Time ticked by at a snail’s pace as I sat beside the reflecting pool. My fingers played against the surface of the water, making little ripples as I worked out my next course of action. Still, his words echoed in my head. It means you are free to go.
How those words brought conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was free to go...on the other, I was free to go. Dismissed like a petulant child. Yet, I was free to go where and when I wanted. But, where did I start?
There was no doubt that Tala and I could rejoin the traveling band that had become more of a family to us than any of the others in the past. It was also possible to find another group to travel with, though what about Tala and Ramuel?
That brought up a whole slew of other thoughts, like what happened to Ramuel? Not to mention there was still a question as to how he managed to sneak by all the lycans’ surveillance, those beasts’ noses and ears being the most effective security system known to man. He was either invisible to the lot of them, or he was dismissed as being no threat at all.
A tiny ripple cascaded across the reflecting pool, the mesmerizing undulations holding my awareness as my mind drifted over the possibilities. Leaving this place meant that I would be vulnerable until I could catch up to a group that would allow me to join them. If I was lucky, I might be able to find our old group and rejoin their nomadic journey.
No group ever kept exactly the same path or the same timing. To do so would mean being predictable. Being predictable was dangerous since it meant they could easily be tracked, so it might be near impossible to find them...unless maybe they were looking for us.
Ramuel may yet still be here in this lycan town, two of the young daughters had returned to their families, yet the rest remained among the lycans. When I watched them beyond the window, they all seemed to enjoy a sense of freedom, even if it was misplaced. How long would it be before they turned on us?
Standing from my place beside the reflecting pool, I knew my first objective was to find Tala. I dusted my pants off before striding towards the door. Though I had no clue where to go, I would manage to find Tala and speak with her. The thought of leaving Tala pained me, but the thought of taking her with me on an uncertain path frightened me. She would be my first and last point of contact before I left Lycan Hell.
My biggest worry and fear: what if she wanted to stay?
Just how long could I make it on my own? Even more so, how could I ask Tala to leave with me if it might endanger her? The answer: I couldn’t.
Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply. I was about to do something that would hurt like hell, but it had to be done. Letting the air out of my lungs, I opened the door on a mission to find Tala. God help me, I hope I was doing the right thing. When the season came that the group I traveled with returned this way, I would come for Tala. For the moment, she was safe...that meant something to me.
“Sedona!” Tala flew across the manicured lawn to launch herself into my arms. “Sedona, I am so happy to see you,” she cried excitedly as she squeezed my neck hard with her slender arms.
The blonde tresses shimmered against her slightly tanned skin. Being in a haven such as this had allowed her to run around showing a lot more flesh than she had ever been able to. Before, we traveled with garb that concealed nearly every hint of flesh, making it hard to distinguish us from young men. Her beautiful hair was usually pulled back sharply away from her face and concealed beneath a hood, her curves hidden beneath clothes that were too large for her small frame.
Now, she wore a sundress that allowed her to soak up the sun and reveal the truly stunning beauty she really was. The brilliant smile on her face was radiantly blinding, and I found a moment of peace in her happiness.
“Just the person I was looking for!” My arms held her to me as I fought to control the tears that threatened to fall. This was going to be harder than I thought.
When she pulled away from me, I had to fight the urge to hold her in my grasp. If she knew what I was about to do, she would try to stop me.
Grabbing my arm, she pulled me along behind her as she moved towards a huge table to the side of the house. The same table I had seen her and the others take lunch and dinner at with our recent benefactors. The air was full of a buzz of activity.
“You have to come see!” She continued to pull my arm, my legs reluctantly following behind her. “You just missed Kallan-” she hesitated, shaking her head. “Umm, Lord Kolbeck,” she giggled.
The way she said his name and giggled made my stomach lurch. Sure, it was easy to see why some young, innocent woman might fall for his dashing good looks, or his rugged charm, if they liked that bash them over the head and drag them to your cave sort of guy. However, I thought Tala had more sense. Better still, I thought Tala had Ramuel.
Pasting on a smile in case she thought something was off, I tried to shrug in indifference. “I am sure we will run into each other at some point,” I offered, though hoping for the complete opposite. In fact, I was hoping to not even be anywhere near this place by morning. Still, the image of him seeking her out on the heel of him releasing me made me apprehensive. “Did he come looking for you?”
