The large black horse cut sharply in front of the woman, halting her. She didn't have to raise her eyes to know who the rider was. His seal was stamped into the horse's breast collar.
"You know the rules, Isabelle." Nero's rigid voice stung her ears. "You don't speak with a man unless I give you permission to do so."
"M'Lord?" Isabelle spoke soft, low, respectful. Her pulse quickened. Nero had witnessed her encounter with the young man? Marcus, his friend had called him.
Nero's gaze rested heavily on her, like a weight pushing her down. "Do you like the boy?" He asked, startling her. Suddenly he was leaning down and his fingers were on her chin, lifted her face, drawing her eyes to his.
"M'Lord, I..." She stumbled on her words. If she said no, he would know she was lying. But if she admitted to her fondness of the young man...would he punish her?
"It's quite all right, Isabelle." Nero spoke low, with an uncharacteristic softness to his voice. "You're a young woman. It's only natural to be drawn to a young man of his stature." An unsettling smile touched his lips. "Would you like if I brought him in, gave him to you?"
Isabelle's breath caught softly. "I-I don't understand, M'Lord."
"You've served me well." He smiled. "Perhaps you deserve a gift."
Lowering her head, Isabelle's heart raced wildly. "You are too kind, M'Lord." She raised her eyes slowly and tentatively touched his leg. "But you are the only man I desire."
Nero's smile stretched his lips. "You are a treasure, Isabelle." Nero pulled the horse around and rode away with a loud clacking of hooves against stone.
Isabelle stared after him, her chest pounding. Marcus' face rose in her mind. Such a beautiful, perfect man. She would not allow Nero to mar him. The young man deserved a woman of purity, untouched and free from bondage. And though her dreams would be overwhelmed with his lovely smile, the warm feel of his hands...she would not subject such a man to her world of iniquity.
Nero circled the steed around the rear of Nathan's mount and rested in the saddle next to the gladiator as they both watched the young man wield his sword against his mock opponent. Both boys were matched in skill, equally worthy of the arena, but Nero's gaze moved with the object of Isabelle's affection.
He wasn't fooled by her professions of desire. She harbored great bitterness in her heart for him, for taking her from her family when she was just a young girl. But even then, her beauty had captivated him. He could not resist her, and he had brought her to womanhood much sooner than the average girl. She had never known the love of a young man. Had never been courted and adored. All she knew were the ways of a whore. The men who touched her did so for their own selfish pleasure and nothing more.
Nero's lips twitched as he watched the young man. Regardless of Isabelle's attempt to conceal her desire for the boy, Nero wasn't without sight. He saw what she wanted. And as he had told her...perhaps she deserved a gift.
"Him." Nero nodded at the dark haired young man. "He will fight in the exhibition."
Nathan turned his head and smiled. "Sire? Do you know of who you speak?"
Nero stared at him.
"The young, skillful swordsman you've chosen." Nathan spoke low. "Is brother to Rhonan's beloved Eve."
Eve's Brother? Nero smiled as his eyes narrowed. "Then I believe I have the perfect opponent for him to challenge in the arena."
Nathan grinned. "One day, sire...you will surely wake with Rhonan's sword at your throat."
Nero laughed. "You may be right, my friend." He laughed again. "You may be right."
Eve walked home in a daze. Every step of the way her weak, shaky legs threatened to give out, but somehow held. She couldn't calm her heart and it caused her breath to puff from between her parted lips. The well of tears behind her eyes seemed bottomless as a continual stream ran down her flushed cheeks.
Rhonan had given up everything...for her?
She had convinced herself that Rhonan's ultimate goal for pursuing her was simply to bed her. But in truth...a man such as Rhonan would have no problem filling his bed. She had believed that it was her resistance that drove him to break her, weaken her to his will.
Sobs shook her and she hugged herself tightly as each step sent up a little plume of dust from the dirt road. Rhonan would not have sold himself to Nero for a woman he merely desired with his body alone. But Eve couldn't accept what the alternative truly meant. She couldn't be the reason for such a choice. She wouldn't be.
The image of Rhonan hovered behind her eyes. The stiff, lifeless way he had moved through the crowds in town.
He was dead inside because of what he had done for her.
