Hello there, Romantics!
I've got a special treat for you today. I want you to be just filled to the brim with excitement for my upcoming ebook release of the Affairs of the Arena series, which includes Heart of the Gladiator, Love of the Gladiator, and Desire of the Gladiator (the links are for the print versions right now).
To fuel the flame, I've got a hot exclusive sneak peek at the first chapter of Heart of the Gladiator available for you! Take a look!
The day was hot—as often it was hot in Puteoli—but there was coolness in the shade of the market.
“Fifty sestertii? For this?” Aeliana held up the basket holding the fresh cloth she would use as bandages. “You must be joking. It’s rag cloth.”
“It’s no joke, medicae. Take it or leave it.”
Around the two, other groups of merchants and customers haggled over prices. Finding a deal was a sort of religion to some, while swindling was a way of life to others. Small animals, piglets and cats, rushed across the stone when a traveler's crate turned over.
“Did the Gods swing by in the last few days and bless it full of special healing properties?” she laughed. “Did you wash them in a sacred pool? I’ll take it for twenty-five, as I did last week.”
The merchant’s face was wrinkled from years in the sun. His frown was twice as ugly for it. “Times are tough. We’ve had five emperors in less than three years. Soldiers don’t know what tail to run under. That makes everything hard to come by. You don’t get special treatment for nothing.”
“And I suppose you’re absent from the games, are you?” Aeliana straightened. “You don’t want to see fighters in good condition?”
Aeliana was a slave. But even slaves had jobs. Her work was as a medicae for the ludus of the House of Varinius. It was her responsibility to treat the gladiators trained there—and their many, many injuries—to keep them in tip-top condition for the regular games in the city.
It was rotten, bloody work, and as soon as her contract was up with the ludus, she planned to borrow money against the buying of a small shop where she could open up her own medical office.
But that was perhaps a year away—a fact that stung all the more as she had to haggle for sub-par supplies with someone else’s money with this ass of a merchant.
He knew where she worked—many men made it their business to know the details of a ludus. If the slightest variation in living circumstances arrived, it could wildly change the betting odds. At the last games, there had been some moss on the southern corner of the ludus's wall that sent the odds against fighters from House Varinius skyrocketing upwards.
“Even supposing I did,” he said, “I’d have to afford a ticket first. And I can’t afford a ticket, or anything else besides, for selling you good cloth at twenty-five sestertii.” He paused for a moment. “Make it forty-five, seeing as how I’m a fan of Orion.”
“Orion” was a fighter at the Varinius ludus—a man who Aeliana knew better by his real name, Lucius.
She took care not to smile. It would reveal too much. The merchant had just weakened his position. “I’ll make it fifteen,” she said, “and I’ll make sure you get a ticket for the games. A good seat. Mid-section. Reserved.”
“You’ll have a great view of Orion as he faces the secutores at this next fight. I’ve heard he’s to face three of them at once.”
She had heard no such thing. But such a feat wasn’t beyond the ludicrous spectacle of the games in the arena. Everything in the arenas, in her opinion, was ludicrous and excessive. What she made up off the top of her head couldn't possibly outdo the uniquely deformed moral depravity of the arena.
The merchant frowned, but his eyes narrowed greedily. “Call it twenty and you’ve got a deal.”
She placed the coins on the table and snatched up the basket. “I call it a good deal.”
Not even an hour in the market, and she was more than ready to return to her home, such that it was. People tired her out quickly. Her father would have blamed it on her weak constitution, but then, her father blamed everything—be it something the matter with the world, the Empire, or his life—on something “weak” about Aeliana.
As she turned, though, the merchant snatched her hand.
“Not so fast, there.” He smiled. “You’re not so much to look at in those robes, but I bet you're rather nice underneath. What say you we find out,” he tilted his head back to the shadowy mess of his tent, “and I drop the price some more?”
Such attention, always unwanted, was not beyond the purview of Aeliana’s experience. She was a woman in Rome, and this sort of idiocy happened often.
“No. I’ll just have what I came for.”
She tugged away, but the merchant held fast. “Come now. Be a good girl.”
Now the rage came. Already she had begun to respond when a thick, heavy hand landed on the arm of the merchant.
“Why don’t you let her go, friend, and return to your business?”
The man who interrupted was large and thickly muscled—more broad than tall, but nonetheless a great deal taller than Aeliana, who had suffered numerous slights due to her small stature. His forearms seemed cut from stone, and despite the jovial nature of his words, Aeliana could see the vise-like grip that the merchant’s arm twisted under.
“Ca-Caius?” the merchant choked. “O-of course! Anything you say. Please. Just…please. Take the cloth. I was only joking.”
The large man shook the merchant for a moment. “And what was that price?”
“Oh, she can…she can just have it, if you’ll let go of my arm, please?”
“Let go of mine,” said Aeliana.
The merchant did, immediately, and revealed the scalpel that Aeliana had pressed against his wrist. No doubt the merchant was too busy noticing the intruder—this Caius—to know the predicament he had placed himself in, but Aeliana had the affair well in hand.
“I see perhaps I overstepped,” said the large man, a smile on his face.
He was handsome, she realized slowly. His jaw was wide and strong, covered with a short layer of thick dark hair. He had eyes like storm clouds, so dark they could swallow her whole, belying the joviality of his smile.
Her heart struck against her chest and would not stop. She thought it was because of the excitement with the merchant, but the smoky dark gaze of this Caius was more than she was used to. A flush creeping up her face, she turned away and snatched up the cloth.
Something about him made every part of her tingle. Perhaps it was the clear strength of his muscles. The broad, hard density of his chest and arms. Maybe it was his smell, something deeply masculine and animalistic, like a wild bear in the forest. No matter what it was, her body felt like it was on fire as she looked at him.
She had to avert her eyes to somehow regain composure. Her flush had extended deep to every part of her body. Sudden visions invaded her thoughts, intense images of what this Caius might think if he were to rip off her dress and see the naked, open heat on her skin.
He was so big. Were he to bed her, his strength would be irresistible. Every muscle would hold her down, keep her in place, and ravish her utterly without her ever being able to do anything but moan out in captured pleasure.
That thought only made the heat increase.
“Return the lady her coin,” said Caius. “For her trouble.”
The merchant scrambled to obey, but Aeliana turned. “No. He and I made a deal. I’ll honor it.” She shook her head at the merchant. “You’ll have your ticket tomorrow.”
In her mind, that was more of a punishment than a gift. Let him be cowed by the public slaughter like everyone else. Let his mind rot from the endless, empty splendor of the games. The merchant tried to choke out some reply, but Aeliana was already gone.
The sooner she got away from the market, the better. The market with its greedy merchants and endless stares. The market with its labyrinthine rows of carts and tables. The market with its wild animals and all their blaring.
The market with its beautifully built men who wished inanely to rescue her—even if he had set her heart racing and flooded her mind with dozens of thoughts of what his body might look like towering above her in her bed.
No—away was better.