Chapter 37 Part 1

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Braeden should never have agreed to fight Sam. She was barely a week out of the infirmary, but even if she were in full health, he would be stronger and faster than she was. He knew what she’d do if he dared say that aloud—she would flamboyantly twirl her sword and accuse him of treating her like an ordinary girl. She was as strong and fast as any man, she’d say.

Braeden knew that. Sam was…amazing. Watching her fight was like watching a thunder storm—powerful and violent and beautiful. He’d never once doubted that she was a warrior, more than worthy of fighting alongside the most elite men.

What Sam refused to accept was that Braeden was no ordinary man.  He wasn’t stronger and faster than her because she was a woman; he was stronger and faster than her because he was a monster. There wasn’t a man alive who could best him—not even Tristan—except his master, and he was as much a monster as Braeden was.

There was no reason for Braeden to participate in this absurd duel—what, would they fight in Sam’s silly pink bedroom?—and he’d meant to refuse her. But he was so damned weak when it came to Sam; it had taken one look at her crestfallen face and he’d relented.

What was the harm, really? He’d defeat her handily—maybe then she’d understand the threat he posed to her—and they would part on cordial if not friendly terms. Braeden remembered the last time they had almost said goodbye…His cheeks flushed involuntarily. He would not demand another kiss from her.  Though she’d asked him to forget it, the memory of Sam’s lips on his would torture him for a lifetime.

“Will you fight me, Braeden?” There was a pleading desperation in Sam’s eyes that Braeden didn’t want to interpret. He had to remain steadfast, and that way lay temptation.

His dagger was already in his hands, but still he said, “This is foolishness, Sam. You will prove nothing.”

“I will agree that this is foolishness if you agree that leaving is foolishness.” Sam stepped closer to him, holding her scimitar straight out from her shoulder. “I know you don’t want to fight me, and I don’t want to fight you, either.”

Braeden wrapped his hand around her blade and felt the satisfaction of steel cutting into his palm. Sam winced. “Stop it,” she said.

“I would rather bleed until my body is dry and empty,” he said, “than draw a single drop of your blood. But that choice has been taken away from me.”

 “I believe in you, Braeden,” Sam said. “I wish you’d believe in yourself.”

The strength of her conviction gutted him, and his frustration boiled over.  “Stop deluding yourself, Sam! You know what I am! I am not the knight in shining armor in some ridiculous fairy tale—look to Tristan for that!”

“I. Don’t. Want. Tristan.” Sam enunciated each word. “And if this were a fairy tale, I’d be my own damned knight.”

Braeden let go of Sam’s sword and stalked toward her. “If you are the knight, then I am the dragon. Do you know how many innocent lives have died by my hand? Hundreds, Sam. Maybe more. I could rend the world in twain, and you would pretend that there is no evil within me. This man—this good and noble man—you imagine me to be, I’m not him, no matter how much I want to be.” He broke off. When he spoke again, his voice was harsh and low. “I am nothing more than a collared monster, and the High Commander holds my leash.  I don’t trust myself, and neither should you.”

“Coward,” Sam spat. “That’s what you are. You would give up everything because you’re afraid of yourself. I know who and what you are, and I’m not afraid. Fight me, you coward!” She struck out with her scimitar, sliding it along his dagger.

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