Read an Excerpt
69 BC Baiae, the most luxurious and notorious seaside resort in the late Roman Republic
Alittle bit further to the harbour wall. That was all. She could hear the sound of the water lapping against it.
Silvana Junia forced her legs to kick. Her gown had started to slip from the belt and the sea-soaked linen curled about her thighs, imprisoning her, dragging her down.
The cries and splashing behind her had stopped a while back. Cotta and his henchmen had given up or decided she was drowned in the bay. She would have dearly loved to have seen his face when she jumped off his yacht. The evening had failed to go as she planned, but neither had it had the ending he intended.
Silvana made a wry face. From now on, she'd remember. Cotta was the enemy.
She gave one last vigorous kick. Her outstretched hand touched the rough concrete, and curled around a tiny handhold. She had made it. The gods were with her tonight. She had done it. Now to get out of the bay and back home.
The harbour wall loomed above her, too high to clamber up. Silvana glanced to her right. A single fishing boat bobbed only a few yards from her; next to it she saw the shadowy outline of a rope ladder. If she could get on the ship, then she could clamber up the ladder on to the wall and reach Baiae's promenade. Carefully she inched her way over. Her belt came loose and the skirts of her gown and under tunic billowed around her.
Silvana reached up and her fingers found a perch on the side of the boat. She allowed herself to hang there, half in and half out of the water, trying to get her breath back. How long had she been in the water? When she first dived in the bay, it hadfelt like ice, but now it was warmer than the hot pool at the Baths of Mercury.
very tired. The sea called to her exhaustion. She could float for ever in a dreamless sleep.
She stiffened. She would not let Cotta win this way. She wooden decking and her legs dangling. Salty water streamed off her honey blonde hair and dark blue gown. Her legs refused to move, but she tried again and rolled on to the boat with a loud squelch. Her breath stopped.
Was anyone on board? Had they heard her?
Silence except for the quiet lapping of the water against the boat.
The ladder hung tantalizingly close. She'd have to do it. Silvana summoned all her energy, rose and made a dash for it. Her hand closed around the rope. Underneath her, in the hold of the ship, came the sound of muffled voices.
Let them go back to sleep, she prayed. The last thing she needed was another scandal being linked to the name of the already notorious Silvana Junia. She had enough of those, both real and supposed, clinging to her stola. Crispus, her younger brother, had begged her in a tablet last Ides, no more scandals until he had secured a place as a junior tribune, and she'd agreed.
After what seemed like an age, the voices became quiet. Cautiously she began to climb, ignoring the way her gown dragged against her legs, pulling her back down. Her hand touched the top of the harbour wall.
She had done it!
A large scarred hand reached down and grabbed her wrist, held her fast, steadying her.
"You are safe. You have made it to the shore," a deep voice growled.
Silvana looked up and saw a figure bending over the wall. His legs seem to reach for ever and his tunic skimmed the mid-point of his thighs. His shoulders were broad, but his face was in shadow.
She moved her arm and he released it. With a final burst of energy, she scrambled up the remaining rungs of the ladder and over the harbour wall to the promenade.
"I am on dry land,"she said, looking towards where the pale villas rose with their ghostly white pillars, dark loggias and deep red roofs rather than at the man. "It is safer than the sea."
"That depends on who you are. If you are a nymph or maybe with hair like that a sea witch, the sea would be a better place,"the voice continued in its quiet way. Against all reason, the tone made her feel secure, as if her journey across the bay was nothing more than a bad dream.
Silvana pushed a strand of sea-soaked hair away from her face. Nymph? She had no illusions. Her current personal appearance was closer to a drowned water-rat than some mythical beauty. She had had enough insincere flattery to last a lifetime. And neither was she prepared to discuss her reasons for jumping into the bay with a stranger.
"I assure you, I am human." Silvana used her iciest voice. What she needed now was to get away from here, before the slaves and workmen started moving about, before anyone recognized her. She took a step towards the road.
"Then why were you doing a Venus rising from the sea?" The man blocked her way. "Not by choice I would imagine. Or are you practicing for some new entertainment to titillate the jaded palates of the inhabitants of Baiae?"
"It was the only option left to me," she said, throwing back her shoulders and standing upright. Even though she was considered a tall woman, her head did not even reach the height of his nose.
