Brave, p.15
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       Brave, p.15

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

  “When will we discuss finding Marlon?”

  Still focused on Merle, he said, “We’ve already discussed it.”

  A hot flush swept over me. “You have?”

  Only then did he look at me. “A few hours ago. A team leaves at nine in the morning to scout for him.”

  I saw red. “And I’m guessing I was conveniently left out of this meeting?”

  Tanner’s gaze dropped away.

  A bitter laugh punched out of me. “But I bet Ren wasn’t. During this meeting did he tell you about my plan to leave?”

  “He did before Fabian and his consul arrived,” Tanner answered. “I do believe he didn’t mean for this to happen.” He glanced wryly at Merle. “I made the error of mentioning it to Merle, who as you can see, had a strong reaction.”

  I was about to have a strong reaction.

  “I will be with whatever team leaves tomorrow.” I stepped around Tanner and Merle, silently daring her to get those handcuffs near me. “I am done with this conversation.”

  I didn’t give them the chance to respond, stalking out into the hallway. I made it about five feet.

  “Ivy. Wait.” It was Tink.

  Inhaling deeply, I turned to tell him that whatever he had to say had to wait, but I saw the look on his face.

  His expression was stricken. “You were going to leave me?”

  Oh God. “I—”

  “You really were going to do that?” Tink crept closer, his eyes welling with emotion. “Why would you do that?”

  Running my hands down my face, I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. The Prince—”

  “Found a new halfling and doesn’t care about you anymore. Yeah, I was there for that.” His hands opened and closed at his sides. “But before? You were planning to leave me—leave us. That’s why Ren is so upset.”

  “Well, there are a lot of reasons why he’s upset, but yes, that’s one of them.”

  Tink stared at me for so long that unease filled me. “So, you were going to leave without telling me.”

  I shifted my weight, uncomfortable. “I learned that the Prince could get through the glamour. I . . . I panicked. All I could think about was him using you or Ren. I thought that if I left, then you guys wouldn’t be at risk.”

  “Did you not think that we would’ve freaked out and left, looking for you?” he demanded.

  “I didn’t really think it through.”

  “No.” Hurt filled his eyes. “You didn’t.”

  Shame settled over me like a coarse blanket. “I know, and I’m sorry. I would do . . . I would do anything to protect you two.”

  “And we’d do anything to protect you,” he said quietly. “You saved my life, Ivy.”

  “You saved mine,” I reminded him.

  “And you yelled at me for it.” When I started to respond, he continued on. “I get why. I do.”

  I rubbed the heel of my palm against my hip. “Can we . . . I don’t know? Start over? I really am sorry. It was a stupid plan—”

  “A cruel and stupid plan.”

  “Yes.” I sighed. “It was.”

  He lifted his chin. “I already lost my family once. I do not want to lose my family again, Ivy.”

  My breath caught.

  “And that’s what you are to me—you and even Ren,” he said, and I sort of wished Ren was here to hear that. “You two are all that I have. If you had left me, it would’ve killed me.”

  Guilt was a knot in my throat, one I needed to live with. I stepped forward, placing my hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Tink. I just panicked, and I know that’s not a good excuse, but it’s the truth. I panicked and I didn’t think about what it would do to you and Ren. And that was wrong, because you two are all I have left. You are . . .” I drew in a deep breath. “You’re my family.”

  Tink studied me a moment and then sprang forward, wrapping his long arms around me. He hugged me—hugged me tight, and I reacted without thought, folding my arms around him. Squeezing my eyes closed against the sudden rush of tears, I planted my face against his chest.

  I was learning Tink gave great hugs.

  “All is forgiven,” Tink murmured into my ear. “But if you ever think about doing something like that again, I will not forgive you.”

  “Okay,” I whispered thickly.

  “And I will go onto Amazon and order some weird shit. Not only that, I’ll make my wish list public, which means it will be your wish list,” he continued. “You don’t want that.”

  My lips twitched as I pulled back. “I don’t want that.”

  “Good.”

  Drawing in a deep breath, I glanced at the closed door to the gym. “I need to find Ren. Do you have any idea where he’s at?”

  “I think he’s at the pool.”

  Surprise filled me. “There’s a pool?”

  Tink looked at me like I was half stupid. “All the roaming around you’ve done and you haven’t found the pool yet? You are not living your best life.”

  Tink was right.

