"So, I was trying to tell him not to make this weird new mushroom thing," Natalie says, frowning as she continues flipping the books right side up.
Just yesterday, her grandfather thought he was going crazy, seeing things upside down. From what I'd heard, he'd yelled at Natalie for a long time about her little prank. But it didn't matter; she'd had her fun. I sit on one of the beds, staring at the clock above the doorway. Whenever Natalie pauses, I can hear it ticking.
Slowly, infuriatingly slowly.
Seventeen more minutes.
Who knew time could drag on like this?
"But Pierre insists that I'll love it," Natalie continues, "But then, he says that about everything he cooks. I'm supposed to have dinner with him on Friday."
Fifteen more minutes. I should probably get going . . .
"Or was it Thursday? Hmm . . ." She rights the last of the books and turns to face me.
She frowns and crosses her arms over her chest, annoyed. "Chelsea, are you listening?"
I glance at her, forcing my eyes away from the clock. "Yeah, I am. I'm pretty sure Pierre said Friday. And don't worry about the mushrooms; he's never cooked anything bad."
"I know. But I hate them," she grumbles.
"Why? They're good." My gaze wonders again.
"And I don't know what to wear." She sniffs. "Lanna and Julia are the clothes nuts."
"Do you think he's going to judge your attire? All he cares about is you showing up."
Twelve more minutes . . .
"I guess you're right. Still . . ."
I think she keeps talking, but I stop hearing her.
"Chelsea!" Natalie snaps her fingers in front of my face.
I jerk back and glare daggers at her. "Listen, Nat, I . . ."
She rolls her eyes. "I know that the rodeo clown is going to be here soon. Could you just tell me which top goes better with these jeans?"
She holds up a dark blue shirt and a purple one with glittery butterfly fluttering over it. I smile and lean over the bed, snatching a small pile of pink fabric from the floor. I hold up the very offensive article of clothing. The top is lacy, low-cut and very suggestive.
I wiggle my eyebrows and giggle. "How about this?"
Natalie shrieks and tears the shirt from my hands. She tosses it in her family's hamper and shakes her head. "I will jump into shark infested waters while bleeding like crazy before I wear that."
"Then why is it here? Is it Elliot's?"
Natalie snorted and burst into a series of loud guffaws. "That would explain some things," she says finally, wiping a tear from her eye.
She inhales sharply and composes herself again. "No, Lanna gave it to me. I took it to be polite."
My eyebrows rose. "You? Be polite?"
Natalie shrugs. "That happens occasionally."
I sigh and fall back on the bed, knowing she won't let me go until all her decisions have been made. She tosses the purple top next to her black jeans and yanks open the top drawer of her dresser. I sit up and exhale loudly, making my impatience clear.
"Why is this so important, Nat? I never thought a guy would make you go this crazy over your appearance. Especially a guy who may or may not secretly be in elementary school."
She threw me a murderous glare. "I am not having this conversation with you again."
I laughed. "Can I go now? I miss Vaughn."
She continues to glower. "No. He can wait, and so can you. Jeez, you act like this is the last time you'll ever see him."
"You'd be anxious, too, if Pierre was only here twice a week. I'm the only one on these Islands that doesn't have the luxury of seeing her boyfriend every day!"
Something occurs to me, and I chuckle. "Though Pierre might as well be here twice a week; half the time he's in some weird fairy tale land where food is number one."
"He's devoted," Natalie snaps, "and happy. The way a man should be."
It's my turn to glare. "Vaughn's happy. He just, uh . . . expresses it differently."
"Yeah, glaring at people like he wants to stab them is a wonderful way of saying, "Hi! How are you doing today?'"
"You don't know him like I do," I grumble.
"And with any luck, I never will." Natalie tosses her short red hair and holds up a lacy black bra. "Aha! Here it is."
She slams the dresser drawer closed and holds the bra against her chest. "I'll wear this to Pierre's dinner."
I snort. "I think his little heart would give out the moment he saw that, Natalie. And haven't you only been dating for a few weeks?" I wag a finger at her.
She rolls her eyes again, but she smirks. "What do you think I am, a four dollar hooker? I'm only wearing this because it makes me feel . . . confident."
I wrinkle my nose. "Careful, Nat. He'll probably have to stop in the middle of making out for a bottle."
She throws her pillow at me, which I agilely dodge.
"She's older that both of us!" Natalie huffs.
She drops the bra on her other clothes and drifts to her mirror. She opens a tiny jewelry box and begins examining three sets of earrings.
"I'm just kidding, Nat," I say, truly apologetic. Maybe if I'm genuine, I'll get out of here faster . . .
I look at the clock. Damn, he's probably here already, and I'm not at the dock to greet him.
"What about you, Chelsea?" Natalie asks, ignoring my apology. "You've been with the rodeo clown for . . . almost five seasons, right? Why haven't you jumped his bones yet?"
I blush and stammer. "I – I . . . I'm not sure. I mean, I want to, and I know he's not opposed to the idea" –
She snorts. "Of course not."
"But I just don't know," I continue, "Maybe . . . the right moment hasn't presented itself. I want to be perfect."
"So you really don't know when it'll happen? It could be tonight, tomorrow, or a year from now?" Natalie asks.
To my surprise, she sounds truly interested. I shrug.
"Yeah – well, um, a year sounds pretty steep. Sooner than that. Maybe I'll marry him first. Whatever feels right. How long are you going to wait?"
She pauses for a moment. "I don't have an exact date, obviously. But I'd at least wait a few seasons."
A short silence passes between us while we both contemplate our own words.
"Well, when it does happen for you, as the best friend, I'm obligated to ask for details. But, as the image grosses me out, you'll have to edit," she finally says, grimacing.
I laugh and nod. "Of course."
Finally, Natalie's outfit is ready, and there is no more reason for me to stay here. I practically leap off the bed and dash out the door.
"Goodbye to you, too, Chelsea!" Natalie calls sarcastically.
Just before the door clicks shut, her last parting words meet my ears. "Use protection!"
I hurry to the Animal Shop without stopping. I think I hear a few people calling a polite "hello" to me, but I don't stop to answer. I know that's probably rude, but I can't bring myself to care. I'll make it up to them later.
For now, they aren't my main concern. I pull the door open and step inside, scanning the length of the room quickly. Julia is standing by the counter talking to him. I immediately feel a wave of regret for not meeting him at the dock.
I like to be the first person he sees upon arriving. Julia laughs at something he says, and he smiles a little in return. That's all most people will ever get out of Vaughn. Little smiles. Tiny smirks. Nobody has seen him grin like I have.
And I treasure each one he gives me, because I hardly ever get them. It's not like he's not happy. That's just how he is. At first, it was a bit annoying, especially since he seemed to prefer icy glares over polite smiles. But I love everything about how him now. I wouldn't change anything about him.
My heart pounds in my chest as I approach him; I am nearly beside myself with joy. When he turns his head and his eyes meet mine, Julia's chatty tone floats to the back of my mind and becomes incoherent babble.
We stare at each other without saying a word for several moments; Julia finally notices. She rolls her eyes and smiles.
"I can take a hint," she mutters to herself, turning towards the kitchen.
I can hear her mother, Mirabelle, moving pots and pans around, probably making breakfast.
Though her voice isn't loud, I hear her ask, "What's Vaughn doing?"
Julia laughs and replies, "He's making goo goo eyes at Chelsea. He may never work again."
I glance towards the kitchen and chuckle. The two of them couldn't be happier about our relationship. Julia was actually the one who helped me gain his attention in the beginning; we've been good friends ever since.
I'm not sure how, but she seemed to think that he looked at me differently than any of the other Island girls, and jumped at the chance to fix him up. There are a lot of other pretty, strong Island boys for me to look at, but none of them hold the same appeal.
Pierre was too food-obsessed and childlike. Elliot is clearly made for Julia, and Will for Lily. Denny, Shea and Mark seem like brothers to me. I look back at Vaughn now, and I smile gently. I reach up and touch his face, the familiar feeling of electricity beneath my fingertips.
His eyes – a piercing, dark color that remind me of the amethyst jewels I sometimes find on Volcano Island – hold mine, and I lean my forehead against his. Two days a week are just not enough. But it isn't like I can do anything about.
I can't exactly ask him to quit his job just because I feel like I'm not getting enough screen time. Still, I can't help but wish. I try to let these somber thoughts dissolve and focus on the fact that he's right here, with me, now.
Like he always will be on when he's here on the Islands.
Thankfully, I find that focusing on anything becomes difficult when his fingers wind into my hair and he kisses me. I return it with equal passion, and I only pray some customer of Mirabelle's doesn't walk in at this moment.
"How was the city?" I wonder quietly, my breathing erratic and uneven.
"Boring," he says; one hands moves to the small of my back, and I shiver with delight.
I let my fingers play with his hair, and my voice comes out low and rough. "When can you get out of here?"
He sighs and glances at the door that leads to his work room. "A few hours, maybe three."
I frown unhappily and slip the hat I despise off his head. He smirks, but he doesn't object. He knows how much I hate it. He knows I would like to burn it. That doesn't stop him from wearing it, of course.
"I thought we could lay in the sun on Lighthouse Island; it's supposed to be nice today." I kiss his throat. "I missed you."
"Missed you, too," he mumbles softly.
I kiss him again, hating it when he pulls back. "I really have to work."
"I know," I sigh, "You work too much."
"So do you."
He rolls his eyes, and holds out his hand. I pretend not to know what he's asking for, but then I groan and hand him the stupid hat.
