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A bloody past...and a dangerous future...***
He won his fame--and his freedom--in the gory pits of the arena. Yet the greatest challenge for legendary gladiator Caros Viriathos come to him through a slave. His slave, the beautiful and mysterious Pelonia Valeria. Her secret brings danger to his houseshold but offers Caros a love like he's never known...
Should anyone learn she's a Christian, Pleonia 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?
Pelonia's 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 her aide?
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 here?"
Lucia laid her calloused palm to Pelonia's brow. "Four days and this morning. You've been in and out of sleep. 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. 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 Viriathos."
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. "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?
"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."