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Authors: Eva Scott

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BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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“Need to raise so much wealth at all. Clever plan.”

“Thank you,” said Lucius.

“Not your plan,” Alex laughed, “I meant the
lanista’s
plan. Clearly he’s coercing you into getting father to patron his flea-bitten gladiator school before he’ll give you an exorbitant price on the woman you love.”

“When did you get so clever?” Lucius asked.

“I’ve always been clever. You just never noticed before.” Alex shooed the slave away and set about adjusting the drape of his toga with long, elegant fingers. “Are you mad? This is a fool’s mission. Father will say no, of course. Then he’ll try to bully you into giving everything up to follow his plan for you. Before you know it, you’ll be a magistrate with an ugly wife and a brood of ungrateful children. Surely there’s another way?”

“Of course he’ll say no but I have to try. As for the ugly wife, I don’t plan to give him the opportunity to get a word in let alone marry me off.” Lucius offered his sister a wink and a smile as she glanced up at him, a frown furrowing her brow.

“Be sensible Lucius. Have you considered borrowing the money?”

“Who from exactly? I don’t know a single money lender who has the capability to fund such a loan at short notice.” He grabbed her hands and stilled them. “Thank you. I’m sure I look very handsome.”

Alex pulled her hands free and spun away. “You could approach some of the patricians. They have enough money.”

“Could you imagine father’s wrath the minute he heard about it? I might be foolish, reckless even, but I am not stupid. I could not go against father in such a public manner.” Lucius reached for his sister’s hand. “Why don’t you come with me? Father is always in a better mood when you’re around.”

Alex considered his request for a moment. Her blue eyes searching his for something, as if weighing up her decision based on what she saw in them. “I’ll come with you,” she said after a long moment. “I shall watch your back if you promise to watch mine.”

Moments later they were both out on the street, the heavy door to their mother’s villa slamming behind them, the bolt ramming home. A beefy slave accompanied them for security. While the streets of Rome were generally safe during daylight there were always instances of thievery and Olivia insisted they take her burliest slave for added protection.

“I like to walk,” said Alex as they made their way towards their father’s opulent villa. “Mother never lets me anymore. It’s the palanquin for me or nothing at all.” She adjusted the veil she wore over her head, holding the end of it with one hand to keep it in place.

“She’s only trying to protect you. A girl as pretty as you could end up in all sorts of trouble.” Lucius tucked her arm under his and guided her over the uneven stone street.

Alex pulled a face. “Father has ordered it to be so. I’m an investment in his political future. You know he has a husband picked out for me. Someone terribly
old
and ugly who can advance him in his political career.”

“Oh so cynical for one so young! Surely the gentleman in question is not that old.”

“Positively ancient! He’s older than father, Lucius! What am I going to do?” Alex threw up her hands in despair. “Father won’t listen to me and Mother won’t intervene.”

Lucius caught the desperation in his sister’s voice. His father had plans to use both of them to shore up his career, as was the right of a patriarch, yet the fact stung. “Look on the bright side, if your groom is as old as you say he may not survive the wedding night.” He patted her back in sympathy.

“Lucius! If you can’t say something intelligent about the situation, don’t say anything at all,” Alex said crossly. “I’m counting on you to help steer father in a more
pleasing
direction.”

“And in return?”

“I’ll use all my daughterly wiles to convince him he should become patron for your gladiator school.”

“Fair deal,” said Lucius as they turned the corner and came to the door of their father’s villa. “I’ll need all the help I can get.”

Their slave stepped up to the door and banged on it with a heavy fist. The gatekeeper opened a small window cut into the door and asked them to declare themselves. Lucius had forgotten how much the villas of Roman nobles looked like small fortresses from the outside—no windows graced the high walls and only the fortified door offered any entrance to the compound beyond. Recognising his master’s son and daughter the gatekeeper opened the door and bid them enter.

Once inside a house slave ushered them into the atrium to wait. Alex shrugged her veil off, the sheer pale green silk pooling about her shoulders. Lucius looked about him; it had been years since he’d graced his father’s home. He supposed he should be grateful the great Senator Decimus Aurelius openly recognised his bastard children, yet knowing the reason lay in the fact he could have no natural children with his wife made any gratitude Lucius might harbour both hard and brittle.

