Brave, p.2
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       Brave, p.2

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

  Being the leader of the New Orleans sect, Daniel Cuvillier had to know the true history of the Order and the fae. So that meant he’d also lied, and for some reason it stung like a bitch. Daniel was the closest thing I had to a father since I was shipped off to New Orleans. He was an ornery SOB and spent more time criticizing me than he did complimenting me, but he was . . . he was Daniel and I had trusted him.

  All of us in the Order had trusted Daniel—we trusted the Order itself.

  I didn’t even know why I was stressing about this, because at the end of the day, did it matter? I doubted I was still an Order member.

  After being missing in action for the last month or so, and with the Elite—the super special and secretive group within the Order—scouting for the Halfling, I was sure they either thought I was dead or that I was the Halfling they’d been searching for.

  That Ren had been sent here to find.

  I swallowed past the sudden rise of nausea as I gave my head a little shake. Sweat flung out, dotting the control panel. The problem was that we needed the Order to open the doorways so we could send the Prince back. I had no idea how we would complete the act, the so-called blood and stone ritual. It had to be done in the Otherworld. How in the hell were we supposed to get the currently missing Crystal inside the Otherworld with the Prince’s blood, along with mine, on it? Just thinking about that made my brain hurt and I wasn’t about that kind of life right now. My brain simply didn’t have the space for any of that.

  Last night, I found myself here after leaving Ren in the room. I was here again, a handful of hours later, because running usually made my brain shut down. When I ran like this, pushing my body until my calves burned, my thighs ached, and my heart raced, there was little room left to think and dwell on the weeks of my life I’d lost—the weeks I’d spent with the Prince.

  I normally didn’t think about the horrid dress he made me wear or the way I’d been chained to a bed. When I ran until my muscles felt like rubber about to snap, I could ignore the insidious hunger gnawing in my gut—the kind of hunger that no amount of beignets or crawfish would succor.

  When I ran to the point that my thighs felt like blocks of cement, I didn’t think about how the Prince had forced me to feed on innocent people. I didn’t hear the whimpers they made when my sneakers were thundering off the treadmill. I didn’t feel the euphoria that had come from feeding.

  And when I ran until it felt like my chest was on fire, I didn’t have the space left to think about what that bitch Breena had done with Ren. Or what the Prince had done to me . . . had tried to do to me.

  Keeping my thoughts locked down was top priority at the moment, but running wasn’t working for me now.

  I needed to focus on something—anything.

  My gaze flickered over the wall. There were several mounted TVs, but they were all turned off. I’d never actually seen a fae work out in here. I honestly didn’t know if they needed to work out.

  Did that mean they couldn’t get things like heart disease?

  Why was I even thinking—

  The treadmill’s belt suddenly stopped under my feet, pitching me forward. I slammed my hands down on the rails, catching myself seconds from knocking my head off the control panel.

  “Jesus,” I grunted, lifting my gaze.

  Tink stood beside me, holding onto the emergency cord. “Good afternoon, Ivy-Divy. I’m happy to see your reflexes are still on point.”

  Standing, I let go of the rails and turned to him as I dragged in deep breaths.

  “But your observation skills suck ass,” he added, cradling the gray sling he wore over his shoulders with one hand. “I reached right in front of you and unplugged that thing.”

  “You’re an asshole.” My chest rose and fell heavily.

  He smiled proudly. “I am many things. An asshole is one of them.”

  One of these days I was going to straight-up murder Tink. And I had a lot of reasons to act like it was time to Purge when it came to him. Starting off with the fact that up until recently, I thought Tink was about the size of a Ken doll. That’s how I’d found the damn brownie in the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 , suffering from a broken leg and a tear in his fragile, gossamer wings. He’d been about a foot tall, if that.

  I’d made him a leg brace out of popsicle sticks and nursed the little punk-ass back to life even though harboring any creature from the Otherworld would’ve gotten me killed. I still really don’t know why I’d saved him. I just felt so bad for him, but maybe the part of me that was fae had taken over, caring for another creature of the Otherworld. Who knows? And how did he thank me for it? Spent my money on bizarre, random shit he ordered off of Amazon Prime, hid from me that I was a halfling, and forgot to mention that he chose to be only twelve inches tall. That, in fact, Tink was very, very tall.

  And totally anatomically correct.

  Seeing Tink all man-sized never failed to wig me out, because I never thought of Tink in that way. Not only had he seen me in my undies a hundred times when he was miniature size, there was now a lot more of Tink, and. . . .

  And adult size Tink was . . . hot.

  Acknowledging that made me puke a little in my mouth, but it was true. When he was small, he had this cute, handsome little face and he was just Tink, and now that he was all big, that cute little face had broad cheekbones and his body was ripped and . . .

  Yeah.

  I screwed up my face. Seeing Tink like this still messed with my head, but I guess at the end of the day he was still Tink, and even though I wanted to bitch slap him into the Otherworld often, I sort of . . . I don’t know . . . loved him.

