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A Little Roman Scandal

By Jennifer Mueller



Description

When Quintus Fabius Serenus, the man who could become Caesar, walked into his own birthday party he knew it was a trap set by his father to yet again try to find him a wife. Forty-some women sat there looking demure and empty while their fathers' sold their freedom.

Escaping to the garden he discovered Livia Pompilia hiding. As she looked at him he found there was nothing empty about her gaze. The bruises that showed beneath the jewels she wore told him there was nothing demure about this embodiment of Venus hiding in the shadows.

Quintus learned long ago that scandals in Rome could ruin a man, especially one with political ambitions. The only question was exactly who would it ruin, because Livia is no mistress and just marrying her was scandal enough.


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Excerpt

Chapter One

His father, Giaus, prided himself on the family’s fine standing in Rome, and the cook had outdone himself even if he can’t say he could taste a single ingredient in the meal. Everything was so covered in sauces, he had to take their word on what he was served. Grilled damsons and pomegranate seeds, tuna, truffles and mushrooms, sausages on a silver grill, eggs in a pine nut sauce, piping hot wild boar, lobsters garnished with asparagus, lentils, apples whose scent was a feast in itself, Syrian pears in a soufflé, and nut tart. It was all the best that could be purchased, but as far as feasts went, it was quite modest.

He’d only returned from Dalmatia a week before. There was business to take care of that night instead of lounging about in the triclinium getting drunk. Marriage. His. His father had announced after the first guest arrived it was far too long past the time he should remarry. The fact that he was a proconsul running entire provinces or leading an army, served with distinction in the Dacian campaign, meant nothing. Not even the fact he had buried two wives and had a daughter mattered. He’d even run Rome as Consul, something his father hadn’t accomplished. It was no wonder he had drunk so much wine already and the night was only half over.

A large man stopped him from leaving the atrium. Was that his fate if returned to Rome for good? A drunk fat man? If his father had his way…

“Have you seen my daughter?”

“I have seen many tonight, you’d have to be more specific.”

His laugh was grating. “You’ve not seen her then. You’d remember her if you had. We’re trying to keep it quiet, with the death so recent, but…”

“Quintus!” his father called.

“Yes?” In his early thirties, he should have remarried long ago. Staying out of Rome made that a little difficult for his parents to force though. No one forced the Consul of Rome. Announcing he would retire and leave Rome brought things to a head. Remarrying seemed to have grown high on the list, probably hoping the fateful girl would have more sway to keep him there. At least there weren’t any 12-year-old girls there this time. He’d run to the army if presented with that choice.

“I see you’ve met my son just back from Dalmatia.” Gaius said brightly.

Again, that laugh. “Who doesn’t know when a proconsul returns to Rome? Is it true you don’t live here with the rest of the family?”

Giaus laughed at that. “When a son is as rich as Quintus, he can afford his own. When he ran for office, he had so much support from the city that he didn’t have to bankrupt himself to get elected. My other children still live here with me though.”

“Speaking of children, I was just telling your son about my daughter.”

“Yes, yes you should. She’s…”

Quintus Fabius Serenus walked out. Rude or not, he had to escape the petitioning to his father about who he would choose as the finalist.

“Come back here Quintus,” his father ordered, but he didn’t dare lay a hand on him to force it.

“You had my answer. No wife is going to keep me here.”

His father stared in shock as he left the room. Marriage was an alliance of families, the gods forbid if a decision were made for anything other than prestige. He wouldn’t have minded so much if he were discussing the matter with the girls themselves. That man he had just walked out on, he doubted highly that he would have heard about his daughter. A death so recent? The topic to discuss was surely some property or jewels to tempt him into marriage. It was his birthday, they were invited for that. The same as Senator Giaus Fabius Serenus had done when Quintus was 15 and betrothed him the first time. That his father whispered to each, it was time for a new wife letting them think they were the only ones the now Censor was interested in grated on him. Quintus wasn’t even required to be there. Why would he? They had to impose taxes on couples that went away completely after they had three children. Otherwise the patricians might not even breed, at least not with their wives. Why have your own when you could adopt? The point of that night was politics.

