The subtle sound of the door shutting pulled Titus from his papers. Azurha waited in the shadows, the veil obscuring every surface of her skin except for her eyes. “So you decided to join me?”

“I didn’t think I had much choice in the matter, Your Imperial Majesty.”

He frowned at her use of the title. Not what he wanted to hear from her. He set his papers aside. “I’d be honored if you would join me for dinner.”

Even through the veil, he saw her dark brows rise in surprise. Her eyes traveled from his face to the cushions beside him. “As you wish.”

As she came closer to him, the candles illuminated the sheer silk that swathed her body and highlighted the luscious curves under it. More than two years of celibacy had taken their toll on him, and his cock twitched to life at the eroticism of her movements.

He cleared his throat and tore his gaze away from her. He needed to stop thinking like an over-eager youth making his first visit to a brothel. She was a gift from Pontus, one probably meant to distract him so the nobles could continue to play their games and undermine his authority. But her obvious dislike of his cousin could yield a few leads to what Pontus had planned. First, he needed to gain her trust. “You should remove your veil so you can eat.”

She lowered to her knees beside him. “As you wish, Your Imperial Majesty.”

“And another thing, you may call me…” His voice faltered when she lowered the silk from her face. Her skin glowed with sun bronzed health, a striking contrast to her teal-colored eyes. But her full lips the color of fresh raspberries monopolized his attention. How would they feel under his? Firm and defiant? Or soft and

yielding? Maybe a combination of both?

The corners of her mouth twitched in an amused smile, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. Then her pink tongue darted out to lick her lips, making them shine in the candlelight. “Call you what?”

“Titus,” he whispered. It didn’t matter that only his closest friends and family had the honor of calling him by his praenomen, she was bewitching him. He leaned closer to her. The faint scent of jasmine rose from her skin.

“Titus,” she repeated in a sultry, slightly accented voice. Her fingers traced the line of his jaw, sending shivers down his spine. “Have you eaten?”

The abruptness of her question pulled him away from his thoughts, and he moved back to his cushions. She was probably starving. “I’ve nibbled on a few things.”

She picked up a piece of bread and drizzled some olive oil on it before adding a slice of beef. A low purr of contentment rumbled from her throat when she bit into it. She was obviously a well-trained concubine, to know how to turn such a mundane action into something seductive.

His erection started to throb. He gripped his goblet and took a long drink. “You should try the wine, Azurha.”

“I think I shall.” Instead of pouring some into a goblet, she crawled towards him, her eyes full of uncertainty, and hesitated a few seconds before she pressed her lips to his. Her tongue swept along the seam of his mouth as though she was asking his permission to deepen the kiss, and he opened it to her. The slow, sensual dance set his body on fire.

The goblet rattled against the wooden table when he placed it down. He reached for her shoulders, wanting to pull her closer to him and deepen the kiss. The silk of her gown rustled under his hands, and his desire for her grew with each spiraling slip of her tongue. If she didn’t stop, he would find himself buried within her by the end of the evening. He eased her away from him, ending the

kiss before he slipped completely under her spell.

She gulped in a sharp breath. Her dilated pupils left a thin rim of teal around them, and her flushed cheeks told him the kiss had affected her in nearly the same manner it had him. Her voice shook when she said, “Yes, the wine is quite good.”

It was wrong of him to want this woman so much. She was an Alpirion, someone beneath his station. And yet, he felt more drawn to her than he ever had to his wife, although he was at a loss for why. Physical beauty usually didn’t hold this kind of power over him. He tucked a stray curl behind her ear. “Finish eating, and maybe we can resume this later.”

She chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds before nodding. “As you wish, Titus.”

What I wish is to have your naked body under mine, my mouth sucking your hard nipples while I ram my cock into you over and over again. But the voice inside his mind remained there.

She trembled when she reached for a piece of cheese, and guilt washed over him. Had his dismissal insulted her? Or was she terrified of him? His hand brushed against hers when he reached for his wine, and he thought he saw her jump from his touch.

He tightened his jaw. Not a good start to the evening so far. “How are your quarters?”

