Contessa Donnatella di Poliziano is a powerful vampire who was born centuries ago. When the Roman Empire was at the height of its prosperity, Donnatella was know as Livia Quintus Lucellus, and she was a very wealthy and influential woman. During that time, Livia met the man who would become the one true love of her life, but he was a human. Believing in the rule put in place by the elders that stated born vampires must never create other vampires, Livia cherished her time with her love, but eventually was forced to watch him grow old and die. Ever since, it has been the biggest regret of her life. Now living in 19th century Italy, she discovers a mysterious letter, leading her to a machine invented by her old friend Leonardo da Vinci. He believed the machine would be able to transport a person through time, but he never had a power source strong enough to test it. Calling upon the potent energy produced by her Companion, Donatella travels back to ancient Rome to right the wrongs of the past, hoping to finally be with her lover for eternity, but when she encounters her younger self, the two women merge, causing her to forget her mission.
Jergan is a strong Celtic warrior who was captured when the Roman army invaded his homeland of Britannia and taken to the city to be sold as a slave. He is surprised when he is purchased by a beautiful young woman who wishes him to be her bodyguard. He is even more stunned when she treats him with decency. Although Jergan feels a strong immediate attraction for Livia and believes it is reciprocated, she initially refuses to sleep with a man who is her slave even though it is a common practice in Rome, which only confounds him all the more. Soon love begins to blossom between them as they discover a deep mutual respect for the honor they see in each other. But Livia is playing a dangerous political game in an attempt to rid Rome of its unjust leader, which could result in destruction for them both. Each day, the feeling that there is something she must accomplish grows stronger, while the danger increases as well. Eventually, Livia will have to choose between leaving Rome in an attempt to save their lives, and staying to satisfy the unquenchable urge to discover the truth of what her strange dreams and the voices in her head mean for her future with Jergan.
One with the Darkness is a cross-over book, bridging two of Susan Squires' series. It is book #6 in the Companion series, featuring Donatella, a vampire who was introduced in the previous book, One with the Shadows, as the hero, Gian Urbano's mother. This is the love story of Gian's parents who met in ancient Rome. It is also the first book in the spin-off, DaVinci Time Travel series, as it follows Donatella's efforts to right the worst mistake she'd ever made in her centuries-long life by not turning her one true love into a vampire all those years ago. Instead, she watched him grow old and die, believing she couldn't break the vampire code, which dictated that born vampires should never turn humans into vampires, and has lived with her deepest regret for hundreds of years since. To accomplish her task, she travels back in time to the moment when she met her husband, using a time machine invented by her good friend, Leonardo DaVinci.
Donatella, who was known throughout most of the story as Livia Quintus Lucellus, the name which she went by in ancient Rome, is a strong, determined woman. She has spent the many long years of her life cultivating a persona as a woman of power and wealth. Even though historically women were often subject to a man's whims, she always found ways to place herself right in the thick of important events, in an attempt to influence their outcome for the greater good. In her role in ancient Rome, she was the mastermind behind the plot to assassinate Caligula. How that all turned out and how her future self traveling back in time affected the previous outcome was the stuff of good time travel stories. I also enjoyed how much of an influence she had on historical events, and how she essentially used her machinations as a way to help prevent some of the boredom and ennui that is so common to the vampires in this series. It was like the wheels in her head were always turning, working on figuring out how to make the world a better place, which is exactly what I would probably be doing if I had a lifespan as long as hers. Livia is an honorable woman who has developed a distaste for the slavery that was so common in ancient Rome. She buys slaves out of necessity, but always treats them with kindness and respect, and always eventually grants them their freedom. As a result, most of her slaves are so grateful, they are happy to stay on after being freed as paid household help. This same treatment extended to Jergan when she bought him, and because of that, her relationship with him began as one based on mutual respect of the other's honorable nature.
