When Fabius Aro went to the Veratii household, he expected to find the Flarian wine that Vertius had promised as payment for rescuing from the sea. Instead, Aro discovered Vertius's daughter Lydia had sold the wine. Unable to make payment, Lydia is sold into marriage to the man known as the Sea Wolf. In this excerpt, Aro explains the situation to his cheif captain, and gets a bit more than he bargained for.***
You can read the first excerpt from Michelle Styles's SOLD & SEDUCED here.
'Could you have chosen a more disreputable place to drink, Piso?' Aro remarked when he had finally run his most senior captain to ground.
The bar was typical of Piso's watering holes, Aro thought crossing the narrow room. Dark even on the brightest day, and lit with too few olive oil lamps. The frescoes portrayed gaming with dice and knucklebones, an activity replicated on the tables that were dotted about it. Despite it being only the seventh hour, the bar was full of the flotsam and jetsam of humanity – labourers intermingled with branded slaves and other more dubious characters. The barmaid behind the counter also did a brisk trade in the pleasures of the flesh. The elaborately embroidered toga she wore and the explicit frescoes on the back wall proclaimed it.
Piso stood up, disentangled himself from one of the women and indicated a stool next to him.
'You can learn things here. The barmaid is an old and valued friend.' Piso gave a wide smile and signalled for another cup. 'Have you come to pay me the money you owe me? That wine was sold to Ofellius, weeks ago.'
'Why should I owe you anything?' Aro remained standing and kept his face without expression. 'It is you who owe me. Veratius did not sell anything.'
'But, but the wine has been sold to Ofellius.'
'The bet was Senator Veratius sold the wine to Ofellius. He didn't. You should pay attention to the wording of any bet.'
'I should know better than to bet against you. You have the luck of the gods. I had thought the denarii were mine this time.' Piso laughed and then he leant forward. 'If Veratius didn't sell the wine, who did?'
'You should be seeing to fitting out of your ship, not seeing to the knucklebones and listening to Forum gossip.'
'My men know what to do. Not everyone is like you, Aro. Some of us like to take refreshment and enjoy life.' Piso drained his cup of wine and wiped his mouth, giving a satisfied sigh. 'When do we load the Falerian? We can set sail before nightfall. The wind is still in blowing in the correct direction. A risk, true but with your good fortune...By all the gods on Mount Olympus, you are the luckiest man I know.'
'We don't.' Aro tossed a pouch of coins into Piso's lap. 'You were correct about the wine. It was sold. Congratulate me. Instead of acquiring the wine, I marry.'
'You're doing what?' Piso's large hands fumbled with the purse, spilling two coins on the table.
'Getting married to Senator Lucius Veratius Cornelius's daughter.'
'A joke is a joke, Aro.' The colour drained from Piso's face and he took a gulp of wine. Aro sat down on the stool opposite Piso, enjoying his friend's discomfiture.
'This is no laughing matter, my old friend.'
'Marriage? You? You have always maintained that marriage is for weak-minded fools who have nothing left to lose.'
'Do I look like I am joking?' Aro narrowed his eyes at the reminder of his view on marriage.
Piso shook his head slowly.
'Good, then you may wish me good fortune and join me at tonight's betrothal feast.'
'I would rather face the rocky shoals in the teeth of a gale than face marriage to respectable Roman matron.'
'I have faced the rocks outside Corinth in one of the worst storms Neptune has thrown up and lived,' Aro said with a shrug.
'By Hermes, I thought we were paying a visit to Poseidon's nymphs that day. You save my life and the rest of the crew that day with your superb navigation.' Piso held out his hand. 'See it shakes from the memory.'
'We made it through safely. Trust me now.'
'But marriage? That is a whole other venture.'
'And what makes you believe that the gods are not with me this time?' Aro raised his cup of wine to his lips and tasted the overly sweet wine. 'They were with me then, and they have not yet deserted me.'
'If you need a woman that badly.' Piso gestured towards the barmaid who sauntered over, her thin tunic leaving little to the imagination. 'Why not take Flora here or use one of the higher class houses of pleasure? What was that little matron from Baiae called? It is what you told me to do when I made a fool of myself over that little serving girl in Athens. You remember the one with the big eyes and the even greedier fingers?'
'I have had enough mistresses. I desire a wife.' Aro banished from his thoughts how Lydia's gown had hinted at her curves, the brief glimpse of her throat and the way her lips parted very so slightly when his lips had brushed her forehead. Physical desire had nothing to do with the reason he made his offer. It was a business transaction. It solved several problems. Most important, it eliminated the need to pay for a fixer. Senator Veratius had enough influence with the censor to ensure he would be elected to the senate. The sparkle in her eyes was incidental.
'You're not a Roman.' Aro began. His hand touched the ring he wore on a chain about his neck, his father's signet ring. A ring he would not wear on his finger until he had fulfilled his scared vow, until he had restored the honour of the Fabii.
'For that.' Piso gave a laugh. 'For that, I get down on my knees and thank Hermes and the other gods every night, they saw fit to make me Greek.'
'If I were Greek, I wouldn't have chosen this bar to drink in.' Aro regarded the various workmen, branded slaves and sailors who intermingled in the bar. The usual waterfront mob.
'We Greeks know excellent wine when we see it, and Flora is pleasing to the eye and not too pricey on the purse.' Piso tapped the side of his nose. 'Tell me why now. Why not earlier this year when that Roman widow was pursuing you all over Baiae? She was a patrician. What has changed?'
'Sulla's reforms are being done away with,' Aro said. 'I told you about this last Ides. The dictator's shadow was not very long.'
Piso wipe his hand across his face. 'Why do you need to be in that particular pit of snakes and schemers? You have enough money and estates as is.'
'I vowed to regain everything Sulla unjustly took from my family and I intend to keep that promise.'
'How so? How will marrying this woman give you anything you don't have?'
'Marrying a Veratii will mean give me the votes I need to enter the senate without having to resort to a fixer.' Aro tapped his cup against the table. 'Lucius Veratius Cornelius controls enough tribes to make men wary about voting against him. He has promised to support me. He wants his daughter married to a senator. When you think what the going rate for a fixer is... The loss of the gold is cheap compared to what I have gained.'
'Romans are slippery characters. There is many a man who has come to grief with a Roman woman. I would not trust them further than I could throw them.' Piso took a swig of his wine. 'This is why I stick to barmaids and women of easy virtue. You know where you and your money stand with them.'
'I am not a seaman, facing his first voyage. I have navigated around senators before.' Aro regarded the dregs of wine in his cup, remembering the negotiations he had with Cornelius Veratius after his daughter finally left the room. 'We drew up the contracts this afternoon. The betrothal takes place this evening, and the wedding tomorrow. I have been to see the priest. For a fee, he has agreed the auspices are excellent for tomorrow.'
'A toast to the favoured couple then.' Piso snapped his fingers and the barmaid refilled the cups. 'I drink to your happiness, my old friend.'
Aro ignored the cup of wine. Happiness was not part of the arrangement. 'To the marriage.'
SOLD & SEDUCED, Copyright 2007 Michelle Styles, used by permission of Harlequin Enterprises SA.