2010 RITA Finalist for Best First Book
He won his fame—and his freedom—in the gory pits of Rome's
Colosseum. Yet the greatest challenge for once-legendary
gladiator Caros Viriathos comes to him through a slave. His
slave, the beautiful and mysterious Pelonia Valeria. Her
secret brings danger to his household but offers Caros a
love like he's never known….
Should anyone learn she is a
Christian, Pelonia will be executed. Her faith threatens not
only herself, but her master. Can she convince a man who
found fame through unforgiving brutality to show mercy? And
when she's ultimately given the choice, will Pelonia choose
freedom or the love of a gladiator?
Rome 81 A.D.
Angry, unfamiliar voices penetrated Pelonia’s awareness.
Floating between wakefulness and dark, she couldn’t budge
her heavy limbs. Every muscle ached. A sharp pain drummed
against her skull.
The voices died away, then a woman's words broke through the
haze. “She wakes. Fetch the master.”
Hurried footsteps trailed away, while someone moved close
enough for Pelonia to sense a presence kneel beside her.
“My name is Lucia. Can you hear me?” The woman pressed a
cup of water to Pelonia’s cracked lips. “What shall I call you?”
Pelonia coughed and sputtered as the liquid trickled down
her arid throat. Swallowing, she grimaced at the throbbing
pressure in her jaw. “Pel...Pelonia.”
“Do you remember what happened to you? You were struck on
the head and injured. You have bruised ribs as well. From
the swelling, one or more may be cracked, but none are
broken. I’ve been giving you opium to soothe you, but
you’re far from recovered.”
Her eyelids too heavy to open, Pelonia licked her chapped
lips, hating the rotten taste in her mouth. Uncomfortable
heat warmed the right side of her face. Gradually, her mind
began to make sense of her surroundings. The warmth must be
sunshine because the scent of wood smoke hung in the air,
yet there was no crackle of a fire. Her pallet was a coarse
woolen blanket on the hard ground. Vermin crawled in her
hair, making her itch. Dirt clung to her skin and each of
her sore muscles longed for the tufted softness of her bed
Her muddled brain latched on the word. Where was she if not
in the comfort of her father’s Umbrian villa? Where was her
maid, Helen? Who was this woman Lucia? She couldn’t remember.
Fear's icy fingers gripped her heart as one by one her
memories returned. First the attack, then her father's
murder. Raw grief squeezed her chest. Confusion surrounded
her. Where was her uncle? She remembered the slave
caravan, his threat to sell her, but nothing more. Had
Marcus succeeded in his treachery, or had someone come to
Panic forced her eyes open. Light stabbed her head like a
dagger. She squeezed her lids tight, then blinked rapidly
until she managed to focus on the young woman’s face above her.
“The master will be here soon.” A smile tilted Lucia’s
lips, but didn’t reach her brown eyes. “He commanded me to
call for him the moment you woke.”
“Where...am I?” The words grated in her throat.
“You’re in the home of Caros Viriathos.”
The name meant nothing to Pelonia. She prayed God had heard
her plea and delivered her into the hands of a kind man,
someone who would help her contact her cousin Tiberia.
The thought of Tiberia brought a glimmer of hope. Somehow,
she must contact her cousin at the first opportunity.
Her eyes closed with fatigue. “How...how long have I...been
Lucia laid her calloused palm to Pelonia’s brow. “Four days
and this morning. You’ve been in and out of sleep, but now
it seems your fever has broken for good. I’ll order you a
bowl of broth. You should eat to bolster your strength.”
Her stomach churned sickly. Four days and she remembered
nothing. Tiberia must be frantic wondering why she’d failed
to attend the wedding. As children, she and her cousin had
been as close as sisters. They’d corresponded regularly and
maintained their deep friendship ever since Tiberia’s family
moved to Rome eight years past. When Tiberia wrote of her
betrothal to a senator, that the union was a love match, no
one had been more pleased for her than Pelonia.
She opened her eyes. “I must--”
Lucia placed her fingers over Pelonia’s lips. “Don’t speak.
Rest is what you need. Now that you’ve woken, Gaius, our
master’s steward, says you have one week to recover. Then
your labor begins whether you’re well or not.”
“My cousin. I must...”
“You don’t understand, Pelonia.” Lucia hooked a lock of
pitch-black hair behind her ear. “You’re a slave in the
Ludus Maximus now. A possession of the lanista, Caros
Lanista? A vile gladiator trainer?
“You have no family beyond these walls. You’d do well to
accept your fate. Forget your past existence. Your new
life here has begun.”
“No!” She refused to believe all she knew could be stolen
from her so easily.
Lucia frowned as though she were confronting a quarrelsome
child. Tight-lipped, she crossed her arms over her buxom
chest. “We will see.”
Heavy footsteps crunched on the rushes strewn across the
earthen floor. The new arrival stopped out of Pelonia’s
view, but the force of the person’s presence invaded the room.
The nauseating ache in her head increased without mercy.
What had she done to make God despise her?
Focusing on Lucia, she saw the young woman’s face light with
“Master.” Lucia jumped to her feet. “The new slave is
finally awake. She calls herself Pelonia. She’s weak and
the medicine I gave her has run its course.”
“Then give her more if she needs it.”
The man’s deep voice poured over Pelonia like the soothing
water of a bath. Despite her indignation, some of her
tension eased. Curious to see the man who had such a unique
and unwelcome effect on her, she turned her head, ignoring
the jab of pain that pierced her skull.
“Don’t move,” Lucia snapped. “You mustn’t move your head or
you might injure yourself further.”
Pelonia stiffened. She wasn’t accustomed to taking orders.
Neither her father nor the tutors he’d hired to teach her
had ever raised their voices.
Lucia glanced toward the door. “She’s argumentative. I
have a hunch she’ll be difficult. She denies she’s your slave.”
Silence followed Lucia’s remark. Pelonia’s nerves stretched
taut as she waited for a response. Would this man who
claimed to own her kill or beat her? She’d heard of men
committing atrocities against their slaves for little,
sometimes no reason. Was he one of those cruel barbarians?
She sensed him move closer. Her tension rose as if she were
prey in the sights of a hungry lion. At last, the lion
crossed into her line of vision.
Sunlight streaming through the window enveloped the giant,
giving his dark hair a golden glow. A crisp, light colored
tunic draped across his shoulders and the expanse of his
chest contrasted sharply with the rich copper of his skin.
Gold bands around his wrists emphasized the physical power
he held in check.
Her breath hitched in her throat. She could only stare.
Without a doubt, the man could crush her if he chose.
“So, you are called Pelonia,” he said. “And my healer
believes you wish to fight me.”
Her gaze locked with the unusual blue of his forceful glare.
For the first time, she understood how the Hebrew, David,
must have suffered when he faced Goliath. Swallowing the
lump of fear in her throat, she nodded. “If I must.”
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