  I wasn’t living my best life if I didn’t know there was a damn pool in this building, and there apparently was one on the second floor. The faint scent of chlorine led the way, and with each step, my earlier anger resurfaced with the vengeance of a thousand burning suns.

  I knew I’d made a mistake with the whole leaving thing. Ren had been right. It had been a knee-jerk reaction, but him running to Tanner was going too far.

  It was time to have that strong reaction that didn’t include crying and feeling like a douche.

  Slamming my hands into the double doors, I burst into the room and immediately came to an abrupt halt. My eyes widened. The room was large and bright due to the floor-to-ceiling windows all along the furthest side. The pool was one of those huge ones, Olympic size, but it wasn’t the pool that had rendered me completely incapable of moving.

  It was Ren.

  “Holy crap,” I whispered.

  He didn’t hear me, because he was currently gliding under the water like some kind of sea God, his body sleek and quick as he swam. He was only wearing what appeared to be black boxer briefs. There was a pile of neatly folded clothing on a nearby bench, and I could almost picture him standing there, folding the jeans and shirt. His shoes were tucked under the bench.

  The panther tattoo on his back moved with him, an absolutely stunning piece of artwork somehow highlighted by the glistening water. Lean muscles along his back flexed as he broke the surface in the deep end. He didn’t see me at first, which was great because it gave me more time to creep on him as he lifted his powerful arms, pushing the water and hair from his face.

  My mouth dried as a zing shot from my chest to my core. He was. . . .

  Ren’s head swung sharply in my direction. Those eyes were like polished emerald jewels, placed perfectly behind thick, wet lashes.

  Tense silence filled the room as we stared at one another. He was the one to break it.

  “Hey,” he said, wading away from the middle of the pool, toward the edge where I stood.

  I blinked slowly and then got my hormones in check. Okay. Ren was hot and he looked like some kind of God. Whatever. I was not that easily distracted.

  “I am so pissed at you right now,” I told him.

  “Really,” he replied dryly, dropping a heavy arm on the cement. One side of his lips kicked up. “Is that any different from this morning when you were pissed at me?”

  “Oh.” I laughed harshly. “You think this is funny?”

  The smirk didn’t fade. “I always think you’re funny, Sweetness.”

  Did he now? “Okay. I’ll show you something that’s really funny.”

  His other arm came up and landed on the cement. “You have a riveted audience for it.”

  Spinning around, I stalked toward the bench and picked up his clothing.

  “Ivy—”

  I whirled and engaged full-bitch mode, darting to the end of the pool.

  “Don’t you dare. I swear to God, Ivy!” Muscles in hi
s arms pumped as he lifted himself straight out the pool. He was on his feet within seconds. “Ivy—”

  “Too late.” I threw his clothing into the pool.

  Ren spun, but there was no saving his stuff. His shirt and tactical pants landed with a satisfying splash. He stared at them for a moment.

  “Fuck,” he spat.

  I faced him, grinning like the Mad Hatter. “That was real funny, wasn’t it?”

  His narrowed gaze landed on me. “Are you out of your mind?”

  “Nah, but I’m thinking you are.”

  “I’m the crazy one? You just threw my clothes into the pool!”

  “And I wish I could do it again!” I stalked up to him. Since he was a good foot taller than me, I had to lean my head back to glare at him. “You ratted me out to Tanner!”

  Understanding flared in his face and then he rolled his eyes. “That’s why you threw my stuff in the pool? Jesus, Ivy.” He coughed out a short laugh. “I told Tanner this morning before that Summer Prince showed up.”

  “Oh, so because you ratted me out before it became irrelevant makes it okay?”

  His brows furrowed. “He needed to know in case you didn’t hold to your promise and made a run for it.”

  I gaped at him. “Are you serious?”

  Shoving his wet hair off his face, he stepped back. “As serious as you throwing my shit into the pool.”

  “I’m about to throw you into the pool,” I snapped, struggling to not let my gaze wander from his face, because he was wet and had a lot of hard skin on display. “You didn’t have to tell him.”

  A muscle ticked in his jaw as he looked away, and dammit, my gaze dropped. His chest was all wet and hard, and water still coursed down those taut abs. The band on his briefs hung indecently low and they left little to the imagination. Soaking wet, they clung to every long, hard inch. . . .

  Wait. Was he hard?

  My eyes widened.

  Yes. Yes, he was.

  “My face is up here,” Ren mocked.

