A/N: Please take note of the rating of this fanfiction.
A loud, shrill noise jolted me out of a deep sleep that was pleasant up until two seconds ago.
I sat up in bed so fast my head spun, and my hair fell over my eyes at a weird angle. Drowsy and confused, it took me a few moments to place the sound. I usually woke up to the annoying little beeps of my alarm clock, but this was a different noise. I hadn't heard it in a long time, not since I moved to Sunshine Islands two years ago.
My telephone was ringing.
I had one of those old corded ones I couldn't move very far away from, but it was all I needed, really. A cell phone would be a waste out here; I rarely contacted the outside world lately, I didn't need the monthly bill and besides, the signal out here was sporadic at best. I tried to slip quickly out of bed to answer it before it quit ringing – I didn't have an answering machine – but my legs were tangled in the sheets and I ended up half-falling.
Cursing under my breath at the indignity of the first twenty seconds of my morning, and thinking it might be a sign of a bad day in general to come, I managed to free myself, shuffle across the room in my purple pajamas, and snatch the phone off the hook.
"Hello?" I grumbled.
Normally, I got up pretty early, around six am, and was a pretty happy morning person, but this call was coming in at exactly 5:52, and I had 8 more minutes of unconsciousness coming my way before this.
"Chelsea!" Julia shrieked into the phone, "You have to come over! Like, right now."
My jaw practically fell on the floor. I was expecting some emergency call from the city – my mother was sick, my father was in a car accident, my sister broke up with her boyfriend – but no, it was my even-perkier-than-me best friend, Julia, who lived, quite literally, 200 feet or so away from me.
"Julia, I'm due to get up pretty soon. I have chores to do." And I did. Quite a few, actually.
"I know, but, really, it's important," she said, "Five minutes of your time, Chelsea."
"I didn't even know you had a phone."
"I do. In my room. Get over here."
And then I was met with the lovely sound of a dial tone. Groaning, I put the phone back on the hook and dragged myself back across the room. I resisted the impulse to fall back into bed and, instead, shut the alarm off. Then I gathered some clothes – some comfortable jeans, my sunny yellow shirt, my work books, my red bandana – and went to take a shower. Julia knew I was busy as hell in the mornings.
This better be good.
The door of Mirabelle's Animal Shop opened before I could raise my hand to knock. Julia stood before me, beaming, her long blonde hair cascading down her shoulders instead of tied back in her usual ponytail. She was still in her pajamas – a white tank top, short-short blue shorts and slippers fashioned to look like Garfield the cat.
The clothes were, as usual, on the skin-showing side. I mentioned her usual inclination towards more provocative attire than most once, but she scoffed at me and said I didn't know a thing about fashion with my clashing colors.
I shrugged and said she was probably right. Color splashed across her cheeks, giving her skin a beautiful glow, and her big blue eyes shown with delight. Julia was about ten times her normal level of happiness right now, and, frankly, that kind of scared me.
"Hey, Chelsea, sorry for waking you up this morning, but I really need your opinion of something. I haven't slept all night thinking about it, and I knew you'd be up soon anyway. I couldn't wait any longer!"
"You haven't slept?" I squinted at her, looking for traces of dark circles under her eyes or some indication proving her words. But there was nothing.
That wasn't a surprise, though, not really. Julia always somehow managed to look like someone out of a magazine, no matter what the circumstances. I was firmly convinced that if there was ever a zombie apocalypse and the lot of us had to hide out in some cellar for weeks on end with no showers and cramped space, Julia would emerge looking like Miss America.
"I really hope you don't mean what I think you mean." My voice was low and threatening.
Whenever Julia wanted "my opinion" it usually pertained to clothes. Now, don't ask me why she wanted my opinion on said subject if she thought I had bad taste. I didn't know. Probably had something to do with my being her best friend.
Her cheeks reddened even more, but this time from embarrassment. She shrugged her shoulders.
"Julia," I groaned.
"It'll just take a minute, Chels. Come on it. Mom's making pancakes, so you're visit won't be a complete waste in your mind."
"Fine," I sighed. The smell of Mirabelle's cooking immediately greeted me when I walked in the door, and my mouth watered.
"Morning, dear," she called, her voice as loving and maternal as always.
Julia claimed Mirabelle considered me a second daughter, and in some ways, she was my second mother. It would only make sense for us to get close, though, since I was best friends with her daughter and engaged to her nephew. Who, I remembered with a frown, wouldn't be here for two more days. Damn Saturdays.
Julia took me to her room, where an overwhelming about of pink assaulted my eyes. Pink bedding, pink walls, pink dresser, pink nightstand, pink phone, pink, pink, pink . . . All in varying shades. I was fond of bright colors in general, but I sort of detested pink. Therefore, Julia's bedroom made me want to puke on a regular basis. On the bed, Julia had three different outfits laid out. I exhaled in a long whoosh.
"And what, pray tell," I said, laying the sarcasm on thick, "makes this day so special that you drag me over here before my work is done just to pick out clothes?"
She smiled at me, twirling a piece of her shiny hair around between her fingers. She bit down on her bottom lip for a second, thinking.
"Elliot's taking me to the city today," she began.
"Oh, really? Pick me up a Twix, would you? And maybe a book."
She glared at me for interrupting, and I pretended to zip my lips shut with a little smirk.
"He's taking me to the city, and the boat leaves in, like, one hour. We're taking the really early one. He said he wanted to go a couple weeks ago, and I said sure, because I haven't been there in forever, you know? But yesterday I heard Felicia tell Natalie that she was going to work even harder on their shipments after her brother moved out – and when I went to Chen's shop last night, one of his blue feathers was gone. So . . . I want to look nice today. Extra nice."
My eyes widened. Elliot, Julia's red-haired, on-the-nerdy-side boyfriend, was planning to propose?
"That's . . ." I couldn't think of the right word.
On one hand, the best friend part of me wanted to grab her shoulders and jump around with her in a crazed fit of happiness. But the other side of me, the more rational, logical part, was hesitant. It wasn't that I thought she was too young. We were both the same age – nineteen – and, if that was my reason, I'd be a huge hypocrite for being engaged myself. I was ridiculously happy and more than confident with my decision to marry the man I was deeply in love with, but that was because I was me. Even though I was young, I'd done quite a few things.
I'd moved away from home, started making a decent living for myself, cultivated a lot of friendships, and just tried to have a good head on my shoulders in general. I liked to think I was pretty mature for my age, and knew what I wanted out of life. But Julia . . . God knows I loved her more than anything, but I couldn't necessarily say the same things about her.
She was kind of flaky, a little irresponsible, and an awful cook. Her good qualities outweighed the bad, I knew that, but I wasn't sure if she was responsible enough for a decision of this magnitude. I wanted to tell her that, but I wasn't sure how to say it without sounding like a major fraud. Julia was still staring at me, her eyebrows raised expectedly.
