Renegade (The Captive Series Book 2) – Erica Stevens

Aria didn’t have to look up to know that Max had arrived. He had been joining her here, at the same time, everyday for the last month. Even if he hadn’t settled into that routine, she would have detected his presence by his subtle smell and nearly silent step. He settled onto the ground beside her, remaining silent as he picked up a rock and skipped it leisurely across the lake. Aria handed him the fishing pole beside her, the hook was already baited and ready for him. He took it from her, casting it easily into the center of the lake. Aria swung her feet slightly back and forth, her toes skimming along the lake. It was early summer now; the cool water was wonderful against her overheated skin. Using the back of her arm, she wiped away the sweat beading along her forehead. They sat for a long time together, wordlessly reeling in fish. They kept the ones that were good to eat, and tossed back the ones that were too small. Aria had started retreating to this spot soon after her escape from being a blood slave, and her return home. Max had found her here two days later. They rarely spoke, they didn’t need too. They had both been inside that place, both been owned and used, and hurt by the vampires that had possessed them.

The monsters that had owned them. Though, decidedly, Max’s experience had been far worse than hers. She had been owned, led around by a leash, and used, but the extent of her use was her own fault. She had willingly given the prince her blood, mistakenly thinking that she was falling in love with the deceptive bastard, but that had been before she’d learned that he was engaged. Though she hated the prince now, she could not deny the sharp stab of pain that pierced her at the thought of him marrying another woman. It was an awful thought, horrendous, and it brought tears to her eyes every time it crossed her mind. Which was far more often than she cared to admit. But, no matter how badly she’d been hurt, no matter how much she’d been betrayed, her experience hadn’t been anywhere near as awful as Max’s. Though they did not talk about it, she knew what was done to blood slaves. They were used, abused, and discarded when their owners grew tired of them.

Even though Max always wore long sleeves, every once in awhile his shirt would ride up and she would catch sight of the scars and burns that marred his fair skin. She would see the haunted look that sometimes filled his bright blue eyes when he didn’t think anyone was looking. She had suffered abuse while within the palace, but it had come from a human servant, and not the vampire prince. He had broken her heart, but he had never intentionally inflicted bodily harm to her that she not asked for. In fact, he had been unfailingly gentle with her. Though she hated to acknowledge it, she knew that if the prince had not taken so much of her blood on her last night, leaving her incoherent, she would have given him far more than just her blood then. She also would have given him her body, and her last piece of self respect. It was a fact that she hated herself for, and tried not to think about. Especially since the thought still left her oddly shaken and longing for something that had been unfulfilled, and always would be. The prince may not have been physically cruel to her, but Max’s owner had been just as cruel and brutal as they had always heard the vampire’s were to their slaves.

Aria’s neck was only marred by one bite mark, one that she had wanted so badly that her whole being had ached for it. A bite that had nearly stripped her soul from her, and left her a far different person than the one she’d been before he fed from her. A mark that was fading faster than she wanted it to, and yet nowhere near as fast as she wanted it to. She didn’t want to lose the mark, it was her last connection to the prince, and no matter how much she hated him, she could not deny that he would always own a piece of her heart. But it could only be a small piece as he had succeeded in shattering the rest of it. She wanted the mark gone. Wanted it off of her skin. She hoped that once it was gone she would be able to forget about the prince. That once it was gone, she could move on with her life, and not hurt so much all the time. That she would not ache constantly, that the dreams would stop haunting her, and she could stop just existing, and actually start living again.

She wanted to take pleasure again in the woods again, but since her return she had found little joy in the wilderness she’d once loved so dearly. Max reeled his line in, deftly unhooked a decent sized bass, and added it to their growing catch. Aria pulled her dark pants up more, baring her legs to her knees. She squirmed her way closer to the edge of the lake, dipping her legs up to her shins in the water. She wanted to go swimming soon, wash her hair, and clean herself. One of the few things she missed about the palace, besides the prince, was the wonderfully hot showers and baths she had taken. Diving in the lake was not the same cleansing experience, though she did it far more often now than she had before she was captured and claimed by the prince. Being clean every day while in the palace had left her with the same desire now that she was home. After about an hour, Max finally spoke. ��You had another bad dream last night.