"I hate that thing."
"I love your eyes."
"And the damn thing covers them."
"You should stop wearing it."
"No can do."
He smiles a little at my irritated glare, and he kisses my forehead. "You could help me," he suggests, "Then you wouldn't have to leave."
"Oh, no," Julia interrupts, moving into the main room with a plate of eggs and pancakes. "The last time we let the two of you work together, nothing ever got done. All you ever did was make out in Vaughn's room."
He makes a face at her. "We did not."
"Did too," she argues.
She turns and wags a finger at me. "Run along; you distract him. He'll end up brushing the chickens and milking the horses."
I laugh out loud, but I have to agree with her. I never let him get any real work done. I dread having to leave him again after I've only just seen him, but I have no choice.
"Come up to my house when you're done here," I tell him, "Most of my work today doesn't require me to move again."
"Alright," he agrees.
I want him to kiss me goodbye again, but I know that a quick peck right now would rapidly turn into tongue and groping. I give him a little wave instead, and he waves back. I sigh and walk out the door. Just today and tomorrow, like always.
That's all I have before I get to see him again. Every time he leaves, he takes my heart and soul with him. I only get them back briefly before they're torn away from me again. I go through the motions of my chores robotically, glancing at my watch every three seconds.
Natalie pesters me around noon about the mushroom thing again, but she leaves quickly when she realizes I am paying no attention to her whatsoever. Vaguely, I feel a bit guilty for neglecting her; she's obviously nervous about her date. But I push away the thought; I can feel bad after he leaves.
Besides, her dinner with Pierre isn't until Friday. I'll help her before then. When all my work is completed, he still hasn't come. So I meander around my house and sulk, take a quick shower and squint at my reflection in the mirror.
I do not think I am as pretty as Lanna or Julia. Quite frankly, I seem a bit plain. Blue eyes, brown hair, slender build. Nothing special to look at. I frown at the mirror and sigh, knowing that I sounded like every other girl in the world who is overly self-conscious about her looks. Besides, I shouldn't worry about it.
Vaughn thinks that I'm beautiful, so I must be. And if I'm not, it's enough that he thinks so. He makes me feel beautiful. With that thought in mind, I leave the bathroom and whistle a merry tune as I begin cleaning my house, for something to do.
I dust the shelves, make the bed, and wash the dishes. By twelve forty five, I begin going through the two drawers in my nightstand, because I know they look like hell and I really need to clean them.
All goes well the first drawer (besides finding an odd orange liquid that smells and looks questionable), but when I reach the second drawer, I blush. I find the small black box of condoms Natalie gave me two seasons ago.
She'd said that she'd had them for a while, and it looked like I would need them more than she would – she hadn't starting dating Pierre yet. I'd stashed it away here so I didn't have to look at it; the fact that she would be so presumptuous aggravated me.
But I turn the box over in my hands now with my lips pursed. I think back to my conversation with Natalie. The idea of using her little gift scares me, but not exactly in a bad way. I mean, it's not like I haven't waited forever . . .
"What's that?" I hear a voice ask from behind me.
I shriek a little, and the box tumbles from my fingers. I jerk around and glare at him.
"You scared me. I didn't hear you come in."
Vaughn shrugs, but he's smiling. "The door was unlocked."
"Are you done at Mirabelle's?" I wonder, grinning back at the thought.
"Yes. But I knocked over a few buckets of water in my hurry to leave. Julia threatened to stab me."
I laughed. "Julia isn't violent."
"That's what you think."
He leans down and picks up the black box before I can stop him. Blood floods into my cheeks, and I jump to my feet and try to snatch it back before he can read it. But he's much taller than me, and he holds it up, smirking at my feeble attempts at reaching it.
When he reads the words on the box though, he blushes just as red as I do, and he hands it back to me without meeting my eyes.
"I, um, was cleaning out the drawers," I mutter, beyond embarrassed. In my head, I am cursing Natalie with every terrible word imaginable.
"I got them a while ago," I add, the words flooding out without my permission. I blush even redder, realizing how that sounded.
"Natalie gave them to me, but I – I put them away, because I . . ." I drop the box into the still-messy drawer and swallow thickly. I feel his arms wrap around me.
"It's okay," he says.
"I didn't mean for you to see them," I say, "not that you wouldn't see them . . . eventually. I mean" –
I suddenly wish Witch Princess were here, so she could put a spell on me and make me invisible. He kisses my temple.
"Let's go out," he says quietly.
I nod, glad that he's not making a big deal out of this. I will my embarrassment to vanish, and I take his hand.
We lay amongst the ruins of Lighthouse Island, staring up at the clouds. I'm fond of making pictures out of them, and today I have spotted a cloud that looks just like the fish Denny caught just days ago.
I laugh when Vaughn says he sees the image of Natalie falling into one of the lava pits on Volcano Island (they really don't get along well). We don't talk a whole lot, but we prefer it that way.
Easy, natural silence. Having him next to me is the best thing in the world. Sometimes I wonder if there's something terrible waiting for me in the future. It seems like there must be, because no one should be allowed such a perfect life, rich in happiness and joy.
That's just the way things are. But I push away those grim thoughts just as soon as they appear in my mind, because of course I'm just being paranoid.
"I was helping Natalie pick out her outfit for her dinner with Pierre on Friday; that's why I wasn't there to meet you this morning," I murmur at one point.
He snorts. "It won't last. Pierre's not capable of maintaining a loving relationship with anything other than food."
"That's what I said." In so many words. "But maybe we're wrong. Natalie's so fierce; I think she could keep anyone's attention."
Vaughn rolls his eyes. "Not anyone's."
"Well. That's why she's my best friend; she's interesting."
"If you say so."
I roll onto my side kiss him. "She said something that surprised me," I admit, snuggling against him.
His fingers play with my hair. "And?"
"She said that we've been together for five seasons."
"And that was new information to you?"
"No." I yawn lazily. "But I guess I just . . . hadn't taken the time to think about it. Five seasons is a long time, don't you think?"
"Lanna and Denny were only together for three seasons before they . . ." I trail off, chewing the inside of my cheek.
"Got married?" he asks bluntly.
"Yes," I answer.
My voice is soft, nearly inaudible. I don't want him to think I'm pushing him or anything, but I am sort of wondering if he'll ever get around to popping the question. Subtly letting him know seemed like a good idea five minutes ago.
But now a terribly awkward silence settles over us, and I wish I'd never voiced the thought at all. After all, this whole relationship has been creeping along at a very slow pace. When I first met him, he wasn't interested at all in any sort of romantic relationship with me.
Or anyone else, really. It had taken a lot of gentle words and delicate prodding to get him to open up the idea. Truly, if I hadn't been determined in the beginning, I wouldn't be with him at all. He was perfectly fine on his own, and didn't really need me around. But that's probably what I appreciate the most with him.
He doesn't need me, not really. He just wants me around. Whenever it's possible. After a full year of seeing him on Mondays and Tuesdays with casual conversations in the Animal Shop and occasional gifts, we established a rocky connection.
But over time, I managed to get him to really talk to me, to really trust me. Still, it took what seemed like decades to accomplish. I didn't even kiss him until our second season together (really kiss him, not just chaste little pecks).
I had to wait three seasons before I noticed that he was more relaxed with me than anyone else, and that he smiled more. And it wasn't until the beginning of this fifth season that he'd told me loved me for the first time, though I'd been saying it since the fourth.
So maybe I was hanging the idea of marriage in front of his nose too soon. Maybe I'd have to wait several more seasons . . . the idea made me sad. Julia had married Elliot already, and Denny and Lanna, too.
Natalie was just starting out with Pierre, and I'd seen Mark and Sabrina talking quietly in the library on more than one occasion. Will and Lily were often seen strolling around Volcano Island together.
It seemed like everyone eligible on the Islands had paired up with their respective partners; they all seemed so right for each other, like it was destiny for our small group of people to move to Sunshine Islands and find their other halves.
If I'd told Vaughn this, he would roll his eyes and tell me that fate was a bunch of crap. We agree to disagree on that particular matter. I'm not even sure about how he feels about marriage; maybe he's one of those people who don't even believe in it.
More and more people these days seem to feel that way, and sometimes it depresses me.
"Everybody is different," Vaughn quietly says.
He doesn't sound aggravated or sad, just matter-of-fact. And I guess he's right. But is that his way of saying that we're different in the way that we shouldn't marry at all? Not knowing the answer to this question would torment me, so I decide to voice it, no matter what reply I get.
"How different from them do you want to be, Vaughn?" I ask softly, "Do you not want . . . at some point . . ."
He sighs and stares up at the clouds. My heart pounds as he hesitates.
"I . . . yes," he answers, "I do . . . want to . . . at some point."
When? I want to stomp my feet or huff in frustration, but that seems wholly unsupportive and immature.
"Besides," he continues, "it's a big decision to make. Are you sure that's what you want? Forever with me?"
I laugh. "Yes. I've never wanted anything else. I love you."
"I know. I love you, too."
"Took you long enough to say."
He looks almost apologetic. "I know; but I loved you long before I ever told you."
"Really?" I am surprised by this.
"Yes," he says.
I wish he'd elaborate, but he doesn't seem to want to continue, so I let the subject drop. We lay in silence for a bit more, and then I suggest we have an early dinner at the Café.
After we're fishing eating, we go to the beach by Denny's house. We walk onto the dock and sit with our feet dangling over the edge. I suck in a deep breath of the cool, evening air. The sun has just set, and darkness has settled over the Islands.
