Adrenia's lips parted, her breathing coming faster as she took in the men before her. Part of her wanted to step back, to run. She didn't know these strangers, and anything could happen. Yet something about the centurion, an honor and integrity in his expression, told her she had nothing to fear. The other hulking man looked a bit larger than the centurion, and his dark eyes held amusement. She didn't think he meant any harm. His closely cropped almost-black hair was straight and his face angular and long. He looked decidedly awkward, but she had a feeling he could be deadly given the chance. Some woman might consider him a bit more handsome than ordinary.
While she felt ambivalent about the optio, the centurion was a different story. Her belly fluttered as she took in the centurion's rugged face. He looked rough and more than capable of killing mercilessly. A tremble wracked her body, and she hoped he couldn't sense the fear she held so tightly within.
His thick dark brown hair, cut fairly short, held mahogany highlights. It curled against his head. Though his jaw looked strong, it wasn't too wide, his mouth firm but not thin. His regal nose gave him a patrician air, but didn't stand out boldly enough to make it too large. More than all these facial qualities, she noticed the powerful concentration within his green eyes. Dark brows sheltered his gaze and thick lashes fanned downward when he blinked.
Neither the centurion nor the optio dressed in formal battle wear. They didn't wear helmets or mail armor. They wore white tunics, their gladius hung from a wide belt, their socks and closed-toe boots indicated they worked for the army. Their red cloaks also gave them away. The centurion's gaze pinpointed her so intently a flush heated her cheeks.
She jerked to full awareness. They must think her an imbecile, she'd remained silent for so long.
"We're assigned to the fort," the optio said. "Are you from the village?"
She shook her head and gestured to one of the long, rectangular houses separated from the villa complex. "My father is a tenant on villa land."
"Who is the villa owner?" the centurion asked.
"Decimus Caelius Cordus. You have come far," she said. "You may be welcome at the villa if you require food and drink."
"We'll visit them another time," the centurion said. "What is your name?"
His military brisk question demanded an answer. "Adrenia Tertia Brigomalla."
She wiped her hand over her forehead as weariness weakened her resolve. Though the day wasn't hot, her long walk to the neighbors and through the Haunted Woods had taken more from her than she first realized. She swayed, and she closed her eyes with one thought. Goddess, don't let me faint now.
"Easy there." The centurion alighted from his horse in a heartbeat. "Are you all right?"
She opened her eyes just as he clasped her shoulders. On the horse he'd looked large, but now he towered over her. He appeared as tall as Sulla, around five foot ten or eleven if she guessed right. Unlike Sulla's rangy frame, this man possessed wide shoulders and powerful arms that reminded her of shelter, of safety. Automatically her hands landed on his chest, and the rock-hard strength of his muscles under her hands rippled as he moved.
Embarrassed, she drew her hands back and dared gaze into his extraordinary eyes. She expected to see pity there, but instead genuine concern warmed them. His unexpected caring threw her off kilter. She almost couldn't speak. "I'm fine. I forgot to bring water with me on my long walk."
He released her and went to his saddle and pack. He returned with a water skein. He handed it to her. "Drink."
"But you need it."
"Not as much as you. Drink as much as you like."
She took one tentative sip, and when the liquid touched her lips, she realized how thirsty she'd become. She drank more, but stopped short of gulping. She wiped her mouth with the back of her wrist and returned the skein to him. "Thank you. You are most generous, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Call me Terentius."
"You're thinking you shouldn't. That it isn't expected or right." His gaze twinkled.
"He hates it when people call him sir," the optio said. "Take my word for it."
She laughed, the sound slipping through her throat and out of her mouth before she could stop it. She pressed her hand to her mouth, half expecting his wrath to come down upon her. She never laughed.
She should never laugh.
Fear rose up like steam from a cauldron. Her breath grew short, her palms beginning to sweat. When he didn't strike her and his smile grew wider, astonishment fought with intellectual reasoning. Of course he wouldn't strike her. He didn't know her. She fought with her fear, but it wouldn't cease.
He frowned deeply. "You're trembling. You are ill."
She shook her head vigorously. "No. That's not... I'm not ill." The centurion unhooked his cloak and with one efficient move swirled the garment over shoulders and fastened it together with the large broach. The red wool cloak encompassed her in a musky man-and-leather scent both comforting and disturbing. "Sir, I can't take this. It is improper."
"You will take it." The centurion frowned down at her, his hands arranging the wool so that it covered her entire body and almost came all the way to her ankles. "I can get another."
His long arms rippled with muscle, and she stared too long at all his masculine beauty. She widened her eyes, and cleared her throat. "It's unheard of. I couldn't wear a soldier's cloak."
"You may insist on calling me sir, but I won't relent about this. My mother and father taught me that women are to be cherished and protected."
What could she say to that? Surprise held her immobile and almost voiceless at first. "I...I never heard such a thing."
The optio's thick brows arched upward. "Who are your people?"
She drew herself up to her full height. "Our people descend from the Iceni and the Catuvellauni."
"Barbarians." The optio nodded. "Of course."
She didn't know whether to feel insulted or not, so she stayed silent.
After a long agonizing moment where the centurion's stare speculated, he asked, "Why do you hide your laugh?"
"It's not proper for me to express it."
He frowned. "What foolishness is this?" He looked back at the optio. "Have you ever heard such a ridiculous thing?"
"Strangest I've heard," the optio said. "Seems like we're talking a different language all together."
"You don't know my..." she started to say, then shook her head.
"Please, centurion. Leave it be. It is not your...business."
He chuckled, and the sound came out rich and deep. It sent new pinwheels of heat through her loins. How could a man this dangerous inspire such confidence inside her? When he smiled, the whole world lit up. His green eyes sparkled. His straight white teeth and the dimple in his right cheek surprised her.
Then his gaze sobered, and she saw it. The look many a man gave many a woman, but had never been bestowed upon Adrenia in all her twenty years. His gaze traveled over her breasts, then slid down the rest of her body as if he could see through the thick cloak and shapeless tunica. The centurion's undeniable interest found an echo inside her. She, too, wanted to trace his body with her gaze, to explore him as she'd never explored another man. Frightened by the intensity, she took three steps away from his powerful body and his masculine threat.