Part One: Then
Kheb stepped into the garden and shrugged off her thin linen robe, baring her body to the moonlight. Pausing by the edge of the square pool, she stretched her arms skyward and closed her eyes for a moment.
It felt so good to stand here, naked, free and alone. The past days had been stressful and she had no doubt the worst was yet to come.
At her mother's request, she had traveled from Kush to meet with a Roman official. Rome already had control over Egypt. Though her mother had sent her to discuss peace, Kheb knew she would have to report back to the Kandake, the Kushite Queen, that it was impossible. She found the Romans to be falsely polite, condescending and power hungry. Despite their semblance of respect for the Princess, she knew her people wouldn't be safe from their greed. Unless the next few days revealed a drastic change in their stance, her people would soon be engaged in battle with these pale invaders with eyes as hard and sharp as the weapons they carried.
Kheb lowered her arms and sighed deeply, glancing down at the fullness of her lush brown breasts. She stroked them lightly with her long, slender fingers.
Though still a young woman, she was already a widow and it had been too long since she had known the touch of a man. For the past few years since her husband's death, she hadn't thought much about the pleasures of the flesh, until she had arrived in Egypt.
He had prompted these lustful thoughts. From the moment their gazes locked, she'd felt a tightening in her belly and a desire she'd never known before. Not even her husband, in their most intimate moments, had quickened her pulse like this man had done with a mere look.
These feelings were wrong. The man who inspired them was Roman and soon to be her enemy. Why, then, did he make her nipples tighten and tingle? Why did the thought of his hands on her body make her burst into flames? Even now the soft flesh between her legs ached with need.
She swept her thumbs over her nipples, making them stiffen even more. In her mind his hands caressed her. She imagined his finely shaped lips sliding over the spiky peak of her breast and the sweep of his tongue teasing her until she trembled.
The sound of water rippling in the pool made her look up and when she did her heart nearly stopped beating.
He waded out of the shadows at the end of the pool from where he'd apparently been watching her. He strode closer and paused waist-deep in the water.
Kheb stared for a moment, unable to tear her gaze from his water-slicked torso. The man was absolutely beautiful--lean and sinewy with broad shoulders and a chest that looked as if it had been carved from stone. The moonlight and water accentuated the ridges of muscle in his flat belly and Kheb licked her lips.
Of course he had no business here and even less business staring at her with such a hungry look in his gleaming black eyes.
Her first reaction was to cover herself, but she had no reason to hide. She was a noblewoman and he a mere soldier. A Roman soldier.
Straightening her shoulders and lifting her chin, she said coolly, "What are you doing here?"
"Admiring the view."
Kheb's jaw tightened and her eyes widened in rage. "How dare you speak to me like that? I could have you punished."
His brow furrowed and a faint smile tugged at his lips. "For admiring the garden?"
Heat rose in her face, whether from embarrassment or anger she wasn't sure. Was he telling the truth? Had she been hoping he admired her or was his response an attempt to disguise the original meaning of his words?
"I've come here almost every night since our arrival in Egypt," he continued in his quiet voice with husky undertones that made her think of lovemaking. "It reminds me of the baths back in Rome. I didn't mean to startle you."
"I accept your apology," Kheb stated, trying to keep herself focused on something other than his magnificent chest. She studied his face with all its interesting angles and planes, but that was just as bad. The man was irresistible; yet resist him she must.
Even during her talks with the officials, this soldier had distracted her. He'd stood off to the side, dressed in his warrior's garb, looking powerful and manly with the sword at his hip, his long legs spread in a formidable stance. She had no doubt that he would go far in the Roman army.
Kheb wasn't speaking only as a woman, but as someone of experience. All her life she had stood beside her mother as the Queen led the people of Kush. Kheb had seen many warriors and had come to know which were the strongest, fiercest and most cunning. She could pick out the leaders among thousands of men and this Roman soldier had the heart of a lion.
Though she hadn't lowered herself to ask his name, she'd overheard it. Marc Claudius.
"You may go now," Kheb told him.