The light of the moon and the stars, though, gives us enough light to see. To me, it is the most perfect romantic setting. I lean into his arms, ready for a long session of kissing by the ocean. I don't see him through the rest of the week, so I have to kiss him enough to make up for those days, too.
That's a lot of kissing to do.
I tilt my head back and kiss his jaw, hoping to set the mood. But he's staring off into the distance, and I can tell his mind is thousands of miles away. Somewhat disappointed, I sigh and just let him hold me for a while.
When he speaks, I jump a little in surprise.
"I want that, too."
I blink, searching quickly through the past few hours in my head, wondering if I missed something. I pull back so I look at him, my brow creased in confusion.
"Want what, Vaughn?"
He sighs and closes his eyes, as if in deep concentration. In this light, they shine like exquisite violet jewels.
"I want forever. With you," he answers quietly.
I blink, and let his words sink in. "Oh," I say.
"And . . . that's not going to change. I've been procrastinating. I'm sorry. It's not fair to you."
He's still confusing me.
"I don't understand what you mean," I hedge.
He opens his eyes and stares at me, his gaze piercing and intense. It makes my heart skip a beat.
"Chelsea, I . . ." He trails off, staring down at my hands.
"Yes?" My voice is too eager. Hope has sprung up inside me; I will him to ask the one question that will make my life all-around perfect. The one that I have been dying to hear for quite a few seasons.
"I . . ." He swallows.
"Yes?" I scoot even closer to him and press my palm against his cheek.
And then suddenly – unexpectedly – he's kissing me. Slowly. Tenderly. And though it's not as good as the question, I'll take it.
"Marry me," he whispers, when his forehead is against mine and we're still gasping for breath.
It sounds much more like a command than a request. I never really expected a long speech from him ("Make me the happiest man in the world" or "Will you please be my bride, darling?" . . . Things like that). I'd always known that, if he asked, it would be rather blunt. But the force of those two words still hit me with a startling force.
I'd been dreaming of this question for so long, and now that he's asked it, it seems kind of surreal. The very thought of making all this official – the flat-out guarantee that he's tied to me so irrefutably for the rest of our lives – makes me smile. I don't have to think twice about my answer, because I made up my mind a long time ago.
We kiss for a long time after that, locked in our own little bubble of bliss. Now I am free to dream about our wedding, our long, happy future together.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" I half-whisper, half-moan into his mouth.
I'm practically in his lap on the dock, but I don't care. It's dark and nobody's around. Denny doesn't strike me as the peeping tom type.
"Yes," he whispers back, "I'm sorry . . . it took so long to ask."
"It's okay," I breathe, "Everything's okay now."
"Yes," he agrees.
"I love you so much," I say again.
"Yeah . . . and I love you, too . . . a lot . . ." He nuzzles my neck and sighs.
"You're going to move to the Islands, right?"
"Yeah. Living with each other kind of goes along with the whole marriage thing."
"No more of this two days a week business. You'll have to stick around all the time."
"Yeah. Better start building a higher level of tolerance for all the people who live here." He smirks.
I know I should scold him at this point, but my lips are far too busy to form words. Minutes or hours pass. I don't know the difference. When a voice that isn't Vaughn's reaches my ears, our little bubble pops and the outside world makes an unwanted and abrupt appearance.
"Hey! If you're going to suck face, could you at least do it in a more secluded area?" Natalie's suddenly standing over us; I didn't even hear her approach.
Apparently, neither did Vaughn, because his mouth jerks away from mine, and he glares up at her. Pierre is next to her; he blushes when he meets my eyes.
"Hi, Chelsea," he says quietly.
I wave at him. "Hey, Pierre."
"Clear out," Natalie says, "It's our turn to sit on the dock and kiss under the stars."
I chuckle, and get to my feet. Vaughn opens his mouth to protest, but I give him a sharp look to silence him.
"We were just about to leave anyway," I lie.
Vaughn mutters something, but he stands just continues to glower at Natalie. I consider telling her about my pending nuptials, but, just for today, I think I'd like it to be our secret. I want to stay in our little bubble for a bit longer before facing the world.
I hug her before we go, and Pierre just sort of stands there awkwardly. The difference between him and Vaughn is almost comical. Pierre is short and dressed in bright, happy colors. His face is somewhat childlike, he's always smiling and his hair is a soft shade of blonde.
Vaughn's tall, dressed mostly in black and constantly frowning. I could spend days at a time searching for some similarity between the two of them, and I doubt I would find a single one.
Just before I pull back from Natalie's embrace, she squeezes me tight and whispers in my ear, "I gave you that box for occasions such as these."
I blush and smack her a little, but her words linger in my mind and refuse to leave. We bid them a quiet goodbye and head to Vendure Island. We stop in front of the Animal Shop; I wait for him to go in, but he lingers next to me. I don't want him to go.
"Come back with me tonight," I say quietly.
I will my cheeks not to fill up with blood. I try really hard to convince myself that I just want him to have a late dessert with me and maybe talk to me about the wedding. I don't lie to myself very well.
He stares at me for a while, contemplating. He knows I don't just want talk with him tonight.
"Alright," he says quietly.
He takes my hand, and we silently walk together back to my house. He takes a seat in one of my kitchen chairs and watches me as I place two plates on the counter and take a small circular cake out of my refrigerator; Pierre gave me the recipe a few weeks ago. I give him a slice, and we eat without a word.
When we're done, I'm not exactly sure what to do. Eventually, I make myself get up and put the plates in the sink. And then I just stand there. This was so dumb; I should have just told him to go back to the Shop tonight. I know what I want, but I haven't got a single clue as to go about getting it.
It's not like I'm going to waltz up to him and say, "Hey, Vaughn, want to do it?"
Even thinking that makes me flinch with embarrassment. Behind the nervousness, I'm a bit irritated with myself for my lack of nerve.
We've been together for five seasons – Lanna and Denny were only together for three weeks before they got physically acquainted (or so he boasted to me when we were fishing together. He has an awful tendency to talk to me like I'm a guy friend).
I exhale loudly and shake my head; the best thing to do would be to just go to bed and forget any of this ever occurred. I discard the idea like a used tissue. I walk over to him and pull him from the chair.
I wrap my arms around his waist and say, "I can't wait to marry you."
He snorts. "I know you could do better."
I roll my eyes, but he can't see. "No one else could come close."
He hugs me tightly against him; outside, I can hear a light rain beginning to tap on the windows.
"Don't tell me you're one of those nuts who believe in soul mates and one true loves." But I can hear the smile in his voice.
"Actually, I am." I pull away from him and pretend to look annoyed. It's become a lot easier to talk to him now that my nervousness has vanished. "You don't believe in that sort of thing?"
A strange look crosses his face; he smiles a little, and a gentle kind of warmth illuminates his eyes. His palm presses against my cheek, and I lean into his touch.
His voice is soft. "I'm starting to."
I smile, and then he tilts his head down to kiss me. I assume it will be a chaste, goodnight kiss, but he holds me tight against him and kisses me for a long time. He sucks my bottom lip into his mouth and presses my back against a wall.
I gasp in surprise, and his mouth moves to my neck. Apparently, the idea of being together tonight wasn't disregarded by him quite so easily. And I find that I am pleasantly surprised, because being the one who initiated it terrified me. I push us away from the wall, and pull him to my bed.
We fall back on it, with him on top of me, but he catches himself with his hands so his weight doesn't crush me. I unbutton his shirt, and trace all the muscles in his chest when he shrugs it off and onto the floor.
We resume our kissing, and all I can think about is the warmth of his skin and his mouth on mine. I'm consumed completely by desire, and all I want is him. I pull off my shirt, too, and lay back on the bed to let him look at me.
This isn't crossing any lines we haven't crossed before; I've done this a few times in the past, just because I love the way he admires me. He traces a finger gently over my collarbone, and then moves it down to my belly without touching anywhere else.
"We – we don't have to do this tonight, not if you don't want to," he whispers to me, his voice coming out rough.
I smile up at him, and warmth floods my heart. "I know. I want to. I love you. I'm going to marry you, and then my life will be perfect."
This is usually the point where he would normally roll his eyes or make a sarcastic comment, but tonight he just smiles tenderly. My night is filled with heavenly bliss.
I love the feeling of being so close to him, like my soul has floated from my body and attached to his. I hear his every breath, feel his every movement. I never want it to end. Making love with him has become the highlight of my existence. Eventually, we both fall into a deep sleep.
And it doesn't occur to me until morning that we completely forgot about Natalie's little black box.
It's not awkward in the morning, the way I thought it might be. He just holds me in his arms without a word; the same contented silence between us as always.
At some point, he murmurs, "I'm sorry I didn't have a ring or anything. I'll get you one next time I'm in the city."
"I don't need a ring," I say, "Haven't you heard? Blue feathers are all the rage here."
He shakes his head, and his fingers run up and down my spine. "I'll get a ring."
"I don't want you to go back to the city."
"I know. But I have to; I have to pack a few things and take care of some other details."
"Like your job."
"Yeah. Like that."
"You won't mind living here with me?"
"As long as you promise to not expect me to be as social and happy with the people here as you are."
I snort. "That's like expecting the cows to talk and the chickens to dance, Vaughn. It's not going to happen."
"Does that bother you?"
"No. It would bother me if you suddenly started being more social. I fell in love with the moody, anti-social cowboy, thank you very much." I smile and play with a strand of his hair.
"Duly noted," he says.
