The following excerpt is unedited and may differ from the final format and/or published work.
BEST of the BEST PRISM Award
BOOK 3 — The Order of the Sicari series
|Book 1 — Assassin’s Honor||Book 3 — Inferno’s Kiss|
|Book 4 — The Praetorian (Coming Soon)|
A Year Ago, Chicago
Lysander woke to screams. Pain was the next signal he was still alive. The cut on his thigh ached with the force of a charging bull ramming a horn into him. The screams intensified. They sounded like an animal’s high-pitched squeals of terror and pain. His gut twisted. Dominic? Or Peter? He instantly reached out with his mind, and tried to figure out how many Praetorians were in the other room. Not a single emotion or thought.
Christus, how long had he been out? His telepathic ability had never been that strong, but at least he should have been able to know how many of the bastardi were out there. A salty taste on his tongue said his mouth was full of blood. He spit it out onto the floor and opened his eyes. The darkened room was not much bigger than a storage room. Nylon rope bound his wrists, pulling his arms up over his head in a painful stretch. He tugged on his restraints gently.
Merda, he hurt. How long had he been hanging here? The screams on the other side of his prison’s door rose on a wild crescendo until they died down to low piteous cries. Praetorians had developed their torture skills during the Inquisition. Technology had just updated those skills. A cold, vicious bite of unfamiliar emotion tried to surge through him. He suppressed it.
No one survived Praetorian torture sessions, and the remains of the Sicari he’d seen said they’d died an agonizing death. He closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to shut out those gruesome images. Think about something else. Phaedra. The ugly emotion building inside him eased slightly. Deus, she had a gorgeous mouth. And her hair. Soft as silk. Threading his fingers through that dark silk last night . . . last night. He winced as grief lashed at him. Maybe the Elysium Fields would let him recreate those incredible moments with her as often as he wanted.
Beside him, a soft whimper of fear forced him to turn his head. Marta. A few feet away, he saw his healer tied to the wall. Praise Jupiter, at least she was still alive. In the next breath, he remembered what happened to healers. Guilt gnawed at him with savage glee.
“I’m scared, Lysander.” The terror in her voice almost made him give in to his own fear.
“I know, cara.”
“They took Peter first.”
It was a simple statement, meant only to inform, but it sent more guilt slicing through him. This was his fault. He should have known something was wrong the minute they entered the warehouse.
“Let it go, Lysander. You’re not to blame.” Her forgiveness ate away at him, but he ignored it.
“We’re getting out of here.” His fingers explored the knot of nylon holding his wrists together in a painful grip. Sailor’s knot. Immediately, he visualized the rope slipping apart in opposite directions until it released him. Nothing happened. In the near darkness, he saw Marta turn her head toward him.
“It won’t work.” The word was a quiet sigh of defeat. “They gave the three of you some type of drug to suppress your telekinetics. Dominic tried to free himself all the way up to the last minute, but he couldn’t. We’re going to die here.”
No. The Praetorians wouldn’t let her die. She was breeding stock.
He buried the thought and returned his attention to the rope holding him hostage. Closing his eyes, his fingers helped him memorize the way the rope was tied. The screams in the other room gained momentum again, and almost as if they came from a distance, he heard Dominic’s thoughts. A whisper more than anything else. Nothing clear. The drug had to be wearing off. But would it wear off in time to get him and Marta out of here?
The thought heightened his desperation to free himself. There wasn’t anything he could do for his friend, but maybe he could get Marta out of here. Save her from a fate worse than what he would end up enduring. Even knowing that didn’t make it easy to shut out the screams.
Almost as if she could read his thoughts, her fear vibrated through the room like an instrument being played with a wild fury. It reinforced his belief that his abilities were returning. He focused his attention on the knot, concentrating hard on mentally undoing the twisted fibers.
Dominic’s screams grew louder—bouncing off the walls of the room at a frightening level. A sickening dread clawed at him. Concentrate. His friend was as good as dead. He had to focus on getting Marta out of this torture chamber. Overhead, he felt a slight movement in the rope.
Triumph rolled through him. He wanted to tell Marta, but he didn’t. It would be cruel to raise her hopes only to see them crushed if he didn’t succeed in time. The thought made him work harder. The rope nudged its way free a tiny bit more. In the back of his mind, he heard Phaedra’s voice whispering encouragement.
He was certain it was a figment of his imagination, but it bolstered his courage in a way nothing else could. He’d be damned if he was going to lose her, just when he’d found her. He turned his attention back to the rope, only to sense what seemed to be Phaedra’s fears for him. Impossible. He knew full well it was simply his mind compensating for the pressure he was under right now. The mind did strange things when it was under stress.
Once more, he focused on the rope, blocking out everything but the nylon knot. After several minutes, the mental drain made him ease up on his concentration. Christus, this was almost as hard as when he’d taken Cleo’s dare as a kid to unlock the cabinet holding the Order’s sacred Assent of Office parchments. This time his failure wouldn’t be the Indictio. And right now, he’d willingly take on that hard labor. He visualized the rope’s knot unraveling when a sudden shift in emotions echoed in the back of his head. Dominic’s shrill screams swelled even louder in the small prison then abruptly went silent. A dark emotion slithered through his veins.
The minute Marta said his name, he turned his head toward her. The resignation on her face filled him with rage, guilt, and fear. He’d failed. He was going to die, and Marta—he shut down the images of what she was going to endure.
“I’m still here, cara.”
“I know,” he said hoarsely.
He frantically pictured the knot above his head falling open, releasing him from its hold. When that didn’t work, base animal instinct took over, and he sawed at the nylon with his wrists in a hopeless effort to free himself.
“I won’t let them breed me,” she whispered, almost as if consoling herself. “I’ll find a way to keep that from happening.”
“Fotte,” he roared as the door to their prison flew open.
Blinded by the sudden light streaming into the room, he stretched out with his thoughts to determine how many Praetorians there were. Two. Fear and rage swelled inside him as he continued to saw at the rope with his wrists. Someone rushed at him and his last thought was of Phaedra before the light in the room blinked out.
He awoke to find himself in restraints on a hard surface, his head locked into place by a leather strap. The rafters directly above him said he was still in the warehouse. The soft clink of metal tools hitting against each other made him want to turn toward the sound, but he couldn’t. A quiet chuckle echoed in his mind, and he instinctively threw up a shield against the mental probe.
“Do you have a name, Unmentionable?”
The pleasant tone of the man’s voice didn’t ease the sudden fear crawling across his skin. It increased it. He closed his eyes and tried to stem the emotion that threatened to drown him. No. He couldn’t give in to the terror. It would drain his ability to keep this bastardo out of his head. He swallowed hard and tried to focus on something pleasant. Something the Praetorian couldn’t use against him. Flowers. When was the last time he’d bought flowers for someone? The thought was idiotic, but he could sense the Praetorian’s irritation as his mental barrier kept the man from probing deeper.
“Come now, Unmentionable. Tell me your name.”
“Why? It doesn’t really matter, does it?” An image of Phaedra slipped past the shield.
“Not really, but it does personalize the experience.” There was a note of amusement in the man’s voice that said he’d seen Phaedra. It sent a bolt of rage through him.
“I’m sure it does,” he snarled as he opened his eyes to meet the flat gaze of the Praetorian. He rolled saliva and blood around in his mouth and spat it at the man. “Lysander Condellaire, Primus Pilus of the Order of the Sicari, son of Aurelia and Massimo Condellaire.”
“A Primus Pilus. I’m honored.” The man pretended to brush off a fleck of the spit that had not even come close to him. “It’s not often I have a First Spear to administer redemption to. I am Nicostratus. Your judge and jury. As a heretic, you may repent at any time.”
He didn’t answer. Something said this bastardo liked to talk to his victims, and he wasn’t going to give the son of a bitch that satisfaction. In fact, he was going to fight hard not to give the man any kind of response, no matter how bad—a red-hot needle of pain scraped its way across his skin. He nearly bit his tongue off to keep from screaming out loud.
Instead, he dug his fingers into his palms, and his body jerked violently against his restraints. It was impossible to escape the needle’s persistent fire or the excruciating pain. When it stopped, he found himself breathing raggedly with relief—ready to sob. A moment later, his body bucked hard against the straps holding him down.
Ever so slowly, the skin on his face gave way to the man’s cruel touch. Nerve endings sent horrifying signals to his brain at their sudden exposure to the air. He almost wept from the pain, but swallowed the cries he wanted to let loose.
“You’re a brave man, Condellaire. It’s not often I encounter an Unmentionablecapable of holding back his cries when I strip his skin.”
