Brave, p.16
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       Brave, p.16

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

  way.

  “Ivy.” He said my name like it broke him. Like he was a balloon that had burst, too.

  I kept my eyes closed because I didn’t want to see his face. “Ever since the . . . the Prince, I haven’t felt like myself. I did things and I know—I know he made me do those things, but it made me feel like I wasn’t me.” I lifted my hands from the water, squeezing them into fists. “Now I don’t even look like me, and I have this thing inside me—this need that was never there before—this hunger. I just . . .”

  Pressing my lips together, I inhaled roughly through my nose and opened my eyes. Ren hadn’t come any closer. He was as still as a statue, but he was watching me, and I knew he hadn’t looked away. Not once. “And I’ve been stuck in my head, you know? Just trying to make sense of every damn thing that happened so it’s hard to get out of my head. That’s why I got my ass kicked by those fae. I wasn’t paying attention, and I haven’t been eating right, and—and that night I told myself I’d finally talk to you. I would tell you what’s going on, but you . . . I saw you with Tink and Faye in one of the common rooms, and you looked so relaxed. So relaxed and normal that I didn’t want to ruin that. I didn’t want to take that from you.”

  Ren closed his eyes, face tensing.

  “I really did plan on talking to you that night, but then . . . then the whole stabbing thing happened.” I drew in a shuddering breath. “Then I fed and we—you know what happened. Then I learned about the Prince being able to get through the glamour, and I just panicked. I flipped out and yes—yes! My plan was stupid. It was a knee-jerk reaction. You’re right. And Tink is right, because it was also cruel. And I’m sorry for not telling you. I was running, and it was wrong, but I just wanted to make sure you two were safe, because you and Tink are all I have. I wanted to be in control, but I just didn’t think it through.”

  His eyes were open again, his expression strained. Pale. It was hard looking at him, because he looked like how I felt.

  “And I . . . I woke up this morning and told myself that I was going to be okay. I was going to get my shit together. That I was in control of me. I could ignore the hunger. That my body was mine, my thoughts were mine. That I could be okay with having slightly silvery skin and pointy ears. I even wore my hair up to prove that.” I was rambling now and I couldn’t seem to stop myself. “I woke up this morning telling myself I was in control, and then I . . . I really wasn’t.”

  A tremor coursed through me as I stepped back, bumping into the pool wall. “You telling me I had to stay here, then Merle trying to handcuff me to God knows what, and all I want is for things to be the way they were before.”

  Ren’s jaw tensed, and a too-long moment passed. “I’m sorry.”

  Not expecting that response, I blinked.

  His chest rose with what appeared to be a heavy breath. “I didn’t mean to take that from you today. Fuck.” He lifted a hand, running it over his head, pushing locks of wet hair back. “I just wanted you safe, and if the Prince had left New Orleans, then you would be safe here.”

  “I know,” I whispered, wiping at the tears on my cheek. “But I have to be there when you go to find Marlon. I have to . . .”

  “Take back control. I know.” He dropped his hand as he stepped forward, stirring the water. “I’ve made this harder for you while I’m thinking I’m making it easier, doing the right thing.”

  “We both have,” I admitted quietly, and that was the truth. We both thought we were doing what was best for each other, but in the end, we were doing more harm than good.

  Ren looked away, his jaw flexing. “Yeah, but I gave you shit for planning to leave without me, and then I turned around and planned to do the same thing.”

  “But you probably meant to actually tell me first,” I pointed out.

  “That doesn’t matter.” The muscles in his shoulders tensed. “We fucked up, didn’t we?”

  My breath hitched again. He wasn’t looking at me, and I felt my stomach drop like I was on a roller coaster. “I know you probably don’t want to do this with me anymore. I know I hurt you and—hell, you were right when you said I’ve always been running. You don’t have to keep chasing me. That’s not right.” I swallowed hard when his head swiveled toward me. “We never even got the chance to have a normal relationship. Can’t be surprised that this isn’t working out. We can’t—”

  “What?” Ren cut through the water like he was born in it. Within a heartbeat, he was right in front of me and then his hands were touching my cheeks, cupping them. “Let’s hit pause for a second, because I want to make something real clear.”

  Our gazes locked, and I couldn’t even formulate a response.

  “I was pissed at you. You’re probably still pissed at me. We’re fighting and we got some shit to work through, but that’s normal. What we’re dealing with outside of us isn’t, but we are still an us.” His gaze searched mine. “I still love you. I’m still right here with you. Has that changed for you?”

  My heart all but exploded in my chest. I didn’t know until this very moment how badly I needed to hear that—to remember that this was normal. Couples fought. Sometimes they said things they wish they hadn’t. Sometimes they didn’t agree and did things that could hurt each other. It wasn’t like Shaun and I never argued. There’d been calls that ended abruptly. Doors slammed in faces. I’d just . . . I’d just forgotten that.

  I’d forgotten that there could still be an us through the storm.

