“The Lord’s Sharing?” I asked, hoping that that was one of the beliefs he found so repulsive.
Rider nodded and squeezed his eyes tightly shut as if ridding an unwanted image from his mind. “I didn’t know,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I didn’t know, I refused to believe this of our people . . . until I saw it with my own two eyes and had no choice but to see its ugly truth.” He sucked in a sharp exhale, and a guttural sound slipped from his chest. “I saw them hurting children, Harmony. Young girls being forced upon by grown men, their arms tied behind their backs with contraptions prizing their legs open.” Nausea clawed up my throat as I recalled what that trap felt like, pushing my thighs apart, the sting from the sharp teeth sinking into my tender flesh. I closed my eyes, just trying to rid myself of the memory of feeling a guard pushing inside me . . . of trying to hold in my screams because it would only give my chosen guard the satisfaction of hearing me cry.
“I couldn’t take it,” Rider said, pulling me from the past I tried hard to keep from my heart. I opened my eyes to see his fingers digging into the flesh on his legs. “I managed to stop one. I stopped a Lord’s Sharing . . . the first and only one I ever witnessed.”
“You did?” I asked, a sense of hope building within me.
“Then my brother, my only family, my only friend in this entire fucking world, cast me out. Put me in this cell and ordered daily beatings to make me see the error of my ways.” Rider’s eyes lifted until his gaze met mine, and his face broke down in tears. “He took it all away, Harmony . . . left me alone, and I . . . ” His voice got caught in his throat, and my heart burst apart, no longer able to see or hear this man breaking apart so completely.
I rushed forward, crawling to sit by his side. My eyes drank him in again, the sight of his face, hair and beard tricking my mind to run. My eyes tried to tell me this was the wicked Prophet Cain that had touched me and hit me so violently. But my heart . . . my heart told me this was a confused and battered soul that needed comfort.
Needed something and someone to be real . . . to be there for him.
I lifted a shaking hand and found Rider’s. He flinched as I touched him. By the way he blinked his tears away and looked at me in shock, I knew he had not seen or heard me approach. Without breaking his gaze, I turned his hand over and threaded my fingers through his. I watched as Rider’s scared and timid face was masked in confusion. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed in trepidation. His gaze fell from my face to land on our joined hands. I felt him squeeze them, as though testing I was truly there.
He closed his eyes, savoring the touch. The closeness. I let him have this moment. I studied him, feeling butterflies fluttering in my stomach. He had called me beautiful, but I could only think the same about him. His brown eyes and long dark hair were mesmerizing. His body was built to protect—hard and strong. But what I loved most when I looked into his gaze was the kindness it held.
He is good, you must remember that. No matter what. He is not a bad man. He is like us, beaten down and confused by how we were raised . . . but he is good . . .
The sister’s words played in my head. She had known who he was. She had known that he was the prophet.
Rider let out an agonized moan. I held his hand tighter, as he opened his mouth and said, “I tried to kill him, Harmony . . . ” Sympathetic tears ran down my cheeks. I had never heard someone so in pain, so broken and lost. “I tried to kill my brother to save you . . . to save us all . . . ” He took a deep breath. “To save you . . . from the wedding . . . ”
I stilled, the air fleeing my lungs. “What?” I said in disbelief.
“I could see what the thought of marrying him was doing to you.” Rider shook his head. “I know him, Harmony. I know what your life with him will look like—hell. Every day by his side will be pure hell. And the ceremony . . . what you will have to do in front of the people to seal your vow . . . ”
“So . . . so you tried to kill him? For me?”
My heart clenched. I had to marry the prophet . . . but he had tried to save me from that fate. My God . . . My guilt ran thick and strong.
Rider nodded, and the last ounce of strength he had in his beaten body faded away. He slumped farther back against the wall and his grip on my hand slackened.
“Rest,” I said, bringing my free hand to his face. Before I realized what I had done, I had run a finger down his cheek, the tip stopping at his full pink lips. Rider’s eyes locked on mine. I tried to breathe, but the air suddenly felt too thick and hot to try.
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