Brave, p.11
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       Brave, p.11

         Part #3 of A Wicked Trilogy series by Jennifer L. Armentrout
 

  I didn’t want to answer that because he wouldn’t understand my answer.

  Ren dropped his hand and took a step back and then another. “Shit, Ivy.”

  Oh, this was not good. “I don’t know what to say.”

  “I think that says it all,” he replied, voice rough.

  “No—no, that doesn’t say anything.” A different kind of panic blossomed in the center of my chest. None of this was going how I’d planned. Then again, I didn’t have much of a plan. Ren had been right about the whole knee jerk thing. “You don’t understand. If I had—”

  “You’re right. I don’t understand, Ivy. I cannot even comprehend how you could walk out of here without saying anything to me.” His gaze drifted over me in a way that made me think he wasn’t sure who he was staring at. “After everything that has happened, you’d do that to me?”

  My spine stiffened. “I’d do anything to protect you. Just like you’d do anything to protect me, right?”

  “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” he exploded. “Does protecting me include stressing me the fuck out?”

  I folded my arms over my chest. “Well, no—”

  “Okay. How about having me go insane with worry?” He stepped forward, chin dipped. “Does protecting me also mean leaving me to think the goddamn worst thing has happened to you again? That another fae got to you or worse?”

  I jolted. “I would’ve left a letter. I wouldn’t—”

  “A letter? You have got to be shitting me.” Lifting a hand, he thrust his fingers through his messy hair. “I should’ve known.” Dropping his hand, he laughed harshly. “You’ve already done this before.”

  “What do you mean I’ve done this before? Last I checked, this is the first time we’ve found ourselves in this predicament.”

  His eyes widened with disbelief. “It’s not. Back at that damn mansion you made a deal with that son of a bitch to free me.”

  My arms fell to my sides. “That is not like this at all.”

  “It’s not? You put yourself in danger needlessly,” he argued.

  “What was I supposed to do?” I shouted, fighting back tears. “He was going to kill you, Ren. Do you not get that? What else was I supposed to do?”

  “Anything but agree to give yourself to that monster to free me!” he yelled back, body tense.

  Air lodged in my throat as I stumbled back a step.

  “Did you think I forgot about that?” He shook his head. “The hell I’m letting you walk out of here to do that again.”

  “Are you going to stop me?” I shot back. “Lock me up in this room? Chain me to the bed?”

  One side of his lips curved up in a humorless smile. “Don’t tempt me, Ivy, because you’re obviously in need of someone to make better life choices for you.”

  My heart thundered in my chest. The ever-present fury that had been simmering inside long before I escaped the Prince erupted like a super volcano. “Really?”

  “Really.” He crossed his arms. “At least then I know I won’t find you in a bloody heap somewhere, or you won’t be running around, getting yourself captured.”

  I lost it. “Then that makes you no better than the Prince!”

  Blood drained from Ren’s face. Immediately, I knew I’d gone too far. Holding anyone anywhere wasn’t cool, but Jesus, Ren was nothing like the Prince.

  What was wrong with me?

  Something had to be for me to say that to him. Something horrible. But I didn’t get a chance for some deep self-discovery to figure out exactly how much my head was messed up.

  Ren’s expression locked down. “Tanner said that the fae should be here tomorrow. Can you wait until then before you run off and do—” He looked away for a moment and then refocused on me. “Do whatever it is you’re going to do?”

  I flinched. His tone was so incredibly distant—cold. I’d never heard him sound like that to me. Ever.

  “Will you stay?” he demanded, emerald eyes blazing. “Stay until the ones Tanner thinks can locate the Crystal come? If that’s a bust, then I won’t say a word. Promise me you will stay at least until then. Please.”

  Part of me didn’t want to risk waiting another hour. Who knew when these magical Crystal sniffing fae were actually going to show up. I had no doubt in my mind that the Prince would discover this place, but we probably had a couple of days before that happened. Maybe even a week, but when the Prince did come, I knew there wouldn’t even be hours before he broke through.

  Ren . . . Ren had said please, and all I could think of was him saying that same word to me, begging me to hang on when I’d been injured.

  I exhaled raggedly, plopping down on the bed. “Fine. I’ll stay until they get here, but if they can’t help—”

  “You’re out,” he growled. “Got it.”

  My gaze flickered to his. “Ren—”

  “Don’t,” he cut me off, and my stomach soured. “I don’t want to hear whatever is about to come out of your mouth.”

  I stiffened. There was no mistaking the fury etched into his face or in his tone. It was restrained but there, like the eye of the storm in the middle of a hurricane.

  “I know you’ve been through hell and you’re trying to deal. Damn, I know that there’s a huge part of you still stuck in that hell, especially after the attack and what we did to save you—what happened between us afterward. I know there’s a huge part of you still there, back at that house. That’s what wakes you up every night and that’s why you spend your day hiding from me—from everyone. That’s why you don’t talk to me.”