The attempt to sound nonchalant was an effort, and a failed one by the way that Tala looked at me. She offered a small, shy smile that made my heart sink. “He typically comes to check on me every day to see how I'm faring.” She blushed, her eyes moving away from me and towards the table that was abundant with fabrics and boxes.
Drawing closer to the table, I realized what she was dragging me to. The white, gauzy fabric from days before laid across a protective layer of paper, a range of various flower bouquets dotting the table with its splashes of color. My gaze moved slowly and smoothly over each article that lingered there, taking it all in.
Finally, the question that had been plaguing me fell from my lips. “Tala? Why does Lord Kolbeck seek you out every day?”
Tala tugged my arm to bring me even closer to the table as she stood beside me. She grinned wide, pleasure and joy evident in the way she beamed at me. “To check on the progress of the wedding, of course.”
There was no doubt that she was very happy with herself over that little tidbit of information. The way her eyes glistened as it beheld the contents of the table made the answer to my second question clear, but I still asked. “Whose wedding,” I asked softly, letting the words fall slowly.
“My wedding,” she said, excitement bubbling within her as a small squeal eeked from her throat. “Isn’t it exciting? I can’t believe that I am finally going to be married!”
Everything switched, my brain going on autopilot. “I didn’t realize you wanted to be married...that it was something you wanted for yourself.”
My eyes moved over her face, not missing the pink that stained her cheeks. The blushing excitement of a soon-to-be bride. Though my heart ached, I smiled at my beautiful little moon. Her happiness caused her to bloom into the most beautiful young woman I had ever known. She was no longer my little moon...she was a young woman about to embark on her own path, towards her own future. A woman about to become a wife, and someday would become a mom. A mom in the real sense, and not what I had been pretending to be for most of Tala’s life.
A part of me was jealous that she had found her happiness with a man that I could barely tolerate. Another part was simply grateful for her happiness. Kallan put that smile on her face, and I was grudgingly grateful to him.
Tala’s hand ran across the gauzy material, her focus on something in her not-too-distant future. “I guess you never realize what you want for yourself until it becomes a possibility,” she mused. For a few seconds, she just let her hand run over the material as she pondered things that I could never imagine. Finally, she popped out of her reverie as she snapped her head towards me. “Oh, you have to see what I have for you!”
Grumbling, I looked up to the sky. Dusk was upon us, and all I really wanted to do was have dinner, stuff my pockets with leftovers, and hit the road, knowing that no one would stop me from leaving. I knew I would have to do it quickly, like ripping off a taped bandage.
Before I could voice my desire for food, she grabbed my arm once more and pulled me to the end of the table. “Kallan helped me pick out the colors for these gowns. He said they are for what people call bridesmaids.” She reached the end of the table where beautiful golden gowns were laid across the table. The color would compliment my reddish-brown hair and brown eyes to perfection if ever a color did. The golden fabric glinted in the fading sun as we approached it, and I fought the urge to run my fingers across the glistening gown. “He said the color would look stunning on you, and I have to admit, I agree. The color is perfect for you!” She held it up in front of me, admiring the complementing fabric against me.
“I can’t accept this,” I muttered quietly. I had no idea about bridesmaids and gowns, but I did know there was no place for such finery where I was going.
Tala laughed merrily. “Of course, you can! You have to! You are going to be my bridesmaid.”
Shaking my head, I backed away from her. “No, I-I can’t,” I stammered.
Tala’s face fell. “Why not?” I continued to shake my head as I took a couple more steps away from her. “Sedona, you have to. I can’t do this without you!”
“You don’t understand...I just...can’t,” I felt anxiety starting to well in my chest, my head snapping to look around me for an escape. Looking for a way to get out of feeling compelled to bend to her wishes.
“Please, Sedona. You are the only family I have ever had. It wouldn’t be the same without you there. I need you!” Her eyes searched mine, a sad smile plastering over her lips. “You can’t leave me!”
My resolve melted. Damn it! I might have to sleep with the donkeys, but I had to find a way to stay so that I could be here for Tala.
Sighing, I nodded. “Of course, Tala," I replied. I reached my hand out and grasped her arm. "There is nothing that could stop me from being there,” I said, the words flowing from a warmth that spread in my chest. A warmth that was followed closely by a sense of dread.
Now, I had to go and find Kallan...if I was going to stay, I guess we needed to talk.
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