I slip out of bed and walk to the bathroom, feeling his eyes on me the whole way there. I pull on a bathrobe and head to my kitchen area. He's sitting up in bed now, and it's a nice view to admire while I make breakfast.
I try not to let myself think about that little black box, or berate myself for forgetting so easily. I wonder if he's even realized it, but if he has, I don't want to talk about it right now. I make a promise to myself then and there not to let myself forget anymore. I smile when I think about how I might need Natalie's gift on a regular basis now.
"So, what are we going to do today?" I wonder.
I serve him toast and eggs – as a mediocre chef, it's the best he's going to get out of me.
"I suppose we'll have to tell the other Islanders about our engagement," he replies, and my heart squeezes happily at the casual way he says this, like our getting married is the most natural thing in the world.
"Natalie will demand to be my maid of honor," I laugh, biting into a piece of my toast.
He shudders. "Do you really want her distracting me at the alter when you're coming down the aisle?"
I snort. "Natalie knows it's the most important day of my life. She knows that I'll kill her if anything goes wrong."
"No offense, but I'm not sure if you could take her."
My eyes widen in mock horror. "Oh really, Mr. Strong Cowboy? And you could?"
He swallowed the last the bite of his eggs. "Of course. She's a girl."
"Boys aren't supposed to hit girls." I took his plate and mine to the sink.
He gestures for me to return to him, and I do. I try to slip into bed, but his hands insist on removing the robe beforehand.
"That's true. But for Natalie, I could make an exception."
"Well. You might be able to handle her. But what about Denny? Or Shea?"
"Sure." He shrugs.
I attempt to scowl at him, but it's difficult to maintain annoyance when his hands are moving along my body like they are.
"You seem fairly confident," I whisper.
"Yes." He kisses my forehead, and rolls so he's hovering over me, his eyes glazed over.
"I thought we were going to tell the others," I sigh.
He gives a little sigh of his own, and says in my ear, "They aren't going anywhere."
I want Natalie to be the first to know our news, but Vaughn insists we tell Mirabelle and Julia first. I follow him to the Animal Shop, where we find the two of them sitting at their small square table in the kitchen with coffee and pancakes.
"Come to steal our breakfast, lovebirds?" Julia asks, soaking three of her cakes in syrup.
Her hair is messy and her cheeks are red, so I assume she just woke up. She and Elliot are both currently living here until Gannon builds them their own house somewhere on the Islands. Mirabelle is much more presentable (she gets up painfully early every morning).
She frowns at her daughter and tells us, "Oh, don't listen to her. Help yourselves."
I smile. "Thanks, but we already ate. We actually came to tell you something important."
Julia yawns. "Oh? What?"
"We're going to get married." The sentence sounds beautiful coming from his lips; I just can't get over it.
Mirabelle's eyebrows shoot straight up in surprise, and Julia's jaw hangs slack. The both of them look as though we've just announced we're moving to Jupiter. A full minute passes before either of them speaks.
Finally, Julia clears her throat and says, "Wow."
Mirabelle also recovers and breaks out into the biggest grin I've ever seen on her motherly face.
"It's about time. It'd been so long, I just figured you'd never ask her." Julia leaps up from her chair and wraps her arms around me in a tight hug.
"I'm so happy for you!" She steps back and appraises Vaughn for a moment.
"I have to admit," she says slowly, "I never pictured you getting married, cousin."
He smiles a little. "No, neither did I."
"When?" Mirabelle asks.
I purse my lips; the topic hasn't come up yet.
Vaughn shrugs and turns to me. "Is a week alright with you? I can be back on the Islands by then."
I think for a second, but then I nod. "Yes, a week sounds alright."
Though it's going to be the longest week of my life, a thousand times longer than all the others.
"Have you told anyone else?" Julia wonders.
"No, just you," I reply, "We figured you should be the first to know."
Mirabelle turns her head and inconspicuously wipes a tear from her cheek. "I'm sure Nathan and Alisa will make all the necessary preparations. Your wedding will be simply lovely. And now I suppose Vaughn will be living here?"
"Yes." I grin.
Julia laughs. "The city always made him unhappy. Now maybe he'll scowl a little less."
He shoots her a nasty look, and I chuckle. "We should get going now; other people need to be alerted."
"Be warned; some of them might not be happy that they now have to hide from a grumpy man every day of the week." Julia's just getting a kick out of this.
Vaughn continues to glower at her. She snickers again and steps forward, leaning up on her toes to kiss his cheek.
"I'm just kidding. I'm very happy for the both of you," she adds again.
I take his hand and give the both of them a little wave before we disappear from their view. As we make our way to Taro's house, he asks, "Does it bother you that I waited so long to ask?"
I shrug, and decide to be honest with him.
"A little. Every girl on the Islands has made an investment on some guy. Mine just took a little longer to grow than theirs. I had two things working against me; the two day-a-week thing, and the fact that you glare at everything that moves."
He looks genuinely curious. "And that didn't deter you?"
"I guess it did, in the beginning. But I just . . . liked you. For some reason. I can't explain it. But once I figured out that you were a sucker for porridge, you were mine. I had a lot of rice that season." I grin evilly.
He squeezes my hand. "Yeah, I guess so."
"But, then again, there was that one time I gave you a carrot and you told me never to speak to you again . . ."
He blushes. "Yes, there was that."
"That was a bit discouraging."
We've reached Taro's door now. I kiss him tenderly before we go in. "It's okay. It all worked out in the end." I open the door without knocking; hardly anyone on these Islands knocks (well, they do so a little more often now that there are married couples on the Islands, but still).
Felicia doesn't even have to glance over her shoulder to identify me.
"Natalie's at Pierre's house, dear," she says, not looking up from her sink full of dishes.
We hurry to the big third biggest house here (the first being Regis's mansion, the second being Witch Princess's intimidating pink-roofed abode). Natalie opens the door, smiling hugely when she sees me. It drops only a little when she sees who I'm with.
"Good morning," she says pleasantly, a little too pleasantly. "How are you two doing today?"
I shrug and we move inside; I stare at her suspiciously. Pierre glances up from a huge mixing bowl in front of him, and waves.
"Hi, Chelsea. Morning, Vaughn."
Natalie lifts herself up onto the counter besides the bowl. She dips a finger in it and brings it to her lips; Pierre gives her a tiny smile and keeps mixing.
"So," begins Natalie, her lips curled up in a menacing smile. "How was your night, Chelsea? Pierre and I had a lovely time admiring the stars – they remind him of cookies – and listening to the ocean waves."
My cheeks burn and I shoot her a threatening look. Really? Here, now? Even though she's my best friend, she still has to torment me a little.
"It was . . . pleasant," I mumble.
"Ah," she says. Thankfully, she doesn't press me for more information. She's not quite that wicked.
"We did have to tell you something, though," I say, a little louder.
Pierre pours a dark batter into a clear glass pan.
"Does it involve any sort of dish?" he wonders, his little eyes lighting up at the thought.
He's holding onto a spoon in his left hand – he carries the damn thing around with him everywhere, and I've never asked why. I make a mental note to get around to that later.
"Uh, sort of. We're engaged," I tell them happily.
Pierre claps his hands. "Really? That's great. Chelsea, you have to let me bake your wedding cake."
I nod. "Yes, of course."
Natalie slips off the counter and comes over to hug me, much the same way Julia had.
"Ah. That's good, Chels – I wondered if your rodeo clown would ever work up the nerve to ask."
Vaughn doesn't respond to her jab – he knows from previous experience that it only leads to pointless arguing.
"Good for you, man," Pierre says to him, a bit awkwardly. I doubt the two of them have said more than four words to each other.
Vaughn nods at him and says, "Thank you."
"Wedding's in a week, Pierre. Think you can have a cake by then?" I ask, already knowing the answer.
He nods vigorously. "Yes! Oh, I have so many ideas! I hardly ever get to design something so grand anymore . . ."
Natalie's brows furrow; it's her deep-in-thought expression. "I'm not exactly sure what sort of things I'll have to deal with. What sort of thing to maid of honors help with?"
"Oh, you just assume you're going to be maid of honor?"
"You better believe it, jerk." Natalie bites her lip, still thinking.
"Just stand up at the alter with us and help me get ready the day of," I say.
She nods. "Sounds good."
Something occurs to her in that moment, and she wraps an arm around my shoulders and looks Vaughn squarely in the eye.
She wags a finger at him and says, "Better take good care of her, Vaughn. If you don't, I'll hunt you down and rip your face off."
I shoot her an aggravated glance, but she ignores me. She's used his first name, so that tells me how serious she is.
He smiles, a bit smug. "I'd like to see you try."
Her eyes widen, and she opens her mouth to snap something, but I stop her by saying, "Nat, you don't have to worry about that."
"Chelsea will be just fine," Vaughn assures her, his voice also suddenly serious.
Natalie nods, apparently convinced. "Well – the wedding's something to look forward to. Next week was looking rather bleak. Anyway, I'm sure you both have other people to tell. Off you go! You're not getting any of Pierre's heavenly brownies."
"Brownies? So early in the morning?" I ask, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. No, go on! Shoo!" She escorts us outside. Just before she shuts the door behind us, though, she leans real close to my ear so only I can hear her next words.
"So, really, did it happen last night?"
"Yeah," I whisper back.
Natalie smiles slowly. "Ah. Well, next time, you'll tell me everything. Well, not everything. But, you know. How was it?"
I snort at the bluntness of her question. "It was . . . amazing."
She rolls her eyes. "Uh-huh. Bet you're glad for my little present now, huh?"
