The bride worried that she would shatter. She felt as fragile as the glass bottles of oils and perfumes set out for her bath–a bath she didn’t welcome, and one she knew would never make her feel clean. In the water, a gilded lion gushed rose-scented water from his mouth. Julia had always thought the fountain beautified the room, but now the lion seemed like he was just another predator waiting to pounce.
“Your hands are shaking,” her nursemaid chided with a teasing laugh. “Why so nervous, Domina? You know what to expect. It’s not your first wedding after all!”
The other slaves gasped at the nursemaid’s familiarity. After all, no one was supposed to tease the emperor’s daughter. In fact, none of them were permitted to meet her eyes–not since the emperor had declared his family divine, and his daughter a living goddess. Julia was sacrosanct, and none of the slaves dared to come close to her without trembling.
It was different for her nursemaid, who had known Julia when she was still just a mortal girl. A mortal girl with an open heart who had the foolish notion that she’d never be touched by anything but love. Of course, all girls are born to be disillusioned, Julia thought.
This was her third marriage and she did know what to expect. She’d been passed from one marriage bed to the next whenever her father decided to show his favor to a new man of Rome. The man who would become her new husband was not a good man, but even if he were, she couldn’t give him her heart. And even if she could, it would make no difference. This marriage would be a political union. Nothing more.
As the slaves undressed her, peeling away the smothering stola that propriety required Julia to wear, she could see that her arms had broken out in a rash. She hadn’t dared speak one word against her father’s plans, but the evidence of her broken heart revealed itself in red and irritated skin.
“Oh, Domina,” one slave whispered. “Your goddess skin is too delicate for wool.”
Julia’s laugh caught in her throat, a hysterical sound that wasn’t entirely sane. If she were a goddess, she would choose her own consort. She would have power over her own body. She would have reverence for herself, and not just the hollow worship of frightened slaves or plebs who had seen no more than a glimpse of her when her litter passed them on the street.
Julia was well-aware that she was not a goddess and maybe if she swallowed the poison secreted by her pillow tonight, all of Rome would know it too. “Leave me,” she said, running her fingers over the flame-colored veil draped over the bench near her wedding gown. “Leave me!”
The slaves scattered, bare feet slapping the mosaic floors as they scurried to obey. For a moment, she thought she was alone. But then she thought she heard someone’s breath catch behind her and turned to berate whatever hapless slave had returned.
That’s when she saw him. Antonius. She wanted to breathe his name, but her throat had swollen shut. It was foolish of him to come here. Impulsive and irresponsible. Even if he hadn’t been the son of her father’s old enemy, if Antonius was caught in her baths, she’d be shamed and he’d be executed.
Still, her heart leapt at his recklessness. Shame. Risk. Taboo. Jeopardy. These were the special aphrodisiacs that tightened her stomach and made her tremble. “You shouldn’t be here,” Julia whispered, her arms crossing over her bare breasts. He’d seen her body before, but it had been so long since they’d last made love that she now felt shy before him.
“Don’t cover yourself,” Antonius said, only partially shrouded in the silk curtains of the archway, his expression dark. “I can’t bear for you to play a shy maiden. Not today.”
She knew he was angry, and why shouldn’t he be? He’d waited so many years for her. He’d given her his heart over and over again, only to watch her wed other men. Today he’d have to do it again, and she couldn’t blame him for his bitterness. But this wasn’t her choice. It had never been her choice. “It’s my wedding day, Antonius. You need to go.”
“Do I?” He closed and bolted the door. He was armored and the steam of the bath gathered on his breastplate, Julia’s nakedness reflected in its misted sheen. Then he grabbed her by both arms. “No. I don’t need to go. That’s not what I need.”
She wasn’t startled by his rough hands. He’d never touched her with any undue reverence or fear. No, from the moment she’d admitted that she loved him, he’d behaved as if he had a right to her. And she’d always been desperately grateful for that.
“Antonius, it’s too dangerous for you to be here.”
He gave her his pirate’s smile, sardonic and perilous. “But you like danger, don’t you? At first you refuse, but then you end up begging me to do whatever it was that you refused me in the first place.”