” Aria sat silently, she didn’t know how to tell him she didn’t have nightmares like he did. She did not relive violent beatings and torture. Her dreams were about the last night she’d had with the prince, the wonder she had felt, the joy and love that had suffused her. His feeding from her had been so breathtaking, and amazing, that she had never wanted to end. It had been painful for Max when his owner had drank from him, but for her, it had been a moment of pure ecstasy that had touched her profoundly. It was the loss of that joy, the loss of him that caused her to cry and moan and awaken at night. For her, the night was not a reliving of torment like it was with Max, but a reliving of heartache. She had never deluded herself into thinking that anything between herself and the prince could last. She would have had to die eventually, the rest of the royal family, his wife, would have seen to her death eventually. She had deluded herself into thinking that he might actually care for her too though.

But that was before she had learned that he was already engaged to someone else. The thought still caused a bolt of fury, betrayal, and pain to jolt through her. Max wrapped his hands lightly around hers, trying to steady them as they shook on the pole. “The fish will know you’re here.” She managed to return his wan smile as she struggled to breathe, struggled to regain control of her wounded pride and broken heart. “I don’t think my nightmares are as bad as yours,” she said softly. He squeezed her hand gently before slowly releasing her. They had never spoken about their experiences, though it was obvious that they had both been changed forever. But Aria had gained weight while in captivity, Max had grown even thinner, his bones were still sharp against his pale, drained skin. He exhibited far more bruises, scars, and bite marks than she did, though her scars were mainly inside.

His experience had been far more physically taxing, and just as mentally abusive, and toxic, as hers had. “That’s a good thing,” he murmured. She tilted her head, offering him a small half smile. His clear blue eyes were soft, tender. His sandy blond hair hung about his handsome face and stark features. It was her fault that Max had even been placed in that whole awful situation. He had allowed himself to be captured after she was taken with the hope that he would be able to get them both free. Unfortunately, he had not anticipated just how much of a lockdown blood slaves were placed on. Though, she had been afforded far more freedom than he had. She glanced down at her wrist, the one that had been scarred by the leash she had tried to rip from her.

Unfortunately, once placed on, the golden leashes could only be removed by the vampire that had placed them there. In a moment of panic, frustration, and fear for Max’s life, she had tried to rip it off of her. All she had gotten for her efforts was a bloody wrist, bloody fingers, and a pissed off prince who had been so unbelievably tender afterwards. She forcefully shut the thought down. Recalling the prince as tender and loving only reopened the raw and jagged wounds still festering upon her heart. “You never should have been there Max, I’m sorry.” It was the first time she had apologized to him for her role in his capture; she hadn’t been able to get the words out before. She had wanted to apologize many many times, but neither of them wanted to be reminded of their time there. They both wanted to keep it to themselves, wanted to deny that it had even happened. And they were both failing miserably at it.

It was obvious to anyone that knew them that they weren’t the same; that they never would be. No matter how much they wanted to pretend that their captivity hadn’t happened, they couldn’t succeed at it. He was silent for a moment, his gaze distant as he stared across the lake. He turned slowly toward her, his eyes haunted, but there was something else in them, something more. Something she had never seen before. Or perhaps she had seen it, but she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it before. She couldn’t deny it now. She couldn’t deny it, but she also didn’t want it. There had only been one other man that had ever looked at her like that, and in the end he had made her like this. He had left her shattered and broken, and barely able to breathe through the pain that continuously clawed at her insides.

He had ruined her, and Max did not fully understand that yet. She hoped that one day he would. The last thing she wanted was to have Max hurt because of her again, but with the way that he was looking at her she felt it was inevitable. “I made the choice to go after you Aria, it was my fault that I was caught, not yours. Even knowing what I do now, I wouldn’t change anything. I would never leave you alone Aria, never.” She stared back at him, searching his face. She had always found him handsome, and she still did, but it was not the dark, dangerous ruggedness that the prince had possessed. Instead, Max was blond, with clear blue eyes, and an open sweet face that made many girls swoon. At one time he had even made her swoon.

So much so that Max had been her first and only kiss, before she had met the prince. And then, she had known that no matter what feelings she had once possessed for Max, they had been nothing compared to what she felt for the prince. And now the prince was gone, lost to her forever, and Max was looking at her with the same longing expression that the prince had stared at her with. She swallowed the lump in her throat, fighting against the tears that wanted to fall. Unlike the prince though, Max would never leave her alone, never betray her, never use her like the prince had. He would never destroy her as the prince had. Max would do everything in his power to keep her safe, to build her up again, and would sacrifice himself over and over for her. Even if the prince could have located her, even if he had wanted to, he never would have come for her. He had a fiancée he had to take care of now. A vampire to build a life with, and to have children with.

