Authors: Burns, Monica
Table of ContentsTitle PageDedicationAcknowledgementsChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28PRAISE FOR MONICA BURNS AND HER NOVELSOF “CUTTING EDGE ROM ANCE”“This sizzling hot historical and its compelling characters will leave you panting formore! Monica Burns writes with sensitivity and panache. Don’t miss this one!”—Sabrina Jeffries,New York Timesbestselling author
“[Monica Burns’s] excellent love scenes and bold romance will have readers clamoringfor more.”—Romantic Times
“A cinematic, compelling, and highly recommended treat!” —Sylvia Day, national bestselling author
“The love scenes are emotion-filled and wonderfully erotic … Enough to make your toescurl.”—TwoLips Reviews
“Elegant prose, believable dialogue, and a suspenseful plot that will hold youspellbound.”—Emma Wildes
“Historical romance with unending passion.”—The Romance Studio“Wow. Just wow.”—Fallen Angel Reviews
“A satisfying read, complete with intrigue, mystery, and the kind of potent sensuality thatfogs up the mirrors.”—*A Romance Review
“Monica Burns is a new author I must add to my ‘required reading’ category …Everything I look for in a top-notch romance novel.”—Romance Reader at Heart
“Blazing passion.”—Romance Junkies
Berkley Sensation titles by Monica Burns
Order of the Sicari Novels
ASSASSIN’S HONOR ASSASSIN’S HEART
For Beverly CastellanoYou loved the concept of my Sicari heroes.I only wish you could have seen them come to life on the page.You are greatly missed.
With gratitude to Kati Dancy for her meticulous attention to detail and her demand for excellence. A special thanks to Ida Plassay for continuing to tutor me in Italian, and Maria Rosa Contardi for answering questions about Rome’s current landscape, as well as her expertise in Italian and Latin. And a nod of gratitude to Billi J. Jones-DiMatteo, Nicole Burnham, Joyce Tenney, Lynne Connolly, and Binnie Syril (a network connection goddess). I couldn’t have made the climax scene in the Pantheon realistic without each of your observations about this incredible monument.
CHICAGO A YEAR AGOLYSANDER 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 thebastardiwere 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 refined 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 agonizing deaths. 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 re-create 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 shewas still alive. In the next breath, he remembered what happened to healers. Guilt gnawed at him with savage glee.“Marta?”“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 words were 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 theIndictio. 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.
“Lysander.”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.”“They’re coming.”“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.“Lysander? 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 thisbastardoout 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, PrimusPilusof 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 judgeandjury. As a heretic, you may repent at any time.”He didn’t answer. Something said thisbastardoliked 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 mananykind 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 Unmentionable capable 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.“Fotteyou, you Praetorianbastardo,” 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, youbastardo.”“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 wouldnotlet 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 thisbastardothat 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 thebastardosaying 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, and 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. Thebastardohad 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. Thebastardowas 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?“Dulcis 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 theCuravi.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 theCuravi.“No. NoCuravi.”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 theCuravi.”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 Legatusforcefully pushed Cleo aside to grip his arm.“Take the goddamnCuravi, you sorrybastardo,” 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 thatorhis 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 dumbbacciagalupe.Ares, make him take theCuravi.”
“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 theCuravi. 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 healer’s touch. I refuseCuravi.” 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.
Chapter 2DEMETR I.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 theCuravithis 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 theCuravi?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 theCuravionce 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, and it hardly ever extended past twentyfour hours. The longer the time frame, the less likely theCuraviwould 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 theCuraviwhen 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 thebastardiwho’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 the 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.
“Marta?”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 Praetorianbastardiwould 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.”“Leave,now.”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 theCuravi, she glared down at him.
“Lie back down, you dumbbacciagalupe. 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. Dulcis 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?”“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. Shewanted 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 youout 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 theCuravi. 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,bambina.” 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 reallysee it going beyond a onenighter?”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.
Chapter 3ROME, SEAT OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE310 A .D.
“I intend to marry him.” Cassiopeia stared across the atrium at the tall Roman generalconversing 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 orfortune. 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 inthrough the opening in the atrium’s roof and the cross currents that pulled a soft breezeinto 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 itsettled between her legs in a rush of liquid warmth.
“Romans don’t marry for love. We marry to keep the patrician houses strong.” Octavian’stone was sharp, telling her he wasn’t happy at all.“And Maximus will make the Atellus name stronger when father adopts him. MaximusCaecilius Atellus. Just the sound of it rings with great strength. Our sons will ensure myfather’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.” Octaviansnorted 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 onher senses increased. His plebeian family hailed from the northern part of the Empire,and the Gaul influence showed in the dark blond hair he wore short. Although shecouldn’t see his green eyes from here, she knew how striking and unusual they were. Hemight not have patrician blood, but he had the air of one. His strong nose and sensualmouth lent itself to the impression that he was a noble. Venus could not have designed aman more delicious if she’d tried. Normally, he wore his military uniform when he visitedher father, but tonight he was dressed in the fine robes indicative of the position EmperorMaxentius had given him in the Senate. She preferred his uniform. It showed off hisstrong, sinewy legs and the strength of his arms. Arms that held the promise of allmeasure 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 voicesharpened. “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 tobe so quarrelsome with her. Octavian had been the one to introduce Maximus to herfather. 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 completelydifferent.”She frowned. Was her childhood friend right? As one of the senior statesmen in theSenate, the name of Gaius Quinctilia Atellus was associated with fairness andlevelheaded thinking. But would he object to Maximus as a son-in-law? No. He liked herhandsome Roman general very much. If anything, her father would welcome Maximusinto the family with open arms. The only thing needed of her was to convince Maximus tofall in love with her. She shook her head.“You disappoint me, Octavian. I never thought you would be in the camp of those whoprefer the patrician class to remain pure. The fact that Maximus is your friend onlymakes it worse.”Without allowing the man to utter a response, she moved away from him. As hostess, shefound it necessary to stop and greet several prominent guests she’d invited at her father’srequest. It seemed to take an interminable amount of time to make her way around theshallow, water-filled impluvium with its resplendent mosaic to where her general and herfather stood. When she finally reached the two men, she saw Maximus grow rigid withtension. His physical reaction made her bite back a smile. He was aware of her morethan he cared to admit. “Father,” she murmured a greeting as she kissed his cheek beforeshe turned to the man she intended to conquer. “General, I’m delighted you could joinus.”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 herskin. As she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and then the other, he had no choice but tolower his head toward her. Her cheek brushing against his, she pressed her mouthagainst 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
“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 theway he was supposed to respond to her. She suppressed her annoyance and forced asmile 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 asthe evening’s entertainment. As music filled the room, she looked up at Maximus andoffered him her most beguiling smile. His green eyes darkened, and she quickly turnedher gaze to the erotic dance being performed in front of them. Suddenly, she realized itmight be difficult to make him dance to her tune.Another senator hailed her father from across the room, and he excused himself, leavingher alone with Maximus. Tension as finely taut as a spider’s web wove through her as shewatched the dancers. After a long moment, she braved a quick glance up at him. To hersurprise, he was openly studying her, and she could feel the heat of a blush cresting overher cheeks.
“You blush like a vestal virgin, my lady.” The whisper was almost a caress against herskin, 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 yourbeauty.”“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 sweptacross his face and it sent a thrill whirling through her. Strong fingers bit into her upperarm as he quietly pulled her away from the festivities, through the peristylium, and intoone of the empty rooms reserved for the family’s use. The scent of the flowers in the largegarden that was the peristylium drifted into the small room as he pulled the privacycurtain closed behind them. Her heart skipped a beat, and she breathed in Maximus’sraw male scent as he advanced on her until her back came up against a cool marblecolumn. She was certain it was her imagination, but she could almost feel his fingerscaressing 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. “Exactlywhat is your game?”
She’d seriously misjudged her attraction for him. He was far more devastating alone. Sheswallowed 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 piercinggaze sent her pulse racing.
“You. I want you for my lover.” Unspoken emotion charged the air, and she knew betterthan 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 expectedhim 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 thatprevents you—”In a split second, arms solid as oak pulled her into the heat of his body. He felt as goodas she had imagined he would. Hard, sinewy, and all male. Her body ached with need ashis erection beneath his robe pressed into the apex of her thighs. Desire spiraled throughher and she shifted her hips forward, wishing there was nothing between them to preventhim from sliding into her. His mouth plundered hers, and she sighed as his tongue forcedits way past her lips in a kiss filled with passion. He was hers. She knew that with evenmore certainty now. Almost as if he could read her mind, he released her and put severalfeet 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 handaround his neck then pulled his head down and brushed her lips against his. “I knowwhat I want. And I want you.”He kissed her hard before his mouth trailed a hot path over her jaw and down the side ofher neck.Deus, the man’s touch was all she’d imagined. She trembled in his arms inanticipation. The desire building inside her forced her hips forward to brush against hishard 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 himtake 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 thepossibility. She would win. She would have this man’s heart. There was no other optionfor her.
His hands skimmed up her arms to tug at the fragile material that was her gown. It gaveway 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 adelicious 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 hemight feel only desire, but love could not be far behind. The soft pillows of the couchpressed against her back. With a gentleness that was at odds with his soldier’s hands, hepulled 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 bobbedviolently as he swallowed. Against her skin, she felt his fingers tremble. Amazementswept through her as her gaze met his. There was something else besides passionglowing there. It reassured her that she’d made the right decision to force his hand. Histouch parted her, and she arched up against his fingers …ROME, ITALYPRESENT DAYThe buzzer on the alarm clock shattered the dream, and Phaedra groaned withdisappointment 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, it 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 heartandher 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 Lysanderbeforethe 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 Praetorianbastardihad 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 hangar 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 sheneverdid. Apologize.
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 Tyetof Isisis here.”“Mother has always thought the Tyetof Isiswas here in Rome, and you knowdamn wellthat’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.“What?”“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 theCuravi—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 theCuravifor 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 you’re 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’veconstantly 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 isnothingdifferent.”“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 shewasn’twilling 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.
Chapter 4ROME, SEAT OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE310 A.D.HEwatched her. From the open doorway of the small spa, he studied the voluptuouscurves of her body as she stepped out of the marble bath. A slave tried to cloak her in apristine white cloth, but with an elegant wave of her hand, she took the towel and sent theservant away. Tendrils of hair the color of a midnight sky escaped the makeshift knot onthe 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 bodyburned hotter than Apollo’s chariot blazing its way into the west. Marble cooled hisshoulder as he leaned against the hard column of the bath’s entrance. The stone’s chillysmoothness did nothing to quench the fire in his blood or stop his cock from growinghard at the sight of her.Arms folded across his chest, he drank in the beauty of her full curves. The olive bronzeof her skin shimmered beneath the layer of water skimming down her back before itdanced off her softly rounded buttocks. The lushness of her body shot a familiar achethrough 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 diedin battle wasn’t a worry he’d been willing to accept. Of course, that was before she chosehim. What had made her choose him over all others? He was a soldier. A plebeian bybirth. Far removed from the patrician clan she belonged to. It was doubtful he wouldever 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 wasnear her. He suppressed a sudden growl of desire as she bent over to pat her legs drywith the linen towel. The view from this angle was more than enticing—it was erotic. Heremained where he was. He had no desire to rush tonight. If he did do so, she’d know hewould be gone at dawn.“Really, husband. Must I beg you to lie with me?”Cassiopeia turned to face him, her sultry expression of amusement making his erectioneven harder. He folded his arms across the breastplate of his military uniform and shookhis head as he smiled at her teasing.
“Never,mea amor. I simply wanted to watch you and take pleasure in the knowledgethat you’re mine and no other man’s.”The linen cloth she held slipped out of her hand and pooled at her feet. With the grace ofone of the gazelle’s he’d seen in Africa, she walked toward him. The moment she reachedhim, she pressed her hand into his forearm. The touch sent a pulse of gut-wrenchingemotion racing through him straight to his heart. How he loved this woman. A somberlook flitted across her features. He tried not to listen, but her thoughts rushed at him withthe speed of a charging lion. The first of her thoughts reached him. She knew he wasleaving. Her mind screamed a protest, but she remained calm and composed on theoutside. The hardest thing for him was the images he saw in her head. Her imagining himbeing injured or killed on the battlefield.
“When?”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 beenable 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 shookhis head. “It’s only for a few weeks. Maxentius wants me to visit one of the provinces toensure the governor is doing his job.”
“The emperor relies on you too heavily. He forgets that you and I have been married lessthan a year.”“Most soldiers are ready to leave their brides much sooner than I have been willing topart with you.” He chuckled as he gave her a quick kiss. “Besides, we both know that myreturn will be even more pleasurable than tonight will be.”He envisioned his hands grasping her waist then sliding upward so his thumbs brushedover the tips of her breast. The soft purr rolling out of her throat made him smile as hergaze met his. Pleasure made her lovely lips part in sensual invitation as his mental touchslid down to her cunny, and his invisible caress stroked through the velvety-soft foldsbetween 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 floorwhere it deadened the sound of the chest armor. His fingers quickly undid the leatherlaces of the brass-studded leather skirt he wore, and it followed the breastplate to thefloor. The leather was a stark contrast to the brightly colored cloak. Her eyes flew openas his concentration slipped. In silence, she knelt to help him finish undressing. Warmhands caressed the back of his calves as she removed the sandal boots that covered hisfeet and calves. The last of his uniform, a red tunic, flew off his head, leaving him bare toher.
With a gentle touch, she caressed him with a reverence one might expect from a priestessof Vesta. She looked up at him, and the depth of love in her expression sucked the windfrom him. A second later, she had him in her mouth. Pleasure and need melded into onestark emotion that engulfed him like fire. With exquisite skill, her tongue and mouth lovedhim until each caress pulled him closer to an edge only she could take him to. His sacdrew 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 first in 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.
“Fotte.”He climbed out of bed and moved into the bathroom to clean himself up. When he’d finished, he gripped the sides of the freestanding 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. Eye 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 Vigilaviwere excellent at anticipating the needs of their employers. Most of the Vigilavihad 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 that 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, ilmio signore?” Her formal deference made him grimace.The title of Legatuswasn’t something he’d asked for. Atia had made him Legatusstrictly to lead a hand-picked team of Sicari in search of the Tyetof 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 Consulwould 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 PrimusPilus. Life was a lot easier as his friend’s second-in-command.“No, grazie.”“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 apaninoand slathered jelly on it. Focus. He
needed to keep the mission front and center in his 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 Tyetof Isis. ThePrima Consulalways 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 Tyetof 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’spersonal 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, ilmio 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 PrimusPilus?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 Piluson 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 Consulon 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 Consulshe 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, ilmio 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 in 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 PrimusPilushesitate. 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 Pilusto 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 puthimin 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.
“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 evenherabilities 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 every day 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.
Chapter 5PHAEDRA was still mulling over Cleo’s words as she headed toward Lysander’s apartment in the Rome safe house. In some respects, Cleo had been right about the underlying tension between her and Lysander. That tension had intensified the moment she’d condemned him at Julian’s Rogalis.She’d stood there in front of that funeral pyre furious that Julian had allowed his pain to overrule his judgment. Her friend had gone looking for trouble all because of her. Watching the flames of Julian’s cremation, her guilt and anger had destroyed her ability to think straight. Everything had slammed into her like a freight train. Her guilt over Julian’s death, the pain of Lysander’s rejection, and her own inability to get on with her life.It had made her want to strike out at whatever entered her line of sight. And the minute Lysander stepped toward her at that funeral pyre she’d exploded with rage. His pity was the last thing she wanted, and it had made her lash out as savagely as possible. The instant she blamed him for Julian’s death, she’d regretted her bitter words.The anguish on his face had said he was blaming himself not just for Julian’s death, but for the two warriors who died in that Englewood warehouse in Chicago. But Julian’s death hadn’t been his responsibility. It had been hers. That moment had changed her. For the first time, she had an insight into what Lysander had to be living with every day.The anger bottled up inside her had been washed away until the only thing left was the ache that came with loving him. From that point forward, she’d stopped looking for ways to taunt him. If he’d been puzzled by her new restraint, he’d never allowed it to show. And now he’d asked for her. Hope wasn’t something she could afford with Lysander, but that didn’t stop it from growing in her heart.The fact that he wanted her on his team for the Rome assignment was enough to make that emotion bloom like a fragile flower. She didn’t understand why, but he’d suddenly changed his mind about having her on the same team with him. It was a complete aboutface from the past year when he’d gone out of his way toavoidhaving her assigned to any of his missions.Her knuckles rapped on the door of Lysander’s apartment. If the man had meant to throw her off stride by bringing her to Rome, he’d succeeded. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so frigging nervous. His deep voice ordered her to enter. Swallowing her fear, she moved through the door.
The sight of him standing in the middle of the room sent her heartbeat skidding out of control. If she’d been a racecar suddenly shifted into high gear, her heart couldn’t have gone any faster. There was an odd look on his face that she could have sworn was fear before his expression froze into granite. What could the man possibly be afraid of where she was concerned? Every nerve ending in her body tugged on her to get as close to him as she could. She resisted the pull as he folded his arms across his chest.The movement emphasized sinewy shoulder muscles rippling beneath the black T-shirt he wore. A rush of fire sped up her spine until her neck was hot beneath her braided hair. Unable to help herself, her gaze slid downward to the solid line of his powerful legs encased in snug black leather. The memory of those strong legs sliding against hers made her jerk her gaze back to his face. That didn’t make her feel any better because that beautiful green eye of his was watching her like a hawk.He faced her head on, his features polar opposites of each other. One profile a horrible mass of scarred tissue and muscle, the other side was that of a beautiful angel capable of seducing a woman with just one glance of that piercing green gaze of his. Something he’d managed to do quite easily a year ago. The black patch over his scarred eye added to the hard, dark edge of emotion he exuded as he stared at her in silence, waiting for her to speak. Deus, the man made her nervous as hell. She fought to get her pulse rate under control.
“We need to talk,” she snapped.Christus, that wasn’t a good start.
“About?” His uncooperative tone made her tighten her lips.“Damn it, why do you always have to be so cryptic?” The man was more than that. He was exasperating. “You’re worse than Ares.”“I’m flattered.”“Itwasn’ta compliment.”He arched his eyebrow in an arrogant fashion at her frustrated remark but remained silent. She drew in a deep breath then exhaled. This wasnotgoing well at all. She was supposed to be apologizing to him, not antagonizing him. She centered herself in an attempt to create some calm inside her.“Okay, let me start over. We have … a history, you and I. This isn’t Chicago, and since you asked for me on this assignment, I thought it best we clear the air between us.”“I didn’t ask for you,” he said harshly.If he’d struck her, she couldn’t have been more stunned. How could he say he hadn’t asked for her? She was here. She’d received the e-mail, and her name had been on the passenger list for the Order’s Learjet that had flown her here.
“I don’t understand … as Legatus, you picked your own team. I was told to report here.”
“The Prima Consuladded fighters to the list I submitted. I didn’t put your name on my list.”The skin on her face grew cold as the blood drained away. He’d not asked for her. Deus, could she have ever been a bigger fool? Her head was spinning, and she didn’t know which way to turn. Rejection was becoming a habit she could do without. Had he let her come all this way just to tell her she wasn’t wanted? She went rigid at the thought.
“So why didn’t you tell Atia to take me off the roster?” she bit out.
“I didn’t know she’d assigned you to my team until my PrimusPilusgave me your file a little while ago,” he said quietly.For a moment, she could have sworn there was a gentle note of apology in his voice. She immediately discarded the notion. It was just wishful thinking on her part. The man was being polite, nothing more. But she didn’t want him to be polite. She wanted him to say the past year had been nothing more than a big mistake. She wanted to hear him say he cared about her and had pushed her away because he’d not wanted to see her hurt. That’s what she wanted him to do.
He didn’t do any of that.Instead, he rubbed the back of his neck and stared down at the floor in a contemplative fashion. Her imagination had the audacity to suggest that her presence had thrown him off balance. She tried to dismiss the idea but couldn’t. The man was almost stone hard with tension, and it had to be because she was here. If they were going to be walking around on eggshells with one another, then she needed to go home. But the truth was she didn’t want to go home.“Send me back to Chicago then.” She heard the break in her voice, but he didn’t seem to notice.“Atia had her reasons for sending you here. She’s not likely to send you home,” he said smoothly, but she could see he was uneasy about her being here. “As for the past. It’s just that, the past.”She flinched at his words. It wasn’t justthe past. It was as real and vivid to her as if it had happened yesterday. Only a man who didn’t care about her could use those words. She drew in a sharp breath as she bent her head to avoid looking at him. The last thing she needed was for him to see how vulnerable she was where he was concerned.“Then I guess I’m staying.”
“If you’re worried I’ll treat you differently than the others-don’t.”His words had a sharp edge to them that said he’d somehow been offended by her comment. She jerked her head up to see his green eye studying her with an emotion that made her heart skip a beat. He blinked and it wasn’t there anymore. Had that been a flash of desire in his gaze or was she imagining things?The knot in her throat swelled. She was an idiot. When was she going to learn that things weren’t going to change? She kept looking for anything that might give her hope, but she kept coming up empty-handed. It was time to move on, but she wasn’t sure how. Maybe the best way to do that was to do what she’d come here for. Apologize.
“I didn’t just come here to clear the air between us.” She hesitated, uncertain how to proceed.
“It’s not like you to hold back, Phaedra,” he said with a trace of cynical amusement. “Just say what you have to say.”Christus, the man wasn’t making this easy. She didn’t blame him for being wary of her. The verbal lashings she’d given him over the past year weren’t something she was proud of, but she couldn’t take them back. At the same time, she knew he wasn’t completely blameless. He’d been abastardoto let her go that morning thinking they’d shared something special. And she was the idiot who kept praying he’d lied.“I wanted to say thank you for … you were good to me when Julian died.” She saw him stiffen with surprise. Clearly, her words weren’t what he’d been expecting.“I know how much he meant to you.”There it was again, that stiff note in his voice. Almost as if it pained him to talk about Julian. Maybe it did. It definitely wasn’t an easy topic for her.“Julian was my friend. You did what you could to make things easier for me, and I’m grateful.” Her gaze met his, and she bit her bottom lip at the impassive expression on his face. “And I’m especially grateful for you not telling Atia that I healed Ares after he ran the gauntlet.”“It was easy to do. I didn’t see you heal him,” he growled.The dark expression on his face made her mouth go dry. Tension vibrated between them in a way that was tangible. She could feel it sliding over her skin until she wanted to run from the room. But she charged ahead.“But you knew. You saw me after the fact. You even carried me back to my room—”“Where’s all this leading, Phaedra? I’ve work to do.”
“I wanted to talk to you about the night of Julian’s Rogalis.”
“There’s nothing to say,” he bit out between clenched teeth as his body grew even more rigid with tension. “You spoke the truth.”“No.” The vehemence in her voice was startling as she turned and walked past him to stand at the door leading out onto the balcony. “I’m to blame for what happened to him, not you. He wouldn’t have disobeyed your orders if I hadn’t rejected his offer of the blood bond the night before.”Her words were a hard blow to his midsection. Julian had asked her to be his wife. Is that what they’d been arguing about when he’d encountered them in the gym the night before Julian died? Why had she rejected the Sicari fighter?Il Christi omnipotentia, was it possible she still cared for him despite the vicious way he’d rejected her at the hospital?
“That night wasn’t the first time Julian disobeyed orders. He was impulsive.” He ground out the words.
“But I accused you … blamed you, and I …” She swiped at her cheek.Dulcis Jesu, she was crying. Phaedra never cried. She hadn’t even cried at Julian’sRogalis. He was certain his arms were going to show bruises from the way his fingers were digging deep into his skin as he fought back the urge to go to her. A second later, she inhaled a deep breath. “I was wrong to blame you that night, and I’m sorry.”In the next instant, she was racing toward the door. Stunned by her apology, he stood there frozen. Phaedra hated being wrong, and she hated apologizing even more. Saying she was sorry to him had to have cost her dearly. The fact that she was leaving suddenly pierced his consciousness. He sprang forward and intercepted her just as she reached the door.The minute his hand grasped her arm, she whipped around in a defensive posture, her palm slamming into his chest. Her unexpected reaction caught him off guard, but he quickly blocked her next blow. In an experienced move, his foot kicked forward to hook around the back of her legs and knocked her off her feet. The moment she started to fall backward, he followed her and tugged her into his chest. Holding her close, he twisted his body and envisioned hitting a soft mattress. When they hit the floor beneath the invisible padding, she was on top of him.
His first thought was the memory of the last time she’d been this close to him. Then there had been nothing between them, just hot skin. Fire streaked through his blood until he could feel the beginnings of an erection.Merda, he should have let her fall. She was skilled in hand-to-hand fighting and she would have easily recovered. The soft sound of her ragged breathing grazed his senses until his heartbeat matched the pace of her frantic breaths.It surprised him she didn’t scramble away from him. Instead, she stayed exactly where she was. A pleasurable weight on his body. The scent of her was an aphrodisiac to his senses. She smelled like a warm summer breeze with just a hint of apple, tart and fresh. His gaze met hers, and there was a flash of awareness in the liquid warmth of her eyes that created a primal response throughout his entire body.The soft pink of her lush mouth tugged at him, and without meaning to, he envisioned kissing her. A sigh of need whispered out of her, and he stiffened as she lowered her head to tentatively brush her mouth over his. The caress breached a wall inside him, and his hand cupped the back of her neck to pull her closer.She came willingly, and in the next instant desire engulfed him in a blaze of heat that only she could quench. Her lips parted against his, giving him free rein to explore the inner sweetness of her mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d tasted anything this wonderful. Sweet and hot, her tongue swirled around his in a silent demand for more.Seconds later, her lips were setting his body on fire as she trailed her mouth down his throat. Her teeth nipped lightly at his skin, pulling a growl of pleasure from him. Deus, he wanted her worse than the last time he’d made love to her. Everything came rushing back at him as his hand caressed every inch of her he could reach.He’d not forgotten how good it was between them, but he didn’t remember it being this intense. There wasn’t a thing about her that didn’t make him crave more. The scent of her filled his nostrils as he remembered how good she’d felt when he’d slid into her velvet heat. She gasped, and he realized she’d felt him stroking her inner core with his thoughts.She immediately lifted her head to stare down at him. Passion lit those gorgeous brown eyes of hers as she rubbed her hips across his stone-hard erection in an erotically suggestive move. It dragged a tortured groan from him, and she rubbed against him again, making his cock ache for her. He drew in a sharp hiss of air and rolled her over onto her back.With desire raging in his blood, he lowered his head to kiss her hard. His blood thickened and roared in his veins as she met his demanding caress with equal fervor.Christus, he needed to find a way to regain control of the situation. His senses immediately shut down the thought as the scent, taste, and feel of her pulled him back into a place he didn’t want to leave. Her mouth left his and lightly trailed across his marred flesh. He stiffened at the touch. There was a tenderness in the caress that tightened a vise around his heart.
