Brave, p.3
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       Brave, p.3

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

  one of the spots where this super special Crystal was stashed away.

  “Really?” Excitement hummed through me, a trill in my blood that hadn’t been there in what felt like forever. “How?”

  “They’re going to be here in a few days,” he said. “And they have a . . . unique talent for finding things that are missing.”

  “Unique talent?” Tink mused, and when I glanced over at him, I saw that Dixon had retreated into the belly of the sling. “I have some unique talents.”

  “And you think they can really help?” I cut Tink off before he went into detail that none of us wanted to hear.

  Well, maybe Tanner did. What did I know?

  Tanner nodded. “I really believe so.” His pale gaze flickered over me. “I have some errands I need to get taken care of. I hope to see you at dinner tonight.”

  “Sure,” I muttered.

  He skedaddled at that point, leaving me with Tink. I turned to him, wondering if Tanner had help coming, then why were Ren and Faye still at Flux? Or out there in general? But the moment I saw Tink’s expression, I stopped thinking about it.

  He was serious again. “Where are you going?”

  “To shower.”

  “And after that?”

  I lifted a shoulder. “I don’t know. Probably to grab something to eat.”

  “Okay.” He extended a hand toward the lobby of Hotel Good Fae. “I can come with you.”

  “I’m just going to grab a snack and hang out in my room. I’m sure you have better things to do,” I told him, backing up. “Like you have an entire audience of fae more than ready to stroke your ego and allow you to beguile them with stories.”

  There wasn’t a flicker of change in his expression. No grin. No smug glint in the eyes. “Are you okay, Ivy?”

  “Of course,” I said with a laugh. “I already told you guys I was okay.”

  And I had said that to them. I’d told Tink and Ren I was going to be okay that day out on the swing—the day that felt like forever ago, but I wasn’t okay.

  I was far from it.

  Chapter 3

  Arms folded across my chest, I ambled down the long, narrow aisle of the Hotel Good Fae library. It was on the same level as the lobby and gym but way over in a different wing. I’d accidentally found it a few days ago while everyone was eating dinner.

  And why did everyone eat dinner at the same time? Was that like some weird, Summer Court fae tradition? It was like being in high school, but with attractive, silvery-skinned people . . . who weren’t even people.

  Unfolding my arms, I reached out and trailed my fingers over the thick tomes. Some of these books had to be decades old, if not older. A lot were in languages I didn’t understand. Further back were the newer books and a lot of genre fiction, like romance and suspense. They even had a decent, up to date, young adult section.

  That was where I was heading while everyone in the entire, massive building was sitting down to eat dinner. From the aroma radiating from the cafeteria, I was thinking they were having pot roast. Normally that would have me salivating, but my stomach twisted uneasily.

  Every day I was either starving or on the verge of vomiting, and there seemed to be no in-between. At what point would this stop? A week had passed since the last time I’d . . . I’d fed. The hunger had to go away.

  I should probably ask someone about it. Faye knew what I’d been forced to do, but that would require me actually talking to her—to someone, which yeah, that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time.

  Reaching the end of the aisle, I hung a right and moved further into the library. I liked it in here. It was quiet, and no one, not even Tink, thought to look for me here. I could grab a book, find a corner, and just sit and read.

  And that was what I did.

  I picked up an old historical romance, the kind that had a barrel-chested dude on it and a chick who looked seconds away from losing her dress. I found a little cubbyhole toward the back and curled up in a comfy, oversized chair.

  It took a couple of chapters for me to get lost in the story about a young woman caught in a feud between Scottish warlords. I loved reading, but it was hard to concentrate when it felt like I should be out there, doing more—doing something.

  Maybe that was what was wrong with me? Maybe I just wasn’t used to sitting around and doing nothing for days with no end in sight. Because who knew? I could be sitting around for weeks. Maybe even months.

  I wouldn’t make it.

  Exasperated with my thoughts, I refocused on what I was reading. Once I got my brain to shut down, I was engrossed. So caught up in picturing the rolling green hills and Highland mists that I didn’t hear the approaching footsteps.

  “Ivy.”

  Startled by the deep, smooth as sin voice, I nearly dropped my book as I lifted my chin. Air punched out of my lungs the moment my gaze connected with eyes the color of spring leaves.

  Ren.

  I had not been expecting him to find me.

  “Hey,” I said, finding my voice as I closed the old paperback. My hidey-hole was no longer a hidey-place. “What are you doing in here?”

  His brows lifted at my question, and I immediately wished I hadn’t asked that. It came across as if I didn’t want to be found, and well, I didn’t, but I also didn’t want Ren to know that.

  “I mean, isn’t it dinner time?” I quickly added, feeling my cheeks heat. It was another dumb question I regretted at once.

  “Yeah, it is dinner.” Moving closer, he sat down on my chair and stretched out his long legs. “That’s why I’m looking for you.”