When I announced my plans to wed her cousin a few weeks ago, she'd thrown her arms around me and started crying. But then, her excitement was partly due to the fact that I was marrying into her family. She said that made us sisters, and I told her we'd be sisters even if I was engaged to someone who didn't know her from Eve.
"That's great," I told her, smiling.
She cocked her head to the side, her lips pursed. "You sure paused for a long time, Chelsea. Like a mini trance or something. What went through your head? Be honest."
I sighed, staring out the window. It was still dark outside. In the distance, I could see the Diner, and the old well by the path that crisscrossed all over Vendure and Sprout islands.
"I . . . I don't know how to say it," I said, "I don't want you to be mad."
She grimaced. "I think I can take it, Chels."
"I just . . . are you sure you're ready, Julia? I mean, jumping from living with Mirabelle and your comfortable life at home to having your own place and a husband?" I braced myself for her response.
Surprisingly, she followed my gaze out the window and took a minute before answering, collecting her thoughts.
"I . . . I think so," she said quietly, "I mean, I want to be ready. I know I'm young, and I know I'm not the most . . . experienced person in the world. But I love him, Chelsea. You're doing the same thing, you know."
"Yeah, I know," I said, "But, I took some time to really consider it, Jules. You know how I over-think things, just in general. When Vaughn asked, I told him to let me think about it."
Julia blinked. "Really? You didn't tell me that before."
"Well, I did. And I decided to say yes."
"Well, I've thought about it a lot since yesterday. Seriously, not just ohmigod I'm gonna get married, thinking about it." She gave me a serious, long look in the eye.
"And you're sure?" I wondered.
She swallowed, and ran her hand over a short jean skirt on her bed. "Yes," she said quietly. "
Well then." I proceeded to go with my first impulse – I reached out, jerked her toward me, and hugged her.
"Oooo, maybe we can go double at the church," she said excitedly in my ear.
I laughed. "No thanks, Jules. My day belongs to me, and yours to you. But since I got engaged first, it's only fair to let me get married first, you know?"
I was firmly convinced that Mirabelle's pancakes were the best in the world. I ate way too many. Being full like this made me feel kind of bloated and sleepy; I would be grumbling through my chores today. On top of everything else, we were entering the first week of spring, which meant it was time to wake from my sleepy stupor that winter brought about every year.
Winter was the least profitable season here on the islands, what with not being able to harvest anything. I was an awful cook myself, so I often found myself at the Diner or the Café, which did little for my wallet. But spring was the second most profitable season of the year, second to fall. I had to get things planted, hoed, watered.
One of my sheep, Pia, was due to give birth in three weeks or so, so I needed to be ready for that. Taro had predicted a few storms in the next month, and I needed to build a new fence for the chickens. The first one had been made of lumber, and I'd quickly discovered the rain and wind and the elements in general were quick to wear down that particular wood.
I needed to rebuild it out of material stone, and maybe make it a bit larger, considering I'd hatched three new chicks last winter, one of the few eventful days of the season. And of course, in two or three weeks – we hadn't set an exact date yet – I was getting married. I
didn't so much need to ready myself physically for that, but it was hold to reign in my excitement and eagerness for the day. It made all my other tasks seem inconsequential, but I needed to stop thinking like that. Just because it was happening didn't mean everything else in life came to a screeching halt. I needed to keep my head, stay focused. Spring was not the season to be wondering around in a dreamy, unproductive daze. Spring was the time to move, move, move.
"Great as always, Mirabelle," I said, placing a hand on my stomach.
She smiled at me, her eyes the same bright blue as her daughter's. She was a little overweight now, and there were lines under her eyes, but she had the look of a woman who had once been very beautiful.
"Thank you, Chelsea. I wanted to make sure Julia had a proper breakfast before she spent the day in the city with Elliot today."
I glanced at Julia, sitting across from me at the kitchen table, a question in my eyes. Had Julia told her mother about what she suspected would take place today? Julia gave a slight shake of her head. Huh. That was odd. Julia and Mirabelle were pretty close, and this seemed like something they would talk about.
All the same, I looked back at Mirabelle and said, "Yeah."
As I stood up, I realized that since I was here, I would retrieve my belongings since the last time I came. When I turned toward the hallway instead of the exit, Julia raised an eyebrow at me as she followed behind.
"Where are you going?"
"Vaughn's room," I said.
"I left some things in there."
She leaned in the doorway as I went to the dresser. I knew the fourth drawer down was usually empty, and I figured that's where he would store the items. I pulled it open and smiled; I was right. I picked up my pretty gold locket and put it around my neck.
"Would you help me with the clasp?" I asked Julia.
She nodded, and did just so. "Why did you leave this behind?"
"Oh, I just took it off because it was bothering me. I needed a new chain for it, the old one was too short, and Vaughn said he had one. It looks better now, doesn't it?" I asked, spinning around so she could see.
She studied it. "Yep, much better."
I nodded and bent down to grab the other thing stashed there – my prettiest lacy black bra. When Julia saw that, her nose wrinkled.
"I won't even ask why that's in here, because I know. But. It's still gross."
"You and Mirabelle weren't even here in the shop," I said, recalling the day a week ago.
It had been the Snow Festival, that last real snow day of the year, and everyone had wanted one last day of fun in the cold. But Vaughn hadn't felt like going, and I didn't disagree with him – Winter was my least favorite season; I was more than willing to welcome spring and bid goodbye to the icy rain and the white stuff. So we'd stayed in all day and just hung out.
We spent some time with the animals in Mirabelle's back room, ate porridge (he loved it, for some reason), and made love several times. It had been a wonderful. Of course, even though Julia loved that I was marrying her cousin, the fact that I was sleeping with him seemed to make her wince a lot.
"Thank God for that. I would be forced to gouge my eyes out with something sharp had I walked in on something I did not want to see," she grumbled.
I laughed. "Hey, the idea of Elliot getting naked doesn't do much for me, either."
Julia's eyes seemed to glaze over for a minute, causing me to giggle again.
"Julia?" I said after a moment.
She blinked at me, and feigned surprise. "Sorry, what were we talking about?"
I rolled my eyes and poked her. "Ew."
She returned the favor with a sharp jab to ribs. "Back at you."
I clutched the bra in my hand in a balled position so Mirabelle wouldn't see what it was as we stepped out. I was almost to the door when she stepped into the living room.
"Chelsea? There was something I wanted to ask you."
"Oh?" I turned and waited, though I really needed to get going and start work.