“Lysander, please.” Her whisper was almost like a prayer and it slammed into him with a force that sucked the air out of his lungs.Fuck.He was out of his mind. He’d been right on the edge of making her his again. With a growl of fierce anger, he quickly rolled away from her. In a single fluid move, he was on his feet. Surprise widened her eyes before a haunted look swept across her face. It was the same expression she’d worn when he’d sent her away at the hospital.Unable to bear looking at the pain in her face, he whirled away from her. One hand running through his short hair, his brain churned frantically to come up with some logical explanation for kissing her. He’d been trying for the past year to make her believe he didn’t care about her, and now he’d come close to making love to her.How in Jupiter’s name was he going to make her believe things hadn’t changed without her hating him? That was the point, wasn’t it? No, he didn’t want to hurt her again. And he was certain he was about to do just that when he turned around to face her. Damn.An impassive expression on her face, she had risen to her feet and stood ramrod straight, staring at a point over his shoulder. Except for the wild pulse fluttering in her neck, anyone else would have thought her well composed. He knew better. But her response to him seconds ago still surprised him. Over the past year, he’d worked hard to make her despise him. He’d thought he’d succeeded, but now he wasn’t sure, and the knowledge scared the hell out of him.
“I askIndulgentia, il mio signore. I have no excuse for hitting you.”“Christus,” he muttered. She sounded like she expected him to sentence her to theCastigatiofor striking a Legatus. With a sharp gesture, he dismissed her statement. “Forget it. I have.”She flinched, and he immediately regretted his sharp tone. He’d made it sound like he’d already forgotten what it had been like touching her again. Nothing coherent formed in his mind to say, and he just stared at her in silence. The tension between them was an invisible thread stretched taut, and the minute it snapped, it was going to hit him like a baseball bat.“About just now—”“Forget it. I have.” She coldly threw his words back at him.Her bitterness was a sharp-edged blade gutting him with delicate precision. It went right to his middle then slid upward to his heart and cut it out of him.Merda, he deserved her wrath. He’d managed to hurt her again. If this was what it was going to be like working with her every day, he was in trouble.
Maybe he needed to pair her off with Pasquale. No. The only person he trusted to keep her safe was himself. The question to answer was whether to tell her now or later that they were going to be partners for the duration of the mission. He glanced at her impassive features. Somehow, he didn’t think she was going to react well to the news.
Later. He’d tell her later.
“May I go?”
The sudden husky note in her voice wound his muscles up tight.Christus, was she on the verge of tears again? He couldn’t let her go like this. There had to be some type of explanation he could give for his behavior. The only thing he could think of was the one thing he wasn’t about to say. He ignored the temptation to deny her request. Instead, he gave her a sharp nod of permission and watched in silence as she darted out the door. He was going to have Atia’s head for this. The Prima Consulwas playing games with not only his life, but Phaedra’s as well.
Chapter 6ATIA Vorenus entered the main door of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva and paused just inside the doorway. The church rested on the site of one of the ancients’ temples-Minerva, goddess of wisdom. The irony of her presence here was not lost on her. She’d given her bodyguard the slip some time ago, and if Ignacio knew where she was, the man would have a heart attack. Even as recent as twenty years ago, her presence in this church would have placed her life in jeopardy. She was still at risk if she really thought about it. The capture of the Order’s Prima Consulwould mean a promotion for any Praetorian. Something Ignacio was going to drone on about when he finally caught up with her.The Santa Maria sopra Minerva was all the more alarming simply because of what it had been so long ago. Masquerading as holy men, the Praetorians had used this particular place as a breeding ground for their ethnic cleansing of the Sicari. Thebastardihad abused the Carpenter’s teachings for centuries, convincing others that it was a divine task to root out evil. An evil they’d labeled Sicari. This very church had produced some of the more zealous of inquisitors during the Middle Ages, all of them Praetorian. Even the great Galileo had not escaped their wrath, as his trial had taken place here.She tensed as she saw a clergyman enter the nave and move to the front of the altar. Immediately, she closed her thoughts off, but not before the man turned to study the place of worship. She inhaled a sharp breath of trepidation. Capture meant her death. She was too old to be used as breeding stock, but the Praetorians would try to cull every piece of knowledge they could from her before they killed her.Despite her aversion to showing the Carpenter disrespect with the pretense of penitent worship, she stopped at the ornate fount a short distance into the nave to avoid drawing any attention to herself. Better to pretend than be found out and possibly lose her life. Dipping her fingers into the water, she genuflected in the direction of the altar with an unspoken apology. Somehow, she didn’t think the Carpenter would mind.The pretense done, she quickly skirted the back row of pews to follow the aisle along the north wall. She moved with the speed and silence she’d learned in early childhood. From the moment they could walk, the Sicari learned how to move with great stealth and quickness. It wasn’t just because of what they did—it was how they’d survived over the centuries.Even though she was in her mid-fifties, she was still in excellent shape, which played to her favor when it came to avoiding detection or capture in a Praetorian stronghold. Marcus had always enjoyed hiding right beneath their enemy’s noses. It was a game to him. A deadly one. Particularly in this place.
But she had little say in the matter. As Marcus was the reigning Sicari Lord, she had toobey him. At least he hadn’t commanded they meet at the site of Nero’s Circus. It would have meant braving entrance to what was hallowed ground to so many of the Church’s faithful. It would have been much more dangerous. The Praetorians were great in number at the house of the man who’d denied the Carpenter. As she hurried down the north aisle, she saw a small tour group admiring the architecture of the flying buttress on the opposite side of the church. In one of the front pews, an old woman and a child knelt on the prayer benches. Mindful of the potential threat at the altar, she quietly darted to the left and past the beautiful Risen Christstarted by Michelangelo centuries ago.Past the statue and the choir area behind the altar, she found the spiral staircase leading down into the crypts. Whenever she met Marcus in one of these places, thispart of the journey was her least favorite. All the rotting death behind the walls abhorred her. The fiery cleanliness of a Sicari burial ritual was far preferable to putting a body into the ground to feed the worms.At the end of the crypt’s corridor, she paused. Nothing other than her own breathing filled the silence in the dim passage. Reassured that no one had followed her, she slid her fingers along the top edge of the stone ridge that bordered the crypt she faced. Just as Marcus’s message had told her, she found the slight bump in the stone directly above the intersected P and X of the Chi-Rho symbol.The moment she pressed the stone trigger above the Church’s ancient symbol for the Carpenter, the crypt’s roughly hewn facade rolled to one side with a quiet rumble. She quickly slipped through the narrow opening and tugged on the iron lever inside. The grit beneath her fingers was a reflection of how long it had been since someone had used this secret Sicari hiding place. Still, the stone slid softly back into place behind her as if time had not aged it at all.All this intrigue and danger. Why Marcus didn’t pick an open venue where the danger would be far less puzzled her. She wondered if he did it as a form of punishment for past transgressions. His or hers, she couldn’t be sure. Blind, she reached to the left, her fingers fumbling to find the candle and tinderbox on the shelf. Less than a minute later, Atia used the lit candle to illuminate her way down a short corridor to a stone stairwell. She peered below and saw the faint glow of light.Damn, he was already here. Her hand on the cold wall to steady her, she hurried down the steps. She’d hoped to be here when he arrived. She grimaced. Marcus always seemed to be one step ahead of her. It was irritating. She’d almost reached her destination when the sound of a deep male laugh echoed out into the stairwell. Just as he always had, he could easily tell what she was thinking. Disgusted with her inability to shield her thoughts from him better, she entered the small shrine and waited silently just inside the doorway.
The sole occupant of the small room knelt in front of an ancient altar to Minerva. Marcus was one of the few Sicari she knew who kept the old ways. But then Sicari Lords were trained to follow the way of justice and wisdom. And their wisdom had guided everyPrima Consulwho’d come before her. With a light touch to the icons on the laraium, he blew out the candle on either side of the small display and rose to his feet. Even without his monk’s robes, his height would have made him an imposing figure. Pushing his hood off his head, Marcus turned to face her. It had been more than five years since their last meeting, and he’d changed. His face was still youthful, but his vivid blue eyes reflected a change in spirit.
“Not too much of a change I hope.”
“Certainly not when it comes to probing my thoughts.” She sent him an annoyed look.
“You never did care for that particular talent of mine,” he said with a chuckle. “You’re as lovely as ever.”
“You need glasses.”
“You’llalwaysbe beautiful to me, Atia.”The sincerity in his voice made her heart skip a beat, and the years faded away to when they were both younger. She frowned as the old sorrow lanced through her, and she reached up to touch her silver hair. It was impossible to go back. He changed the subject, giving her the chance to shove the painful past aside.
“I understand Ares has taken adomina.”“Yes, they’re enjoying an extended honeymoon at the Rennes le Chateauestate. Emma found some interesting evidence at one of the nearby ruins.”“I see.” His gaze narrowed as their eyes met. “As I recall that part of France is quite beautiful this time of year.”“Yes,” she said with an abrupt nod and dragged her eyes away from his. She didn’t want to remember how happy they’d been those first four years at Rennes le Chateau.“Ares is an excellent fighter. He’ll keep her safe.”“You say that as if …” She sucked in a sharp breath. “You. It was youin the alleyway the night Ares first met Emma. You were the one Ares fought that night.”“Now why would you think that?” A note of amusement drifted beneath his words.“Because there had been no reports of a rogue Sicari anywhere in the country. The fighter appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly.” Atia narrowed her eyes at him. “And no Sicari would run from a fight.”
“There is a difference between surrender and benevolence,” he growled. “You know as well as I do Ares is no match for my skills and abilities. If I’d known the boy had planned
to act as Emma Zale’s protector, I wouldn’t have interfered.”The indignation on his face made him all the more imposing, but she faced his anger with the same defiance she always had. The minute he leaned into her, the full power of his presence engulfed her in a storm of sensation she thought she’d long forgotten. An odd expression crossed his face as he leaned even closer.The scent of him filled her nostrils, a clean, woodsy smell. It sent a pulse of awareness through her, and the years faded away to the first moment she’d angered him. A moment that had erupted into a night of passion that had changed everything. The memory of those moments so long ago filled her with a longing she thought she’d forgotten. She brushed them aside. She was older now, much wiser, and certainly not one to give way to impulse or passion.
“Your thoughts reveal a great deal, mea amor.”
“Do they, Eminence?” she said in a stilted tone.
Marcus lifted her chin with one hand, a gentle smile on his firm lips. A mouth that had pleasured her so exquisitely so many years ago.
“So formal. Have you forgotten what there was between us?”“No. The past is always with me,” she said quietly. “But I thought you asked me here to discuss the Tyetof Isisand some new information you’ve uncovered.”The cerulean blue of his watchful gaze made her close herself off to him. The annoyance in his expression said her efforts to keep him out of her head had been successful. He scowled at her then uttered a soft oath and nodded sharply.“I’ve received an analysis of the mutilations on the bodies of Emma’s parents and her mentor. My resources believe the marks carved into the cheeks of the Zales and Russwin are symbolic to the murderer. They believe the symbol is Praetorian in origin.”“Why in Juno’s name would they think it’s Praetorian?”“Because if you add two lines to the mark, it forms the sigla.”“The Chi-Rho,” she said as she drew in a quick breath. She remembered the P and X symbol on the stone covering the entrance to this ancient temple.
It was so simple. Although her researchers had noted the similarities between the ChiRho symbol used by Constantine I at the Battle of Milvian and the mark left on the victims, they’d not made the connection. But then she hadn’t had a forensic psychologist review the symbols, something she was now certain Marcus had done. She couldn’t believe she’d made such a stupid mistake. She should have done that herself.
“But why not complete the mutilation?” she murmured and frowned. “It would signify that justice has been administered.”“I’ve been told the individual making the mark is most likely a fanatic who feels it would be sacrilege to mark their victims with a symbol of the Carpenter’s. A symbol with deep ties to the birth of the Praetorian presence in the Church.” A tic in Marcus’s cheek made her realize how deeply this information concerned him. “Instead, the murderer uses the partial symbol as a way to mark the victims as heretics who are a threat to the Praetorians.”“But the Zales and Russwin weren’t Vigilavi.” Atia frowned. The Vigilaviwerealieniwho served the Order in different capacities. Many of them descendants ofalienithe Sicari had saved centuries ago. She shook her head in puzzlement. “They weren’t even on the Order’s payroll as consultants.”
“No, but they had one thing in common. They were looking for the Tyetof Isis, and whoever killed them was concerned they might find it.”“Praetorians are always dangerous, but a fanatical one is doubly so. I’ll inform the Council of the threat and alert the guilds.” She experienced a sudden rush of fear for him. “I assume you’ll have Dante attempt to deal with this threat?”“Unfortunately, I think this is one threat I will have to deal with myself.” The quiet resignation threading beneath his statement made her stare up at him in fear. He didn’t look away, and horror swept through her.“You think it’s him,” she gasped.“Yes.” He nodded, a grim expression crossing his still handsome features.She swayed slightly, and his strong hands gripped her shoulders. “Forgive me, carissima.I prayed this day would never come.”“How can you be so sure? It could be any Praetorian.” She shuddered.“No,” he said firmly. “I’m convinced it’s Gabriel.”“But you can’t be sure it’s him. It could be someone else.”“No,” He shook his head. “Gregori doesn’t hide the names of the Praetorian Dominus he’s trained. Silvestro and Alessandro have been responsible for more deaths in my guild than I care to count. But they don’t mark their victims as heretics, and they only hunt Sicari.”
“It still doesn’t mean it’s him. We don’t even know if he’s alive.”“You’ve seen the reports. There have been almost ten Sicari killed in Rome, Venice, and Genova over the past two years. What those reports didn’t explain was that all of them were murdered in the same manner as the Zales and Russwin. These warriors were all looking for the artifact, too. Those who survived the encounters long enough to give us information said their attacker had both telepathic and telekinetic abilities.”
“Why wasn’t this information reported to me?” she demanded.
“The men and women who died were in my personal guild. They answer to me, before anyone else. I ordered the reports be modified.”“I don’t care that the Absconditus isyour guild or that you’re the reigning Sicari Lord. Just because the Prima Consulreports to you doesn’t mean you can pick and choose the type of information you release to me.” Her mouth tightened as she scowled at him. “The Order hasalwaysserved at the pleasure of the Sicari Lords, but as Prima Consul, I’m entitled to see all information the Abscondituspossesses when it comes to general matters of interest to the Council. It’s been done like that for centuries.”
“It was my intent to protect you.” His voice had become stiff and stilted.“Protect me,” she snapped as the painful memories came rushing back. “From what? The knowledge that thebastardiwho took our son have turned him into a killer? You tried to protect him, too, remember?”The minute her words left her mouth, she regretted it. The accusation was unfounded, and they both knew it. The ashen look on Marcus’s face filled her with remorse. Even the pain lashing through her was not an excuse for accusing him of failing to save their child.“Protecting him wasn’t just my sacred duty. It was my responsibility as a father,” he said in a savage tone.It was a sharp, unyielding statement, but she heard the anguish in his voice. His guilt was a tangible sensation, and her heart ached for him in spite of her bitterness. Despite everything that had transpired between them, her love for him was as strong today as it had been more than thirty years ago. She knew he’d done what he thought necessary to protect their child.The Order had always had its spies, and someone had known she’d given birth to a Sicari Lord. Marcus had tried to protect their son by taking him away. But even that precaution had failed. The outcome would have been the same no matter where they’d tried to hide Gabriel. The Praetorians had received help from inside the Order, and if she ever found out who it was, she’d slit their throat herself. To hell with the consequences. She touched the sleeve of Marcus’s robe.
“Forgive me. I spoke in anger. It was unwarranted. We both know the Praetorians had help from within the Order. They would have found Gabriel no matter what we did,” she
“I was too arrogant,” he rasped. “It blinded me. Made me less vigilant.”
“You are a Sicari Lord. Arrogance has always been a part of you,” she murmured with a quiet smile. “But you are still human, and even you make mistakes.”
“You defend me, carissima?”Amazement echoed in his voice as he turned his head to look down at her. The sorrow in his vivid blue eyes made her throat tighten with tears she barely managed to hold back.Deus, if she allowed him to see her cry, he’d know he still had power over her. Losing Gabriel had torn them apart, and she had no doubt that what lay before them now could easily destroy them both. There was no place for emotion or sentiment between them now. It would only lead to more pain. The minute his hand touched her shoulder, selfpreservation took over, and she quickly put a reasonable distance between them. There was too much pain in that touch. And longing. A wish for things to have been different.
“You’ve reached a decision?” she asked in a stilted tone.
“He must die.”Marcus spoke without emotion. It was just a simple statement. But its impact on her was like running into a wall. He sounded as if he was talking about someone other than their son. And that’s what shattered her heart. Theywerediscussing someone else. Gabriel was no longer their son. The Praetorians had taken him away when he was only two. It was unlikely he would even remember them. Silence settled between them as theycontemplated what was to come. How did one kill one’s own child? The question sickened her, and she turned away from Marcus. The pain was too fresh and raw.“It’s all right,mea amor. We shall do what we must.”Only once had he ever entered her thoughts like this. The gentle intrusion then had been to comfort her, just as it was now. The invisible caress of his hand touched the side of her face, and she trembled. A second later, she was engulfed in his strong arms and he held her quietly. “Cry,inamorato. Cryfor what we’ve both lost.”The tenderness of his thoughts and the way he cradled her against him proved her undoing. The tears came hot and fast as she cried in his embrace. She was no longer Prima Consul, and he was no longer the reigning Sicari Lord. They were simply two people struggling with a profound grief.Several long moments passed before her tears finally stopped. Gently she pushed herself free of his arms. Her gaze met his for a moment as her fingers pressed into her forehead. Her head hurt from all the crying.“So after all this time you still get a headache when you cry,” he said with a small smile.
“I don’t cry very often.” Her quiet response pulled a low chuckle from him.
“Why am I not surprised?”The familiar strokes of his invisible fingers across her forehead felt good. In seconds, they’d eased some of her tension. He’d not lost his touch. Again the soft laugh. He’d not left her thoughts after all. She scowled at him.
“I was not reading your thoughts, Atia.” He leaned into her. “I was reading your expression.”“Then stop,” she bit out sharply. It was a ridiculous statement. She knew that. But all she wanted was to finish up with their business and leave. Being here with him was affecting her in ways she’d not experienced in years. She deliberately opened up her thoughts to him, while burying her deepest emotions behind a facade he couldn’t penetrate. His jaw grew tight with tension, telling her she’d succeeded in letting him see only what she wanted him to see.
“Va bene.” His head jerked in a sharp nod. “The incident at the Zale house cost us a considerable sum to keep quiet.”
“Her observations about the coin confirm yours. It’s the coin of the Sicari Lord Baldassare.”
“But she saw nothing that would help us find the Tyetof Isis.” It wasn’t a question, simply a statement of frustration.
“No, Eminence,” she murmured. He scowled at her use of his formal title.
“The Sicari Lord coin wasn’t the only object Emma read when Ares brought her to the White Cloud estate for Julian’s Rogalis. She touched the Dagger of Cassiopeia.”
“And the significance?” he snapped, his features taut with a tension she didn’t understand.
“When she touched the dagger, she saw a man who looked just like Lysander Condellaire, scar and all.” Her words made him send her a disgusted look.
“Are you seriously trying to suggest he’s the reincarnation of Maximus?”
“I don’t know what to think. But Emma’s descriptions were quite vivid.”“It’s a legend passed down from one Prima Consulto the next. Nothing more.” The rigid line of his posture emphasized his tension. It was unlike him to be so resistant to the idea of reincarnation or prophecy.“It might be simply a legend. But what if it’s true? The timing is uncanny. Lysander leading the team here in Rome in search of the artifact. Emma’s vision. What if Maximushasreturned to claim the Tyetof Isis?”“Condellaire can’t be trusted.” Marcus’s voice was as cold and inflexible as his gaze was. “He has Praetorian blood in him.”“Christus, his mother was raped. Lysander didn’t have a choice in who his father was, any more than Aurelia had a choice in refusing that Praetorianbastardo,” she snapped.“None of it changes the fact that Condellaire is half Praetorian.” He glared at her. “And he’s been struggling with his darker half for little more than a year. Holding it at bay-pretending nothing’s wrong, or am I mistaken?”“Lysander hasn’t been keeping it in.” She waved her hands in a vehement protest. “We have talked a great deal about his ordeal.”“All well and good, but will he rise to the task when lives are at stake.” Marcus frowned. “I didn’t interfere when you named him Legatusfor this mission, but if he becomes unstable, Campanella is to replace him.”
“Your worry is misplaced. There are few men of Lysander’s caliber among our people.
He’ll not fail youorthe Order. His skills are what make him an excellent Legatus. You underestimate him, Marcus.”“We shall see,” he said with condescension. “His telekinetic ability is strong, but his telepathic skills are unreliable and erratic. If he’d displayed his abilities sooner, perhaps he could have been trained, but now it’s too late.”“He might not be a true Sicari Lord, but to suffer as he did and survive without telling thosebastardianything shows his heart is Sicari. He’ll not betray his friends or the Order, even despite the horrible way he learned the truth about his parentage.”The words hung in the air like icicles as she defended Lysander. Aurelia would have been proud of her youngest boy. Lysander had become a man any woman would be proud to call her son. He’d shown his worth by surviving what few had. A Praetorian torture session. And she wouldn’t let anyone, including Marcus, forget Lysander’s loyalty to the Order.
“You speak as if he were your son.” There was a bitter note in his voice, and she shook her head in denial.“Lysander. Ares. Phaedra—” She caught herself as she almost said Cleo’s name. “They helped fill the void in my life. You weren’t there, and they needed me, just as much as I needed them. But they could never fill the hole in my heart that Gabriel’s loss left inside of me.”“You know why I wasn’t there,” Marcus growled with anger.“Yes, I know.” The tremor in her voice made her pause as the pain of the past returned to envelop her once more. She shook her head. “Seneca needed your guidance in leading the Council, and you had to honor your promise to Aurelia.”“A promise I should never have made. I could have easily had Tito or Placido train the boy.” Tiny lines fractured the skin around his lips as his mouth grew taut with tension. “I would have given it up for you. All of it.”“How could you? You were the Sicari Lord chosen to lead the Absconditus. You had too much honor then,and now, to turn your back on the Order or the promise you made.”“Honor is a cold mistress,” he said bitterly.
“You did your duty. Just as I did mine. I wanted to tell Lysander the truth. All of it. Who his father really was. That he had a half-brother. But Aurelia’s concern for Lysander’s safety as well as Dante’s became mine. Perhaps they were groundless fears, but I honored my friend’s wishes, just as you did. It was important to her that you and no other Sicari Lord train Dante. She knew you. Trusted you.”
“And what about my duty to you—my responsibility to find our son?” His blue eyes studied her face closely.
“Gabriel was gone. We both know you did your best. There was nothing else you could have done.”
“And you. What about you, carissima?” He leaned toward her, his voice dropping to a rasp. “You never sent for me. Not even after that night at La Terrazza del Ninfeo.”“How could I?” she said quietly. “I knew where your duty lay. Dante needed you more than me or—the boy’s safety and well-being were more important than my happiness or yours.”The words squeezed at her heart like a spiked vise. He’d never know how hard it had been not to send for him more than a dozen times. Not to tell him—she shoved the memory aside. She’d never said a word to him, because deep inside she’d hoped and prayed he would find Gabriel and bring him home. Then they might have had a chance to be the family she’d always longed for. But Marcus hadn’t found Gabriel.
“But if I had walked away from it, would you have come with me?” he asked in a voice filled with emotion.She breathed in a deep breath and released it as she considered the question. If he’d abdicated his role as reigning Sicari Lord, chaos would have erupted in the Absconditus.Tito and Placido had been powerful, but they’d served their time. They were too old to lead the Absconditusto ensure its strength and viability. And with Orlando’s untimely death, Marcus had been the only one capable of leading. She’d known that when she’d blood bonded with him.“No.” She shook her head as she looked away from him. “Gabriel’s disappearance made it difficult enough. If you’d abdicated, you would have come to resent me for it. Going our separate ways was for the best.”A dark note of fury exploded out of him as he spun away from her. The emotions and sheer power of his abilities sent a humming sensation through her body. Was his anger for Gabriel or what they’d meant to each other and had lost? He jerked his head to look at her over his shoulder. His expression said she’d not shielded her thoughts very well.“Both, carissima. Both. I should have been more vigilant. I should have taken extra precautions. Fotte, none of this would have happened if I’d—”
“You give yourself too much credit for what you can and cannot control,” she snapped. “Your responsibilities as a Sicari Lord would have eventually torn us apart. Gabriel’s loss wouldn’t have changed that. Blaming yourself is pointless. The Praetorians are the ones who turned our son into a monster. Not you.”
“A monster that needs to be destroyed,” he said as he turned to face her again. The hard words were like a blow to her body, and it sent a tremor through her.
“Then ask Dante to do it. Surely he’s ready. Don’t let your arrogance blind you to what might happen if you face Gabriel on the field of battle.”Marcus drew in a deep breath then exhaled it slowly, his eyes closing as he seemed to be absorbing her words. When he looked at her again, he gave her a brusque nod. “I shall give it thought.”The silence was tense and awkward between them, making her wish he’d never sent for her. No, it was the news he’d given her that made her wish that. Being here with him was a small taste of the Elysium Fields, despite the knowledge it wouldn’t last. Suddenly eager to escape the raw emotion hanging between them, she bowed in respect to him.
