The Witness

Cara Lawrence drained the last of the martini and slid the shiny stemware away from her. A little world to itself, the elegant glass on its clean white napkin. A little white square with a world on it. She wanted to go there.

The muscles in her neck relaxed. God, she needed this. She’d chewed the inside of her cheek raw, driving mile after mile across land colored in faded shades of brown, tan, gray. Scraps of bleached vegetation. Peaceful in a desolate way. Like her.

At some point, she had redirected the air conditioner vent away from her face and slipped into a reverie. She could be anywhere in any time. Not much traffic on the highway. Cactus dotted the landscape. Finally, as late afternoon started to quench the outside glare, she’d been able to smile.

Now, not so much. Much as she needed her senses on full alert, she also needed a break. She sighed, not carried away, not in a different world. That man lurked in the back of her mind, dark and threatening. Looking at her intently as if he could read her mind. She wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts. He knew.

Not many people remained in the dim hotel bar, but it felt good to be tucked into this corner booth at the back of the room. Everything about the place comforted her, the scent of leather upholstery, the clatter of glassware, the faint drone of the television above the bar blending with distant voices, the bartender, a couple of nearby people talking. Facing the door, she could see anyone who came in. Not that he would come in. She was seven hundred miles away in another state. There was no way he could have followed her here.

But she felt like he had. That feeling crawled up the back of her neck like he was watching, waiting. For what? Why did it matter what she knew? Wouldn’t he fare better leaving her alone no matter what heinous act he committed?

A short laugh rolled up her chest. Fucking ridiculous, Cara. What the hell is wrong with you? She’d never been this paranoid. All this terror built on the flimsiest of evidence, a few minutes of unexplained noise, a brief encounter…so what? He’d been polite, said he was sorry, left her alone. A killer wouldn’t have done that. Would he?

She hadn’t seen anything anyway, not really. She saw him go in, heard a loud noise like gunfire. Maybe it wasn’t gunfire. Maybe the sound didn’t come from where he went. Maybe he just went in and came back out. Maybe leaving the door open didn’t mean anything. She drained her glass, satisfied that between the hearty chicken-fried steak dinner and a couple of strong cocktails, she’d have a good night’s sleep.

Okay, most of the dinner had stayed on her plate.

She wanted to sleep, a deep restful sleep with no restless half-awake time lying there, listening, waiting. Resisting the urge to have a third drink, she slid out of the booth, dropped a generous tip on the table, and walked across the room. Her legs hadn’t recovered from being in the car all day. And the day before. Walking felt good. A long walk in the twilight would feel fabulous.

No. He might have followed her. She had been his only witness. He would want her gone.

Cara got to her floor gripping her door card. If she had a Xanax, she’d take it now. She kept seeing the guy’s eyes, pale gray in a weathered face. A face that had seen a lot. And that scar. How many regular guys had a scar on their cheek?

How much of this was being off balance from the breakup with Travis?

A cluster of young men stood at the ice machine, talking and joking.

“I need your help,” she said impulsively, aware of the absurdity of what she was about to say. “Someone is following me,” she continued, thankful the young men looked at her with concern. “I’m afraid to go to my room,” she continued. “Would you help me get my bags, maybe let me sleep on your couch?”

The young men glanced at each other, all of them tall and athletic. Surely they’d defend her, if it came down to it.

Had she gone mad?

“Sure, lady,” one of them said. “Charter,” he said, straightening his shoulders and sticking out his hand, his valor ready. “Besom, Hank, Jason,” he said, waving his hand at the others.

“Charter, nice to meet you. I’m Cara.” Maybe she was drunker than she knew. What did they think about this, really? What the hell was she doing?

It was a brilliant plan, she decided as they closed her room door and walked with her to their suite. A rugby team. That explained it. Did it mean anything to her that their bodies radiated youthful male exuberance? Maybe she would give herself to them, yield up her flesh to their exploitation for however many hours they would have her.

What if she offered and they declined? After Travis, could she endure another rejection? Oh hell yes, this would be exactly what she needed to get Travis out of her mind forever. Travis hardly mattered now that she had a murderer on her trail.

What was she thinking? First she was thinking a murderer was on her heels and now she was imagining sex with a sports team. She shook her head. Did therapists have nervous breakdowns?

Maybe first thing tomorrow she’d look up a local therapist and try to get a session. Stay here long enough to get her head on straight. This whole thing with Travis had wrecked her equilibrium. Everything had been tossed in the air, years of shared goals, combined assets, promises about the rest of their lives.

She’d been a damn fool. And then she had to go and witness a murder. Or not.

Charter and the other boys jostled each other, joking back and forth as they walked down the hallway. She couldn’t believe she had invited herself to sleep on their couch. Or especially that she contemplated having sex with them. They probably had their pick of countless females younger and more attractive. What could they possibly gain from sex with a freaked out thirty-something woman clearly in diminishing grasp of her sanity?

Well, of course, they didn’t know that. The most obvious point was that they probably hadn’t thought about sex with her at all. They were upstanding young men, dedicated to their sport and their team, doing a favor for a stranger. She straightened as she hurried along behind them.

No one could say, actually, that she was losing it. Everything she thought could be true. She was intelligent and intuitive. There was something about that guy. He knew she knew what he’d done.

“Our team has six suites down this hallway,” Charter said. “So if we piss you off, you can check in with some of the other guys.” He grinned and the corners of his green eyes crinkled. His hand ran through short hair as he closed the door behind her. The room smelled of men, slightly sweaty, spicy. The television blared and she wondered if she would get any sleep at all.

“We’ll turn in pretty soon,” he said, as if reading her mind. “Game tomorrow, so no late crazy stuff.” He leaned slightly closer. “Tomorrow night, that’s when things will get wild. You’re welcome to stay around, if you want.”

He paused, his eyes searching. Oh, my god. He had thought about it. Her breath caught. She knew what he wanted to know.  Hell, she wanted to know too. How do you tell someone about a fear formed on so little basis? How do you explain something that makes no sense? She leaned up and brushed a soft kiss across his startled lips.

“Thanks, Charter. You can’t possibly know how much I appreciate you taking me in. Thank you.”