I blush and stammer. "W-well, I . . . we didn't, um . . ."
Her eyes widen, and then she tsked in disapproval. "Well. We'll see whether or not that decision comes back to bite you, now won't we?"
I shove her back into the house and make a face at her.
She snickers, and waves goodbye.
It takes a long to make our way through all the Islanders to tell them our news. I get hugged a lot, and Vaughn gets a lot of awkward congratulations from people. All except Denny, who hugs him and also tells him to take care of me.
By the time we're through, it's well into the afternoon. We lay together under the sun on Meadow Island.
"Forever is a long time to spend with one person, don't you think?" I ask.
He hesitates, and then says, "Yeah. That's why it's important to make sure you don't marry the wrong person."
I smile; I think that's a very sweet thing to say. I kiss his forehead, and then his lips. The rest of the day speeds by, and soon it's time to say goodbye to him at the dock. The stars are shining brightly in the sky like the night before, but the waves of the ocean seem like a sad sound now. I know that a boat will be floating on them tonight, ready to take him from me again.
Just one more time, I remind myself, and then he'll never have to leave me again.
I can see the boat approaching in the distance, and I take a deep breath of the cool, salty air. A sudden thought occurs to me, and it makes me smile.
"You know, I just realized something. The next time I see you, it'll be at the wedding."
"Yeah, I guess so." He wraps me in his arms and holds me tightly.
"The happiest day of our lives," I whisper quietly.
"Yes." He buries his face in my hair.
And we just stay like that until the boat pulls up alongside the dock and he has to go. He gives me one last squeeze and fixes me with his amethyst eyes. He holds my face between his hands and kisses my lips softly.
"I love you."
"Love you, too," I whisper.
And then he lets me go. He gets on the boat. And sails away into the night.
Just as I predicted, the week goes by terribly slowly. Natalie pesters me about my lack of protection, but after a while, she starts to get irritated by my unresponsiveness.
"Don't you care, Chelsea?"
I shrug. "Not really. I mean, I'm marrying him. Might as well get a jump on things."
"Yeah, but people will think you got married because you got pregnant."
"Who cares what people think?"
She laughs. "You're getting more and more like me every day."
"No offense, Nat, but Vaughn wouldn't agree to marry me if that was the case."
She smacks me playfully, but we both know that it's true. Nathan and Alisa are delighted to hear our news; they assure me that everything will be taken care of by next week. Julia is loaning me the dress she got married in, and Pierre constantly bombards me with possible cake designs.
I answer everyone's questions as politely as I can, but my heart really isn't in it. I just want to marry him; I don't need any flashy cake or fluffy dress. But all of the Islanders seem to really want to help make next Monday the happiest day possible, because they're all so appreciative of everything I've done.
By the time Sunday arrives, they all seem to be buzzing with excitement. People will approach me and just hug me randomly, or touch my hair and smile. Eliza insists on helping Natalie and Julia with my makeup and hair on the big day; she's really excited about it.
"We're going to make you look so pretty," she giggles, "Maybe even as pretty as me!"
To Eliza, that's probably the biggest compliment from her I could ever get. The only uneasy one seems to be Taro, the wise little man who had helped me out the most when I first moved to Sunshine Islands. He's oddly quiet when I greet him in the morning, which I find a bit unsettling.
Usually, once Taro starts talking, it's nearly impossible to get him to stop. When his eyes wonder away from me and stare off into the distance after I've just asked him a question, I get annoyed.
"Taro, is there something wrong?"
His beady eyes dart quickly back to my face, and his lips purse in a tight frown. "Hmm? Oh, well . . . since you're asking . . ." He hesitates.
"Yes?" I prompt, even more nervous than before.
He sighs and says, "There's going to be a storm fairly early in the morning tomorrow. I'm really hopin' it doesn't disturb your wedding plans, missy. It might. But maybe not; I mean, it'll probably be over around six or seven in the morning."
I bite the inside of my cheek. "Oh. That is bad news . . ."
It became abundantly clear to me within the first week of my farming days that Taro has the strangest ability to predict the weather. I thought he was nuts at first, but after a few days of him constantly being right, I eventually starting coming to him every day about what was in store for me the next day.
With all the recent commotion, I'd been forgetting to do so lately.
"I really hope not, Taro. Thanks for the information."
He nods somberly. "You're welcome."
I don't sleep much on Sunday night; I'm so excited about tomorrow. My mind will not stop building elaborate fantasies about how wonderful it will be, no matter how hard I try to get it to stop. I snicker when I think about how mad Natalie, Julia and Eliza will be at me for having big black bags under my eyes from lack of sleep.
Around one thirty, though, exhaustion eventually finds me. In a dreamy, half-awake state, I do a mental check list in my head to make sure all my buildings, crops and animals are prepared for the coming storm.
Just before I really fall asleep, I notice how peaceful it seems outside. Not even a single drop of rain, or the slight breeze of wind. And for just one moment, I think that Taro might just be wrong after all.
When I wake up – around seven in the morning – I know it will be impossible to get anymore sleep. I smile to myself as I get out of bed and move toward the kitchen, thinking I might fall asleep in the church if I don't have at least one cup of coffee. But I catch a glimpse of the land outside my window and stop cold.
Bits of rock, dirt, debris and all sorts of things have been littered about my property, as if some giant has thrown a handful of whatever he could get his hands on all over the place. It looks absolutely terrible, and I am somewhat baffled by the hideousness.
Somewhere in my mind, I am irritated by the thought of having to clean everything up, but mostly I am just shocked. Whatever storm that came last night must have been big – I can't believe I slept through it. I must really have been exhausted.
My throat closes up in fear when I think about the other Islanders – what if the storm damaged some of their houses? But I calm myself with the knowledge that Gannon built most of the buildings here, and his work is good – my house is solid as a rock.
I exhale in relief, and go back to getting my coffee. Nothing can bring me down today, I think to myself, today is going to be happy. I chug the coffee and look up at the clock – I'm supposed to meet Natalie and the others at the church around seven to start getting ready.
The wedding is supposed to begin around ten. I shower, and am relieved to see that there are no huge bags under my eyes like I thought. I pull on some clothes and head outside. Vendure Islands looks nearly as terrible as my land; the wind blows bits of leaves and mud and dirt along the ground, and there appears to be some sort of branch sitting on Chen's Shop.
I inspect each building closely, and nod when I see no apparent damage. Sure, there's a mess, but it could have been a lot worse. I don't see a soul on my way to Mystic Islands – they're probably all in their houses, sleeping.
Most people don't get much sleep during a storm, so they catch up in the morning. I walk down the dock and head into the church, waving hello to Nathan and Alisa before I disappear into one of the back rooms, where I will be getting ready. Natalie, Julia and Eliza are already there.
"Chelsea!" Natalie hollers, wrapping me in a tight hug. "Good to see your house didn't blow away earlier this morning."
"I thought everyone's would," Julia says, chuckling nervously, "I think it's the biggest storm we've ever had since living here. Elliot and I were scared to death all night."
"Yeah – my Daddy boarded up all the windows and read to me while the storm went on. I wasn't scared or anything, but . . ." Eliza's big blue eyes dart around quickly, indicating that she was, indeed, quite terrified.
"Wasn't it just terrible, Chelsea? Ugh, and what rotten timing it had, too! What a way to start your big day." Natalie groans and shakes her head.
"Uh, I kind of . . . slept through it," I mutter.
Julia's eyes widen. "You slept through it? Wow. I wish I could have done that. It sounded like there was a monster banging on the house all morning."
"Bits of rock and stuff," Natalie corrects. "I don't know. I guess I was just really tired."
I shrug. "But, honestly, I'm glad I missed it. The Islands look just terrible!"
"I know. Looks like we all have a big clean-up job to do after today," Eliza says, rolling her eyes. "I'll get all dirty!"
Julia turns to me and smiles. "Well, let's not let this little mishap distract us from our main goal today: make Chelsea unbearably gorgeous!"
"Like me!" Eliza is quick to add.
I grin at the three of them, and swiftly push all thoughts of devastating storms out of my mind. Natalie tells me to sit in a big chair, and the three of them begin to work. Eliza does my mascara, and I'm surprised to find that she's really good at it.
At least, she never jabs me in the eye with the wand. Julia files my nails, and Natalie works on my hair. I lay back and get cozy, knowing that I'll probably be here for a while.
"I wanted to go meet Vaughn this morning," I say at one point.
"Well, I'm sure he's somewhere in the church getting ready. It's bad luck to see him before the ceremony, you know," Julia tells me kindly.
"Yeah, I know. Stupid traditions." Eliza giggles and leans back to examine her work, and nods in approval.
By the time the three of them are finished, it's eight thirty.
"You don't have to put the dress on yet," Julia says, "But try on the shoes. I have three different pairs that could go with it, but I need to see how each looks on you."
I obligingly stick out my feet. We giggle and gossip and decide on the third pair for another half hour. Suddenly, I hear the door behind us creaking open, and a figure comes walking slowly into the room.
And that's when everything I am disintegrates into thin air; when I am nothing.
The person that walks in is Mirabelle. Immediately, I know that something is wrong. She is paler than I have ever seen her. She moves slowly, robotically, as if her joints have hardened into metal and she is unable to bend them.
Her eyes are completely dead and devoid of emotion, but there are red rims around them, as if she's been crying. Behind her, I now see Taro following her into the room. His expression, too, is flat.
