* Sorry this isn't very long :(
Rhonan's stony eyes snapped past Eve and drilled into the man who had suddenly approached the table. Anxiety gripped him and his fist tightened around the handle of the sword.
"Admirable sword play, my friend." The man was speaking to Rhonan but his leering eyes were feasting on Eve. "But hardly suitable conduct in the presence of a lady."
His face tight, Rhonan merely glared at the man. Two well muscled gladiators stood at the man's guard, each sporting a brand burned into the flesh of their upper arms.
"Perhaps the lady would prefer more civilized company."
Rhonan stepped forward suddenly, drawing Eve back by the arm as he moved in front of her. "This is none of your concern."
The man's probing stare continually pushed past Rhonan, trying to get at Eve. He didn't try to hide what it was he wanted. Rhonan gripped his sword harder. It took all his will not to strike out and take the man's head off. It wasn't the presence of the two gladiators that prevented him, but the reality that beheading the territorial governor would bring on a swift and harsh sentence of death.
"All that takes place in my territory is my concern." He spoke low, with confidence. "You're well aware of that, Rhonan." He gazed at Rhonan with heavy eyes, sizing the man up. "Perhaps you've reconsidered my proposal?"
Rhonan's eyes snapped to the two gladiators, the brands on their arms, then back to the governor. "No."
"As you wish." The governor peered around Rhonan once more, then turned away. He spoke low to one of the two gladiators. "Bring her to my chambers. This brothel is no place for a lady."
Bring her to my chambers.
Something in those words sent a chill rushing through Eve's blood. Maybe she didn't really want to be here with Rhonan, but suddenly the idea of leaving his side and being alone with this other, supposedly more civilized man made her feel extremely vulnerable and...unsafe. There was an air of authority in the man that even Rhonan seemed hesitant to challenge, and that filled her with extreme unease, for Rhonan didn't strike her as a man who backed down to anyone.
One of the two gladiators who accompanied the man came around the far end of the long table and approached Eve. Instinctively, she gripped Rhonan's arm without truly realizing what she was doing. All of the sudden, he seemed the lesser of the two evils.
The gladiator hesitated when Rhonan drilled him with a stony glare. No man seemed in a hurry to challenge Rhonan in a duel. For a brief, hopeful moment, Eve was sure the man would retreat. But to her disbelief and silent horror...it was Rhonan who stood down.
"What...?" Eve gasped when the gladiator took hold of her arm. Fear shot through her. Her frightened eyes grabbed for Rhonan's but his stare evaded hers. She wanted to pull away, struggle, scream at the gladiator to let her go. But she knew not to defy a man of authority. And the man taking her away must have considerable authority for Rhonan to stand idly by and allow it to happen.
Her pulse raced and her breath was shaky as the gladiator led her away from Rhonan and into the custody of the other man. Up close, he was just a few inches taller than her, his muscles lean but solid. His black hair brushed back away from his chiseled face that she should have found appealing. But his piercing, probing ice chipped eyes prevented even a sliver of attraction to needle its way in.
The man was gazing casually at Rhonan, as if he truly enjoyed his power over such a formidable opponent. Rhonan's eyes cut into the man as surely as his blade might slice his flesh. The muscles in Rhonan's face flexed, the tendons in his neck stood out prominently. His fist clenched his sword as his other hand flexed tightly at his side. He looked like a lion about to lunge on its prey.
A slow, triumphant, mocking smile slid across the man's lip like a vile reptile. He touched his hand to the small of Eve's back. She instinctively flinched but knew better than to pull away. Rhonan's eyes snapped to where the man's hand was resting against her body. This seemed to please her new captor even more. He knew she wasn't just another insignificant wench to be fucked and tossed away. Rhonan's real interest in her was of importance to this man. But why did it matter if the gladiator had a special affection for her? What should this man of obvious authority care?
The hand on her back pressed firmly and moved her forward. The man cast an absent glance at Rhonan as he led her away. "Perhaps you will reconsider my proposal."
Eve could feel Rhonan's eyes boring into her back as she was guided through the crowded hall, burning her flesh with the heat of his rage. As if she were linked to him mind, she felt his urge to lunge over the table and rip her away from this man. But he stood his ground as she was taken away, out of sight of him, to someplace where he couldn't protect her.
A steady wave of chills flowed through Eve's body as the man directed through a high ceiling, stone hallway. The two gladiators followed a few feet behind, neither speaking. She had seen the branded flesh on their arms and wondered what it meant. The design resembled a seal of some form. Eve remembered what Rhonan said about not all gladiators being free and having the freedom to choose whether or not to enter the arena. Were these two men his slaves? Forced to fight? They didn't seem to be here against their will, but then perhaps they were just well trained, like a dog who has been beaten into submission.
The man stopped at a thick wooden door and nodded once to the gladiators. They took their posts on either side of the door as Eve was led inside. The heavy door closed with a hollow boom and Eve wondered if it somehow represented a door being shut on the life she had known up to this point, and on the girl she clung to, still not yet quite a full woman. The hollow sensation forming inside her filled her with dread and horror at the reality that this man would be the one to introduce her to the passions of the flesh. And more frighteningly...the true, unbound lust of a man.
"Don't." Gabriel's strong hand gripped Rhonan's arm, stopping him from rushing after Eve.
Rhonan whirled and the tip of his sword was touching Gabriel's throat before he registered his own movement. The sharp tip depressed Gabriel's skin, drawing the tiniest drop of blood. Rhonan's chest heaved and he withdrew his weapon quickly. Gabriel reached up slowly and wiped the drop of blood from his throat.
"I'm sorry, brother." Rhonan muttered and turned away.
Gabriel grabbed his arm again, unafraid. "Don't do it."
Sheathing his sword, Rhonan's eyes remained locked on the large doorway across the expansive hall. The same doorway Eve disappeared through just minutes ago.
"Nero is using her to bait you. This is what he wants."
Rhonan glared at his friend. "You think I don't know that? This isn't the first time he's used others against me. I am not so fucking foolish as to not see what he's doing."
Nodding, a glint of sympathy in Gabriel's eyes, he drew his hand away. "Is she worth it?"
Rhonan swallowed tightly. It felt like his throat was filled with rocks. Eve's face danced behind his eyes. The woman despised him outwardly, but what he saw in her eyes told him a much different story. From the instant he'd lifted her onto his horse, he had longed to be the man to bring her to full womanhood. She didn't have to tell him she was a virgin, a woman just had a way about her, a look, even a smell. That untouched, sweet scent of purity. It wasn't something he wished to violate...but to nourish, savor.
But now she was in Nero's hands. Hands that were rough, harsh, cruel. He would take what he wanted, rip it from her, and leave her in ruins. A lovely rose crushed beneath his heel.
Is she worth it?
Rhonan didn't even have to consider the answer.