  And that’s what made this different, made this special, because I knew out there in the normal world, there were people who never made it past the first hurdle, who gave up the moment it got hard or required them to admit they’d been wrong. And our hurdles had been high. They were still there, the size of skyscrapers, looming over us like the shadow of winter when you’re desperately clinging to summer.

  “I’m still here,” I said, my voice shaky, my entire body trembling. “I’m still with you. I still love you. I never stopped. I can’t.”

  I don’t know who made the first move. It could’ve been me. Maybe Ren. But whatever distance that was between us evaporated and I don’t know if it was him who kissed me or me who kissed him. We were both grabbing at one another. Ren holding my cheeks. Me clutching at his shoulders, rising up onto the tips of my toes.

  And when our lips met, it was the sweetest, softest kiss. A touch of our mouths that turned into a slow exploration as if we were getting reacquainted with each other, and . . . we really were.

  His bare skin against my hands was hot and wet as one of his hands slipped back, his fingers brushing my ear and tangling in my hair. My lips parted as I whispered his name, and the kiss deepened as he shuddered against me.

  God, I missed this—the closeness, the intimacy. What had happened between us after I fed wasn’t intimate. It was just ferocious need driving both of us. This was different.

  My hands slid down his chest, to where his heart beat as wildly as mine.

  Ren pulled away to ask, “Is this okay?”

  Was it? We were in the pool and we’d been fighting minutes ago. Anyone could walk in on us, but there was still an us, and I didn’t care. I wanted him. I needed him in a way that was like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and we were kissing without me trying to suck out his essence.

  I needed this.

  “Yes,” I told him, and I thought I ought to show him too.

  Hooking an arm over his neck and leaning in, I brought my mouth to his. This kiss was nothing like the one before it. It didn’t start off sweet and slow.

  Oh, no.

  Ren made this sound in the back of his throat that curled my toes and turned my blood into molten lava. The hand at the back of my head tightened and his other dropped, his arm circling my waist, sealing our hips together. The kiss deepened and the first touch of his tongue against mine was like striking a match to gasoline.

  Ren pushed in, trapping me between his body and the pool wall. I tilted my head as the hand at my hip slid down
my thigh. He lifted my leg, curving it around his waist, and I moaned into the kiss.

  With him wearing nothing but boxer briefs and me in thin leggings, it almost felt as if there was nothing between us. Almost. I could feel his hard length against my core, and when he pushed his hips in, I thought I might have an orgasm right then.

  My body reacted without thought. I wasn’t thinking about us fighting, about how I’d changed, or what the Prince had done to me. There was no room for that. We were kissing like we’d been in a drought and we had just been given water. Each time I rolled my hips, he answered and gave it back. Our bodies were moving, stirring the water, and our hands were exploring, slipping over wet skin. His were under my shirt, skimming over my ribs and up and up until my heart was slamming in my chest.

  Then Ren stopped.

  Breaking the kiss, he placed his forehead against mine as he dragged in deep breaths. His hand splayed across my cheek now. “Maybe . . . maybe we should slow it down?” His warm breath danced over my lips. “I want to make sure you’re ready for this.”

  My heart squeezed in my chest in the most wonderful way. I touched his jaw as I opened my eyes, seeking out his gaze. I found it. “I’m ready. More than ready, and I . . . I don’t want to wait.”

  Ren growled something that sounded a lot like ‘thank God’ and then he kissed me again. Our hands fumbled in the water. I managed to slip him free, and somehow he got my soaking leggings down below my knees. It was a slippery job, and we were both laughing, because holy crap, wet leggings were not easy to work with, but then the laughter died.

  Ren’s gaze held mine with an all-consuming intensity as he lifted me up just enough until I felt him between my thighs. Then his lips moved over mine and along my jaw as I felt his hand against me. One finger and I nearly went off like a firecracker.

  “God,” I gasped against his mouth as I clutched his arm.

  He worked his hand, pressing his palm right against the most sensitive spot. He added another finger, and we both groaned out loud. It was too much, and when he hooked that finger deep inside me, the first orgasm hit me so hard I dropped my head to his shoulder to smother my cry.

  “I’ve missed you.” His voice was husky and ragged. “Fuck, I’ve missed you so much.”

  Raw emotion swelled as my body shook. He kissed his way down my throat, coaxing my head back. “I missed you,” I said. “I’ve missed all of this.”

  “Not anymore,” he promised. “Never again.”

  Then he was inside me, in the way I wanted, always wanted. At first it was a shock. Ren was not small and I couldn’t spread my legs with leggings down at my knees, and for some reason that made it all so much more . . . wow. The friction, the tightness was incredible.

  He started moving, one hand clamped around the back of my neck, his other arm wrapped around my waist as he pumped into me—one deep, long thrust after another.

  What we were doing, knowing we could be caught at any moment, was crazy but that didn’t stop us. It was just us, our bodies moving together until it became frenzied, sending the water lapping over the side.

  “Hell, Sweetness,” he groaned, and I felt it building inside me all over, that terrible tension, a mess of longing and lust.