"I – I found this dog a few days ago when I was out walking. It's a black and white Collie. He's really malnourished and kind of skittish, but he's really sweet. I was wondering that, maybe, if you liked him, you would consider . . . ?" she trailed off hopefully.
I bit my bottom lip. I'd wanted to get a dog, actually to protect my livestock from the wild dogs that roamed the islands. But adopting one of said wild dogs seemed a bit iffy.
"Um . . . ," I managed, "I don't know, Mirabelle . . ."
"He's really sweet," she said again, "I don't think you'd have any problems."
"Alright," I said.
I followed her into the back room and was introduced to the new animal. His fur was dirty and matted in some places, but his big brown eyes shown with intelligence. I loved him on sight. It took a bit of coaxing and cooing sweetly to get him to approach me, but when he did, I stroked over his fur and felt some of his ribs. Sympathy instantly washed through me; I'd always had such a soft spot in my heart for animals.
"Do you want to come home with me, boy?" I cooed in his ear.
His tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth. I took that as a yes. I stood and went back into the living room, coaxing him to follow; he trotted along beside me happily enough. Julia waited at the door.
I hugged her again and said in her ear, "You know what's best for you. I know you'll make the right choice and by happy. Love you."
"Thanks. Love you, too," she said quietly.
I stepped around her and hurried back hope, the dog keeping pace with me easily, a lightness in his footsteps that I was sure was happiness.
On Monday, I woke up early as always, showered, and walked around with more spring in my step than usual, because Vaughn would be here soon. He was only working for one more week after this, and then he was going to move in with me permanently. There were already a few boxes of his things stacked up in the corner below my calendar. I wanted to unpack it and make everything un-messy again, but I didn't want to go through his things without him there.
Maybe after I'd been married to him for a few years. The dog I'd adopted – who I'd decided to call Bucky – followed me around the house as I made breakfast, stopping only to scratch behind his ear and drink some water. I'd given him a good, long bath a few hours after I took him home. He was much cleaner and better-smelling now, but I still needed to have him groomed at some point, and he needed more meat on his bones.
But despite that, he seemed like a very happy dog; just with him lightened my spirits some throughout the day. I finished my meal, took a shower, let Bucky out of the house and then tended to my chores, which I couldn't get through fast enough. I gestured for Bucky to stay on my tiny island, the one all my land was on, as I crossed over to Vendure.
He whined quietly at having to be left behind, but my chickens were out today, and I wanted him to get the hang of acting as guard dog. I couldn't resist going up too Julia when I saw her cleaning the decorative horseshoe hanging on the door of their shop with a rag and some yellow spray. She was humming to herself.
"Hey," I said, grinning, "What's up?"
"The sun. The sky. My heart, my soul, my elation." She sighed dreamily.
I shook my head playfully at her. Elliot had indeed proposed two days ago in the city, and Julia had accepted. She claimed that she had thoroughly thought it through, and I hoped she really had. I offered her a wide smile.
"Where'd he do it?"
"At this cute little café connected to a bookstore. We'd just left the pet shop – they had the most adorable little kittens. I wanted to bring one back, but we have enough animals around here." She laughed. "Elliot acted all nervous at first, and I got all excited, because I figured he was about to ask. After he got the feather out of his pocket, though, he seemed to calm down a bit. Looked me right in the eye and everything."
I was glad Elliot had mustered up the courage to propose, however hesitate I might feel about it. Regardless of my reservations, I knew they loved each other. Elliot and his family were the first people I met upon arriving on the Islands, so they all had a special place in my heart. He was kind of cute with his deep red curls and big, round glasses. Though he seemed perpetually nervous and soft-spoken, he was the sweetest guy in the world at heart. He felt like my brother.
"Did you talk about a date?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Nope, not yet. I'd like for it to be soon, though."
"Me too," I admitted, "but Vaughn's resignation had to be a two-week notice thing, plus he has to move all his stuff over here. The city's not down the street, you know. There's a lot of crap to go through."
"Well, it'll be worth it. It'll be nice to have my cousin around more often. I think the city depresses him."
"Maybe." I shrugged.
A lot of people on the islands considered Vaughn to be extremely petulant and bad-tempered, and I could see their point when I first met him. But he was much different after I got to know him better (which, mind you, was no easy task).
"I'm surprised to see you even stopped to talk to me. It's Monday." Julia rolled her eyes fondly.
I opened my mouth to respond, but I heard a familiar voice ring out to answer.
"Thank God for that."
I grinned, and practically skipped past my best friend and into Vaughn's open arms.
"I was just on my way to the dock," I told him, looking up at his eyes.
They had to be the oddest color in the world. Purple. Like the amethyst I sometimes found on the upper levels of Volcano Island. I found them very enchanting, very easy to look at. Of course, the rest of him wasn't hard to look at, either.
"It was weird not to see you there. I guess I'm used to it." He smiled and played with my ring finger on my left hand.
Vaughn had opted for the more traditional ring rather than a blue feather, and I was kind of glad. I liked having something I could wear around with me everywhere, too announce to the world that I was his, and he was mine. What was I supposed to do with a feather? Glue it to my forehead? Whoever had started that tradition must have been high on something.
I wrapped my arms around him, up on my toes, to kiss him hello. I heard a sigh behind me, but I couldn't bring myself to care about Julia's presence for this one moment. My fingers slid into his hair, and all I could think of nothing but my own happiness. When I pulled back much too soon, I heard another sigh, this one much more exaggerated than the last.
"Go away, Julia," Vaughn said, pulling me back.
"What a fine way to greet your relatives," she grumbled to herself.
But she turned back and continued polishing the horseshoe, as if it wasn't already sparkling. He kissed me again, fitting his body against mine, and I wondered if we could have a few minutes at my house before he started working at Mirabelle's. He was probably always going to do that, even after he moved here.
"Mom's waiting inside, Vaughn," Julia sang, not turning away from her work.
His hand slid down my back, slipped into the back pocket of my jeans. I shivered and felt the familiar jolt of desire shoot through my body, and I sighed against his mouth.
"Vaughn," Julia said again, "Chelsea! Come on. Stop it. Have some self control."
"Two times a week," I reminded her, grumpy at having to break away from his grip.
"I'll get out early today," he said in my ear.
Not quietly enough, apparently, because Julia said, "Don't even think about it, Vaughn. There's a fat stack of paperwork in your bedroom with your name on it."
"Why do you hate me?" he sighed, pulling his black Stetson down over his eyes.
"I hate you, but I also love you. It switches up. Right now, I'm leaning more towards hate for your PDA just now."
"Like you don't do it," I said.
Julia opened her mouth to reply, but then she snapped it shut again. I rolled my eyes at her and turned back to my fiancé. "I got a new dog."
He nodded. "Good. Did you get it from Mirabelle?"
