Rome. The jewel of the civilized world is no longer what it was. Strength has failed the Senate. Her legions are in disarray, and the Empire has fallen into Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero’s hands. His reign begins under a cloud of scrutiny, for he is the depraved Emperor Caligula’s nephew. Nero is determined to overcome that stigma and carve a name of his own. One worthy of Rome’s illustrious history.
Politics and treachery threaten to end Nero’s reign before it begins, forcing him to turn to unexpected sources for friendship and help. Many of the Praetorian Guard have watched over Nero since he was a small child, and it is in Traian that the young Emperor places his trust, despite the inherent threat of reducing his mother’s influence. Traian is the father he never had and the one man who does not judge him.
When Traian secretly marries the hostage Vena, it sets in motion a collision of values as Traian comes to odds with his former charge. The whirlwind that follows will shake the very foundations of the greatest Empire the world has ever known, and survival is far from guaranteed.
Vena invited Traian to spend the day with her, exploring the city. She knew the men guarding her would welcome the respite. Vena wanted to find the caves without involving the baker. They could explore the hills during the day when the Christians were elsewhere. Hopefully, the fish symbol would be engraved near the entrance.
Not wishing to arouse suspicion, Vena suggested they visit the Emperor’s gardens or the nearby meadow. Their voices would not be overheard, nor would they be readily seen.
After leaving the palace, Vena pulled Traian’s hand, running toward the open fields filled with knee-high grass and wildflowers. The wind carried her laughter across the landscape as she twirled around, her arms swaying, a captivating creature who Traian desired. Vena ran towards the hills, beckoning him to follow, stopping when reaching a stream. Sitting on a rock, she waved, shouting his name.
“Where did you learn to run like that?” Traian asked, out of breath.
“My brother and I used to race, and I always won! He did not let me. I was faster.”
“Have you word of your brother?”
“My brother has forgotten me. I would like my freedom, but I no longer have a home to return to.”
“Vena, you know I care for you deeply, and I would secure your freedom if I could. My father might be able to help.”
He held Vena’s hand, kissing the tip of her fingers, his lips seeking hers. But Vena turned away.
“I promised only my husband would touch me. I cannot do this.”
Vena started to rise, but Traian pulled her onto his lap.
“I want you for my wife. I will speak to Claudius.”
“I fear we would be separated if you spoke prematurely. I do have feelings for you, but we must wait and tell no one.”
“Why are we here, Vena? What are you looking for?”
Vena draped her arms around his neck, resting her forehead against his. His hands encircled her waist, pressing her closer.
“You can trust me, Vena. What is it?”
Songbirds chirped in the distance. A soft breeze ruffled the frothy waves pouring over the stones. The beauty of creation warmed Vena’s soul, alleviating her fears, giving her the courage to reveal her faith to the man she had fallen in love with, despite all her protests.
“I would go to the fields and listen to the stories of Jesus. The prophets spoke of the Kingdom of God. They taught us to love each other as brothers and sisters, to forgive transgressions, to live as Christ did. I received instruction and was baptized before the rebellion. My father and brother never knew. I pretended to worship the gods as before, which weighed heavily on my conscience. I was weak and feared persecution. I asked you here to help me find the caves where the Christians pray. They come before first light or at the end of the day. Will you search with me?”
“Vena, I lived among the Christian slaves when I was in Calabria. I have witnessed their baptisms and listened to their prayers, but I do not believe in their God. I will keep your secret and accompany you when we can slip away unnoticed.”
“Traian, I know not our fate, but I do love you and want to be your wife.”
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2021 Book of the Year Gold Medal
Historical Fiction Ancient World
The Coffee Pot Book Club
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Mary Ann Bernal attended Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY, where she received a degree in Business Administration. Her literary aspirations were ultimately realized when the first book of The Briton and the Dane novels was published in 2009. In addition to writing historical fiction, Mary Ann has also authored a collection of contemporary short stories in the Scribbler Tales series and a science fiction/fantasy novel entitled Planetary Wars Rise of an Empire. Her recent work includes Crusader’s Path, a redemption story set against the backdrop of the First Crusade, and Forgiving Nero, a novel of Ancient Rome.
Since Operation Desert Storm, Mary Ann has been a passionate supporter of the United States military, having been involved with letter-writing campaigns and other support programs. She appeared on The Morning Blend television show hosted by KMTV, the CBS television affiliate in Omaha, and was interviewed by the Omaha World-Herald for her volunteer work. She has been a featured author on various reader blogs and promotional sites.
Mary Ann currently resides in Elkhorn, Nebraska.
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