Brave, p.25
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       Brave, p.25

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

  I laughed again. “You don’t have to worry about me ever picking Alaska.”

  Ren kissed my cheek. “Thank God.”

  My smile faded from my lips. “Are you nervous about tonight?”

  “Be stupid not to be.”

  “True.”

  Ren was quiet for a very long time and then he said, “I know.”

  My breath caught. Instinct told me what I needed to know without asking. He was talking about Kyle, and I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t like I thought Ren would never find out, but I hoped I’d make it twenty-four hours before he did.

  “I’m sorry,” I said finally. “I couldn’t let you do it. I couldn’t do it, but he could not live. He would come after you—”

  “Don’t apologize.”

  I started to turn in his embrace. “But I should, because I didn’t tell you. I should’ve—”’

  “I know why you didn’t tell me.” His voice held a rough edge. “Wanting to leave him alive was foolish.”

  “It wasn’t.” I drew in a shallow breath. “And it was. I mean, I get why you wanted to let him live. Maybe it would prove to the other members we hadn’t betrayed them, but he would’ve kept coming after us. He would get more of us killed.”

  “You’re right. And it would’ve been me to put him down. That son of bitch would’ve made sure of it, because he knew—yeah, he knew it would get to me.”

  “That’s why I couldn’t let that happen,” I admitted quietly.

  He was silent for a moment. “You made sure that I didn’t . . . I didn’t have to carry his death on my shoulders. Thank you.” He curled a hand around my chin, tipping my head back. He kissed me. “Thank you, Sweetness.”

  I really had no idea what to say to that. None whatsoever. But then Ren tightened his arms around me again and held me tight, blocking out the coolness in the air.

  Right then and there, I sent a prayer up to whatever god or gods were listening that this meeting with Daniel went the way we needed it to and that it wasn’t a trap.

  Because if it was, I didn’t plan on dying tonight. I didn’t plan on seeing Ren or Faye or Kalen die tonight. That meant we’d be doing the killing, and I didn’t want that either.

  But I would if I had to.

  Chapter 27

  Ren and I arrived in the Gaslamp District of San Diego thirty minutes before we were scheduled to arrive so we could scope out the area. Faye and Kalen were also with us. We couldn’t see them, but we knew they were there. All of us were armed, but our weapons were well hidden.

  I immediately understood why Daniel had picked this place. It was out in the open and teeming with people. The bar and restaurant-lined streets reminded me of the French Quarter.

  “Would’ve been cool to check some of these places out,” I said, happy when I smelled charbroiled hamburgers and my stomach didn’t revolt.

  Ren’s hand tightened around mine. “We should come back when this is all over. We could use a vacation.”

  I smiled, liking the sound of that—the idea of making plans. It made me feel like there was a future to look forward to. I started to tell him that, but Ren spoke again.

  “There.” He cursed under his breath as he pulled me to the side, out of the middle of the sidewalk. “Daniel is already here. And he’s not alone.”

  “What?” I was not at all surprised that Daniel had done just what we had, which was to arrive early as an attempt to control the situation. I followed Ren’s gaze, and it took me a moment to find Daniel.

  He was sitting in the center of a bench, his arms hooked around the back and his long legs stretched out, crossed at the ankles. To a stranger, he looked like a normal guy, out enjoying the cool night. Behind him was Miles Daily, the man in charge if Daniel was to go down.

  My shoulders tightened. I never knew where I stood with Miles. He was older than me, maybe in his thirties, and completely unreadable.

  “Can’t blame him for not coming alone,” Ren said. “And I doubt they are the only two here.”

  I scanned the little park area, but just because I didn’t see any familiar faces didn’t mean that every person and every couple I saw wasn’t an Order member. They could have us surrounded by the dozens, and we wouldn’t know since we didn’t know any of the San Diego members.

  Looking up at Ren, I squeezed his hand. “You ready?” I asked.

  My gaze trained on where Daniel sat as he nodded. I stretched up and kissed his lips. “Let’s do this.”

  Ren let go of my hand as we crossed the street. My heart was thumping in my chest. I doubted that they’d try something in such a public spot, but I’d been wrong before.

  “Hey,” Ren spoke first, hopping up on the sidewalk. “Long time no see.”

  Daniel and Miles looked up and over, but I knew that they had been aware of our approach before that moment. “You guys are early,” Daniel said.

  “So are you,” I replied.

  “Thought you were coming by yourself.” Ren’s gaze flickered over Daniel’s second in command. “How are you doing, Miles?”

  Miles lifted his chin. “Can’t complain.”

  If both of them were here, I wondered who was running the New Orleans branch. I was about to ask that when I stepped under the street lamp, but I didn’t get the chance.