"Yeah, it was a stray, but she swears up and down it's sweet as can be. I've had him for a couple days now, and he seems pretty docile. Almost too docile for a guard dog, but we'll see. His name is Bucky."
"Chelsea," Julia sighed, "Your new dog? Really? Isn't there more exciting news to be shared at the moment?"
"Yeah, but I thought you could tell him," I said.
She nodded and looked her cousin square in the eye, for some reason with a hint of wariness in her eyes. He looked back at her expectantly.
"Elliot proposed to me a few days ago," she told him, "and I said yes. Gannon's going to build us a house by the beach."
Vaughn looked taken aback for about two seconds before he composed himself. "Are you sure, Julia? You're pretty irresponsible, and kind of immature. You're way too young to get married."
I sighed. Sometimes, his bluntness could be a bad thing. Vaughn never had any problem with telling people exactly what he thought, no editing involved. Julia pursed her lips, but when she answered, her voice was calmer than I expected it to be. But then, she might have anticipated his reaction.
"I'm plenty mature, Vaughn. I know exactly what I'm getting into, thank you very much. I told Mom, and she approves. Chelsea's happy for me. And speaking of Chelsea, she's nineteen. Same age as me, in case you didn't know. If you think that's too young, maybe you should put off your own wedding for a couple years," she said coolly.
Vaughn shook his head, a frown on his lips. "Chelsea is Chelsea. She's more responsible than you. She's not a clueless little girl. And what is Elliot even doing with his life? He works for Taro. Which is fine, but is there enough between the two of you to live?"
"Well, dad, I am actually very responsible. I'm touched you care, but" –
Vaughn advanced on her, until his hands rested on both her shoulders. At six two, he pretty much towered over her.
"I don't think this is a good idea," he said.
"I don't make my important life decisions in life based on what you think," Julia said quietly.
"What about money?" he asked again.
She pursed her lips at him, irritation flashing in her usually joyful blue eyes.
"Who cares about money?" she snapped at him, "We'll make it work out. If money's the most important thing in a relationship to you, cousin, then I seriously think you should reconsider your own proposal."
Vaughn scowled at her and stepped back. He shook his head at her and turned to face me.
"I'll be done at five," he grumbled, and then turned to disappear into the Shop.
I exhaled in a long, slow whoosh. I never thought he'd react negatively to Julia's news.
"I didn't think . . ." I trailed off.
Julia shrugged, giving me a sad smile. "Vaughn and I pretty much grew up together. His mom, as you know, sucked at being a mom, so Mirabelle had him a lot. He stills thinks of me as his little cousin, the one sitting in her bedroom with her Polly Palace and Disney princess dresses."
"He's just worried about you," I said quietly, not adding that I'd had pretty much the same thoughts when she told me.
"He'll come around. I'll make him," she said, confident. She smiled at me then, her teeth so white I had to avoid looking directly at them.
"Nineteen, too young," she scoffed, "As if he's so much older than me."
I laughed. "I know. Twenty Two. Such a difference."
Julia inspected her work on the horseshoe again. By now I was sure there was not a speck of dusk to be found on the gleaming surface.
"Thank you, at least, for being supportive."
I nodded, and then politely excused myself to go do some fishing. Denny was saving me a spot on the dock opposite of Will's boat.
After I fished, with much success, I foraged, and then I paid Gannon a visit. Got a bigger rucksack. I noticed all the different wallpaper samples in a little book he kept in the corner on the counter and made a mental note to come back and look more intently at the prices. It would be nice to change up the house a little. Maybe it would encourage me to learn to cook more.
Pierre – the blonde, bright eyed man on Vendure Island that was a professional chef – had tried to teach me a few things once. After I'd broken three eggs, dropped flour on the floor and burnt our cake past recognition, he'd sighed and deemed me a failure in the kitchen, but vowed to try to teach me again if I was ever interested. I still wasn't. It seemed I always had little mental notes to attend to. I really needed to start writing things down.
I dumped all my stuff in the shipping box outside Taro's house and went to hang out with Sabrina for a bit. She was always pretty easy to talk to, if one could ignore the creepy presence of her vampire-like father, Regis. But I got intercepted by Eliza and Charlie on the way there, and ended up being coerced into a game of hide and seek.
As I was pretending not to see the little blonde girl behind the bushes between Mirabelle's and Chen's shops, Vaughn stepped out the door and smiled upon seeing me. I abandoned my game and hugged him in the same fashion as before.
"Eliza, I see you," I called, "You're behind the bushes. And Charlie, you're behind the well."
The two of them grudgingly emerged from their hiding spots with sour expressions.
"Do you have to go home now that that cowboy is here?" Eliza asked, peering up at me with big blue eyes she knew very well were irresistible. But I had willpower of steel right now.
"Yeah, I'm afraid I'm stealing your best player," Vaughn told them, a playful note in his I'd never really heard before.
"But I'll be back," I promised them.
I bent down to kiss Charlie's cheek. He blushed like crazy and mumbled a goodbye. He and Eliza dashed off across the bridge to Sprout Island, giggling the whole way.
"Having fun?" he asked, nuzzling my neck.
I sighed. "Yeah, it's kind of nice to play with them once in a while."
He kissed up my neck, behind my ear. "Mmm," he sighed, "you want one of those?"
"Someday," I managed, my voice embarrassingly breathless, "but not for a few more years."
"Good, me neither."
"But eventually," I said again.
He nodded, pulling back, his eyes thoughtful. "Yeah. Eventually."
He took my hand and squeezed it. "Let's go home."
"I love you," I said.
"Well, I should hope so, since you agreed to marry me."
I made a face at him. We started walking, hand in hand, down the path.
"I hope you didn't get the wrong impression before," he said quietly.
"The money. I just . . . want her to be happy."
"I didn't," I assured him, "I know that's not how you feel. Money is kind of nice, but love is better."
"I know." He somehow managed to inject an insane about of meaning into just those two words. He wasn't much for words in general, so what he said he meant.
"Did you get it worked out with Julia?" I asked.
"For the most part. She's an adult, she can do whatever she wants. But I still don't agree."
"I'm sure they'll be just fine. You'll see."
By this time, we'd reached the door of my house. A familiar glint was in his eyes, and I knew that as soon as I opened the door he would have me pinned against the door, and his hands would be everywhere. My body tingled with anticipation. But just as I was turning the doorknob, a familiar form came running up the bridge connecting the two islands.
We both turned, and Natalie came to a stop in front of us. Elliot's sister was probably the exact opposite of her brother; they looked similar with the same shade of red hair and the same round faces, but that's where it stopped. Where Elliot was timid and sweet, Natalie was a get-in-your-face kind of girl. She was bossy and demanding and a little mean. She was also my good friend.
