Brave, p.26
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       Brave, p.26

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

  “You don’t sound like you really believe that.”

  I bit down on my lip as my stomach twisted with nervous energy and something else. The . . . hunger was there, but it was manageable.

  He let go of my curl and his fingers drifted over my cheek. “What are you thinking?”

  Impulse almost had me saying nothing, but I stopped myself before that bad habit took over. “I . . . I’m wondering if tonight was, you know, too easy. Do you know what I mean? I could just be paranoid—”

  “No. You’re not being paranoid. All things considered, it was easy.”

  I tilted my head so I could look up at him. “Do you think it’s a trap?”

  Silvery moonlight cut across his cheekbones. “It could be, but we’re going to be prepared if so.”

  We would be, but I kept replaying Daniel’s reaction to me over and over in my head. Both him and Miles had been shocked, but I’d expected more of a fight to convince them that we hadn’t betrayed them.

  But Daniel knew me. He might not know Ren all that well, but he knew who I was at the core. “Thank God Daniel is still here. If he wasn’t, I don’t think we’d be able to convince Miles.”

  “I have no idea how to read that guy,” he admitted.

  “Don’t feel bad. I’ve known him for years and I still can’t.” Snuggling back down against his chest, I folded my hand against his side. My stomach started to settle, but my mind was nowhere near that. “I’m . . . I’m hungry.”

  “I’m sure there’s food. . . .” Ren trailed off. “You’re not talking about food, are you?”

  “No,” I whispered, my hand curling around his shirt. Shame burned at the back of my throat.

  Ren’s fingers kept moving along my cheek. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

  I swallowed down the sudden knot in my throat and closed my eyes again. “I don’t think so. It’s really not that bad. The . . . feeling is fading. I just—I don’t know. I just wanted to say it out loud.”

  The arm at my waist somehow got tighter. “I’m glad you did. I just wish there was something I could do to make it easier for you.”

  Some of the tension eased out of my muscles as the shame faded off. Ren wasn’t bothered by it. At least not enough to have any measurable reaction to it. I don’t know how I was expecting Ren to respond, but him not freaking out and just being, well, Ren did more than he knew. “You’re doing it right now. Helping me.”

  “I’m glad to hear that even though it doesn’t feel like I’m doing much.”

  “You’re doing everything.” I squeezed his side, letting out a sigh. I needed to refocus. “So, let’s say that our next meeting isn’t a trap. We find the Halfling before the Prince does, we still need to find the Crystal or we need to figure out how to weaken him enough to kill him. Finding the Halfling before he does is just a small step in the right direction.”

  “But it’s a step.” Ren fell quiet and several minutes past before he spoke again. “There’s something none of us have really talked about.”

  “What?”

  “The ritual.” Tension crept into his body. “I’d asked Tanner and Faye about it. Even Merle. None of them had any details on exactly how we’re supposed to complete the ritual safely.”

  “You mean, how I’m supposed to get the Prince’s blood and mine on the Crystal while in the Otherworld?” I placed my hand on his arm.

  “Yeah. I don’t like the idea of this ritual, Ivy. No one is talking about it, and you have to be in the Otherworld to complete it?” His hand curled around the back of my head, his fingers tangling in my hair. “I don’t need to know a lot to know that there is a metric shit ton that can go wrong with that.”

  A shudder worked its way through me. “Yeah, like . . . getting trapped in the Otherworld.”

  “That will not happen.” His voice was hard.

  I wanted to believe that. I had to believe that, because if I didn’t, the mere idea of being trapped in the Otherworld with a very pissed off Prince terrified me. But we didn’t have enough information on this ritual, like how much time I’d have between starting it and getting back through the doorway.

  There was a tiny part of me, though, that was curious about the possibility of seeing the Otherworld, even if it was only for a handful of seconds.

  “I think you’re onto something about finding out a way to weaken the Prince,” Ren said. “Fighting him will be dangerous, but it’s not as big of a risk as the ritual. We just need to find out how.”

  Unless Fabian was going to start talking, I wasn’t sure how we would find out. It was beginning to feel like we didn’t have a choice on how this was going to go down.

  That was if we even made it to the point where we did have one.

  “And you think this is wise?” Fabian asked the following morning over breakfast. We were sitting at an island large enough to seat ten people. “That they can be trusted?”

  “As much as we can be trusted.” I peeled the skin from a banana. “They’re taking a risk meeting us, too.”

  “But there are more of them than us,” Kalen said, repeating what he’d said last night.

  “But we have a Summer Prince.” Ren dropped onto the bar stool beside me. “Pretty sure that he can take out a dozen of them in about five seconds if things go south.”