Lysander opened his eyes and he choked on a rush of bile as Nicostratus showed him a strip of flesh dangling from a pair of small forceps. He swallowed the bitter fluid in his throat, but not before a wave of helplessness crashed over him. The emotion sent him spiraling down into a dark place where he wanted to hide from what was happening to him. No sooner did he hit the bottom of that hellish pit than he fought back. He bucked his body against his restraints.
“Fotte you, you Praetorian bastardo,” he mumbled, each word more agonizing than the last as the movement of his lips tugged at the exposed muscles on his cheek. In his mind, he visualized his fist driving itself into the man’s face.
His effort was rewarded by Nicostratus’s head flying backward from the invisible punch. In less than two seconds, the man recovered and quickly reached for something on the tray next to the table. Needle in hand, the Praetorian pushed up Lysander’s sleeve and proceeded to inject him with something.
“You’re stronger than I thought. But this should keep you in check,” Nicostratus said with just a hint of anger. The man started to push Lysander’s sleeve down but stopped. “Well now, what have we here? A birthmark?”
The man’s voice was coaxing in a way that sent an icy sensation creeping over Lysander’s skin. An instant later, the exposed nerve endings on his cheek lit up in a bitter blast of fiery pain. Christus, the Praetorian was patting him on his exposed muscle. He fiercely bit down on the groan rising in his chest. When he didn’t answer, the man made a small noise that indicated curiosity.
“Tell me, Condellaire, did your mother ever explain where this mark comes from?”
“My father, you bastardo.”
“Your father. I see.”
A whisper of sound drifted through his head. The son of a bitch was trying to read his mind again. Desperately, he fought to fortify the shield around his thoughts and filled his head with nonsensical images. Anything to block the man’s probe. He would not let his mind betray the guild or the Order. The Praetorian’s thoughts strengthened in an effort to dig deeper.
Lysander shored up the fragile wall he’d built inside his head with images of his mother. Determination and willpower helped him to pull every memory of his mother he could find inside him. The Praetorian chuckled. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. Rather it encouraged the helplessness that had taken root in his stomach and spread through every muscle in his body.
The man’s mental probe withdrew and Lysander’s muscles shuddered into a limp state, his ability almost on the edge of failure. Christus, he couldn’t fail. He wouldn’t give this bastardo that satisfaction. The sound of metal against metal told him the carving was going to begin anew. Eyes closed and fists clenched tightly, he locked his jaw in preparation for the fiery needle to carve its way into his skin again.
“This is for not knowing me, boy.”
Puzzled by the statement, the tension in his body eased just before the laser hit his skin. One thin stream of fire after another flew across his eye in an X pattern. Deep in the back of his mind, he started to sob from his inability to save his friends or himself from this hell. He was powerless, and the knowledge crushed him. Somewhere he heard the sound of screaming, and he realized it was him as the laser continued its terrible path across his cheek. He sank into the pit.
When he came to, he immediately wished he could crawl back into oblivion. He automatically opened his eyes, and the action shot a bolt of lightning deep into the back of his head as his eyelid pried itself off his seared eyeball. It pulled another roar of pain from him. Nicostratus laughed.
“Now then, my son. We need to talk as we don’t have much time.”
“Just end it, you sorry fotte.” The pain it cost him to speak made him slide toward the dark edge of the abyss, and he closed his eyes again.
“I’m not going to end it, Lysander. I couldn’t kill my own son.” The words ripped through him with the same painful force of the laser the man had used on him. This son of a bitch wasn’t just insane, he was sadistic.
“Merda di toro.”
“No, it’s true. I’m as surprised as you are. And I find it interesting that no one told you about your mother and me. We had a . . . well, let’s say she resisted my charms.”
Pain made his thoughts sluggish. Resisted. Was the bastardo saying he’d raped his mother? Not possible. The man was taunting him in an effort to break him down. The Praetorian made one more attempt to break the last defensive wall he’d built around the Order’s strategic information. Unable to think straight, an image of Phaedra filled his head, and he clung to the memory of the night before. Nicostratus made an insulting noise.
“Ah, yes, that reminds me of how I fucked your mother. If I’d known she was ready to breed, I would have taken her with me.”
“You’re a liar.” Each word sent fire shooting up into his brain; it took him a moment to realize he was sobbing the words.
“No, my boy. Take a look.”
Lysander tried to keep his eyes closed, but fingers pinched his eyelid, forcing open the only eye he had left. He stared at the mark on Nicostratus’s arm. Immersed in agony, he couldn’t focus. Despite his uncertainty as to what he was really looking at, he wanted to throw up. Deep inside him, a vague thought registered the image, but he refused to believe it. He tried to shake his head.
“What?” he whispered, barely able to speak.
“Look closer, Lysander. It’s proof I’m your father.”
“A mark?” He closed his eye, praying for oblivion. Fingers pinched his eyelid again.
“The eagle. Do you see it?”
He groaned as he blinked and focused on the mark the man had on his arm. The bastardo had lost it. That mark wasn’t an eagle—it was a bird. His mark was an eagle. His mother had said it belonged to his father.
“Your’s . . . bird. Not . . . eagle.” He barely got the words out as he hovered on the brink of consciousness.
“Look again, boy.”
Suddenly, there were two arms with matching eagles in almost identical spots thrust in front of him. They blurred. He was seeing double, that’s all. The helplessness reached his heart, tearing it apart like a rabid animal. He stared, his mind trying to comprehend what he was seeing.
“No.” He didn’t have the strength to shout, and the Praetorian laughed.
“But of course it’s true. I knew the minute I probed your mind. How else do you explain your extraordinary ability to resist my repeated probes for information? A true Sicari might show some resistance to me, but they would not be as strong as you.” Nicostratus made a soft sound of amused disapproval.
“Not true,” he rasped then roared with pain as the Praetorian bastard lightly tapped his skinned cheek again.
“You would have made a fine Praetorian, my boy. Your ability to defy the pain you’re in is exceptional.”
The laser hit his skin again from his ear down to his jaw. The pain pulled a pitched scream of agonized terror from him, and he fell backward into a black pool of nothingness—his last thought was of ancient Rome and Phaedra running to meet him. He was home again.
He had no idea how long he’d been out, but when he awoke, everything was silent and dark. Was it nighttime in the Elysium Fields? He tried to sit up. The slight movement sent fire streaking through every cell in his body. He started to cry. The Praetorian had left him here to die. Alone. His own son.
He grew still with horror. He wasn’t Sicari. He was Praetorian. The obscene thought pulled a cry of denial from him. His mind hovered on the brink of despair. Impossible. It couldn’t be true. But they shared the same birthmark. The whisper of truth curled through his head. He wouldn’t believe it. The bastardo was lying. A teardrop rolled over his skinned cheek, and it pulled a sob of anguish from him.
“Fotte. Fotte. Fotte.”
It was a roar of fear and helplessness, as well as a cry of agony. More tears flowed over his bared muscles, until the pain sent him back to that dark place again.
Voices filtered their way down into the pit, and he shuddered with terror. They’d come back for him. Like a wild animal anticipating more torture, he tugged at his restraints, ignoring the fire that consumed his body. He wouldn’t be able to keep the son of a bitch out of his head this time. He heard running feet, and then he smelled the soft scent of a woman. Marta?
“Dulce matris Deus.” Cleo leaned over him, her cool hand brushing across his forehead. Horror widened her eyes as she stared down at him. In the next instant, she spoke into her mike. “Lysander’s alive, but I don’t know for how much longer. He needs the Curavi. Now.”
He couldn’t hear the response she got, but a sudden image of Phaedra filled his head. She was here. A subtle warmth filled him as her fear and worry for him whispered sweetly across his mind. Deus, he needed her right now. Needed to feel her touch. Her hand in his, her healing—no.
The sound of feet pounded on the warehouse floor once more, and first Ares then Phaedra came into view. He’d never seen a more beautiful, yet terrifying, sight in his entire life. He couldn’t take part in seeing her lovely face marred by his injuries. Couldn’t let her see the monster inside him. Terror lanced through him as she reached for his hand. Tormented, he tugged at the restraints. If she touched him—tried to heal him, she’d see him for what he was. He couldn’t let that happen. Couldn’t let her perform the Curavi.
“No. No Curavi.”
Cleo clamped down on his arm. “Christus, he’s out of his mind with pain.”
“For the love of God, Cleo. Tighten those restraints.” Panic laced through Phaedra’s voice. “I can’t heal him if he’s fighting me. I’ll heal the lesser injuries first. Then we can transport him. When we’re home, I’ll . . . I’ll do what I can for his other wounds.”
He saw her swallow hard and recognized her fear. The idea of her taking on his injuries was a nightmare, but he knew without a doubt that when she touched him she’d be able to see all the darkness inside him. He was too weak to keep her locked out of his thoughts if she touched him. She’d see. She’d see everything because the pain was too horrible to prevent her from learning the truth.