She was nothing but a pitiful, human, toy to him. Why did she still love the murdering bastard then? Why on earth couldn’t she love someone as wonderful, caring, and sweet as Max? But she didn’t, and she knew that she would never be able to. Aria shook her head, trying to deny his words. “Max…” “It’s ok Aria, one day you’ll forget him, you’ll move on.” “You know about him?” she whispered, unexpected shame flooding her body. She felt like a traitor, a monster, a fool. Her father was the leader of the rebels; her brother’s and Max were some of his strongest fighters in the cause, just as she had been before she had been broken. They had been willing to risk their lives for her, and she… Well she had given her heart to a vampire, the oldest son in the royal family no less, the heir to the throne. They had been willing to die for her, and she had been falling in love with one of their greatest enemies. She thought of the prince as a monster, but she had also come to accept the fact that she was one too.

“I suspected,” he said softly. “You can’t blame yourself Aria, it was an awful time. Things were twisted and wrong in there. It’s not your fault that you wanted to trust him. Of course you did, it was frightening, and you became confused. He had a month to twist you to his way of thinking, to make you think that you could trust him, that you could love him.” “Oh Max,” she breathed, wishing that the explanation was as simple as that, but she knew it wasn’t. The prince had not twisted her; he had not turned her terror and confusion against her. He had been kind and caring, and he had needed her, she knew that. Though he’d had an unknown fiancée the whole time, she knew that she had at the very least been a little special to him.

But she still should have fought against her feelings even more, he was her enemy, he would always be her enemy, and they had never had a chance at a future. She had known all of that, and yet she had still gone to him willingly. Still offered him her blood with no reservations, and no fear. She had given him her heart willingly also, it had not been twisted and distorted the way that Max believed it had. She hated to pop Max’s bubble of her, but he could not go about thinking such things. He had to know that she had not been corrupted in there, but a willing, even eager, participant. He had to know that she was a horrible person. He had to know these things so that he would stop looking at her like that, so that he would understand she could never care for him the same way that he cared for her. “I’m sorry Max,” she whispered. “But that’s not what happened.

He didn’t twist me, he didn’t corrupt me. He was kind to me, he took care of me. I may have been his blood slave, but he only treated me as such when it was absolutely necessary. I wish I could say that I hadn’t come to care for him, that I had remained loyal to you and everyone here, but I can’t. I loved him Max…” She broke off, unable to speak through the pain that clawed at her. “I still love him,” she choked out. He stared at her for a moment, his eyes wide in disbelief, and then he shook his head rapidly. His sandy blond hair fell across his forehead, curling around his bright eyes. “But don’t you see Aria that is how he twisted you. He knew that you’d always had nothing, that your life had been hard and unkind.

He knew that by being kind, by giving you the things that you’d never had, you would come to rely on him, need him, and trust him. That way it would be more fun when he destroyed you, it’s why he never told you he was engaged.” Aria’s hands clawed into the edge of the river bank, the moss dug underneath her fingernails. She wanted to believe Max’s words, wanted to make them true and maybe, just maybe, she could move on if she believed them, but she couldn’t. Yes, the prince had kept his fiancée from her, yes he had been dishonest, and yes he had broken her heart, but something between them had been real. Max knew that the prince was blind; he did not know that whenever the prince was near her, he could see again. There had been a strange connection between them from the very beginning, one the prince had recognized instantly upon seeing her, one that she hadn’t acknowledged until later. And though the prince had omitted things about his life, she knew he had not been lying about the fact that he could only see when he was around her. He had been completely blind for over a hundred years, until he had seen her standing on stage being auctioned off as a blood slave. The fact that he could see her was the reason that he had claimed her, the first blood slave that he had ever owned.

No, Max did not know about that, and as far as she was concerned no one ever would, not even Jack, the prince’s brother. That was one secret that would stay completely between the two of them. It was the one thing that she clung to, the one thing that made her believe that it had not all been a lie. The one thing that helped to ease her self disgust just a little. For although she knew she would never see him again, never feel him again, and even though he had hurt her so badly, she needed to believe that he had cared for her, at least a little bit. That she had not been a complete and utter idiot. It probably wasn’t the best idea for her to cling to that, not when she needed to let him go, but she couldn’t help it. Right now it was the only thing that was getting her through the awful pain that clung to her every day. “I don’t think so Max,” she said softly. “I do,” he replied with more confidence than she had.

“And one day you will realize it too. You just need time for his psychological games to wear off, and when they do, I’ll be here.” Aria shook her head. “No Max…”

.

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