The soldier's smile broadened and he walked to the edge of the pool. Kheb's breath caught at the play of muscles in his arms and back as he hoisted himself out of the water. She noticed the broad expanse of his back was covered with old scars. Beatings were common punishment for Roman soldiers. She doubted he had been punished for a lowly act, such as cowardice or theft, but was most likely beaten for insubordination or some other arrogant behavior. He rose from a crouch position, giving her a clear view of his taut, rounded backside and long, muscular legs.
Instead of walking away, he approached Kheb and her heartbeat quickened. She stood her ground, even as he walked so close that his chest nearly touched her breasts. Her nipples tightened even more, as if reaching toward him.
Though tall, Kheb had to tilt her head slightly to meet his gaze. Looking into those dark eyes made her feel unimaginable things.
"You have no right to touch me," Kheb stated firmly.
"I haven't," he said, his husky voice just above a whisper.
This was either the most arrogant man she'd ever met or the most stupid. Even the Romans couldn't allow this sort of behavior toward a woman of her status. If they didn't demand punishment for his insolence, her guards would most certainly dole it out.
Of course her guards were nowhere in sight, since she had purposely come to the pool alone, seeking time to breathe away from the pressure of her duties.
"You'd like me to, though. Wouldn't you, Princess," he said, his gaze burning into hers.
"By the marks on your back you're no stranger to punishment, but if you continue to insult me I'll see that you're beaten to the brink of death."
"If I'm going to suffer then at least give me a worthwhile reason," he said and before she could reply, he wrapped a sinewy arm around her waist, pulled her close to his powerful chest and kissed her.
Kheb's first impulse should have been to pull back and scream for her guards, but she didn't want to. Placing her hands on his lean waist, she made a mild attempt to push him away, just to tell herself that she tried. She shouldn't do this. Not with this lowly foreigner. This man was completely unworthy of her.
Yet at the moment all she could think about was the feel of his warm, moist lips against hers. His body was slick from the pool and his flesh felt so good against her palms as they slid up his back. She felt the ridges of those old scars and the ripple of hard muscles beneath his warm skin.
He ran the tip of his tongue over her lips, then thrust it into her mouth. Kheb opened to him, her tongue meeting his with heated strokes. From the moment she'd seen him she'd dreamed of kissing him like this, but never thought it would actually happen.
His cock stiffened, pressing against her and she moaned softly, thrusting her hips against him.
Marc Claudius groaned deep in his throat and tightened his hold on her. Her soft breasts flattened against his chest. He slid one hand down her back and caressed her buttocks.
Goddess help her, this was the most exciting moment of her life.
Finally he broke the kiss, but continued holding her close. Slowly she opened her eyes and gazed into his, almost overwhelmed by the desire burning there.
"Now that's almost worth dying for," he said.
In response, she took his face in her hands and kissed him again. Her tongue thrust into his mouth. Now that she'd had a taste of him she desperately wanted more.
She must be mad to encourage him. If they were caught, there would be repercussions on both sides, but at the moment she didn't care.
All she wanted was to keep tasting and touching him, to keep feeling his hands and lips on her body.
Their tongues swept against each other in a primitive dance while he continued caressing her from shoulders to buttocks. His hands were big and the palms callused, yet he touched her gently. The roughness of his skin and his raw strength aroused her so much that she could scarcely wait another moment to feel him inside her.
Despite his obvious arousal, he seemed in the mood to take his time. He broke their kiss only to nuzzle her neck. The roughness of his day's growth of beard tickled her flesh, but she loved the sensation. His lips pressed kisses down her throat and across her collarbone.
"You're so beautiful," he breathed, kissing the plump top of one breast while his thumb swept over her nipple. "When I first saw you I knew I had to have you, no matter what the price."
"You must be mad," she murmured, running her hands over his head. His dark hair was cropped close to his scalp and she loved the feel of it against her palms. Usually when she saw him he was in full uniform, including a rounded helmet. She'd often wondered what he looked like naked and he was even more magnificent than she'd imagined.
"I am. I've been mad since you came here."