“No,” he roared. “No Curavi.”
The strength of his voice echoed loudly in the room, and he heard Ares utter a vicious curse while Cleo grasped his hand in a death grip. Fear and horror darkened Phaedra’s eyes as she bent over him. Her mouth brushed across the ear on his unmarked cheek.
“Let me do this for you, carino,” she whispered in a sweet, gentle voice. “I’m not afraid.”
“No. Refuse the Curavi.”
He tried to shake his head as he forged through the pain and ground out the words forcefully. Couldn’t let her see. Her parents’ murder . . . hated Praetorians . . . couldn’t bear her hatred. He felt himself slipping off into oblivion and climbed up the cliff back into the pain. She’d heal him without his permission if he didn’t protest.
“Listen, you dumb son of a bitch.” Cleo’s voice was harsh. “You let Phaedra heal you or I’m going to rip you a new one. You hear me?”
“No . . . dead already.” And he was. He was Praetorian, and if anyone found out . . . he’d rather die.
“Give me your hands, Lysander. With your permission, I must touch you to heal your injuries.” There was a frantic desperation in Phaedra’s voice, but it only made him clench his hands into tight fists.
“I. Refuse. Curavi.”
His voice wasn’t loud, but it was strong and determined. He heard someone nearby release a vicious sound. Ares. His Legatus forcefully pushed Cleo aside to grip his arm.
“Take the goddamn Curavi, you sorry bastardo,”his guild leader ordered in a fierce voice.
Something wet hit his unscarred cheek and his gaze shifted from Ares to Phaedra. In the dim light, he could see tears clinging to her lashes. He wouldn’t hurt her. Wouldn’t let her see he was everything she hated. He loved her too much. He couldn’t let her see that or his shame. He released a sob of pain.
“Is. My. Right. Refuse. Curavi.” Each word was a labor of effort to say.
“No,” Phaedra exclaimed violently. “I’m not about to let you die, you dumb bacciagalupe. Ares, make him take the Curavi.”
“No. My. Right.” He hovered on the edge of light and dark.
“I can’t, Phaedra. If he’d been unconscious, it wouldn’t be a problem, but he’s refused. There’s nothing I can do.” Ares’s voice was fierce with disgusted anger.
“Please, Lysander. Don’t refuse me.” His cheek grew wet as Phaedra bent over him, her mouth against his ear. Her hand bit into his arm and he felt a pulse of energy as she pleaded with him. “Don’t try to save me from the pain. Let me save you. I want to do this for you. I don’t want you to die.”
The heat in her hand grew stronger, and a roar built in his chest. With a wild cry, he bucked against the restraints holding him in place. Restraints that proved he’d been powerless against the Praetorian, but he wasn’t helpless anymore. He had the right to refuse the Curavi. And for her sake, he wasn’t about to let her heal him.
“Get the fuck away from me. I don’t want your goddamn healers touch. I refuse Curavi.” The blast of words made him pay a dear price as a cloak of needles wrapped itself around him, digging into every part of his body. He saw the agony flare in her beautiful brown eyes, and deep inside a voice cried out for her. The only thing that kept him from taking his words back was the darkness welling up inside him. He was Praetorian. There was nothing that could change that. But it was his secret. A truth he couldn’t share with anyone, not even the woman he loved.
Demetri. Phaedra awoke with a start. She’d been dreaming again. No, more of a nightmare, because she’d been scared. The fragments of the dream were like dark tendrils she recognized but couldn’t really see. The only thing she remembered clearly was that she’d been in ancient Rome. Lysander had been there as well, but how or why, she couldn’t remember. It wasn’t the first time she’d had this type of dream. But it had never made her feel this disoriented and scared before.
Even her bed felt wrong. She shot upright. It wasn’t her bed. It was a sleeper chair in Lysander’s hospital room. A quick glance at her watch said she’d been asleep about two hours. That made for a total of about four hours in the last thirty-six. Her ability was always weaker when she didn’t get enough sleep or if she drank too much. And she wasn’t sure her touch would be strong enough to help Lysander if he woke up, let alone if he actually agreed to her performing the Curavi this time.
Her gaze focused on the still figure in the hospital bed, and the soft sound of the heart monitor filled her ears as if it were a booming church bell. Between his internal injuries, sword wounds, and the side of his face stripped of skin, he was lucky to be alive. Bandages covered most of his face, while she could see the black sutures on his lower lip. A white sheet and blanket covered the rest of his visible injuries.
An overwhelming need to touch him swept through her, and she left her chair to move toward the bed. She brushed her fingers through his short blond hair. He looked so helpless, something she instinctively knew he’d hate. He shouldn’t be here. He should be completely healed.
She closed her eyes for a brief moment. Why had he refused the Curavi? What had possessed him to reject her healer’s touch? The only answer she could think of was that he didn’t want her to suffer what he had. He’d been afraid for her. A tear slid down her cheek. Didn’t the man understand she was willing to go to the depths of Tartarus for him?
The delicate creak of the room’s heavy oak door drew her attention away from Lysander as she saw Ares enter the room. She immediately averted her head, and with a furtive swipe of her hand, she dried her damp cheek. A strong hand clasped her shoulder, forcing her to turn around.
“I just talked to the doctor. He’s going to be okay,” Ares said. “He can have plastic surgery to eliminate most of the damage.”
The words eased some of her fear, but not all of it. He’d been through a Praetorian torture session. Something few Sicari had ever survived. The physical trauma was repairable, but the emotional toll it extracted was high. A large number of survivors had deliberately thrown themselves into combat situations where there was no hope of survival. The thought of that happening to Lysander terrified her.
“Hey, you don’t have to stay here,” Ares said gently.
“No,” she whispered and looked at the wall clock. “There may still be time. It’s not been quite twenty hours since we found him. There’s still a four hour window. It might be enough.”
She’d not explained her reasons for coming with Lysander to the Order’s central headquarters in Genova, Italy, but Ares had agreed to her demand without any objection. Her brother probably thought she was hoping to convince Lysander to accept the Curavi once he woke. Doctors could repair his face, but she was the only one who might be able to give him back his sight, and there wasn’t any guarantee she could do that for him. But there was a window of time for healing wounds hardly ever extended past twenty-four hours. The longer the time frame, the less likely the Curavi would work. Ares frowned at her.
“Phae, you’re the best healer the Order has, but the odds are he’s already past the turning point, and not even you can heal him then.”
“Maybe, but I need to at least try.” She shook her head at her brother’s exasperated expression.
“If Lysander rejected the Curavi when he was close to dying, what makes you think he’d accept it now?”
“I don’t, but if he wakes up in time, I have to try.” She didn’t look at Ares. Instead, she turned away from the bed and went to stand at the sliding glass door.
Designed with an eye toward a patient’s physical and spiritual needs, the secluded and fortified hospital gave the Order’s patients access to sunshine and fresh air as part of their recovery process. A large garden stretched its way outward from the small patio adjoining Lysander’s room. In the early morning light, the beauty outside was a stark contrast to the pain and darkness she knew Lysander was experiencing.
Deus, she hated the bastardi who’d done this to him. For almost two thousand years, the Praetorians had hunted the Sicari. At one time, the Sicari had been a part of the Praetorian Guard. Like their enemy, they’d served as bodyguards to the Caesars of ancient Rome, they’d had wealth, position, and power. But the Guard had split at the time of Constantine I, and those in power had cast out a select group of brothers. They labeled the outcast Sicari. Assassins.
They called the Sicari heretics, and yet like vermin they were, the Praetorians hid from the world behind the robes of the Carpenter’s church. Using the banner of righteousness, they’d sought to exterminate the Sicari, inflicting terrible atrocities on her people as well as the innocent. A soft groan drifted through the air to pierce her thoughts. She whirled around to see Ares move quickly to the bed, his hands on the bed rail, bending over his friend.
“Hey, how you feeling, amici?”
“Like stronzo.” Lysander’s voice was so soft she had to strain to hear him.
“Yeah, well you could be feeling a lot worse,” Ares joked. From where she was standing at the door, she saw Lysander suddenly grab her brother’s hand.
The one word question was little more than a hiss of air, and she saw Ares struggle to come up with an answer. They’d found Dominic and Peter, but the Sicari woman was gone. Marta would live, but in a living hell. The Praetorian bastardi would rape her constantly both for physical pleasure and in an effort to impregnate her. Any children Marta bore would be taken from her. The males raised in the Praetorian Collegium and the females murdered. The woman would have been better off dying in that warehouse. Without hesitating, she went to the opposite side of the bed.