"Why didn't you tell me about Rhonan?"
Eve was standing at the stove when Marcus came in, her back to him. Every nerve in her body had surfaced and knew she was about to break down. Again. But she swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked at the tears.
"What are you talking about?" She whispered thickly, trying to focus and not burn the food in the pan.
Marcus closed the door, a bit too hard. "Rhonan fighting for Nero." He said stiffly. "You knew, didn't you? That's why you resisted him."
Eve shook her head slowly. "I didn't know at first." She spoke low, her tears in her voice. "I just didn't want to be with a gladiator. And then, when I found out about Nero...you know I could never be with a man who...willingly gave his sword to such a man."
"I don't get it." Marcus said. "Rhonan has never fought for anyone, never been owned by anyone. Why the hell would he do this?" He shrugged out of his coat and hung it on the hook on the door. "Maybe everyone does have their price." He muttered, and there was a note of despair in his voice that cut at Eve. Marcus had really liked the man, she could see that every time he mentioned his name or saw him. He looked up to him, kind of like the older brother he never had. And now...it was as if Rhonan had let him down.
A tear escaped and slid down Eve's face. Rhonan didn't deserve Marcus' resentment or lack of respect. She wanted to blurt out that ti was her fault, that he'd done it to protect her, but for reasons she didn't understand, she couldn't say the words. Perhaps she felt ashamed to be the cause of Rhonan's undoing. Such a great warrior, a powerful man...brought to his knees by a common peasant girl.
"I'm sorry I pushed you at him." Marcus said. "I was wrong. He's not the man I thought he was."
Eve broke. She spun around, her tears flowing. "Shut up, Marcus!" She cried. "Just shut up!" She covered her mouth with her hand, crying harder as she fled the kitchen and ran to her room.
Laying huddled on her bed, Eve sobbed into the pillow. She didn't know Marcus had followed her until his hand touched her shoulder. She flinched and choked on her sobs, "I'm sorry, Marcus." She shuddered. "I-I didn't mean to yell at you."
Marcus turned her around and laid her head on his leg as he stroked her hair. "Eve...what's going on?" He asked softly. "What's wrong?"
She gripped his leg and cried against his thigh. "Oh Marcus...what have I done?"
Marcus frowned. "What are you talking about, sis?"
She sat up slowly, her face flushed and wet with tears. She struggled to force down her sobs as her chest hitched. "It's my fault." She trembled as her eyes swam. "It's all my fault." The tears broke again and she pressed her face against his chest. "I treated him so bad, Marcus. He sacrificed his life for me and I...I just threw him away."
Gripping her shoulders firmly, Marcus drew her back and looked in her eyes, his brow tightly furrowed. "What are you talking about, Eve?"
Her hand shook as she wiped her eyes. "I-I didn't tell you everything about...the night of the celebration." She whispered, her voice shaking. "Something happened, Marcus."
Eve struggled with her tears as she told Marcus how Nero had taken her from Rhonan's side and taken her to his chambers. Cried softly as she recalled what he had nearly done to her, but then stopped at the last minute when someone had come to the door and given him a message.
"Rhonan stopped him." She choked out. "It had to have been Rhonan. Nero wanted his sword, lusted for it. Rhonan...he bargained his freedom...for me." She fell against Marcus' chest. Her tears refused to stop. She wondered if someone could actually drown in their own sorrow? "What am I going to do, Marcus?" She cried softly. "I can't let this happen."
Marcus stroked her hair. His chest rose and fell hard. She knew he was seething inside over what Nero had done - both to her and to Rhonan. "It's already done, Eve." He spoke low, tight. "Rhonan is branded. Only Nero can release him. And he will never turn loose a fighter such as Rhonan."
"No." Eve cleared her throat and swallowed her tears as she sat up. "No. There has to be something. I-I could speak to Nero-"
"No!" Marcus grabbed her suddenly, gripping her arms, startling her. "Stay away from Nero, do you hear me? Don't ever go anywhere near that man again."
"But, Marcus." Eve sobbed.
"No!" Marcus growled. "Promise me, Eve. Promise me you'll stay away from him."
Eve shuddered. Another hard sob shook her.
"I promise, Marcus." She softly lied.