“Far nicer than I expected. Varro made sure I would have my every need attended to.” Her gaze settled on his papers, and after she finished the piece of cheese, she asked, “What are you


He shoved them under the tray so she couldn’t read them. “Those are just some ideas I have for the empire.”

She wrapped her fingers around his goblet and took a sip. “Such as?”

His brow rose in response to her question. Most women didn’t care about political matters. Suspicion raked down his spine. Did Pontus send her here to spy on him? He decided to test her with something already commonly known. “I would like improve the aqueduct system.”

“A good idea. Anything else?”

He studied her reaction. Not over-eager, but engaged. How would she react if he told her something Pontus would want to hear? “Perhaps give some of the provincial governors more autonomy over certain local issues.”

The corners of her mouth tilted down. “It would depend on how much you trust your governors.”

Her reaction puzzled him. He decided to press her for more information. “What are your thoughts on Pontus?”

Her frown deepened. “I would not trust him,” she blurted out. Her cheeks stained a deep red within a few seconds. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, Titus.”

His pulse quickened when she said his name, and he almost forgot what she had said before it. His shoulders tightened. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why shouldn’t I trust him?”

She stared at her hands and toyed with the bracelets that circled her wrists. “He is an ambitious man.”

He laughed, and some of the tension eased from his muscles. “I already knew that. Tell me, did he think that by giving you to me, he would gain my favor?”

Her body stiffened, and he knew the answer.

“I’m not so naïve as to not know how politics work in the empire, Azurha. Although I’m grateful he brought you to the palace, I will not force you to do something against your will.”

He tried to rise from the cushions, but she pushed him back. “No, it’s not that.” Pain flickered across her face, making him wish she would reveal more about the struggle that appeared to wage inside her. “You don’t have to worry that you’ll be forcing me to do anything I don’t want to do.”

The acid in her voice startled him. There was more to this woman than he first thought. “But there was a time when that wasn’t the case?”

She lowered her head and moved away from him, creating a wide gulf between them. “I am an Alpirion. When your grandfather defeated my people, my parents were forced into slavery.”

“Were you born a slave?”

“I was, but when my master died, I gained my freedom.” Her eyes glowed like blue ice when she leveled her gaze with his, and she held up her arms to show him the golden bracelets that proclaimed her status as a freed slave.

His arms ached to wrap around her, but he kept his distance. He’d seen how he could destroy a fragile woman by forcing himself on her. His arranged marriage had brought nothing but misery and ultimately caused Lucia’s death. But Azurha’s confession revealed an inner steeliness to her nature he hadn’t expected. “What are your thoughts on freeing the slaves?”

She gave a half-laugh. “I personally would welcome the idea, but I fear it may cause chaos throughout the empire. The nobles would be without a majority of their workforce, and they may need to trim their excesses to compensate for it.”

He knew the excesses she spoke of, from the lavish orgies thrown here in the Imperial City of Emona to the grand palaces and airships the provincial governors built to rival his own.

“Perhaps it’s time they learned to do what is best for the empire instead of caring only about themselves.”

She cocked her head to the side and knitted her brows together. “You think your Imperial Will can overcome greed?”

“I don’t know, but it will be an interesting experiment, don’t you agree?” He gave her a wry grin. His ancestors had imposed their Imperial Will in various ways over the centuries, from sending the army to overthrow the governors to withdrawing the reach of the barrier, exposing their provinces to the Barbarians until the governors yielded. He didn’t relish of idea of using either, hoping he could appeal to their intelligence rather than their baser natures.

She stretched her legs out and smiled in return. “I believe you are an idealist, Titus. More than just a common man.”

His gaze strayed to the outlines of her breasts under the sheer silk, and his body’s reaction to them reminded him of his baser desires. “No, I am just a man.”

“And what do you want?”

His balls tightened in response to the warm, seductive tone of her voice. “I think that’s obvious.”

She dragged her veil across his lap. The subtle friction of the silk over his groin felt like the light caress of a hundred fingertips. “But you would probably want something out of the ordinary. Am I right?”

Blood pounded through every vessel in his body. The need welling up inside him threatened to overcome his better judgment, to question the sudden change in her behavior. “What are you suggesting?”

A mischievous grin played upon her full lips. “No peeking.”

She folded the silk veil several times and tied it over his eyes, plunging him into darkness.