“They took her,” she said, hating herself for it. She should have lied to him, but he would eventually learn the truth. Stretching out her hand, she lightly touched him on the shoulder. With a violent jerk, he retreated from her hand.
“No.” His dark growl was fierce and intense.
“Take it easy, pal.” Ares gently grasped the warrior’s arm. “It’s just Phae. You’re safe here.”
He didn’t say her name, but she knew he meant her, and the demand sent pain slicing through her until she swayed on her feet. Fingers wrapped tightly around the cold metal of the bedside rail, she met his gaze with her heart pounding like mad in her chest. Something wasn’t right. She could almost feel the erratic swell of his emotions crawling across her skin. It was unlike anything she’d ever experienced before. Nothing was truly discernible except the bleak darkness that consumed him. Wild and thrashing, it was frightening in its intensity.
Deus, it would eat him alive if he didn’t release it. It wasn’t unusual for her to feel or see emotions or images when she healed someone. If she healed him, he might be able to release some of the dark emotion inside him through her. The thought of taking on that horrifying darkness sent a streak of terror slithering down her spine like a serpent poised to strike. She shuddered. It didn’t matter. She could do this. She could do it for him.
“Ares, leave us.” Her soft command whispered across the bed, and Lysander almost managed to jerk upright.
“No.” This time his objection was stronger, more forceful. Determined to get him to agree to the Curavi, she glared down at him.
“Lie back down, you dumb bacciagalupe. You’re going to rip out some stitches or worse, your IV,” she snapped fiercely. “Ares, get the hell out of here, now.”
The furious response silenced both men, and without another word, Ares left the room. Alone with Lysander, she held on to the metal bar of the bed guard for dear life and stared down at the stranger in the hospital bed. Her voice died in her throat at his granite expression. Dolce matris Deus, what had they done to him, and would she survive the knowledge?
“Leave, Phaedra.” Cold and detached, the command made her flinch.
“Not until you let me try to heal you.” She fought to keep her voice steady, yet resolute. “There might still be a chance I can—”
“You don’t know when to give up do you?” His voice was husky with pain, but there was an odd note in his voice that had her nerve endings standing on end.
“No. Not if I believe I can help you.”
“I don’t want your help.” He shifted in the bed slightly, a grunt breaking past his lips. She had to stiffen her body to keep from reaching out to touch him.
“I know you’re worried about my pain, but it comes with the territory. I promise you, I won’t melt.” Her words tugged a soft laugh from him. It was a cruel sound, and it made her flinch.
“Stop trying so hard, Phaedra. There’s no need to get sentimental on me.” The chiseled expression on his face didn’t reveal anything. “We both know you can’t give me back my eye.”
“You don’t know that, and we won’t find out if you don’t at least let me try.”
“Why?” she gasped. “Because I want you whole again.”
“You want me whole again.” He repeated her words with a sarcasm that cut deep.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
She grabbed his forearm in anger. He knew damn well what she was trying to say. She wanted to erase the horror he’d endured. She wanted to try and ease the darkness she sensed in him. Free him from the inner pain that was gnawing at him like a mad dog. An invisible pressure pried her fingers off his arm.
“Look, all I want is you out of this room and away from me,” he said in a disgusted voice.
She shivered. He was hurt. That was all. He’d seen the horror on her face last night. He knew what a healer went through during the Curavi. He had to have known that first sight of him had triggered fear. It was why he’d refused her touch. It’s why he was rejecting her now. He was looking for a reason to get rid of her. But she wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
“Christus, do you really think it matters to me what you look like?” She smacked the cold stainless steel barrier between them with desperate fury. “I don’t give a damn what you look like as long as I’m with you.”
Her words hung in the air for a long minute as he just stared at her, his expression slowly easing into one of amusement. It sent a wild streak of fear winding through her.
“With me?” His snort of laughter held a note of cold cruelty that made her clutch at the bed rail in a frantic effort to stop her trembling.
“Yes, the other night . . .” Her voice trailed off for a second as a sneer tugged at his mouth and his eyebrow went skyward. When he didn’t speak, she stumbled forward. “I thought that . . . you and I—”
“Come on, bambino.” His green eye held an insolent gleam as he raked his gaze from her face to her breasts then back up again. “The sex wasn’t bad, but did you really see it going beyond a one nighter?”
The words hit her with the force of a hard slam to the training mat. She couldn’t move. All she could do was struggle to find a way to absorb the blow. Her grip on the steel rail tightened to the point she was certain she would bend the metal. He was lying. He had to be. Didn’t he? She stared at the amused condescension on his face, her stomach lurching with a nausea that made her want to throw up.
“If you’re doing this because you think last night changed things between us—”
“Look, dolcezza, it was just one fuck. Let’s not make it into something bigger than that.”
If his words weren’t crippling enough, the boredom in his voice was the same as if she’d taken a Praetorian blade in her back. The pain of it made her legs buckle beneath her until the only thing holding her up was her deadlock on the metal rail of the bed guard. Desperation snarled its way through her as she stared down at him.
“You bastard,” she breathed as humiliation churned her stomach so hard she thought she’d throw up what little food she had in her stomach.
She turned away from him slowly, her legs feeling rubbery. His face was almost out of her vision when she thought she saw a flash of agony cross his face. She paused to look back, but she realized she was wrong. He still wore the same contemptible smirk. Unable to bear looking at him, she stumbled out into the hospital corridor. Ares was walking toward her and tried to stop her. She brushed him off and headed for the main entrance. The sooner she was back in Chicago the better. There were Praetorians to kill, and maybe, just maybe, she’d get lucky enough to find a way to end her misery. The glass doors of the hospital entrance opened with a quiet swish, and she walked out into the sunshine knowing the life she’d thought she had was over before it had even begun.
Rome, Seat of the Roman Empire
“I intend to marry him.” Cassiopeia stared across the atrium at the tall Roman general conversing with her father. Beside her, Octavian Julius Valeria frowned darkly.
“It’s a ridiculous notion, my pet. Maximus has nothing to offer in the way of family or fortune. You should marry me.”
“I don’t love you, Octavian. But I do love Maximus.”
Her gaze never left Maximus. She was grateful for the cool night air that streamed in through the opening in the atrium’s roof and the cross currents that pulled a soft breeze into the peristylium. Watching Maximus made it much warmer in the house than it was. The sight of him filled her with an ache that heated her blood with Apollo’s fire until it settled between her legs in a rush of liquid warmth.
“Romans don’t marry for love. We marry to keep the patrician houses strong.” Octavian’s tone was sharp, telling her he wasn’t happy at all.
“And Maximus will make the Atellus name stronger when father adopts him. Maximus Caecilius Atellus. Just the sound of it rings with great strength. Our sons will ensure my father’s name continues, and I shall have Maximus. It’s an excellent arrangement.”
“I’ve known Maximus for a long time. The man has an aversion to marriage.” Octavian snorted with amusement. “What makes you think you can change his mind.”
“Because I intend to make him fall in love with me.”
Across the room, Maximus laughed at something her father said and that familiar tug on her senses increased. His plebian family hailed from the northern part of the Empire, and the Gaul influence showed in the dark blond hair he wore short. Although she couldn’t see his green eyes from here, she knew how striking and unusual they were. He might not have patrician blood, but he had the air of one. His strong nose and sensual mouth lent itself to the impression that he was a noble. Venus could not have designed a man more delicious if she’d tried. Normally, he wore his military uniform when he visited her father, but tonight he was dressed in the fine robes indicative of the position Emperor Maxentius had given him in the Senate. She preferred his uniform. It showed off his strong, sinewy legs and the strength of his arms. Arms that held the promise of all measure of delights. She wanted to see all of him bared before her.
“If this is an attempt to have me express my feelings in poetry reminiscent of Ovid, I will do that if necessary,” Octavian said quietly. When she didn’t answer, his voice sharpened. “Don’t be a fool. He’s not good enough for you, Cassiopeia.”
Slowly turning her head, she studied the anger on Octavian’s face. It was unlike him to be so quarrelsome with her. Octavian had been the one to introduce Maximus to her father. Eager to appease her friend, she touched his arm lightly.
“Octavian, how can you say such a thing? Maximus is your friend.”
“Friendship is one thing. Marrying into a Patrician household is something completely different.”
She frowned. Was her childhood friend right? As one of the senior statesmen in the Senate, the name of Gaius Quinctilia Atellus was associated with fairness and levelheaded thinking. But would he object to Maximus as a son-in-law? No. He liked her handsome Roman general very much. If anything, her father would welcome Maximus into the family with open arms. The only thing needed of her was to convince Maximus to fall in love with her. She shook her head.
“You disappoint me, Octavian. I never thought you would be in the camp of those who prefer the Patrician class to remain pure. The fact that Maximus is your friend only makes it worse.”