But, in his eyes, I can see a very scary emotion he's not at all attempting to hide. Pity. And he's staring straight at me. Both of them are. This is supposed to be my big day; what could they possibly pity me for? They stop mere feet away from me, and I lean forward in the fluffy chair, nervousness to the point of nausea coiling in my stomach.
Julia, Natalie and Eliza, too, have stopped what they were doing. A long silence fills the atmosphere, which has suddenly turned dark and depressing. Julia is the one to break it. She steps forward, concern in her voice.
"Mom, what's wrong?"
Mirabelle blinks at her daughter, and then shakes her head slowly, deliberately.
Taro clears his throat and says, "We need to talk to Chelsea alone."
He doesn't offer an explanation. But by the clear authority in his voice, his no-nonsense tone, not even Eliza argues with him. Natalie shoots me a confused look, but she grabs Eliza's arm lightly, and the two of them silently leave.
Julia pauses next to her mother and leans forward to whisper in her ear. Mirabelle sighs in exasperation, and grabs Julia's chin. She whispers back, a few short, clipped words, and then drops her hold on Julia's face. Mirabelle then turns to face me again. Julia's eyes have widened in horror, and her mouth hangs agape.
"M-mom, I think I must have heard you wrong . . . ," she trails off, clearly desperate.
Mirabelle shakes her head again and says, "No. You didn't."
Julia blinks, and then her eyes fill with tears. She begins to tremble violently, and it's clear she might collapse at any second. I rush forward to aid her, but she pushes me away and chokes out, "Stay here, Chelsea" before staggering out the door and slamming it shut behind her.
Fear so violent it's hard to breathe has me in a tight vise, so it's hard to even form words.
"What's wrong, Mirabelle? Why is Julia so upset? And why do you need to talk to me?"
The hysteria in my voice is unmistakable. Taro inhales sharply, and steps forward. He guides me back to my big fluffy chair, and then he and Mirabelle stand before me with their dead eyes. I, too, am trembling now, but I realize that neither of them is going to talk unless I calm down.
I force myself to suck in huge mouthfuls of air and make the trembling stop.
My voice is much steadier when I ask, "What is going on?"
Mirabelle opens her mouth to reply, but all that comes out is a strangled noise. She places a hand over her mouth and sobs, tears rapidly leaking from the corners of her eyes.
Taro gently touches her arm and says, "You should sit down, too, Mirabelle."
She whimpers, but sits in a small folding chair a few feet away.
"I'm sorry, Taro," she gasps, "I thought I could do this, but I just . . . can't."
He nods, and turns back to me. "Chelsea. I have to tell you something, and you're not going to like it."
"What?" My fingernails dig into the fabric of the chair, and I taste blood in my mouth from where I've bitten the inside of my cheek.
Taro looks out the window, and looks for a split second like might break down just like Mirabelle, but he manages to compose himself and looks me in the eye.
"Chelsea. As you know, a hurricane struck our Islands early this morning. It made a big mess of things here . . . and at sea. The storms out in the ocean were hideous beyond all imagining."
I'm confused for a second about what he's saying to me. And then sudden realization hits me with the force of a bullet implanting itself in my skull. No. I look up at him, desperate to have reached the wrong conclusion.
"What are you telling me, Taro? Just come right out and say it!"
If he stalls any longer, I swear I'll wring his skinny old neck. He swallows heavily.
And says: "Vaughn didn't arrive on Sunshine Islands this morning. We think that his boat was caught in the storm and . . ."
Taro breaks off for a second, inhaling shakily. "People are already looking for survivors, from his wreck and others. So far, they haven't found any. And, Chelsea, right now, the odds don't look good. I'm . . . so sorry."
I blink at him. I stare at him for a long time. Surely I must have heard him wrong. He must be playing an awful joke on me. Yes. A joke. I try to force a chuckle from through my dry lips, but it sounds more like I'm gagging on something.
"You're kidding, right?" I whisper.
I pray for the answer than I want. Logically, I know I will not get it. Mirabelle is sobbing and shaking for a reason, that same reason Julia broke down and barely managed to walk out of the room on her own two feet.
Taro stares right back at me. I hate the pity in his eyes. I want to slap it off his face.
"I would never joke about something like this, Chelsea. Especially not today, since you were supposed to . . ."
I lean back in the chair, and my eyes flicker to the wedding dress I was supposed to slip carefully over my makeup and hair. It is so pretty with its lacy train and soft white satin. My mind is desperately looking for something else to focus on, something that will keep it from letting Taro's words sink in, and the full force of them hit me . . .
But is isn't working. My body is wracked by emotion so powerful that it doesn't know what to do. It doesn't know if it should scream or cry or collapse; so it just sits frozen, unwilling to listen to anything my brain has to tell it.
Taro reaches out a hand and lightly touches my shoulder. "I think that maybe, we should get you home."
Denial. I have to hold onto denial. Above all else, that is what is stopping me from going insane right there in the church.
I hiss my next words at him. "No, thank you, I think I will stay right here, because, you see, I'm going to get married this morning."
He's still coming, I chant to myself, over and over. Any moment now, he'll walk into this room and ask what all the fuss is about. He'll smile a little at me and hold my face in his hands. He cannot leave me like this, he wouldn't do that to me . . . He's still coming.
"Chelsea, I don't think that's going to happen," Taro says, his voice hoarse.
"Who asked what you thought?" I snarl at him.
He flinches as if I've slapped him. "Fine. Stay here if you want. I'll keep you posted about any new information I get about . . . him."
He's careful not to say Vaughn's name, as if that will set me off. And he's right. It just might. He pats my hand consolingly before he turns and leaves without a second glance. I stare at the door and think of nothing at all.
I bit my lip, and the bitter taste of blood invades my mouth. Mirabelle's sobbing as stopped, but her breathing is raspy.
"Chelsea, Julia and I are going to take you home."
The word claws up my throat and bursts through my mouth before I can stop it. "I am going to stay here."
And kill anyone who attempts to move me. He's still coming . . .
Mirabelle stands over my chair now and stares down at me with her sad eyes.
The single word is spoken so lowly, so brokenly; it's a way I've never heard he speak before. It gets to me, and I allow her to pull me to my feet, though I move slowly and robotically.
"Taro's wrong," I tell her as we leave the church and step out onto the cool grass of Mystic Islands. "He has to be."
Natalie and Eliza are nowhere to be seen, but Julia's by the Harvest Goddess's pond. She's on her knees, leaning over with her head in her hands, and her body is convulsing in sobs. Mirabelle moves to her daughter and manages to make her stand. The three of us move to the small boat by the dock, and we speed to Vendure Island.
Both of them refuse to make eye contact with me. Their acts of sadness and pain are slowly breaking through my shield of denial. Slowly, slowly, I begin to mentally say my chant louder and louder, until I am screaming it in my mind.
He's still coming!
Julia takes one of my arms, and Mirabelle the other. They half-drag me back to my house. The chant breaks up in my mind, until it becomes bits of words and incoherent babble. St – Co – Hs – Ill – Ge . . .
My brain refuses to form whole words, and I feel as though it will never work again. Besides the words, I also hear my heart beating in my ears – thump, thump, thump. Mirabelle is trying to say something to me, but I can't hear her over the madness that is breaking out inside me.
I am coming apart at the edges, slowly being unraveled and pulled apart. By the time Julia and her mother dump me onto my bed, the shell of my denial has been cracked completely. Logic begins to form.
The changes of a small boat surviving one of the ocean's most powerful storms . . . slim to zero chances. No, scratch that. Zero to negative four chances. Full understanding, full realization, dawns on me. The awfulness of my reality has come into focus, and I wish it had not. I wish my damned heart would have stopped the moment I heard Taro's words.
"No." I say it quietly, just to myself. And keep repeating it, like my chant. "No, no, no, no, no . . ."
Julia leans down to squeeze my hands. "Chelsea . . . I don't know what to say or how to . . ." Her fill with tears.
I jerk away from her touch as if it has burned me.
"Go away!" I scream at the both of them, "Just leave me alone!"
They glance at each other; neither of them look like they think it's the best idea.
"Chelsea, we should" – Mirabelle starts.
Julia sniffs, but she slowly nods. She grabs her mother's hand, they slowly exit my house. The sound of my door clicking shut behind them seems to echo hauntingly. I fall off the bed on my hands and knees and crawl to the bathroom, where I quickly empty my stomach of its contents.
Then I lean back against the wall, gasping for air. Pain. It's all I can feel. It's an invisible force, pressing down on me from all sides. I fall sideways and lay sprawled on the floor at the sheer force of it. Again, comprehension sneaks up on me. I was supposed to get married today. But there was a storm. It tore up the Islands, and took the life of my love.
He is dead.
The pain in that single short sentence stabs all over my body life knives. It paralyzes me, and I am unable to move on the bathroom floor. This morning, my life was perfect. And now it has spiraled so far in the other direction it's almost ludicrous, in a sick, demented way.
But I was right. It was too perfect, and something nasty was around the corner. I just never imagined it would be this. What in all my life could I have possibly done to deserve this? What possible sin could I have committed that was worth of enduring this agony, this torment? And then the sobs came.
My body shook and spasmed out of control as the tears slid down my cheeks and all over the floor. Strange, almost inhuman wails erupted from my throat, and my vision was blurry. I go from feeling utterly miserable to extremely pissed off.
At one point, I start pounding on the walls, the cabinets, anything my fists can reach. When the fit of rage has passed, my knuckles are raw and bleeding.