"Oh, hey, Vaughn," she said when she saw him beside me, which surprised me, as she usually greeted him a little more snidely (they didn't really get along).
"I just wanted to let you know," she said, "that we're gonna be throwing a double engagement party for you guys and Julia and Elliot in a week at Regis's mansion. Pierre's catering. It'll be great."
I blinked. "A party? Well . . . okay. Sounds nice."
Vaughn winced. "That's not really necessary."
"Oh, you think anything in which more than two people get together to talk is 'unnecessary'." Natalie rolled her eyes at me and handed me a white envelope, ignoring his objections completely. I gave him a this-could-be-fun look and took it from her hands.
"Oh, and I was also wondering if I could see your new dog. Mirabelle says he's really cute." Natalie scanned my land, looking for Bucky.
"I think he's in the stable with Spirit," I said, "I can take you to him."
"Okay."She grinned and began walking to said destination. I moved to follow her, but Vaughn's arms slid around my waist, pulling my back against his chest.
"I want you," he said in my ear. He pressed his hips hard against me to emphasize his point, and I think I actually moaned a little.
"I'll be right back," I told him, managing to slip away and follow Natalie to the stable.
Bucky was lying in a pile of hay next to Spirit, who was eyeing the dog curiously. I gave him a pat hello and then bent down to Bucky. His tongue was lolling out of his mouth again.
"So cute," Natalie said.
She scratched behind his ear and cooed nonsense to him. I kind of wanted to say here with her and talk – she'd been really busy with work lately – but I was itching to get back to Vaughn. I stroked down Bucky's fur and smiled at him. But as my fingers grazed a spot just below his left shoulder blade, his expression suddenly shifted, in the way dog's expressions can. His carefree expression morphed into bared teeth, angry eyes and deep growls rumbling from his chest.
Natalie had just enough time to rock back on her heels, raise an eyebrow and say, "What"
– before Bucky suddenly whipped his head to the side and sank his teeth into my forearm. A shriek escaped my lips and I instinctively tried to yank my arm away from the dog, but it couldn't. His jaws were like steel. And damn it, it hurt. Already, I could see splashes of red in his teeth, seeping from the broken skin of my arm. Natalie screamed and ran outside.
Thanks, I managed to think sarcastically through my panic. I started to hit him as hard as I could with my free hand, but he still didn't let go. He yanked his head to the other side, effectively tearing my skin even more, and I let out another cry of pain, tears pricking my eyes. Natalie ran back in with a stick and started hitting Bucky with it as hard as she could.
Spirit – spooked by this scene – made a scared noise and bolted from the stable. On the third whap of Natalie's stick, Bucky finally let go and I fell onto my back, still screaming. Bucky let out a yelp and leaped around Natalie and out the door. Natalie dropped her weapon and scrambled over to me, getting on her knees.
"Oh my God, Chelsea, are you okay?"
I whimpered and held up my arm. Red, red, red. The bite mark was disgusting; parts of my skin were torn badly, like someone had taken a butcher knife and ripped it open to see the bone inside. Thankfully, I couldn't actually see the bone, but it was still awful beyond belief. The whole thing had happened so fast, my mind was still struggling to catch up.
Suddenly, the stable doors burst open again and Vaughn was on his knees next to me. "Chelsea? What happened?" His voice was desperate.
He tried to reach for my arm, but I snatched it away. It would hurt way too bad for someone else to touch it.
"I'll go call Dr. Trent," Natalie said, panic still in her voice, "I think he's in Mineral Town now, but I'm sure he'll rush right over."
Vaughn nodded and scooped me up, running after Natalie back to my house. While she was on the phone, he laid me gently down on the bed and went to get a rag.
"I have no idea what to do," he admitted when he came back, "but I think you should try to stop the bleeding with pressure."
"It hurts," I told him, unhelpfully.
"I know, baby, I know," he said quietly.
It hurt like hell when I felt the pressure on my injury, and I bit my lip to keep from crying out again. Natalie put the phone down and came to stand at the end of the bed, pushing a strand of her short red hair out of her worried eyes.
"Dr. Trent said he'd be here as soon as he could. He estimated an hour and a half or so. Just try to get it to stop bleeding. You'll probably have to get a shot or something for rabies along with the bandage and stuff you're your arm."
I inhaled sharply through my nose sharply. "I don't know what went wrong. He was so sweet and then, it was like he just snapped. Went totally crazy because I touched his shoulder wrong. Was it something I did?"
"You didn't do anything wrong, Chelsea," Vaughn snapped, his voice angry. "Mirabelle was stupid to give you a random dog off the street just because it was acting less than menacing. You can never predict animals like that."
"Apparently not," Natalie grumbled.
"He ran off after he let go. I hope he's all right," I said.
"I hope he fell off a bridge," Vaughn said.
I sighed. Natalie stayed with us for a few more minutes, and then she left, saying she was going to go home for a minute at then she'd wait for the doctor at the dock to make sure he remembered the way back to my house. I made Vaughn pull the rag away for a second, and then winced; it didn't look much better now even though it was no longer gushing.
"It wasn't Mirabelle's fault," I said quietly. I took the rag from him and sat up, with my back against the pillow. Vaughn crawled up on the bed so he could hold me, clutching me tight, aggravation still the most dominant emotion in his face.
"She should have known better. Julia should have stopped her."
"I think she was a little distracted this morning." I smiled to myself.
He sighed and shook his head. We sat like that for a while, and it would have been nice, had it not been for the constant sting of my injury. I traced my finger across his jaw.
"Sorry this happened," I said quietly, "I really wanted to welcome you home properly."
He smiled a little, and I was glad for it. He kissed my cheek tenderly.
"It's okay," he said, "It's not like we won't have time later."
We heard a knock on the door. "Come in," I called.
Dr. Trent slipped in with Natalie and Julia on his heels. Julia came up to me immediately, concern evident in her voice. "Oh, Chelsea, are you alright? Natalie told me what happened."
"I'm fine," I said, "Just a little torn up."
"No thanks to you," Vaughn snapped at her.
I shot him a look, and then met Dr. Trent's dark eyes. He was probably ten years older than me, early to mid thirties maybe, with thick dark hair and flawless tanned skin. Natalie had joked with more on more than one occasion that if he wasn't married, she would be doing her damndest to convince him to move the Islands, even though he was usually only here in the Fall. But then, that was before she started dating Pierre.
"Hey, Chelsea," he said, "I came as soon as I could."
"Which we are all very grateful for." I grinned at him.
He spent the next hour examining my arm, putting something on it, bandaging it, and being very helpful in general. I did indeed get a shot for the possibility of rabies, which did little to lighten my mood. When he was all done, he packed up everything in his black bag and smiled.