  I arched a brow as I munched down on my banana. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

  Fabian inclined his head. “Did they tell you anything about the Winter Prince or the Halfling?”

  “Not yet. I’m hoping they fill us in today with good—” Something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I turned.

  Holy crap.

  I lowered the banana as Tink buzzed into the room—twelve-inch-tall Tink with gossamer wings. My mouth dropped open. Ren followed my gaze, and he made a choked sound. It had been so long since I’d seen him in this form that I forgot whatever it was I had been talking about.

  He flew across the kitchen, his wings moving silently, but everyone was staring. Faye looked like she was going to slip off the stool while Kalen was actually—wow, he was actually starting to grin.

  The brownie was wearing dark trousers, but he was shirtless and shoeless as he buzzed up around the pocket light then came back down.

  “Tink.” My eyes widened as he hovered over Fabian’s shoulder. “You’re . . . Tink sized.”

  “Heard we’d be taking a field trip this morning. Figured I’m too cute to kill in this form.” He landed on the Summer Prince’s broad shoulder. “Plus, I’m less intimidating this way. That’s why Ren didn’t kill me at first.”

  “That is not why I didn’t kill you at first,” Ren replied dryly.

  I watched Tink sit down on Fabian’s shoulder.

  Kalen looked over at Faye and then back to Tink again. “I’ve never seen a brownie in this form.”

  “You’ve never seen a brownie before me at all,” Tink pointed out as he kicked his feet off Fabian’s upper chest. “So which way do you like me better? Big or small?”

  My brows furrowed.

  “I think . . . this way,” Kalen answered. “Yeah. Like this.”

  “Not me,” murmured the Summer Prince.

  Tink leaned over and grabbed a chunk of the Prince’s hair. He pulled it back and whispered something in Fabian’s ear that earned him a deep laugh.

  I really didn’t want to know what it was.

  I finished off the banana, and then it was time to leave. Sliding off the stool, I followed Ren out into the foyer. Tink left Fabian’s shoulder and flew over to mine. He landed, balancing himself with a hand against my head.

  “I’m excited to meet these Order members.” He shifted closer to my head.

  “Why?”

  “Because I cannot wait to see their faces when they get a look at me!” His laugh was more of a childish giggle. “They are going to freak.”

  A grin tugged at my lips. “They probably will. So, I want you to stay close to either me or Fabian, okay? At least, at
first.”

  “Of course—oh!” He turned on my shoulder, yelling as I neared the door. I winced. “Fabian, don’t forget my suitcase!”

  Ren pivoted around. “Your suitcase?”

  “Yes. It’s Plan B.”

  “We have a Plan B that involves your suitcase?” he asked.

  “We do.” Tink launched off my shoulder and landed on the suitcase Fabian was not rolling out.

  I stopped as Faye and Kalen headed outside. “Uh, maybe you should tell us what’s in the suitcase, Tink?”

  “My stuff.” He held on to the handle as Fabian rolled him and the suitcase out the front door. Tink waved a little hand at me. “My friends.”

  “What do you mean by your friends?” I hurried after them, into the bright sun. “Tink!”

  “It’s okay.” He flew off the luggage, and the Prince lifted it, placing it into the back of the SUV. “Don’t worry about it, Ivy-divy.”

  But I was worried, really worried, because I had no idea what in the hell he had in that suitcase. I started after him, but Faye stepped in front of me.

  Her pale blue eyes were full of restrained worry. “I know you trust these people, but if we’re walking into a trap—”

  “If we’re walking into a trap, then we fight. I hope that’s not the case, but we don’t have any other options. We need their help.”

  Sighing, she looked away. “We do.”

  I really hoped Ren and I were correct. That we weren’t going to regret this, but we were already in too deep and there was no stopping now.

  Kalen got behind the wheel with Faye in the passenger seat. Ren and I took the middle row, and the Summer Prince took the back seat. Tink buzzed back and forth between our row and Fabian’s, serving as a complete distraction as we made our way toward the harbor and to the home.

  “I think this is it,” Kalen announced. “But it’s not a house.”

  I leaned over Ren to peer out the side window. Kalen was right. The address had led us to what was either a condo or an apartment building on Ocean Front Walk. The building was three stories tall.

  “It’s the right place.” Ren tapped his finger off the window, pointing out what appeared to be a fenced patio around the lower level.

  Several men were standing outside. They weren’t dressed like they were about to walk to the sandy dunes. Sunglasses shielded their eyes, and their jeans and loose shirts did nothing to hide the daggers I knew they were carrying.

  I was willing to bet that railing and fence was all iron.

  My heart rate sped up as I sat back. Was this whole apartment building Order controlled?

