for mercy, even the illegal one Quintus worshipped, "Jesus, please…" she whispered under her breath.
"Viriathos has lost a fortune in gladiators today!" Claudia cackled with amusement. She pointed toward Quintus. "Look at that one struggle. He'll never get away. The archers have him for certain."
The glee in Claudia's voice filled Adiona with rage, horror and a sinking sense of anguish. "Bite your tongue, you vicious crone! Quintus is an honorable man. How dare you delight in his death?"
Adiona's gaze flew back to the action in the arena. Quintus had disappeared in the mayhem. Panic seized her. She pressed past Claudia, raced down the steps and clung to the barrier, desperate to find him through the black smoke and crush of chariots forming a victorious circle around the few gladiators left alive.
As expected, the charioteers and their team were declared the victors. The mob jeered the decision and the unfair fight, then erupted into cheers as Quintus used the fallen elephant to slowly pull himself to his feet.
The game's referee dismissed the men who were able to walk. Quintus looked over his shoulder and scanned the crowd before limping to the edge of the field. His back to her, she couldn't see if he'd been able to pull the arrow from his shoulder. The other one remained in his thigh. Blood seeped down his leg and into the sand.
At least he lives. Relief as pure as a mountain stream flowed through Adiona, robbing her of strength. She braced against the barrier for support, promising herself she'd do whatever Caros required to ensure Quintus never entered the games again.
Turning to leave for the gladiator hospital where Quin-tus would be taken, she bumped into Claudia whom she hadn't noticed beside her. The spider's eyes gleamed bright and with dawning horror Adiona realized she'd given herself away.
"What a day!" her rival said with malicious satisfaction. "Not only was the sport amusing, but I learned so much. Little wonder you're happy for the lanista and his bride when you're enamored with a slave of your own."
Quintus Fabius Ambustus eased onto a bench in the gladiator hospital behind the amphitheater. Smoke from the torches lining the concrete walls burned his eyes. The stench of blood and sweat reeked in his nostrils. Delirious moans and cries for help from other wounded men ricocheted off the arched ceiling, but not even the chaos and bolts of pain radiating through his body failed to erase the image of Adiona's horrified gaze and frightened expression.
He rubbed his eyes, irritated by the beauty's hold on him. Two months of near starvation in a disease-infested prison, a fortnight trekking through half of Italy in a slave caravan, and months of training in a gladiator ludus hadn't felled him. Yet one unexpected glimpse of Adiona's haunting visage in the stands of the arena had been enough to break his concentration and see him almost killed by arrows.
Dear God, what is wrong with me?
The question made him laugh, which made him groan as pain shot through his chest and bruised ribs. What wasn't wrong with him? In the last seven months he'd become infamia—disgraced, the lowest of the low. He'd lost his family, wealth, freedom, citizenship and reputation. Everything but his faith in Christ and that, he acknowledged, was hanging by a thread.
Whether he was being punished or tested like some other believers suggested, he knew he didn't need or want to be tempted by a vixen with an ability to sneak past his defenses and shred his self-control. No woman had ever done that, not even his wife.
He slammed the door on thoughts of Faustina. She was dead and memories of her filled him with guilt and eternal regret.
A solid blow jarred his wounded shoulder. "There's the mob's newest darling."
Quintus cracked open one eye. Alexius, the manager of the gladiator school, stood over him, a grin parting the Greek's swarthy face.
Rubbing the spot where he'd torn the arrow from his shoulder, Quintus pressed on the piece of cloth he'd used to cover the ragged flesh. "Was that necessary?" he asked, his tone as dry as dust.
"Of course. You don't think I'll go easy on you just because you're famous now, do you?"
"One lost battle isn't enough to make anyone remember my name."
"On the contrary." The tall Greek moved deeper into the small alcove. Pleased by the afternoon's events, he pulled up a stool and sat down. "Romans appreciate bravery above all else. The way you leaped on that elephant and protected your troupe… The whole city will know who you are by sundown."
Quintus grunted, unimpressed. "A lot of good it will do me if I bleed to death."
Alexius glanced at the arrow and growing ring of blood around the wound. "From that scratch? I doubt it."