Heat flamed at her cheeks as Julia remembered all the times it had happened exactly that way. As a girl, he used to lure her into the gardens and kiss her until she wilted at the knees like a plucked flower. But as she matured, her arousal for him was nothing so dainty. Now it was like a fever. Madness. And he knew it. “Don’t be so smug,” she said.
“You’d resent me if I wasn’t.”
Perhaps he was right. There was no place in her life for a humble man. But still, she must refuse him. “Today of all days, I can’t be with you…”
Antonius didn’t let her finish. Instead, he leaned forward to bite her neck, below her ear, where the skin was most tender. The chill of his armor against her bare skin made her feel like a ravished Gallic captive and she closed her eyes, wishing that were true. Better to be a savage girl, for then no one would deny that she belonged with him. He could carry her away and they could be together.
As a goddess, though, Julia could never have Antonius. He was a soldier and senator, but he could never be hers. Her father would always keep them apart. They could not even run away together, because there was no corner of the Empire far enough for them to run.
Now, as he kissed her, her heart thundered in her ears. Her blood pulsed through her limbs and she felt the familiar ache awaken between her legs. She wasn’t shaking with fear anymore. She was shaking with desire, and it was only for love of him that she managed to tear herself away. “Antonius, don’t you understand that they’ll kill you? One day, they’ll find out about us, and they’ll kill you.”
“This is already killing me.” He held her tightly and the pain was not the endless chafing of wool, but the intense animal need of intimacy. “Sneaking around the imperial palace like some malefactor just to find you alone. And now you’re going to say no to me?”
She stared into his eyes, realizing that something had snapped in him. He’d been there when the betrothal was announced, stone-faced and pretending to be indifferent. He’d played his part. But now he had the look of a man who might go mad if he couldn’t have her. And somehow, in spite of a bridal chamber being readied for her even now, she couldn’t deny him. Saying no to him was unthinkable.
She lifted her mouth and pressed it against his, luxuriating in the familiar taste. His lips were full and dry, his scent some sort of heady mixture of incense and oil. He was a big man, with a thick neck, and she had to stand on tiptoe to kiss him, so he lifted her up, fingers digging into her hips. Normally she loved the marks his hands left on her. She liked to trace them later. They let her know she was real, and not the marble busts that depicted her, cold and pristine. But now she warned, “You’ll leave bruises.”
Antonius expression turned furious and forlorn at once. “Good! Let your new husband see my fingerprints on you. Let the bastard know that there’s someone who touches you, takes you, and loves you.” It was dangerous nonsense and he must have known it, because he leaned forward and buried his face in her hair. “I hate this.”
Julia hated it too, but her feelings were irrelevant. According to her father, it was his duty and privilege to choose men for her. Antonius was the only man Julia had ever chosen for herself. And in her father’s eyes, he was the worst and most insulting choice she could have made. But could she have chosen any other? “If I don’t marry the men my father wants me to marry, he’ll have me banished to some little island and starve me to death.” In truth, it wasn’t death that Julia feared as much as to die at someone else’s command. At least with poison… “Is that what you’d prefer? If I can’t be your wife—”
“Then I’ll have you as my whore.”
Whore. She let that contemptuous word hang in the air, unchallenged for several moments. He must have said it to make her angry. As a type of foreplay, the first volley of his catapults, aimed to breech her walls. Normally she enjoyed their sparring—the intellectual and sexual combat. But she couldn’t help but be offended even if there were a certain base honesty to the word that was like the siren’s call of shame.
She tried to pull away from him. “I don’t like that word.”
He held her fast. “I should think you’d love it. There’s nothing about it that’s exalted or deified. Your father has you entombed and worshipped here in the imperial palace when all you secretly long for is to be defiled—”
“How dare you?”
“Everything about you is a dare,” he said, unstrapping his armor and setting it aside. “Being with you is the biggest gamble I could ever make with my life. But I dare. And so do you. So get in the bath.”
She didn’t know why she obeyed. Maybe it was because it was easier to obey him than to face the anger that roiled inside her. She stepped down into the pool, thrashing through the warm water that enveloped her with slippery sensuality. The freeing kiss of Neptune.