She watched him react, a slight blush, the inevitable thought of whether she wanted him, what he should do, if anything, in response. So young, so beautiful with his lean muscular body, perfect in so many ways. Her fingertips longed to smooth over his tanned skin. His scent filled her nose. If they had been alone, if she wasn’t on the run …

She stopped herself. Was she on the run? From what her marriage had become, from Travis and his selfish ways, yes, most assuredly. From the crazy incident this morning, something that even now at the brief memory, gooseflesh ran down her arms? Yes, that too.

But she was running toward something, too. A new life. On her terms.

She shook her head and gave him a thin smile. “Sorry, don’t mean to intrude. I’m just feeling worn out. It’s so good to feel safe. I’ll take the couch and get out of your way.”

He watched her with the eyes of an older man. Maybe that meant he felt desire. She had no energy to speculate. The day and the alcohol swept over her like a leaden blanket, and all she wanted, now, finally as she dropped her shoes, snugged her cheek against the pillow, and stretched her feet to the armrest at the far end of the couch, was to disappear into oblivion.

Sometime in the night a disturbance roused her. Light from the parking lot rimmed the heavy curtains and illuminated the room. Snoring, a cough. Someone moving around. Her head fell back onto the pillow. Probably someone going to the bathroom. She waited to hear the flush to know the coast was clear for her own trip to the toilet.

Sleeping forms reassured her as she returned to the couch, glass of water in hand. If her circumstances hadn’t been so completely bizarre, she would have been amused, even pleased, to be sleeping amid a room full of young men.

How long had it been since she felt the pleasure of men, their predictable ways with food, rest, entertainment. Simple and yet exquisitely complex, each one of them a world of contradictions and needs that would probably never be fully met. And yet so irresistible, sweet and funny and tender in so many ways. Nothing like Travis with his demands.

The pillow sweated her head and she couldn’t get comfortable. Alcohol did this, gave her that early crushing slide into sleep then later kept her awake. She lay on her back, forearm over her forehead as she wondered if the man in the truck had lost all his charming male attributes. What if anything did he still have in common with these young men? Not that she knew, really, anything about these young men. She turned to her side, pulling at her rumpled clothes.

She wanted to take off her clothes and lie naked on the soft upholstery, receive Charter and the rest one after another until their semen filled her like a warm flood. Let them kneel at the altar of her body, lavish her with their mouths and hands, spear into her with their hot cornucopias. They would fill her up and all her lines would vanish, her empty places, her loneliness and fear. There would be no place left untouched, no shadow not illuminated. Whispering, groaning, they would yield their youth and plenty to her age and hunger until she had been restored, reborn, resurrected.

“Cara.”

She felt his hand on her foot. Charter. His weight dented the couch where he sat by her knees. His hand ran up her leg.

“Yes.” Her voice barely penetrated the thick silence. His breathing told her everything — shallow, fast. Her legs eased apart, welcoming his hand to her thighs as he eased his way upward.

She sat up and pulled her shirt over her head. The bra fell to the floor, exposing her breasts to the cool air. Her nipples shriveled to hard knots, more from the certain knowledge that he would touch her than from the air conditioning. She lifted her hips to let him remove her skirt and panties then lay in blissful quietude as his hands explored her.

He wore nothing but a towel, she realized, now that her eyes had taken a cat’s sight in the dark. He leaned over her, his torso rippling with honed muscle, his thighs parted. She slid her hand onto his thigh where fine hair bristled her palm. Tense, hardened, his body arched over her.

“I want you,” he muttered, bringing his lips to her mouth. “Can we do this?”

“Yes.”

His mouth grazed over hers, his tongue explored gently. His hands brushed her breasts, her belly. Asked permission, discovered, got his bearings. How many young girls had felt his touch? She smiled into his kiss.

He drove himself into her, plunging in short hard lunges like a coiled spring, like iron, like a lion stalking and running and leaping on its prey. His mouth on her neck, biting. His back bowed, his hips tucked. Her fingertips brushed over the soft skin of his taut buttocks. Tears of relief burned her eyelids.

She swallowed her shouts, her screams, her groans of pleasure. Short gasping huffs escaped her in the last seconds as his motions peaked, his heat burning into her with long trembling ejaculations. Maybe the sounds were as much his as hers, their muted voices as mingled as their bodies.

As much as if she heard his words, she knew his thoughts. They echoed her own, whether they had done the right thing, whether the other person was satisfied, what to say or do now that it had happened.

None of that matters, she said back silently. We did what we did. It was good and that’s what counts.

He returned to his bed. She dressed in silence then lay quietly, waiting for dawn. It’s my life now, she thought, smiling into the dark.

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Rainy Morning

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Rain spattered on the rock walkway around the outside garden. Rose turned in the bed, lifting her face to the narrow window opening to inhale the scent of wet grass. Misty gray dawn. She smiled.

With the covers tucked over her shoulder, she snuggled against the pillow. In another time, Jameson would have been behind her in the bed, awakening to her stirring. His big hand would settle on her waist, warm and reassuring. He would cuddle up behind her, bringing his hot silken skin against her back, her buttocks, and inevitably, his morning wood would press between her thighs.

Jameson. The one man she had loved without limit, without reason. She could see him now, suntanned, his chest wide as he stood with his fists on his hips wearing nothing but cutoffs and a straw cowboy hat that shadowed his face and its rugged features. His blue eyes penetrating the brim’s shadow in a heated gaze that spoke of his love, his promise.

His hand would slide up her side, inexorable as it traveled toward her breast. Already her nipples would have peaked, anticipating. The grip of his rough hand spoke of ownership but also affection, belonging, shared memories and a future yet to unfold. As he pressed her nipple between his thumb and forefinger, the gentle prod of his cock spoke of its need to find its natural home.

Rose turned, resting on her back to stare at the ceiling. Rain continued its drone on the roof, on the rock walk. Just yesterday the narcissus had bloomed, pale yellow blossoms releasing intoxicating scent. Over the last week, the yard had erupted in vibrant green. Dogwood and redbud dotted the woodland with their blossoms. Another spring.

Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes as memories of prior springs flashed like a slideshow in her mind. Jameson walking naked across the yard, grinning ear to ear as she ran then let herself get caught. Jameson sitting beside her on the porch in fragile sunlight, not yet hot, not yet summer. But not winter. Not cold.