"You decided to take a moonlit swim dressed in your finest gown." The man tapped his fingers together. "I know Baiae is famed for many things but I had not heard of moonlight swimming matrons. Tell me—is it current fashion or are you trying to start a new trend?"
Silvana raised her chin a notch and stared into the angular shadows of his face. It was impossible to discern what sort of man he was. But the sort of man he was made no difference. She had no intention of ever seeing him again. After a warm bath, tonight would cease to be anything but a bad memory.
She squared her shoulders, preparing to push pass. "If you will excuse me, I need to return home. I have no wish to drip for longer than I absolutely must."
"It is dangerous to be out at this time of night…alone. I will escort you." His voice sent a chill down her spine. "Only thieves, robbers and others intent on harm populate this time." "And which are you—a thief or a robber?"
Silvana tried to make her voice sound carefree and unconcerned, but the words came out as a squeak.
The pounding of the surf echoed the pounding of her heart in her ears. To have come all this way only to lose her necklace and ring. It would be a fitting end to a sorry night.
Why had she ever attempted to negotiate with Cotta? She watched the broad shouldered man to see what he would do next. Would he be satisfied with her jewellery? "Tell me quickly—what is your intent?"
"Neither."The man gave a slight bow. "The name is Fortis and I intend on seeing you safely home. A woman should have a protector at this time of day.You will receive no harm from me."
Silvana's knees weakened and she stumbled forward. Her hands brushed his woollen cloak and his scent of sandalwood and something indefinably masculine tickled her nose before she righted herself and stood upright. It had been a long time since anyone, in particular a stranger, had been bothered about her safety. Mostly they were concerned with relating the latest juicy morsel about her doings.
"I know my way home. I am safe now that I am back on dry land."
"An honest man, Pio the fisherman, a client of mine, sleeps on that boat,"the man remarked conversationally but there was a hard edge to his voice, an edge that demanded answers.
Silvana froze, her foot briefly hanging in mid-air before she placed it again on the cold concrete with a loud thump. "I took nothing." Silvana turned her palms upwards. "And only touched those things that I had to. There was no other way. Now let me depart in peace."
"Will you swear that on the shades of your ancestors?" His hand reached out and caught her elbow. "Yes, I will swear it."
She stared down at his long fingers. Warmth traveled up believe her? He had to believe her.
Slowly, one by one, the fingers released her but he stood still. Silvana drew a breath in, waiting to see what this man's next move would be. With the weight of her gown, it would be foolish to run. She had to hope that the Fates had not determined on a cruel twist of their spindle—escaping from Cotta, only to be caught in the coils of a much more dangerous man.
"Now we go, sea witch." There was a hint of laughter in Fortis's voice. "You might stumble again or cut your feet. Shall I carry you?"
She refused to think what it would feel like to have that man's arms around her, holding her close to his chest. The seawater had affected her brain. She had no business, thinking thoughts like that.
"I can walk perfectly well." Silvana made her voice sound as haughty as possible. Of all the night's indignities, losing her slippers was the worst. She had been fond of those slippers and they were only a season old. She had to hope that they had remained on board and that Cotta would do the decent thing. It would be a first, but she refused to discount it. "Farewell, Fortis. Thank you for your concern."
"You're cold. Sea nymphs should not be cold."
He took off his cloak and, before she could utter a protest, placed it about her shoulders. The masculine scent of sandalwood and balsam enveloped her and held her. Warm. Intimate.
Silvana swallowed hard. She wanted to stay wrapped in this cloak. She listened to the soft sound of the waves hitting the beach. Her hands gripped the heavy wool. This cloak did not belong to a slave or a working man. In the moonlight his tunic shone a pale white with a dark purple band around the hem, again signalling that her would-be rescuer was no common working man.
But why wear a tunic and not dining clothes so late at night? Where was he traveling to? Or from?
Silvana glanced over her shoulder back to the inky black water. Had she been wrong to trust her instincts? "I will make the cloak wet." Numb with cold, her hands fumbled with the clasp.
"Leave the cloak where it is. It will dry." He gave a sardonic laugh. "I would hate for you to swim all this way, just to catch a chill."
"I will be fine."Silvana gave a series of sneezes, each louder than the last. "I am quite warm. It is May in Baiae, not December in Rome."
"Keep the cloak on."