  He launched us backward, and then the rough cement was digging into my back as he pressed into me as far as he could go, grinding against me until he pushed me to the edge of bliss again and then threw me right over it. I came, crying out as he buried his head in my neck, thrusting once and then twice before he followed me right over the edge, my name a harsh burst of air at that oddly sensitive spot below my pulse.

  I was limp in his arms, my cheek slipping to his chest, vaguely aware of him pulling out and lowering me so my feet hit the bottom of the pool. He didn’t pull away though, still holding me tight to him.

  His breathing slowed as he dropped his chin to the top of my head. For a little while, we stayed like that, neither of us talking. It was just us and the rippling of the water.

  It was Ren who broke the silence. His hand tightened around the back of my neck. “Are we okay?”

  For the first time in days, I didn’t have to think about how to answer that question. I knew the answer immediately. “We’re going to be.”

  Chapter 18

  Having non-feeding related sex didn’t fix all the problems we had and were facing, but it sure as hell chilled me out enough to be able to talk about them.

  “I don’t know how to do relationships,” I admitted from where my cheek was plastered to Ren’s chest. After the pool, we’d come back to our room and changed into dry clothes. Well, mostly. Ren threw on a pair of sweats and I’d stolen one of his shirts. It was long enough to cover all the interesting parts. Then we hit the bed, him on his back and me on my side, pressed up against him. His arm was curled around my waist, his hand resting on my hip. “I mean, I think I used to. I did with Shaun. I guess I just forgot how.”

  “I don’t think there’s one way to do relationships.” His hand was still, but his thumb moved in a slow, continuous sweeping motion. “And you know what I think?”

  “What?”

  Ren shifted onto his side, and the next thing I knew, we were face to face. “We’ve got to cut ourselves a break.”

  My gaze wandered over his face. “I like the sound of that.”

  His lips quirked up on one side as he dragged his hand up my side. “Seriously though. Both of us have been through some shit. We’re both getting over that. We’re not going to be perfect.”

  Folding my hands between us, I smiled a little. “You’re pretty close to perfect.”

  He caught the edges of my hair and tugged on a curl, pulling it straight. “No, I’m not. I should’ve kept my mouth shut this morning.” He let go of the curl, watching it bounce back. “You have every right to be pissed over that.”

  Yeah, I did. “And you have every right to be pissed at me for trying to bail on you guys.”

  “True.” His grin spread as he touched a finger to my cheek. “Look at us, agreeing on something.”

  “So, you’re not going to flip out when I get up in the morning and get ready to go find Marlon?”

  “No.” He let out a sigh. “It’s not going to be easy, but I’ll deal with it.”

  “Good.”

  He trailed his finger along my cheekbone. “And you’re going to keep talking to me, right? Especially when you feel like you don’t know who you are anymore? You’re going to let me help remind you, right?”

  Tears immediately blurred my vision. Ren saw them, because his hand stilled with his thumb just below my lip.

  “Right?” he persisted.

  “Right,” I rasped, choked up.

  Lowering his hand, he skated his thumb over my lip. “Promise me that, Ivy.”

  I swallowed down the sudden knot in my throat. “I promise.”

  He leaned in, his lips replacing his thumb, kissing me softly. When he pulled back, his gaze was a little less heavy. “When we were in the pool and you were letting me make your dreams come true—”

  “Wow.”

  He smiled broadly then, and my heart skipped a beat. There was one of those dimples! And I bet if I could see his whole face, both would be out in all their glory. “How were you feeling? Besides being blissed out of your mind?”

  I rolled my eyes. “I felt . . . normal. Like I wasn’t thinking about . . .” Heat crept into my cheeks, but I didn’t allow myself to shut down. “I wasn’t thinking about him or anything like that.”

  If Ren had been worried about that, he didn’t show it. “And what about the whole sucking out my essence thing?”

  The warmth in my cheeks deepened, but I pushed through the uncomfortableness. “I didn’t want to feed. It never crossed my mind.”

  “That’s good, right?”

  “Yeah, it’s just that . . . I don’t know if it will always be like that or if it’ll hit me again—the cravings.” I forced myself to keep going. “I mean, it’s there. Not all the time, b
ut it’s like . . . indigestion.”

  He lifted a brow.

  “But more serious than heartburn,” I added.

  Ren was quiet for a moment. “You’ve got to trust yourself, Ivy. I know that’s easier said than done, but even when you were . . . dying, you didn’t want to feed. And when you were feeding, you stopped. That part of you is not gone. I never once worried about you jumping on me like the face-clinger thing from those Alien movies.”

  I laughed softly. “Good to know.”

  “I trust you.” His eyes met and held mine. “I’m going to make sure you start trusting yourself.”

  My vision blurred again, and it didn’t help when he kissed the tip of my nose.

  “Now, on to a much more serious conversation.”

  Oh dear.

  He rose onto one elbow. “I’m not sure if you realized this or not, but you’re pretty strong.”

 
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