Antonius joined her and she realized that she’d never seen him naked before. They’d had only stolen moments; there had never been time for exploration and leisurely lovemaking. In fact, there wasn’t time now. Nonetheless, she traced the corded muscles of his frame and the battle scars too. Her fingers tested the raised slash on his chest. “This must have hurt badly.”
“It’s just a war wound,” he said.
None of the statues adorning her father’s palace had scars. Now those sculpted warriors seemed like pale imitations of courage as she explored his beloved skin. “Still, a little lower and it might have killed you.”
“I’ve already suffered two mortal wounds in my life, but they can’t be seen on my skin. Today I’m bracing for a third.”
So he was truly naked then, inside and out. “There’s nothing we can do to stop the wedding.”
“I don’t need to stop your wedding,” he replied, drawing Julia into his lap so that his chest was against her back and his callused hands cupped her breasts. “I only need to stop the marriage, and that happens in your heart.”
Beneath the water, she felt the ridge of his erection cradled in the valley just below her spine. She was already sure of what he wanted, and it made her moan. She knew what he was readying her for. It filled Julia with shame that he should want her this way. “No. Not this way again.”
“Yes. This way,” he murmured. “Like a boy. Like a catamite. It has to be this way so that you’ll feel like a common strumpet.”
His words were coarse, but after he said them, he kissed the back of her neck with exquisite tenderness. She should have hit him. She should have cried out for guards. But he was only telling the truth. The less reverently he treated her, the more she loved him.
He teased her nipples, drawing them into tight peaks beneath the rose-scented water, and as she felt her body being turned against her. “Why can’t I ever control myself with you?”
“Because you don’t ever have to control yourself with me,” he explained as he parted her cheeks to finger the puckered place he had always claimed as his own. “You don’t have to be proper with me. You don’t have to exemplify good Roman values or make a good impression. With me, you don’t have to be a good daughter. You don’t even have to be good, because in the end, I’ll make you into whatever you really want to be.”
Taut rosy nipples stood proudly at the tips of her wet jutting breasts as she asked, “And what do I want to be?”
“Today you want to be a mortal woman and you want to be mine. Today, you want to be whatever I want you to be. And today, I want you to be my whore.”
“Stop it,” she hissed as his right hand reached round to tease the downy curls of her sex so that whichever way she moved her hips, she couldn’t escape his hands. Trapped, Julia tried to escape the indignity by pumping her hips forward, and then let out a frustrated moan of pleasure as his finger pressed lightly against her swollen clitoris. His hands were the Scylla and Charybdis of her carnal need and it made her pulse, made her throb, until she no longer cared which way he took her, as long as he did.
He laughed lightly in her ear, as if amused with her struggle.
“Your groom is expecting a chilly bride who is still underneath him for duty’s sake. But when he climbs on top of you, I want him to find a wanton slut.”
His voice was hoarse and she could feel the pain of his jealousy as if it were her own. “I wouldn’t betray you like that.”
“Julia, you’ll betray me if you don’t. This is the only thing I have left, the only power I have to save you from this travesty.”
With that, he nudged the swollen head of his erection against her. The water was not lubricant enough as he pushed into her tightest passage. The sensation was searing and sudden, causing her to thrash in the water and cry out in pain. Antonius clamped one hand over her mouth to stop her screams while he used the other to masturbate her pain away.
Yes, that was the right way to think about what he did. The way his fingers moved, without preamble or pretense, intensifying the pleasure with inexorable focus. It made her feel so alive. So real. It made her feel of consequence in her own body, and the arousal raced up her skin until she cried out again with the sweetness of it.
“Hush,” Antonius whispered, whilst his cock twitched inside her. “You’re so sexy. Goddess of Rome but mistress of mine…”
She groaned, feeling pinned, trapped, and owned by someone who cared for her. Not possessed because of her bloodline, or some law or ancient rite. But because she’d given herself to him. Any cage in which Antonius held her captive was one of her own creation.