Jameson, the father of her children. Jameson, the only man who brought her repeatedly to the pinnacle of pleasure. Jameson, the man who shared her dream of life.

She’d always love Jameson.

Twenty years since she sent him away. Twenty years living alone, remembering, wondering. How could it have been different? How could she have helped him reach inside himself to gain the strength he needed? How could she have changed, somehow, to accept his anger, his disease, in a way that didn’t destroy her?

There was no going back to a time when she might have taken a different path. When the dark side of Jameson would have told her to run and never look back. By the time the realization came to her, it was nineteen years on with three children and lives so intertwined that separation inevitably tore parts off of everyone.

Rose threw back the covers and stood up, shivering in the rainy morning air. Outside, fog had crept into the woodland, strangely luminous in the reflection of green from the nascent grasses.

Another spring. Another morning. Alone.

Jameson could never again be part of her life, but she could still admit she loved him. Nostalgia could sweep her away, make her sad about what no longer existed. Nostalgia crowded out the ugly truth, that Jameson hardly ever woke to touch her or murmur words of love. He bolted out of bed already angry—at the crying child who woke him, at the rooster crowing outside, at a job he hated.

That was the real Jameson. Young, eager to make her dreams come true, she had seen what she wanted to see, what she needed to see. As long as she could cling to her fantasy, she could avoid the truth and ignore the inexorable drip of poison slowly eroding her ability to live one more day with a man who hated himself.

Rose turned on the shower and waited for the water to steam warmth into the small bathroom. This was her life now, not a fantasy. Not misty memories that mostly weren’t true. She stared in the mirror. Aging, yes, no youthful beauty there. But strong, an experienced, determined woman. Weathered by storm, by life, by Jameson. But not beaten.

She grabbed the shower door and stepped into the hot spray. Behind her, Jameson waited.

The Escape

escape-cover-smallSometimes when I write a story, it keeps on living after I quit. I consider that a success as far as writing goes, but it can become quite the nag. After nearly two years, the nagging that surfaced after I finished writing “The Captive” became deafening. So I’ve written a second installment, “The Escape,” in what seems destined to become an even lengthier tale.

“The Captive” is a short story set in the late 9th century England when the Saxons and Danes were fighting over control of the land. Seeking a brief time of secret pleasure with a captured Danish warrior, Elspeth Lady of Hystead hides away in a remote cabin on her estate and has the man delivered to her. Her aging invalid husband will be none the wiser. Yet an unexpected problem arises and it has nothing to do with her husband. It has to do with this stunning man standing before her, tied and injured, his long blond hair partially hiding the disdain in his intense stare. This was not what she expected.captive-new-cover-small

Not at all.

Book 2, “The Escape,” is a novelette, available at your favorite bookseller.

Buy links for “The Captive” — Amazon, Smashwords

Buy links for “The Escape” — Amazon, Smashwords

Jarrod’s Valentine

manin suitA new short story starring Jarrod Bancroft

 

Macie’s face reflected the subdued outdoor light that filtered in through the restaurant window. Ignoring the clench in his chest, Jarrod studied her from across the noisy room. She looked like a work of art, the planes and lines of her face cast in shadow, her delicate skin framed by luxurious lengths of dark hair. One of those exquisite images painted by some long-dead artist where the woman’s pensive expression signaled vague internal conflict. His impulse was to rush over to the table, take her hands, and slip to his knees to ask what he could do to brighten her day. His mouth twisted and he turned back to his newspaper.

Whatever appetites Macie Fitzgerald provoked, today the situation at Bancroft Investments demanded his full attention. The stock report only reiterated what he already knew—their standing had slipped again. Somehow rumors had leaked. It was a matter of time before this blew wide open.

He quietly folded the paper, signaled the waiter and paid his check before slipping out the side door. Much as he wanted Macie right now, the ugly responsibilities in his real life could not wait.

The door to his dad’s office was slightly ajar. His father stood at the windows in the far corner, his back turned as he stared out into the city. The older man’s shoulders triggered Jarrod’s memory, all the times those same shoulders had loomed over him, an impenetrable wall of dark against dim light. An immovable object. Jarrod swallowed an ugly taste in his mouth. And it had nothing to do with his lunch.

So the bastard already knew.

“Took your time,” the old man said. He didn’t bother to turn. “You’ve never appreciated the value of a full day’s work.”

“Fuck you, Preston,” Jarrod said. He slipped off his overcoat and dropped it on the chair. He stood beside the desk and folded his arms, facing his father’s back.

“What do you plan to do?” Preston said. “Are you riding your white horse, ready to save the world?”

“Anything to sidestep the facts,” Jarrod said. “That’s been your strategy all along. I remember my first weeks here, when I went through the files for that mutual fund and asked you, and you shifted blame to Evers. Always somebody else’s fault. Always something I made up or misinterpreted.”

“So you’re going to bring the house down around our ears, is that the plan?”

“You assigned me the dirty work thinking I wouldn’t put it together.” Jarrod spun the desk chair around and gripped the thick leather back. “I’ve dug all the way down. I’m not buying any more of your bullshit.”

Preston whirled to face him. The flesh around his nose had turned white. “Whine, you little fuck. You have no idea. I’ve worked my ass off, dedicated my life to giving you and your mother the very best. I don’t answer to you.”

Jarrod swallowed his rage, sinking his fingers into the chair upholstery to keep from planting a fist in that smug face. The man might be a despicable cheat, but he was his father. “You’ll answer to the prosecutor. Evers won’t take this sitting down.”

“Evers is as big a baby as you are. Suck it up, boy. This is how things get done.”