“Why Lucius Aurelius! What a pleasure to see you again.” The woman in question swept into the room rather like a hawk sweeping down on its prey. A cloud of cloying scent accompanied her and Lucius fought off the desire to cough. “You’re father will be pleased.”

“Claudia.” Lucius stood perfectly still while his stepmother pressed against him in an unnecessary manner.

She delivered a kiss on each of his cheeks and squeezed his arm. “My you have grown strong riding about in the wild. It suits you. Very
becoming
.”

“Hello Stepmother.” Alex all but pulled Claudia aside and hugged her with great enthusiasm. Claudia, caught off balance, gaped like a fish with surprise. Lucius shot his sister a wink of thanks. A man needed to be on his guard with Claudia who appeared to have no boundaries to speak of. Had she not been the niece of the Emperor he was sure his father would have divorced her by now. Or put her aside for Olivia.

“To what do we owe this honour?” Claudia recovered her equilibrium, patting her elaborately arranged hair back into place. Her wig towered over them all, row upon row of tightly coiled curls in a colour not Claudia’s own. Lucius wondered what poor soul had lost their locks to such a travesty.

“Lucius has come to talk to father.” Alex took control of both the conversation and her stepmother as she linked arms with Claudia and led her safe distance from Lucius.

“Clearly,” said Claudia, dryly. “It’s so unusual to see you in Rome, Lucius. What brings you here?”

The sweet tone of his stepmother’s voice didn’t fool Lucius. A woman of strong ambition and possessed of a ruthlessness a general would be proud of, Claudia always found a way to turn any situation to her advantage. Wisdom dictated he tread carefully.

“I’ve been away too long.” He smiled and opened his arms in what he hoped was a jovial, carefree gesture. Inside he felt anything but. “Just look at Alexandra. She’s gone from girl to woman. If I’d stayed away any longer she might have gone from mother to old crone before I knew where the time went.” His joke elicited a tight smile from Claudia and a rude gesture from his sister.

“Filial duty. How sweet.” Her tone of voice belied the fact she did not believe him. “Your father has missed you. Perhaps he can convince you to—”

“Convince him of what?” Senator Decimus Aurelius filled the room with his commanding presence. “Ah, Lucius my boy, wonderful to see you.” He crossed the room in two easy strides and embraced Lucius, kissing him on both cheeks and slapping him heartily on his back.

“Father,” said Lucius returning the gesture. Decimus had aged significantly in two years. His hair had thinned, causing him to adopt the dramatic, forward comb hair style of another balding politician—the legendary Julius Caesar. The unnatural hair style did nothing to detract from his aura of power and for a tiny moment nerves rumbled in Lucius’ stomach.

“How long are you back for? Permanently, I hope.” Decimus didn’t wait for an answer, turning his attention to summon a slave for refreshments. “Alexandra! I didn’t see you there. Come to talk over wedding details with your mother?” His smile was benign, seemingly unaware of the inflammatory effect of his words on his daughter.

Lucius watched Alex carefully. The struggle to hold her tongue was clear on her face as she grappled with her anger. He shot her a wink and she closed her eyes, exhaled, before pinning a smile on her face and engaging her father.

“Why father, we haven’t even begun to plan yet. Have we Clau…
Mother
?” She leaned over and gave Claudia’s hand a squeeze as if the two were the best of friends. Lucius had no doubt it was Claudia’s neck Alex was thinking of squeezing.

“This is an important allegiance. I have no doubt, ladies, you will do the name of Aurelius justice.” Both Claudia and Alex smiled and bowed their heads in acknowledgment of Decimus’ words. “Now if you’ll excuse us, I would like to speak to my son.” The women rose in a rustle of silk and a swirl of perfume, leaving the room without another word.

Decimus turned his attention to Lucius, regarding him for a long moment with a smile on his noble face. His eyes took in the toga Lucius wore and his short hair. No doubt the old man believed his son was transforming into the perfect Roman. Lucius swallowed hard.
That
illusion would be shattered the minute he explained what he was here for.