  “I-I talk to you,” I said, feeling my throat squeeze shut.

  “Bullshit,” he shot back. “Seeing you hurting and having no clue how to help you kills me—eats away at me every damn day. That pain is worse than anything I went through at that damn house.”

  “You haven’t talked to me!” I reminded him. “It’s not like you’ve done the whole caring and sharing thing.”

  “You haven’t asked, Ivy.”

  Air lodged in my throat. Oh God, he was right. I hadn’t . . . I hadn’t asked.

  “But you want to know now? Fine. As you already know, I got my ass captured the night you told me you were the Halfling. I was caught up in my head and walked right into a damn trap that bitch had set. I got knocked out, and when I woke up, I was in that pitch-black cell, chained to a damn wall. I saw the Prince first and that’s how I knew what he was going to do. After feeding and beating the shit out of me, he became me. Then he left me to Breena.”

  My stomach twisted.

  “That bitch knows how to use her nails and teeth.”

  The image of his bare chest surfaced. His skin had been shredded and bitten. I could taste the fury I’d felt upon seeing him and I wanted to draw blood all over again. “Did she . . . ?”

  “Did she force herself on me?” His eyes flashed. “Would it change things if she had?”

  “God. No.” Everything inside of me was twisted up. “It wouldn’t be your fault. I wouldn’t think differently of you or anything like that.”

  Ren was quiet for a long moment. “She messed with me, but she was more interested in fucking with my head than my body. Pretty confident she’s actually disgusted by humans and wouldn’t lower herself to screw one. Did she say something different?”

  A bit of relief swept through me, but it was bittersweet. Knowing that what Breena claimed had happened between them was false didn’t lessen the horrific things that were done to Ren. “She did, and I was never sure if I believed her. Faye said Breena hadn’t, but Faye would lie to keep me from attacking Breena.” Memories of Breena’s taunts returned. “She knew where your Order tattoo was.”

  The three interlocking spirals were in the same place as mine, near my hipbone.

  “Their favorite pastime was to strip me naked and leave me to freeze my balls off.”

  “Jesus.” Exhaling raggedly, I sat back down on the bed. The weariness returned, dampening the anger until it returned to a simmer.
r />   The silence was broken when Ren said, “I know that I’m only aware of about one tenth of the shit you went through there, and I’ve wanted to know all of it. Every single damn horrible thing so that I can be there for you, but I’ve waited, because I wanted you to be ready—to be at the point where you can talk to me. So it shocks the shit out of me that you were going to run without me, without even telling me. That you didn’t want me beside you, no matter what.”

  Anything I was about to say turned to ash on my tongue. That wasn’t how I meant for it to come across. Not at all.

  He swallowed hard. “And you know what I just now realized? You’ve been running without me this whole time, haven’t you? There’s never been an us. There’s been you and then there’s been me chasing you.”

  Tears crawled up the back of my throat as I rose on shaky knees. “That’s not how it’s been. Ren, that’s—”

  “It’s not? You might want to think about that.” He stepped back, opening the door. “The fucked up thing, Ivy? You were willing to stay, but not for me—not for us. And that’s not because you’re trying to protect me. You were bailing on me. You were bailing on us—if there ever really was an us.”

  Chapter 12

  I did a lot of thinking that night.

  It was all I did.

  And for once, I didn’t spend the night thinking about what had happened or what could’ve happened while the Prince held me captive. I wasn’t even thinking about getting stabbed. Instead, I lay there, my thoughts consumed by what Ren had said as I stared at the bland white ceiling.

  Ren had left and hadn’t come back to our room, and I didn’t sleep, nor did I put all my clothes back in the dresser. Instead, I’d created myself a little bug-out bag, stashing about two days’ worth of clothing in the bag and placing it back in the closet just in case we ran out of time.

  Then I’d waited.

  Part of me had expected Ren to return, but the other half knew that what I had planned cut him deep and a few hours wasn’t going to stitch the hole I dug open in him back together. I hadn’t meant for everything to turn out the way it did. I just wasn’t . . .

  God, I just wasn’t thinking straight.

  Now that I was here, all alone, with nothing but my own stupid head to keep myself company, I realized that the whole take off running with no idea where to go was incredibly stupid and cruel. So damn cruel, not just to Ren but also to Tink.

  Ren had been right about what my leaving would’ve done to them. It would’ve been terrible, and even though I’d had the best of intentions, in all honestly, they were panicked intentions.

  I gave way to panic, and the idea of running was at least doing something other than sitting around and twiddling my thumbs.

  Or getting stabbed.

  You’ve been running without me this entire time.