Jarrod closed his eyes then slammed out of the room. Nothing he could say would change Preston Bancroft. Why had it taken him twenty-eight years to accept that fact? \

Odd how familiar this all felt. As if he’d seen it in a dream. As if he’d wished it a thousand times and only now realized it. He strode to his office and slid open his desk drawers looking for anything that might hold value, but after a few minutes, he grabbed his overcoat and stalked out.

~~~

Jarrod had no idea how long he’d walked. Traffic had thinned slightly but people still crowded the sidewalks. Snow whirled down from a pale gray sky obscuring the tops of the taller buildings. Even jammed deep into his overcoat pockets, his hands felt like chunks of ice. Kind of like his stomach.

What if his father was right? Jarrod released his breath between pursed lips. Did the world of corporate finance require this kind of deception and manipulation? Law school hadn’t prepared him for this. Would he look back in twenty years and realize he’d been hopelessly naïve?

Maybe he would. But right now, this day, he had to sit down and think about his options. Carefully. With whiskey.

He shook his head as the image of Macie formed in his mind. Macie in her boots and corset standing over him, her gorgeous breasts bulging at the neckline, her green eyes flashing as she demanded his complete obedience. He longed for the dungeon, the reassurance of bonds strapped firmly on his wrists and ankles, the blessing of a lash stinging his back and buttocks. He wanted to crawl to Macie’s feet and never leave, live by her command.

He snorted in disgust. What would Preston say if he had any idea about his role with Macie and her Academy? Jarrod couldn’t even imagine. He’d gone for the training to satisfy a long-held secret desire, the overwhelming need to explore an aspect of himself that he’d always managed to suppress. What he’d found there shocked him, even now. Every day of his enthusiastic submission to pain and discipline shocked him.

But he loved it. Craved it. Felt blissfully happy in ways he’d never imagined.

And finding Mrs. Fitzgerald? Macie Fucking Fitzgerald? How many restless nights in high school had he imagined touching her? How many history classes had he watched her walk across the front of the room, write on the chalkboard, pierce him with her intense gaze while he hunched over in his desk trying to hide his erection?

He’d been a boy then, but he wasn’t a boy now. The discovery that the harsh mistress overseeing his training at the Academy had been the same woman who opened his mind to the triumphs and foibles of human endeavor had left him without defenses. It wasn’t just her beauty or her unflinching skill at domination that awed him. It was the depth of her understanding of human nature.

Even more intriguing was the mystery in her that broke to the surface in unexpected moments. When she was vulnerable. When they had reached the point of exhaustion and satiety and she curled in his arms.

Jarrod stopped, staring blindly into a store window where a display of Valentine hearts and cavorting cupids barely penetrated his consciousness. A tall man with dark hair and a worried expression stared back at him. Fucking Valentine’s Day.

His arms felt empty without her. In the dark eyes gazing back at him in the glass, he saw the truth of what he really wanted from her.

Forever.

He wanted forever.

Backyard barbeques. Dogs. Long rainy evenings snuggled on the couch together. Walks along the beach. Macie watching him undress, opening her arms to his embrace. Her lips curved in that entrancing smile.

Jarrod shoved the heavy glass door open and stopped at the counter. The air smelled of warm chocolate, sugar, and a hint of cinnamon. Stuffed animals, shiny heart-shaped balloons, and confections of every shape and flavor crowded the surrounding tables. What the hell was he doing?

Would Macie take offense at a display of affection? He couldn’t exactly break out of a slave’s expected behavior and vow eternal love. He was acting on impulse. She might reject him entirely. He glanced up at the woman standing on the other side of the counter,

“Something small,” he said. “Friendly but not too much.”

She studied him, her carefully sculpted eyebrows knitted in a frown. “Chocolate?”

“Definitely chocolate,” he said.

The clerk’s thin shoulders jutted against her draped red sweater as she lifted a small heart toward him. The cellophane wrap rustled as she placed it on the glass countertop. “Top of the line chocolate truffles,” she said. “We also have creams or assorted bonbons in this size. What does she like?”

Jarrod paused, staring at the glistening red package. He had no idea what she liked. Maybe he was way off track with this idea. She’d never given him a gift. At her invitation after Academy graduation, he’d moved into her townhouse as her slave. It was a vacation from reality and the most fulfilling experience he’d ever known. A strict protocol ruled his activity there. Each day when he walked away from Bancroft Investments and the world of business, his existence narrowed down to Macie. He took off his real world life at the same time he took off his clothes. What she wanted, what she demanded. Macie in control.

But despite her assured control, he suddenly realized he’d always sensed an opening. His face heated as he remembered his brash act the night of Academy graduation. He’d taken her. The need she’d teased along for six weeks boiled to the surface and he barely been able to ask permission before throwing her back on the bed. She acted as though she expected it, as if she’d been waiting for him.

What the hell could he assume from that?

Even in high school, some part of him understood that he had the power to take her. At that point, he had no clue how to use that power on a woman ten years older. With the many females he’d bedded over the years, his actions had seemed like play. He toyed with women, watched them from a distance, predicted what they’d do or say. Teased them along. All of it bored him.

A few times since then, even as Macie’s slave, he’d pushed the boundaries.  Much as he loved pleasing her, he also loved the undercurrent of as-yet-unfulfilled promises they both knew but never discussed. That he would, someday, pin her against the wall and rip off her clothes one piece at a time. Hold her hostage at the end of his cock. Watch her nipples tighten under his gaze until they protruded like chocolate candies waiting for his mouth.

“The creams,” he said, jerking out of his reverie. His cock had stiffened. “Assorted creams.”

With the package caught under his arm, he stopped to wait for a light surrounded by a dozen other pedestrians bundled against the cold. Traffic snarls backed up to the next block, a typical Friday afternoon. Only it didn’t feel typical. It felt charged, like the ground could erupt any moment, like a tsunami rolled toward him.

He pictured her townhouse, the fireplace, the look in her eyes when he would start unbuttoning her blouse. How her skin would glow in the firelight as he leaned over her. How her dark hair would pool against the rug. How she would taste. The sound of her voice protesting.  How he would hold her wrists and make her gasp.

“Taxi!” he called, stepping to the curb. Yeah, the ground could erupt. To hell with Preston Bancroft and his criminal enterprise. To hell with doubt and protocol and silly rules meant to be broken. He knew what he wanted. He was taking it.

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Read the full incredible story of Jarrod Bancroft. On sale half price on Feb 14 ONLY. Your Valentine from me! Enjoy!

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New Year, New Start

hot news Jan 16

And a new chance to win a fabulous Surprise Gift Box including my latest novel, Caerwin and the Roman DogSecond place wins a paperback copy of the novel.

How to enter —

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Entries close January 9. Winners chosen by random drawing and will be announced January 11. The contest is solely my responsibility.

Yule Season in Roman Camp

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This short story spins off the novel Caerwin and the Roman Dog. Set in 47 AD Britannia as the Roman army advances across the land, the novel centers on the Briton captive Caerwin and the legion commander Marcellus. The main character for this short story is Senna, attendant to her mistress Caerwin, as she prepares for the midwinter Saturnalia celebration.

