Authors: Carol Davis
Book Four: Quest
Copyright © 2016 by Carol Davis
All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
Luca’s first instinct was to keep moving, to ignore the familiar sound of his brother’s voice. Even a small interruption now, at the beginning of his journey, might convince him to turn back. It might plant a seed of doubt that would grow into a towering pine—maybe an entire wall of them—and he couldn’t afford to take that chance.
Not when it had been so difficult to make the decision to leave the island in the first place.
He took another step, and another.
Aaron didn’t call out to him again, and Luca thought for a moment that his brother had decided to give up and go back to the settlement. That disappointed him a little, because part of him wanted very much for Aaron to help him untie one of the boats and push it away from the dock.
Away from the beautiful, secluded place that had been his home for almost all of his life.
Away from home, toward the mainland.
Toward Allison, the funny, smart, redheaded girl he had said a broken-hearted goodbye to four years ago.
But suddenly, there was Aaron, up ahead on the wide, well-worn path through the woods that led down to the water’s edge.
“Brother,” Luca said quietly.
Aaron seemed to be blocking the way, but then he stepped aside and shrugged a little. “I’m not here to bring you back.”
Luca kept walking toward the water, one booted foot placed stubbornly in front of the other, his bundle of clothing and supplies bumping gently against his back with each step.
When he passed Aaron, Aaron fell in alongside him and kept pace with him.
“I have to do this,” Luca murmured. “No matter what the result is, I have to know if the bond is there. I have to see her again.”
Aaron made a sympathetic sound deep in his throat. “You think I don’t understand that?”
They were close enough to the water for Luca to hear it lapping gently against the rocky shore. Sunrise was still a few minutes away, but the winds were calm and the sky was clear, which seemed to promise another beautiful late summer day. Ideal for crossing to the mainland.
Luca stopped walking and took a long look at his brother.
Then Aaron said aloud the things that had been on Luca’s mind for weeks. “It’s been four years since your time of Involvement—since you left her. She may have chosen someone else as a mate. She may even be a mother now. She may not want to see you, even to say hello.”
“I need to know,” Luca said again.
Aaron nodded and stood silent for a moment, looking back toward the settlement a couple of times. He’d either just risen from bed or had spent some time running through the woods in his wolf form; his hair was tousled, and his shirt was wrinkled and crooked, as though he’d pulled it on quickly and without care. Luca took a closer look and saw pine needles stuck to Aaron’s pants.
The wolf had been running, then, and Aaron’s clothes had been left in a heap on the ground.
“Your mate is asleep?” Luca asked.
Aaron smiled, and a glimmer of gold appeared in his eyes. “She was when I left the house.”
That bond had happened very quickly—between Aaron and the human woman, Abby. Luca envied his brother that: the simplicity and speed of it, even though Aaron had had to fight to convince the circle of elders to allow his human bride to stay here on the island and live among the wolves as a true member of the pack. The elders had come close to saying no, but to Luca’s mind, the pieces had all fallen into place as easily as if the gods had pushed them there.
Those same gods seemed to have conspired to keep him and Allison apart.
“Will you talk to Mother and Father for me?” he asked his brother with a catch in his voice. “Help them to understand that I have to do this, if I’m ever to know any peace?”
Their parents had been all but silent the day before, after Luca had told them his plans. A while later, his mother had given him a packet of food to take with him. His father had brought him some clothing that would help him fit in among the humans, along with the papers Luca had used to identify himself during his Involvement on the mainland four years ago, and a little wallet containing some human money.
That all seemed to indicate that they supported what he was doing.
But they hadn’t spoken. Neither of them. Not a word.
“I don’t know what else I could have told them,” he said to Aaron. “I know they want me to choose someone from among the pack, but—”
Aaron reminded him quietly, “They care for Katrin.”
“As do I.”
“But not enough.”
Both Luca and Aaron had known Katrin since the three of them were children. Luca and Kat been so close that for a long time, everyone on the island had assumed that they would find a bond together, would end up joined as mates.
For a while, Luca had thought that too—and then he’d met Allison.
He could see her in his mind’s eye as clearly as if she were still there in front of him: the way her thick, soft hair fell in waves around her shoulders, the curve of her lips, the light that never left her eyes, even when she was unhappy. And her body…
They had spent a number of sweet and tender nights together. Their joining had never been casual, nothing that could be easily dismissed. Each time, a voice had whispered in Luca’s ear, telling him that this was the female he was meant to be with, the one the gods had intended for him to find.
But she’d told him no.
She couldn’t leave her family, she’d said. Couldn’t abandon the mainland—her work, her friends, her life—to live with him on an island she’d never visited, had never even seen in a photograph. For weeks, he’d done his best to convince her to try, but at the end of it her answer had still been no.