Tucked in a small alcove, Quintus found a woman leaning against the wall overlooking the city. He hadn’t seen her at the meal, but with so many people there, it would have been easy to overlook one. He didn’t know how he could have missed her when he walked closer. From behind, she was tall and lithe. The sea green silk tunic and drape fell enticingly, allowing the curves it was supposed to hide to show through quite well. Her dark brown hair wasn’t curled high in front like most of them, instead soft waves were draped about her head, and covered in an exquisite net decorated in pearls and emeralds. His glass of wine and the others in the house were forgotten. Retiring to escape Rome was forgotten at least until he remembered this was his father’s purpose.

“I don’t think we’ve met?”

She turned and he held his breath when she lifted her eyes. They were the same shade of sea green as her drape and glowed in the lamplight. She dripped with more pearls and emeralds than he had seen in one spot before, and he had dined in some of the wealthiest homes in Rome, including the Caesar's. The pearls came from far away in India and China driving up the price, and the emeralds, that could be found in only one place in Egypt, were just as expensive to obtain. That was what the fathers throwing their daughters at him would notice if they were found talking. He could only see she was more beautiful than a statue of Venus.

“I haven’t been in the city long. I am Livia.” She didn’t mention family. That was usually the first thing anyone mentioned…who their father was, who their great-great grandfather was. Only the women his father valued as a match were invited, so her bloodlines had to be impressive.

“Where are you from then if you just arrived?”

“Zeugma on the Euphrates on the trade routes to the east. I haven’t been in Rome since I was five.”

And that, Quintus thought, explained her well; it also explained the jewels. Zeugma held great fortunes in its fortified walls as the gateway to the east and its exotic goods. Damned shame, it would also rule her out for a real choice for marriage. It wouldn’t matter if she was perfect in every other way. That was the biggest shame in not letting a man choose his own wife. At least he could choose one that made his cock rise with only a glance if it had to be for alliances and money.

Her sea green eyes outlined in kohl, shaded with malachite dust, looked back at him. It was the only makeup she wore. Much less than any woman in Rome would dare be seen without, which made it twice as little as any others there that night. The face he looked upon was all her own. There was nothing to disguise any flaws, he was stunning and so was the Arabian perfume that swirled around her in an expensive cloud. “Would anyone notice if I toured the gardens, get me out of all that talk I hardly understand? Perhaps if I knew who all their mistresses were, I might be able to keep track,” she said quietly.

He smiled when no mention was made of dowries, fortunes, or even a wedding date. “Notice, I’m sure the Censor would encourage it. The gardens are quite expansive, so I’m told. They would take some time to view, especially if you had a guide that didn’t know his way around.”

“Haven’t you been here before then?”

Quintus grinned, quite having fun not talking with a wife-to-be and just flirting. “Only once, briefly. It is the Censor’s chance to show off his new house with his new office.”

She smiled and the last of his will power melted away. “Then how are you to give me a tour of somewhere you’ve hardly been yourself?”

“Come, we’ll stumble around together. I don’t understand half of what they’re babbling about either. All this marriage talk is a bore.”

“So that is why my father dragged me here,” she muttered.

He opened the gate and showed her out into the gardens. They were soon surrounded by high pergolas covered in roses, fish pools with fountains in their centers, fig trees, and rosemary. Peacocks strutted around with their shrill call filling the night air, and doves cooed as they walked by. Dark cypress trees competed with white lilies, and it was hard to tell where the mansion’s gardens stopped and the public gardens dotting the Pincian Hill started.

“Was the trip from Zeugma arduous?”

Her beautiful face turned hard. “Easier than traveling to Seres or on ships to India from Berenike. My uncle took me with him on his travels. I doubt there is a person in this house that has slept as rough as I in order to make so much money.”

“I am sure you are correct, I haven’t seen the like of your jewels on the highest of them. I imagine you’ll be high on the list of matches.” The lie hurt more than he thought it would. What was she doing there? A trader wasn’t the sort his father wanted. His own friends weren’t there that night, it was all men with marriageable daughters.