Without allowing the man to utter a response, she moved away from him. As hostess, she found it necessary to stop and greet several prominent guests she’d invited at her father’s request. It seemed to take an interminable amount of time to make her way around the shallow, water-filled impluvium with its resplendent mosaic to where her general and her father stood. When she finally reached the two men, she saw Maximus grow rigid with tension. His physical reaction made her bite back a smile. He was aware of her more than he cared to admit. “Father,” she murmured a greeting as she kissed his cheek before she turned to the man she intended to conquer. “General, I’m delighted you could join us.”
Her hands outstretched, she forced him to take her hands in his. They were large hands, rough and strong. The hands of a soldier. She wanted to feel their roughness against her skin. As she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and then the other, he had no choice but to lower his head toward her. Her cheek brushing against his, she pressed her mouth against his ear.
“There isn’t a woman in this room who can take their eyes off you. Including me.”
At her whisper, he pulled back abruptly, his eyes narrowing as he stared down at her. The vivid green of his gaze studied her for a long moment before he looked at her father. She glanced over her shoulder to see her father barely restraining his amusement.
“Forgive my daughter, Maximus. I’ve given her free rein for so long, it’s impossible to control her.”
“Perhaps it’s simply a matter of finding the right hand to gentle her.”
The amused note in Maximus’s voice sent irritation spiraling through her. This wasn’t the way he was supposed to respond to her. She suppressed her annoyance and forced a smile to her lips as she summoned Adela to her side with a wave of her hand.
With only a small command, the freedwoman hurried away to find the dancers hired as the evening’s entertainment. As music filled the room, she looked up at Maximus and offered him her most beguiling smile. His green eyes darkened, and she quickly turned her gaze to the erotic dance being performed in front of them. Suddenly, she realized it might be difficult to make him dance to her tune.
Another senator hailed her father from across the room, and he excused himself, leaving her alone with Maximus. Tension as finely taut as a spider’s web wove through her as she watched the dancers. After a long moment, she braved a quick glance up at him. To her surprise, he was openly studying her, and she could feel the heat of a blush cresting over her cheeks.
“You blush like a vestal virgin, my lady.” The whisper was almost a caress against her skin, and the sound of his voice sent the blood pounding through her veins.
“Do I?” she choked out.
“Most certainly,” he said with a soft laugh that made her legs go weak. “It enhances your beauty.”
“You think I’m beautiful?” Startled, she looked up at him in surprise.
No one, not even her father had ever said she was beautiful. A look of hunger swept across his face and it sent a thrill whirling through her. Strong fingers bit into her upper arm as he quietly pulled her away from the festivities, through the peristylium, and into one of the empty rooms reserved for the family’s use. The scent of the flowers in the large garden that was the peristylium drifted into the small room as he pulled the privacy curtain closed behind them. Her heart skipped a beat, and she breathed in Maximus’s raw male scent as he advanced on her until her back came up against a cool marble column. She was certain it was her imagination, but she could almost feel his fingers caressing her throat before they trailed their way down to the valley between her breasts. The fanciful sensation made her nipples grow hard as unripe cherries.
“You’ve been playing with fire for several weeks now, mea mellis,” he growled. “Exactly what is your game?”
She’d seriously misjudged her attraction for him. He was far more devastating alone. She swallowed hard and shook her head. “I don’t play games.”
“Then what is it you want from me, Cassiopeia?” The flicker of emotion in his piercing gaze sent her pulse racing.
“You. I want you for my lover.” Unspoken emotion charged the air, and she knew better than to elaborate any further.
He jerked upright with a shake of his head. “You’re a senator’s daughter.”
“And this figures into the equation how?” she said in an annoyed tone. She’d expected him to scoff at a relationship, not to point out their different social stations.
“I’m a simple soldier.”
“Are you saying that in service to the Empire you’ve been injured in some way that prevents you—”
In a split second, arms solid as oak pulled her into the heat of his body. He felt as good as she had imagined he would. Hard, sinewy, and all male. Her body ached with need as his erection beneath his robe pressed into the apex of her thighs. Desire spiraled through her and she shifted her hips forward, wishing there was nothing between them to prevent him from sliding into her. His mouth plundered hers and she sighed as his tongue forced its way past her lips in a kiss filled with passion. He was hers. She knew that with even more certainty now. Almost as if he could read her mind, he released her and put several feet between them. His breathing was ragged as he studied her in the low light.
“You’re playing with fire, mea dulce.”
“No.” She shook her head and closed the distance between them. She curled her hand around his neck then pulled his head down and brushed her lips against his. “I know what I want. And I want you.”
He kissed her hard before his mouth trailed a hot path over her jaw and down the side of her neck. Deus, the man’s touch was all she’d imagined. She trembled in his arms in anticipation. The desire building inside her forced her hips forward to brush against his hard length beneath his tunic. Heat pooled between her legs. She drank in the rough, male smell of him. If this was what love felt like, what heights would her desire for him take her to?
The thought sent a shudder through her. It was still possible to lose him. He desired her, but could she make him love her? What if she failed? She refused to consider the possibility. She would win. She would have this man’s heart. There was no other option for her.
His hands skimmed up her arms to tug at the fragile material that was her gown. It gave way beneath his rough fingers until the bodice fell to reveal a breast. Ever so slowly, his mouth caressed its way from her shoulder to the taut nipple. He suckled her for a delicious moment then eased his lips back up to her throat.
“There will be no going back, mea dulce.”
“I have decided. You have no choice,” she whispered.
She was floating and she realized he was carrying her to one of the couches. By the gods, he was going to make her his right now. Her heart tightened with love and joy. Now he might feel only desire, but love could not far behind. The soft pillows of the couch pressed against her back. With a gentleness that was at odds with his soldier’s hands, he pulled her gown up to her hips.
Heat spread its way across her thigh as his fingers undid the cloth concealing her core. A guttural noise rolled out of him as he exposed her to his eyes. His throat bobbed violently as he swallowed. Against her skin, she felt his fingers tremble. Amazement swept through her as her gaze met his. There was something else beside passion glowing there. It reassured her that she’d made the right decision to force his hand. His touch parted her and she arched up against his fingers . . .
The buzzer on the alarm clock shattered the dream, and Phaedra groaned with disappointment as she slapped the snooze button to eliminate the annoying sound. She desperately wanted to go back to sleep. It had been such a deliciously wicked dream. The only problem was her body ached for the man in her dreams. Lysander.
Damn, it had been more than a year since he’d brutally rejected her that night in the Order’s Genova medical center. Why was the man still haunting her dreams? She winced. She knew why. Just because he’d crushed her heart hadn’t stopped her from loving him. She was as big a fool as they came. Why couldn’t she get the man out of her heart and her head? The thought tugged a groan out of her. And these dreams. They made no sense at all. Why would she be dreaming about the first Sicari Lord and his wife, Cassiopeia?
For that matter, why did Maximus look like Lysander before the Praetorians tortured him? She rubbed sleep out of one eye with the heel of her palm. Whatever the dream was trying to tell her—and dreams always meant something—all she wanted was the man she’d fallen in love with more than a year ago. A sigh of resignation whispered out of her. Whatever those Praetorian bastardi had done to him, they’d destroyed that man. The man in that hospital bed hadn’t been the same man who’d made love to her.
Her thoughts drifted back to that horrible morning. Pain forced her eyes closed. Hearing those cruel words from him had been the most humiliating moment of her life. But worse was the pain that had come with it. She’d left the hospital numbed to anything but her desire to strike back. To make him hurt as bad as he’d hurt her.
And she’d worked hard to do that from the moment he came back to Chicago. Every chance she had, she flung her barbs at him as if they were darts. But he never acted as if any of her sharp jabs had hit their mark. That is until the night of Julian’s Rogalis, his memorial service. The moment she’d blamed Lysander for her friend’s death she’d wanted to take the words back. Her words had finally found their mark, and the anguish on Lysander’s face had twisted her insides in a way that said she had gone too far. Out in the small sitting room, the sound of the apartment door opening and closing with a loud bang echoed into the bedroom.
“Phae, you awake?”
She groaned. Cleo. Didn’t the woman ever sleep? Her friend had picked her up at the Order’s private hanger at Rome’s International Airport when she’d arrived late last night, and now she was up before her. She adjusted the spaghetti strap of her camisole nightshirt and slid out of bed. Her friend wasn’t about to let her sleep any longer. Not that she’d be able to. She was going to be on tenterhooks until she talked to Lysander and asked him why he’d summoned her to Rome. Even more importantly, she was going to do something she never did. Apologize.