  I’d done the whole dinner thing the first two nights here, forced myself to eat through the stares of curiosity and distrust. I don’t know how Ren did it, but this was the first night he had actually come looking for me. Well, as far as I knew. If he had and just couldn’t find me, he didn’t bring it up at night.

  “I just got caught up reading this book,” I lied. “I hope you didn’t interrupt your dinner to find me.”

  A weird look I couldn’t quite decipher flickered over his face, but was gone before I could figure out what it was. He glanced down at the book. “Have you been here all day?”

  “Um, I’ve been here for a while.”

  He bit down on his lower lip. A moment passed in strained silence, and . . . well, things were just weird between us. And it was all because of me. I knew that. I was making things weird. The day out on the swing—the day I felt like I had this, that with Ren and Tink by my side, everything would be handled—now felt like a different life.

  Letting out a long, slow breath, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I got back a couple hours ago and looked for you. First thing I did, actually.”

  My heart squeezed as a wave of guilt washed over me. His unspoken question hung in the air between us. Where were you? Good question. I should’ve been available, waiting for him. Anything could’ve happened while he was out there. The Prince, the Order—anything, and I had worried, but I hadn’t waited for him.

  I found a place to hide away and that’s what I did.

  Ren looked away, focusing on one of the shelves. “I checked the gym, the common rooms, and the courtyard. Should’ve known to look here, you little book nerd.” His grin was brief. Still no dimples. “I thought . . . I thought you’d be in the room or somewhere, you know, easily findable.”

  The guilt surged, coursing through my veins like battery acid. “I’m sorry. The time just kind of got away from me.” I curled my fingers around the book. “So, what happened at Flux?”

  “We were able to sneak in.” The line of his jaw softened a little. “Faye used glamour on the humans. Can’t believe the damn place is open. There was staff there and a few lower level fae we took care of.”

  I was kind of surprised Flux was open and running. The last time I’d been there, it had been a massacre. Bodies hanging from the ceiling and all. A sight I would not easily forget.

  “We didn’t find anything,” h
e continued. Faye had never seen the Crystal at the house the Prince was holed up in, so it had to be stashed away somewhere. “While we were out, we decided to check out some of the cemeteries. Nothing suspicious there.”

  “Did Tanner get a hold of you guys?” I dropped my gaze when he looked over at me.

  “Yeah.” There was a beat of silence. “Said someone or something was coming to help us locate the Crystal, but I’ll believe it when I see it, you know? If that Crystal wasn’t at the mansion, then it’s got to be somewhere here.”

  I nodded. “How is it working with Faye?”

  “Weird,” he answered, and thankfully, there wasn’t a twinge of jealousy. “Whoever thought we’d be working alongside the fae?”

  “It had never crossed my mind.” I didn’t point out that technically he was dating someone who could be considered fae since I was a halfling. “Do you think the Elite knew?”

  Ren had been raised in the secretive sect with the Order, destined to be a member. “I never heard anything like that, but the Elite had to know.” His voice hardened, and I peeked up. He was focused on a bookshelf again. His lip was curled in disgust when he continued, “Kyle had to have known.”

  I felt the same disgust. Kyle Clare ran the group of Elite that Ren had come from, and he was a dick. A giant, flaming dickhead who had killed Ren’s best friend Noah.

  Noah had turned out to be a halfling, leaving Ren torn between his duty and someone he cared about. The same exact position he found himself in with me.

  “That’s the thing that keeps getting to me.” Ren tipped his head back, working his neck from side to side. “Why would they keep the fact that there were fae out there who were good a secret? That they worked side by side with them?”

  “I don’t know,” I whispered. That was the question of the year it seemed.

  Ren’s gaze found mine. “We’ve had Order members dying in the fucking streets every week fighting the fae. How many died the night the doorway was opened?”

  “Sixteen,” I answered, a number I’d never forget.

  “And the whole time there was this place full of fae that could fight by our side, who want the same thing as we do. It’s bullshit.”

  It was a lot of things. Bullshit was only one of them. “I’ve been thinking about it. I just can’t believe there isn’t a reason. I’m not saying it’s a justifiable one, but why did the Order take the Crystal from these fae, and why did they hide their old alliance from all of us? It has to be something big.” I glanced down the silent aisles. “And I can’t believe it was just the Order. Especially since Tanner hasn’t been exactly forthcoming on the hows and whys of what happened.”

  “Yeah, whenever I’ve brought it up, he’s dodged the question. So has Faye.” He leaned over, his arm brushing against my bent leg. “And you know what they always say. There are three sides to every story.”

  “The Order. The Summer Court. And the truth,” I answered. “Do you . . . do you trust them—the fae here?”

  When Ren’s gaze found mine again, I didn’t look away. “I do or I wouldn’t have given up the daggers to stay here.”