“Will you say what I want to hear?” Antonius murmured, taking his hand from her mouth to caress her cheek instead. He had her against the edge of the pool, the wiry hairs of his chest rubbing up and down her back as he filled her. Beneath her feet in the water she knew the tiles depicted Neptune and the surrender of his bride, and Julia could feel the cresting waves within her own body. She shuddered, on the edge of the abyss. She was afraid she would explode right then, but if she did, it would hurt that much more for him to finish. And she knew he wouldn’t stop until he was done.
“You can talk like a trollop with me,” he said. “You spend all your life holding everything in. Now I want to hear the filthy words you swallow.”
“Harder,” Julia finally whispered. “Fuck me harder.”
“Good girl,” he said, pushing deep.
It burned. It tingled. It was perfect.
Until he ruined it. “Imagine how it will be tonight when the groom lifts your veil and you ask him for a gift. A ring. A bauble. He’ll think you’re being quaint or spoilt, but you’ll know you’re asking for payment. To turn him from a husband into a customer.”
She didn’t want to climax like this, while he was saying these things to her. “Stop it. Stop making this ugly!”
“There’s never been anything ugly between us.” He stopped thrusting into her and grew very still and serious, tilting her head to the side so that he could stroke her throat and kiss her mouth. “I’m only saying these things because either I do this, or fall on my sword in disgrace for letting this happen to you again.”
“I don’t understand.”
He took a deep breath, his mouth close to her ear, his voice tortured. “If you don’t corrupt this marriage, it will corrupt you. It’ll destroy you. You can change that. You just need to cheapen your groom’s desire for you. You need to profane what is sacred to him, to your father, to Rome. It’s the only way to hold on to what’s sacred to you. To us.”
He meant it. And those words somehow turned Julia’s world upside-down. In her father’s world, her love for Antonius was a scandal, something over which she should feel shame, whereas the desecration of her body by means of political trade was supposed to be wholesome and virtuous.
If they caught her with Antonius here and now, they would say she was betraying her husband and playing Antonius’ whore, when really, the reverse was true. What happened with Antonius was sacred. Every stolen moment, every line they had crossed, it had all affirmed that she had some identity of her own. That a man might not only want her, but that she might want him too.
“How much will you let me pay you?” Antonius asked.
Beautiful shame. It was such a sweet pain, but the pleasure of it was overwhelming. And it was such a careful edge. Too far to one side and the pain of embarrassment would overwhelm the pleasure. “I’m nobody’s whore, Antonius,” she said hotly, though in truth, she had long wondered.
“You’re mine. Do you want me to prove it to you?”
“All I want is for you to stop likening me to a prostitute.”
“And all I want is for you to harden your heart against that word, against that idea. Let me say it to you in love, so that no one can ever wield it against you as a weapon. Let me treat you this way and turn it to pleasure, so that no one can ever turn it to pain. I don’t know how else to protect you.”
None of it made sense. “Stop talking. Please…just touch me. I was so close.”
“Maybe it’s better that you save it for your groom.” With that, he pulled himself out of her, leaving a gaping, burning absence behind. “I should send you to him shivering, needy, and desperate.”
Arousal and fury swirled dangerously inside her. He had never done it before—never stopped in the midst of the act, never finished until he was well and truly done. “You’re denying us both pleasure for my new husband’s sake?”
“No. I’m denying you pleasure. I’m going to bathe, then I’m going to bathe you, then I’m going to take you on your wedding gown.”
“On my wedding gown?” Julia sputtered as she pulled away and turned to face him.
“Yes. On your wedding gown. On your back with your legs spread wide. I’m going to spend myself inside of you, but you’re not going to enjoy it unless you take coins from me.”
This time she did try to hit him, her fists flying towards his face. He caught her by both arms, crushing her against his chest. Touch transcending reason, transcending skin. Julia was lost. “Why are you doing this to me?”
He looked pained. “Why isn’t it obvious to you? I want you to use him for pleasure as he thinks he’s using you. Make him just one more customer and not a husband at all. Then come back to me whole. As long as you’re my whore, you’re my bride!”
Julia could see that her lover was in so much pain that he’d finally gone mad. All his desperation had jumbled itself into this insane plea. “Julia, let me pay you and finish you on your wedding dress.”
