LISBETH AWOKE DESPERATE FOR breath, gasping and sputtering as if she’d been submerged in water for a week. Her attempt to sit up sent jolts of pain through her branded palm. How long had she been out? She remembered falling through the cave floor, but how did she end up face-planted against cold stones that reeked of urine? Had bandits raided their camp? Knocked her unconscious?
Red sandals adorned with an ivory crescent on the strap stepped into her line of sight. “This one, Felicissimus? Or the one on the wall?”
From the nasal tenor of the voice she could tell the speaker was male, but the pounding in her temporal lobes garbled his dialect. What did it matter if he was Libyan, Egyptian, or Tunisian? She wasn’t alone. Help had come.
Lisbeth tried to lift her head.
A foot from behind came down hard upon her cheek. “And where do you think you’re going, whore?” The man towering over her spoke the same language she’d just heard. Her mind sorted through her repertoire of languages and landed on a form of Latin, words similar to the ones Aisa used to curse Nigel.
Lisbeth writhed beneath the pressure. Every bone in her body hurt. Bile burned the back of her throat. The foul taste of regurgitated lamb tortillas mingled with the metallic tang of blood in her mouth.
She freed an arm, made a fist, and hammered the foot grinding into her cheek.
Greater force from the shoe sole threatened to snap her jaw. “Bind this tiger.” Someone grabbed Lisbeth’s free wrist and held it while they yanked her other arm out from under her aching body. Before she could react, her hands were bound together. None of this made any sense.
“You’re gonna regret hurting me,” she ground out.
“I believe you’ve found a spirited one, Felicissimus.” Male. Condescending. Definitely speaking a more refined form of Aisa’s Latin. Maybe he would help, but then again, she couldn’t tell what was real or what was a head-trauma imagining.
“Make them let me go,” she pleaded between pressed lips.
“Inflict any more damage, and I won’t pay you a copper, old boy.” The cultured voice demanded respect. The foot was promptly removed.
Someone suddenly jerked Lisbeth to her feet and crushed her hands while cutting the bindings from her wrists. Freedom. Except for being held in place. That’s when she noticed the tall guy next to her. He had a shaved head and wore only a towel wrapped around his waist. She wondered what Craig would think of some half-naked guy manhandling her. Her fiancé was not nearly as sculpted as this brute, but he was wiry and fast. Craig could at least get in a couple of good punches if he were here. Wherever here was. Probably some godforsaken hole across the Egyptian border.
“Craig?” Lisbeth swayed, her balance as questionable as those dizzy homeless drunks who frequented the ER. “Papa?”
People she did not recognize spun in her blurry vision. A naked boy she guessed to be no older than ten. Two glassy-eyed women stripped to the waist. And three people dressed like toga-clad statues in Italian fountains.
“Where’s Papa?” Lisbeth dug her nails into the arm of the tall guy with an iron grip. “What have you done with my father?”
A barrel-shaped man wearing a white, king-size sheet trimmed with a crimson braid lifted her chin. “Wherever did you find this little Thracian, Felicissimus?” Bulging black eyes and a dough-ball face indicated the possibility that this guy had a thyroid problem. Jewels dripped from his thick neck. Fishy halitosis, symptomatic of chronic kidney failure, soured his breath. Definitely a cut above the TV rebels that tossed homemade grenades on the streets of Libya. “One of the best properties you’ve brought me in years.” He spun a wicked glance in the direction of a matronly woman draped in emerald silk and wearing a thin veil across the bottom half of her face.
“Think,” Lisbeth muttered to herself. “What happened? Am I dreaming?” She concentrated on regaining her focus. She surveyed the dank cell again. Her breath caught. How had she missed the chains that attached the wrists of the little boy and the half-naked women to the wall? “Wait until my father finds out you’ve taken me captive!”