“I highly doubt that,” she whispered.

“Why would you sell yourself short? I can guarantee you are the finest here tonight and that has nothing to do with the emeralds.”

She sank on the edge of the fountain, the only sound in the night. Then a laugh from inside shattered the calm. “Are you new to the city as well? Gossip travels too fast.”

“I returned last week from a posting in Dalmatia.” That he ran the province didn’t matter.

“Then I won’t bore you with the tale. You’ll hear it soon enough. I would far prefer to have you flatter me endlessly.”

“And cause a scandal? Whatever would your father say?”

The smile she gave him was brighter than any jewel she wore. Something wasn’t right. The smile hid something. As if she was distracting him from going back to the tale she didn’t want to tell him. You didn’t run a province or even Rome and not hear all the stories, learn the meaning of all the looks. His own smile faded as he realized she was not one of the brainwashed women who could only do as their fathers said and only waited to transfer that allegiance to him for the right price.

Quintus held out his hand for her to take. “I would far prefer to flatter you endlessly when I can keep you close enough to feel the heat of your blushing.” Soft silken fingers flinched when his hand closed around hers. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. If you haven’t been told that enough, then you’ve been let down by every man you’ve met. Is that flattering enough? If you weren’t a guest here and your family inside to disgrace, I should gladly show you just how magnificent you are. Any man, Senator, or Plebian would be a fool not to have his scales tipped in your favor without a single jewel draping you to distract him from the true treasure you would bring to the marriage.”

“You must be a friend of the birthday boy. If he is to marry and with the number of parents here tonight, the offers must be flying thick. Just what has been offered to make a match tonight?”

“More than a million denarius, and that was the low end. Wanting to find out how you stack up against them all? I’ve told you.” Hearing his man Verica, he changed the subject. Verica never let him go far enough to not be able to call when needed. If he was going to get caught, it wouldn’t be discussing dowries. “I’d much rather hear about Seres and India.” There were half mythological stories of travelers making it to the far off eastern lands, silk being the commodity most prized.

“Would you? That’s part of why I’d never be the first choice. No proper wife would ever travel like that.”

“At least you’d have something to talk about other than mistresses.”

She smiled like Venus herself. “Yes there would be that if nothing else. I’m not sure how exciting it would be though, days and days of deserts.”

“But the end…”

“My uncle has an agreement with some traders from the east. We meet part way and bring back cart after cart of silk, cinnabar lacquer, jewels, ginger. I can say I have seen India itself, but not Seres.”

A household dog ran over and she bent to rub its ears. The dozens of pearl and emerald necklaces fell aside. Dripping in them did not show taste or restraint like Cato advocated for the rich. In all other regards, she was quite restrained in her dress compared to the others there, even if the silk might have been more sheer than many liked.

The jewels had covered the bruises from what looked like someone half strangling her. The dark bruises showed up easily against her pale skin, even with only the lamplight to see by. Quintus ran his finger gently over one of the bruises. She shivered slightly and he knew it wasn’t from the cool evening. When she looked up at him, it wasn’t seductive eyes that he saw, it was fear. This from a woman that traveled farther than most soldiers.

“I wouldn’t wear enough jewels to tempt our host, so he gave me a reason to wear them,” she whispered.

No, he hadn’t misjudged the flinch she gave at his touch. Quintus’s throat went dry. “He will be punished for what he has done,” he whispered, having trouble bringing it to words. Women may not have had as many rights as men, but their men were expected to protect them to the point they didn’t need them.

“You’re assuming I would survive the night in his house if I said one word that would get him in trouble.”

He ran his finger over the bruise again. “Verica!” Quintus didn’t say it that loud, but the slave appeared at his side.

“Sir?” the stout Britannic slave asked quietly. They’d been together for years. Not since Quintus bought him from a man ready to cut his head off for the simple reason he was not Roman. Red haired and fair skinned, he was unusual in Rome, but the man was a warrior. He carried the sword so Quintus didn’t have to.

“We’re leaving,” he said. “Make sure her father stays here for the night.”

“No!” she cried. “He’ll take it out on my slaves if I’m not there. They will not be hurt in my place.”