She grimaced at the thought. Apologies meant she’d screwed up. And even if the words had been said in the height of her own grief and remorse, he’d not deserved the blame she’d laid at his feet. Clearing the air between them would make the difference between this assignment being tolerable or unbearable. The room’s cool air made her shiver, and she reached for her robe as she headed toward the sitting room. The sight of Cleo seated on the couch, chewing on a bagel, tugged a smile to her lips.
“Did you bring anything for me to eat?” Her question made the Sicari fighter turn her head to look at her, a grin on her lovely features.
“Absolutely.” Cleo pointed to a small plate of fruit and cheese. “All I could find in the fridge was some Romano. It’s a tad salty, but the fruit should take the bite out of it.”
Beautiful enough to be a cover model, her friend was tangible proof of their Roman heritage. Mysterious dark eyes, midnight black hair, and a smile that could charm even a Praetorian. But then Cleo was more interested in killing the Sicari’s sworn enemy than charming them. An opinion Phaedra held with even more vehemence than her friend did. The bastardi had stolen her childhood, and hurt the man she loved. As far as she was concerned, the only good Praetorian was a dead one.
Phaedra curled up at the opposite end of the couch and reached for an apple. After a couple of bites, she leaned forward to take some Romano off the plate. The hard cheese had a kick to it and was a little salty like Cleo had said. Still, the Italian cheese was one of her favorites, specifically for its sharp bite.
“So, what do you think this is all about?” Cleo sent her an arched look.
“What kind of question is that? We’re in Rome because Atia thinks the Tyet of Isis is here.”
“Mother has always thought the Tyet of Isis was here in Rome, and you know damn well that’s not what I’m talking about.” Her friend snorted. “For the past year Lysander’s been emphatic about not having you on any of his teams then suddenly, whoosh, you’re on his team here in Rome.”
“You’ll have to ask him that question.” She shrugged and took another bite of her apple.
The last thing she intended to do was let Cleo know how confused she was by this change in him. But had he really changed? When she looked back over the past year without anger fueling her perceptions, she was coming to realize he’d always had her back.
On the three occasions they’d actually served on the same reconnaissance team, his sword, not her partner’s, had always been the one to save her at the last second. Then there was the night Ares had run the gauntlet. Running through a corrider of armed Sicari warriors wasn’t supposed to be painless. The brutal punishment for breaking one of the major laws of the Order had almost killed her brother. For a healer to touch a survivor during the first twenty-four hours was a punishable offense as well. But breaking the rules ran in the family. After healing Ares’s internal injuries, she’d been weak as a kitten.
Lysander had been the one to see she got back to her room. The man had actually carried her there. A moment that had delivered her into the Elysium Fields only to be pulled back into Tartarus far too quickly when he’d left her alone. And he’d not betrayed her to Atia, the Prima Consul. He’d kept her secret when the Order’s leader questioned them about the whole incident.
If he didn’t care about her, why would he do all that? Was it because he was Ares’s friend, or was there something more to his behavior than she realized. Deus, she really was a fool to think that. She suddenly realized Cleo had asked a question and was watching her like a hawk. She frowned as she met her friend’s intense gaze.
“I asked if you were okay with all of this?”
Without even trying, she could easily read Cleo’s concern. While her healing ability was the strongest of her Sicari skills, Phaedra also had the ability to sense emotions in others. It was like emotional radar. Sometimes it gave her only a sense of someone’s intentions, while at other times she could read emotions buried deep beneath the surface.
Cleo wasn’t probing, she was just worrying about her as any friend would, and they’d been friends a long time. It had been Cleo’s mother, Atia, who had taken her and Ares in after the Praetorians had massacred their parents. The memory of those terrifying moments flashed in front of her eyes.
The priest’s closet her mother had pushed Ares and her into as she kissed them good-bye. The sound of her mother’s screams as she was being butchered. The peephole she’d peered through to see her mother’s murderer. The face of the Praetorian that had haunted her all these years. His cruel laughter as he’d reached out with his mind, trying to read their thoughts and discover their hiding place.
From the age of six, she’d learned how to shield her thoughts from Praetorians, but her skills and Ares’s hadn’t been fully developed then. The man had known it. He’d known it was simply a matter of time before he found them. The only thing that had saved them was another Praetorian ordering the murderer to leave.
“This whole thing really does have you shaken up, doesn’t it?” Her friend frowned with concern.
“It’s a job, Cleo. Nothing more.”
“If that’s true, then why do you keep zoning out on me?” Cleo said with a snort of disbelief.
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”
“Right. So what are you going to do about it?”
“Do about it?” She knew exactly what Cleo was referring to but refused to go there.
“You need to talk to him about it.”
“About Julian’s Rogalis?” She grimaced and dodged the true intent of Cleo’s remark.
“I’m not talking about that, and you know it.” Her friend glared at her. “I’m talking about that night in the warehouse.”
The statement immediately threw Phaedra back into the past, the pain of it sweeping through her like a wildfire. The sight of Lysander lying on that metal slab, his entire body reflecting a man on the edge of death. When she’d reached him, she’d expected him to be unconscious, but to see him alert and in agony had been devastating. Then when he’d refused the Curavi—she swept the memories aside.
“There’s nothing left to say.”
She recognized the hollow note in her voice. It represented that piece of her that was missing. Cleo was right. There was a lot more she wanted to say. But Lysander didn’t want to hear it, because he just didn’t care. Her heart contracted as she remembered his cruelty that night in the hospital.
“Oh, puhleeze.” Cleo released a soft snort of disgust. “I know you better than that. Both of you. That man didn’t refuse the Curavi for the hell of it. He was protecting you that night.”
The apple crunched as Phaedra bit into it. The sound reminded her how bruised and battered she’d felt the morning she’d left Lysander’s hospital room. The pain had eased, but the numbness was still there after all these months. A painful sign that she was still in love with him.
“Even if what your saying is true, he’s not willing to discuss what happened, and neither am I,” she said with a glare at her friend.
“Oh, really?” Cleo snapped.
“Yes, really. I don’t know what makes you think there’s more to this than what I’m telling you.”
“Well, let me think . . . oh, right, the two of you have been at each other’s throats since . . . since that night in Englewood. No wait—you’ve constantly eviscerated the man, while the dumb son of a bitch has just taken it without blinking.”
“We’ve always argued. You know that.”
“But it’s different now.”
“Different how?” She tried to sound nonchalant, but her friend narrowed her beautiful eyes at her.
“There’s something under the surface of it all. It’s not something I can put into words.” Cleo’s perceptive observation made her cold with panic.
“The reason you can’t put it into words is that there is nothing different.”
“That’s bullshit,” Cleo snapped as she sent her a dark glare. “Ever since that night at Julian’s Rogalis, it’s been like watching two wildcats snarling their way through some sort of mating ritual.”
“You’ve got one hell of an imagination,” she bit out through clenched teeth. The analogy had only served to increase her anxiety level. If Cleo saw it, did Lysander? “Now if you don’t mind, I need to shower then check in with the Primus Pilus.”
“Va bene,” Cleo said with a stubborn grimace as she stood up. “But I’m right about all of this, and you know it.”
“I’ll just leave you to your delusions,” she lied as she glared upward at her friend.
“Christus, you’re as stubborn as Lysander. I’m betting the minute the two of you have it out with each other you’re going to be in bed together faster than someone can say fotte.” Speechless, Phaedra watched Cleo smile with satisfaction. “Interesting. Phaedra DeLuca doesn’t have a comeback for a change.
“I don’t have a comeback because you sound like a lunatic.”
“Not really. In case you haven’t noticed, whenever the man thinks no one’s watching him, he can’t take his eyes off of you.” Cleo arched her eyebrows and popped another grape into her mouth.
Phaedra froze at the other woman’s statement, her heart skipping a beat. Was it possible Cleo was right? But if he cared, why didn’t he do something about it? Why would he have shut her out the way he had? It didn’t make sense.
“Have you thought about seducing the man?” Cleo’s voice filtered through her thoughts.
“What?” She gaped at her friend’s mischievous expression. Appalled at the direction of the conversation, she shook her head vehemently. “No. Absolutely not.”
“Not willing to risk failure, eh?”
Riled by the comment, she clamped her jaw shut before she said something else she’d regret. The notion of seducing Lysander was far too tempting a thought—not to mention a hopeless one. The fact was she wasn’t willing to risk failure. Failure would mean an even greater heartache than she was experiencing now. She shook her head.
“I’m not going to let you provoke me into doing something stupid. So drop the subject.”
Clearly disappointed, Cleo grimaced as the small desk clock chimed the hour, and she immediately sprang to her feet. “Crap, I’ve got to run. Ciao, bambola.”