"That should be everything. Do you know why the dog bit you?"
"I don't know. I was just petting him and he went nuts. He was a stray. I've only had him for a few days."
He nodded seriously. "Well, I'm sorry it happened to you."
I shrugged. "That's what happens sometimes when you work with animals, even if you know what you're doing."
I offered him something to drink, but he said no, that he had to get going if he wanted to be back in the city before dark. I thanked him, told him I'd expect the bill in the mail, and then he left. Natalie came up and squeezed my hand.
"Glad you're okay, Chels. I gotta get going." And she, too, left.
This left me, Vaughn and Julia. He was giving her a dark look, which she ignored to address me.
"Sorry, Chelsea. Me and mom feel really bad about what happened. Maybe Vaughn could bring you back a puppy during his last week in the city."
I looked at him. "Would you?"
"Good." Julia leaned down to kiss my cheek, and then she leaned over to say something in Vaughn's ear.
"See you tomorrow," she said, and then she, like the others, left.
Vaughn slid off the bed and stood, shuffling into the kitchen.
I laughed. "Are you going to attempt to cook?"
"Mmm-hmm. Hopefully something remotely edible."
He ended up with some kind of curry that actually wasn't too bad.
"I have to put everyone inside for the night," I said. "I'll do it tonight. Just lie down for now."
I shrugged and slipped under the covers. I had a good book in my nightstand drawer that was just calling my name.
"Would you put some food in Bucky's bowl, too?" I asked.
"No. I told you, he can fall off a bridge."
"He was such a good dog before. Maybe it was me, Vaughn. I really don't know what it could have been, but I don't want to get rid of him . . ."
He stared at me with his piercing oddly colored eyes. "You should."
"Well, I don't want to." I stared right back at him.
He pursed his lips and stepped outside without another word to me.
It wasn't until around nine thirty that evening, after I'd gone to bed – I was getting up at five the next morning – that I felt him slide in next to me. His arm wrapped around my waist, and he kissed the back of my neck.
"All done," he said quietly.
"Thanks. I took some pain pills a few hours ago, and I think I would have passed out in the middle of my work if you hadn't been here." I smiled.
"Soon I'll be here to help you all the time."
"One more week," I said, this time a bit sour.
"Mmm-hmm." He held me tight, and I let my eyes close.
We would normally make love once or twice in the day he finally got back to the Islands, but the pills were seriously screwing with my ability to function this evening. So I was content to just drift off into undisturbed sleep with his arms around me. When my alarm blared at us the next morning, I groaned and hit the snooze button.
"Five more minutes," I muttered.
I heard a soft chuckle beside me. "I could do some things and let you sleep again this morning," he offered.
"No, I need to get moving. Spring's too busy to lay around. And Mirabelle's expecting you today. Thanks, though." I yawned hugely and reached out the shut the alarm off for good. I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I blinked and looked at him again, taking a few enjoyable moments to appreciate him, lying next to me.
"Did you have any problems last night?" I asked, running my hand down his chest.
His skin was pale despite the generous amount of sunlight we'd been treated to thus far in the new season. But then, that might just be because of all the black he wore constantly. How he didn't collapse from heat exhaustion, especially in the summer, would always be a mystery to me. My skin was pretty pale at the moment, too; Winter usually sucked the color from it since I was inside a lot, and I didn't exactly have time to lounge about in a lawn chair with a bottle of sun tan lotion. He sat up, too, his eyes suddenly a little cautious. This would normally make me suspicious, but I was currently far too busy studying the ropy, tight muscles of his torso.
"No," he said. "Everything went okay? Did you see Bucky anywhere?"
"Yeah, I did."
I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't. I prodded him for more information (this was something had to do with him frequently).
"Did you call him? Put food in his bowl?"
"No. I took him to Mirabelle's and told her to ship him somewhere off the Islands." He stared right at me, his voice firm. Like I was just supposed to accept this because he deemed it was the right thing to do.
I glared at him, my lips pursed in a tight line. "Vaughn, that's not what I asked you to do. If you weren't going to do what I wanted, you could have told me so I could have done everything myself."
I tried to sound calm, but my blood was boiling. I knew on some level that he was probably right about Bucky, but that wasn't the point at the moment. The fact that he would so blatantly go against my wishes made me grit my teeth angrily.
He exhaled in a sharp breath. "You can't keep a violent pet, Chelsea. You weren't thinking clearly about it last night. You know I'm right."
"That's not the point! You don't get to make my decisions for me!"
"If you'd been sensible, I wouldn't have had to."
His words sent a fresh wave of fury through me. "Is that how it's going to be when we get married, Vaughn? You tell me what's best, and I just listen and go along with it no matter what I think? Am I getting a husband or a boss? Screw that."
I pushed the blankets off my body and made to get off the bed, but he caught my hand and willed me to meet his eyes. I did, but reluctantly.
"You know it's not like that," he said quietly.
"Yes!" He frowned. "This isn't about me telling you what to do. This is about you not getting hurt. Aren't married people supposed to worry about each other's safety? Sorry for caring."
I bit the inside of my cheek and counted to five in my head. When I spoke again, I thought I sounded a lot calmer.
"I appreciate your concern, I really do. But I think you should trust me enough" –
"I do trust you! It's the dog I don't. I would never try to be your boss or order you around like a pet. I love you."
It was hard not to be pulled in by the sincerity of his words. And they were sincere. If there was one thing I was positive about Vaughn, it was that he didn't say anything he did not positively mean.
I sighed. "I love you, too."
"I'm sorry," he said, "that you're upset. But I still think I did the right thing."
"I think maybe you did, too, Vaughn, I just . . . really liked him is all."
"I know. But you can get another one. A better one." He opened his arms in a clear invitation, and I didn't have it in me to refuse. He held me close, pressing a kiss to my forehead.
"I'm sorry for yelling," I said quietly.
I felt him move his shoulders in a shrug as his mouth moved to my neck.
"It's okay," he sighed.
"We'll probably argue a lot in the future," I whispered, struggling to keep my thoughts together as he rolled to hover over me, and one of his hands moved to cradle my breast through the thin cotton of my pajama shirt.
"Probably," he agreed as my legs wrapped around his hips, "but fighting's okay, because after that comes the makeup sex."
I let out a little laugh that turned into a breathy moan as I felt how excited he was for said makeup sex. But there was a sharp rap on the door at that moment, and he groaned. "Whoever it is, tell them to go away."
I laughed, though I was pretty aggravated myself. I opened it, and Julia stood there, beaming at me. "I've come early to discuss important maid-of-honor stuff. Natalie would be with me, but she sadly had work with Taro to attend to."
"Now, Julia?" I sighed. "I was kind of busy."