  Ren reached over, squeezing my knee as Kalen pulled into one of the parking spots. “Let’s do this.”

  I turned to where Tink was, which was now on the seat beside the Prince. “Is your backpack still in here? The Wonder Woman one?”

  His little brow puckered. “Yes, actually. It’s in the back.”

  “Okay. I want you to get into it.”

  Tink’s nose wrinkled. “But I’ll suffocate!”

  I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going to zip it all the way closed. I think it’s just smart if you stay unseen at first.”

  “Fine. Whatever. But if I suffocate, I’ll come back and haunt you for the rest of your life.”

  Ignoring that, I looked at Fabian. “Can you grab the backpack for me? Please?”

  “Wow. You said please.” The Summer Prince twisted at the waist. “That must’ve hurt your soul.”

  “It did,” I muttered and waited for Tink to get in the bag. He made a show of it, of course. Stomping the whole way and moaning as Fabian zipped it up, leaving a couple inch gap at the top.

  I took the bag, surprised by how heavy it was.

  “There’s Daniel.” Ren nodded toward the window. “We’ll get out first and then the rest of you, okay?”

  They agreed, and when I looked back at Fabian, he nodded. Ren climbed out, and I followed, slipping out the same door. Once standing, I slipped the bag onto my back.

  A second later a tiny fist landed in the center of my back. I grunted and turned my head, whispering, “Knock it off, Tink.”

  “It’s hot in heeereee,” whined Tink.

  “Shut up,” I hissed, wondering if we should’ve left him back at the house as Daniel stepped away from the glass patio doors.

  Daniel nodded at Ren, but like the other Order members standing on the patio, they were still staring at the SUV. “Who’s in the car?” he asked.

  “They are fae.” I ignored the swift kick in my kidney. “Our friends. They are taking a huge risk by coming here.”

  “And we’re taking a huge risk by receiving them.”

  I scanned the Order members, seeing the exact moment they realized my skin had a silvery tint to it. I ignored it.

  Ren turned, motioning for the rest to join us. “This is Kalen and Faye, of the Summer Court. They helped us—have been helping us.”

  A muscle thrummed along Daniel’s jaw as the two fae slowly approached us. He didn’t speak. They got a curt nod from him, which was returned by the two fae.

  “Hol-lee shit,” another Order member whispered, and that was when I knew that Fabian was now visible.

  Fabian strolled toward them like he was out for an early morning walk. The breeze lifted his blond hair as he stepped around the iron railing.

  “This is Fabian,” I said. “Prince Fabian of the Summer Court.”

  The audible gasp wasn’t lost on me. Neither was the stiffening of the Order members. Or the way some reached for their hidden daggers. Ren stepped closer to Fabian, but the Summer Prince simply smiled.

  “You were not expecting royalty, were you?” Fabian tilted his head.

  Daniel slid me a long look. “No, we were not.”

  I lifted a shoulder in a shrug.

  “You should understand one thing, and one thing only.” Fabian stepped closer, and I swore you couldn’t even hear the traffic in that moment. “If you threaten any of us, I can kill every single one of you before you even know what hit you. I do not want that to happen. I want us to work together, like we did before, but test me and you will not survive the consequences.”

  Tink banged his fist off my back in what I guessed was agreement.

  Well, that probably wasn’t what Daniel wanted to hear, but he clipped out, “Duly noted.” Daniel stepped forward, going toe to toe with the Summer Prince. “And if any of you harm any of our members, we will spend our dying breaths killing every single one of you.”

  Fabian’s smile spread. “Duly noted.”

  “All right then.” Ren clapped his hands together. “Now that we have that settled, can we get on with this?”

  Daniel smirked. “Follow me.”

  The Summer Prince arched a brow at the men and then trailed after Daniel, following him through the patio doors. Ren went next, and then Faye and Kalen. I took up the back.

  “Nice backpack,” one of the Order members snorted as I walked by.

  I turned. “It is, isn’t it?”

  I got another kick in the back, and I swore when this was over, I was going to flush Tink down a toilet.

  Stepping through the patio, I immediately realized this was no normal apartment building. It only looked that way from the outside.

  A narrow hall led to a wide-open space that I assumed was a large meeting room, one that reminded me of the headquarters in the Quarter. A large map of what I was guessing was San Diego and the surrounding cities was on the wall. There were several cafeteria style tables with benches, and at least three dozen Order members.

  All of them were standing, staring at the five of us.

  Most of their stares showed open hostility. Only a few appeared curious. I saw Miles standing beside a tall, dark-skinned woman, whose expression was almost as unreadable as his.

 
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