AD 103, Gaius Fabius’s seaside villa, Campania
Disgusted with his procrastination, he viciously raked his fingernails across his scalp in a futile attempt to scratch some fucking motivation into his thick skull. Two months earlier, he’d left those wild, rugged mountains for the long journey home to Italy. The brutal war between Rome and Dacia had ended abruptly and without clear victory. The emperor had agreed to an untenable peace with the mad Dacian king; everyone now waited for the inevitable second conflict to begin.
And here he was, the commander of the Lucky IV Legion. Avoiding his domestic duties. Waiting for the inevitable. Fidgeting the time away in his office at his tranquil holiday home on the Bay of Neapolis. After rubbing his face, Gaius propped his elbows on the table and let his eyes wander up to the swirling pattern of laurel wreaths sculpted in stucco on the ceiling.
After a few moments of nothingness, he grumbled to himself, “Focus, you fucking negligent sod. Only two…”
He glanced down at the short stack of wax tablets on his desk and sighed.
“Shit, three more lists to examine.”
Reviewing expenditures was a tedious but necessary chore. This much silver coin for thirty amphorae of olive oil, that much bronze for five sacks of lentils. Keeping a watchful eye on his household accounts was his duty as Dominus, his primary responsibility as the father of the family. He’d be damned if he neglected his obligations through sheer laziness and wound up squandering his hard-won fortune.
When he reached for one of the remaining wax tablets, Gaius spied the marble portrait of his father scowling at him from a niche high on the wall beside his desk. Nearly twenty years earlier—gods, had it been that long—a gang of opportunists in the Senate had accused his father of treason. The palace guards barged through the door of their ancestral home in the dead of night and dragged Quintus Fabius to his unceremonious execution. No trial, no magistrates, no opportunity to plead his innocence. Gaius had been twelve years of age when his father had lost his head. In all the years since, he’d never missed him. Not once.
Gaius snarled at the portrait head. “Spying on me, Quintus? I’m fulfilling my damn duties. Stop staring at me, you luckless dead bastard.”
A powerful gust blew into the office. One of the window shutters creaked before slamming against the wall with a bang. Outside, the sky was overcast and grey—another damp, bleak February day on the western coast of southern Italy. The sheets of drenching rain had finally stopped; a frigid mist now blanketed the rocky coastline.
It had been cold that terrifying night as well, Gaius suddenly remembered. Goose bumps raised the chestnut freckles covering his thick forearm. Thanks to his mother’s loyal friends, they’d found safe passage out of the city that night and escaped the murderous reign of the tyrant Domitian and his lethal agents. During their flight from Rome, Julia had told him that he was the last descendent of his father’s patrician family. The only surviving legitimate male offspring of the once mighty Fabii clan. If he didn’t produce a son, the bloodline would end with his death. For all the years since, Gaius carried that onerous weight on his shoulders with dignity, resignation, and resentment. History would forever judge his victories on the battlefield against the glorious deeds of his legendary Fabian ancestors.
The ghosts of Rome’s past refused to be forgotten.
But his ancestors must be proud, no?
During the recent war against the Dacian menace, Gaius Fabius Rufus had performed valiantly. Emperor Trajan had even awarded him a ceremonial Dacian falx for his bravery. The exotic weapon was a skillful forgery, but the emperor’s intentions had been noble.
Would the next war finally bring him a victory worthy of public celebration and feasts? Could he lead Rome’s glorious conquest and defeat the barbarian menace? Could he bolster his family’s famous but fading reputation? Could he secure his claim to the imperial throne?
He rubbed his temples and groaned. Too much thinking. Too many damn possibilities to consider.
In one corner of his office, the flaming orange wick in an oil lamp suspended from a tall bronze candelabrum cast shadows that danced across the frescoed walls. Wrapped in a thick woolen cloak, Gaius flipped over another tablet. The edge of his silver cup, filled to the brim with honeyed wine, had almost touched his lips when the captain of the villa’s guards rushed into his sanctuary.
“Commander Fabius, my—my sincerest apologies. I asked Counselor Petronius to wait in the atrium for a proper salutation, but he…”
“It’s not your veteran’s fault, Gaius. You know better than anyone what an impatient prick I am.” Lucius’s rumbling words sliced through the frosty air. “By gods, where are my manners? Greetings from Rome, my most esteemed Commander Fabius.”
Gaius froze mid-sip when he heard the affectionate tone in Luc’s deep, sexy voice. Slowly, he swallowed a hefty gulp of sweet wine. After placing his cup on the desk, he turned his chair around, licking his lips.
“This is most unexpected. Greetings, Lucius Petronius Celsus!” As he stood up, Gaius shook out the folds of his mantle with one eye assessing the demeanor of his guest. Lucius appeared relaxed. His slightly slanted smile was friendly and warm. Gaius exhaled. At least the reason for his friend’s sudden visit wasn’t to deliver dire news from Rome.
“Varius, tell the kitchen staff we have a guest. You’ll stay for dinner, Counselor?”
Leaning against the wall by the office door, his burly arms folded casually across his chest, Lucius waited until Varius was safely out of earshot.
“I’ll stay for as long as you’ll have me, soldier,” he finally replied with his irresistible seductive cheek.
A few inches taller than Gaius, Lucius’s straight, coal-black hair was cut shorter than the last time Gaius had seen him, but his steely light blue eyes were as intoxicating as ever. Shit, even in his thirty-third year, Luc was gorgeous, even more so than he’d been back in Athens all those seasons ago—back when they were young men basking in young men’s dreams, slogging through their philosophy studies, spending most of their time larking about in bed rather than attending their lessons.
Lucius Petronius had aged well, like a delectable Sabine wine.
Gaius fought the smile threatening to lift the corners of his tightly pressed lips. “What the fuck are you doing down here? Why didn’t you send word ahead of your arrival?”