Her heart ached and tears slipped down her cheeks. She didn’t understand him, but maybe she didn’t need to. She loved him, and frustrated arousal spread through her arms, her legs, and her quivering belly. She could not have refused him if all her father’s legions were watching. She gave a single nod of assent. It was a crushing surrender.
Eschewing the scraper for her skin, he sponged her thoroughly, then lifted her from the water and dried her as if she were a small child. Then he took three coins from his pouch and put them in her hand. She didn’t count them. She didn’t need to. There was something heated that leapt inside her at feeling the edges of those coins. In doing this to her, Antonius was stripping away every layer, and she began to wonder if maybe dignity was just one more layer of clothing with which she was being smothered.
“My pretty little whore,” he said gently, putting her down on the bench on her back, her wedding garments beneath them. It was disrespectful and Julia didn’t care. It was symbolic of the risk they were taking, and the luck they were pressing. Those weren’t her wedding garments after all, were they? They belonged to her father and to the man she was being forced to marry.
She was so wet; she could smell her arousal in the air. Antonius put her legs over his shoulders then entered her with one smooth stroke. It was the place that ached to be filled, and it was such a relief to feel him inside her. Her fingers dug into the hollows of his back and he battered against her body with the experience and simplicity of a soldier at war.
She worried that a passing slave would overhear her moans. In fact, her body trembled with the power of an earthquake, so it was inconceivable to her that the world didn’t shake along with her. She and Antonius would be caught, she thought, but it would be better to die with this memory than with only the taste of poison on her tongue.
With coins clenched in one fist, she responded like the vanquished, vanquishing. He seemed overwhelmed by her surrender, and it made him silent as he worked over her. The taste of his salty sweat was in her mouth, or maybe they were tears. He was worshipping her in the only way she ever wanted to be worshipped.
Julia wasn’t sure she could hold anything back. Beneath their frantic motions, the wedding gown rumpled and twisted like her insides, and the pleasure of it made Julia sob. This seemed to melt his heart, and he kissed her, teeth grazing her lower lip. “Tonight, with your groom, will you offer to take him in your mouth like a harlot? Promise me that you will.”
“Yes, Please, anything,” she babbled.
“Will you beg him for more knowing that I’m giving you to him. Knowing that as long as you love me, no matter who is inside you, it’s me doing it to you? Always me? Swear it to me.”
Only now did she truly understand. He was constructing inside her a barrier that no one could breach. Oh, her new husband might touch her skin, but he would never get beneath it.
Antonius was armoring her like Pallas Athena. Never again would any man be able to hurt her, or shame her, or make her tremble or turn her skin to rash. As long as she was selling herself not even her father could ever make her feel less than a woman with a beating heart and sensual needs.
It was his gift to her. Antonius was setting her free. Saving her from the poison. The joy of it, the abandon of it, almost made her laugh. But she knew it was a serious moment. “I give you my vow.”
“And I give you mine,” Antonius said, touching his forehead to hers. “Come for me…”
It didn’t take more than his permission. Dots speckled beneath her eyelids as she was drowned in orgasm and Antonius flooded her secret places, like Neptune’s tide.
Afterwards, he dressed her tenderly, and she was overtaken by a sense of calm. He made sure that the plaits in her hair were appropriately styled and that the flame-colored veil was properly arranged for the wedding.
But his sense of command was undone in those parting moments. Where he had spent the morning dismantling her, now he was the unsteady. On one knee, he lowered his head. “Forgive me. I would like to say it was all love play but…”
He was in need of her comfort, and strangely, she felt the power within herself to give it. She stroked his cheek with steady hands. “It was deadly earnest, as was my vow. I have been a daughter. I have been a wife. I have been a goddess. But today I vowed to be your whore, and it’s the most honorable position I’ve ever accepted.”
“And I will honor you for it, all your life,” he said.
It was Antonius who trembled as he lifted the veil to kiss her, then his lips made sweet promises against hers. Before letting her go, he curled his fingers around the coins in her hand, and earnestly pronounced that she was the most beautiful, most dutiful, and most virtuous bride that Rome had ever known.