"I will refrain from asking exactly what you were so busy with, Chelsea, because I do not want to know. Vaughn, Mirabelle needs you, stat!" she called over my shoulder.
"Yes, now. Stop being lazy and drag yourself down to the Shop." She then barged into my house and made a face at him. "And, for goodness sake, put a shirt on."
I was very irritated when Vaughn and I parted ways. He was off to Mirabelle's again, and I had chores to do. I managed to convince Julia of this and told her we would finish discussing later. After I watered my recently planted crops and tended to my animals – paying extra attention to my expecting sheep – I checked the records I kept that let me know what my inventory was around here. I didn't need any animal feed, but one of my chickens was acting a little weak, so I needed to pick up some medicine for it. I also needed to buy some vegetable oil from Chen, as I had decided to, gasp, and try cooking something again.
It was just a simple recipe, something Pierre could probably do in his sleep, but maybe it would ease me into the kitchen. I suspected Vaughn would cook sometimes when he moved in for real, but neither of us could boast making anything delicious. After I sped through town to get those things done, I pondered what I should do next. I stood by the well, thinking. Quite a few fellow islanders, as well as a few tourists (they started coming back in the spring and summer, mostly) milled around.
Most of them didn't bother me during the day unless I initiated the conversation, which was just fine with me. They knew I was very busy, especially around this time of year, and I appreciated their consideration. I ended up deciding on mining on Volcano Island, since I fished with Denny yesterday and Regis's eye was beginning to twitch strangely whenever I saw him.
Probably jewel withdrawal. With him, it seemed highly possible. Most of the other Islanders usually steered clear of it, with the exception of Lily, a treasure hunter, and her boyfriend, an exceptionally polite, rich man named Will. It was, after all, a volcano, and therefore very dangerous. But it could mean a serious payday for me if I got deep enough in the mine to find something truly interesting, like pink diamonds or a Mythic stone.
Vaughn would be irritated if he knew – I'd fallen in the cave and almost killed myself a few times already before I understood the tricky floors – but it was just another avenue of making money, and I enjoyed the sense of adventure it gave me. So I sped down to the Island on Kirk's boat and soon found myself at the mouth of the cave.
I stepped in warily, hoe in hand, ready to search for the stairs down to level two. I had no idea just how deep this mine really was, but there was a rumor that the Harvest Goddess appeared and gave you a gift if you managed to reach the bottom. It was a nice story, but, Harvest Goddess or not, it would be pretty cool to do it. I hummed to myself quietly as I worked because it was always so eerily quiet within the volcano I needed some noise before I started freaking myself out.
The hints of lava oozing from the walls gave off bits of light when I reached level four, but it wasn't nearly enough, so I had a high powered flashlight as well as a lot of snacks for recovering my energy. Hoeing the earth and shattering rocks for their inner treasures was hard work, and sweat soon beaded on my brow. I found a few pieces of amethyst, periot, fluorite and the ever useless junk ore on my way. I always moved carefully, testing the ground ahead of me before allowing it to support my weight. I unearthed quite a few pitfalls, and they gaped menacingly at me, all consuming blackness threatening to swallow me up.
One never knew how far they would fall when going through a pitfall. It could be one floor, it could be fifty. Honestly, it really could kill me. Vaughn had threatened to come down to this island and find a way to sink it back into the sea if I didn't stop coming so much (I used to be down here every other day or so), but I told him I wasn't giving it up. In the end, I just promised to start coming less and to be extra careful. I worked for a long, long time.
At four in the afternoon, on floor fifty one, I unearthed a diamond that was so beautiful I knew Regis would probably jump up on his desk and do a dance. Sighing triumphantly, I put it back in my pack and packed up my other things, wanting to be back on Vendure Island by the time Vaughn was done with work. I turned slowly, carefully, and realized that the stairs were all way on the other side of the level. I usually didn't wander so far away, but I'd had a really good feeling about this floor, and my instincts had been right.
Grumbling under my breath at having to practically dance across the floor, I began edging my way there. When I was just a few feet away, I exhaled a sigh of relief and began to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my evening. Big mistake. Just beside the stairs, the ground proved untrustworthy and collapsed beneath my foot. A shriek escaped my lips, and the flashlight slipped from my fingers as I tried to catch myself.
But I had too much momentum to jerk myself backward, and I fell. I screamed as I went down, my hair whipping out behind me, and I somehow managed to gather in my panicked mind that I had already fallen through two or three floors. How much longer would it be? Hopefully not enough to kill me. God, that would suck. I seemed to fall for suck a long time. Upon impact, everything immediately went black.
In that weird in-between stage of being awake and asleep, I thought I heard voices. Broken bits of sentences floated into my battered head, refusing to connect, refusing to make sense. I tried so, so hard to hold on and stay awake, but my body hurt ached so badly. How had I fallen? I couldn't remember. I couldn't remember . . . my head hurt . . . I didn't understand what was going on . . . and then I blacked out again.
When I woke for the second time, I managed to open my eyes. My vision twisted in odd ways for a second before settling back to normal and I winced at the dryness of my mouth. I was in a bed. In a house. How on earth did I get here? I attempted to move my sore limbs, praying nothing was busted beyond repair. My brain seemed to send them all the correct signals, however, as I was able to move them around with only a fraction of the searing pain I expected to feel. I had a headache from down under, but I forced myself to concentrate.
I tried to sit up, and managed the feat, but barely. The muscles in my arms quivered weakly from the strain, and I leaned up against the headboard, panting shallowly. I reached up to touch my head, wincing when my fingers touched a large bandage that had to be covering at least half of m forehead. Moaning quietly at the pain of it, I glanced around again, trying to figure out where the hell I was. I was on a twin bed. The walls were painted a soft shade of pink, there was a dollhouse in the corner, stuffed animals on a shelf, a tall bookcase housing what appeared to be children's stories, and a Justin Beiber posted on the wall. It was obviously a girl's bedroom, and I wracked my brain for children that I knew that might be the current occupants.
The only problem was, my brain was refusing to give up any information stored within. Blinking, a wave of panic washed through me as I wracked my mind for anything, anything at all. I couldn't remember . . . anything. I didn't even know how I'd gotten hurt. It was like my mind was a chalkboard and someone had simply erased everything on it in the blink of an eye. Just like that. Upset, I bit my lip, willing myself to think of something.
What was my name?
That was a pretty basic fact I should know. What was my name? I tried so hard to recall, but I couldn't. A tear leaked out of my right eye, and a shudder wracked my body, inspiring a new wave of ache in my muscles and bones. I let out a small shriek of frustration. To be caught in this state of unawareness, to literally not remember anything, was absolutely terrifying. The door flew open, and a girl stepped into the room.