“We both know how much you adore surprises, Gaius. Surprise!”
“There’s no bad news from the capital?”
“I didn’t travel all the bloody way down here to upset you. If I’d had bad news, I would have sent a letter,” Lucius teased before wagging his finger. “But I should warn you, my dearest friend, that our mindful Empress noted your absence from the Lupercalia celebrations. She told each and every one of us at the dinner that evening how discontent she was with your behavior. I was forced to hear her rant after the main course, after she’d already imbibed more wine than she should have.” Lucius lowered his voice and pointed to his mouth. “She spat on my face every time she drunkenly lisped your name. Bloody disgusting.”
A smile forced its way through Gaius’s frown. “Sounds delightful. Sorry to have missed it. Did our sharp-eyed, spitting queen openly question my devotion to the gods before the entire court?”
Lucius laughed out loud. “Never! Your piety is above rebuke, Commander.”
Everyone connected with the palace, including Luc, had long been aware of Gaius’s skepticism and distaste for silly archaic rituals, no matter how entertaining they might be. As far as he was concerned if there were gods pissing about up on Mount Olympus, the bastards were an impotent or indifferent lot. Most days Gaius hadn’t a clue if the old gods existed. Nor a care.
“You mock me, Lucius, but Empress Plotina will be relieved to know we celebrated the Lupercalia down here at the villa. I have the bloodied whips and tattered goatskin loincloths to prove it.”
Lucius raised one dark brow and smirked as he tilted his head. “Don’t tell me I’ve missed all the fun?”
“I’ll arrange something special to amuse you, Counselor.” Gaius glanced at the empty hallway to be sure they were alone before crossing the room to brush his fingers down Lucius’s strong jaw.
“You spoil me, darling,” Lucius cooed as he leaned into Gaius’s touch.
“But you haven’t answered my question, have you?”
“You mean, how did I come to be here? When I’d learned your ward brother was traveling to Campania, I requested permission to accompany Publius’s entourage for the journey. I must admit our furry Greekling does secure the best travel lodgings, the lucky twat.”
Gaius took three steps back and asked with alarm, “Publius is down here in Campania as well?”
“He’s residing in Neapolis.”
“May Neptune shove his fucking trident in my eye! Soon he’ll send those perfumed party invites: ‘Gaius Fabius, please accept my invitation to swoon over my latest atrocious attempts at lyric poetry.’ Bloody tedious—but I’ll survive his antics as long as I’ve plenty of his splendid wine. But why are you here, Luc? I thought you were busy with imperial demands at the palace. Have you become Publius’s new catamite?” Gaius jested sarcastically.
“Publius’s whore? Hardly, Commander. I’m not young, androgynous or Greek. Alas, he’d never have me. I’m too…” Lucius lifted his forearm to cover his eyes in a silly flourish of feigned heartache. “I’m too decrepit and too Roman for our bearded Princess Publius.”
“And too tall, I suspect.”
“Do you think so?”
“He’d demand a ladder, and a gilded one at that. But no, I don’t think your abnormal height would deter him. Publius has pined over you for years—ever since your family attended that dinner party at the palace to celebrate my return from North Africa.”
“And at that gathering, as I vividly recall, you amused yourself at my expense by shamelessly encouraging your brother’s blatant flirtations.”
They both smiled at the memory.
Lucius Petronius Celsus.
Gaius’s best friend and loyal confidant.
Together they’d navigated the murky waters of the political quagmire that was Rome. Every nobleman needed trusted associates to stay afloat and alive. Luc was Gaius’s peer, even though his plebian family bore none of the blue-blood ancestry or authority of the distinguished Fabii.
And Lucius was Gaius’s long-time secret lover, when it was convenient and extremely discreet. They both paid mind to the antiquated law prohibiting sex between free adult men. A generation earlier, the damned emperor Domitian had used that archaic decree as a political weapon to destroy the reputations of many prominent Roman senators. Even though the despot had been dead for seven years, citizens’ fears over accusations of unchaste behavior remained palpable.
“I’ve been fine-tuning my Publius impression, Gaius. Let me show you.” Lucius cleared his throat and raised the pitch of his deep bass voice. “I must leave for a holiday in Neapolis, Emperor Trajan. I’m simply suffocating here in our cramped, squalid imperial palace!”
When Lucius skipped about the office with both arms raised like a dancer to spice up his impersonation of Publius’s notorious prancing, Gaius doubled over. He hadn’t laughed that hard in far too long.
“You—you, my friend, should have been a stage actor, a celebrated performer of ill repute, rather than a lawyer, jeopardizing your fucking sanity by prosecuting unscrupulous miscreants.”
“I’m merely playing my part in the pantomime that is life, Gaius.”
“And playing me, I suspect. I’ll ask you one more time. Why are you here at my villa, Luc?”
“I wanted to see you, talk to you. A letter seemed too impersonal for my second attempt at an apology,” Lucius answered, cupping his hands over his mouth to warm them. He was shivering.
“You rode here in that torrential rain, didn’t you? By gods, you’re soaked. Let’s get you out of those wet garments.”
“Best offer I’ve had in far too long.” Lucius chuckled as his teeth began to chatter. He strolled over and wrapped his arms around Gaius’s waist. “Care to strip me yourself, soldier?”
“Atticus, get in here!” Gaius pushed Luc away from him moments before his trusted but clumsy villa custodian skidded into the office.
“Atticus, escort our drenched visitor from Rome to our best guest room and fetch him a change of dry clothes. He clearly needs a bath and a shave as well. I’ll see you, my dear Lucius Petronius, in the winter dining room. Don’t keep me waiting. I’m curious to hear this latest version of your apology.”
Smirking, Lucius shook his head. “Yes, Dominus.”