Quintus couldn’t pull his eyes away. The fact that she worried about her slaves wasn’t usual. “Who is her father?”

“She is Livia Pompilia. Her father, Aulus Pompilius, is a tribune.”

She was trapped. Even touching the man could get the offender put to death. His father’s was created. His was a post to give the people a voice. No one interfered because he had absolute autonomy. Tribunes could call votes and veto the senate if they chose.

Livia met his gaze with cold eyes. The warmth he had seen in them before had vanished. It was as if she was a different woman altogether. A woman that was just as alluring and sensual, but now he saw strength.

“You just met me. What am I to you?” she asked.

“Do you think you can tell me you were beaten and then have me forget all about it? I have a bit more feelings than a gladiator that you may have slipped out to...”

Before he saw it coming, she slapped him hard. Quintus had no chance to defend himself. She had strength to her and he saw red for a moment. When he opened his eyes, she was leaning close to his face and her perfume assailed his nose again, just enough to be tantalizing.

Her words came out in a whisper, but there was no disguising the anger in them. “If I try to leave, I am stopped and my father beats me for it. I am no bored wife that looks to keep herself amused. I arrived in Rome three months ago. I haven’t lived here since I was five, and I returned to marry some boy I was promised to decades ago. Instead I find him dead. Had I known he would beat me…” She stopped what she was saying, unable to continue the thought. “Had I known his purpose, I never would have come at all.”

There was only one option left, and it meant defying his father again. “Verica, keep him here.” Quintus took her arm and headed for the gate. Livia fought him. “I’ll get your damned slaves out, just stop fighting me.”

“It hurts!” Everything in her voice said it wasn’t an excuse. She was in pain.

Quintus released her arm and she fell to the ground. He froze when he saw the blood seeping through Livia’s tunic in a dark red pool. By the Gods! Quintus rushed to her side, and only then did she look at him. With that, she lost all pretenses at strength. Her tears fell like rivers as he slowly undid the fasteners at the shoulders. After he carefully pulled down the fabric, he found she had been bound tightly with linen strips. A knife quickly slit them open.

With the bandages away, he saw that her back was a bruised and bloody mess. Quintus had been in war, and still he felt like gagging. It was methodical torture, fists first, a whip perhaps after she had stopped fighting. Nothing showed, nothing at all where her clothes wouldn’t cover. Quintus could see the outline of a signet ring in one of the bruises.

“Do you listen to nothing I say? It’s foolish to go against him unless you have power of your…” Quintus said nothing, knowing the truth had already dawned on her. “Then you think me a fool?” She looked up at him and he knew that she couldn’t believe the conclusion she came to.

“Never.”

“If you don’t think me a fool, then what am I? I have studied Greek, law, philosophy, mathematics, literature, science. My uncle saw to it that I learned his business. I have traveled the world in his search for new wares to bring to Rome and make a fortune that few can match. In spite of all that, I can’t figure out what you are playing at? I am nothing to you.”

“Wrong.” Quintus picked her up, all the curves he admired didn’t have the same allure pressed against him under the circumstances. “You’re in my father’s house, and he might not care about anything but bloodlines and prestige, but if you think I’m going to send you back home to that treatment, your uncle didn’t teach you a thing.”

Her breath caught as the whole truth dawned on her. “Your father? He brought me to tempt you? You’re…”

“Proconsul Quintus Fabius Serenus, and no, I don’t think you a fool for not knowing who I was. All I wanted was some conversation about anything other than who my father will pick because I’m not following his plans for me again.”

She let out a gasp of pain. How had he not noticed she walked at almost a crawl, sitting at the fountain was to keep from falling. Even in the lamplight, her skin was too pale. All he saw was a vision, a goddess, not the signs he would have recognized in someone else. He was the fool.

“What are you going to tell the woman that is chosen? I know my father brought me to tempt even a celibate man into accepting the paltry dowry he can offer. He can’t compete with the numbers you mentioned.”

“You want free of him?”

“Yes.”