  Tanner had asked that our weapons be handed over, just in case. We had, but the thorn stake remained in our room, because those things were rare and were the only weapon that could take out an Ancient.

  “We’ve been vulnerable, so they’ve had plenty of chances to take us out. They haven’t. They’ve made sure we’ve been fed, have a roof over our heads, and we’re somewhere safe. Plus, they helped get you here.” He reached in, lightly touching my hand with the tips of his fingers. “Do you trust them?”

  My gaze dropped to his fingers. Truthfully, there were only two people in this entire world that I trusted a hundred percent right now. Ren and, as crazy as it sounded, Tink. I’d learned the hard way that no matter how well you thought you knew someone, that didn’t mean you really did. Val was proof of that.

  “I trust you,” I said.

  Ren quietly slipped his hand under my palm, threading his fingers through mine. My breath caught as a knot of emotion swelled in my chest. Slowly, I closed my fingers around his. He lifted our hands to his mouth, placing a kiss to the top of my hand. A whirling cyclone of yearning and hesitation formed a tangled mess inside me. I wanted to climb into his lap and I wanted to run away.

  He lowered our hands to his thigh. “Let’s go grab dinner.”

  Yes was on the tip of my tongue, but that wasn’t what came out of my mouth as I pulled my hand free. “I already grabbed something to eat, but you can go ahead. I’m going to get back to men in kilts.”

  A muscle flexed along his jaw and then his expression smoothed out. “What did you eat?”

  Recalling the conversation with Tink, I went into exaggerated detail on what I’d consumed today. Half of it was a lie. After I’d showered, I had eaten a giant bowl of Cheerios and a peanut butter sandwich. Both had settled in my stomach like lead and there had been a few terse moments where I thought I was going to spend the rest of the afternoon praying to the porcelain god.

  When I was finished, I wasn’t quite sure if Ren believed me or not. “Okay,” he drew the word out. “Then come sit with me while I eat.”

  Tension seeped into my muscles. Knowing that the cafeteria would be jam packed with fae—with fae that knew exactly what I was and what the Prince had wanted from me—turned my stomach.

  I pressed back into the cushion of the chair. “I think I’m just going to chill here.”

  Disappointment flashed across his face, and I had to look away. “Ivy.” There was a pause as I felt his intense gaze on me. “I miss you.”

  “I’ve been right here,” I said, trying to suppress the sudden surge of irritation. Being irritated with him wasn’t right. Ren was doing nothing wrong. I drew in a deep breath and forced a smile. “I have no other place to go.”

  “You’re here, Sweetness.” His voice was soft, but I flinched nonetheless at the use of the nickname. I should’ve known. When the Prince was masquerading as Ren, he never called me that. “Physically, you’re here, but that’s about it.”

  I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know how to respond to that because he was speaking the truth. No one had to be observant to see that.

  He waited for me to respond, and when I didn’t, his shoulders lifted with a deep breath. He rose, and when he spoke, his tone made my chest ache, because there was this . . . immeasurable gulf between us and it just kept growing, expanding until I worried that there’d be no bridge big enough for either of us to cross. “I’m going to grab some food. You know where to find me.”

  Pressing my lips together, I nodded.

  Ren stared down at me for a moment, and I thought he might say something, but he didn’t. He turned and walked away, his back straight and stiff. And I sat there, staring at the space he’d stood in long after he’d gone.

  I wanted him to stay.

  I wanted him to pick me up and drag me to the cafeteria.

  But I also wanted nothing more than what he’d just done, which was to leave me alone with the emptiness.

  Chapter 4

  As evening grew into night, I gave up on reading and left the library. I really didn’t have a plan for where I was going. Antsy, I was just roaming the halls while avoiding, well, everyone.

  I knew no matter how long I avoided going back to the room, Ren would be awake. He’d just be lying there, gaze glued to the TV, whether it was nine or two in the morning. Every night he waited for me while I got changed in the bathroom like I was sixteen again. The covers on my side of the bed were pulled back. I’d climb in and lay down, and a few seconds would pass, and then he’d curl around me, holding me tight against his chest.

  That contact, his chest against my back, his arm around my waist, always frazzled me. It was too much and not nearly enough all at once, but it was the only thing that helped me fall asleep.

  Ren was the only reason I fell asleep.

  I slept the meager hours that I managed to get every night
because of him, because he waited for me. Because he’d been nothing but patient, and God, he was such a good guy. Perfect. For real. He could even fold fitted sheets, and who could do that? I was just being so . . . so freaking screwed up.

  I stopped just outside the courtyard and stared up at the hundreds and hundreds of twinkling string lights.

  When I first saw the old Power Plant off Peters Street, it had looked like one of the many rundown, abandoned buildings, but that was some powerful glamour. Now I saw it for what it truly was: a beautifully renovated building that rivaled any of the swanky hotels in New Orleans. Faye had said they could house hundreds of fae who were looking for a safe place to hide out. The courtyard
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