Lucius Aurelius Fortis, lately a Queastor of Rome, was gratified to see this time the shivering woman obeyed, her fingers drawing the edges of the cloak tighter around her than he thought possible. Who refused the offer of a cloak?
Fortis considered the woman. She was too old to be in the first flush of youth. Despite her sodden hair and gown, she carried herself as if she was presiding over an exclusive dinner party in one of Baiae's private villas. Her necklace and earrings and the heavy embroidery on her gown proclaimed that her dip in the sea was unplanned. He reached out and tucked the cloak more firmly about her shoulders.
"You are uncomfortable receiving help from strangers." "I have discovered help comes with conditions." "There are no conditions here." She saw his teeth flash white in the moonlight. "Maybe one. I wanted to thank you for the view earlier. It is not often I chance upon a white limbed lovely rising from the sea."
His hands, rough with calluses, touched her cheek. Silvana compared them with Cotta's soft hands. She knew whose hands she trusted more. But the time was long past for trust. She had learnt through bitter experience—trust had too high a price.
"I thank you for the loan of your cloak." Silvana arranged I should return it."
"I will you see to your villa."His tone allowed for no refusal. Silvana blinked. How much did this man know about her? Had Fortis guessed who she was?
"How do you know I live in a villa?" "The necklace you are wearing could pay the rent on a flat for a year."
"It was a present from my late husband." Silvana inwardly made a face. She should never have worn it, not to a meeting with Cotta, her former stepson.What an irony that was. Cotta was five years older than herself. Why she had listened to her uncle and agreed to the meeting, she had no idea. She had known what Cotta was like, that he would offer no practical help.
"Are you ready to go? Standing here discussing jewellery will not get you out of your wet things any quicker."
Silvana glanced up and saw his dark eyes gazing down at her. Her breath stopped in her throat. He was standing so close and she was wrapped in his cloak. She knew nothing about Fortis, but it no longer mattered.
Silvana turned away and looked out at the darkened bay. Little lights were bobbing about. It was impossible to determine if those lights had anything to do with Cotta. She wondered if at least two of his chins had waggled after she had dived off his yacht. She gave a short laugh. "Are you going to tell me what is so amusing?" "I was thinking about my would-be companion for tonight." Silvana flipped a wet strand of hair back from her face. "He thought to have me at his mercy, but I escaped."
"And will he tell the tale around Baiae?" The concern was clearly written on his face. "Such a thing could ruin a woman's reputation."
Silvana tilted her head, considering Fortis's statement. What would he say if he knew her reputation was already ruined, ruined beyond repair? The little escapade was nothing compared to some of the stories she had heard whispered in the baths or seen scrawled on the walls. It was the price she paid for independence, and occasionally, at times like this, she wondered if it was worth it.
"No, no, he will come off far worse," she said with greater conviction than she felt. Who knew what Cotta was capable of? She had to hope that his overly puffed vanity stilled his tongue. "What sort of man wants to admit that a woman prefers the dark water of the bay to his embrace?"
"I will bow to your superior judgement, but it is time we were gone. Others will come here soon."
"I must be taking you away from something." "I have time to see you home." He spread his arms out. "Besides, how else can I ensure I get my cloak back? It is one of my favorites."
"You sound like you make a habit of rescuing women from the sea."Silvana peeped up at him from behind her curtain of hair.
"Not lately." "Then you have done this sort of thing before." "Have you?" "Of course not!"Silvana brought her head round and stared directly back at him. "You seem remarkably calm about it all. There are not many women of my acquaintance who would voluntarily jump off a boat, swim across a bay and then not be in a hysterical state afterwards."
"I am not home yet. No doubt it will hit me then," Silvana replied. "But I see no point in tears. I have to do the best with what I am given. And it was my choice to jump off the boat."
"Indeed—are you going to tell me whose boat?"
why someone so obviously wealthy would be watching the bay at this time of the night. Another shiver passed through her. She'd think about that later, after she had bathed and slept. Right now the important thing was for her to return home. "The name of the man makes no difference. I want to put the whole experience behind me. I came through unharmed, if a little damp."
She started to walk towards the road. Her foot came down awkwardly on a rock and she stumbled. His fingers caught her elbow and held her fast.
"I said I would see you home." The voice was silken, but she could hear the iron.
She moved her arm and his hand released her. "I can manage on my own."
"I made a promise to see you safely home. I keep my promises."