~~~

Clutching her long cape tight against the stiff wind, Senna watched Tutonius and Blasius wrestle the dressed hog onto the long spit. Two other kitchen helpers joined in lifting the heavy carcass onto the iron frame. In minutes, fat began to drip onto the glowing coal bed set deep in a trench near the outdoor ovens.

pig“Spin it slow, Andreas,” Tutonius said, turning back toward the Praetorium. “And keep an eye on the coals. I have enough to do without coming out here to check on you.”

Senna hurried to keep up with him as he left the fire pit to stride across the grounds. In the kitchen, they huddled by the big ovens to warm up. Wind gusted against the shutters, sending a blast of smoke into the room.

Already the day filled her with fear and she wished for its end. She’d seen enough of military life to know that the normal traditions of Saturnalia would not be observed here. The masters would not serve the slaves and the revelry would be mostly enjoyed by the commanders, especially the visiting governor Scapula. To do otherwise would risk camp discipline. Her nerves prickled.

“What can I do to help you?” she said, gazing anxiously at Tutonius. “Between Marcellus’ demands and Caerwin’s resistance, I have little time.”

Tutonius sent her a dark glance. “I’ve never faced Saturnalia in such circumstances,” he said. “Not enough to have such little warning, but to feed the governor and his retinue—Marcellus expects the very best.  Shall I be lashed if the meal falls short?”

“Demand more help,” she said. “If he cares so much to please Scapula, surely he will send however many men you require.”

“And what shall I do with legionaries who know nothing about preparing food? I’ve called in the experienced cooks from each of the cohorts, and they’ve already made a mess of the sweets. They know nothing but cooking beans and the coarsest of breads.”

“It can’t be that bad,” she said, biting her lip to keep from laughing. Tutonius’ robust size challenged the largest of spaces, but in the kitchen, he filled the walkway between his tables and larder shelves. A cluster of men worked at another table set up in the far end of the room and sent panicky glances toward Tutonius when he neared. He paced the length of the big kitchen, tossing bits of vegetables toward the scrap heap.

“But it is! Look at this mess—I said mince the figs. And this is the result.” He scooped up a handful of the small dried fruit and held it toward her. Pieces as big as grapes mingled with tiny fragments.

“Shall I mince the figs for you, then?” She stepped toward the long table and picked up a knife. “In the time you’ve complained, the task could have been done.”

“You’re such a scold. It’s no wonder you’re not married,” he said teasingly. “This is but an example. But yes, do what you can before someone calls you away. If I had sheep’s milk enough, I could make the nut tarts I planned with this abundance of honey. But the men brought only enough for the ricotta, which I must have for the libum.” He slammed a big bowl onto the table and dumped in a basket of fresh greens.

“You’ll have salad, then?” she said, scraping the last of the figs into a wide pottery jar.

“It’s a miracle,” he huffed. “Blasius found them along the river in a place that has resisted the frost that haunts this forsaken land, and more at the mouth of a cave. We’ll have mint, rue, parsley, and sliced leek along with the lettuce and rocket leaves. Enough salty cheese, pepper, and oil, and I think it will please the governor.”

“What else?” Senna said. “Use me quick—I have a long shopping list for the market and must soon venture there.”

“If you could add some things to your list for me, I would reward you,” he said. “I’ve only half the pears I need for the patina. Surely you can find more. And more eggs as well. I’ll make honeyed eggs to improve the dessert course.”

His cheeks glowed red and sweat beaded on his forehead. She felt sorry for him. Marcellus could be merciless, although she doubted he would ever truly punish his favored cook.

“Tutonius.” Senna grabbed his hand. “You’re overthinking it. Surely the governor can’t expect stuffed dormice or boiled ostrich in the wilds of Britannia. This isn’t Rome, and if anyone knows that, it’s our legate. And even if Scapula manages to surround himself in luxuries at his post at Camulodunum, he’ll be fully disabused of such expectations by the time he makes the journey here. We’re at the western boundary. We’re lucky to have wine or garum.”

“That’s surely the truth,” he said, relaxing slightly.

“Now what do you have for the appetizers?” Senna listened patiently as the older man listed off the rest of his menu—boiled tree fungi with peppered fish-fat sauce, a soufflé of small fish, fallow deer roasted with onion sauce, rue, Jericho dates, raisins, oil, and honey, roasted goose with mushroom and leek stuffing, stewed duck with lentils, lambs kidneys stuffed with walnuts and sausage, a stew of lamb, carrots, and anchovies, chicken pieces cooked in date-wine sauce and served with chickpeas, sweet wine cakes with honey, apple cake…

“By the gods, man, you weary me,” she interrupted. “How much can the governor eat?”

kitchenTutonius braced his hands on the table and glared at her. “He’s not alone, you know. He’ll have his assistant, possibly two or three, plus the legate of the Ninth Legion and three of his tribunes and the legate of the Second with two tribunes.” He sighed. “I explained to Marcellus that we can’t seat all the Fourteenth’s tribunes as well, and he agreed to hold back all but Silverus and one other. Still that’s…” He counted his fingers.

“Too many,” she agreed, cutting off his count. “But you’re doing your best, are you not? Do you know of any man who can do more than his best?”

He bustled around the end of the table and swept her into a bear hug. “You save me from myself,” he said in a gruff voice. “Go then, shrew, and brave the market. It should be a frenzy today.”

“Yes, Caerwin tells me her tribe also celebrated the dark days,” Senna said. “They called it Yule, and burned great logs to light the long nights. They made much of certain things, such as cutting evergreen boughs and bringing branches of mistletoe into their cottages. These were my customs as well, as my mother told me.” She swallowed, trying to shut out the sudden rush of memory. Those traditions, what had been her mother’s life before slavery, belonged to another world in another time, all of it gone. “Perhaps everyone marks the season as the Romans do, with feasting and song.”