With that final parting shot, her friend was gone, leaving her in a state of confusion. Left alone, Phaedra stared at her surroundings with a sense of fear. Could she do what Cassiopeia had done in her dreams? What would happen if she tried to seduce Lysander as Cleo had suggested. Did she have the courage to even try? She blew out an angry sigh of disgust.
She was crazy. No, Cleo was crazy. Falling into bed with Lysander was something she did only in her dreams now. Dreams where he was Maximus and he loved her. But that’s all they were, just dreams.
Rome, Seat of the Roman Empire
He watched her. From the open doorway of the small spa, he studied the voluptuous curves of her body as she stepped out of the marble bath. A slave tried to cloak her in a pristine white cloth, but with an elegant wave of her hand, she took the towel and sent the servant away. Tendrils of hair the color of a midnight sky escaped the makeshift knot on the top of her head to caress the nape of her neck.
Outside, the final heat of the day had eased, leaving Rome cool. But in here, his body burned hotter than Apollo’s chariot blazing its way into the west. Marble cooled his shoulder as he leaned against the hard column of the bath’s entrance. The stone’s chilly smoothness did nothing to quench the fire in his blood or stop his cock from growing hard at the sight of her.
Arms folded across his chest, he drank in the beauty of her full curves. The olive bronze of her skin shimmered beneath the layer of water skimming down her back before it danced off her softly rounded buttocks. The lushness of her body shot a familiar ache through him. Cassiopeia, daughter of Gaius Quinctilia Atellus, Roman senator, was his.
There had always been women in his life, but the idea of leaving a wife behind if he died in battle wasn’t a worry he’d been willing to accept. Of course, that was before she chose him. What had made her choose him over all others? He was a soldier. A plebian by birth. Far removed from the patrician clan she belonged to. It was doubtful he would ever know the reason why. He could only thank the gods that she had chosen him.
His gaze greedily swept over her, his body reacting as it always did whenever he was near her. He suppressed a sudden growl of desire as she bent over to pat her legs dry with the linen towel. The view from this angle was more than enticing—it was erotic. He remained where he was. He had no desire to rush tonight. If he did do so, she’d know he would be gone at dawn.
“Really, husband. Must I beg you to lay with me?”
Cassiopeia turned to face him, her sultry expression of amusement making his erection even harder. He folded his arms across the breastplate of his military uniform and shook his head as he smiled at her teasing.
“Never, mea amor. I simply wanted to watch you and take pleasure in the knowledge that you’re mine and no other man’s.”
The linen cloth she held slip out of her hand and pooled at her feet. With the grace of one of the gazelle’s he’d seen in Africa, she walked toward him. The moment she reached him, she pressed her hand into his forearm. The touch sent a pulse of gut-wrenching emotion racing through him straight to his heart. How he loved this woman. A somber look flitted across her features. He tried not to listen, but her thoughts rushed at him with the speed of a charging lion. The first of her thoughts reached him. She knew he was leaving. Her mind screamed a protest, but she remained calm and composed on the outside. The hardest thing for him was the images he saw in her head. Her imagining him being injured or killed on the battlefield.
Her voice was tranquil almost, but he heard the note of fear in the single word question. He sighed. Even if she had never learned about his special skills, she would have been able to read him almost as well as he could read the minds of others.
“Tomorrow,” he murmured as he touched her cheek. The moment she blanched, he shook his head. “It’s only for a few weeks. Maxentius wants me to visit one of the provinces to ensure the governor is doing his job.”
“The emperor relies on you too heavily. He forgets that you and I have been married less than a year.”
“Most soldiers are ready to leave their brides much sooner than I have been willing to part with you.” He chuckled as he gave her a quick kiss. “Besides, we both know that my return will be even more pleasurable than tonight will be.”
He envisioned his hands grasping her waist then sliding upward so his thumbs brushed over the tips of her breast. The soft purr rolling out of her throat made him smile as her gaze met his. Pleasure made her lovely lips part in sensual invitation as his mental touch slid down to her cunny, and his invisible caress stroked through the velvety-soft folds between her legs.
As her eyes fluttered closed, she whimpered from his invisible caress. Eager to love her, he quickly removed his uniform. The red cloak attached to his breastplate fell to the floor where it deadened the sound of the chest armor. His fingers quickly undid the leather laces of the brass-studded leather skirt he wore, and it followed the breastplate to the floor. The leather was a stark contrast to the brightly colored cloak. Her eyes flew open as his concentration slipped. In silence, she knelt to help him finish undressing. Warm hands caressed the back of his calves as she removed the sandal boots that covered his feet and calves. The last of his uniform, a red tunic, flew off his head, leaving him bare to her.
With a gentle touch, she caressed him with a reverence one might expect from a priestess of Vesta. She looked up at him, and the depth of love in her expression sucked the wind from him. A second later, she had him in her mouth. Pleasure and need melded into one stark emotion that engulfed him like fire. With exquisite skill, her tongue and mouth loved him until each caress pulled him closer to an edge only she could take him to. His sacs drew up tight underneath him and he uttered a sharp cry . . .
Lysander Condellaire shot upright in bed. The vivid reality of the dream still haunting his senses, he jerked his head in first one direction and then another, searching for any sign that he might not be where he expected to be. The morning sun and the sound of traffic outside his window reassured him he was still in the Sicari installation in Rome. He glanced downward and grimaced at the pool of white fluid on his stomach.
He climbed out of bed and moved into the bathroom to clean himself up. When he’d finished, he gripped the sides of the free-standing basin and stared at the grotesque reflection in the mirror. He hadn’t had a dream that intense since the last time he’d visited Rome, the week before . . . he threw up a wall to fight off the memories threatening to take over. With a skill he’d become adept at, he shoved his thoughts back into the dark hole where he’d buried them. The single green eye of the half man, half monster in the mirror glared back at him. With a low hiss of anger, he shoved one hand through his dark blond hair as he wheeled away from the sink and turned on the shower.
For as long as he could remember he’d had dreams of ancient Rome and the Roman plebe who’d worked his way up the ranks to the rank of Legatus. He’d even had glimpses of the woman before, but never like this. Never this vivid. This arousing. And not until now had the woman been a dead ringer for Phaedra DeLuca. His mind embraced the image of the Roman woman again, and he shuddered.
He stepped into the shower’s spray of hot water. Eyes closed he let the water sting his face. It was just a dream. It was his mind’s way of compensating for his wish to have Phaedra back in his bed. That one night of incredible sex between the two of them was going to have to be enough to last him a lifetime. With a deep growl, he grabbed the bar of soap and scrubbed at his body. Anything to take his mind off the erotic dream and Phaedra’s role in it.
When he emerged from the bathroom a little later, he pulled on the standard black leather pants and dark shirt he always wore on duty. During the summer months, it would have been necessary to rethink his clothing given the heat factor. But the air still had a bite to it in late February—even in Rome. He stepped out of the small bedroom into the sitting room. Designed as a temporary residence, the apartment offered up just the right amount of amenities for rest, work, and relaxation.
“Come in,” he commanded sharply at the sound of a knock on his door.
A young woman entered the room with a tray of food. Although he hadn’t called for breakfast, the Vigilavi were excellent at anticipating the needs of their employers. Most of the Vigilavi had served the Sicari for generations. Their forebears were people the Sicari had saved from different life-or-death situations. They were an integral part of the Order’s structure, and their contributions in law enforcement, academics, medicine, and other areas were invaluable.
With an abrupt gesture, he silently ordered her to set the tray on the table out on the balcony. The sunshine made it warm enough for him to enjoy eating outside. The woman moved quickly to do as he instructed. The speed with which his thoughts reached out to search hers didn’t surprise him. It was a natural ability. An ability his mother had warned him never to reveal to anyone. She’d died on his sixth birthday, the day after giving him her warning, and it had reinforced her advice.
What irritated him was his unintentional probing showed he wasn’t in control, and it emphasized the intrusive nature of his action. A wave of disgust sailed through him as he quickly broke the link. The connection hadn’t been strong, but it had been enough for him to see the stark image of the girl with her lover.
He used to find it easy to prevent his telepathic ability from sifting through the thoughts of others. But ever since that night more than a year ago—merda, that was the last thing he wanted to think about at the moment. Infuriated by his lack of control, he flicked his hand and watched as several files flew off the nearby desk and into his hands. Still irritated by his thoughts, he followed the girl out to the balcony. As she gestured at the tray, Lysander nodded his thanks.
“May I bring you anything else, il mio signore?” Her formal deference made him grimace.