Four years had passed, but that
was still a blade of pain inside his heart.
“I thought I could—” He had to stop for a moment, then went on, “What do the humans call it? I thought I could ‘make do.’ You saw—I’ve spent time with Katrin. We talked. We shared meals together. We—” Again, he stopped. “We kissed.”
“I thought that might have happened.”
“She’s still important to me. I care about her—I truly do. But I can’t ask her to commit her life to me, when the best I can do is ‘make do.’ She deserves a true mate, Aaron. And so do I.”
They were standing close enough together that Luca could smell the woman Abby’s scent on Aaron’s clothes. It was rich, ripe, fertile. That might mean there’d be a child on the way sometime soon.
A child Luca might never see. Might never get to know.
“Talk to all of them,” he told his brother quickly, stumbling over the words. “Please. Help them understand why I need to do this. You’re the only one left among us who’s chosen a human as your mate. You can convince them that it doesn’t matter that Allison isn’t a wolf.”
“It’s not just Allison’s being a human,” Aaron said. “They’re afraid of never seeing you again.” His breath came out in a soft sigh. “As am I.”
“As much as we disagree?”
Luca embraced his brother and inhaled deeply, pulling Aaron’s scent into his lungs, aware that Aaron was doing the same. That wouldn’t help them remember each other any better—or help them find each other in some strange and unfamiliar place, if it ever came to that.
It was just a comfort.
They had no other siblings. For all that they quarreled and scrapped, they were each other’s best friend.
“I’ll believe that you’re coming back,” Aaron said. “That you’ll convince her that this is a good place to live, as I did with Abby. That in… however long it takes, you’ll return here with your mate. This is our home. I don’t want to think of you never seeing the island again.”
“Nor do I,” Luca said.
But he knew in his heart that if there was no other way, if Allison accepted him as her mate only on the condition that he stay with her on the mainland and never come back to the island, he would have to agree.
If he had bonded with her, he would
“It’s a complicated business,” he muttered.
Aaron smiled again as he stepped back. “Are you telling me something you think I don’t know? ‘Complicated’ seems like an understatement. The bond will keep you awake at night. Fill your heart and tear it to shreds at the same time.” Still smiling, he laid a hand on Luca’s shoulder and gripped it hard. “I hope you find what you seek, brother. But…”
For a moment, he looked off into the trees. Then his gaze returned to Luca. “Remember that life is good here. And that what the gods intended for you will happen, sometimes when you least expect it.”
Then he disappeared into the woods, even more suddenly than he’d arrived.
Without him, the path seemed very empty.
Bright ribbons of sunlight began to cut through the trees, bringing out the small details of the rocks, the ferns, the dirt of the path. For what seemed like a long time, Luca took it all in: those small details, the morning call of the birds high overhead, the scent of pine and flowers.
Then he swallowed down the lump in his throat and continued making his way down to the dock.
“It’s fine, you doofus. Look at her! It’s totally fine.”
The others quickly chimed in, all of it loud and a little screechy, four excited women talking on top of one another, none of them listening to what anyone else was saying.
“Allison! Come stand out in front, by the window. See how it looks in the daylight. Here. Here! Come on out by the window!”
And, “It’s borderline, isn’t it? I dunno. Isn’t it? It’s really kind of bordering on… borderline.”
And, “Maybe the hairdresser can put, like, a rinse on her hair? You know, tone that ginger stuff down some?”
The giggling and teasing and selfie-taking had been bad enough. That, she might have been able to put up with.
Now, she was the bull’s-eye in the room. The object of everyone’s attention.
Up until a few minutes ago, the bull’s-eye had been Julie, Allison’s college roommate and best friend, the woman who was getting married in four days. Now, the four women Julie had chosen as her bridesmaids had zeroed in on the maid of honor. Specifically, on whether or not the color of the attendants’ dresses did or did not violently clash with Allison’s red hair.
Julie had told her the dresses would be Pale Daffodil—a soft, subtle yellow. The photos she’d e-mailed last fall, and the fabric swatches, had seemed to agree. The original dress, which Allison had made a quick trip back here to try on back in January, had seemed fine. Nothing had clashed with anything else.
Then the catastrophe had happened.
There’d been a Snowpocalypse, the salon’s roof had collapsed, and half the store’s inventory had been ruined—including all those Pale Daffodil dresses. The insurance settlement had taken a crazy amount of time to sort out; then the dresses were re-made.
In a slightly different color. A brighter yellow.
One that looked wildly awful with Allison’s hair.