A brief glance at Tutonius told her that he too carried painful memories of his people, yet another tribe of Gaul crushed under the Roman heel. His dark eyes gazed on her with sympathy. She lifted her hand as if to deny any further emotion. “Is there anything else, then, besides eggs and pears?”

He shook his head.

~~~

Senna hurried along the Via Principia, the main road that bisected the fortress. At either end of the massive square compound stood barracks for five thousand men. In between were the official buildings—the Principia where command and control initiated, the Praetorium where the commander and his personal retinue lived, the commissary, food warehouses, workshops for carpenters, leather workers, ironsmiths, and other craftsmen, and the stables. As usual, traffic thronged the roadway, men on horseback, a full cohort returning from field exercises, messengers, and slaves on missions for their masters.

Like her. Caerwin had given her an impossible task. Restricted from venturing out of the Praetorium, Caerwin wished to provide gifts for the house slaves, which of course included Senna. Never mind that Caerwin herself was a slave serving as unwilling companion and fiery sexual partner to Legio Fourteenth’s commander Marcellus.  Despite the silliness of the idea, Senna had been touched when Caerwin pressed her hand and asked her to find something for herself. That poor girl would have blossomed if allowed to step outside her confinement, but with her threats to kill Marcellus at her first chance, she could hardly expect him to allow her any freedom.

Senna glanced up at the legionaries in the guard towers as she hiked past the massive gate, her heavy cloak fluttering in the wind. Beyond the stone-paved roadway that led east and west, a sprawling permanent encampment had sprung up to house the camp followers, shelters cobbled together of stone and timber, thatch roof and mud-daubed walls. To the west, the winding silver streak of the great river Severn reflected the gray sky, and beyond, fading into the distance, blue-gray hills dotted the wide plain. A wagon clattered past, winding its way into the camp where other vendors had set up the day’s market. Legionaries, traders, merchants, craftsmen, slaves, and a surprising number of local people thronged the passage as she worked her way onward.

“Will you have some lamb today?” one woman cried, waving a skewer of roasted meat toward her.

Senna shook her head. She had just enough coin to pay for the gifts, if she bargained carefully. Another woman waved at her from the front of a small round shelter.

“I have skins,” she said, holding a beautiful white fur pelt. “Would you want rabbit? Or beaver?

“Thank you, no, I need only trinkets,” Senna replied.

Wagons and carefully banked campfires stretched far ahead, and Senna set herself to a quick stride, weaving through the crowd and pausing only when she found something of interest. Combs, game pieces, belts—she stopped at a small table with an array of fibula. Tutonius’ cloak always flew open, no doubt because he lost his fibula as quickly as he gained them. Several were made of bronze, a few of finer metals like gold, even fewer studded with colored stones. She picked up a sturdy one with a strong clasp, bronze but with a clever coil at the fastener.

fib“That’s a fine one,” the man said, studying her from underneath his bushy eyebrows. “Only ten sestertii.”

“It’s a common piece,” she said dismissively. “I’ll give three and nothing more.” She set the piece back on the table.

“It’s well crafted, as you can surely tell, and of high quality bronze. You want to steal it, then?” he said, frowning. “Eight, and that’s the best of it.”

“Five is the most I have for you,” she said. “Take it before I change my mind.”

“You bring more poverty to an already starving man,” he complained, clasping his chest. She turned as if to walk away, and he rushed around his table to tug at her cloak. “But for you, to keep food in the mouths of my children, I will take your offer.”

With the clasp secured in the inner pocket of her tunic, Senna resumed her tour of the market. At one wagon, she found a lug of pears and sent the man to deliver them to Tutonius. At another, she required the vendor to break one of a basket of eggs to ensure their freshness, and sent him also on the heels of the pear orchard man.

At the far end of the lane, where the campfires were larger and children’s shouts echoed up the slope and infant cries issued from the ragged shelters, she studied an array of amulets carefully guarded by a woman with a baby at her breast. Most prominent were the popular phallus amulets. These were nothing like the fabulous creations of gold or ivory found in Rome’s markets but rather crudely shaped carvings of native wood or common bone. Still, the craftsman had some skill, enough that the creation might please the gods. Blasius, always intensely superstitious, would appreciate the protection of one.

She lingered over the table, distracted by the baby’s suckling noises and the woman’s silent appeal. No doubt the child of a legionary, the infant bore the dark eyes of his father’s nationality. Countless other women here, deprived of their homes and tribal families, serviced the sexual appetites of the soldiers. The children would grow up in the baggage train, in camps like this one near the army’s current fortress where they might on occasion see their fathers. If the woman knew which man was the father. She’d seen this too many times, heard the stories, of children born in slavery.

For herself, Senna had been at both ends of thought, whether she would have suffered less as a male slave in service to the Empire or, as it was, a woman in service to the men. If not for her quick wit and the position of her mother in a wealthy man’s household, she could have been a camp follower as well. Oddly, in her present circumstance, she found it pleasing to be in service to Caerwin, even if that woman was hardly past the days of her youth and resistant to any advice a woman twice her age might offer. She met the young mother’s gaze.

“What of this?” she asked, picking up a small round amulet. The wheel-shaped piece had been rubbed smooth so that the wood gleamed dark red. The carving showed the careful detail of a dragon’s head and tail amid interlocking swirls.

“That’s an old piece, that one, and in fine condition,” the woman said. “I found it on the ground near the river. I’d take five sestertii.”

“It’s well done,” Senna agreed. “It will make an excellent gift to my mistress. Perhaps it’s from her own people.”

“Is she of the Cornovii? I’ve heard these were their lands.”

“She is, the last of them from what I understand.”

The woman nodded. “Was a terrible slaughter, I heard. And those who didn’t die now enslaved. They say ghosts haunt their old fortress now, all those souls wandering loose.”

“She doesn’t speak of it much,” Senna said. “But she suffers, that much I know.”

“So she’s here? How can that be?” The woman lifted the infant, straightened his thick blanket, and held him at her shoulder.

“The legate Marcellus—he took her from the field of battle, made her his own. It’s a kindness, I suppose, that she wasn’t been sold to slavers as were the rest, her own mother in fact. But she doesn’t see it as a kindness.” Senna leaned forward and lowered her voice. “She wishes to kill him, yet he kindles a fire in her that she can’t deny. It’s a terrible conundrum, wouldn’t you think?”

“Oh, yes,” the woman replied, her eyes wide. “I myself have grown to love a man of the Thracian guard. They are monstrous men, tall and overpowering in temperament. I fear him almost as much as I love him.” She presented the child, a well-fed youth of perhaps three months. “His father is Teres,” she said. “If I can manage, I’ll follow him wherever he goes so that Teres the son will know his father.”