Felicissimus, a slimeball with a dribble trail down the front of his dingy yellow dress, continued his conversation with the fishy dough-ball guy. Neither one of them seemed to understand English. Either that or neither was the least bit concerned about the accusations she yelled at the top of her lungs.
“I knew you’d like her, Aspasius. But if I can guarantee the quality of the treasure, does it really matter where I acquired it? Such a rare beauty was meant to grace the proconsul’s palace, would you not agree?”
The richly dressed guy in the sheet limped forward and grabbed Lisbeth’s chin. His fingers squeezed off her string of curses. While his globe-shaped eyes raked her body, he yanked her face from side to side. “Good teeth. Passable complexion.” His smile, more a pleased smirk, sent a jolt of alarm through Lisbeth’s tense body. “She is not to be exhibited in the common slave market.”
“Slave?” Lisbeth jerked her chin free and kicked him in the shins. “I’m not for sale, you sorry son of a—”
“Owww.” Aspasius grabbed his injury. “You little vixen.”
“Shall I have Metellus use the whip on her, proconsul?” Felicissimus nodded to the guy in the towel. In a flash, Metellus’s thick arm coiled around Lisbeth’s neck. “Or I have the iron hot if you want her ear pierced to break her spirit a bit.”
Lisbeth wrenched against the pressure closing off her air supply.
Aspasius held up his hand, his pointy-tooth grimace transforming his face into an angry weasel. “No additional marks. I want nothing to mar her beauty.” He leaned in close, his breath a nauseating combination of sardines and some sort of gastrological problem that made Lisbeth gag. “If you can give me some kind of assurance that she can learn the language of the empire well enough to at least follow commands, we have a deal.”
With any luck, the visual daggers she hurled in the dough ball’s direction would prick his pompous head and let the air out of those oversize jowls. Summoning her linguistic command, Lisbeth spat out, “I not only speak your foul tongue; I read it and write it.”
The room went silent.
“Beautiful and smart.” Aspasius stroked her hair with the back of his hand. He dragged his large signet ring across her face. “Intoxicating.”
The matronly brunette stepped forward. “Do we really need another slave?” Although the woman spoke to the proconsul, her kohl-rimmed eyes drilled holes into Lisbeth.
Aspasius turned and backhanded the woman, nearly knocking her out of her pearl-crusted sandals. “If you will not serve me, I’ll buy one who will.”
“Hey!” Lisbeth lunged. “What do you think you’re doing?” A strong arm reeled her in. “Leave her alone, you barbarian.”
The rigid woman righted herself without so much as a rub to the welt his ring had left upon her cheek. “May she bring down curses upon your house.”
“As did you.” Aspasius spit at her, then turned and clamped a hand on Lisbeth’s face. “Know this, my Thracian beauty. Displease me, and you too will be replaced.” He turned to Metellus. “Strip her, and take her to the sunlight. I have a right to know exactly what I am getting beneath these filthy rags.”
“And miss the thrill of surprise when you drag her to your bed?” The new voice entering the mix smoldered with disgust.
Aspasius glanced over his shoulder. “Cyprian!”
Lisbeth strained against her bindings.
“How little regard you have for your toys.” The owner of the commanding voice filled the doorway. Even in this poor light, she could tell that the latest arrival to her crazy dream was tall, blond, and exceptionally well built. Maybe he was also kind, or at the very least willing to help her get free of these bindings, because she was too banged up to walk far, let alone escape their pursuit. Daring to hope, she shouted for help using her best Latin.
Aspasius protectively stepped between her and the intruder at the door. “Old friend, what brings you to my private showing?”
Lisbeth rose on her tiptoes.
“Reports that my least-favorite client is once again dabbling in illegal slave trading.” This possible knight in shining armor looked past Aspasius and locked cool blue eyes on her. “Have you acquired this property from looters, Felicissimus?”