  The men saw me, like, really saw me.

  Daniel’s lazy sprawl changed in an instant. He pulled his legs up and sat straight, his eyes widening. For the first time in my life, I saw a reaction in Miles. His mouth dropped open as his gaze flicked over my face.

  “You should see the ears,” I said, having left my hair down.

  Miles snapped his jaw shut.

  “What in the hell?” Daniel exclaimed. He looked like he was about to stand, but couldn’t move.

  Ren started to step in front of me, but I lifted my arm, stopping him.

  “I look different. I know. It’s a long story.”

  Daniel stood then and took a step toward me. I could feel Ren tensing. “How?” Daniel asked, voice gruff. “How is this possible? You couldn’t have gotten—”

  “It’s more of a recent thing.” I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable with their intense scrutiny. “And I will tell you everything, but I think . . .” I glanced over at Ren, who looked like he was seconds from making sure they were staring at someone or something else. “I think we should start at the beginning.”

  “Yeah.” Miles’ expression smoothed out, becoming unreadable. “I think you need to do that.”

  So that’s what Ren and I did. We told them everything, starting with how I figured out I was the Halfling, how the Prince was able to capture Ren and me, and how we escaped. I even told them about the forced feedings and that it was a fae who had helped me escape. We told them how I had been attacked and how I had been healed.

  It was Ren who explained that in a low voice. “I made the choice. It wasn’t Ivy’s. If it was, she would’ve never agreed to it and she wouldn’t be here right now.”

  Daniel looked somewhat awed when he sat back down while Miles had no change in his expression at all.

  “He saved my life—feeding saved my life.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “I wasn’t okay with it. Ren was right. I wouldn’t have agreed to it, and I was pissed at him, but I would’ve done the same thing to save his life. That’s why I . . . I look the way I do now. It made the part of me that is halfling stronger, but I’m still Ivy.” I lifted my chin as I said the last words. “Who I am hasn’t changed.”

  “Kind of hard to believe that when I’m looking at you, seeing that you’ve changed,” Miles said.

  “Just because she looks more beautiful than she did before, doesn’t mean she isn’t still the kickass Ivy out there fighting the good fight,” Ren interjected.

  There was a good chance I fell in love with him even more in that moment.

  Miles tilted his head to the side, his brows snapping together.

  “You all have no idea what we’ve been through
to get where we are standing right now. No idea,” Ren continued, his voice hardening. “And if we were really working with the Prince or against the Order, we wouldn’t be standing here. Do not question my loyalty and you better not question hers.”

  “Is that everything?” Daniel asked, sounding wary.

  “It is,” Ren answered.

  Kind of. We’d told them everything—everything except for where the Summer Court was and that they had come with us. I also hadn’t told them about Tink.

  “Why didn’t you contact me—contact us?” Anger seeped into Daniel’s voice. “We had people out there looking for you. Both of you. For weeks, until we assumed you were both dead—”

  “Or that we had betrayed the Order,” I finished for him. “We did neither of those things, but it was too risky to contact you. I was still healing and my head . . .” Drawing in a shuddering breath, I tried again. “I wasn’t ready to talk to you, or to anyone.”

  Daniel’s gaze met mine for a brief moment and then he looked away.

  “What about Kyle?” Miles asked. “Daniel mentioned that you ran into him on the way here. We haven’t heard from him.”

  “He’s dead.” I was the one who answered. “He tried to kill us, and if he was alive, he’d have kept trying to kill us. So, he’s dead—a dead liar.”

  “Bold words,” Daniel murmured.

  “True words.” I waited until a young couple passed us. “Do you know how the Elite and the Order once closed the gates?”

  Miles didn’t answer. Neither did Daniel.“I know that the Order once worked with the fae to close the gates. That was how you all got your hands on the Crystal, and I know that the Elite betrayed those fae—the fae who did not hunt mortals—the fae who hunted others of their kind that did.” I didn’t mistake the sharp inhale. “Kyle said it was the Elite that turned on them, but there was no way that the Order didn’t know. I know that was before all of our time and the stories have changed over the years, but I’m alive because of good fae.”

  “It’s hard to think that such a creature exists,” Miles commented.

  “You’d be surprised”—Ren pinned him with a stare—“by what you once thought was true. I was trained in the Elite. I know I was trained with a lot of lies.”

  “And that statement is damn near treasonous.” Miles stepped around the bench. “You do realize that.”

  “Still the truth.” I kept an eye on him. “The Order knew that there were good fae before—that the fae had helped us. Why were we never told that?”