Although a barbarian from ancient Britannia, Jergan is an intelligent man who was well-educated by his father about matters pertaining to the world at large. He can speak Latin and knows his geography equally as well as he knows how to farm his family's land. When Rome invaded, Jergan took up arms and became an accomplished warrior and military leader, fighting for his country and their allies. Eventually though, he was captured by the Romans and taken back to the city to be sold as a slave. When Livia buys him, he's initially pretty surly toward her, at least in his own mind, but he quickly comes to realize that his fate could have been far worse than acting as a bodyguard for a beautiful and honorable woman who treats him well as long as he's willing to perform his job satisfactorily. Even if he didn't, he knew she wouldn't beat him like most masters would, but rather she'd return him to the slave market to take his chances with someone else. That thought didn't appeal, so Jergan was more than willing to offer his protection to a woman who is so unlike all the other Romans he's met so far. I think it was the fact that she was so different that made him fall for her so quickly, but of course, he doesn't know at first just how different she is. I like that when Jergan slowly started finding out about Livia's powers, he didn't automatically jump to the conclusion that she was evil or not to be trusted. He used the analytical ability and good sense taught to him by his father to think things through and found that he honestly wasn't frightened of her powers at all. He just took each new revelation in stride, and ultimately, felt like an ordinary human like him wasn't worthy of an extraordinary creature like her.
As I mentioned Livia and Jergan's romance is one that at first is based on mutual admiration of the honor they see in one another. That seed grows quickly, as Livia realizes within only a few days that she can trust this barbarian. She may not truly need him to preserve her life, but she instinctively knows she can trust him with her plot against the Emperor as well as her secret of being a vampire, which she reveals to him slowly. I liked that Livia showed Jergan right from the start that he could trust her by taking personal responsibility for his well-being, bathing, clothing and properly feeding him, which he initially doesn't understand. To him, it seems like she's debasing herself with a slave. I also like that although she was quite attracted to him, she didn't choose to sleep with him right away, even though it was a common practice in Rome for slave owners to use their slaves in such a way. When she finally does give in to her passion, she is careful to make sure that he isn't doing it because he feels obligated by his position and that their desire is mutual. For a long time, Livia struggles with whether turning Jergan would be the right thing to do and whether he would even want such a thing. Not only does she think that he may find the prospect distasteful, she worries that he won't be staying with her and once free, would rather return to his home in Britannia. Of course, it took until the final pages of the book for them to both get over their doubts about the other and to lay all their cards on the table, but that moment along with the epilogue were very affirming of their love and rightness for one another. No matter what they were doing Livia and Jergan simply made a great team, who were always looking out for one another and were great friends as well as lovers.
I really enjoyed the setting of One with the Darkness. I haven't read many romances set in ancient Rome, so that alone made it somewhat unique. While I haven't done a great deal of study on the Roman Empire, I know enough to feel confident in saying that the author did her homework well. Many real-life personages were included as supporting characters including Caligula himself, his uncle, Claudius, two of his sisters, Cassius Chaerea, a high-ranking member of the Praetorian Guard, and quite possibly actual members of the Roman Senate as well. Of course, the author put her own intriguing spin on events and took a bit of creative license, but all in all, I really felt like I'd taken a trip back to when Rome was at the height of power in the world.
Overall, I enjoyed reading One with the Darkness. There were only two small things that made me knock off the half star. I'm all for a good tortured hero, but Susan Squires kind of seems to be taking it a bit far in this series. Not a single hero thus far has escaped being brutally raped and tortured at the hands of sadistic women. In the beginning of the series, it was relatively novel, but now it's starting to get a little old. I will admit that in this book, the torment to which Jergan was subjected wasn't as extreme as in some of the earlier books of the series, but I still have to wonder what's up with that. I tried to shrug it off though, and just chalk it up to being one of Ms. Squires' writing quirks. The other thing was Jergan making love to Livia not long after he was raped without there having been opportunity for, or mention of, a bath or any kind of clean-up in between. I'm not usually bothered by many things of this nature in romance (not like many other readers are), but this just seemed rather icky to me. However, I simply tried not to think about it too much. Otherwise, this is a solid and well-written story that made for some pleasant reading, and it certainly won't turn me off to reading more of this talented author's work in the future. In fact, I'm very much looking forward to finishing the Companion series and continuing with the DaVinci Time Travel series, especially since time traveling is a favorite trope of mine when it's done well, as it is here.
Note: The love scenes between the hero and heroine are steamy but contain nothing outside the norm for a romance novel. However, there are a couple of scenes in which Livia and Jergan attend parties being thrown by Roman dignitaries in which the decadence of the culture is shown in the form of orgiastic practices. There is also mention of a man having sex with a young girl and multiple mentions of incest between the Emperor and his sisters, hence the higher sensuality rating from me. These things are mostly shown via Livia and Jergan's observations of the things going on around them and aren't really described in great detail. There is, however, one graphic scene of the hero being raped and tortured.
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