“Is there anything else, Eminence?”He didn’t answer her for a long moment, and she waited in silence for him to say something. She glanced up at him, and her heart slammed into her chest at the hunger in his face.“One day soon, Dante will assume the role of reigning Sicari Lord. When he does, I intend to come for you.” The deep note of confidence in his voice made her heart skip a beat before it began to race at a frightening speed.“I said your arrogance was expected of a Sicari Lord, but I forgot how arrogant you really are,” she bit out in a sharp tone.“Is it my arrogance you find so irritating, or is there something else that disturbs you?”The determination and wealth of emotion in his voice sent a tremor through her. This was the Marcus she’d fallen in love with. Strong, determined, and insistent on getting his way. She was definitely in trouble if Dante became the reigning Sicari Lord. Best to ignore his high-handed declaration. Particularly when it terrified her that he meant every word. She wasn’t certain she could risk giving her heart to him one more time.“Do I have your permission to leave, Eminence?” She deliberately kept her voice neutral, her thoughts closed to him.“Yes.” He gave her an abrupt nod. “But don’t mistake my words, Atia. I will come for you. Only this time I won’t let anyone, or anything, make me give you up.”
This time her mental controldidslip, and the slow smile curling his mouth said her thoughts had revealed more than she cared to. Not a good thing when one was dealing with a Sicari Lord.
Chapter 7LYSANDER strode into the small library of the Rome guild’s satellite office to find Atia seated at a library table. The Prima Consulhad sent for him a short time ago, and he’d deliberately kept her waiting out of anger. Not a prudent thing to do, but if he’d come any sooner, he might have been prone to doing her harm. In front of her, a large book lay open on the tabletop. He fought the urge to probe her thoughts and find out what she was up to. Instead, he settled on reading her body language. She was upset about something. Someone had done or said something to throw her out of her usual controlled behavior.Good. He wanted to thank them for unsettling the Prima Consul. The woman deserved to have someone destroy that calm reserve of hers for what she’d done to him. He came to a halt beside the table and waited in silence for her to speak.“You’re angry with me.” She didn’t look up from the book as she trailed her finger across the page. When he didn’t respond, she raised her head and met his gaze with exasperation. “Speak your mind, Lysander.”
He clasped his hands behind his back and frowned at her. “DeLuca’s presence here presents not only a grave danger to her but to the rest of the team.”“Danger is a way of life with us, Lysander. We’re always looking over our shoulder on some level.”“She’s too valuable an asset to the Order to toss her into this viper’s nest. Her safety here is far more precarious than if she were in Chicago.”“Hmm, perhaps.” Atia nodded as if weighing his words seriously before she shrugged. “But you needed a good healer, and Phaedra is best suited for the task. Marco tells me you’re her partner for this mission. I can’t think of anyone else better qualified to ensure she remains safe.”He drew in a deep breath then slowly released it. The woman should be grateful he had a firm grip on the monster inside him. If he were to release it … he swallowed hard but didn’t respond to her dismissive comment. She eyed him carefully.“The fact that you have Praetorian blood running in your veins doesn’t make you any less Sicari, Lysander.” The Prima Consulfrowned as he didn’t react to her words. “You’re one of our best warriors. It’s time you come to terms with who you are and what was done to you.”
“I wasn’t aware that I hadn’t already done so,” he said coolly. Behind his back, he tightened his grip on his wrist and his free hand clenched into a tight fist.
“Don’t take me for a fool, Lysander. Many have done so to their regret.” She frowned at him, but he refused to show any emotion in the face of her warning.
“I am not so unwise as to take you for a fool,Consul.”“Christus, you are far too hardheaded for your own good. You long for a woman you think you cannot have, all because of the circumstance of your birth. Are you really that uncertain of your ability to control the dark side of you?”
“I am in complete control of my abilities.”
“Butnotthe emotions that came with the discovery of who you are.”
“And your point being?”
“My point, you stubborn fool, is that it’s time you accept that what happened that night was out of your control.”“Itwaswithin my control,” he bit out through clenched teeth. ” I made the decision to go into that building with only three fighters. As team leader, I was responsible for their safety.”“You made a leadership decision,” she snapped. “And it’s a miracle you survived.”“A miracle?” he rasped as his wrist ached from the way his fingers dug into his flesh. “Two fighters were tortured to death, a woman was carried off to be a brood mare for thosebastardi, and that Praetorian son of a bitch who claimed to be my father let me live because he knew it would be a punishment far worse than death.”“No, he recognized you had your mother’s heart, and not his,” she said with quiet determination. “In letting you live, Nicostratus hopes you’ll surrender to the darkness inside you. Why else would he tell you who he was? It’s a game to him.”“This is a pointless conversation,” he said without emotion.“Va bene.Just remember that you arenotyour father’s son.” She directed that piercing gray gaze of hers at him. It was a direct command by the Prima Consul. “Praetorian blood might run in your veins, but your heart is all Sicari.”
The reminder was of no comfort. Atia was mistaken. With each passing day, his darkblood was howling for revenge. The sinister half of him whispered constant words of encouragement, urging him to hunt Nicostratus down and retaliate. Where Praetorians were concerned, there was no Sicari code to adhere to, and his friends would be willing to go after the man with him. But Nicostratus would announce his paternal pride the minute they got within shouting distance of the man. Tension laced through him at the thought. An image of Nicostratus smiling down at him in cold amusement chilled him until he had to suppress a shiver of fear. He shoved the memory back into the hole he’d buried it in more than a year ago.
“Your message said you wanted to ask me something.” He sent her a steely glare to signal the matter was finished. Frustration tightened her lips into a thin line, and she nodded.
“Yes, I wanted to know if you’ve had any strange dreams of late? Moments of strong deja vu?”Damn, was the woman half Praetorian like him? The Prima Consulknew he’d always been fond of ancient Roman history, but he’d never mentioned anything about his dreams. He danced around the question with an ambiguous response.
“If you’re worried I’m still having nightmares related to my … to that night—don’t.”
“No, I was simply interested in knowing whether you’d been dreaming about ancient Rome.”The observation made him go rigid. What in the name of Jupiter was the woman fishing for by asking such a question? He knew better than to lie. Atia had this uncanny ability to spot a lie faster than most people could tell one. He hedged once more.“I don’t see how dreams like that would signify anything.” He shrugged.“An old legend I know of might convince you otherwise.”She resumed her perusal of the book in front of her, a frown of concentration furrowing her brow. When she didn’t speak, he folded his arms across his chest and scowled at the woman. It wasn’t the first time Atia had aroused his curiosity with some mysterious comment.The woman was a master at it where he was concerned. She knew how much he enjoyed digging through history books. If there was something she wanted him to research for her, she just threw him a tidbit to pique his interest before she reeled him in. Well, he wasn’t biting this time. He could play the waiting game as well as she could.She outlasted him.
“What legend?” he growled with exasperation.Once again, he’d allowed the woman to play him, and it pissed him off royally. She didn’t look at him, but he saw her struggle to bite back a smile. Her gaze still focused on her book, she waved her hand slightly.
“It centers around Maximus and Cassiopeia.”“That’s not a new story,” he said with disgust. The carrot had been nothing more than a ruse. For what reason, he hadnoidea. Perhaps for no other reason than she enjoyed teasing him. She raised her head and turned those piercing gray eyes of hers on him.
“It’s an old story, and few but the Prima Consulsknow the tale. The legend says Maximus will return to find the Tyetof Isis.”
“And what makes you think this legend is true?”He wasn’t sure where she was going with this story and he was beginning to wonder if he really wanted to know.Christus, he was an idiot for having even taken her bait. Her gaze still on him, Atia stood up to face him, a glint of excitement in her eye.“A number of things have happened over the past year that make me think the legend has merit. Perhaps the most important one is what Emma saw when she touched the Dagger of Cassiopeia.”“She told me she’d read the Sicari Lord’s coin, not the dagger.” He shook his head slightly in puzzlement.“She didn’t say anything because she saw something that troubled her deeply.”Something about Atia’s expression set off a warning signal inside his head. The PrimaConsulhad the look of someone about to spring a trap. He grimaced as he tried to form a plan that would let him leave the room without being caught in the woman’s web. He couldn’t. He was a sucker for a historical mystery.And it didn’t help that Atia had a way of making the most far-fetched possibility sound almost realistic. He was more than familiar with Emma and her ability. Since formally sealing her blood bond with Ares in front of the Order, she’d read a number of artifacts in the Order’s possession in an effort to find the Tyetof Isis. Her visions had been fairly accurate, based on firsthand recorded accounts in the Order’s library. Whatever Emma had seen, Atia was convinced it had everything to do with this story that Maximus would come back from the dead to find the Tyetof Isis.“Va bene,” he growled at his inability to restrain his curiosity. “I’ll bite for a second time. What did Emma see?”
“She saw Maximus Caecilius Atellus, scars and all.” The Prima Consularched her eyebrows at him as she offered him a mysterious smile.
“How does she know it was the first Sicari Lord?”He knew Emma’s gift was an extraordinary one, but he wasn’t sure he was willing to go so far as to believe she’d seen Maximus himself. Images from his own dreams pushed their way to the front of his thoughts, and he shoved them aside. They were irrelevant to the current discussion.
“She knows, because she saw him kill Cassiopeia.”“Il Christi omnipotentia,” he breathed. Emma’s visions often included a great deal of violence, and he knew she sometimes found those images traumatic to watch. Seeing Maximus kill his wife couldn’t have been an easy thing for her.“I think it was quite troubling for her,” Atia said quietly. “In fact, I think she saw a great deal more than she shared with me. However, she did tell me about an extraordinary image that might interest you.”She had his full attention, and she knew it. He clenched his teeth as he bit back his desire to ask her what else Emma had seen. Atia arched her brow at him and waited. Patiently. This time he wasn’t going to give in. He glared at her, and she sent him a conciliatory smile.“Emma said she saw you.”“Me?” He met her gaze with a frown of amazement. “Why would she see me?”“She saw you as Maximus.” The quiet announcement was all the more dramatic because Atia didn’t raise her voice. He snorted with laughter as he met the Prima Consul’scalm gaze.“I know Emma’s gift is strong, but I find it highly doubtful it was me she really saw in her vision.”“Perhaps, but then how do you explain your dreams of ancient Rome?”“My dreams have nothing—”Merda, the witch had tricked him. He glared at her smug features. “This game is over, MadameConsul.”“This is far from a game.” Atia quickly stood up and crossed the floor to clutch his arm. “I’m convinced it’s a matter of life or death when it comes to the Tyetof Isis. I believe Emma saw the truth, Lysander.”“What truth?”
“I think you already know the answer to that,” the Prima Consulsaid softly. “Why else
would you be dreaming of ancient Rome?”Dulcis Jesu, how in the hell had the woman known to even ask him about his dreams? He’d not told anyone about them. Like some women in the Order, the woman’s strongest ability was her telekinetic power, but he knew she was intuitive as well. How she’d found out about his dreams he didn’t know, and to tell the truth, he didn’t care. The woman had already tricked him into admitting that he had the dreams, but it was one hell of a stretch between those dreams and what she was suggesting. And he really didn’t want to contemplate what she was suggesting.
“You’ve been smoking crack again, haven’t you?” The sarcastic comment earned him a smack on his arm.
“Damn it, this isn’t a joking matter.”“I wasn’t joking. I’m serious,” he said harshly. He threw off her hand with a snarl of frustration. “You’re playing connect the dots with clouds. You’re trying to make a legend about a man dead two thousand years, my dreams, and Emma’s image from the past all add up in one small package. That’s not truth. That’s reaching for straws.”
“Then answer me this question. When you dream about Maximus, are you Maximus or are you a member of the audience watching a play. Do you experiencethe dream?”“What difference does that make?” he snapped.“It’s the difference between a past-life experience and just a dream.”The Prima Consul’scomment slammed into him as he remembered the exquisite sensation he’d enjoyed when Phaedra had sucked—no. That wasn’t Phaedra, and it sure as hell wasn’t his memory of a dead woman called Cassiopeia. It was his brain longing for something he couldn’t have.“Reincarnation?” He snorted again, only this time in disgust. Shaking his head vehemently, he glared at her. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m a half-breednota Sicari.”“Maximus was a general in the Praetorian Guard before his enemies tried to kill him. And like you, he had both telekinetic and telepathic abilities.”“I’mnothim, Atia.” He heard the menace in his voice, but it didn’t faze her. Those gray eyes of hers just studied him with curiosity before she dipped her head slightly in acceptance.“As you wish,” she said with quiet resignation as she turned away from him. “But the next time you dream about Maximus and Cassiopeia, think on what I’ve said here today.”
He waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t. She just walked back to the tablewhere her book lay open, sat down, and resumed reading. Odds were she was disappointed in him. Uncertain, he remained where he was, half hoping she’d berate him for not believing. Her silence alone was the clincher.Atia always shut you out when you disappointed her. Frustrated, he stalked out of the library. The setup in this Sicari facility was much smaller than in Chicago, and he took the stairs down to the next floor. What did the woman expect from him? She was asking him to believe in something he couldn’t see or touch. And her suggestion that his dreams were from a past life-Christus—that didn’t sit well with him at all.His earlier assessment about the possibility that someone needed to verify the woman’s sanity came back to haunt him. Was it possible she reallywaslosing it? Whatever thefottewas going on, his dreams were off-limits. They were sacrosanct. Because in his dreams, Phaedra was his, and he wasn’t about to share the one simple pleasure he had left with anyone.The sound of voices floated out of the conference room as he walked down the hallway. He heard Cleo’s hearty laugh, followed by a string of swear words that almost managed to make him smile. The woman had the ability to steal people’s breath away with her beauty then shock them into gasping for air the minute she opened her mouth.The moment he stepped across the conference room’s threshold, everyone present grew quiet except for the soft rustle of people shifting in their seats. He didn’t even have to look for Phaedra. His entire body was a divining rod pulling hard in her direction. She’d taken the seat directly to the left of his chair at the head of the conference table. His blind side. A deliberate move on her part. Most likely to avoid his gaze, given their exchange earlier.His mood grim, he slowly walked to his chair, where a file sat on the table. The majority of the team had laptops in front of them, but he had little patience where computers were concerned. With an indiscernible flick of his fingers, the folder at his seat opened to the page he’d marked the night before. Emma’s notes were extensive, but that’s all they were. Notes. They were hunting for a needle in a haystack. A needle that had been missing for almost two thousand years.When he reached the table, he looked at the file’s top paper then lifted it to review the next page. It wasn’t a necessary action. He’d reviewed the file extensively over the past three days. But playing with the paper served to ease the tension in him, bringing the mission front and center so he could push the rest of his emotions into the darkest reaches of his mind.
Keeping his eyes on the file in front of him, he trailed his finger down the page he was looking at. Quiet acknowledgments drifted through the air from everyone seated at the table. Phaedra’s voice was a soft caress against his senses despite the cool note in her voice. It was clear she didn’t want to be here. The silence in the air didn’t bother him, but he knew everyone was uncomfortable. Nothing more than he’d expected. Half of the team hadn’t ever met until today.
“So no one has any questions.” He slowly lifted his head, and his gaze slid across one face after another.
“Damn it, Lysander, of course we’ve got questions.” Cleo’s voice held a note of belligerent irritation.Brassy and tough as nails, she spoke her mind and as always went straight to the heart of the matter without a care for what anyone thought. It was why he’d picked her for the team. She’d serve as his conscience. That and she’d hound him about Phaedra every chance she got. He suppressed a grimace.“Then the first thing to understand is that anyone can ask a question or express a different opinion. In here we speak freely and honestly with each other.” With his one-eyed gaze, he studied the faces around the table as he paused briefly. “I’ll listen to anything you have to say, and I encourage you to speak up. The only thing to remember is that when I make a decision—it’s final.”“Il mio signore.” Angelo Atellus nodded his head in his direction. “Maria and I have reviewed the clues Emma DeLuca provided us, and we’ve a theory we’d like to suggest.”With a nod at the man, Lysander sat down in his chair. Arms folded across his chest, he leaned back in his chair and waited for the Sicari fighter to continue. Uncertainty flashed across the man’s face before he shrugged in a fashion that many natives of Italy exhibited routinely.“We think it’s quite possible we’re dealing with a map of bread crumbs.”“Bread crumbs?” Cleo asked with a curious note in her voice.“Yes. A map where our clues are like bread crumbs scattered around Rome. We just have to find a starting point.” Angelo tapped the keyboard of his laptop. The computer’s wireless connection allowed him to use the wall screen as his monitor. In seconds, a large map of Rome flashed onto the wall. The mouse pointer drew a yellow line along a wide, blue stripe representing the Tiber River that swung west at the north end of the city.
“If we start with our first clue, we’re looking someplace along the river, about here.” Angelo used his cursor to point to a spot near one of the river’s bridges. “The second clue mentions Antoninus Pius’s father, Hadrian. That suggests we’re looking for a monument of Hadrian’s. One that points toward the city wall. An educated guess says we’re talking about the Aurelian walls, which were built around two-seventy A.D.”
Cleo pointed toward the map. “Do you have an overlay of the ancient city that shows the walls and other monuments?”With a grin, Angelo nodded his head. “As a matter of fact, I do. I researched some things last night, and I plotted out sites that are still accessible and not buried beneath presentday Rome.”
“And if what we’re looking for is under the city?” Cleo arched her eyebrows at the man.
“Let’s hope that’s not the case, because it will make our task a lot more difficult.”“Difficult? I think the word is we’re fucked.” Cleo snorted with amusement. Lysander frowned at her. He didn’t want the team to be discouraged from the outset. She shrugged. “Okay, difficult.”“What about the monuments connected to Hadrian? How many are there?” Marco Campanella asked quietly. His PrimusPiluswas asking the same questions Lysander would have asked as Ares’s second-in-command. He’d made a good choice in selecting Marco as his lieutenant.“There are at least three that I can think of off the top of my head, but I’d have to research it more to give you an accurate answer, as he also rebuilt certain monuments,” Angelo said. “I think we’ll need to include those as possibilities, too.”“Does anyone else think we’re probably wasting our time here?” Luciano Pasquale growled. “We have a stretch of river to walk along and a couple of ancient monuments to visit. Not an auspicious beginning.”“Actually, that’s not true. Angelo has given us a specific area to search.” Maria Atellus shook her head as she defended her husband.“Search for what?” Violetta Molinaro spoke up, her expression dubious.“For anything that matches up with the clues,” Phaedra answered. “Angelo, have you done any triangulations using the river as the base and one or two of the monuments attributed to Hadrian?”Clearly in his element, the Sicari fighter nodded his head and grinned. “Absolutely. Based on my calculations, we’ve got a search area that’s about two square miles of real estate.”“Again, what are we looking for specifically?” Violetta groused.
“I imagine we should be looking for the Sicari icon,” Cleo mused quietly. “Whoever hid the Tyetof Isisprobably used our symbol in the same way the followers of the Carpenter used the fish to recognize one another or designate a safe house.”As usual, Cleo’s logic was sound. The Sicari symbol dated back before the Roman Empire to Ptolemy’s time when the Guard had still been united. It made sense that the hiding place of the Tyetof Isiswould be marked with the Order’s familiar icon, a sword interlocked with a chakram. Lysander nodded at his friend.“I think you’re right, Cleo. I also believe the mark will be relatively small.” He looked around at the frowns on everyone’s faces. “Whoever hid the artifact wouldn’t want to draw attention to the monument as a potential hiding spot, so it’s doubtful it’s going to be prominent.”
“Merda, this won’t be a needle in a haystack. We’re hunting for microbes,” Luciano said in a resigned tone.“Not necessarily.” Phaedra shook her head and frowned. “We need a cover story to avoid raising any more suspicion than necessary. Playing tourist does that while letting us photograph as much of the city as we want. We can upload the photos and let the computer search the digital images for any sign of the icon.”
Admiration crossed Pasquale’s face as he leaned forward, his arms resting on the table. “Smartandbeautiful. Where have you been all my life, cara?”Raw fury flowed through Lysander’s veins at the other man’s flirtatious manner. It didn’t help matters when Phaedra laughed at the man’s teasing tone. Tamping down his anger, he closed his file on the table with a sharp movement.“Phaedra’s idea seems the best one we have, unless anyone else has a better suggestion.” He paused for a moment, and when no one spoke, he nodded sharply. “It seems we have a plan then. We’ll cover the area Angelo’s narrowed down for us in cross sections. We’ll need camera equipment. Cleo, since photography is a hobby of yours, you’re the lead on the shopping expedition this afternoon. Marco, have you informed everyone as to who is working with who?”“I was about to cover that when you arrived, ilmio signore.”“Fine,” he said with a gesture for Marco to continue.The Primus Pilusnodded as he picked up a small notebook and quickly read off the assignments and the sectors to cover. Beside him, Phaedra grew as still as a statue the minute her name was linked to his. Her tension was palpable, edging along his senses like the laser that had peeled his skin off one small piece at a time. He swallowed hard at the memory. In an abrupt gesture, he stood up and turned toward her. There wasn’t a trace of emotion on her face, but her eyes blazed with anger. She was furious, and he knew better than to give her a chance to speak.
“I’ve paperwork to deal with this afternoon, so get our grid sections from Marco and
study them. I’ll meet you in the foyer tomorrow morning at eight thirty.”
He grabbed his folder off the table and strode out of the conference room, preventing her from voicing any protests. When he reached the sanctuary of the hall, he ran his hand through his short hair in a gesture of frustration. Somehow, he was certain he’d just made a huge mistake taking Phaedra on as his partner. A mistake that might cost him more than just his sanity.
Chapter 8THROUGH the spindles at the top of the staircase, Phaedra saw Lysander standing in the entryway waiting for her. The air vibrated with tension, and she wasn’t sure which one of them was creating the uneasy sensation. Nibbling on her lip, she debated whether to try reading his emotional state.It had never been easy to read Lysander, but since his encounter with the Praetorians, just being able to read his basic emotions had been challenging. It was as if he’d erected a brick wall, preventing her or anyone else from probing too deep. But today was different. He seemed distracted, and she had a sense of the raw emotions running deep inside him.As she opened herself up to his feelings, the intensity of them overwhelmed her. The sheer force of it was a physical sensation and threatened to drop her to her knees. Fingers curled tightly around the banister railing, she fought to remain on her feet. An instant later, a shiver went through her at the hint of darkness emanating from him. Whatever was creating the malevolence, she knew he was worried it might consume him.Despair scraped across her senses like sharp glass, and she cried out from the mental anguish it sent slicing through her.Care Deus, was this what he felt like every day? Like someone turning off a faucet, his emotions no longer flowed through her. Lysander was halfway up the staircase before she realized it, and she quickly gathered her wits. Deliberately rubbing the suede material covering her ankle, she opted to fake a twisted ankle to account for her wounded cry. The minute she saw him round the staircase’s small landing, she stopped nursing her ankle and waved her hand.“I’m fine, I just twisted my ankle,” she lied as he stopped two steps down from her.His penetrating green gaze slowly skimmed its way over her and down to her feet. Did he realize she was lying? Tension danced between them, and she caught a whisper of emotion before he tamped it down until it didn’t exist. She suppressed a sigh. He was on guard again, and the opportunity to continue breaking through the wall he’d built around his emotions was gone. And at the moment, she wasn’t sure she had the strength to deal with what he kept deep inside him.“I’m surprised you didn’t breakyour ankle with the spike on those boots,” he snapped. “We’re not going to a fashion show in Milan.”“No, but we’re supposed to be acting like tourists.” Irritated, she frowned. “A fact I kept in mind when I dressed. What about you? In that black leather people are going to think you’re a Soprano.”
What she didn’t tell him was that he looked sexy as hell the way he was dressed. Deus,even with his horrible disfigurement, he was still splendid. Raw power emanated from him, drawing her in like a magnet. He wore a black leather jacket over a black turtleneck shirt, while soft black leather pants hugged his muscular legs. Her fingertips tingled as she remembered what it had been like to run her hands over his sinewy body. The air in her lungs disappeared as she breathed in his delicious scent.It was the smell of soap mixed with something dark and sensual. It wrapped its way round her senses, tying her into knots. He looked every inch the seasoned warrior, and his black eye patch only heightened the sense of danger about him. He was an open invitation to be bad. And with him, she wanted to be as wicked as she could. Anything to make him respond to her.Deus, she was insane. Subconsciously, she’d actually listened to Cleo’s outrageous suggestion. It was the only explanation for the boots and the rest of her outfit. Her outfit wasn’t overly provocative, but it wasn’t sedate, either. The hair on the back of her neck rose and her stomach lurched at the hunger that suddenly flashed in his green gaze. The look was enough for her to know she didn’t need to read his emotions to know what he was feeling. She knew desire when she saw it.His one-eyed gaze drifted slowly upward over her blue jeans tucked into her Dal Co’ originals to the jean jacket she wore over a red sweater. She suddenly realized the sweater clung just a little too snugly to her breasts because his gaze lingered there.Care Deus,had he just used his mental ability to caress her or were her nipples stiff just because she wanted him so badly?She swallowed hard at the memory of the last time he’d made love to her. Their bodies had melded together perfectly as he’d stroked her with every inch of his body. Heat pooled between her legs at the thought. She wished they were in a secluded spot. She wanted the chance to seduce him. She wanted to make him see that no matter what had happened in the past, they were good together.Their gazes locked, and the desire on his face made the scarred muscles of his cheek taut with tension. She instinctively stepped toward him, and he stiffened. Another wall rose between them, and frustration whipped through her. Damn it, the man would drive her crazy if this was the way things were going to be between them while they worked together. She drew in a sharp breath then blew it out just as harshly.“Is this the way it’s going to be then?” She glared at him. “Because if it is, I want a new partner.”“What are you talking about?” His tension was still present, but he skillfully covered it with a nonchalant demeanor.
“You know exactlywhat I mean.” Her sharp words made him narrow his eye at her. “I think we need to work with other people. Ex-loversnevermake great partners.”
The Praetorians had peeled off the side of his face in jagged strips, but they’d left his beautiful mouth intact and it was now a thin line of determination.
“As I said in the conference room yesterday, I’m willing to listen to ideas, but I have the final say. I paired everyone up based on their strengths and weaknesses.”
“And exactlyhowdo we balance each other out?” she snapped, incensed by his calm, rational tone.
“You’re a valuable asset to the team. I’ve no doubt the Praetorians will discover you’re here, and I’m the most qualified to ensure you’re protected.”His response made her mouth fall open as she stared at him with first amazement and then an anger that slowly spread through her until she was rigid with outrage. She narrowed her gaze at him and took a step down the staircase to bring her closer to him. Even when she was furious with him, her body still responded to his on a primal level. It raised her ire that much more.
