“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.
Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.
Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.
But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…
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Enjoy an Excerpt
From Chapter 1 – Julia is simply dressed for supervising the household making the inventory, and has hurried down to the town market. There, she has a fateful encounter.
Weaving between ambulant hawkers with trays suspended from their necks, I nearly tripped over a pile of metal vessels and tools. Why they had to cover half the street with their goods, I didn’t know. One hot-food trader stirred the contents of a large cauldron suspended over a fire and steaming in the chill, partly tempered by the spring sun. Next to him, a pie and sausage man who wiped his nose on his sleeve. Ugh. More permanent stalls were set up under awnings strung between stakes in the ground. Towards the centre, shops had disgorged onto the pavement and even into the street. The bread and vegetable vendors displaying their produce on wooden tables were more circumspect. At least I didn’t have to make a detour round them like the dratted shoe seller who had set out wooden benches for his customers and marked out his place of sale with curtains hung between columns.
And did they all have to shout so loudly and wave their arms about so much? Along with the chickens squawking, mules braying and children shrieking, my head was fit to burst. At last, it quietened as I reached the crafts and household goods area. Fine pottery, leather and beadwork; one tribesman with curly blond hair and a friendly smile was selling beautifully worked fibula brooches and belt buckles.
At last, I found the Gaul in front of a small glassware shop at the end of the row. The leather cover of the cart behind him was half drawn up to display stacks of redware, bedded in wooden frames lined with straw, but on the table in front of him were the best.
The redware was beautiful; exquisite figures chased one another on the widest part of one serving bowl, another showed a hunting scene with hare and hounds that my father would love. I stayed silent, picking up each piece, examining it slowly and putting it back. He shuffled behind his counter watching intently. Did he think I was going to steal it?
When I stopped and looked him direct in the eye, his face was expressionless. But I decided I would take the two serving dishes, a dozen of the cups and half that number of small bowls and plates. In the end, I relieved the Gaul’s agony, gave the order and told him to deliver them to the service area of the palace.
‘And who are you to give me orders?’ He looked me up and down. ‘I’ll deal with your steward. You run back and get him.’ He flicked his hand at me.
‘How dare you! Do you know who I am?’
‘No, but I know more than to go on a fool’s errand started by some kitchen wench.’ He wiped his hand on his checked tunic and turned towards a newcomer – the new Roman officer. A tall man, he must have been several years older than me, possibly in his late twenties. His face tight with anger above his red neck scarf and scale armour shirt. His boots were dusty as were his breeches. He walked a little wide as if chafed from being on his horse all day. He stopped, set one hand on his belt, the other on the pommel of his short sword. He glanced at the Gaul, then turned his gaze on me. Brown eyes, reflecting the pale light.
Something twisted inside me, immobilised my breath, then settled in my core. Perhaps a meeting of something familiar, a recognition. He didn’t move, just stared at me. I returned the stare. I couldn’t find a word to say. Heat crept up my neck and into my face. Venus Suleviae, he must have thought I was half-witted.
Eventually, he moved, pointing at the Gaul.
‘Is this man cheating you?’
‘What business is it of yours?’ It was out before I could think.
‘None,’ he said, frowning. He looked at me again, then turned away.
Oh, gods, I had behaved like a true barbarian and was ashamed. And he was walking away from me. I had to stop him.
He walked on, ignoring me.
Please, Great Mother, make him stop.
‘I said wait!’ I cried after him.
He walked on. I knew I’d been rude, but he could at least stop and let me apologise. He didn’t need to be so uncivil, even for a soldier. I hastened after him, determined to make him hear me. Nobody turns his back and walks away from me.
When I caught up with him, I seized his arm. He instantly grabbed his sword pommel. The gladius was halfway out of the scabbard by the time he saw it was me. He released it, then looked at my hand on his forearm as if it were a viper about to bite.
‘How dare you touch me!’ He looked at me as if I were the meanest drudge. ‘Remove your hand or I’ll have you whipped.’
‘You can’t,’ I retorted. ‘You have no right.’
‘We’ll see about that.’ He went to raise his hand – to summon some of his men, I supposed – then he let his hand drop. His eyes gleamed and he looked down his Roman nose. I caught my breath and tipped my chin up at him. I knew my face was flushed – I could feel the heat – but I was going to teach him a lesson. When he found out who he’d insulted he’d be broken and sent back to Rome in disgrace. I opened my mouth to tell him exactly what his fate was going to be, but as he prised my fingers off his arm they tingled. The rough skin on his hand chafed my softer one. My fingers were jammed together but I hardly noticed. Before I could protest, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me to him. Gods, he was strong. His arm slid round the back of my waist, and he crushed me against his body. Solid, unyielding. He smelt of horse, a day’s sweat and pine resin. His eyes narrowed then gleamed again. His breath shortened.
I should have struggled, but I didn’t want to. His other hand gripped my buttock. I stared into his eyes. I was lost.
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
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