“Then when we get your people out of his house, you’ll have to marry me. There are a lot of things that can be fought, but not a daughter that is under her father’s control. A husband has those rights.” That was the only option. He felt her tense hearing it, but for a very long time, she said nothing.

“He can say he did not give consent.”

Quintus stepped out front of the house and the chair bearers jumped from their rest.

“Sir?”

“My apartment quickly before anyone sees us.” One of the men put his hand over his mouth as if to keep back the gagging he didn’t quite hide. There was no option, covering her back would have put her in more pain and taken time.

“Sir, what do I tell your father?” Verica whispered.

“I told him my answer before I found her. Don’t tell him you’re sending the Flamen Dialis and Pontifex Maximus around to the apartment in the morning. I’ll have the 10 people found to make it a proper confarreatio wedding in manus.” That sort of wedding ceremony was the hardest to break even if someone complained. He pulled open the curtain and they vanished inside the chair. The movement made her moan as they set off. “Did your father not tell you all about my attributes so you could sway me properly?”

“I have been promised to six different men in the last three months, and when a better offer comes along, he throws it all out the window, not caring what promises he breaks. One he broke off only a week before the wedding,” she said. “He has lost far more influence from all those he has angered than he ever would have gained in marrying me off to any one of them. I have never even met some of the men from these matches; they lasted so short a time, some only a few days. Now I am to wed a man who is fifty years my senior and dying at that, but he has no children. I would be his sole heir and would inherit riches my father could then force me to turn over, but he is still looking for the better deal. All along, he has wanted a Senator or at least a Senator’s son. He hasn’t the money to attract one though.”

She held his hand, the strength in it that hit him squeezed the life out of it. That alone was the only sign of the pain she endured.

“No, he mustn’t have told you. We’ll go see Trajanus when you feel better so he can counter any fatherly concern.” That was the stupidest part of his plan it seemed. Anyone, absolutely anyone knew that Quintus could take over Rome if he wanted. He had everything, support of the army, connections in two of the oldest families in Rome, support of most of the provinces he had worked in. All that he missed was the desire to make himself a target. If a man would beat a daughter to force her to try and catch that sort of man, he really wasn’t thinking about that sort of man destroying him when he found out about the beating. Another moan and his heart sank. “I’m sorry I pulled you, if I had known you were so bad…”

“You never would have flirted,” she whispered.

“No, I wouldn’t have told you how you outshone them without a single jewel to decorate, I would have told you how you outshone them with strength to stand there and hide what had been done to you.”

“My slaves have some skill with medicine. They gave me poppy juice, but the longer dinner wore on, the more it hurt.” It was only then that she noticed the seedy neighborhood that they were traveling through, the Subura section of Rome.” She looked at him and asked, “Where are we going?”

“I keep an apartment here. I have many friends from the army that wouldn’t feel comfortable going to the villa. If you wish to keep this from gossip, it would be far quieter.”

“You fought?”

“When I said that we will go see Trajanus, I mean as a personal friend. I was among his generals when he went to Dacia and I endured a year here as consul before I was put in charge of Dalmatia.”

He could hardly see in the litter, but he felt Livia pulling her head away. Faint eyes bore into him. “You shouldn’t even joke at marrying me. My father’s crimes will fall on you. They will all think you are the one that finally gave the best deal. That you’re under his power, meeting at the brothels to discuss business instead of at civilized meetings.”

Quintus smiled to himself. Could she truly not see that those six men were most likely saying yes because of her and nothing else? She was the one person he shouldn’t be there with, an equal. He could go fuck anyone, but an equal he should ignore. Even if they married, he should ignore her except for children. A marriage was only to unite families, property. Slaves, mistresses were for recreation. It seemed a rather convoluted mess with a woman that rolled sex goddess and good bloodlines all into one. Then another thought occurred to him. “Livia, why were you invited tonight?”

“If legend can be believed, I am descended from Titus Tatius, Numa Pompilius, Ancus Marcius, legendary kings of the Sabines and of Rome. What’s not so much legend is that I’m in direct line with the founder of family Claudia, Attius Clausus. Marcus Lucius Marcellus, one of Rome's finest generals. Overall, we were among the first Senators elected when the Republic was formed when being a Senator actually meant something, not to mention a dozen consuls of Rome as well. But I am the last of our line on my mother’s side. My father is just a bastard.”