“That is the most asininereason I have ever heard in my entire life,” she said with a sharp hiss. “I might be a simple healer, but I’ve kicked your ass in the gym before.”
“One time doesn’t qualify,” he drawled. It was rare to see him amused, but she could have sworn she saw a flash of humor in his green eye.“Are you laughing at me?” she asked stiffly. The fact that he seemed to think so little of her fighting skills hurt. She was a damn good fighter.“No.” He shook his head. “But my fighting skills are the best of anyone on the team. You’re a valuable asset to the Order, Phaedra. I can’t let anything happen to you.”She noted he didn’t say thathedidn’t want anything happening to her, just his concern for the Order. She wanted to hit him. She brushed past him with a harsh noise of fury and charged down the steps to the foyer. When she reached the foot of the stairs, she stood there fuming. The man needed someone to dropkick his ass back to Chicago.Behind her, she heard the sound of Lysander slowly descending the marble stairs. The man had made her so furious she was ready to fight a group of Praetorians single-handed. She stiffened as he walked past her and picked up an expensive-looking camera off the narrow table standing against the entryway wall. He fiddled with a couple of settings then placed the digital equipment in a carrying case.She watched in silence as he moved toward the interior door and pushed it open. Still angry, she followed him out into the sunshine. As she stood on the stoop, the solid oak door of the safe house snapped shut behind her with a loud click.
The air was warmer than she’d expected, but her sweater and jacket were lightweightenough that she was quite comfortable. Her anger eased somewhat as the sunny day lightened her mood. Several black motorbikes were parked in front of the house, and Lysander moved to the bike farthest from the door. He stored the camera bag in the bike’s lockbox, while retrieving two helmets at the same time.Her fingers curled around the edge of the headgear he handed her as she stared at the bike. Pressing into all that black leather and male heat would amount to little more than a torture session. Tension rippled through her as she shifted her gaze from the bike to the helmet in her hand.
“Can’t we just take a taxi?” she said in a tight voice.
“No.” Lysander didn’t look at her as he swung his leg over the bike to straddle it. “I don’t want to get caught someplace without any means of escape.”
“Well, do you even know where we’re going?”
“I believe you’re about to tell me.”The detached note in his voice said he’d already immersed himself in his Primus Pilusrole. No. He was Legatusfor this mission. And as Legatus, he was entitled to her obedience and respect. The map she’d tucked into her jean jacket pocket crackled softly as she pulled it out to look at it.“Marco assigned us the sector adjacent to the Temple of Hadrian.” Holding the map so he could see it, she pointed to the circle the PrimusPilushad made on the map. “We’re to cover this section of the grid. There aren’t a lot of ancient sites in the area, so we should be able to cover everything before mid-afternoon. I suggest we start with the temple.”“Fine.” He gave her a curt nod. “What I want you to remember is that we’re in the heart of Praetorian country. If you sense anything, even the slightest hint of danger, I want to know. Understood?”The crisp words honed the sharp edge of her nerves as she watched him pull on his helmet. He was right, but she didn’t like admitting it. Reluctantly, she tugged her own headgear into place as Lysander kick-started the machine. The motor running, he turned his head toward her. Unlike her helmet, the one Lysander wore had a visor that hid his entire face. With his visor down, she couldn’t read his expression, but his rigid body language said he wasn’t looking forward to the ride any more than she was.
She drew in a deep breath and swung her leg over the bike. The minute she settled into the bike seat, a demon inside her made her wrap her arms around him and press herself into his back. He grew hard as stone, and she smiled with satisfaction. Served him right for refusing to take a taxi. Nonetheless, it was an exquisite torment to have her arms wrapped around him again. Beneath her left arm, she felt the leather scabbard under his jacket that held his short sword. It was a silent reminder that a Sicari was rarely able to
relax their guard.Lysander shifted into gear, and with barely a glance in either direction, he roared out onto the street. The way he moved in and out of traffic made her think he was deliberately trying to unnerve her. He was doing a good job. She tightened her hold on his waist and tried to catch a glimpse of the city as he raced by it.The one thing she wanted to do was see some of the city. The Sicari had left Rome hundreds of years ago, but it had once been home to her ancestors. She wanted to visit at least one or two historical sites while she was here. Rome might be the global headquarters for the Praetorians, but she’d be safe enough during the daylight, provided she stayed in crowded places.There was also the stiletto she had sheathed in the side of her boot. Unlike Lysander, it was difficult for her to carry a sword during the daytime, but the blade she carried would enhance her skills in hand-to-hand combat. Horns blared in her ears as Lysander zipped past two cars to get out in front. He sailed through a stoplight that turned red just as they entered the middle of the intersection. The result was the sound of more car horns filling the air.“Il Christi omnipotentia, you’re going to get us killed,” she shouted in the vicinity of his ear, doubting he could even hear her through his helmet, not to mention the noise of the morning traffic.If he had heard her, he didn’t give any indication, but it did seem like he’d slowed down. They moved through the city streets quickly, and she could only hope Lysander knew where they were headed. Following the car in front of them, they made a sharp right turn, and she sucked in her breath as the car came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road without any warning. With the ease of someone who’d been riding motorcycles a long time, Lysander’s quick reflexes enabled him to skillfully wheel the bike around the other vehicle. Their close call shot her blood pressure up, and she was ready to tear the other driver apart for such a stupid stunt. As they sped by the other car, she had to settle for an evil glare at the man.Several long minutes later, they came to a stop on a narrow street. She could tell Lysander was waiting on her to get off the bike, and she quickly put several feet between her and the motorcycle. Tugging her helmet off her head, she set it down on the bike seat. Without speaking, he pulled the digital camera from the lock box at the back of the motorcycle then shoved the black nylon camera bag in with the helmets. The minute he’d secured the bike, Lysander nodded toward a bright square several hundred yards away.“The Temple of Hadrian.”
With a sweep of his hand, he gestured her to lead the way. Still annoyed with him, she walked toward thepiazzain silence. Not that she expected her silence to annoy him, but making a scene would draw unwanted attention to them, and she knew better. As she
turned the corner, a chill of excitement slid through her at the sight of the temple.Massive columns rose upward to meet the ceiling they supported. At one time, Romans would have walked through the columns to reach the inner sanctum of the temple. Now, a modern building occupied the temple’s interior with the outer stone columns serving as a facade for a financial institution.People filled thepiazza, and she immediately opened herself up to the emotions swirling in the air around her. After more than a minute, she released a sigh of relief. The only thing she sensed were the emotions of people worried about ordinary things. Lysander stood quietly beside her, and she could feel him watching her. She turned her head to look up at him in hopes of seeing some emotion on his face she could decipher. The expression on his face grew shuttered in an instant, and the emotion she glimpsed was gone too quickly to define. The silent look he sent her demanded a report, and she bit back the urge to reach out and probe his emotions.
“Nothing unusual,” she said. “People worried about jobs, families, lovers …”
He didn’t even flinch as she allowed her sentence to trail off. Disgusted with herself for thinking she could get a reaction from him, she stretched out her hand.“Let me have the camera. I’ll shoot some pictures, and you can play bodyguard.”This time she did get a reaction from him. The glare he sent her made her smile up at him sweetly as she took the camera from his hand. He didn’t like the way she’d demoted him. With a frown, she tried to reacquaint herself with the basics of the camera. The class Cleo had given yesterday had been short, and this camera wasn’t like the ones her friend had bought for everyone.This one had a well-worn look to it. She didn’t remember Lysander ever taking pictures. At that moment, he released a snort of irritation and leaned forward to press into her back so he could look over her shoulder. His chest brushed against her body as he pointed toward a silver button on top of the camera. His touch sent a streak of fire zipping across her skin.“Press the silver button to take the picture. It has an automatic focus, so all you have to do is press this button to zoom in or out.” He pointed to a black button near the camera’s built-in handgrip.
She swallowed the knot in her throat and nodded as she placed her eye against the viewfinder and took a picture. With a quick turn of a dial, she was looking at the shot she’d just taken of the upper level of the temple. Flipping the camera’s settings so she could take pictures again, she walked forward and shot several pictures of the temple’s facade from different angles. Aware of Lysander always close behind her, she lowered
the camera and turned her head to look at him.“Go stand at the railing over there,” she said as she bobbed her head in the direction of the fencing that kept the people from falling into a stone escarpment. “I’ll take your picture. Make it look like we really are the tourists we’re supposed to be playing.”Together they crossed thepiazza, where she took several pictures of Lysander standing against the railing before she joined him and proceeded to quickly shoot one section of the stone facade after another. While she moved along the side of the building taking pictures, she noticed Lysander had stopped to study the columns. As she reached the end of the temple’s sidewall, she turned the corner to continue photographing the building.No sooner did she lose sight of Lysander than he was there again. Close at hand, ready to protect her if the occasion demanded it of him. Even if he didn’t have a personal interest in her safety, she still liked knowing he was there. It wasn’t that she was afraid to walk around Rome during the day, but being near him under any circumstances was better than not seeing him at all. And it gave her the opportunity—she slammed the door shut on the thought, bracing against the idea’s persistent attempt to break through.Determined not to listen to the voice in her head, she turned the camera lens toward the stone foundation of the structure and zoomed in on the exterior stones supporting the temple. The shutter release whirred softly as she systematically plotted a visual path along the stones. She tried to get as close as she could, while ensuring that the picture encompassed the largest amount of stone possible.Yesterday when Cleo had handed out camera equipment, her friend had given everyone a photography lesson. Brief and basic, the instructions had confirmed her own observations in the team briefing earlier that morning. While they needed to zoom in when taking pictures, they had to be systematic enough to allow the computer to form a complete picture of the building.As quickly as possible, she continued to photograph each section of the stone facade. It was one thing for a tourist to take lots of pictures, but entirely something else for someone to photograph a building inch by inch. She always shielded herself from the constant bombardment of others’ emotions, and while she didn’t sense anything unusual, she had no desire to arouse anyone’s curiosity.She zoomed in on another section of stone, her eye pressed to the viewfinder. The sight of a faint mark on a stone that bordered the section she was photographing made her frown. It was a shadowy indentation that didn’t look like it belonged. Resisting the urge to shift the camera lens in the direction of the mark, she finished photographing the remaining sector.
Eager to get a closer look at the mark, she shifted her position along the iron fence surrounding the building until she was standing directly over the stone. The trench surrounding the structure made it difficult to get a good view of the stone. Since the mark
was on one of the structure’s foundation stones, the angle didn’t allow for a level examination of the granite block. Even worse, the face of the stone was eroded.Like a large portion of the temple’s stonework, weather and time had damaged the large block of granite. But it still looked like someone had deliberately etched a mark into the rock. She zoomed in on the spot with the lens and clicked the shutter release button. Despite the sunlight, the shadows in the ditch prevented her from seeing the mark clearly. She turned her head toward Lysander, whose stance was one of rigid wariness.
Run.If she put distance between—her heart slammed in her chest as an invisible hand grasped her ankle, holding her in place. The mental touch ignited a fierce anger inside of her. It suppressed her fear, and she envisioned the last Praetorian she’d killed. It was what she’d do to thisbastardowhen he came out of hiding.She could almost hear his mocking laughter, and she gasped as the firm pressure of unseen hands slid slowly up her legs. It was an insidious caress that sent shock rippling through her body. She tried to retreat again, but the man’s invisible fingers dug painfully into her buttocks before sliding down over the back of her legs to force her legs slightly apart. A moment later fingers brushed across her inner thigh.Trembling with horror and disgust, she tried to call for Lysander, but a firm pressure covered her mouth, preventing her from calling out. Oh God, this couldn’t be happening. Sickened by the violating touches, she struggled to break free of her attacker’s invisible grip once more. Her attempt met with a response that terrified her.Relentless and unyielding, a firm pressure crept its way over every inch of her body until she was incapable of moving. It didn’t just hold her in place. It emphasized how powerless she was to stop him. Thebastardowas in complete control, and she’d never felt so helpless in her entire life. The man’s lust flooded her senses, and she released a soft sob as unseen hands slid over her waist to lightly stroke the underside of her breasts. She whimpered at the nauseating touch.
Where was Lysander; couldn’t he see something was wrong? The sensation of derisive laughter crawled across her skin in the same revolting way as her attacker’s unseen hands. He could feel her terror, and he liked it. She bit back tears. The man could do whatever
he wanted with her, and she couldn’t stop him.Stunned, she tried to deny what was happening to her, but the invisible stroke inching its way slowly up her inner thigh told her otherwise. Revulsion sent bile racing to her throat, and with a strength born of fear she partially broke free of her unseen assailant’s grip. She turned toward Lysander and took two steps before an incredible pressure crashed into her body. Helpless again, she saw Lysander racing toward her.He was at her side in seconds, and she immediately sensed a change in her attacker. The invisible presence suddenly seemed surprised then irritated, almost as if he’d made an unexpected discovery. Her attacker’s mental hold eased slightly then tightened.
“You’ll have to go through me first, you sorry fuck,” Lysander snarled in a low voice.If she didn’t know better, she would have thought Lysander was actually communicating telepathically with her assailant. She choked back a cry as the invisible touch slipped off her then clutched her thigh in a merciless grip. She could almost hear the man’s laughter. It said he could have easily kept her from moving, and there was the unspoken promise that he’d find her again.Suddenly she was free and stumbling back into thepiazzawith Lysander’s arm supporting her at her waist. She staggered to a halt, but Lysander ruthlessly grabbed her arm at the elbow and hurried her forward again.“No,” he growled. “We’re leaving.Now.”She knew better than to argue with him, and she didn’t want to. A shudder ripped through her as she allowed Lysander to hurry her back to where they’d parked the motorcycle. She darted a look behind her and flinched as Lysander squeezed her elbow.“Don’t look back,” he ordered sharply. “If he’s watching, he’ll know you’re afraid.”“Afraid? He already knows I’m afraid of him. I haven’t been this scared since I killed my first Praetorian,” she snapped as another wave of anger swept through her. She wanted to kill thebastardowho had just terrorized her. “I couldn’t see him, but he could damn well see me. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for the vibes I was getting. The son of a bitch enjoyed what he did to me.”The memory of the way he’d touched her made her stomach start to churn. Deus, she’d felt so helpless. The thought of what might have happened to her if Lysander hadn’t been with her only increased her nausea. The minute they reached the parked motorbike, she jerked free of Lysander’s hold. Bracing herself against the wall with one hand, she threw up what was left of her breakfast. When she finished, Lysander offered her a package of tissues. She grabbed several of the white sheets and wiped her mouth.
“Since when do you carry tissues?” she rasped.
“I don’t.” He nodded toward the shop across the street as she looked up at him. “Thank the shopkeeper across the street.”She looked around him and saw the elderly woman standing in the doorway of a small gift shop. With a weak smile, she waved her thanks to the woman watching them with a concerned look. When she looked back at Lysander, she saw a troubled expression furrowing his brow.The instant he realized she was watching him, his face returned to its usual stoic look. She closed her eyes as she struggled with the horror of what had just happened. A hand touched her arm, and she recoiled. Eyes flashing open, she met Lysander’s unrelenting gaze.
“I know,” she murmured. “We have to go.”Lysander handed her helmet to her in silence, and in less than a minute, they roared away from the historic site. Arms wrapped tightly around Lysander’s waist, she didn’t care where they were going. She just knew she wanted to get away from the temple. Eyes closed, she tried not to think about what had just happened.But it was impossible. She shuddered as she remembered the way the man had touched her. It had to have been a rogue Sicari who’d assaulted her. She couldn’t come up with any other explanation. Praetorians were telepaths. They didn’t have telekinetic abilities. That wasn’t entirely true. Her stomach lurched with a sickening sensation as she considered the whispers of her childhood. She immediately dismissed the idea. Praetorian Dominus were a myth. The man had to have been a rogue, but even they usually didn’t hide like this one had.She’d expected open confrontation, something where she could fight back. Not this type of an assault where she was helpless to do anything to save herself. Even worse had been the eerie way thebastardohad reacted to her terror. It was almost as if he could read her fear. That meant he had to have been close enough to see her. See how frightened she was.Deus, there had only been one other time when she’d been that terrified—that helpless—in her entire life. She’d lied to Lysander. The night she’d killed her first Praetorian hadn’t been frightening at all. Until today, nothing had surpassed the terror she’d felt the night the Praetorians had murdered her parents. She choked back her tears. She wasn’t about to cry in front of Lysander two days in a row.Moments later, the bike slowed and swerved slightly. When she opened her eyes, she saw they’d returned to the safe house. She hopped off the bike and stepped around Lysander to knock on his visor. He pushed it up to stare at her in silence.
“Why did we come back here?” she snapped in reaction to the thought he intended to
leave her here. Alone. “There are at least four other monuments we need to photograph.”
“We’re done for the day.” He draped one arm over the bike handle, his other resting on his hip as he studied her. “I think you need some breathing room.”“I’m fine.” She shook her head in protest. If she went back inside, she’d be alone, and she didn’t want to be alone. She didn’t want him to leave her. “We need to complete our portion of the grid.”
“It can wait until I get to it.”
“No,” she exclaimed vehemently. “You are not going to leave me here alone. I refuse to let thatbastardowin, and if I go inside and hide, he wins.”He tugged the helmet off his head and ran a hand through his short, cropped hair. She could tell he was angry, but he was also uncomfortable. Obviously, he didn’t know how to handle something like this, but then neither did she. Had he expected her to just retreat into the safe house like a meek little mouse? His jaw hard with tension, he shook his head.
“I don’t have any intention of leaving you alone, Phaedra,” he said quietly.There was a fierce, protective quality about his demeanor that made her heart skip a beat. It made her feel safe. As if protecting her wasn’t just business, but that her safety was important to him because he cared about her. She immediately crushed the hope trying to grow inside her. She was a fool to think he felt anything for her other than a sense of responsibility.“Then stop arguing with me, and let’s finish our grid,” she said firmly. “I’ll be fine.”She looked away from him and fought to control the sickening feeling taking root in her stomach as she remembered those few short moments of vulnerability. She knew rogue Sicari often came to hate their own kind, but this man had been different. His hatred of the Sicari had equaled the fierce hatred she’d sensed in the Praetorians she’d fought. It had been malevolent and twisted.The chill of it still lingered on her skin. She trembled at the memory of the rogue’s unseen touch sliding over her body. It had seemed to take an eternity for Lysander to reach her. All the while, she’d been powerless to stop the invasive touch of that sickbastardo. Was that what it had been like for Lysander when the Praetorians had tortured him? That helpless feeling?“You need to talk about it with someone, Phaedra.” There was a gentleness in his voice that steadied her nerves. “He violated you, and you can’t lock it up inside of you.”
“You’re a good one to talk,” she said sharply. “You’ve not bothered to talk to anyone
about what happened to you.”
“I talked to Atia.” Stunned by his statement, she stared at him in silence. Arms resting on the motorcycle’s handlebars, he shrugged. “I knew I needed to talk to someone.”
You could have talked to me.She ignored the small dart of relief that he’d not talked to Cleo. Instead, she waved his words aside.
“All he did was grope me. I’ll be fine.” Her abrupt response made him narrow his eye.
“I could order you to stay here.”
“You could, but you won’t,” she said in a stiff voice.“Christus, and Atia calls Ares an obstinate devil.” With a slight shake of his head, he released a harsh breath. “I know I’m going to regret this, but we’ll continue, on one condition.”
“You’re not to leave my side for one second. Understood?”
“Yes.”There wasn’t any way she would admit it to him, but it was a condition she was more than happy to follow. He eyed her carefully for a moment before he nodded his head. She stepped forward to get back on the bike, and his hand shot out to catch hers in a gentle grip.“I’ll find him, Phaedra, and when I do, I’ll make him pay.” The harsh note in his voice made her shake her head as she stared into that vivid green eye of his.“How in the hell do you think you can find a rogue Sicari? You’re not a telepath.”“Rogue Sicari or not. I’ll find him.”His emphatic statement made her swallow hard as she nodded. A second later, he released her, and she threw her leg over the leather bike seat. As she settled into the curved seat, she wrapped her arms around his waist. The man couldn’t possibly think her assailant had been Praetorian, could he? No. That wasn’t possible. Lysander didn’t have the ability to read minds nor did he have intuitive powers like her. So how in the name of Jupiter’s Stone did he think he could find her assailant?
The real problem was whether her assailant would find her, and she was convinced the son of a bitch wouldn’t have any trouble finding her at all. And if his telekinetic ability was as strong as she thought it was, she wasn’t going to be safe when he found her. She wrapped her arms around Lysander’s waist, and a dark chill sluiced across her skin as the motorcycle rolled out into the street again. Suddenly, she wished she were back home in Chicago.
Chapter 9THE minute she entered the safe house’s foyer, she heard the laughter filtering through the narrow hall that led into the kitchen. The sweet aroma of herbs and spices filled her nostrils, causing her stomach to growl with hunger. It surprised her. She hadn’t realized she was even hungry.Lysander had offered to stop and eat several times throughout the day, but the idea of food had simply churned her stomach. The fact that she hadn’t wanted anything to eat only emphasized how badly shaken she was by her encounter with the rogue Sicari. She pushed aside the dark memory, refusing to give in to the unsettling helplessness it continued to breed inside her.Her neck tingled as Lysander came through the front door after her. No matter where she was, she always knew when he was nearby. It was like an internal radar set just to his signal. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she gestured toward the kitchen.
“Sounds and smells like dinner.” She turned away from him, but his hand stopped her from moving.“If you’re not up to eating with everyone, I can have your meal sent to your rooms.”She looked at him from over her shoulder with mixed emotions. Ever since this morning, he’d been treating her with kid gloves. While she appreciated his concern for her wellbeing, it was wreaking havoc with her heart. The worst thing was knowing that at any minute they’d go back to the way it had been for the past year. Cold words and that callous disregard whenever she was around. She shook her head.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle.” She forced a note of bravado into her voice to ward off any unwanted inquiries. “We just had a lot of pictures to take.”“You look pale,bella.” Luciano Pasquale stared at her from across the wide expanse of counter where he was dishing out servings of cannelloni from two large casserole dishes. “Are you feeling all right?”Her radar kicked in again as Lysander stiffened beside her. His tension was a clear sign he was still on duty as her protector. She suppressed a sigh. If only his behavior was because he cared about her. Ignoring the silent guardian at her side, she smiled at Luciano.
“Honestly? I’m weak with hunger,” she said. “It smells wonderful. Who’s the cook? And don’t say Cleo, because I know better.”
Maria Atellus, plate in one hand, pointed with the other toward Pasquale. “Luciano made it because Cleo bet him that he couldn’t beat the Legatus’scannelloni recipe.”Angelo Atellus lifted up a large bowl of salad over his wife’s head and carried it through the wide French doors that opened out onto a large, glass-enclosed patio. Over his shoulder, he ordered his wife to bring him a plate of food and proceeded to set the silver bowl on the large table sitting under a wooden trellis covered with grape vines. From where Phae stood at the counter, she could see Atia talking with Marco, the PrimusPilus.
“Angelo, where’s the olive oil and vinegar?” Violetta shouted over Cleo, who was chastising Luciano for having dripped sauce onto the counter.Pasquale didn’t bother to respond to her friend’s exasperated comments. Instead, he gestured for her to grab a plate. “Come on, Phae, take a plate, and let me introduce you to my heavenly cooking.”“Ego’s not a problem for you, is it, Luciano,” she said with a laugh.“Never, carissima. Nor do I let it stand in my way when I see something I want.”There was a playfulness about his arrogance that made him charming as opposed to annoying. Laughing, she reached for a plate, but Lysander beat her to the stack of yellow plates with a grapevine design encircling the edges. A plate in each hand, he stretched out over the counter and silently waited for Luciano to fill the dishes. The look on Pasquale’s face went from jovial flirting to one of careful appraisal.Lysander’s tension showed in the way the scarred tissue covering his cheek was drawn tight over the bone. The black patch covering his missing eye only emphasized the menacing bearing reflected in his stance. She couldn’t see his eye from where she was standing, but she was certain it would be the icy green color it always turned when he was trying to intimidate someone.
Startled by his action, she stiffened slightly as Cleo raised her eyebrows and tilted her head toward Phaedra.Christus, the woman was going to grill her the first chance she got.
Ignoring her friend’s speculative look, she accepted the plate of food Lysander handed her and headed out to the terrace.What in Jupiter’s name had that been about—protection. Lysander was thinking Luciano’s attentions might make her feel threatened. She suppressed a sigh. The last thing she wanted was a Sicari bodyguard, especially if he wasn’t in love with her. As she crossed the threshold out onto the patio, Atia motioned toward her.
“Come sit beside me, Phaedra.”Muscles knotting with tension, she slowly obeyed the command. Atia had called Lysander earlier, and his conversation with the Prima Consulhad been mostly one-sided. But from the few words she’d overheard, she knew the conversation had been about her. It convinced her that Lysander had texted the Sicari leader about her attack.Atia wouldn’t mention the incident in front of anyone else, but she wasn’t so sure the woman wouldn’t find some pretext to drag the two of them away on some urgent matter of business to discuss what had happened. All she wanted at the moment was to eat and have a couple of glasses of wine in hopes of distancing herself from the entire affair.Obeying the Prima Consul’scommand, she sat next to the woman, while Lysander sat on the opposite side. She released a soft noise of aggravation. It was like someone had placed her in protective custody. The rest of the team settled into their chairs as a bottle of dark red Lambrusco made its way around the table. She poured a healthy portion into her glass, ignoring the arched look Atia sent her way.The look irritated her. First a bodyguard, now a mother hen. She knew how much she could drink before her healing ability was diminished. A second later, she took a bite of the cannelloni on her plate. The flavor of the dish burst over her tongue in a delightful symphony of Cavallo cheese, spinach, pasta, and a tomato-based marinade. She immediately turned her head toward Lysander as she saw him take a bite of the dish.Surprise swept across his face, before a calculating look hardened his saturnine features.In a controlled, measured movement, he carefully laid his fork down, and his long fingers reached out to lightly stroke the stem of his wineglass. It was obvious he’d realized that Luciano was a threat to his culinary reputation.Known for his stoic mannerism, the few times Lysander displayed any emotion was in the kitchen, and he guarded his cooking laurels jealously. He loved to cook, but now there was a new face in town when it came to skills in the kitchen. And the man was definitely not happy about it. Those who didn’t know him would assume he was relaxed, but she knew different.
