Mask of the Gladiator by Georgie Lee is a short story set in Ancient Rome in 41 AD. You know what that means right? Yep, that wacky Caligula is emperor. Needless to say, Lee uses the unrest surrounding Caligula's rule as the back-drop for her romance between a widow and a Senator posing as a gladiator.
Livia Duronius is at the Colosseum and has just watched an amazing gladiator emerge victorious. She's entranced by the man, but as a respectable widow with a reputation to uphold, having an affair with a slave just won't do. That is until she has a run-in with the emperor and her only desire is to escape the stench of death surrounding Rome. Before you can say Thank You Kindly Ma'am, her and the mysterious gladiator are having a sexy-times encounter.
Little does Livia know that her gladiator is none other than Senator Titus Marius, a man her uncle wants her to marry. Her first husband turned out to be such a blatant coward, that she's sworn herself off the institution. But will she change her mind once she realizes the man her uncle has hand-picked to protect her is the same man she saw fight so valiantly in the Colosseum?
This variation on the Mistaken Identity trope doesn't tend to work for me in full-length novels, but in a short story? It's a nice bit of conflict because there is no threat of it being dragged on for too long. Unfortunately, the rest of this romance could have really benefited from a longer word count. It's just a matter of the rest of the conflict. You have political intrigue, a plot to assassinate Caligula, the threat the emperor poses to Livia, on top of the romance. Something has to give, and unfortunately, it's the romance.
There's quite a bit of Insta-Love going on here. Certainly Titus and Livia have some great sexual chemistry, and their attraction is very immediate. But getting from that to love? It should take more than flipping on a light switch. Especially given that Livia has major trust issues when it comes to men. Granted, she did see Titus kick butt as a gladiator, a role he was playing to aid in Caligula's downfall, but she seems to easily set aside her past history, and literally lay her life in his hands. It just didn't ring true for me. Again, this is where a longer word count could have fleshed out Livia's hesitation and trust issues a bit more.
The story itself is a pretty good one, it just wasn't one I thought worked well in this short format. The author uses the history well, while making some healthy tweaks to it for the sake of her story. Also the juxtaposition of political intrigue, violence, sex and romance was very interesting. I'm sure not all romance readers want to read about Caligula ordering a "traitor" to his death, but I found it intriguing to have that side-by-side with the first sexual encounter between Livia and Titus.
Which means while this didn't knock my socks off, it was a quick read with some intriguing bits to it. If nothing else, it filled my need to read something a little different.
Final Grade = C+