Never again will I see him, touch him, kiss him. I will never see that set of piercing, strangely colored eyes. I will never serve him porridge or tease him about his hat. I will never be his wife. The last realization is the one that hits me the hardest, and it brings on a whole other round of sobbing and convulsions.
And, as the years pass, my memory of him will fade. When I am an old women, sitting in a rocking chair, I wonder if I will even be able to conjure up a picture of his face in my mind. I shudder violently. No. I will never forget a single detail about him, I will always remember. I will remember his love for animals and for his aunt and cousin.
I will not forget that he hated carrots or that he always wore black. And, most of all, I won't forget my passionate love for him, that when he touched me he made me feel things that I will never again feel with another person.
No, no, no . . . Eventually, the stress becomes too much for my brain, my heart, my soul. So my body does the only thing that it could possibly do to offer any comfort in this situation.
I pass out.
One month later
"How much longer, Nat?"
"Five minutes; then it's show time."
"Do I look okay?"
"Of course – I did your makeup didn't I?"
"Yeah, but I've seen the damage you can do with a mascara wand."
"Don't make me slap you on your wedding day."
Outside my small dressing room, music begins to play. Julia glances at the mirror one last time.
"I go first, Natalie," she says, "Count to five, and then follow me."
"Yeah, yeah, I got it."
Julia takes a deep breath, and moves out the door, down the hall, and out onto the aisle. Natalie counts under her breath, squeezes my hand, and then follows suite.
"Break a leg, Chelsea," she whispers to me just before she disappears.
I inhale and exhale slowly. Denny's suddenly standing beside me. "Ready to go?"
I nod, though my heart is hammering in my chest. "Yeah, I think so."
I take his arm, and we march around the corner. My eyes dart around the audience as we begin our long walk to the altar. Everywhere I look, someone is smiling at me. Their level of happiness and warmth nearly matches my own, and I feel an overwhelming amount of love fill the room. Mirabelle is grinning at me proudly.
Taro winks at me from the fourth bench back. Eliza is letting Charlie hold her hand. I grip Denny's arm tightly for support; this is all so overpowering. Like something from a fairy tale. When we finally reach the alter, Denny kisses my hand and goes to sit with Lanna.
I hold a bouquet of flowers close to my chest as Nathan beams at me and begins to recite his speech about holy matrimony. Up until this point, everything seems to be going smoothly. But when it comes time for the "I dos" no answer comes forth from the person standing next to me.
Wait a minute. Is there a person next to me?
Frowning, I turn and look. But there is no one there.
Nathan blinks and scratches his head. "Huh. I guess he's not here."
And then there is total and complete silence. I stand up at the alter, all by myself, and wonder why in the world he would abandon me on my day of joy. Then Alisa walks into the church, her short red hair done in cute, bouncy curls. She walks quietly up to me and whispers in my ear.
Someone is shaking my shoulders. I push whoever it is away from me, aware of a high-pitched shrieking coming from somewhere close by. The hands refuse to move away from me; again, I am shaken. This time, a voice comes along with the words.
"Chelsea! Chelsea, it's okay, it's alright . . ." My eyelids peel back, and I suddenly realize that the shrieks are coming from me.
Quickly, I snap my mouth shut and moan as the memory of the dream comes rushing back. Arms encircle my upper body and hold me close. Normally I would slink away or scream at anyone who tried to do this, but at the moment I simply didn't have the energy.
There wasn't anything even scary about that dream. And yet I still woke up shrieking and yelling; and I can feel sweat beading on my forehead. I should be thankful. That was one of my milder nightmares.
"Chelsea, it's about noon. Would you like something to eat?" Julia asks, letting me go and sitting at the edge of the bed.
My stomach is twisting in such a way that I know it will reject anything I attempt to put in it. "No."
"You really should. I made bread," she coaxes.
I shake my head and fall back onto the pillow, an arm slung over my eyes to block out the light.
"Please?" Julia whispers.
Minutes pass, and I eventually hear the door shut behind her. The good thing about Julia is, she knows when to quit pressuring me. Natalie doesn't. She'll put all her energy into bossing me around, telling me to eat, telling me to get up, move around.
"Stop telling me what to do!" I snapped at her the last she visited.
"Somebody has to," she'd said, "All you do is lay in bed and stare up at the ceiling all day. You barely eat and Mirabelle, Taro and all the other Islanders are taking care of your land for you!"
I'd sat up (in bed, of course), and glowered viciously at her. I was so not in the mood for one of her "toughen up" speeches.
"Go to hell, Natalie," I spit through my teeth.
She'd given me a nasty look of her own before composing herself. "I know you're going through a . . . rough time, Chelsea. I understand."
"No, you don't. Nobody understands, Natalie. Pierre is still out there, alive and well, and you can see him whenever you want."
My chest constricted painfully, and my next words were strangled. "Besides, you didn't even like him."
Natalie's mouth had open and closed. She'd blinked back tears at my harsh statement. I very well knew how guilty she felt when she heard about the accident. She never did like him, and both of us knew it. At least she has the courtesy to feel badly about it.
"I think I'll come back a little later," she'd whispered hoarsely.
Natalie would never let anyone see her cry. It goes against her code of ethics. She'd turned and hurriedly exited the room without a backward glance. Now, I roll over in bed, pressing my face into the pillow.
Mirabelle and Julia had insisted that I move in with them for a little while. They said that it would be good for me, but I knew they only wanted to watch me, make sure I didn't stab myself with a steak knife or something.
I should be grateful for their hospitality, but I can't muster the emotion within myself. It seems that nowadays I have trouble feeling anything at all. Even after my argument with Natalie, after I'd made her cry, I didn't feel a sliver of regret. At least I was past the screaming, insane stage.
For the first week of the accident, I was completely nuts. And I'm not exaggerating. I screamed and broke things, hurled plates and glasses at the walls. I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably for hours on end, and shoved anyone who tried to touch me. Sometimes the pain in my heart would become too much and I would sink to my knees, gasping for air.
I'd asked the same inane question over and over in my mind: why me, why me, why me? And why did it have to be on that particular day? My wedding day? My second week here, I'd stumbled upon the dress in a box under my bed, and I lost it again.
I shoved the thing at Julia, and yelled at her to put it someplace I would never find it. I couldn't look at it – the pain was too much to bear. It was like a ghostly reminder of what could have been, but wasn't.
At times, I wondered if maybe it was better than way. If he had to die, was it better that it had been before the wedding and not after? Would that somehow have been worse? I will never know. There are a lot of things I will never know.
Sometimes, I remember that morning with Natalie, the time I was with her choosing clothes, the last morning Vaughn showed up at the Islands. I'd been anxious to meet him at the dock, but Natalie had kept me behind (another thing I think she feels guilty about). Her words echo in my mind over and over.
Jeez, you act like this is the last time you'll ever see him.
Oh, the irony of it! It's almost funny in a demented way. The whole of my existence now was kind of demented, though. Nothing I did felt right. Like half of my heart had ripped away from its partner and disappeared into nothingness. I am not whole. I am a broken, fragment of a person.
And, the just last week, I thought about doing something to fix that. I'd managed to climb halfway up the volcano on Volcano Island, and found footholds and a way to grip the side of it to keep myself in place. The waves were being particularly vicious that day, and I knew that there was a sharp outcropping of sharp rocks just beneath the surface.
If I only let go, all of this could be over. No more pain, no more stress. I could be free. And with him, wherever he was. The idea of it seemed almost peaceful. But Julia had caught me. She'd called from the ground beside the cave and asked what I was doing.
I'd almost asked, "What the hell does it look like I'm doing?" but I only said, "Nothing."
And then I'd climbed off the volcano, because I wasn't going to kill myself in front of her. Her face had been pale and her fists clenched tight at her sides.
"Chelsea, what were you just doing?" she'd asked again.
"I . . ."
I didn't come up with a reasonable excuse quickly enough, because her expression darkened and she'd gripped my shoulders tightly.
"Damn it, Chelsea, you're not going to do anything to yourself. You know as well as I do that Vaughn wouldn't want you to. He'd want to be happy and move on; he was just like that."
I'd flinched, despising her use of past tense. Tears had welled up in her eyes and dripped down her cheeks, but she didn't seem to notice. The wind blew gustily around us, tossing our hair and throwing around bits of rock and dirt from the ground.
"This has been hell for me, too, you know," she'd croaked, "I mean, I know you loved him, but he was my cousin. Family, you know? Now my mom is all I have left. And you're like a sister to me, so I'll be goddamned if I let anything happen to you."
Her words had slapped me in the face, and brought about a wave of sheepishness. I couldn't go through with it. I couldn't just leave the Islanders, my family, like that. Whether I like it or not, I have responsibilities here. And a part of me knows she's right. Vaughn wouldn't have wanted me to hurt myself.
But the thought of living the rest of my life the way I felt – hollow and empty – makes me want to vomit. I can't . . . I will have to find some way of filling the void. Except there wasn't a way. The only person capable of filling that position in my life is gone. The idea of letting anyone else touch me romantically is repulsive.
So I will have to go through the motions . . . with a stone in my heart.
I slip out of bed and make my way to Mirabelle's kitchen. I pass Julia's and Elliot's room, where I hear them whispering inside, but I don't care enough to eavesdrop.
I'm not hungry, but I should eat, and I'm not going back to sleep. Even unconsciousness hasn't offered me any comfort this past month. My mind is filled with terrible nightmares that often awaken me covered in sweat and screaming my head off.