He was plotting Luciano’s demise in the kitchen. She could see it in the hard look of his green eye and the tension in his body. The man wouldn’t give up his title without a hard fight. He’d use every skill he’d learned in that cooking school in Tuscany. Across the table, Cleo’s expression was one of pained contemplation. Clearly, her friend was in a major dilemma. She’d touted Lysander’s skill, and here was a dish that equaled if not surpassed her friend’s ability. Luciano turned his head and grinned at Cleo.
“Well,bella, how is it?”
“It’s delicious,” Cleo said in a cautious voice. Her gaze shifted to Lysander, who met Cleo’s gaze with calm acceptance.
“It’s more than that, Cleo, and you know it. It’s exceptional,” Lysander said quietly. He lifted his glass of wine toward Luciano. “Well done.Salute.”
Everyone around the table acknowledged the toast with enthusiasm and a chorus of compliments. Phaedra tilted her head toward Lysander.
“So what dish are you going to fix to show him up?” she murmured.
“I’m not.” He turned his head toward her and met her gaze.
“Oh, please,” she said as she eyed him with disbelief. “You were plotting something the minute you took a bite of that cannelloni.”He lifted his wineglass to his mouth and took a drink. When he returned it to the table, he shifted in his seat and turned toward her. One elbow on the table, he draped his other arm over the back of her chair. He was close enough to touch, and the male scent of him flooded her senses until her blood ran sluggish through her veins. Deus, she wanted to kiss him. Touch him—make him cry out her name with need. She swallowed hard as his eye narrowed at her.“It amazes me that you think you can read my mind so well, but you can’t read Pasquale’s intentions.” The unexpected observation made her frown.“What are you talking about?”“The man wants you.”There was a hard edge to his words, but not even that really registered as she struggled to understand why he would even notice such a thing. As she stared at him in amazement, his gaze grew shuttered. With a shake of her head, she rolled her eyes at him.“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with a sniff of disgust. “You just don’t want to admit the man can match your skill in the kitchen.”
“And you hate being wrong.” He nodded in the direction of the other man. “He’s had his eyes on you for the last few minutes, wondering whether there’s anything between us.” Her heart slammed into her chest at the way Lysander’s mouth thinned with what appeared to be anger. Was he upset that Luciano was flirting with her? She reached for her wineglass and took a long draught of the fruity Lambrusco. What in Jupiter’s name was she thinking? The man hadn’t changed overnight.But it was impossible not to notice somethinghadchanged between them. She didn’t know whether the incident with the rogue Sicari had something to do with his change in demeanor or whether she was simply looking at him differently. She frowned. Even if there was a small shift in the tension between them, she needed to remember the callous way he’d ended their relationship before it had even really begun.He’d brutally said she’d been nothing more than a one-night stand to him. His cruel words had inflicted wounds that even a year later were still raw. Ironically, it had been at that moment she’d realized she was in love with him. The realization had only heightened the pain of his rejection, and her natural reaction had been to taunt him at every opportunity. He’d never retaliated—not once, and she’d always been too afraid to ask why. Afraid because loving him the way she did, she didn’t want to know just how indifferent he was to her. Instead, it was easier to taunt him in an attempt to hurt him as much as she was hurting.But she was tired of being angry. Tired of trying to get a reaction from him when she knew, deep down, nothing she did or said was going to change the way things were between them. Lysander looked at her again and arched his eyebrow at her. Praying her expression hadn’t revealed her feelings, she slowly turned her head in response to Lysander’s silent command.The moment she did so, she saw Luciano watching them with a narrowed gaze. As her gaze met his, he lifted his wineglass in her direction and sent her a mischievous smile. The man’s flirtatious manner was impossible to resist, and she smiled back. The minute she did so, she sensed a change in Lysander. The tension in him went up a notch.She stiffened as the whisper of an unseen hand cradled the back of her neck in a possessive touch. It was gone so fast, she wasn’t sure whether it had been real or imaginary. Had Lysander caressed her? Her heart slammed into her chest in a frantic beat at the thought. She peeked a glance in his direction. Although his arm still rested on the back of her chair, he was in the process of taking a drink of wine.If she didn’t know better, she could swear he was struggling hard to maintain that stoic calm of his. No, she was reading more into his behavior than there was. But if he’d not touched her, then—she shivered as an icy chill slid down her back. Was it possible the rogue Sicari had found her? No. She wouldn’t even go there. It was crazy to think thebastardowas within reach of her.
The Order owned almost the entire city block surrounding the safe house, and despite its aged appearance, the complex was well fortified. The security equipment in place was the best money could buy. From steel doors at the main entrances, to iron defenses at every window and balcony, the house was almost impenetrable. She looked back at Luciano, and saw him watching her intently.Had he been the one to touch her? Deus, she wasn’t even sure someone had touched her. She bit her lip. The fact that she was even obsessing about it showed how edgy her encounter with that rogue son of a bitch had made her. She resented it. And she hated herself for letting the incident affect her at all. Beside her, Atia laughed. Startled, she looked at the Prima Consul, who waved her hand at Angelo seated opposite her.
“I can assure you, Atellus, I think I’d rather come back as a rock in the next life than explore the catacombs with you.”“But they’re fascinating, MadameConsul.” Angelo laughed as he leaned forward and wagged his finger at Atia. “Why, for all you know, the bones of the person you were in a past life might be at rest there.”“Impossible. Sicari never bury their dead. We leave this earth in a purifying blaze of fire.” Atia sniffed her disdain before grinning at the man opposite her. “All my past lives have all been as a Sicari. I feel it in my bones. You, Angelo Atellus, are a historian who doesn’t appreciate the romantic aspects of history. Dried up bones arenotromantic.”“Not so, ilmia signora. I think history can be quite romantic, even tragically so. For example, I find the story of Maximus and Cassiopeia mostcompelling. Here was a man who’d just lost most of his men in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. He’s in retreat from Constantine I when he learns his wife is still in Rome, about to be handed over to fanatical followers of the Church.” Angelo’s expression was one of pensive sadness as he met Atia’s gaze across the table. He made a noise that was a mix of amazement and disbelief.“I can’t imagine what Maximus must have been thinking, feeling, as he raced back to Rome only to arrive too late to save Cassiopeia. The man must have had nerves of steel to make his dagger hit its mark as the mob was burning his wife alive.” Atellus reached for his wife’s hand and sent her a loving glance. “I would gladly give my life for Maria, but I do not know that I would have had as steady a hand as Maximus must have.”Listening to the conversation, Phaedra remembered her dreams and felt like kicking herself. Her dreams were nothing more than a memory from a story she’d heard since childhood. Well, maybe not a story, but at least bits and pieces of the legend. She’d simply made the first Sicari Lord look like Lysander in her dreams. She was an idiot. Atia’s shoulder brushed hers as the Prima Consulleaned forward to rest her elbows on the table. A contemplative look on her face, the older woman folded her hands and formed a steeple with her forefingers.
“I have always viewed Maximus as the standard by which all Sicari are judged. To put a dagger through his wife’s heart as she was being burned alive had to have taken immense courage. He must have been an extraordinary man,” the Prima Consulsaid. With a nod of agreement, Angelo folded his arms and rested them on the table as he sent the PrimaConsula quizzical look.
“Recently, I came across the writings of Prima ConsulJulius Marchio from the midsixteenth century, which I have been reading before bed.”
“Clearly a sedative if you’re reading it late at night,” Atia said with a laugh.“Sometimes, but last night I read that each Prima Consulis tasked with watching for signs that Maximus has returned to the Sicari.” Angelo’s gaze never left Atia’s face as he continued. “Marchio was convinced the Sicari would never find the Tyetof Isisuntil Maximus was reborn. Have you heard of this prophecy?”“There are a great many stories, secrets even, handed over when one takes on the mantle of consul.” Her expression guarded, the Prima Consulshrugged. “The story Marchio refers to has been around for centuries.”
“Then you don’t believe the story?” Angelo frowned. “Marchio seemed convinced the story was true, and he even detailed signs to look for.”“As I said, there are many tales passed on from one consul to another. Some are more plausible than others.” There was the slightest clipped note in Atia’s voice as she straightened and pushed her dinner plate toward the center of the table. “Do I think it possible that Maximus and Cassiopeia will be reincarnated? Yes. I have always believed the soul’s journey doesn’t end with just one life.”“But what about the signs, ilmia signora?In his writings, Marchio says analieniwill read the Sicari Lord’s coin. Did not LegatusDeLuca’sdominaread the coin?”Angelo’s words brought all conversation to a halt as everyone turned toward Atia. Her expression closed off and noncommittal, the Prima Consulgave the man across from her an imperceptible nod.“Yes, Emma read the coin, but it showed her nothing about the return of Maximus.”“Then perhaps we are closer to finding the Tyetof Isisthan we realized, because there are other signs as well.”“Such as?” As a politician, Atia was excellent at keeping her thoughts well hidden, but the tension flowing from her had an almost tangible quality to it.“Marchio says a Primus Piluswho is of mixed blood will find the Tyetof Isis.”
Angelo’s statement was like a thunderclap in the room, and Phaedra gasped at the possibility of someone with even an ounce of Praetorian blood finding the artifact. The
thought appalled her. The shudder rippling through Atia was tangible, but her reaction was nothing compared to Lysander’s as the glass of wine he held shattered.Red wine and blood splattered the surface of the table as an oath flew from his lips. Instinct made her reach out to him, but an invisible hand encircled her wrist in a painful vise. He didn’t bother to look at her as he stared at Angelo, who was gasping for air, his face white with fear as his eyes met Lysander’s hard gaze.“I have no need of theCuravi, Phaedra,” Lysander said in an icy voice as his green eye darkened with fury. “Atellus, if you’re questioning the loyalty of my PrimusPilus, you’re questioning not only my choice for second in command, but my leadership as well, and that’s something I won’t allow in my guild, small that it is.”
“Let him go, Lysander.” Atia’s voice was firm, but gentle. “He was simply repeating what he’d read.”Lysander hesitated at the Prima Consul’swords, then with a sharp nod, he released his grip on the other man. A second later the grip on Phaedra’s wrist vanished as Lysander shoved his chair backward in a vicious movement as he stood up. Angelo inhaled several deep breaths as he recovered from Lysander’s invisible chokehold.Maria, her arm wrapped around her husband’s shoulders, looked frightened, but not so much that she couldn’t muster up the courage to glare at Lysander. His features were like a stone statue, cold and without emotion as he met the woman’s angry look.“I have every confidence in Marco Campanella. Anyone evenhintingat the possibility that he’s not Sicari or loyal to the Order will be challenging my authority as Legatus. A challenge I willnotlet go unanswered.”The quiet words carried a lethal message that said any challenge to Lysander’s authority would not end favorably for the challenger. The unspoken promise was reinforced as he surveyed the faces staring up at him with a deadly calm. Satisfied he’d made his point, Lysander left the table and vanished into the kitchen. Phaedra watched him go with a sense of confusion. His reaction had been completely out of character for him. In his wake, the lighthearted mood had evaporated, leaving everyone somber anduncomfortable. Still ashen from his chastisement, Angelo turned his head toward thePrimus Pilus.“I askIndulgentia, Campanella. It was not my intent to question either your birth or your loyalty to the Order.”
“Granted.” Marco frowned as he nodded sharply. “It was the implication in your statement that angered LegatusCondellaire. The Legatusis an honorable man who values the lives and reputations of everyone in his guild, even you, Atellus. It’s something to keep in mind.”Angelo nodded his understanding as Cleo broke the tension by getting up from the table and collecting dirty dishes. A silent sigh of relief rippled through the group at her action, and everyone quickly followed her example in cleaning up dinner. Reaching for her plate, Phaedra jumped as Atia stayed her hand with a light touch.
“Leave it,” the Prima Consulsaid quietly. “I wish to speak with you.”
“What about?”“Lysander sent me a text message about the assault. It’s why I called him earlier. I wanted to know how you were feeling.” The concern in Atia’s voice made her nibble at her lip. The woman had been good to her and Ares since their parents had died.
“He told me you think it was a rogue Sicari. Are you sure?”
“I’m not sure what else he could be.” She shrugged, dismissing the fantastical notions she’d considered earlier.
“When I talked to Lysander, he said you were quite upset.”
“I’m fine now.”“Are you sure? It’s unhealthy to keep it locked up inside,piccola mia.”“When I’m ready to talk, I will, but not until then.”“Va bene,” Atia said with a sigh of frustration.Grateful the woman was done questioning her, she picked up her plate along with Lysander’s and retreated to the kitchen to help clean up dinner. In less than fifteen minutes, the kitchen was spotless with everyone wandering off to spend their free time as they wished. Unwilling to go to her room where she’d be left alone with her thoughts, she pulled an unopened bottle of Lambrusco from the fridge and raised it into the air with a jerk of her head to Cleo.“Want to join me for a couple of drinks out on the patio?”Eyebrows raised, her friend shrugged her acquiescence. “Sure.”
The night air was unseasonably warm for Rome, but it was the perfect temperature for relaxing under the moonlight. The garden was softly lit with squat black garden lights placed strategically throughout the large area. She opened the wine and set the bottle on the table after filling her glass. Cleo poured a glass as well, then plopped herself down into a nearby lounge chair. Her legs swinging up onto the cushions, she sent Phaedra a
“Looks like you took my advice.”
“Don’t play that game with me. You know exactly what advice I’m referring to.”Cleo’s gaze narrowed on her. Phaedra avoided her friend’s gaze by taking a drink of wine. It tasted sweet on her tongue, and she was finally beginning to feel warm, fuzzy, and relaxed.
“If you’re asking me if I tried to seduce him, the answer’s no.”
“Then whatdidhappen between the two of you?”
“Nothing.” She shrugged and held the wineglass up to study it in the dim light of the patio.
“Like hell it didn’t. Lysander was glued to your side ready to tear anyone apart if they came near you.” Cleo snorted with a scoffing laugh. “So, out with it.”“I don’t want to talk about it.” She sent her friend a pleading look. “I’m feeling warm and fuzzy right now, and I want to stay that way.”“In other words, you’re tipsy, and you sound like you’re ready to cry.” Cleo sighed. “You know drinking makes your ability weak. If someone stumbled in here bleeding like a stuck pig, they’d probably die because you wouldn’t be able to do a fucking thing for them.”Her friend’s comment made her wince. Cleo was right. At this point, she doubted her ability to heal at all. That rogue Sicari had managed to unsettle her more than she wanted to admit. And while drinking had numbed her to the tension making her edgy all day, she knew better than to have more than a couple of glasses of alcohol while on a mission. She set her wineglass down and rubbed her hand across her forehead. Deus, she was a fool. If Atia realized how out of it she was … not going there. She stumbled to her feet.“Okay. I’m tipsy. But I’m going to bed.”“Do you need me to come with you?”“I’m more than capable of getting to my own room without help.”
Cleo arched her eyebrows but didn’t rise from her chair. Taking a sip of wine, the Sicari fighter nodded. “Va bene!I hope you have a hangover tomorrow. It would serve you right.”
“You’re empathy is amazing, you know that?”
“You don’t deserve it. You know better.”
“I needed to take the edge off, okay.” She saw her friend lean forward ready to ask questions, and she waved her hand. “Not tonight. I’ll cry and I don’t want to cry.”
“Then go to bed. We’ll talk in the morning.”With a nod of her head, she headed toward the kitchen. Inside the large room, she stumbled over one of the floor’s stone squares and almost fell into the kitchen’s wide island. Slowly, and cautiously, she made her way through the hall and then the foyer. The staircase seemed gargantuan as she stood at the foot of the steps. With a grimace, she grabbed the rail and pulled herself upward. Behind her, a soft laugh filled her ears, and fear swept through her. He’d found her. As she whipped around, she lost her balance, but strong arms were there to keep her from falling.
“You’re feeling pretty good right now, aren’t you?” Luciano said with a chuckle. The sight of him filled her with relief. She shook her head.
“I’m doing just fine, thank you.”She turned back around to head up the stairs when a strong arm wrapped its way around her waist. The unexpected touch made her shrink back as she tried to shove him away. Surprise and concern swept across his face, and he threw up his hands in a gesture of reassurance.“I was just trying to help. You’re in no condition to climb these stairs alone, and you know it.”With a nod, she allowed Luciano to pull her into his side and help her up the steps. As they reached the top of the stairwell and turned the corner, Luciano released her to gently guide her with one hand on her elbow. She swayed slightly and leaned into him. He smelled good, but not like Lysander. She sighed.“You’re a nice man, Pasquale.”“Ouch, that’san insult,” he said with a soft chuckle.“No. It’s not an insult.”
She stopped him and leaned into him to kiss his cheek. The moment she did, he went rigid, and she saw his gaze fix on something behind her. She turned her head and saw Lysander striding toward them. Fotte, he was going to read her the riot act for getting drunk. No. She was tipsy. Big difference.
“I’ll take it from here, Pasquale.” Lysander’s voice was low and almost menacing.He wasn’t just pissed at her, he was furious. Great, another mark against her. The man would wind up hating her before this mission was over. A firm grip captured her elbow and guided her back down the hall. Looking over her shoulder, she smiled at Luciano.
“See you in the morning, Pasquale.”The man grinned at her, and with a shake of his head, he entered a room close to where he was standing. A moment later, Lysander pushed her none too gently through the door of her suite. She batted his hand away and heard him utter a small noise. Immediately, she turned around and saw the bandage on his hand. She grabbed his wrist and looked at the white bandage for a moment before looking up at him.
“Let me heal this.”
“You’re too drunk to heal anything.”
“Not this little cut.” She bobbed her head at his hand and tightened her grasp then closed her eyes.“It’s insignificant, Phaedra,” he said quietly as he removed her fingers from his wrist. “I’ve lived through worse.”The gentleness in his voice said she wouldn’t be able to heal him even if he did accept her offering. His emotional wounds weren’t something she could heal, no matter how hard she tried. Those he had to tend to himself. She abruptly turned away from him to hide the fact that there were tears in her eyes. Although she wasn’t sure if she was crying for him or for herself. Swaying on her feet, she shrugged off his steadying touch and removed her jacket then staggered toward her bedroom.Thebastardocould go fuck himself. She was the best healer in the Order, but if he wanted to be a martyr and live with pain, fine. It wasn’t like she cared. Liar.She stumbled over her feet at the thought. Deus, she should have removed her boots a long time ago. The heels were the reason it was so difficult to walk straight, not the fact that her heart was breaking and she was ready to break down into tears.
“Are you planning on stripping on your way to the bedroom?”
“I don’t know. It’s not like you haven’t seen it before,” she said bitterly at the disapproving note in his voice. “Are you planning on watching?”
An odd emotion flashed across his face, but it disappeared before she could name it.Arms folded across his chest, he shook his head. “I’m here to make sure you get into bed without knocking yourself out. You’ve had a tough day, and you’re more than a little drunk.”
“I’m tipsy.Notdrunk,” she snapped.Maybe she was a little drunk. Could he blame her? She spun around, intent on going to her bedroom, only to stumble and fall backward. The warmth of him penetrated her flesh as he stopped her fall and swung her up into his arms. Her palm pressed into his chest, where the rapid beat of his heart thundered beneath her fingers. She sighed. He was right. She’d had a tough day, but when he held her like this, she felt safe, and nothing else mattered. The moment they entered her bedroom, tension flooded his body. Almost immediately, he set her down and nodded toward the bed.
“Into bed, Phaedra. Now.”She stared up at him. The man made her crazy. Even though he’d refused her healing touch, it didn’t change the fact that he’d been there for her today. She still didn’t want him to go. The truth was she didn’t want to be alone. If he’d just stay with her, she’d feel safe. She stretched out her hand and pressed her fingers into his chest as she studied his stoic yet grim expression.“Don’t leave me,” she whispered. “I need … you make me feel safe.”Tension etched his features into a tight mask, and he inhaled a deep breath. “Let me get Cleo to come stay with you.”“No.Forget I asked.” Determined not to let him know how helpless she was feeling at the moment, she turned away from him and stumbled toward the bed. “Just go.”
She fumbled with the snap and zipper of her jeans before hobbling her way out of the pants. Behind her, Lysander made a choked noise before the warmth of his large hand settled on her shoulder.
Chapter 10THE minute he touched her, Lysander knew he was on thin ice.Il Christi omnipotentia.He’d never seen her this fragile before. He swallowed hard as she turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. The minute her gaze met his, her eyes grew watery. At that moment, he knew he’d lost the battle to leave her.
“I’ll stay until you fall asleep,” he murmured as he brushed a teardrop off her cheek.A quiet sob passed her lips before she spun around completely and pressed her warmth into him. The bliss and torment that flooded his body at having her in his arms again was enough to drive him crazy. And it wasn’t just desire that made him tug her body snug against his. His arms wrapped around her, the silky warmth of her skin heating his fingertips. Resting his chin on the top of her head, he waited for her crying to stop. He was going to kill thebastardothat had assaulted her. Her sobs finally ebbing away, she tipped her head back to look up at him.
“I feel safer with you here.”The fact that she trusted him so completely, despite his brutal rejection a year ago, was enough to make him feel as though someone were gutting him with a sword. It was humbling in so many ways.“He can’t get to you here, Phaedra.”“Realistically, I know that,” she whispered. “I just don’t think I can forget.”“You won’t forget, but the fear will ease.”The minute she reached up to lightly touch the scars on his face, he stiffened. She blinked the tears off her long lashes as she gently traced her fingers over the grotesque side of his face.“Were you afraid?”The softly spoken question startled him, and he swallowed hard. Atia hadn’t even dared to ask him that, nor had he allowed himself to remember what those terrible hours had been like before Cleo was hovering over him. A shudder went through him as the memories engulfed him with a savage fury. His jaw locked with a painful tension, he nodded.
“Yes,” he ground out between clenched teeth.Afraid?Merda, he’d been terrified, consumed with rage and guilt at how helpless he was as he listened to Dominic’s agonizing shrieks or felt the terror vibrating off Marta. Even now, he could feel the rope biting into his wrists as he tried to free himself. The drug the Praetorians had given him had suppressed his abilities, but it hadn’t eliminated the pain. The deaths of his friends would always be on his conscience despite everyone telling him he couldn’t have known they were entering a Praetorian stronghold.
“Lysander?”The one-word question pulled him away from the dark memories as Phaedra’s hand cupped the scarred side of his face. Suddenly he realized he was trembling. As his gaze focused on her sweet features, he saw a gentle acceptance there that invited him to tell her everything. He immediately closed himself off to the possibility of revealing his inner torment. The last thing he needed was to let this woman inside his head, because if he did, he’d wind up showing her things he couldn’t bear for her to know. He caught her hand and gently pulled it away from his face.
“You need to sleep.” He nodded toward the bed. “You’ll feel better when you wake up.”She nodded and allowed him to guide her toward the bed like a docile lamb. The only problem was she didn’t look like a lamb. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a woman look so damn tempting in his entire life. The wisps of red material covering her rounded buttocks and crossing her back tested his willpower like nothing else he’d ever experienced. A little off balance, she swayed slightly as she tugged her hair out of its braid until it tumbled across her soft shoulders. He buried the urge to pull her into his arms.She slipped under the covers and curled up into a fetal position in the bed. The forlorn look about her made his heart ache, and his protective instincts went into overdrive. He’d keep her safe even if it meant giving his life for hers. He’d never tell her, but she was the most valuable thing in his life.He stretched out his hand and mentally pulled one of the room’s chairs closer to the bed. The quiet scraping noise made her jerk upright in the bed. He immediately regretted not picking up the furniture to move it closer to the bedside. When she saw him settle into the chair, she slowly lay back down and closed her eyes. As he sat there watching her, he was struck again by how vulnerable she seemed.A soft sigh eased out of her, and in a couple of minutes, she was asleep. His elbow resting on the arm of the chair, he rubbed the edge of his unscarred jaw as he watched her. He hadn’t lost just three team members in that Chicago warehouse last year. He’d lost Phaedra and the life he might have had with her.
The thought made his muscles grow hard with tension. He might have lost Phaedra, but he wasn’t about to let anyone hurt her. She thought a rogue Sicari had attacked her this morning, but she was wrong. Thebastardohad to have been a Praetorian. Lysander had seen glimpses of the man, dressed as a clergyman, praying at a Church altar.Worse, he’d seen the man standing by as men wearing the Praetorian emblem on their shoulders slaughtered an entire family. Sicari were merciful when they killed, and they didn’t kill children. Not only that, but the Praetorian could do more than just read minds. He had telekinetic abilities, too, and it made him uneasy.His gut twisted as he remembered how the Praetorian had taunted him in his head while the son of a bitch had continued to touch Phaedra. Despite raising a mental shield against the man’s probing thoughts, thebastardohad seen how much Phaedra meant to him. It had amused the Praetorian, and he’d gloated in detail as to what he was going to do to Phaedra the minute he was alone with her. The anger inside him still burned hot and fiery.He’d have to kill the man. Not for revenge, even though he wanted that really bad. But this wasn’t about retaliation. It was about protecting Phaedra and other Sicari. Most of all, it was about justice. The Sicari Code didn’t allow revenge killings, but it did allow him to protect the interests of the Order.The problem was, thisbastardo’sskills equaled his own. Perhaps even surpassed his? And he’d seen enough of the man’s thoughts to know that the sorry fuck would play as nasty as he could. It wasn’t going to be a fair fight, and the Praetorian would use his feelings for Phaedra against him. He knew it was probably a mistake to go after the man without backup. But how in the hell was he supposed to explain he’d read the Praetorian’s mind or mentally challenged the bastard to a fight? It had been agonizing to watch her trying to fight off the man’s invisible touch. The idea of any man caressing Phaedra was maddening. But to see someone touch her against her will made him feel helpless—and he’d had more than his share of not having control over things. The memory lashed at him with the sting of a whip.He crushed the dark memories and tried to remember every detail he could that he might be able to use against the Praetorian. There were only a few hours for him to form a strategy before his appointment with Phaedra’s attacker. When he’d challenged the man, the Praetorian had filled his head with mocking laughter before finally agreeing. It hadn’t been one of his more lucid moments, but there hadn’t been much else he could do. He’d just have to find a way to beat the bastard.He leaned forward in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. Like Phaedra, he’d thought a rogue Sicari was her attacker, and he’d automatically reached out with his thoughts to see if he could discover where the man was hiding. He’d been as surprised as the Praetorian to learn they could read each other’s thoughts.He’d never run into a Praetorian like this one before. The man didn’t just have telepathic abilities. He had telekinetic powers as well. It worried him that the Praetorian might be stronger than him. One more reason why he might not survive to see the sunrise.