  Not that I’d ever tell him that.

  Tink’s hair was so blond it was almost white, and today he had it spiked. He was wearing jeans and a thermal. He must’ve grabbed one of the towels on the way in, because he held one in his free hand. I glanced at the bottom of the sling, where a little ball was curled up. He’d taken to carrying Dixon—his new pet kitten—around in a sling that I was pretty sure was designed for human babies—

  Wait a second.

  My eyes narrowed on the gray thermal Tink had on. “Are you wearing Ren’s shirt?”

  “Yeah. I think it will endear me to him. Help us bond so we can be like brothers from a different mother.”

  “Uh. Doubtful.” Ren was going to be pissed. “That’s also a little weird.”

  “Why? Girls share clothing all the time.”

  “Yeah, the key word is share, Tink. You just took his shirt.” I couldn’t believe I had to explain this. “Is that towel for me?”

  “Yeah. You look like you’ve been swimming in a swamp.” He threw it at me. “But at least you don’t look like you popped an eyeball anymore.”

  “Thanks,” I muttered, wiping the towel over my face. When I made my escape from the mansion, one of the Prince’s minions had tried to choke the ever-loving life out of me. I’d burst a blood vessel in my eye during the struggle. It was just as gross to think about as it was to look at.

  Valor, the Prince’s minion, was a goner though. Ren had taken him out. That was one Ancient we didn’t need to worry about.

  “I can’t believe you’re in the gym again,” Tink went on, stepping aside. “Why are you in here running so much? Are you preparing for the impending zombie apocalypse that I know nothing about? Because if you are, we need to find the nearest redneck to become best friends with, one that is hot in a dirty, rugged way. You know, the kind that probably smells like sweat and man, one with a complex background that makes you hate him at first, but slowly, over time, you grow to love him.”

  I stared at him. “You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

  “I have. I like to be prepared. Since we’re in the south, it shouldn’t be hard to find one. So, why are you in the gym so much?” he asked, not missing a beat.

  “What else do I have to do?” I draped the towel around my neck as I watched the little ball at the bottom of the sling start to move around.

 
I don’t know.” Tink patted the outside of the sling and got a tiny, muffled meow in return. “You could spend time with some of the peeps here. They’re pretty cool.”

  “You think they’re cool because they worship you.”

  His smile was so wide it could’ve cracked his face. “Well, yes, there’s that. They’re smart.”

  Most of the fae here had never seen a brownie. The Prince and the Winter Court basically killed off Tink’s kind.

  “You could also spend time with Merle or Brighton,” he added. “Momma Merle is almost always out in the courtyard, digging up something or planting something. She’s interesting. Weird. But weird can be entertaining, and Merle is entertaining. And I like Brighton.” He paused. “I don’t think she likes me. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’s kind of scared of me.”

  I arched a brow. Tink sure did like to ramble.

  “She sort of goes in the opposite direction of wherever I’m going.” His lips pursed. “Just this morning, I was in the common room. You know, the room you never hang out in, but anyway, I digress. The room has all these cool games and couches and shit. I was in there, winning a mean game of air hockey, and Brighton walked in, made eye contact with me, and then walked right back out. I don’t understand why. I’m super friendly and approachable. I also know that I’m damn good looking by human standards, too.”

  I decided not to point out all the ways he probably freaked out Brighton, because that was a rabbit hole I did not want to fall down. Besides, I needed a shower stat, because I did feel like I’d been swimming in a swamp. I stepped off the treadmill, and the moment my feet hit the ground, my entire world wobbled. “Whoa.”

  Tink grabbed my arm, steadying me. The dizziness vanished as quickly as it came on. “Are you drunk?” he asked.

  I snorted, slipping free. “I wish. I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch yet. That was dumb of me.”

  Tink was quiet as he studied me. “Do you think you might be overdoing it?”

  “Overdoing what? Sitting around on an unasked-for extended vacation?”

  “You haven’t been sitting around. You’re working out. Nonstop.”

  “I’m not overdoing anything.” I walked away, edging around the stationary bikes and past the lazy-man treadmills—the ellipticals.

  Tink was right behind me. “Not that you need reminding, but you were held captive for weeks and—”

  “You’re right.” I whirled on him as the ever-present anger erupted inside me. “I don’t need reminding. I know where I’ve been.”

  “But do you know where you’re going?” he asked softly.

  I opened my mouth, but I had no idea how to answer that question. Where was I going? The anger slipped away, swallowed by confusion and a nearly overwhelming sense of helplessness.

  God, I hated that feeling, because the last time I’d felt this way was when the fae had killed my boyfriend Shaun all those years ago. I’d been helpless then. I’d been helpless when the Prince put a collar around my neck and led me around on a chain.

  I was still helpless, trapped in Hotel Good Fae.

  Little Dixon popped his gray head out of the sling and looked around with sleepy kitten eyes. Tink reached down and scratched at his ear. “Ren should be back soon.”