There are the calm, ominous ones, like the one I just had about the wedding, but there are worse ones. Vicious ones. My least favorite is the one where I am somehow an onlooker to the disaster taking place at sea. I can see his boat being torn apart, and I can see him struggling and screaming, but I can do nothing to help him.
The first time I dreamt it, I sobbed for a very long time. I go through the cupboards cautiously – Julia arranges things inside hazardously, and something things tend to fall out if you open the little doors.
One never knew when they would be attacked by a flying Ragu jar.
I found nothing that I wanted inside those, so I hunted through the fridge, wincing when I saw a full bowl of porridge on the bottom shelf. I would never be able to eat it again with feeling a full-fledged wave of heartsickness.
I settled on a salad, thinking I might puke if I tried anything heavier than that. I wrapped a blanket around myself and ate quickly. I could feel the black bags under my eyes, feel the fatigue in my limbs.
It's time to stop moping and start working again, I tell myself, staying at Mirabelle's won't change a thing. At least if you're always working, you'll have something else to focus on. Maybe you'll stop thinking about him every second of every day.
Subconsciously, though, I doubt it. Halfway through the salad, Julia enters the kitchen and sits across from me at the table. She doesn't say anything, but I know she's happy that I'm eating.
"I want to go back to my house and start working on my land again," I say firmly.
Her eyes widen. "Don't you think it's a little soon, Chelsea? I mean, don't feel like Elliot or my mom or me want you to go. You can stay for as long as you want . . ."
"I need to go back," I say, "I need to, Julia."
As I stare at her, I feel that sense of resentment that I try so hard to keep at bay. I feel this way for all of the other girls on the Island. They haven't had to go through this. Their significant others are waltzing around the Islands all the time, perfectly healthy.
Why me? I moan internally for the thousandth time.
Julia doesn't attempt to hide the worry in her voice. "Chelsea, I really don't think that's a good idea."
"It doesn't really matter," I shoot back, almost enjoying the hurt flashing across her face. Apparently, misery really does love company.
"Please stay. I don't want you to . . . do what you tried to do before," she whispers.
I swallow against the lump in my throat. "I won't, Julia. I've decided. You don't have to worry about that, I promise."
She stares at me doubtfully.
I finish the salad and take my plate to the sink. "I'll be gone by this evening."
"If that's what you want."
"It is. Thank you for everything that you've done."
"It was the least we could do."
"No. You didn't have to do anything for me."
"Chelsea, don't" –
I hold up a hand to stop her from speaking. "Thank you," I say again.
She sighs, and then she nods. A long silence passed, and when she speaks, her voice cracks.
"You . . . you're so different . . . now."
I raise one eyebrow at her words. "Sorry," I say sarcastically.
"I just want to make sure that you'll be okay," she whispers.
Anger boils inside me, and I stalk out of the kitchen, pausing long enough to say over my shoulder, "No, Julia. I'll never be okay again."
Five years later
"I love this place," she says.
I lay back in the grass and smile. "Yeah, I do too."
"I'm really glad that we live here. Promise me that we'll never have to leave."
I yawn; the clouds rolling overhead in the sky are making me drowsy. "Promise," I answer.
"Is Mirabelle going to give us that new sheep that we ordered tomorrow?"
"I think so."
"I get to name it, right?"
"If you'd like."
She thinks for a minute, toying idly with a strand of her light brown hair. "I want to call it Suzie," she decides.
"Then her name will be Suzie. Do you want to start heading back now? It'll be getting dark soon."
"No! I just want to stay awhile longer."
She gets to her feet and begins running back and forth across Meadow Island, laughing as the wind plays with her air and the grass sways peacefully beneath her feet.
I watch her for a minute before my eyes shut; I am not sleeping, but I've worked hard today and a little rest seems like a good idea.
"Be careful," I call out to her.
"Mommy, it's a flat space. I won't fall in the ocean." Vanessa's little nose wrinkles at the thought, and I laugh.
"No, of course not," I sigh, "You're not clumsy like your mother."
In my head, I know that she's rolling her eyes. Being a mother has given me a sixth sense; I always know what my daughter is doing.
"No, I am not. I'm graceful."
My eyelids raise to look up at her; she's now standing over me. She raises her arms and spins around, like a ballerina.
"I know you are," I say quietly.
Vanessa giggles and resumes her running. No, I think to myself, she isn't clumsy like me. She is strong and self-assured, like her father. She's outgoing and crazy like me, but she has her quiet moments, and during them, I always think of him.
Well, quite honestly, I think of him whenever I look at her. It's impossible not to; she has his eyes. The day of my wedding-turned-disaster, I'd sobbed at the thought of never again seeing the amazing color of them. But I saw them now every day. I saw him in Vanessa almost always.
The day I found out I was pregnant – a few days after I moved back to my house – I'd been devastated. The idea of having to raise it all alone scared the crap out of me, and it brought on a whole new league of crying.
I'd gone to Mirabelle and Julia with the news first, they'd been just as shocked as I was. But they saw the situation in a good light.
"Think of it this way, Chelsea," Mirabelle had said quietly, "You have a piece of him now that will stay with you always."
I'd thought about it for a while, and eventually I decided that she was right. Maybe it was fate that I forgot all about Natalie's little black box that one night we were together. After all this time, I could finally look upon our memories with only a mild sense of ache.
I thought about it, and I decided that I was grateful we'd at least had that night. Vanessa had asked about her father a few time, and told her that he passed away before she was born, but that he would had loved her just as much as he loved me.
"Did he love you, Mommy?" she'd wonder.
"Yes, very much."
She would blink at me and say, "Did you love him, Mommy?"
At which point I would turn my face away from her so she didn't see the tears in my eyes.
"Yes, sweetheart, I did."
She didn't ask about him much anymore, but I made sure she understood that he was a good man, and that would have wanted to be here for her as she grew. I loved my daughter with all my strength, all my heart. How could I not? Not only was she my child, but she was also the last thing Vaughn had given me before the accident.
Well, the second to last thing, anyway. When I was about three months along, Julia approached me with something unexpected.
"Chelsea, I have to show you something, and I'm sorry I didn't sooner. I just . . . I didn't think you could handle it, but I think that now . . ." Julia sighs and clears her throat.
"What is it, Julia?" I wonder.
She swallows thickly, braces herself and holds out a tiny box to me.
My heart seizes in my chest as I take it. "Where did you get this?"
"When Mirabelle and I went to the city to clean out Vaughn's apartment and take care of all the legal crap, I found this on his coffee table. It's a mystery to as to why he didn't have it on him during the wreck, but . . ."
"Why didn't you give me this sooner?" I hiss, furious.
She flinches at my harsh tone. "I told you, I thought you'd freak out again . . ."
I resist the urge to punch her in the face and stroke the velvet covering of the tiny box. I inhale sharply and force myself to open it. And inside, a beautiful ring sits, nestled safely on silky fabric, sparkling even in the limited light of the dim sun.
Its face is a long oval, and the band is decorated with smaller stones; it's so pretty my throat closes up and the familiar pain hits me hard. He'd told me he was going to get me a ring, and apparently he had. Tears roll down my cheeks, and I don't even care that Julia's right in front of me.
I force myself to say, "Thank you."
She nods, and then silently takes the ring from my fingers. She points to the inside part of the band and hands it back. Squinting my eyes at it, I make out the engraved I love you. And the fact that he had it in him to do something so sappily romantic for me makes me want to break down on my bathroom floor like I did in the beginning.
I miss him so much it physically hurts; the hollow place inside me still throbs like an open wound. But at least I can see the logic in Julia's reasoning; if she'd given this to months ago, I might now have been able to handle it.
They might have had to ship me off to the loony bin. Without a word, I slip the ring onto my ring finger on my left hand. Where it belongs. Julia smiles.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"Yes," I whisper, "It is."
Smiling a little to myself, I hold out my hand and watch the sun make the long oval diamond shine. I haven't taken it off since that day. True, he isn't actually here with me. But, in my heart, I will always belong to him, so it seems fitting to wear it. Besides, it gives me a strange sort of security.
I swallow against a lump in my throat, and will myself to remember the feeling of being held in his arms. The memory doesn't come as easily as I would like it to, and I hate knowing that time has dulled it.
Sighing, I get to my feel and feel the wind caress my face; I pretend that it's his fingers. A single tear escapes my left eye and drips onto my shirt.
"I miss you," I whisper quietly to him, "I miss you so much."
Vanessa is suddenly beside me, tugging on my hand. "Okay, Mommy, I want to go home. Daisy misses us!"
I ruffle her hair, knowing how fond she is of our puppy. "I know she does, baby. Let's get back home."
I cast one last look at Meadow Island before I start up the little boat that will take us to where we need to go. Taro says that there's going to be a storm soon, and I still need to prepare. I know better than anyone the damage a storm can cause. In just one night, my world fell apart and my heart shattered into pieces.
But Vanessa is here now to keep it together, and I rely on her for that more than she knows. As we speed back to Vendure Island, I hold her tightly in my arms, and her little head rests on my shoulder. Yes, things fell apart for me so easily, so quickly. But I am strong, and I am patient.
And I know, somewhere in the deepest part of my soul that, someday, I will see my love again.
A/N: So, I couldn't get the idea of this fanfic out of my head after I watched a Youtube video It's basically about Vaughn dying in a storm on his boat. It's very sad. You can find it by typing "Vaughn and Chelsea story" into the youtube search engine. The song that plays during the video is called "Slipped Away" by Avril Lavigne.
The song I named this Fanfiction after is called "My Love" by Sia. It's a beautiful song. I hope you listen to it.