The strength of the man’s abilities had been surprising. That the sick bastard hadeffortlessly tormented Phaedra while taunting him at the same time said the Praetorian had been toying with them. The man probably could have brought both of them to their knees.It’s what made him think that maybe the legends were true. As a kid growing up in Atia’s house, he’d overheard plenty of conversations and thoughts that others hadn’t. Ones he probably shouldn’t have heard. Sicari Lords were legend among the Sicari, but he also remembered the mutterings about the Praetorian Dominus, whose abilities were similar to that of a Sicari Lord. Everything he’d ever heard, he’d taken with a grain of salt, and until today, he’d always discounted the possibility of a Dominus. Now he wasn’t so sure.Phaedra made a soft noise and began to writhe on the bed. A moment later, he sprang to his feet as she screamed and shot upright in bed. He reached her in two quick strides and sank down onto the bed then pulled her into his arms. She was shaking so badly her teeth were chattering. He didn’t say anything, he just held her. As her trembling slowly subsided, she raised her head off his chest to look up at him.
“Better?” He eyed her carefully as she raked her fingers through her hair and nodded. “Then back into bed.”
“I’m not going anywhere for the moment.”She slipped back under the covers and turned her back to him. Quietly, he returned to his chair and waited for her to fall asleep again. Every minute or two, she’d turn over in bed in an effort to achieve a more comfortable position. After about fifteen minutes, she sat up and sent him a pleading look.“I know it’s a lot to ask … considering the way things are between us, but would you mind holding me until I go to sleep?” The request made him go still as a statue, and she immediately cringed with embarrassment. She waved her hand in dismissal. “It’s okay. Never mind.”Frozen in his chair, he watched her fall back onto the mattress and turn her back to him.Christus, he needed to have his head examined for what he was about to do. Despite the warning going off in the back of his mind, he removed his boots and went to join her on the bed. She jerked her head to look over her shoulder as his weight shifted the mattress, and the gratitude in her beautiful brown eyes swelled his heart.Cautiously, he stretched out beside her and pulled her backside into his chest. The minute his arms wrapped around her, it was as if she’d never left his side. Her warmth pushed its way through his clothing until it penetrated his skin. Holding her like this was like walking into a burning building. There was no way he was going to come out unscathed.
She didn’t speak, and for that, he was thankful. Her tension reverberated through him forseveral long minutes until she slowly relaxed. The minute she drifted off to sleep, he was able to relax himself.Merda, and he’d had the balls to think Atia was using questionable judgment in bringing Phaedra here. What the fuck was he doing? For more than a year, he’d managed to keep his distance from her, and in forty-eight hours, every bit of that wall he’d built between them was on the verge of collapse. He closed his eye.Deus, he was tired. Today had been a mental drain unlike any in recent memory. Phaedra’s attacker, her insistence on continuing with their task, fear for her safety, Pasquale’s obvious attraction to her—all of it had come to a head when Angelo had started talking about that ridiculous journal ofConsulJulius.The man had been dead more than two hundred years, and he didn’t want to hear some nonsense about a prophecy. He knew his reaction to the man’s discussion with Atia had made him look like a madman. Perhaps he was. He’d been hiding his mixed blood for more than a year now, and tonight’s dinner conversation had unnerved him.
The soft floral scent of Phaedra’s hair filled his nostrils. Maybe he could hold her just alittle longer. There was no harm in that. Actually, it was crazy to stay here. It would only sharpen the pain of leaving her. Yawning, he ignored the thought. He just wasn’t ready to let her go. It was the last thing he remembered as he drifted off to sleep. That and the softness of the woman curled up against him.SHE was still damp from her bath and smelled of blue lotus. The intense floral fragrancewas an intoxicating smell. It didn’t surprise him that his cock hardened at the sight ofher. She was beautiful. He stretched out his hand to her as she approached the bed. Thesight of her mischievous smile drew a low growl from him as she slipped her small handinto his. It obviously amused her to see him aroused. He grimaced and she laughed.
“Just a few more weeks,mea amor.” Cassiopeia pressed her palm to her large belly. “Imiss loving you just as much as you do me.”He gently tugged her down onto the bed. She uttered a soft grunt of discomfort as shelaid down and rolled onto her side to face him. His touch tender, he brushed a strand ofsilky black hair out of her eyes. There was a glow about her that lit her up from theinside. He’d never seen her more beautiful, and it made him ache for her.The babe was due soon, but it had been six long weeks since he’d last lain with her. Hemissed her. Although she’d satisfied him with her mouth whenever she sensed his need, itwasn’t the same as burying himself inside her. Still, he wasn’t about to risk the life of hisson.She’d even suggested he use one of the slave girls, but it had been easy to read herthoughts and know she wanted him to refuse. It had been easy to say no. Not so muchbecause she wanted him to, but because he wanted no other woman but her. His handstroked her rounded stomach, and he chuckled as the child inside her kicked hard.“He’s strong, isn’t he?” He laughed at her annoyed frown.“You laugh because you’re not the one carrying this restless little one,” she said in anettled voice. “And how can you be so certain he isn’t a she?”“Because my wife is dutiful and obedient.” He caught her hand in his and kissed herfingers before grinning at her. “She wouldn’t think of bearing me anything but sons.”“Now, you are acting like the skilled, confident general who expects all to go accordingto his plan and no other.” The mischief in her statement made him chuckle.“You exaggerate the skills of a simple soldier,mea amor.”“Never. Maximus Caecilius Atellus, adopted son of Gaius Quinctilia Atellus, is Rome’sgreatest general,” she said with confidence. “After all, as his wife, I know it to be true.”
“A wife who, like any good legionnaire, will do her duty and produce a healthy son for
her lord anddominus.” He laughed loudly as she poked him in his shoulder at histeasing.
“So if you’re so certain I shall bear you a son, what do you propose we call him?”
“Demetri.” The name came to him without hesitation.
“Demetri? But that’s a Greek name. Why not something like Augustus or Tiberius?”
“I wish to honor the man who brought us together.”
“But Octavian was the one who introduced us when he brought you to meet my father.”“Yes, but it was a tribune by the name of Demetri Septimius who pointed you out to mewhen we were at the Colosseum to see the chariot races. You were the most beautifulcreature I’d ever seen.” His soft words brought a smile of joy to her face as she touchedhis cheek. There was no need to say anything more. He knew she could easily read hisheart.“Then Demetri it shall be,” she whispered. A somber expression crossed her beautifulfeatures as she raised her hand to study the long scar on her palm. “Do you think he willhave your ability? I never received any special power from our bonding.”“Perhaps not, but your blood will run through our son’s veins. That is a special power ofits own design.” He rolled onto his back and looked up at the fresco on the ceiling. “AndI confess I’m not sure I want him to. My abilities are more often a curse than an asset.”“It’s not a curse,mea cor. It makes you stronger than your enemies.”“You”—he turned his head and wrapped his arm around her shoulders to pull her close tohim as he smiled down at her—”are prejudiced.”“Yes, I am. But that is because I love you so much.” The deep emotion in her voice madehim tighten his embrace.“And I you,mea dulcis,” he murmured as she yawned and closed her eyes.Moments later, he heard Cass’s soft breathing as she fell asleep. She was all he needed inlife, and the thought frightened him. If something were to happen to her and the babe—hepushed the thought from his head and kissed her brow. He wouldn’t beg trouble. He’dmake an offering to Vesta tomorrow asking protection for Cass and their child. Heyawned. Vesta had always answered all of his prayers. His last thought as he fell asleepwas that he had no need to believe the goddess would do otherwise now.
HER touch made him stir as her mouth brushed against his. Delicious and enticing, the tip of her tongue laced against his lips, teasing him to open his mouth and give her entry. Still half asleep, he didn’t resist. It was a kiss of temptation, and he groaned softly as her tongue danced with his. She tasted sweet and far too tempting. The scent of her swept across his senses until his body was hard with need.Deus, he’d missed her. His fingers glided down a silky smooth arm to the wrist he’d held so tightly with his telekinetic ability earlier. With a gentle twist of her arm, she freed herself from his grasp and reached up to touch the demonic side of his face. He stiffened at the caress, but she deepened their kiss and pressed her body into his with an insistence he wasn’t capable of rejecting.He grew rock hard, aching for the heat of her. Need barreled through him as he rolled her onto her back without breaking their kiss. Crushing his mouth against hers, he demanded a response that matched his. She answered his summons with a passion that made him hotter than he’d ever thought possible. Desire whipped through him, tugging at every cell in his body.He wanted to touch her everywhere, bury himself inside her until he couldn’t tell where he ended and she began. A blinding need engulfed him, making him slide his mouth off hers and down the side of her neck to her shoulder. Nipping at her skin, he heard her suck in a sharp breath of pleasure as his thumb circled a hard nipple beneath satiny material.Eager to reach the taut bud, he caught the narrow strap of her bra with his teeth and dragged it off her shoulder until the cup of the lingerie released the plump breast it cradled. He restrained himself from taking her in his mouth the instant she was free. He wanted some sign from her that her blood was running as hot as his was. Slowly, he brushed his mouth across her skin, waiting for her to plead with him to suckle her.“Please.” Her whisper was hoarse with desire. “Please don’t tease me.”“Am I teasing you, carissima?” He edged his tongue close to the darkened skin near her nipple then blew lightly against her wet skin. Another mewl whispered out of her.“You know you are. For the love of Deus, Lysander, please.”The soft cry sent satisfaction sailing through him. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her. He answered her plea, gently nibbling on the tip of her until her hands cradled the back of his head and urged him to take her into his mouth completely. He obliged, savoring the incredibly sweet taste of her against his tongue.With each stroke of his tongue, she writhed against him, her hips thrusting up against his erection in a silent demand for the ultimate pleasure. The scent of her desire drifted up to tease his nose, and still suckling her, he slid his hand down to the wisp of material that barely covered her. His fingers slid under the maroon slip of fabric to the core of her.
Heat greeted his fingers as he parted her velvety folds and touched the small flesh of her sex. A low cry of pleasure escaped her the moment his thumb rubbed across the sensitive nub.Christus, he wanted her. Suddenly, she pushed up against him until he obediently rolled onto his back. She followed him, straddling him until the seat of her was rocking back and forth across his cock.The action shot a needy blast of desire through him, his body taut with a need to explode inside her. Her hands made short work of removing her bra, and he sucked in a quick breath at the beauty of her breasts. The moment she bent over him, he instinctively stretched out his hand to touch the silky black curtain that brushed the sides of her cheeks.Cool air brushed his stomach as she pushed his knit sweater upward to give her mouth access to his waist and then his chest. All the while her mouth caressed him, her hips continued to rock over him, teasing his cock until it was ready to break through the leather pants he wore. Blind to everything around him, he visualized pulling her up over his chest as his hands shoved at his pants. In that instance, her sharp cry filled the air, and he saw a look of panic flash in her wide eyes. Fuck, his telekinetic touch had brought back the trauma she’d endured only hours ago.
“Merda.I must be out of my mind,” he rasped. His words were an understatement, and he knew it.
“Don’t, Lysander. It’s not your fault. You just startled me, that’s all.”He ignored the pleading note in her voice.Christus, he should never have let it get this far. No. His first mistake was getting into bed with her. As gently as he could, he pushed her off him. She was simply reacting to what had happened to her at Hadrian’s temple. By initiating the sex, it was a way for her to be in control. Something she’d not had when that Praetorianbastardohad touched her.“No,” he growled as he sat up. “This should never have happened. You put your trust in me to keep you safe, and I took advantage of that trust.”“Deus, will you listen to yourself. You’re like some martyr unwilling to accept the fact that what just happened had nothing to do with that asshole.”“No.” He jerked his arm out of her grasp and got off the bed. His hand grabbed a boot and tugged it onto his foot. “You’re the one unable to face the truth, Phaedra. You had no control over what he forced you to endure. Now you’re compensating.”He pulled the other boot over his foot then stood up and headed toward the door. He didn’t believe for one minute that she wasn’t trying to regain some sense of control over her body. Over her mind, even her soul. And even if his mental caress might have just startled her, the moment had been sobering enough to bring him to his senses. He couldn’t believe how close he’d come to giving in to his need for her.
Behind him, he heard her scrambling off the bed. Fuck, if she stopped him now, he wasgoing to have to hurt her. Something hedesperatelydidn’t want to do. She caught up with him before he was halfway across the room and gripped his arm with a strength that surprised him.He flinched as he sensed the anger flowing through her fingers into his body. He recognized that anger. It was the same kind of fury that was with him every day, and he wasn’t sure it would ever leave him. He hoped for her sake that she would find a way to let her rage go.
“I’m not compensating for what happened to me. I’m not about to give that son of a bitch that much satisfaction. You’re using what happened to me as an excuse.”
“An excuse for what?”
“You’re running away from me—from what happened between us just now.” Her words were a dash of icy water in his face.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said in a cold voice.
“Yes, you do. Just now, when you were touching me—you felt something.”There was a confidence in her words that made another portion of the wall he’d built between them crumble. It sent a bolt of fear streaking through him. He avoided her gaze and shook his head.“No, what happened here was you waking me up and reminding me that I haven’t been laid in a while.” His tone was intentionally cruel as he pulled free of her grip and started toward the door.“Youporco,” she said fiercely. “You turn around and say that to my face.”Coming to an abrupt halt, he steeled himself for what he was about to do. Slowly, he turned to face her, prepared to deny any culpability in the matter. It was a mistake to turn around. She faced him in nothing but that slip of silk that mimicked underwear, and she was exquisite in her anger.Fingers splayed across her rounded lush hips, she looked like a vestal virgin ready to defend the temple from the entire Praetorian army. His heart sank and he cleared his throat in an attempt to say the words he needed to say. He failed. A look of triumph lit up her face, and in two strides, she threw herself at him and tugged his head down to meet her demanding kiss.
The taste and scent of her made it impossible to push her away, and he yielded to her for a brief moment. It was a kiss of desperation on his part as much as hers, and he knew the stakes were high if he allowed her to bend him to her will. As much as he wanted her this very minute, he also knew her motivations weren’t anything more than a need to recover
some of herself from what had happened to her.Trauma was driving her need, and even if it weren’t, he wouldn’t head down that path with her. The end results would be disastrous, and he refused to take advantage of her desire to make this morning’s incident insignificant, when it was just the opposite. She had to find a way to deal with what had happened in some other way, no matter how much he wanted to carry her back to her bed and spend the night sliding into the slick, velvety heat of her. His hands gripped her upper arms and gently pushed her away from him.
“No, Phaedra. It’s not going to happen.”
“For the love of god, Lysander. This isn’t about what happened this morning. I need you,” she whispered in a husky voice that danced its way across every one of his senses.The look she sent him stretched his nerves thin as wire.Christus, the woman was determined to get her way. Usually, his discipline enabled him to remain in complete control where she was concerned. But tonight … tonight, she was testing him as he never had been before. He wanted to give in to the plea in her voice. Offer the solace she needed, the assurance that she’d be okay.Even if he tried to explain it to her, she wouldn’t believe him, but he understood what she needed better than anyone else. Witnessing her assault had been one of the hardest things he’d ever endured. Just as hard as the torture he’d barely survived at the hands of Nicostratus. And he recognized the helpless feeling in her.That sense of having no power and the frantic need to find a way to regain that sense of control. He knew what being out of control meant. It was the difference between keeping the demon inside him locked up or unleashing it to wreak havoc in his life and those he loved. It was the difference between salvation and the death of his soul. The demon nudged at him. She had no idea what was at stake, but somehow he needed to make her understand that what she was asking wasn’t possible.“Trust me, Phaedra.” He shook his head as she protested with a sharp exclamation. “I know what I’m talking about. You’re trying to take back control, and this isn’t the way to do it.”“Damn it,” she snapped. “I know the difference between what thatbastardodid to me this morning and how I feel when you touch me. I’m not the one running scared here.”
The demon chuckled with glee as his anger escalated. He drew in a sharp hiss of air at her accusation. Whether it was because she’d hit so close to home or that she was beginning to wear down his resistance, he didn’t know, but it infuriated him. His hand snaked around the nape of her neck and roughly tugged her toward him. Surprised, her eyes widened as she met his gaze.“Scared? Look at this face, Phaedra. Is this the face of a man who doesn’t know what fear is?” He leaned into her and from his scalp to his jaw, the twisted flesh was there for her to see in all its glory. “Wake up and take a hard look at yourself in the mirror, cara. You’rethe one running scared here.”
“Lysander, I didn’t—”“No excuses.” The minute her hand touched his demonic profile, he shoved her from him. “Fucking me isn’t going to erase what happened this morning, Phaedra. You proved that the minute I caressed you with my ability. You screamed. And if anyone understands what you’re going through, it’s me.”
Her dark brown gaze met his, and he recognized the pain in her eyes. It made him want to give in to her need, but he couldn’t. Deliberately, he turned away from her. She uttered a soft protest, but he ruthlessly crushed his desire to heed her cry. Instead, he walked out of the room.
Chapter 11LYSANDER’S tread was light as he walked down the dark alley near the Temple of Hadrian. The moon was waning in the sky, and while there was the occasional beam of light illuminating his way, his hunting ground was predominantly in the dark.He wasn’t even sure Phaedra’s attacker had even heard the mental challenge he’d issued as they left the temple yesterday morning. No, he was sure the Praetorian had heard him, he just wasn’t sure he was going to show up when and where he was supposed to. But logic said it was more important to find Phaedra’s attacker before the sick bastard found her.Atia would be livid that he was doing this on his own, but lately, the darkness inside him had been difficult to control. The best way to deal with it was to let it loose in open combat, and the man he was looking for would give him the opportunity to let off a little steam before he exploded under the wrong circumstances.The Prima Consulwould have to settle for him having told Marco where he was going. His Primus Pilushadn’t been happy about Lysander going off to parts unknown, but his First Spear had agreed to wait two hours before he came looking for him. Provided his cell phone didn’t get damaged, Marco would be able to use the GPS module to find him. It probably wasn’t one of his brightest moves, but protecting Phaedra was all that mattered.His body grew taut at the memory of touching her, holding her in his arms again. He should never have allowed himself to touch her. Hell, he should have left that damn bedroom the minute he put her to bed. He drew in a deep breath and blew it out again. He’d done nothing but complicate things tonight.Merda, he’d done more than that. He’d put himself at risk for her learning the truth. If she thought he was hiding something from her, the woman wouldn’t give up until she figured out what his secret was. Then where would he be?The sound of a door opening made him dart to one side of the alley. His back pressed against the wall, he saw a young man step into the dark side street, before turning to lock the door he’d closed behind him. There was nothing in the stranger’s thoughts that even hinted at a Praetorian connection. Moments later, the man rode off on a scooter, leaving him alone in the alley once more.
As the dark lane grew quiet again, his thoughts returned to Phaedra and the earlier event at the temple. The raw anger he’d felt then surged through him once more. A cat cried out in the dark behind him, and his body grew taut like a tightly coiled spring.Christus, he was thinking too much. But it was difficult not to. Was it possible the myths were true? Maybe, but if so, how? How could a Praetorian Dominus just appear out of nowhere like this? Someone should have at least reported something.It would be easy for a Dominus to hide within the Church, and even from the Praetorians themselves. Still, the possibility of a Dominus was extraordinary, given the Praetorian culture itself. While the Praetorians used the Church to serve their own agenda in eradicating the Sicari, they did so under certain constraints. The devotional vows and other codes within the Church made it difficult for them to openly ensure their lineage didn’t die. Their lifestyle prohibited them from acknowledging any children they sired, and only males could enter the priesthood. Whether their contempt for women was deeply rooted in their culture or they were worried about inbreeding, they killed their female offspring at birth.It was a probable explanation for why they seemed to be fewer in number in the last century. Without female progeny to carry on their line, the Praetorians needed women for breeding purposes. It was why younger Sicari women were never tortured. They were breeding stock to the Praetorians. The few Sicari women who’d escaped had told horror stories about their lives among the Praetorians. An image of Marta flitted through his head, and his gut churned. Phaedra wasn’t valuable to the Praetorians simply for her remarkable gift. The bastards would see her as breeding stock with the added plus of having a valuable skill she might pass on to a male child.Phaedra’s ability was so strong that if she were to bear a child by a Praetorian, the child could easily have the abilities of a Sicari Lord. But raised as a Praetorian, the child would be trained as a Dominus. Taught to hate the Sicari. The idea of Phaedra being used in such a way hardened his muscles as he continued to walk through the shadows. The proverbial saying, over his dead body, took on new meaning where she was concerned.Stretching out his senses, he blocked out the mundane and listened for the whisper of Praetorian thoughts. Nothing. Did he really think it would be that easy? His telepathic skills weren’t always reliable, and if the Praetorian was stronger than him, the man could be easily hiding his thoughts. He rolled his shoulders slightly, the weight of his sword pressing into his back. It was fashioned in the style used by his ancestors, who’d been generals under the likes of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Marcus Aurelius.The sword gave him a sense of security. Particularly when security for a Sicari on one of Rome’s dark streets was an illusion. The only protection he had was the sword on his back and his abilities. His friends would call him insane for being out here alone in Praetorian territory. Marco had certainly used the word, and a few others. Atia wouldn’t call him insane. She’d simply chew him a new ass and then some for violating the rules.
All Sicari were required to work in teams of two or more no matter where they were. But what no one understood was that he’d not been alone last year. He’d had a team of skilled Sicari with him last year in Chicago, and he’d led all of them into a trap. In his arrogance, he’d ignored several signs that something wasn’t right. He’d made the wrong choice, and it had cost three fighters their lives, leaving him the sole survivor. And the only reason he’d survived was because the man torturing him had discovered who he was.Nicostratus had taken great pleasure in skinning him. His hand touched the mutilated skin on his face. Logically, he knew it would have been impossible to resist reacting to the pain. But knowing he’d surrendered and begged for relief was something he’d never forget. To be stripped of power, dignity, even his humanity—he grunted with a fierce, deep emotion at the thought.His pain had served as a natural barrier against Nicostratus learning any key strategic information. But he’d fought desperately to keep that shield up by thinking about those he loved. When thebastardohad read his thoughts about his mother, that’s when the true torture had begun. The son of a bitch had laughed at him.Nicostratus had found the emotional torture he inflicted far more amusing than the physical. Atia was wrong. His father wasn’t expecting him to come after him. Nicostratus had known full well he’d likely become an outcast if his parentage became common knowledge. It had happened to others in the distant past. He’d be no different.The scum had taken greater pleasure in tormenting him emotionally than inflicting physical pain. It had been the primary reason thebastardohad ended the physical torture. His father had taken enormous pleasure walking away from him alive. The man had done so with the belief that the internal devastation he’d caused would be a worse torture.The Praetorian fuck had been right. It would have been far better to deal with the physical agony of torture and eventual death than the mental anguish he’d dealt with for the last year. It was why tonight he had nothing to lose, because he’d already lost everything. Holding Phaedra tonight, coming close to making her his again, hadn’t helped things. If he survived, she was going to keep on asking questions. With a growl, he shoved his thoughts into the recesses of his mind. Focused. He had to stay focused and find Phaedra’s attacker. He needed to make sure the Praetorian didn’t get near her again.The whisper of a laugh brushed the edge of his senses. Muscles tight with tension, he immediately looked upward. Praetorians were notorious for dropping off a rooftop to surprise their enemy. Seeing nothing, he peered into the darkness, looking in every direction. Once more, the laugh sounded in his head. This time it was louder.“Show yourself, you sorry stronzo,” he muttered.“Asyou wish.”The man’s words echoed in his head with an ease that was unsettling. He’d known the Praetorian’s skills equaled his, but there was something completely different about this bastard. Maybe he’d made a mistake in not bringing Marco as backup.
“Of that I’ve no doubt, Unmentionable,”his opponent’s thoughts echoed in his head. The Praetorian was obviously amused. “You’re the type to always rush in where even angelsfear to tread.”
“Go fuck yourself.”Lysander reached for his sword, but an invisible hand stopped him.
“Come now, don’t be so hasty in your wish to die. I propose we settle this disputehonorably.”
“Praetorians have no honor.” He strained to mentally undo the tight grip on his wrist as he watched the man walk toward him at a nonchalant, deliberate pace.
“Ah, but I’m not just any Praetorian. I do have some honor.”
“Bullshit. If you had any honor, you wouldn’t have violated the woman I was with today.”“Ah, yes, Phaedra.”The Praetorian’s thoughts revealed just how much the man was aroused by her. “Phaedra is special. I can’t think of any woman better qualified to bearmy sons.”Fury blazed through him. The man wasn’t going to get anywhere near her. With a thrust of his hand, he visualized the Praetorian flying backward. Immediately the man’s grip on him was broken. The man stumbled back several feet, and he easily sensed the other man’s amazement.“Again you surprise me, Unmentionable. You’re stronger than I expected.”“There’s more where that came from.” He pulled his sword out of its scabbard and he gestured with his fingers for the other fighter to come forward.“I see.” For the first time, he heard the man’s actual voice. Pleasant and low, it revealed none of the malice he could sense in the Praetorian’s head.The man suddenly broke into a hard run, the monk’s cloak he wore streaming out behind him as he lunged forward. In the low light, Lysander saw the flash of steel in the Praetorian’s hand, and with a calm that surprised even him, he braced himself for the first blow. When less than three feet existed between them, the other fighter suddenly launched himself into the air and used the building as a springboard to send himself vaulting over Lysander’s head.
The Praetorian’s unexpected move surprised him, and he almost had a sword cleaving him open from the back of his skull downward because he’d been caught off guard. He quickly visualized the Praetorian’s sword missing him, and he heard his opponent utter a soft oath as the sword glanced off his shoulder without leaving a scratch. Without hesitating, Lysander whirled around and dragged the tip of his sword across the man’s midsection in one quick stroke.Lysander caught a faint mineral scent in the air. He’d drawn first blood. It was little more than a scratch, but the Praetorian’s anger was instantaneous. So thebastardowasn’t so confident anymore. He could hear the furious oaths flying through the man’s head. He curled his lips back in a malicious smile of satisfaction.