  “The treaty between our kinds was so long ago it no longer mattered how it used to be,” Daniel said. “If I remember correctly, it was the Summer Court who helped us once upon a time, and after the gates were closed, there was no more Summer Court. It would’ve been too dangerous for our members if they knew that maybe—just maybe—there were fae out there that didn’t want to harm them or other mortals. Each time they’d hesitate to determine if the fae they were dealing with meant them harm, they’d be vulnerable to attack.”

  “I understand that, but we should’ve known.” My hands closed into fists. “They were there, always there. They could’ve been helping us this entire time.”

  “They could’ve. And many more of our members would’ve died trying to decipher which fae were good and which were bad,” Daniel reasoned. “And you’re forgetting that we had no reason to believe that these Summer fae were still here. We were told that they were all killed.”

  “Slaughtered would’ve been a better word.” I got what Daniel was saying. It even made sense, but it didn’t make it okay, and we were all going to have to move past it if we had any hope of defeating the Prince. “We can stand here all night and argue about who are the bigger betrayers, and while we do that, I’m guessing the Prince gets one step closer to the Halfling that’s in San Diego.”

  “Because that’s why you’re still here, right? If you all had found the Halfling, you would have killed her and then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Ren lifted his chin. “We’re here to stop the Prince, just like you are.”

  “We know how to send him back to the Otherworld,” I said, and that got their attention. “He has the Crystal. We know there is a ritual that will seal him back in the Otherworld. And if we can’t get the Crystal and complete the ritual, then we’ll kill him. Since we have no idea how to weaken the bastard enough to get him with the thorn stake or to, you know, decapitate him, we’re going to need the Order’s help.”

  “We’re going to need all the help we can get,” Ren affirmed. “We need to work together, and then afterward, you can kick us out of the Order. Exile us. Whatever. But right now, we need to get past all of that.”

  “I know it’s asking a lot,” I said. “But I’m asking you to believe what we’re telling you.”

  Daniel’s mouth tightened and then he exhaled heavily as his gaze met mine. “I’ve known you for years, girl. Known that you’ve made a lot of bad and dumb decisions.”

  Um.

  “You’re often reckless and impulsive,” he continued, and I really wasn’t sure where this list of my glaring flaws was leading. “But I’ve never known you to be a traitor. I believe you.”

  Relief hit me so hard I almost fell over. I looked over at Ren and saw that his shoulders had loosened. “Thank you,” I said, because it was all I could say. “And you?”

  “The jury is still out on that,” Miles answered after a heartbeat. “But you two are right. We need everyone we can get to stop the Prince. We need to work together. All of us.”

  “Then what’s next?” Ren placed a hand on my lower back.

  Daniel stood. “We plan.”

  “Now is not the time. Out in the open like this.” Miles crossed his arms. “The San Diego branch has us set up in one of their homes on the harbor. We can meet—all of us. That means whoever you’ve come with.”

  “We’ve come with fae,” Ren answered. “Are you sure these Order members are going to be cool with that? The Elite?”

  “Cool with seeing me?” I pushed.

  “We will make them okay,” Daniel promised. “We all need to set a lot of things aside if we hope to stop the Prince from succeeding.”

  I glanced at Ren.

  He nodded. “Tell us when and where.”

  Chapter 28

  The house in Del Mar was quiet when we returned to it. We’d already filled Faye and Kalen in on everything, but we couldn’t find Fabian or Tink. Well, we really didn’t look that hard, figuring they were holed up in one of the many bedrooms.

  Ren had stopped me when I headed for the stairs, grabbing ahold of my hand and pulling me toward the back of the house, stopping to grab a soft looking blanket off the back of the couch. He’d led me out onto the veranda surrounding the pool, to one of the comfy looking chaise lounges.

  So that’s where we found ourselves after our meeting with Daniel and Miles, our daggers on the table, within reach, and our shoes tucked under the chair. I was lying on my side, between his legs, and nestled against his chest. The blanket was draped over us, and we both were staring up at the stars blanketing the night sky, the low whoosh of moving waves a comforting, lulling sound.

  I was glad that he’d brought me out here. There was something so normal about this that I wished I had the ability to slow down time and make the time out here last forever.

  “Yeah,” Ren said finally, his fingers idly moving through my hair. “I think I could live here.”

  A grin tugged at my lips. “Especially if we had this house and view.”

  “True,” he murmured. “But all I’d need is to be able to see the stars and have you right here, like you are right now.”

  The grin turned into a smile. “There you go, always saying the right thing.”

  His arm tightened around me. “I don’t always say the right thing. I think you know that.”

  “But when you do, you make up for the stupid stuff that comes out of your mouth.”

  Ren chuckled as he tugged on
a curl. A moment passed. “I think tonight went good.”

  I closed my eyes. “Yeah.”

 
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