  I flushed as my gaze jerked to his. “Asshole.”

  “Not that I mind you staring at me like you want to take a bite out of me, but right now, I’m kind of worried you might actually bite.”

  I folded my arms over my chest. “I promised you that I’d stay until we learned about the Crystal, and I would have.” My hands curled into fists. “You could’ve trusted me.”

  Shaking his head, he looked up at the ceiling. “I trust you, Ivy. I trust you to always do what I least expect.”

  My head tilted to the side. “Do you have a death wish right now?”

  Ren looked away again, frowning as his pants floated past us. “I’m sorry that you didn’t like that I told Tanner, but I felt he needed to know since he’d given us shelter—not the greatest shelter, but a place nonetheless. Who knows what would’ve happened if you’d left, what effect could’ve rippled back on this place? But no, that’s not something you thought about.” His hard gaze found mine. “You know, with your great escape plan and all.”

  Dammit, he had a bit of a point there, but I sure as hell wasn’t telling him that. “Do you know what Merle did?”

  “I didn’t tell Merle shit.”

  “But Tanner did,” I said. “She showed up just a few minutes ago with a pair of handcuffs. Yes. Handcuffs.”

  “What?” He laughed, this time the sound lighter, more genuine. “I would’ve paid money to see that.”

  “Are you for real?”

  He said something and laughed again, and I swear my vision went white with rage. Storming forward, I slammed my hands into his chest.

  His laugh was cut off as he lost his balance, falling backward.

  I don’t even know how what happened next went down. Ren’s arms flailed out and he must’ve grabbed my arm, because the next thing I knew I was falling sideways into the pool.

  My shriek was silenced by the rush of water swallowing me whole. I sank nearly to the bottom, eyes squeezed tight, mouth full of air.

  Holy shit, the water was cooold.

  Using my feet against the bottom, I pushed my way to the top, breaking the surface and gasping for air. I could hear splashing next to me, alerting me to Ren doing the same thing. The impact had knocked my hair down, and it covered my face like a red, tangled veil. Using one arm to swim to the side, I used the other hand to push it out of my face.

  Ren turned in the water toward me, his eyes wide with surprise. “You pushed me into the pool.”

  “You pulled me into the pool!” My feet reached the stairs.

  He stared at me for a moment and then did the craziest thing. Ren started laughing—laughing deep, belly laughs as he held on to the other side of the pool.

  Something about his laugh was . . . infectious.

  My lips twitched and then a giggle escaped. It was like a levee breaking. One soft laugh and I lost it. Our laughter reached the high ceiling, and my stomach cramped from the force of it, because this—us—was ridiculous.

  I was gasping for air by the time I made it to the shallow end where I could stand with the water reaching my chest. “We are so stupid . . .” I trailed off because I’d looked over at Ren. He was just staring at me, mouth slightly open like he’d just witnessed a total solar eclipse. “What?”

  “I . . .” He shook his head, his cheeks flushing pink. “I just haven’t heard you laugh like that in a long, long time.”

  I frowned, my arms floating at my sides. Our gazes connected over the distance. “It . . . feels like it’s been a long time. It’s nice to laugh like that.” I felt like a fool for admitting that, so my cheeks flamed to life.

  Ren pushed away from the wall, wading out into the center of the pool. “It was beautiful.”

  I bit down on my lip as I watched him come closer. “Really?”

  “Yeah.” He reached the end where his feet could hit the bottom. A moment passed as his chest rose and fell sharply. “I just wish I heard it more often.”

  My breath caught as a bubble of emotion swelled inside me.

  Ren stopped moving. “And all I want is for you to feel it more often. At the end of the day . . . that’s what I wish.”

  I opened my mouth to tell him there were so many more important things to wish for, but the words got stuck in my throat because I wanted that too. I wished for that, too.

  I could feel my face start to crumple.

  “Talk to me,” Ren pleaded quietly, like he always did. “Talk to me, Ivy.”

  It was like the sharp edge of a dagger taken to an overinflated balloon. I burst wide open, every thought and feeling on the outside of me, drenching my skin and threatening to pull me back under.

  There was no hiding, no pretending. There was no room left to lie. I closed my eyes. “I don’t . . . I don’t know who I am anymore.”

  Chapter 17

  There.

  I’d said it.

  I’d said it out loud and I’d said it to Ren. There was no taking it back, not when it was out there in the open like that. No
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