Senna gave her the coin without haggling over price. With a heavy heart, she made her way back toward the fortress, stopping to purchase a few candles, a spoon, and knucklebones for the rest of the gifts. As a last thought, she purchased a box of sandlewood incense for herself.

Her thoughts never drifted far from Caerwin. Colt wild and clever as a fox, the young woman had yet to learn how to make the best of what she’d been given. If she continued along her current path…Senna pursed her lips. Marcellus had softened but he was still a Roman commander. He would reach his limit with Caerwin’s rebellions and then what? Even her beauty could not save her if she broke his heart.

And yes, he had a heart, that she knew for a fact. She’d seen the turmoil of his emotions etched on his face the last time Caerwin acted a fool. Two days chained in the kitchen and she had not learned her place. Even when marched to the marshes at the river’s edge and forced by the flat of his sword to wallow there in mud, the girl had not found wisdom. But she, Senna, had seen his worry, his sleepless pacing as Caerwin suffered her night-long penance tied at the whipping post, her head-to-toe mud coating failing to hide her nudity from the eyes of other men. The girl walked a knife’s edge.

Such was the folly of youth. Senna sighed as she entered the Praetorium courtyard and hurried toward Caerwin’s room.

“I’ve decided. I won’t go,” Caerwin announced as Senna entered. “He says I must and forces me to a fancy appearance. Why would he insist on such finery?” she said motioning to the careful hair arrangement Senna had painstakingly crafted just hours earlier. “I’ve told him if he wishes Scapula not to molest me, he should hide me away.”

“Your appearance reflects on him as well as your people. He only wishes the governor to gain respect.”

“Why hold a bone to a dog if you don’t wish him to take it?” Caerwin turned away to resume her pacing.

“I have gifts, as you wished,” Senna said, reluctant to continue conversation about the upcoming Saturnalia feast. These same words had been spoken many times, and she tired of Caerwin’s stubbornness. She palmed the wheel amulet, wishing to save it for a later time when Caerwin might be less angry. “See?”

She spread out the items, naming the men she thought best matched to the items she’d purchased. “And this,” she said, holding the fibula, “is for Tutonius. Shall you give it to him?”

“I don’t care,” Caerwin said dismissively, pacing back and forth across the tiny room. “Make these your gifts, or tell them you bring them on my behalf, I can’t care.”

Senna sat down abruptly. Exhaustion invaded every bone and sinew, the result of days of worry about the exact problem Caerwin faced. The Roman governor’s volatile temper and his disregard for those he deemed lesser preceded him, and she feared for the worst. If Caerwin let her temper flare, the results could be disastrous, not only for Caerwin but for Marcellus as well.

“You’d do well to think on something pleasant,” Senna said. She tried to keep her growing exasperation out of her voice. “Shall we visit the household shrine and make an offering? We can ask for your deliverance from any evil.”

“Marcellus must not care for me at all,” Caerwin said. “Why would he present me to a man who might molest me?”

Senna sighed loudly, trying—and failing—to hold her tongue until she could bring her frustration under control. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she said. “Marcellus wants to protect you, has done nothing but protect you from the time he first laid eyes on you. Yet you take every possible opportunity to goad him. Do you still not understand that he has no choice but to welcome the governor?”

Caerwin stamped her foot and turned, her shocking blue eyes spitting fire. “I’m not a gift. I will not be presented as one.”

“No one said you would be presented as a gift,” Senna said. “He has only said that he will have no choice but to provide whatever gifts the governor wishes. After such a long journey, the governor may wish only to gain an early night’s rest.”

“I feel it. Foreboding lies on me like a stone,” Caerwin said, collapsing onto her bed. She folded her arms and rocked back and forth. “That snake Silverus will be there, and he conspires with Antius to bring me to shame. If for no other reason, Scapula will demand me because they will go behind Marcellus’ back and urge him.”

Senna leaned back in the chair, allowing the girl time and audience. At seventeen, Caerwin had little skill in diplomacy but perhaps venting her fears would reduce the risk of an explosion. “Do you think you’re so important to Silverus or Antius?”

“Of course I am,” Caerwin said. “There are secrets between them. Which I can’t speak of. But I know what hatred they harbor for me, as if I had stolen their most prized possession. Which I have in fact done. Even though I had no hand in it.” She shifted uncomfortably and poked the intricately curled updo with the tip of her finger to shift one of the pins. “They would take immense pleasure in seeing me harmed. Antius has said as much, and I’ve known the true nature of Silverus since the day he killed my brother and smiled over it.”

spqr“Yet these facts do not alter the reality facing Marcellus,” Senna said. “His commanding officer will rest in this house, the commander of all Roman legions in Britannia. Even if Roman custom did not demand full hospitality, military tradition must be served. The best course…”

“Yes, yes,” Caerwin said, waving her hand. “The best course. The gods, Senna, have you not said it enough? If I could just be friendly, do as I’m told, then all will be well. Was all well when they slaughtered my people? I did nothing then. Was all well when Marcellus tied me and had his way, when he humiliated me in forcing my body to obey his manipulations?”

“The past need not dictate the future,” Senna said. “You could be imagining tortures for yourself that will never come to pass.” She stood up. “Do you want to give any of these to the household or shall I do it all?”

“Please,” Caerwin said. Tears filled her eyes. “I cannot gain the season’s sentiment. Any gift from me would be a lie. Take care of it for me, Senna, and forgive me for my abuse. I hold nothing against you, surely you know that.”

Senna hugged her. “Yes, dear girl, and surely you know that all my cautions have only to do with your welfare. Look what I’ve found for you. Surely it will serve well.” She handed the amulet to Caerwin.

“Oh, it’s the wheel of Taranis! Surely his thunder will ward off evil.” She clasped it to her chest. “How shall I wear it?”

“I’ll find a leather strand for it, if you like.”

“No, on second thought, I should not wear it until this night has passed. I feel the spirit of my people in this piece.” Caerwin studied the carving with a frown. “The symbol is a familiar one. It’s too precious to wear in the company of such men. Will you keep it for me?”

“Of course, if you wish,” Senna said.

Caerwin hugged her. “What should I do without you, dear Senna? And did you find something for yourself?”

“I did.” Senna revealed the small box of sandlewood incense. “It’s my favorite scent. Let’s go to the shrine now and make an offering to Vesta. She’ll protect you.”

The two women locked arms and with their heavy cloaks protecting them from the bitter wind, they stood in the courtyard before the marble statue.

“I see her as the river spirit,” Caerwin said, lifting the fragrant incense before the goddess. Its smoke whirled and swept upward. “A spirit of our land, not of Rome.”

“There’s no harm in that,” Senna murmured. “If the gods still live, surely they know each other.”