  My stomach dipped like I was on a roller coaster that was about to plummet down a steep hill. I hadn’t seen him since I left in the middle of the night.

  “I saw him leave with Faye.”

  A hot, suffocating feeling blanketed me, curling low in my stomach and mingling with every other crappy thing I was going through. The world tasted bitter in my throat, like I was suffering from indigestion.

  I hadn’t known he’d left with Faye. Had he said something to me about it? I couldn’t recall. Not that it mattered. I mean, I didn’t suspect something or anything like that. Ren said he loved me, that he was in love with me, and I believed that. Totally. I just . . .

  I wasn’t out there with him. Someone else was, and my head—my head wasn’t right.

  “They were going out, trying to see if they could locate the Crystal thing.” Tink still scratched the little kitten’s ear and Dixon was purring like an engine. “You being stuck here while your man is out there, working to fix this has got to suck for you.”

  I dragged my gaze to his. “Really? Are you trying to make me feel better?” I turned and started for the door. “Just so you know, it’s not working and you suck.”

  “I’m not trying to make you feel better,” he replied, following me. “I’m just pointing out the obvious.”

  “It’s not necessary to point out the obvious when it’s obvious, Tink.”

  There was barely a half a second of silence. “You didn’t join us for dinner last night.”

  Thinking this had to be the longest exercise room ever, I hurried up.

  “You didn’t join us for dinner the night before or before that,” he went on. “And that means I’ve been eating with Ren. By myself. We just may kill each other.”

  “You’ll be fine.” I reached the door, thank God.

  “Where have you been?” he asked. “You’ve been here, but you haven’t been.”

  “I’m here, Tink. I’ve just . . .” I didn’t know how to answer this because words failed me. How could I explain that every time I was around the fae they stared at me with distrustful, almost fearful, eyes? They knew what I was. They knew why the Prince had held me captive. They knew what I symbolized. “You know how I am with a whole lot of people. You guys eat in the cafeteria. I’m not into group activity—”

  Tink grabbed my arm, stopping me from opening the door. He turned me around, and for once, his expression was a hundred percent serious. “Eating in a cafeteria isn’t a group activity.” His gaze flickered over me. “And it doesn’t look like you’ve been eating by yourself either.”

  I laughed at that. “Trust me, I’ve been eating. A lot. Constant, actually.” And that was truth. I had to, because if I didn’t the hunger got to me. “I’ve just—”

  “Been running ten miles a day, drinking tons of coffee, and not sleeping?”

  My eyes widened. “Whoa. Are you stalking me?”

  “I’m paying attention. So is Ren.” His gaze remained latched to mine. “Your face looks different.”

  “What?”

  “Your cheeks are sunken in and you have these shadows under your eyes. They weren’t there before.”

  “Wow. You’re starting to give me a complex.”

  “Looks like you already have one.”

  Uncomfortable, I pulled my arm free and whipped the towel off my neck, tossing it into the nearby laundry basket. “There’s no reason to pay attention to me. Okay?”

  “Ivy—”

  Before he could stop me, I opened the door and stepped into the hall. I was so not in the mood for this conversation. Just like I wasn’t in the mood when Ren brought it up, which felt like every five seconds.

  Ren wanted to talk about things—things that I didn’t want to think about around anyone, but especially around him.

  I hurried down the hall, knowing Tink was still right behind me. Picking up my pace, I reached the end and turned, immediately stopping short.

  Tanner stood in front of me.

  He was the leader of this place. I kind of thought of him as King Good Fae, but he wasn’t a king. At least, I didn’t think he was.

  When I’d first seen him, I almost fell over in shock. He was the oldest looking fae I’d seen at the time. Faint lines etched into the silvery skin around his eyes and his hair was more salt than pepper.

  He was living and aging proof that he hadn’t been feeding, at least not regularly enough to stave off the aging process.

  “There you are.” Tanner smiled, clasping his hands in front of him. He was always dressed like he was going to a business lunch—dark trousers and a button down white shirt. “I was looking for you.”

  “Awesome,” I chirped, happy for the distraction. “What’s up?”

  Tanner glanced
at Tink, his gaze dropping to where I knew Dixon had to be. “I’ve just received exciting news.”

  “Amazon Prime will deliver here now?” Tink asked.

  I rolled my eyes.

  Tanner continued to smile, apparently besotted with the overgrown brownie. “Not yet, but we’re working on it.”

  They were seriously working on that? Good Lord.

  “I was looking for you since I knew Ren was out with Faye,” Tanner went on, and I tried to ignore the ugly, stupid twinge in my chest. “We’ve made contact with another group who we believe can help us locate the Crystal. That’s great news, because when I checked in with Faye earlier, her and Ren weren’t having any luck at Flux.”

  Flux was a club that we knew was run by Ancients, namely Marlon St. Cryers, a huge developer in the city. Flux could possibly be
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