“Oh no, my patronus.” Felicissimus rushed forward. “Since you so eloquently secured my acquittal, I’ve put my unscrupulous trading days far behind me.” The greedy little slave trader scurried back to Lisbeth and raised the shredded cuff of her pants. “See, Cyprian, she has the whitened foot of one purchased abroad. All quite legal, I can assure you.”
Lisbeth glanced at her feet. The hiking boots were gone, and her entire left foot was covered in some sort of white chalky substance. What kind of crazy dream was she having? She remembered touching a painting in the cave, but after that, things got fuzzy. If she was lucky, she’d fallen and hit her head, and this was simply a concussed hallucination.
Since when was a head injury better than dealing with desert bandits? Feeling unhinged by either possibility, Lisbeth thrashed and kicked. The arm of the bare-chested man continued to crush her windpipe.
“If you came by this property legally, why would you not do as the law allows and give me first rights, Felicissimus?” Cyprian ducked to avoid the doorframe and strode into the room, an intimidating presence decked in swirls of cream silk that conformed to his muscular chest. “Surely you’ve not misplaced your patron loyalties?”
“No. Never.” The nasty little man tugged at the neck of his tunic. “It’s just that our esteemed proconsul put in his order quite some time ago. I simply fill the requests as the merchandise becomes available.” Sweat glistened on the old man’s brow. “Happy to do the same for you, Cyprian? What with the emperor’s campaign season coming to a close, all sorts of new conquests are sure to go on the block. Give me but a week, my good man. I’ll find you a tasty delight. You prefer your maidens dark or fair?”
Fire ringed Cyprian’s piercing blue eyes. “I prefer my pro bono clients to remain free of disreputable entanglements.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” The trader’s brows quirked. “Or the profit for either of us?”
Cyprian reached for the knife tucked in his belt. “Felicissimus.”
With a resigned sigh, the slave broker waved his hand. “Release her, Metellus.” He shoved Lisbeth, and she stumbled toward Cyprian. “Here, examine the slut for yourself.”
“Now see here, Felicissimus!” Aspasius’s cheeks flamed. “We had a deal.”
“Feel free to counter, consul.” The slave broker grinned. “A decent bidding war would go a long way toward feeding the many mouths that populate my household, especially since the unfortunate arrival of my mother-in-law.”
“I’m not a slave.” Lisbeth searched Cyprian’s eyes. “Help me. Please.”
Not even a flicker of compassion warmed the icy blue pools that seemed to look past her. “How much, Felicissimus?”
“I don’t belong here.” Lisbeth bolted for the door on wobbly legs.
Cyprian reached out and snagged her arm. He pulled her tight against his rock-hard body. His hot breath burned her ear. “Say nothing more, fool.” He ignored her hammering fists and the blows her heels landed on his shins. “How much, Felicissimus?”
“Two thousand sesterces.”
“Three,” Aspasius sputtered.
“Five,” Cyprian countered coolly.
“Five?” Aspasius bellowed. “Have you lost your mind, man? I paid four for an entertaining Germanic dwarf, and I can rent him out for parties.” He wrinkled his nose. “Look at her. A mule would be easier bedded.”
“You have a point, but I love a challenge.” Cyprian squeezed Lisbeth’s arm. “Six thousand sesterces. And I take immediate delivery.”
“Sold!” Felicissimus thrust his greedy hand at Cyprian. “Your marker will do until I can send Metellus to collect the full sum.”
“You little cheat.” Aspasius seized the neck of the trader’s soiled tunic, his nostrils flaring. “I’ll see you thrown to the lions.” He released him with a shove, grabbed the woman in green silk, and stormed to Cyprian. “Don’t think this is over, old friend.”
“Don’t think us friends,” Cyprian replied with a commanding air.
Muttering Latin curses, the proconsul dragged the woman dressed in silk from the cell, his gait beating an uneven rhythm on the cobblestones.
The matron craned her slender neck and shouted over her shoulder, “Run while you can!” Her perfect English stung Lisbeth’s ears.