~~~

Tutonius spluttered and turned red when Senna handed him the fibula. She’d never seen him so taken aback. He stepped away from the large pot he’d been stirring and wrapped her in one of his big hugs.

“It’s a fine piece,” he said, turning the bronze pin over in his hand. “I’ll wear it now.”

“Let me,” Senna said, dragging the loose ends of his wrap closer around his big shoulders and lapping them before sticking the pin through the folds. “You shall stay warm now,” she said, patting the garment in place. “Even as you storm in and out of the kitchen as if the hounds of hell snap at your very heels.”

“Well, they are on my heels. The governor’s train has arrived, and I’m to bring a short repast to his chambers to refresh him from his journey. As if I had nothing else to do.”

Senna laughed. “I can bring it to him, if that would help.”

“Would you? That helps tremendously. As you can see, the fish soufflé requires constant attention. Shall I allow it to curdle while I wait on his highness?” Tutonius glanced around and lowered his voice. “I must be careful. They say he’s vicious with his slaves. I have no desire for the lash.”

“Caution is definitely in order,” Senna agreed. “I worry for our young mistress, if you know what I mean.”

“Well to be worried,” he agreed. “They’ll be heavy into the wine. Blasius says they take it with only a small dilution. That does not bode well for any of us.”

“The wine could work to your advantage, could it not?” She winked. “What man in his cups cares overmuch for the quality of his dessert?”

“Then I’m cursed to labor for naught,” he exclaimed.

Sweat beaded Tutonius’ round face as he added fresh wood to the stove. As usual, wondrous odors wafted from his pots and the ovens, and Senna’s mouth watered. She and the other slaves wouldn’t enjoy the fancy dishes prepared for the officers, but they would have a chance at any leftovers. She wished particularly for a taste of the pear patina with its smooth sweet custard.

As for Caerwin… Senna shrugged and offered a quick prayer to Vesta. The child would survive. Even a Roman commander could not escape censure for murdering the slave of another man. But short of murder—she shook her head. It did no good to brood on what might happen. She’d learned long ago that a person must accept what cannot be avoided then pick up the pieces and move on. With any luck, nothing would happen. But like Caerwin, Senna had a bad feeling.

“How do you find yourself on such a remote frontier, Tutonius? Surely a cook as excellent as yourself would gain happy employ among Rome’s wealthiest households.”

He straightened and sent her a glowing smile. “Yes, I have enjoyed such employment, to be honest. I commanded trained helpers and every convenience. The climate alone made my work so much easier, unlike this endless nightmare of rain and cold.”

“But?”

“Chariot races were my ruin. The master took me along, even encouraged me to bet. Our team was often victorious, but when they were not, my meager savings disappeared. I became increasingly indebted until I was forced to sell myself in redemption.”

“That’s a terrible fate! You were a freedman?”

“I was.” He shook his head, wielding his knife against innocent onions until tears ran down his cheeks. “I can only blame myself. This place,” he said, waving the knife, “this is my punishment for foolish dreams of riches.”

“What shall I take to the governor, then?” she said brightly. She suspected the tears came from more than the pungent onions, but this was not a day to be reminded of sadness that held no remedy. “The great man needs not be kept waiting.”

“Yes, surely not,” Tutonius said, slamming the knife to the table and hurrying to the far end of the room. “They have their wine already, so it’s a matter of cheese, bread, and olives. Surely they’ll be content with that until the meal is served.”

He handed her the flat board where slices of aged cheese and risen bread accompanied a bowl of olives.  “Please attend them long enough to learn if they require anything further,” he said, walking with her to the door. He stooped and brushed a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you, dear Senna. If you wish, I’ll set aside a serving of the patina.”

She paused. “How did you know I favored that dish?”

“A man knows to follow a woman’s gaze,” he said, lifting an eyebrow.

Senna flushed as she grabbed the cheese board. “The best of the season to you, dear Tutonius. Good cheer.”

patina

~~

Pear Patina – Serves 4 

  • lb firm pears.
  • 10fl oz red wine.
  • 2 oz raisins.
  • 4 oz honey.
  • 1 tspn ground cumin.
  • 1 tbspn olive oil.
  • 2 tbspn fish sauce.
  • 4 eggs.
  • plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Peel and core the pears and cook in the wine, honey and raisins until tender. Strain and process the fruit and return to the cooking liquor. Add the cumin, oil and fish sauce and the eggs well beaten. Pour into a greased shallow dish and bake in a preheated oven (375º F) for 20 mins or until set. Let the custard stand for 10 mins before serving warm.      From the BBC Ancient History page.

Check out this page with Roman recipes for asparagus patinas, info on pans, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Ice — new short story, free!

christmas ice freeNow through December 25 — a fun, sexy holiday romance!

Alise wasn’t expecting an ice storm when she hid away in a remote cabin to finish her novel. She also wasn’t expecting a pesky park maintenance man to keep interrupting. But the snow keeps falling and the temperature keeps dropping. What could possibly go wrong?

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