“My apologies,” he sneered. “My sword slipped. I trust you’re still able to continue?”With a low roar of anger, the Praetorian thrust out his hand, and in an instant, Lysander was on his knees, gasping for air. His sword fell to the street with a clang as he instinctively clawed at the invisible fingers wrapped around his throat. The unseen hand around his throat squeezed harder, the air in his lungs slowly disappearing. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice shouted at him that he couldn’t pry invisible fingers off his neck. He had to do something else to break free of the Praetorian.Feverishly, his fingers scrabbled across the cobblestone for the leather grip of his sword. Struggling for air, he tried to see his attacker through his blurred vision. The other fighter stood in a relaxed stance, sword at his side and a smile of contempt on his face. His air almost gone, Lysander slowly visualized the Praetorian stabbing his blade into his foot.Seconds later, his opponent cried out in pain, and he was free. He scrambled backward to huddle against the wall, desperately dragging deep breaths of air into his lungs. The rage emanating from the other fighter said there was no more time to recover. One hand pressed into the stone formation, he pushed himself to his feet and staggered to one side of the Praetorian.His breathing still ragged, he swung his sword in a low, sweeping arc at his opponent’s thigh. He missed. An instant later, he had to swing his sword upward to block the Praetorian’s blade. Sparks flew off steel, and he dropped his guard as he fought to stabilize his footing. An instant later, the Praetorian’s sword sliced into the fleshy part of his upper arm. Grunting with pain, he staggered back in a sideways motion, his sword falling from his hand.Too late, he realized the movement put his enemy on his blind side. The sound of a sword slicing through the air forced him to drop to the cobblestones. Using the last of his reserves, he broke his fall with a cushion of unseen energy then rolled over onto his back. Directly above him, the Praetorian flipped his sword in an expert move and drove it downward.
Clapping his hands together, Lysander trapped the Praetorian’s blade between his palms, barely keeping the sword from piercing his chest. Although his telekinetic ability was drained, he could still read the Praetorian’s thoughts. The man’s jubilant mood infuriated him. The son of a bitch needed to learn not to count his chickens before they hatched. He wasn’t about to call it quits yet. With the cold steel of his enemy’s sword still between his hands, he used all his strength to twist the weapon out of the man’s hands. It flew through the air until it hit the street with a loud clatter.The Praetorian’s dark growl of anger became a roar of pain as Lysander simultaneously kicked his leg upward and jammed his foot into the bastard’s crotch. One hand clutching his groin, the man sank to his knees and drew in a hiss of air before he met Lysander’s gaze.
“Enough of these games, Unmentionable,” he snarled. “Time to die.”Once more, an invisible hand wrapped itself around his throat. Choking and gasping beneath the pressure around his neck, Lysander’s hand reached out to his side in a desperate search for his sword. Still nursing his groin, the Praetorian sent him a cold smile as he tightened his grip around Lysander’s neck.
“Good-bye, Unmentionable. I’m certain your woman will be an unbelievably good fuck.”Not even the man’s taunt was enough to help him free himself of the grip on his neck. Unable to breathe, he fought not to pass out as his fingers scrabbled desperately across damp cobblestones. Where the hell was his sword? The pressure at his throat increased again. Dizzy from lack of air, he slowly sank into a darkness where Phaedra raced toward him with a welcoming smile.HE caught her up in his arms, his mouth seeking hers in a deep kiss.Deus, she tastedlike the Elysium Fields, warm and sweet. He’d missed her more than he’d ever thought itpossible to miss someone. It had been more than two months since he’d felt her warminghis body. His battlefield tent was comfortable enough, but without her curled into hisside, the nights were always cold no matter the time of year. He was tired of war.Weary of being away from her so much. The minute he could convince Maxentius to freehim of his duties, he was going to take her to the farm her father had given them. Therethey’d live out the rest of their days in peace. Lifting his head, he stared down into hereyes with a sense of dread. It was easy to see the fear in her gaze.“What’s happened?”“Nothing.” Her forced smile said she was lying. “I’m simply happy to see you. I hate itwhen you’re gone for such a long time.”“While I’m delighted you missed me,” he said as he allowed her to help him remove hisleather armor. “We both know that’s not why you’re frowning.”
“It’s of no consequence. As a general’s wife, I should know that worry is a fruitlesseffort.” Her soft sigh illustrated that whatever was troubling her clearly had her evenmore worried than usual.
“I’m relieved to hear you do worry about me,” he teased with a quiet laugh.The remark made her wince, and he frowned. There was an air of vulnerability about herthat bothered him. It was unusual. Cassiopeia was fearless. So much so, that it troubledhim at times. She had stood up to more senators than he cared to admit. She’d even cutMaxentius down to size on more than one occasion, which fortunately for both of themhad amused the emperor. When she turned her head away, he caught her chin and forcedher to look at him as he arched his eyebrow at her.
“Tell me what’s troubling you.”
“It’s Octavian,” she whispered. “I … he came to visit me.”
“Octavian?” He shook his head in puzzlement. “He’s an old friend. Why would his visitbother you?”
“That’s what I thought …” Her voice faded into silence.
“Damno ut abyssus, Cass. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“He said you were a fool to serve Maxentius,” she said in a rush. “He said Constantinewill execute the Praetorian Guard when he takes Rome.”Her fear was tangible as she quickly wrapped her arms around his waist to burrow deepinto his chest. The heat of her penetrated his tunic as he kissed the top of her head.Dulcis matris Deus, he knew Octavian had been unhappy with the way Maxentius had beenrunning the campaign against Constantine, but the Praetorian Guard had pledged theirloyalty to the emperor. Surely, his old friend hadn’t broken that oath.“The Guard will never throw their support to Constantine. Octavian’s talking treason.”She lifted her head, and the fear on her face aroused his anger. Not only was the mantalking like a traitor, thefiglio di puttanahad frightened Cass. Anger sliced through him.Eyes wide in her face, she pressed her palm against his heart.“He knows where Maxentius keeps theTyet of Isis.”The words made his blood slide cold and sluggish through his veins. If Constantineacquired theTyet of Isis, Alexander the Great’s potion would give the usurper the abilityto create his own Praetorian Guard. The possible ramifications of Octavian’s traitorousintent made his blood pound with fear. The man had to be stopped.“What else did he say?” he asked quietly, and she looked away from him. “Cass?”
“He said Constantine will ride triumphant into Rome in thirty days’ time because he’ll
use theTyet of Isis to become a Praetorian.”
“Fotte, ”he rasped. “He’s not just declaring treason against the emperor, he’s betrayinghis oath to the Guard.”
“What are you going to do?”“I’m going to hunt thebastardodown and slit his throat,” he growled. She blanched at hisharsh words, and he caressed her cheek. “It will be all right,mea amor. I’ll convinceMaxentius to let me have the box for safekeeping. He knows he can trust me, although ifhe knew you were aware of it as well, he might not be so trusting.”
“I’m scared, Maximus,” she said in a husky voice. “I love you so much. If I were to loseyou, I wouldn’t want to live.”WITH each word, her voice grew fainter, and he railed against the knowledge that he was losing her. He called to her, but she was little more than a wraith in his arms. Raw fury roared through him. Phaedra was lost to him again. What had he done to anger the fates? The world suddenly rushed by him, past and present merging into a steady stream of blurred images until, with a choking noise, he was back in the present struggling for air.In the next instant, he was free, and the Praetorian was lying flat on his back with a stunned look on his face. Dragging in huge gulps of air, Lysander’s fingers found the steel of his blade, and his hand wrapped around the grip of his sword. What the hell had happened? He hadn’t broken the Praetorian’s stranglehold on him. Still gasping, he saw a dark figure emerge from the darkness. The sight of the man’s monk’s robe made him release a quiet groan.“Christus.Not another one,” he rasped as the man came to a halt a few feet away.“I can assure you, Condellaire, I amnotthe enemy,” the stranger snapped without even looking down at him.Merda, the man knew his name.The Praetorian had scrambled to his feet and was staring at the newcomer with an expression of suspicion, which quickly changed to loathing. With a flick of his wrist, the Praetorian called his weapon to him, the sword flying up from the ground and into his hand. In response, the stranger showed the sword he carried beneath his long flowing cloak. With a slight bow, the Praetorian shook his head.“You’ll forgive me, Eminence, if I put off this long overdue meeting. I wish to give your execution my full attention.”“Confidence is good, but too much of it offers one the opportunity to misstep.”
Lysander stiffened at the title the Praetorian had used. That was the honorary title one used with a Sicari Lord. For a Praetorian to use it even with a Sicari Lord was unthinkable. To their enemy, the Sicari were unmentionables. Pagans who threatened their holy order. Why would the Praetorian be so deferential? As quietly as he could, his fingers wrapped around his sword. The movement triggered nerve endings that reminded him how bad his arm hurt. He grunted. His arm wasn’t the only thing that hurt. The inside of his throat was on fire, and his neck throbbed from where the Praetorian had used his mental strength to brutally choke him. He was lucky the bastard hadn’t actually crushed his windpipe. Hell, he was lucky the stranger had come along. He didn’t understand how, but the man had managed to stop the Praetorian from killing him. The physical and mental strain he’d exerted had left him exhausted, but sword in hand, he managed to lurch to his feet to watch the small drama unfolding before him.
“I was warned about your penchant for sage wisdom.” The sarcasm in the Praetorian’s voice made the other man stiffen with what appeared to be anger.It was impossible to be certain because the man’s manner was so restrained and dignified. He couldn’t even read the man’s thoughts. In fact, now that he thought about it, he’d not received any thoughts from the man at all. The only individual he knew of with that type of ability and control was a Sicari Lord. It was difficult to believe he was staring at a legend he’d only known through childhood stories. But with each passing second, he was growing more convinced this man actually was a Sicari Lord.
“Do not mistake wisdom as a sign that I’m a doddering old fool. I’m well prepared to do what I must.” The Sicari Lord’s voice was quiet, yet authoritative.“Then prepare well, Eminence,” the Praetorian snapped viciously. “Because the next time we meet, you’ll die by my hand.”“I am at your disposal, my son.” The Sicari Lord bowed slightly in what was almost a courtly gesture.With a sharp sound of disgust, the Praetorian whirled around and vanished into the darkness. Frustration lashed through Lysander, and he glared at the Sicari Lord.“What the fuck!You’re just going to let him go like that? The son of a bitch threatened my healer, and if I don’t stop him, he’s going to come after her.”The Sicari Lord didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his hand, and two fighters emerged from the darkness. One of them a woman, she stepped forward and bent her head as the man whispered something to her. She nodded then stepped away and remained silent. The Sicari Lord turned to face him when he’d finished speaking to the woman. He pushed his hood back to show his face and arched an eyebrow at him.
There was something vaguely familiar about the man, but Lysander couldn’t place where he’d seen him before. The faintest whisper of the answer echoed in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t hear it clearly. At that precise instant, the Sicari Lord narrowed his gaze at him. For some reason, he could have sworn the man was disappointed in him, but he
couldn’t figure out why.
“You had a vision of Maximus and Cassiopeia.” It wasn’t a question. It was a simple, calmly spoken statement.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lysander shook his head and met the man’s gaze steadily. A faint hint of a smile touched the man’s lips.
“It is said that Maximus loved Cassiopeia so much he killed her to save her.”
“I know the story,” he said with irritation. “But I fail to see what it has to do with me.”
“So you don’t remember the vision.”The man’s question was simply another statement. The Sicari Lord was testing him. But for the life of him, he didn’t know why. He chose not to answer. The last thing he’d do was share his innermost desires, no matter what shape they took. He’d been dying. It was natural that the one person he loved above all others would fill his thoughts as that Praetorianbastardochoked the life out of him. The Sicari Lord tilted his head slightly in a contemplative manner.
“You were willing to give your life for Phaedra. Is that because she’s a Sicari or do you have some other reason to protect her?”“She’s a valuable member of my team. What other reason would I need to protect her?” he said through clenched teeth. Hell. Was the man probing his thoughts without permission?“There is always the possibility that you’re simply waiting for the opportunity to turn her over to your brethren.”For a moment, he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.Merda, the man knew he had Praetorian blood. The bastard had definitely probed his thoughts without permission. Did he think his rank and position gave him the right to violate a Sicari’s thoughts and probe deep beneath the surface?“I amnota traitor to the Sicari.” Ramrod straight, he eyed the man with furious contempt.“Nor was Maximus to the Praetorian Guard, and yet Octavian painted him a traitor.” The Sicari Lord studied him for a moment then gave him an abrupt nod. “We shall see.”“Instead of talking history to me, we should be going after that Praetorian son of a bitch.”
“He’s more concerned with destroying me now than he is with finding Phaedra,” the man replied.
“Merda,” he snapped with disgust. “How do you know that?”“Because he knows who I am.” The Sicari Lord bent his head, his mood somber, almost bleak. A moment later, the man sent him an intent look. “The vision you had, have you had them before?”
“You tell me. You’re the one who’s probed my thoughts already,” he growled.
“Your thoughts were easy to hear without probing.” The Sicari Lord sent him a harsh look that was a silent reprimand. “I repeat. Have you had these visions before?”His internal debate wasn’t going his way at all. This was a Sicari Lord, and as a Sicari, he owed obedience to the man. On top of that, something about the man said he wasn’t the type of man who let rules stand in the way of him gaining information. Deep inside of him, he identified with the Sicari Lord. If the means justified it, he broke the rules, too. And the idea of thisman probing his thoughts was far less appealing than sharing the fact that he’d been dreaming for some time. He released a noise of anger.
“I’m certain you can expand on that.” Amusement in his voice, the man tucked his sword away under his cloak without looking away from Lysander.“I’ve been dreaming about Maximus since I was a kid,” he ground out between clenched teeth.“That long.” The statement sounded more like the man was thinking out loud, and the way the Sicari Lord rubbed his chin only reinforced the notion that he was expecting something more from him. The man studied him intently. “I’m curious. Do I look familiar to you?”“What the hell kind of question is that?” He avoided a direct answer. This entire conversation was making him edgy.“A straightforward one, I thought. So I shall ask again. Do I look familiar to you?”“No.” Instinct made him throw up a mental block to ensure the Sicari Lord didn’t discover his lie. The man frowned, and again Lysander felt as though the man was disappointed in him.“I see. And Phaedra? Has she mentioned any dreams?”“Not to me, she hasn’t.” Growing more irritated by the minute, he glared at the man.
“But then you keep her at a distance, don’t you?” The Sicari Lord nodded as if suddenly having an epiphany. “In the days ahead, Condellaire, you must never question your
instincts. Don’t think. Act. It will save your life and that of the woman who is a part of your destiny.”
Deus, the man wasn’t just a Sicari Lord, he was crazy. He needed a shovel to dig his way out of the crap this guy was handing him. The man facing him chuckled softly.“I’m certain my sanity seems in question, but I assure you I’m quite sane. Things will reveal themselves in time,” the Sicari Lord said. “In the meantime, Cornelia will take you back to the safe house. When you arrive, tell the Prima Consulthat Marcus has found the boy. As for me, or my people, you are to say nothing. Secrecy is the greatest weapon I, and those who serve me, have against the Praetorians. Do I have your word?”
“What, you’re going to trust a half-breed’s word?” He sneered, still smarting at the way the Sicari Lord had questioned his loyalty to the Order.
“I have no choice.” The man sent him a look that said he expected a response.
“You have my word.”“Bene. However, if I discover you’ve broken your word, I’ll hunt you down and slit your throat.” The words were simple, matter-of-fact, but a deadly note ran beneath them. It wasn’t a threat, merely a fact.“Understood, Eminence.”Lysander bowed his head, and when he straightened, the Sicari Lord had already vanished into the night, taking one of his bodyguards with him. The woman called Cornelia moved to stand at his side, pulling a small Mag light from her pocket in the black leather jacket she wore. She quickly examined the wound on his arm and shrugged.“You’ll live. Come.” With a sharp gesture, she indicated he was to follow her.Wearily, he slid his sword back into the scabbard on his back and hurried after her. In silence, they moved quickly down the alley and wound their way through several dark streets toward the more populated sections. As he followed the Sicari woman, it was impossible not to reflect on the events of the past hour. If he weren’t the Legatus, he’d most likely be whipped for doing something as stupid as going after the Praetorian without a partner. He grimaced. Actually, Atia was within her rights to order his punishment.
If it hadn’t been for the Sicari Lord’s arrival, the Prima Consulwouldn’t have had the opportunity to even make such a decision. Ahead of him, the Sicari fighter moved quickly, yet with a stealth that amazed him. It was obvious the woman had received special training. Like the Sicari Lord, the woman revealed nothing to his senses. His skills were extensive, but hers clearly surpassed his by a large margin. Particularly whenhe failed to use his head.He winced. A fine example he was setting for his team.
Something Atia would take great pleasure in pointing out.They’d gone several blocks when she stopped in front of a sleek Italian sports car. Even though he was exhausted and in pain, he eyed the black vehicle with appreciation. It was a thing of beauty. He was learning Cornelia was a woman of few words as she nodded at him to get in. In less than a minute, they were in the compact vehicle with the engine revved up as the Sicari woman tooled the car through the dark streets. As they emerged from the quieter areas and encountered slightly heavier traffic, she darted the sports car in and out of the other vehicles with the skill of a stunt driver.She didn’t ask for directions, and it was obvious she knew where she was going. Just as they’d done on foot through the dark alley-ways, they maintained their silence in the car. And even if he’d been in the mood for conversation, something told him Cornelia wouldn’t be interested in talking. He closed his eyes and rested his head back on the car’s low headrest until the car’s rumbling became the soft purr of an idling engine.
“The safe house, Legatus.”With a nod, he got out of the car, and the minute he’d closed the door, the woman threw the car into gear and drove off without a backward glance. Weary to the bone, he blew out a harsh breath then entered the safe house. Less than a minute later, he was past the security door locks and was standing in the foyer. Usually, the house was dimly lit this time of the morning, but the glare of lights made him grimace. Marco had raised the alarm. A rush of footsteps made him brace himself as the sound of excited voices echoed out of the narrow hallway leading into the kitchen. Everyone was awake. Marcus didn’t seem to understand that the words come looking for himweren’t quite the same thing as rousing the entire household. He’d talk to his PrimusPilusabout that later. Hoping to avoid questions until he could talk to Atia alone, he quickly strode toward the staircase. He’d only climbed two steps when the Prima Consulappeared in the entryway followed by the rest of his team, including Phaedra. Too late. He averted his gaze from her and steeled himself for Atia’s inquisition.“Where have you been? Marco says you wouldn’t tell him where you were going.” ThePrima Consul’stone wasn’t a question. It was an order that said she’d only tolerate a straightforward answer. He hesitated for a fraction of a second before he turned to face her.“I went looking for that Praetorian we discussed.”
When he’d sent Atia a text message after Phaedra’s assault, he’d made sure to let thePrima Consulknow he was certain they were dealing with a Praetorian. Between his text message, and their short phone call afterward, the Prima Consulknew Phaedra’s assailant wasn’t just a telepath, but possessed telekinetic skills as well. And while she’d not given him a direct order not to hunt the bastard down, Atia had made it clear he was to avoid the man.
“Fotte,” Atia said with a sharp gasp of horror as she stared at him. “Have you lost your mind?”He didn’t know what surprised him most, the language that was out of character for her, or the distinct fear echoing in the Prima Consul’svoice. But it was the way her face had drained of color that worried him the most. He ignored the rest of the team spilling out into the foyer and hurried to her side. Atia brushed off his solicitous hand, her gaze focusing on his arm and then his throat.
“You’re injured. Phaedra.” The Prima Consul’svoice rang out crisply.It was a sharp command, and Phaedra, along with Cleo, pushed her way to the front of the small group gathered in the hall. Both women gasped when they saw him, but when Phaedra rushed toward him, it caught him off guard. He immediately retreated several feet, only to find his back pressed into the spindles of the staircase.
“Mea Deus, what happened to you?” Phaedra whispered as her hand lightly brushed across his throat.Her touch was electric, but he didn’t want the pity he could hear in her voice. In a sharp move, he grabbed her wrist and jerked her hand away from his skin before releasing his grip on her. Even that touch had enough of a charge that it made him wish he hadn’t used up all his telekinetic ability just so he could push her away without touching her. Struggling to maintain his composure, he ignored Phaedra and looked at the PrimaConsul.“I have a message for you, MadameConsul. I was instructed to tell you that Marcus has found the boy, and he’ll do what he must to resolve the matter.”Gut instinct had told him Atia would find the message unsettling, but the last thing he’d expected from the Prima Consulwas for her to faint. Despite the way his body protested, he leaped forward and caught her before she hit the floor. The deep cut on his arm sent a shrieking message of protest through his shoulder as he lifted the older woman up into his arms.
He turned toward the stairs then paused. “Phaedra. Come with me. The Prima Consulmay need you.”
“I’m coming, too,” Cleo exclaimed, a worried note in her voice.As he reached the second floor and strode down the hall, Atia stirred in his arms. He turned his head slightly to look at her. Although she was still pale, her expression had regained that regal look that said she was the one in charge.“I’m quite capable of walking, Lysander.” The command in her voice was one he knew better than to ignore. He stopped just short of her door and immediately set the PrimaConsulon her feet.
“Damn it, Mother. Why do you have to be so stubborn? You just passed out.” The irritation in Cleo’s voice layered the worry that ran deeper.
“I’m feeling much better,” Atia said quietly as she slowly walked the last few steps to her room. “But I do think I’ll lie down.”“I’ll come with you to make sure you don’t pass out again. We don’t need a martyr on our hands.” Cleo sent him a look of angry disgust. “We’ve already got enough of those in here as it is.”Atia didn’t object to Cleo’s gentle bullying. Instead, she gave her daughter a nod of acquiescence. The two women entered Atia’s room, but the Prima Consulstopped Cleo from closing the door. Her expression unyielding, she looked directly at him.“You are to let Phaedra see to your wounds.”“I have a scratch on my arm, nothing more.”“A scratch that would require stitches if a healer was unavailable.” The Prima Consularched her eyebrow in an autocratic manner. “Phaedra.”“I’ll see to his injuries,” Phaedra said quietly, a determined look on her face.As Atia slowly closed her door, he caught the sly gleam in the woman’s eyes.Merda, the woman was interfering where she shouldn’t. Furious, he turned his head and saw Phaedra studying him with an amused expression on her beautiful features.“Let’s get this over with,” he growled.“My pleasure.” The sultry note in her voice tightened every muscle in his body. “It would be best to do this in your room so you can rest afterward.”
Christus, they’d already been down this road earlier. He didn’t need a repeat. The memory of holding her in his arms knotted his muscles with tension. With a growl of frustration, he sent her an abrupt nod then headed toward the staircase and up to the third floor. His place was definitely better than hers. At least he could retreat to his bedroom and lock the
door behind him.When he entered his small apartment, he headed straight for the couch. At least here, the torment of having her so close would be a little less painful. He wasn’t sure he could keep her from seeing deep beneath the surface when it came to his thoughts. But he needed every ounce of concentration he had to hide the monster inside him. It was going to be bad enough watching her take on the pain of his injury.The idea of her sensing the monster inside him shot a bolt of panic through him. Deus, maybe he should just let her see him for what he was. He crushed the thought with one blow. No, he refused to cause her any pain. He knew how much she hated the Praetorians for what they’d done to her parents. He’d find a way to hide his secret from her. The thought of being the catalyst for bringing her past to the surface—hurting her—was the last thing he wanted.
The scent of her filled his senses as she brushed past him. Sweet. Oh so sweet. Like a tangy fruit, fresh and ripe for the picking. He suppressed a groan as she sank down onto the sofa beside him.Il Christi omnipotentia, he didn’t think he could do this. He could only hope he’d buried his secret deep enough. Touching her would be like entering the Elysium Fields one more time, all the while knowing that in mere seconds someone would throw him back into hell. She turned toward him, and he knew it was too late.
Chapter 12ATIA stared at her daughter standing at the foot of her bed. Cleo’s expression wavered between worry and irritation. She suppressed a sigh. It was understandable that Cleo would be confused by her behavior.
“Do stop acting like I’m on the verge of death, cara. I fainted.”
“Something you’ve never done before in your life, Mother.”
“I’m simply feeling the stress of the search. I know we’re close to finding the artifact, but I’m afraid the Praetorians aren’t far behind us.”“I could maybe buy that story, if it wasn’t for the fact that you fainted. Stress didn’t have a fucking thing to do with your swooning.” Cleo emphasized the word “swooning” in a somewhat sarcastic fashion. “That message scared the piss out of you.”
“Must you use such language?”
“If memory serves, not more than fifteen minutes ago, you said fotte.”“Touche,” she muttered with irritation at having her transgression thrown back in her face.“So who’s Marcus, and who’s the boy?”Cleo folded her arms across her chest and eyed Atia closely. How like her father she was—strong, determined, and so sure of herself. Although they were often at odds with one another, it did nothing to dampen the love she felt for Cleo. She was proud of her daughter. Atia waved her hand in denial and shrugged, her brain working fast to form a plausible answer.“Marcus is someone I knew a long time ago. I was startled to hear his name.”“Did he know Father?” Cleo’s expression was one of curious speculation.“Yes, he did, as a matter of fact.” It was always best to tell the truth as much as possible.“And the child?”
“So many questions.” She frowned. “There are somethings only the Prima Consulis privy to. You know that.”
“I get that,” Cleo said with a disgusted look. “But I’ve never seen you react like that toanythingbefore. Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“Your imagination is fartoo vivid, carissima. It startled me to hear from Marcus.” She forced a smile to her lips.
“Obviously.I can’t remember the last time you said fotte. In fact, I can’t remember you ever saying it until tonight. That’s two firsts in the space of five minutes.”“All right. I think we’ve now established the fact that I said the word,” Atia snapped. “Might we move on to a different subject? Perhaps the topic of sleep? Something we’ve both had little of tonight. Lysander isn’t in need of rescue, and I would like a little more sleep.”She knew that wasn’t going to happen. There was no possible way she’d be able to sleep now. Now that Marcus had found Gabriel. She winced, and Cleo sent her a suspicious look.
“Why do I think you’re up to something?”