The Claudii gens were the staunchest of patricians, keeping the old ways well, especially not liking the mixing of patrician and plebian blood. Her father was a plebian though, so something had happened. The Fabii were supporters of rights for the lesser folk, and the families often came to odds over it. At least now, once the Fabii were hated for being so strict with the Plebeians themselves. The Fabii were also traditionally military men, his father a notable exception.

“Why did you ask about dowries then? With blood like that, you could have the pick of men in Rome.”

Her sigh was impossible to miss. “My father can’t afford to come close to the dowries you mentioned.”

Quintus narrowed his eyes at her wording and the vague mention a man made before he found her. His daughter that he would surely remember seeing and a death so recent. “But you can?”

She nodded slowly. “The largest jewelry collection in all of Zeugma, enough Syrian cameo glass to feed a banquet, scrolls enough to fill a large library, silks and goods from Seres and India. That was from working with my uncle in his business. But not long ago, I inherited a great deal of property when one of my mother’s uncles died heirless. Because my mother died and I am the only one that was born to her, I became rich…twenty massive farms across the empire, the largest not far from here in Sabina with a huge olive grove, a resort house, and a villa here in Rome I haven’t seen since I was a child. It would have been divided among the family, but now I’m all that’s left. If I were a man, what I possess is enough of a fortune in my own right that I could qualify for senate many times over. I am sure that the message was sent for me to come back as soon as my father realized all that is now mine. He couldn’t touch my mother’s fortune since they married without Manus. Only her heirs would get it, but she died before my uncle and her father. I thought that was why the man I was betrothed to decided to finally call for me. He’d been dead for almost a year though. I can’t say for certain that father wouldn’t secure a visit, and whichever man he chooses would die leaving me their fortune and my father would beat me if I didn’t turn it over to him.”

Quintus closed his eyes. “You believe him so ruthless?”

The litter set down and the men quickly pulled the curtains to let him out. Quintus carried her to a second floor apartment where he opened the door. It was no hovel, but neither was it a showplace of any caliber. The whitewashed walls were dingy from years of cooking fires. The furniture was sparse and basic, but it was clean. “Damiane! Titius!” he let out a yell with the door open.

Livia slowly sank to the table as a man walked in with his wife. They were a contrast in the most obvious way. He was tall and stocky while she was short and petite.

“Damiane help her.” Quintus ordered.

They heard her gasp when she walked in far enough to see Livia’s back. There was no doubt Livia was one of richest of Rome, fine silk, jewels, and she held the wounds of just coming out of the coliseum. “Of all the…Bellatrix quickly go get my things,” she ordered to a small wide-eyed girl looking in. Already Damiane grabbed linen toweling and poured some water and she was to Livia’s side in only a moment.

Livia gasped as she wiped away the blood.

“I’m sorry,” Quintus whispered for the pain, even if another caused it. “Titius go to her father’s house and bring away her property and slaves immediately,” he said. “She worries her father will take out his anger at her being gone on others. He’s busy at home with my father.”

“But…”

“She is the woman I am to marry. It’s the only way to protect her.”

“Bring me a tablet to send instructions. Hasdrubal, my procurator, won’t do anything without my say, even if it means escaping my father. He wouldn’t leave me there alone with him if he thought I would come back later,” Livia whispered barely loud enough for Quintus to hear her.

He dug quickly and found a scroll Titius watched her as she wrote. Livia looked up at him as she pressed her ring seal into the wax and handed it over. “You’ll have to bring Hasdrubal to see me or he won’t be satisfied. And make sure he brings the poppy juice with him.”

“Very well.”

“He’ll bring what I have with him. It won’t fit here.” She gasped at one spot that was very tender when Damiane touched it. Quintus pulled her head to his shoulder and he felt her bite his tunic to keep from crying out.

“Take it to my villa. There is room enough there for it all, she can be hidden here better though.” Quintus ordered.