  It took several hours for me to work through the denial of that statement. Had I been running from him this entire time? I didn’t want to believe it, because it was so terrible.

  God, it sucked ass to admit it to myself, but it was true. Even from the beginning I’d made everything exceptionally difficult for Ren. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a challenge. When I met Ren, he was the first guy I was interested in after the death of Shaun. I’d been so closed off, so awkward at being interested in a guy. Things had been easier between us when I finally opened up to him—when I finally allowed myself to fall in love with Ren.

  But then I found out I was the Halfling.

  That was when I started lying to him—when I started running. Maybe not physically but definitely mentally. I hadn’t told him about seeing the Prince outside Cafe Du Monde. I’d hid the truth of what I was until I virtually blurted it out to him on the damn street. Ren had been trained since birth and he was a member of the Elite. He knew how to take care of himself, but I’d blindsided him, bringing his biggest fear to life. Not only that, but I’d constantly cut him out of decisions. It wasn’t like I had to include him in everything. Lord knows Ren never expected that from me or anyone, but when you are with someone, when you love them, you include them.

  You’re a team.

  You don’t hide things from them. You sure as hell don’t lie, and you don’t compare them to a monster.

  I’d screwed up, more than once, and long before the Prince had dug his claws in me.

  Now the gulf between us truly seemed unsurpassable.

  No wonder Ren felt the way he did. We never really got the chance to have normalcy in our relationship. To go out on dates and spend lazy weekends at home, exploring each other and inevitably getting on each other’s nerves. We hadn’t gotten the chance to have normal fights, about what to eat or if we wanted more in the future. We didn’t get the chance to build any amount of trust, which was why I was amazed by how accepting and patient he’d been up until a few hours ago. We were still . . . new at us, and we never got a chance to fully take off and become anything.

  Everything had been rocky in the beginning, ragged in the middle, and now . . . at possibly the end . . . it was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

  We were broken.

  It wasn’t all on me. Ren taking part in that compulsion and allowing me to feed on him wasn’t a small misdeed. I got why he did it. I even understood it, but it still happened and it was still between us. But other than that? I was woman enough to know it was on me.

  And I had no idea if it was fixable or if Ren wanted to repair the damage, but I did know that it wouldn’t matter if Ren ended up killed or if the Prince was somehow successful when it came to getting himself a bouncing baby. Our relationship was the least of our worries. Not that it didn’t feel like my chest was being cracked open and my heart spooned out of me. It did. It hurt just as bad as getting stabbed in the back.

  I needed to focus, though. I needed to get my shit straight before I could even think about getting my house in order.

  The Prince was going to find me. Eventually. Because at the moment, I was an easier target for him than to find another halfling somewhere in the world, especially since the Elite made it their duty to straight-up murder any they came across.

  For the whole baby Armageddon to work, the baby-making between the Prince and I had to be consensual. He had to know that was never, ever going to happen, so what could the Prince hope to accomplish? The only reason he’d gotten me to agree to stay with him, to be with him, was to free Ren.

  He had collateral.

  And Drake still did.

  It was in the wee hours of the morning when it struck me that I’d been wrong about the Prince killing Ren on sight, and that realization was what had me pacing the room until the sun began to rise.

  The Prince wouldn’t kill Ren. Oh no, he would use him against me, just like he’d done before. The Prince would do the same with Tink if he discovered his presence. He still had the means to control me. All he needed was to get his hands on one of them.

  Stopping at the window, I lifted my gaze to the fading stars.

  I was back to square one.

  Even if I left here, the Prince would still go after Ren, because he knew it would draw me back from the ends of the Earth. He’d do what he did before, use Ren, and even though I knew what was at stake, I loved Ren. I couldn’t be the reason he was hurt. Not again. Never again after Shaun. That was my weakness.

  Not Ren, but my past.

  Shivering, I saw that there were only three options before me, and as the last of the stars twinkled out, I knew running wasn’t one of them.

  Find the Crystal and complete the ritual.

  Figure out how to weaken the Prince and kill him.

  Or go down the path that had stopped Tink from telling me from day one that I was the Halfling. The same path Ren and Tink had yanked me from a few days ago, which was to permanently remove myself from the equation.

  I looked like crap as I stared in the mirror, having had only a few hours of sleep and still no sign of Ren. The healthy glow from sucking the essence out of him was lost in the
dark shadows under my eyes and the, well, slightly shimmery skin that wasn’t actually a shimmer. Tink had been wrong about that. So had I.

  It was a very faint silvery sheen that only looked shimmery. I knew this because I was standing in front of the long mirror attached to the back of the bathroom door, buck ass naked for a while now.

  Before my skin started to look like I had covered myself in Urban Decay eye shadow, staring at myself completely naked wasn’t something I did often. I mean, I really didn’t need to check out
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