“I amnotup to anything. I simply want to rest.” Exasperated, she sent her daughter a stern look. “And unless I’m mistaken you were still up when Marco woke up the house.”“I couldn’t sleep.” Cleo’s gaze shifted away from hers. It made her heart ache for her daughter.“Again? He’s not worth losing sleep over, carissima.”“I wasn’t losing sleep over Michael.”“Why don’t I believe you?”“Because you’re my mother, and you’re terrified I won’t ever blood bond with anyone.”“Don’t be ridiculous.” She sniffed indignantly. “I don’t care whether you exchange a blood bond with someone or not. Your happiness is all that matters to me.”“I am happy. You just don’t want to accept that I’m not ready for any type of commitment.”“And it’s the why that concerns me.”“There is nowhy, Mother. I’m doing what men have been doing for centuries. I’m playing the field and making up for lost time on behalf of the female sex.”
Atia closed her eyes at Cleo’s flip, yet stubborn, denial. She knew just how much her
daughter had loved Michael Giordano, and when thebastardohad betrayed her … the thought made her wince. Cleo had never tolerated people who lied to her.A shiver skated down her back. What would she do if she ever learned her mother had been lying to her since she was a baby? Deus, she should have told her the truth years ago. What good would it have done? Her eyes flew open as Cleo touched her shoulder then leaned over to kiss her cheek.
“Get some rest, okay?” Cleo said as she headed out of the room. With the door open, she paused. “I love you,Mamma.”
“I love you, too, carissima.”The love in her daughter’s eyes made Atia’s heart ache as she watched the bedroom door close behind Cleo. Tired, she pinched the bridge of her nose as she picked up her cell phone off the nightstand. With a tap of the screen, the phone displayed a colorful wallpaper and the time. Six fifteen. It would be dawn soon. She stared at the screen of the phone until it dimmed.Restless, she stood up and paced the floor. She knew she needed to go back to bed, but the idea of lying down to do nothing more than toss and turn was far from appealing. Palatine Hill. It had been more than ten years since she’d last visited La Terrazza del Ninfeo. She’d gone there to think before she accepted the mantle of Prima Consul. There was a peaceful serenity about the crumbling aviary that always soothed her senses. It helped her think.She released a derisive laugh at the bittersweet sensation drifting through her. No. It wasn’t the only reason she was always compelled to visit La Terrazza del Ninfeo whenever she could. She uttered a sharp noise of self-disgust. Ridiculous. She went because she enjoyed its beauty. She silenced the laughter in her head as if she were swatting a fly.The ruins were in the middle of one of the most popular tourist spots in Rome, which made it relatively safe, but in the early-morning hours, it was still dangerous. Ignacio wouldn’t be happy that she wanted to go out at such an early hour, particularly not after the excitement with Lysander.The need to escape the confines of her room exploded inside her, and with a curse, she reached for her cell phone. The man could always send one of the other fighters with her if he didn’t want to go. He wouldn’t. She quickly punched a text message into the phone then pressed the send button.
In the last several hours, a distinct chill had settled over the city. It had cooled her room enough for her to know she’d need more than just the sweater she wore. She quickly retrieved a lightweight jacket from the closet then headed downstairs. When she reached the foyer, she waited impatiently for Ignacio to join her.She grimaced as she remembered how frantic Ignacio had been the other day when she’d eluded him to meet with Marcus. She’d tried to explain without revealing any secrets, but it hadn’t prevented the man from reading her the riot act. A sigh broke past her lips.Ignacio Firmani was a good man. He’d been good to herandCleo. The man doted on Cleo now, just as he had when she was a baby. Over time, he’d become such a part of their lives that when she took the rite of ascension into the office of Prima Consul, it had been natural to ask him to act as herCelerisand head of security. Ignacio had said yes and nothing else. Just yes.A disgruntled growl echoing above her head made her look up to see herCeleriscoming down the steps with a dark expression on his craggy features. Clearly unhappy about the early-morning hour, Ignacio came to a halt in front of her and bowed slightly.
“You have need of me, ilmia signora.”
“I want to see the sunrise from La Terrazza del Ninfeo.”
“The sunrise.”It was a statement, but she heard the question in the sardonic note in his voice as he nodded at her with a jerk of his head. Even if his voice had been emotionless, she would have known what he was thinking. Aware that he had to be tired, she shook her head.“Never mind. We’re both tired, and you need your rest,” she murmured.She shouldn’t have called him. She should have called Benedict or Tony.“I’m not that damn old,” he muttered as he eyed her closely before turning away to head toward the rear of the house. “And I won’t get much rest knowing you’re running around Rome without me.”“At least I called you this time and didn’t take off on my own, vecchio amico,” she said in a placating tone as she followed him. The moment the words were out of her mouth, he came to an abrupt halt and whirled around to lean into her with a dark expression.“And the next time you do something so idiotic, I’m going to keep you under lock and key.”“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with an exasperated smile. “You can’t lock up the PrimaConsul.”
“I wouldn’t,” he snapped. “I’d be locking up Atia Vorenus, a stubborn woman who’s too blind to see what’s right in front of her.”Startled by his behavior, she swallowed hard as his eyes narrowed at her. There was a flash of fire in his dark eyes that surprised her even more. Beneath the calm, there was a passion in him she’d not seen until now. Or had she deliberately refused to see it? Either way, she didn’t know how to react to it.
“I amnotstubborn.” She latched onto the safest portion of his statement.“I see.” He closed the distance between them even more until there was only an inch or two between them. “So the fact that you refuse to acknowledge the second portion of my comment is not being stubborn.”
“I … I am most definitely not blind either,” she snapped. “I see quite well, thank you very much.”
“Do you?”His hand caught her chin, and he forced her to look him directly in the eye. There was a fiery light in his brown eyes that made her throat constrict slightly as he glared at her. He’d never touched her in such an intimate fashion before. It was a possessive touch, and it shifted the balance between them.Deep down she’d always wondered if he cared for her, but not once in the more than twenty years she’d known him had he strayed from their platonic relationship. And he’d certainly never touched her like this. Caught off guard by his unusual behavior, her eyes widened as he drew closer then stopped just inches away from her mouth.Care Deus,was the man about to kiss her? She’d no sooner allowed the thought to enter her head, than his hand curled around her neck and he tugged her into him to capture her mouth in a hard kiss.She was so surprised she froze, unable to think. The minute his tongue teased her mouth open, she shuddered. It was a hot caress, and although he simply tempted her with his mouth, the kiss said he wanted to do much more. The fiery touch of his lips against hers sent a signal from her brain that she’d missed being kissed—being touched. The thought made her instinctively respond to his caress, her mouth moving against his.It had been such a long time since she’d thought herself desirable, and his hot touch made her feel just like that—desired. It had been even longer since a man had kissed her with a passion that said he wanted to caress every inch of her. The last time—she shuddered and jerked away from him with a gasp.Matris Deus, what was she doing? She was blood bonded to Marcus. Almost as if he could read her thoughts, his eyes narrowed as he studied her with a fierce look, his breathing ragged. In a slow, seductive move, his thumb slowly brushed across her lower lip.
“My patience is coming to an end, carissima. One day soon you’ll have to choose between a ghost and me,” he growled fiercely. “I’ve waited far too long as it is.” Stunned by his words, she watched him wheel sharply on his heel and stalk away from her. Dazed by what had just transpired between the two of them, she followed him through the kitchen and along the narrow corridor that led to the garage. Suddenly the steady, comfortable relationship she’d enjoyed with Ignacio had been turned upside down. It made her feel uncertain and on edge.It was as if she was being unfaithful to Marcus. She flinched. How could she be unfaithful to a man she’d not lived with for more than twenty-five years? The simplicity of the answer made her bite back tears. Because she’d never stopped loving him. Her heart convulsed with pain at the thought. Wasn’t life supposed to become less complicated the older one got?The silence between her and Ignacio didn’t ease as they entered the garage that was large enough to easily hold five or six cars. At the moment, there were only two. Both of them Land Rovers. One vehicle beeped as Ignacio pressed a button on his key. His walk indicated a restrained anger that increased the sharp tension between them.When he jerked open the car door, he didn’t even bother to look at her as she climbed into the Land Rover. The door slammed shut with a fury that made her jump. Deus, she’d seen him angry before, but not like this. This display of emotion was so unlike him. He didn’t say a word. He simply drove out of the garage with a ferocity that made her wrap her fingers around the hand grip just above her head.The diplomat in her went to work trying to figure out the best way to handle the awkward situation she found herself in with Ignacio. As he drove through the relatively empty streets of the city, she stared out at the dark buildings and occasional all-night cafe. Was he thinking of resigning as herCeleris?The thought of him doing so dismayed her. He’d been her friend since Cleo had been just a toddler, and he was one of the few people she trusted in the Order. Ignacio always seemed to have the pulse of the Council, and she’d come to rely on him for not only information, but as a sounding board. There were far too many politicians on the Council quick to service their own needs before the Order itself.Losing Ignacio meant her ability to govern would be weakened. A fact a number of Council members would look to capitalize on. The crest of Palatine Hill rose in front of them, but she was no closer to a solution when they reached their destination than she had been when they left the safe house. As the car came to a halt, she quickly reached for the door handle. A firm hand prevented her from exiting the car. Her gaze fell to the strong fingers curled around her arm before she looked up to meet his harsh look.
“A few days ago, you vanished into the heart of the city without benefit of protection. This morning, you would have come here alone if I’d forbidden you to leave the house.” He glared at her as she opened her mouth to protest. “Don’t. I know you too well. AsPrima Consulof the Sicari Order, you’re taking unacceptable risks. If the Praetorians captured you, do you really think you will be able to keep from telling them all your
secrets?”She swallowed hard at his question. Should she tell him that she’d not been in that much danger at the Santa Maria sopra Minerva? No. While she trusted Ignacio, there was no need for him to know about the Sicari Lords. They were not invincible, and they operated the Absconditusin secret to protect the younger Sicari Lords they trained. Children like Gabriel. Her breath caught in her throat as she closed herself to the pain the memory of Gabriel brought her.
“You’re right,” she said stiffly. “I shall take greater care not to make you or the others worry about my safety while we’re in Rome.”
“Fotte, I’m not saying this as yourCeleris. I’m saying this as a man who cares for you-deeply.”The intensity in his voice made her wince. Deus, this was becoming far too complicated. She wanted the comfortable familiarity she’d grown used to where he was concerned. She averted her head and nodded, unwilling to say anything. The tension between them was far too volatile. A moment later, he uttered a soft growl of frustration and released her. A horde of Praetorians on her heels couldn’t have made her move faster to get out of the Land Rover.She heard Ignacio leave the vehicle as well and jumped at the way he slammed the car door. It was something he wouldn’t have normally done. Sound always drew attention. She swallowed her immediate impulse to chastise him. Instead, she circled the back of the car and headed up the footpath leading to La Terrazza del Ninfeo. The fact that most of Palatine Hill was closed to the public for excavation work made it a little more difficult to achieve her goal, but she always kept a set of archeological credentials in the car.Even with the trail still cloaked in the waning shadows of the night, she had no trouble navigating the dirt path that led up to the aviaries. Rainaldi had designed the two buildings in the seventeenth century for a member of the Farnese family, and it was one of her favorite spots in all Rome. Whenever she visited here, it calmed her—gave her a sense of peace that was not always easy to come by in her role as Prima Consul. The quiet, particularly at this time of the morning, was something she cherished.Behind her, she heard Ignacio’s footsteps fade as he stepped off the path to stand guard. The sky had lightened considerably, and she quickly circled the light, coral-colored aviaries to drink in the view. The crisp air she breathed in had a mildness to it that said spring would be early this year.
She moved to sit on a stone bench that overlooked the city. Already she could feel some of her stress ease as the solitude enveloped her. A thin line of yellow edged its way along the horizon illuminating the city with soft hues of yellow, rose, and mauve. As the line thickened, she frowned. What was she going to do about Ignacio? The man had literally
declared himself in the car. Something told her he wasn’t about to let her evade the subject, no matter how hard she tried. And itwasa subject she wanted to avoid.She couldn’t explain to him that the man he thought was a ghost from her past was still alive. And that she was still bonded to him. Would Marcus be willing to break their blood bond? If their most recent meeting were anything to go on, she was certain he’d strongly object to doing so. Then there was the question of whether shewanted to be done with it.With a frown, she forced herself to watch the sunrise over the city. She’d come here to find some peace. For a long time, she did nothing but watch as the sun slowly crept its way upward to paint cream and pink hues on the facades of Rome’s ancient monuments.Color spilled across the crumbling Coliseum, the Pantheon, and other monuments on Capitoline Hill. The view was stunning and she was so lost in the beauty of it that she didn’t know he was there until her neck tingled with that familiar frisson. Only Marcus could evoke that type of sensation in her. She sprang to her feet and turned around to see him standing a few feet away. His cerulean eyes were unreadable as his gaze met hers.
“I thought you might come here,” he said quietly.In the early-morning light, he was magnificent. The silver in his dark hair seemed more predominant today than when they’d met in the crypt. But it didn’t detract from his features; if anything, it made him more handsome. He’d discarded his monk’s cloak for a dark blue sweater and matching pants, and he wore his sword in a scabbard slung over his back. The well-toned muscles beneath his clothing belonged to that of a younger man, a clear indication he was in excellent physical condition. She drew in a sharp breath.The man wasn’t just magnificent. He was devastating. Perhaps more so than when they’d first met all those years ago. Despite the several feet between them, he set off a heat in her that no man had ever been able to duplicate. She swallowed hard as she fought to keep her heart beating at a slow, easy pace. She failed. Why was he here? Had he—her heart slammed into her chest.“Gabriel?” she whispered.“No, carissima. Nothing’s changed.” He moved quickly to skirt the bench and take her hands into his. “I came because I knew my message would upset you. I would have remained silent except for the fact that you were angry the last time I kept something from you.”A mirthless laugh escaped her.Nowthe man decided to listen to her. She didn’t resist as he gently forced her to sit down on the bench. He’d come because he was worried about her. It made her feel cherished. She frowned. How had he known where she was?
“How did you find me?” It annoyed her to hear the breathless note in her voice. He smiled almost as if he’d read her mind, but she knew it was the expression on her face
that gave her away.
“I remembered how you always enjoyed the sunrise from this vantage point when you needed solitude,” he said as he released one of her hands.The fact that he remembered made her heart swell with a happiness she didn’t want to feel. She was grateful he didn’t mention the last time the two of them had been here. It was a wonderful memory, but if Marcus were ever to learn the truth—she refused to even consider the possibility. As she studied his face, his solemn expression troubled her.
“What are you going to do … about Gabriel?”
“He’s no longer Gabriel, cara.” He kept her hand in his as he turned to stare out at the vista in front of them. “He almost killed Condellaire.”
“DearGod.Those were Gabriel’s fingerprints on Lysander’s neck?” she gasped.
“Yes. If I’d arrived just a few minutes later …” There was a note of concern in his voice that frightened her. She’d already lost her son. She wouldn’t lose Marcus, too.
“You mustsend for Dante.”
“The boy’s not ready.”“He’s been your pupil since he was five. Are you telling me that you’ve been able to teach him nothing?” Her scornful words were deliberately meant to prick his ego, and as he stiffened beside her, she knew she’d succeeded.“Your point is well taken, but then Gabriel is my responsibility, not Dante’s. My son’s actions reflect on me.”The inflexible note in his voice angered her. Were all Sicari males this stubborn or had she simply had the misfortune to know only obstinate ones? When she grabbed his arm hard, he turned his head to look at her.“I’ve already lost one—my son—do you expect me to mourn you as well?” she snapped.A small smile tipped the corners of his mouth, and he carried her hand to his lips. He lightly kissed the tips of her fingers, his breath filling the pores of her skin with heat. The fiery warmth sank down to the cellular level, where it created a chain reaction of sensation that sped like lightning through her body.
“That’s the second time this week you’ve expressed concern for my well-being. Perhaps winning your heart again won’t be as difficult as I first thought.” His eyes met hers as he gently turned her palm upward and kissed the scar in the center. The tenderness in the touch reminded her of so many other similar moments, and she struggled hard to keep
“It’s natural for me to be concerned about the father of my … son,” she whispered.
“Is that the only reason, inamorato?”He slid his mouth to the inside of her wrist. The caress sent a stream of fire racing up her arm until it crashed into her shoulder and spread rapidly into the rest of her body. A knot formed in her throat as she struggled to think of something coherent to say. For the love of Jupiter. She was the Prima Consul. One would think she could string two words together into some semblance of a sentence.“Of course, it’s the only reason.” Relief swept through her at the matter-of-fact sound of her voice. With a quick breath, she pulled free of his touch and slid back along the bench to put distance between them.
“I see,” he said with a frown as he pinned her with that striking blue gaze of his.
His voice was a gentle stroke against her senses, and she fought to keep herself fromtrembling. Why couldn’t Ignacio make her feel like this? As if she were on the edge of something wonderful and exciting. She quickly discarded the thought. Where Marcus was concerned, she didn’t want to feel anything at all. But she did, and she hated herself for not being able to walk away from him, as he’d always walked away from her.The minute the thought entered her head, she winced. That was unfair of her. Duty and responsibility were a part of them both. There had been no other choice—for either of them. They should never have blood bonded. It had only brought them heartache. It was time to let each other go. Time to stop dreaming of what might have been.
“If you wish to be freed from our blood bond, I would not object,” she said quietly.A dark look crossed his handsome features, and in the blink of an eye, he was on his feet. Blue eyes glittering with anger, he didn’t even flick a finger as he used his skills to drag her to her feet and jerk her into his arms. Startled by his response, she stared up at him in astonishment.Deus, he’d always made her feel petite whenever he towered over her like this. And she was not petite. Palms splayed across his hard chest, she could feel his heart pounding at a pace that was surprising, and her mouth went dry at the possessive look that blazed in his eyes.
“Are you telling me there’s someone else?” he rasped.The question was a warning to take care as to how she answered, and a small thrill skittered down her spine at the realization that he might actually be jealous. Without thinking, she breathed in his scent. Sharp and crisp like the air. It aroused in her an emotion no other man would ever be able to evoke in her.
The instant she admitted the truth, she realized she would have to hurt a dear friend. The one man who’d been with her whenever she had need of a strong shoulder to lean on. Ignacio’s image slipped into her head, and she heard Marcus suck in a harsh, angry breath. Immediately, the answer she’d been ready to give died in her throat as she saw the rage darkening his eyes.
” WHO is he?”The second he uttered the command, he knew he didn’t want to hear her answer. If she’d betrayed their blood bond, he’d have the right to kill her, but he knew he could never take her life. No matter what she did or how terribly she betrayed him, he wouldn’t harm a hair on her head. Her hands pushed against his shoulders as she arched away from him.
“There isn’t anyone.” Despite the sincerity in her voice, he still doubted.
“Don’t lie to me, Atia,” he growled.“I am not lying.” Her voice wavered as she stared up at him, before she glared at him with a familiar defiance. “And even if there were someone, you don’t have the right to ask the question.”
“The blood bond gives me the right.”He tightened his embrace as his dark rasp echoed between them. It was a sound of desperation and he knew it. He was losing her. Now, after all these years of waiting. All these years of training Dante to take on the mantle of reigning Sicari Lord, he was losing her. He shuddered.“We both know the blood bond is meaningless at this point.”Her sharp words were a whip cracking the air, flaying his heart open. The woman knew precisely how to extract the most blood from him.Christus, she was the only person, short of their son, he would willingly fall on his sword for. He shook his head.“It has never been meaningless to me. You’ve been in my thoughts and heart each day we’ve been apart.” His fingers gripped her chin as he forced her to look at him directly. “I told you I would have given it up for you. I almost did that last night we were together as lovers. Here in this very place. You’ll never know how close I was to going to Tito to abdicate my title.”She blanched, her gray eyes widening until she looked as young as she had the first time he’d laid eyes on her. He watched her mouth move as if she were struggling for words, and he gave in to the urge he’d been suppressing since he’d first seen her the other day. Swiftly, before she could protest, he captured her mouth beneath his.
Her tremor reverberated its way into him, filling him with warm satisfaction. She wasn’t as resistant to him as she pretended. The years separating them vanished as she slowly
opened herself up to him and responded to his kiss. His tongue swept its way into her mouth as he teased a response from her that made him grow hard with desire.His hands gripped her hips to pull her closer, lifting her up slightly until his erection pressed intimately into the apex of her thighs. A small gasp escaped her at the touch, which he swallowed as he deepened their kiss. His mouth slid off her lips and across her cheek. Praise Jupiter that he was being given another chance with her. He nibbled at her ear.
“Tell me you want me, mea amor.“I …” She drew in a sudden, sharp hiss of air and pushed against him in an attempt to escape his embrace. “Damn you, Marcus Vorenus. I won’t let you sweet-talk me into doing what youwant this time.”
“You can deny it all you want, but you’ve missed me as much as I have you, carissima.” His heart twisted violently in his chest at the way she was trying to dismiss him. Them.
“As always, you think quite highly of yourself,” she snapped, but he saw a flash of emotion in her gray eyes. It gave him hope.
“No. I merely mean to claim what is mine.”“Claim me.”Her exclamation was a quiet shout of anger grating across his senses. He knew she hated it when he was autocratic, but at the moment, he was out of options. If there was another man trying to take her from him, he wasn’t going to let her go without a fight. The expression on her face grew haughty and mutinous.A sudden whisper echoed in his head and grew stronger. TheCeleriswas on his way. He could deal with the man. He wasn’t about to leave until he heard her say she still cared for him.“I seem to recall telling you that Iwouldcome for you.” He sent her an arrogant look that said she should have known he’d keep his word.“That is so like you—arrogantlyassumingI’d be more than happy to welcome you back with open arms.”“Don’t lie to me, or yourself, Atia. There was no divide between us the night we made love here.” He grabbed her hand with its long scar across the palm and he stroked it with his finger. The spot on his hand buzzed in response.
“That night was a mistake,” she breathed, and panic lashed across her face.He frowned. Something was wrong. But he was out of time. Without turning around, he threw up an invisible wall between theCelerisand him. He heard the bodyguard grunt as he slammed into the obstacle. Slowly, he turned to face the man. TheCelerisstood with his head bent, his hand covering his nose.There was something familiar about him. The moment the man looked up to meet his gaze it was like a violent electrical shock to his system. This was the man he’d seen in Atia’s thoughts. Rational thought left him as his sword flew out of his scabbard and the invisible shield between him and the other man fell. Before he could move, Atia was standing between him and theCeleris.
“Stand aside, Atia.” He saw her flinch before her expression revealed she was digging in her heels.
“Stop this now, Marcus. Ignacio is sworn to protect me.”Atia’s voice was sharp as she sent him a look that said she’d fight him herself if it came down to it. It infuriated him, but at the same time it made him love her that much more for her loyalty. Behind her, theCelerisgrowled.
“You knowthis man? How?” The man’s tone was far too possessive for Marcus’s liking.
“Yes.” She didn’t look at the man. “It’s complicated.”“Hardly complicated at all, carissima.” Marcus growled as he watched the other man’s thoughts lining up bits and pieces of information in an attempt to understand what she was saying.“We’re through here,” she said tightly. “Ignacio and I are leaving.”“This ishim, isn’t it?” The contempt in theCeleris’svoice made him automatically reach out with his thoughts to wrap his fingers around the man’s neck as the man continued to speak. “This son of a bitch is Cleo’s father? This is what I’ve been competing with all these years? Not a dead man’s ghost, but a deadbeat father?”His ability to choke the man vanished. The man’s words could have been a sword gutting him, and he wouldn’t have been any less stunned. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. All he could do was stare at theCeleris, who was studying him with a look of scorn.Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that at any other time such a look would have earned thebastardoa run through the gauntlet, simply for disrespecting a Sicari Lord. His gaze shifted to Atia, who was watching him with an expression of fear and anguish.
“A daughter? I have a daughter?” His voice was hoarse. Almost a whisper. Atia’s eyes were wide in her face, a haunted look in their gray depths. She looked away and it
enraged him. “Answer me.”
“Yes.” It was a simple word, but its effect was devastating. She’d betrayed him. She’d kept his child from him. After Gabriel, how could she do something like that?
“You didn’t tell him?” Suddenly, theCeleriswas almost sympathetic. He didn’t want the man’s compassion.“Leave us.” The command in his voice made Ignacio jerk his gaze toward him, an intractable look on his face. Clearly the man wasn’t about to go anywhere without orders from Atia. Not bothering to look at her, Marcus ground out his second order. “Tell him.”
“Ignacio, please go.” The apologetic note in her voice fueled the anger flaring up inside of him.
“No, Atia. Tellhim.” He bit out between clenched teeth. ” Allof it.”When she didn’t speak, he turned his gaze on her. His jaw tightened. She’d said there wasn’t anyone else, and yet she seemed particularly fond of herCeleris. It had been easy enough for her to betray him when it came to hiding his daughter from him. Why should he think she hadn’t betrayed their blood bond? Deus, help her if she had. Her lovely mouth moved slightly as if she were fighting to speak. He narrowed his gaze at her.“Ignacio, it’s … he isn’t just Cleo’s father. We’re blood bonded.”The instant she stepped toward theCeleris, he reached out with his thoughts and jerked her to a halt.Christus, she’d actually started to go to the other man. She turned her head with a pleading look on her face.“Marcus … please.”“Address. Me. Properly,” he snarled.“Eminence.”He didn’t give her an opportunity to continue as he turned his head back to theCeleris.Satisfaction went spinning through his blood at the man’s thunderstruck expression.“Go.” He held the other man’s gaze with a cold glare, but theCelerisdidn’t move.When thebastardosuddenly looked toward Atia, his jaw tightened painfully with anger. With a mental grip that instantly had the man gasping for air, he slowly began to choke the bodyguard.
“Show respect, MadameConsul.” He saw the color drain from her face as he increased his mental chokehold on herCeleris.
“Eminence, please. He’s sworn his life to protect me, just as I swore an allegiance to you.” Her gaze didn’t waver from his as she pleaded with him.
“An oath you’ve betrayed.”
“For the love of God, Marcus. I’ve not betrayed you.”His invisible grasp compressed the other man’s throat a little bit more. There was something in her voice that reassured him she was telling the truth. At least she’d not betrayed their blood bond. But their daughter … that was another matter altogether. He dragged his gaze from her to the man whose life he held in his hand. With a snarl of fury, he flicked his wrist and sent theCeleristumbling backward to the ground. He strode forward to tower over the man. A small amount of respect for the man slipped its way through his anger as the bodyguard didn’t cringe, despite the quickly forming bruises on his throat.