The title of Legatus wasn’t something he’d asked for. Atia had made him Legatus strictly to lead a hand-picked team of Sicari in search of the Tyet of Isis. He’d tried to convince the woman that Ares was better suited for the task, but she’d emphatically dismissed the idea. Lysander knew the Prima Consul would eventually put Ares back in charge of the Chicago guild. He’d merely been keeping his friend’s spot warm for him until the Order’s leader reinstated Ares as Legatus. In truth, he preferred being Ares’s Primus Pilus. Life was a lot easier as his friend’s second-in-command.
“Molto bene. My name is Irini. If you change your mind, please just ring.” With that cheerful reply, the girl left the room. Stomach rumbling, he pulled out a chair and sat down. The Colosseum was visible from where he sat, and there was a familiarity about the monument that called to him with a strength that seemed more than simple recognition. Merda. He was imagining things. He had a fondness for ancient Rome’s history, and his mind was manipulating that fact. Just like in his dream.
The image of Phaedra, naked at his feet, had barely formed before he slammed the door on the vivid mental picture. He reached for a panino and slathered jelly on it. Focus. He needed to keep the mission front and center in thoughts.
The remainder of his team had arrived last night after he went to bed, and by tomorrow, he’d have everyone working to isolate the possible hiding place of the Tyet of Isis. The Prima Consul always played her cards close to her chest, but Atia was convinced the artifact was here. She’d even told Lysander that she was reasonably certain the artifact was a small box decorated with carvings or paintings of an Egyptian knot called the Tyet of Isis, hence the artifact’s name. Other than that, there wasn’t much to go on, but when he’d called to ask Emma some questions about the search two nights ago, even she’d been pretty convinced the artifact was here in Rome.
He glanced at the file on top of the stack he’d set on the table. He didn’t even need to open it. The Prima Consul’s personal bodyguard, Ignacio Firmani, had trained Cleo Vorenus. It was one of the reasons why he’d asked for her specifically. Atia hadn’t been pleased that he’d selected her daughter for the mission, but she’d not overruled him. When it came to combat, they’d worked together so long they knew exactly when and where the other needed help in a tight spot. She wasn’t just like a sister to him. She was the kind of partner who always had his back. He took another bite of his roll, followed by a drink of the quickly cooling cocoa.
Cleo had been the first one to find him that night in the warehouse, and weeks later, she’d been the one ordering him to either live or just die so everyone else could get on with their lives. He’d chosen to live, despite losing Phaedra. The image of her beautiful face pushed its way into his thoughts. It was gone in an instant as a loud knock announced Marco Campanella’s arrival. The man quickly crossed the small living room to join him on the balcony.
“Scusi, il mio signore, but you wanted to see the files of the last team members when they arrived.”
Lysander nodded at the man he’d chosen for his Primus Pilus. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the younger man had Julian’s temperament without the rash nature. Had that been why he’d given him the role of Primus Pilus? His First Spear? Was it his way of trying to atone for Julian’s death? He clenched his teeth at the thought. No. Choosing Marco to act as his second-in-command hadn’t been done out of guilt. The man had earned the right to be Primus Pilus on this mission.
His expression solemn, Marco handed off the files he carried before stepping back to wait quietly as Lysander reviewed them. Lysander had consulted with the Prima Consul on potential members for his team, and everyone he’d requested had arrived two nights ago. The newest arrivals had been handpicked by Atia herself without his consultation.
He didn’t like it, but as Prima Consul she was well within her right to do so. He was fortunate her earlier career had been as a fighter. It gave her greater insight on how to build a balanced team, unlike a fat politician such as Cato. The worm. He opened the first file.
“Have you reviewed these yet?” He already knew the answer.
“Yes, il mio signore. Violetta Molinaro is a skilled fighter with strong intuitive skills. She has limited healing abilities, but she has a talent for closing her thoughts off to Praetorians.”
Lysander nodded at the man’s assessment of the Sicari woman’s skills. Even his friend, Ares, couldn’t match the woman’s talent to avoid Praetorian detection. What bothered him was that her healing abilities were so limited. Atia knew they were in the heart of Praetorian country. He needed a healer on his team. A good one.
He flipped open the next chart. Luciano Pasquale. He released a noise of satisfaction. The man’s reputation was excellent. He had a way of getting a job done. Quietly. Lysander flipped opened the last chart and his heart slammed into his chest.
“Il Christi omnipotentia. The woman’s gone mad,” he exclaimed as he stared at Phaedra’s file.
“Il mio signore?” Curiosity filled Marco’s voice, and Lysander shot the other man a quick glance.
“It’s nothing.” He shook his head. “Team assignments. Angelo and Maria Atellus stay together, but they’re not to do any nighttime reconnaissance without backup. Partner Pasquale with Cleo. You’ll work with Molinaro. DeLuca will work with me. I want everyone assembled in the conference room at two o’clock. That should be enough time for the late arrivals to overcome their jet lag.”
Out of the corner of his only eye, Lysander saw his Primus Pilus hesitate. He turned his head and sent the younger man a hard look. One mistake in his career didn’t mean he’d allow his Primus Pilus to question even the smallest decision he made. With a sharp bob of his head, Marco left him alone on the balcony.
Lysander turned back to the file in his hand. What in Jupiter’s name was Atia thinking by sending the Order’s most valuable healer into the heart of Praetorian territory? Of course, he should have asked what she was thinking the minute she put him in charge of this mission.
The last assignment he’d led had ended in two fighters tortured to death and a Sicari woman taken for breeding purposes, leaving him the sole survivor. In the far recesses of his mind, he heard the shrieks of his friend Dominic or were they the sound of his own cries? He grimly silenced the screams. The memory of that failed assignment made him inhale a deep gulp of air before he released it in a loud whoosh.
Based on that information alone, he was beginning to question Atia’s sanity. Something that could jeopardize the woman’s role as Prima Consul. The job was for life unless the leader of the Sicari Council retired or someone proved them unfit for duty. Right now, he was thinking maybe someone needed to at least question Atia’s judgment if not her sanity.
The papers in front of him detailed Phaedra’s experience, her capabilities, and her weaknesses. He bit down on the inside of his cheek as he stared down at the information. He didn’t have to read Phaedra’s qualifications. He knew them well. With a vicious swipe of his hand, he slapped the file closed against the wrought iron table.
“Goddamn it, I don’t need her here.”
That wasn’t true and he knew it. Of all the healers in the Order, Phaedra was the best, and someone with her abilities would be a valuable asset to the team. His fingertips brushed across the ravaged tissue that barely covered the muscles of his face. She’d actually been willing to heal him that night in that hellhole a year ago, but he’d rejected her attempt.
Phaedra had believed he’d been afraid to watch her suffer his injuries during the healing process. That was partly true, but even if he’d given in to her pleas that night, not even her abilities could have destroyed the monster hiding beneath the surface.
Worse, she would have seen him for what he was during the healing process. Many healers experienced not only the injured’s physical pain, but the emotional trauma of the event as well. He hadn’t been willing to risk that with her. He closed his eye, all too aware of the empty, misshaped socket on the other side of his nose.
The Order had offered him plastic surgery, but he knew it wouldn’t have changed anything. He knew what he was. What he saw in the mirror everyday served as a constant reminder of the ugliness in him. A monster he’d never known until it had revealed itself that night. It made him vigilant against letting that darkness hurt his friends or the Order itself.
He shoved his way out of his chair, and it toppled over backward as he stepped out of the sunlight and into the small living room. Enough. He wasn’t going to let the past, or Phaedra DeLuca, get in the way of him accomplishing his task. A taunting laugh surfaced in the back of his mind.
With a grunt of anger, he returned to the bedroom to snatch his eye patch off the nightstand. It wasn’t a necessity, but he’d found the patch helped minimize the initial impact his scarred face had on most people. Then there were the occasions when it served to make unsavory characters uncomfortable. The circular leather piece settled into place over his sunken eye socket, and he walked back into the sitting room as a sharp rap hit the small apartment’s door.
“Enter,” he ordered, expecting Irini had returned to pick up his breakfast tray.
In the next instance, his entire body went rigid with surprise as Phaedra entered the suite. Desperately, he tried to ignore the fact that every nerve ending in his body was on fire with tension.
She’d woven her ebony hair into a braid that ran down the middle of her back to a spot an inch or so past her shoulders. The memory of that dark hair spilled out around her on a pillow made the knot growing in his throat expand and tighten. Her complexion was flawless, and her skin was the golden brown typical of southern Italy natives. Like him, she wore the standard work uniform of the Sicari Order, only on her, it clung to curves that stirred up sensual images he knew best to leave buried.
But it was her eyes that always managed to draw him in and hold him paralyzed. They were a warm brown with gold flecks that flashed whenever she was angry or excited. Slanted just enough to give her an exotic look, they were narrowed at him right now. A sign she was assessing the situation. He immediately acknowledged the fact that at any minute he’d be drowning in deep waters.
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