“So, how is business?” Decimus sat on an exquisitely carved chair, the arms inlaid with semi precious stones.

“Good enough.” Lucius remained standing and wondered if he should take a seat or wait for his father to offer one.

Decimus waved him towards a chair of lesser elegance and he sat, careful to keep his toga folded correctly.

“I assume you’ve come home to settle down.” It was more a statement than a question. A slave entered with wine. Lucius waited while the man poured two cups and left.

“I have some business I must attend to and then I suspect I will return to my endeavours.” He took a mouthful of wine, much better quality than the stuff served at the gladiator school. No surprise there! The cool liquid slipped down his throat and warmed his blood, giving him the gift of confidence. “I have come to offer you a proposition.”

Decimus’ eyebrows shot skyward. “Really? Pray tell.”

This was the moment. Lucius swallowed hard. He had to get the wording just right or face a definite refusal from his father. “I’ve done quite well in my ventures,” he began.

Decimus winced. “You know I find your involvement in trade is both vulgar and ridiculous.”

Lucius bowed his head in acknowledgment of Decimus’ view, a point often laboured. “Be that as it may, Father, I am very successful at what I do. Clearly I won’t be able to continue in the trading business forever. I want to invest some money here in Rome towards my future, for the time I will
settle down
.”

His father’s face brightened at the words. Decimus leaned forward in his eagerness. “Finally you’ve come to your senses. I have waited for this day—”

Lucius held up his hand. “Father, please. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is only a step towards the future.”

Decimus waved away the protest as if swatting at a fly. “I’m pleased you came to me to speak of investments. I shall have my–”

“Father.” If he didn’t rein Decimus in now he’d be committed to some course of action at odds with his purpose. “I know where I want to invest my coin. There’s a gladiator school called—”

This time Decimus was the one to interrupt. “A
gladiator school
? You can’t possibly be thinking about buying such an establishment.” He laughed as if it was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard.

Annoyance surged through Lucius and he struggled to contain it. “No,” he said trying to keep his voice as even as possible. “I do not want to buy a
luda
. I want to purchase gladiators.”

“Gladiators?” Decimus rose out of his seat. “What a foolhardy venture! This must be your mother’s influence.” He began to pace back and forth across the room.

“My mother has no knowledge of what I’m proposing.”

Decimus spun around, his index finger extended. “She doesn’t need to know. Her blood flows in your veins making you behave like…like a…”

“A barbarian?” Lucius suggested. He couldn’t help himself, the desire to goad his father overrode common sense. Watching Decimus build to a rage gave him great satisfaction.

“Yes! A barbarian!” Decimus exploded. “Instead of a proper Roman. What on earth do you want with gladiators? They are expensive toys and the games are a grubby business.”

“Perhaps, but the winnings can be extraordinary and the people love the games. Think of the prestige and admiration you’d win as a Senator if you involved yourself in my venture.” Lucius spoke fast—probably too fast—betraying his desperate need as his one opportunity began to slip through his fingers. With a man as cunning as Decimus, one had to keep a cool demeanour and not give too much away.

“Prestige? What are you suggesting Lucius? That my popularity needs boosting?” Decimus stood perfectly still, his tone icy.

“Of course not, Father. Everyone knows you are elite amongst the Senators of Rome. I doubt there is a single one more popular than you.” Back peddling, Lucius hated himself for fawning yet what else could he do? If he alienated Decimus now Klara was as good as lost. “I was merely suggesting you consider the wisdom of shoring up popularity for the future. Roman politics is a dirty game and there are those who would tear you down in an attempt to usurp your place.”

Decimus considered Lucius with sharp eyes as if searching for any hint of mockery. Lucius schooled his face into one of earnest filial loyalty all the time praying to Jove his father would listen.
Please, please, please…

The thought of never holding Klara tightly against him, feeling the warmth of her body, the beat of her heart against his, shot through him with icy pain. His father must listen. He must help.

Finally, Lucius prayers were answered. “You may have a point,” Decimus conceded carefully. “Yet I am not convinced I wish to sully my name with an association to
gladiators
.” He spat the last word out as if he were referring to night soil or sewer rats.

“Gladiatrices, actually,” Lucius said quietly.

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
9.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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