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Strings Attached

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One: Nathaniel

The first time Nathaniel saw her, he thought he’d never seen anyone so beautiful in his entire life.

The fact that she was rescuing him from weeks of literal torture had nothing to do with it, he was sure. Not that he wasn’t entirely, embarrassingly grateful for the rescue, of course, but he was certain if he’d first seen her on the street at the market in Markham, he’d have been just as awestruck. She had hair like flame, a few little braids with beads decorating their ends, and the sweetest smile he could imagine – though the first expression he could remember seeing on her was one of horror and, unfortunately, pity.

Not the most auspicious beginning, he couldn’t help but think. He’d have given much to meet her in other circumstances.

How she had taken up so much of his thoughts when they clearly had other, rather pressing matters to attend to was ridiculous. After all, he’d just made up his mind to kill someone – someone who had never harmed him, who in fact had gone out of her way to help him, someone who didn’t deserve what his father was going to do to her. Or, really, force him to do to her – because that had been the catch. He didn’t just have to watch the woman who’d nursed him for a month be raped or tortured – he had to do it. To be the one to rape her – or to return himself to the torture chamber, and let his brother have her. She’d begged him to kill her – and he’d finally, reluctantly, said yes.

And now he was being rescued by an angel, and instead of standing up and taking a weapon, instead of boldly leading the charge to confront his father, he was limping along – probably only upright thanks to the mage they’d brought with them – unarmed, barely able to keep up. And to his utter mortification, she’d had to help him, both down the stairs into the dungeon and through the labyrinthine hallways underneath the estate.

Seeing his father, hearing the bastard taunt Aedan – the only one who’d escaped from the slaughter that had been perpetrated on his castle and his family – had been too much. He’d found the energy from somewhere – sheer rage, he thought – to face his father, and to ensure that he could never harm anyone again.

And the entire time, he could feel her eyes on him, as palpable as a touch. But this wasn’t market day back in Markham, and he had no right to feel that way about her. His shame was overwhelming, and he turned his face away to hide it from her. He was the son of a monster, too weak to stop his father, too weak to endure the torture any longer, too weak to end it himself so he couldn’t be used any more. He couldn’t protect Thomas, or Kallian, or any of the other countless innocents his father had harmed. He didn’t deserve to escape from the dungeon alive, never mind to pine over a pretty girl he could offer nothing – not even his own integrity.