Julie, who hadn’t said a word, was sitting on a fancy little white satin chair over in the corner. Her own gown hadn’t been damaged; during the Snowpocalypse, it had been hanging safely in her mother’s crafts room on the other side of town. And really, these dresses were… fine. So Jules should have been happy.
But she looked like she was about to hurl.
“Al! Allison! Are you
That was Gina, who was now attempting to haul Allison toward the entrance of the salon, where there were windows.
Finger by finger, Allison peeled Gina’s hand off her arm. It didn’t entirely surprise her that Gina’s grip left behind what looked like the beginnings of a bruise. Nor did it surprise her that Gina put together a ferocious scowl as she stepped back.
—” Allison said.
For no reason she could figure out, the others all stopped their squealing and shrieking. The silence that followed seemed like a gift from On High, one that Allison hoped would continue for at least a minute or two.
Though that was asking a lot from a bunch of wound-up women who’d each had more than one drink with lunch to celebrate their all finally being together for the wedding.
They were all looking at Allison as if they expected… what? For her to make a toast? Do a comedy monologue? Shave her head?
“It’s fine,” she said quietly. “I’m sure it’s fine. The lights in here might be funny. Things look different under the lights. It’s… it’s fine.”
Back in the corner, Julie let out a long groan.
Oh, tell me you’re not groaning at
. Tell me you’re not making this
fault. Because, really, Jules? You couldn’t have picked a safer color? Blue? Green? Cream? Something that wouldn’t…
Rather than give the others a chance to start up again, Allison scurried across the salon to the changing room where she’d left her own clothes. The tiny, gray-haired seamstress from Fittings & Alterations tried to follow her, but Allison brushed her firmly away, telling her with a very pasted-on smile, “I’m fine. I’ll be careful with the dress.” Then she slipped inside the changing room and closed the door.
She was trembling a little as she stripped out of the problematic dress and tugged on the outfit she’d bought specifically for this day:
Lunch w/girls & final fitting
, as she’d noted it on her calendar. The crisp slacks and blouse had looked great on her this morning, after her shower, and they’d fit perfectly. Now, somehow, they seemed too tight, seemed to pinch and squeeze and rub, and she longed for the faded jeans and soft t-shirt she’d left lying on the bed in her hotel room.
Four more days of this?
she thought. No, six. The wedding was in four days, on Saturday, but she wasn’t going home till Tuesday.
Next Tuesday seemed like a lifetime away.
She was trying to tug the blouse into place when the door opened and Julie shuffled in, looking very blotchy and distressed. Before Allison could ask her to, Julie pressed the door shut again and leaned heavily against it, as if she thought someone might try to batter it down from the other side.
“I’m sorry, Al,” she muttered.
Another bride might have brought up the subject of the wedding pictures—how Allison’s hair was going to ruin those precious mementos of the wedding for the rest of eternity.
Another bride—Gina, maybe—might have insisted that it’d be a nice gesture if Allison could run out and have her hair dyed some other color, at least until after the wedding.
But Julie just looked sad. And blotchy.
“The original one was okay, wasn’t it?” she whispered.
For a moment, Allison didn’t know what to say. This time—these last few days before Saturday—was supposed to be special for Julie. She wasn’t a bridezilla; she’d always been sweet and generous. She deserved for these last few days to be full of fun, something she could remember fondly.
Instead, there was DressGate.
With her teeth clamped on her lower lip, Allison glanced over at the bone of contention, which was now hanging a little limply on its white satin padded hanger, looking almost as sad as Julie.
It wasn’t a style Allison would have picked for herself. It was slightly different from the dresses the bridesmaids would be wearing, a little more elaborate, fussier than Allison normally liked. But that didn’t matter. It was Julie’s gown that mattered, Allison told herself: a big, delicate pouf of lace and satin and tiny crystal beads.
Everyone would be looking at Julie on Saturday afternoon, not at her bridesmaids or her maid of honor.
Clashing hair color or not.
Smiling, Allison leaned over to brush a kiss against Julie’s cheek. “It’s fine, Jules. Really.”
“That hair of yours…”
“Blame my grandmother.”
“I gave this a lot of thought, Al! I really did. You guys are so different. It’s… it’s hard to pick something that’s right for five different people. And you all said you liked what I picked.”
“We did. We do.”
There was something else going on here, Allison realized. Julie had stopped looking at the dress. She was focused completely on Allison, and she was seeing something that was making her incredibly unhappy. For a second, Allison felt a bolt of irrational fear, as if Julie were one of those cancer-sniffing dogs and had just determined that Allison’s days were numbered.
It took some doing for her to ask, “What are you worried about? Really.”