Titius only nodded as he slipped out the door.

“Don’t worry, my husband trains the gladiators since he left the army. A man would be stupid if he even thought of fighting back,” Damiane whispered as she looked over Livia’s shoulder. “The bastard who did this to her, he knew just what he was doing! Too precise to be in anger, not a blow that would be seen outside her clothing. Men like that should be thrown to the lions.” She cursed men as Bellatrix returned.

“I know.” Quintus forced out. “That’s why marrying her is the only option, even if I only met her this evening.”

Livia let out a scream that filled the air. “You could have warned me,” she growled.

There was the woman that had argued with him. Quintus lifted her head. Tears fell down her cheeks, but she was as just as beautiful.

“We’ll get him back for this. I promise.”

“Who are you, Quintus?” Damiane asked softly.

He looked up at her with a grin. “Your husband never told you about me I take it? I suppose you’re wondering what a bum like me is doing with such a lady.”

“The thought crossed my mind.”

“Where did Titius get the money to pay the rent when you were lying there near death and he stayed home to nurse you and had no income?”

Her movements became very slow and deliberate as she turned her gaze back to him. “You mean you’re Proconsul Fabius Serenus?”

“Then he did tell you.”

“But not that you were he. He just made sure you were invited to dinner when I was well enough, and then you were out of Rome. That’s all I knew. You have been just Quintus for a decade.”

“Titius is one of the few that knows my full name and position here, and it is not the only time I have given him money when I knew he needed it to get by.”

“But why would you even think of living here when you have so much?”

“I found I have true friends from serving in the army among those that live around here. I have this apartment so that I may entertain them in a manner they are comfortable with. Fine food and wine without making humble men dress fine to come to a villa feast.”

She was nodding faintly, hardly even thinking about it. “And who is Livia then?”

“She is the woman I am protecting. Who she is needs to be a secret. Even the fact that a woman of her class is here needs to be a secret.”

“I’ve done all I can. Get her to bed until morning. I need to visit a friend to get an ingredient I need. I’ll be back then.” With little more, she was headed for the door.

“Damiane, I want whoever is around here in the morning. We need 10 to make it proper, 10 people that can keep a secret. It will be hard enough with the Flamen Dialis and Pontifex Maximus showing up in this neighborhood, but it has to be done. I don’t care if she can’t get out of bed, she’s getting married.”

For a moment the woman was gaping, and then she walked off without a word.

He started to heat up some wine, adding some honey and peppercorns. He didn’t like it sickeningly sweet as some did, but it helped cover the taste of the inferior stock available in that part of town. Quintus pulled food down from the shelf, adding lentils and barley for a soup to the pot. It looked far too paltry to offer though, if he’d stayed there the last few days there might have been some meat or vegetables. He hated garum though, that fish sauce that was thrown in just about every dish. There would have to be something there however plain.

Bringing over a cup some moments later, he sank down in front of her again. Tears ran down Livia’s cheeks and her hands gripped the cup so hard, her fingers were as white as her face had been. He sank down in front of her on the bench again.

“You don’t have to do any of this. You need only let your father choose someone with far fewer problems than me.” Livia whispered.

“I have a feeling if nothing else, you’ll keep life interesting.” Quintus watched her eyes close slowly. Now wasn’t the time for flirting. “I retired. This party tonight was him trying to find a reason to keep me in Rome. He figured a wife would have more lure than a father. I choose my own wife though,” he said. “We’ll have to get you out of the city. After you’re healed, we can see to your father’s ruin.” Pulling back, only then did he realize she sat there half-undressed. The view was as magnificent as the rest of her. Quintus reached over and ran a callused finger along her neck. His fingers brushed aside the necklaces and the bruises jumped out at him, dark against her skin. When he looked back up, sea green eyes as pained as her back watched him.

“He killed my mother. Yes, I think him ruthless enough for anything.” Her own countenance remained stony. She resembled one of the statues as his jaw fell. “If there will be suffering, that is what I want to see him pay for.”

“You should get to bed.” It was the only thing he could say because what he really wanted to say was far too vile.

*****