Julie heaved a sigh. Then she seized Allison in a huge, bone-crushing hug. “I’m so
, Allie!” she moaned.
As if somebody had died. Or was dying.
Allison stepped carefully back. “I’m really gonna need you to tell me what’s going on.”
“Jules. For heaven’s sake.”
Julie hung her head. “I thought it was gonna be you,” she said rapidly, to her shoes rather than to Allison. “I always thought it was gonna be you. You know—first. That you were gonna be first.”
Julie’s head bobbed up, and she peered earnestly at Allison as if to say,
There. Now it’s all out in the open.
And as if she expected Allison to haul off and clock her—hit her so hard she’d go flying through the changing room’s flimsy door, out into the middle of the salon, a scene worthy of a reality show. A scene that would appear in all the promos for next week’s episode.
“Marry who?” Allison asked, bewildered.
Tears started to flood down Julie’s cheeks. “Oh,
I’ve lost my mind,
Or everyone else has. Or maybe I’m imagining all this. Maybe it’s all just…
She began to wish that her bosses had said “no” to her vacation request. That they’d pointed to the growing pile of work she needed to do, the meetings she needed to attend, the clients she needed to contact. That they’d told her there was no way they could let her leave town for a week.
Back home, things made sense. And people very seldom cried big crocodile tears, unless they were four years old.
“I-I should—” she stammered.
“When I first met Matt,” Julie whispered, “you already knew
. Mr. Fantastic. You guys—you were so perfect for each other. And I just… I thought Matt was nice. Remember, I told you he seemed nice? Our first date didn’t go too great, but I said I’d go out with him again. I thought it was nothing huge. But you and
—that was huge.”
The gorgeous guy she’d bumped into at her favorite sandwich shop near campus. The one she’d felt magnetically drawn to, the one who’d prompted her to skip the rest of that day’s classes—and a lot of classes during the weeks that followed—because she couldn’t bear to walk away from him.
The one who’d wanted her to go live on an island somewhere, away from her family and friends.
“Jules, that was four years ago,” Allison said quietly. “I haven’t even heard from him since then.”
“But you were so right for each other.”
Suddenly, Allison was glad for the changing room’s lack of mirrors, which meant she didn’t have to look at her own face, that she couldn’t see how she’d responded to Julie’s statement.
All the mirrors were outside, in the main room of the salon. In here, the lights were a little dimmer, and the walls were a soft, soothing shade of pale blue. The same blue as the sky outside, Allison thought. Washed out a little by the late-summer heat.
She forced herself to think of the sky as she pushed her bare feet into her shoes. To forget what Julie had just said. She didn’t want to think about what had happened with Luca four years ago, no matter how completely right being with him had seemed at the time.
That was then, and this was now.
Her companion for the wedding would be a cousin of the groom, a nice, outgoing guy she’d met only briefly. Evan? No, Ernie.
No doubt people would gossip about them, ask if they were a couple.
, she told herself.
Think sky. Birds. Big fluffy clouds.
But visions of thunderstorms started to intrude. Lightning, thunder, maybe some hail.
Golf-ball-sized hail. High winds. Roads being flooded out, power lines falling. Maybe a tornado.
“Ohhhhhh, Allllllisonnnnnn,” Julie moaned.
A tornado—one that would sweep her away, to somewhere else, like Dorothy—seemed like a good idea.
She wasn’t able to break away to her hotel room until almost an hour later, after Julie and the bridesmaids had all agreed to go their separate ways for a while so they could catch up on “real life” before dinner.
Julie had managed to wipe away her tears, and although she went on looking mournful, she didn’t mention Four Years Ago to the others; all she did was send Allison a series of increasingly regretful looks.
Dinner? Dinner was going to be a real treat.
Allison felt wiped out as she walked through the lobby of the little all-suites hotel five minutes’ drive from Julie and Matt’s new townhouse. There was a knot in her stomach, a mini-black hole that seemed to be sucking all the energy out of her.
Matt’s cousin Ernie was part of it. He seemed nice enough, definitely someone she wasn’t cringing at being paired with, but he wasn’t someone she’d choose, either from a dating site or, say, out at a bar. He was just… wrong.
They were all just… wrong.
It’d been almost a year since her last attempt at a serious relationship, the latest in a line of crash-and-burns. She worked too hard, those guys had all told her. She ought to kick back more, give herself a chance to relax.
But she couldn’t do that, not if she hoped to become a partner at RhodesJanisCo, the state’s most talked-about PR agency, one that—although it was less than ten years old—was on the fast track to national attention. Allison was one of their Hot Half-Dozen, the junior members of the team who could guarantee impressive results: new contracts, more media attention, happy clients.