She had long blonde hair nearly to her butt, and her bright blue eyes shown with concern. Behind her, in trailed a slew of people. Another girl with short red hair, a huge man with muscles the size of my head, a little man with beady dark eyes, a little girl with bouncing yellow curls, and a dark skinned man with a bird on his shoulder. I eyed the lot of them warily. What an odd group of people to suddenly flood this little room I was in.
"Chelsea! Good, you're finally awake. Everyone has been so worried! It took us forever to find you! You've been asleep for a long time. Dr. Trent has already looked at you. He really wanted to stay until you woke up, but apparently there was some big emergency in Mineral Town he had to get to. He promised he'd come back when he could. He bandaged your head and gave us these pills for you to take when you woke up for the pain," said the older blond girl, holding up an orange prescription bottle.
"Slow down, Julia, you'll overwhelm her," said the little beady-eyed man.
Julia – apparently that was her name – swallowed, and tears formed in her eyes. "Right. Sorry, Taro. Sorry, Chelsea."
I blinked at them. "Chelsea? Is that my name?" I finally asked quietly.
They seemed friendly enough, but I was still on edge. Shocked expressions bounced across their faces quickly – the little girl's mouth actually fell open.
"Of course you're Chelsea, Chelsea! Now's not the time to joke around," she admonished, wagging a little finger at me, "how are you feeling? The doctor said we should move you as little as possible, so we brought you to our house, and I let you borrow my bed."
She beamed at me like it was the apocalypse and she was sharing her last pack of crackers with me.
"Who are you?" I asked her.
"Chelsea, stop talking like that, you're scaring us," the red haired girl said, a twinge of nervousness sneaking into her voice. Irritation flashed through me.
"I'm not playing," I snapped at them harshly, "I have no idea who any of you are. Or, for that matter, who I am. Where am I?"
The beady eyed man – Taro – stared at me. "You . . . you're serious?"
"YES!" I yelled, "Why would I joke about this?!"
"Okay, just calm down, Chelsea," said the dark-haired man with the bird.
Of all of them, he seemed the calmest. Hesitantly, he approached the bed, and then stuck his hand out for a handshake, of all things. He gave me a small smile, his large brown eyes warm.
"I'm Denny. We've met before, of course, but I'll refresh your memory. That's Julia, Natalie, Taro, Gannon and Eliza. Any of those names ring a bell?"
I tried to find memories connected with these people, those names, I really did, but nothing was coming.
"No." I swallowed against the lump in my throat. "No, I have no idea."
"Amnesia, then," the big man, Gannon, said, "I heard Trent say it might happen, but he didn't really think . . ."
I hesitantly reached up and grabbed Denny's hand. He squeezed it in his own, his brown skin warm and soft like his smile.
"Everything's going to be okay," he promised quietly, "We'll figure this all out, I promise."
I stared up at this kind stranger-who-wasn't, and swallowed against a lump in my throat the size of a tennis ball. The people behind him all murmured comfortingly. "I want to sleep. My head hurts," I told them all, sliding back down onto the bed. The little girl – Eliza - reached for a frilly pink comforter folded neatly at the foot of her bed and spread it over me.
I smiled at her gratefully. I was still scared to death, but my head was making it hard for me to form coherent sentences, and I was satisfied with the knowledge that these people were apparently my friends and wouldn't hurt me.
"This is my good-dreams blanket," she whispered in my ear, "Maybe it'll help your memory come back."
"I hope so," I said.
Taro walked to the door and gestured impatiently for people to follow him. "C'mon, people, nothin' left to see here."
Everyone did indeed leave, but not before giving me concerned glances over their shoulders.
Natalie was the last to exit – just before she shut the door behind her, she said, "I'll come and wake you when the doctor gets back. And Vaughn will be here soon, too, I promise."
I gave her an exasperated look. "I have no idea who that is."
She blinked at me as if I had just magically started speaking French.
"Oh," she said softly. And then she left. Sighing, I made myself as comfortable as I could and soon drifted off to sleep.
It felt like two minutes had passed when I felt hands shaking my shoulders.
"Wake up, honey, Dr. Trent's here," I heard a soft voice say.
I opened my eyes and once again felt the rush of terror at not knowing who these people were or who I was. All I could remember was the moments before I'd gone to sleep and spoken to everyone in my room. Well, at least my brain wasn't completely destroyed – at least I was processing new information and was able to keep it within reach. A tall woman with long red hair the same color as Natalie's stood over me, wringing her hands together in worry. Beside her stood a heavy blond woman and a slender, handsome man with a black bag.
"We heard all about your accident, Chelsea. I'm, uh . . . I'm Mirabelle, and this is Felicia. You probably don't remember . . ."
I blinked and sat up, much the same way as before. "No," I told them, "Sorry, but I don't."
I felt a twinge of guilt when I saw the slight hope that had been in their eyes quickly diminish. The black haired man stepped forward.
"Hi, Chelsea, I'm Dr. Trent. I've been your doctor for quite some time now," he said.
"Okay," I replied.
Since I couldn't recall anything, I was going to have to start simply believing the things that were told to me since I had no evidence to contradict it. I had to believe I was surrounded with people who wanted to help me. And if I wasn't, I'd get the hell out of here. Dr. Trent spent a while examining me, mostly my head.
"It really is a miracle you weren't hurt worse that you were," he said, "you could have easily broken several bones when you fell or broke your neck. But you seem to be perfectly alright besides a few nasty bruises and, of course, the memory loss. I'm hoping it's only temporary. I'd like you to come to the city for X-rays."
"City?" I asked, "Where am I, exactly?"
"You're on the Sunshine Islands," he told me, watching my face carefully, as if measuring how well I was handling all this information. "They're small, fairly remote settlements a decent distance from the main land. You live here. You have for years."
"I don't need X-rays," I said. I had the distinct feeling that hospitals were not my favorite places to be. "My head feels alright, and my body just aches, that's all."
His dark eyes flickered to Felicia and Mirabelle. "Did she recognize anything when she woke up? Or anybody?"
"Julia said she had no idea about anything. Didn't even know her name was Chelsea." Mirabelle shook her head sadly.
Dr. Trent bit his lip. "You can stay if you want," he said to me, "but I want you to come to one of the city hospitals in a few weeks if your memory does not return, understand? This could be permanent, but I'm really hoping it's only temporary. Things will probably come back to you gradually over time, and then all at once."
"Any ideas on how to speed that along?" I asked miserably.
The idea of never remembering anything that happened before today made me a little sick. I'd have to re-learn everything, who I was, who I had relationships with, what I did for a living . . .
"Unfortunately, I have no idea, Chelsea. Anything could trigger your memory. It's impossible to know what for sure. I'm sorry." He offered me an apologetic smile and packed up everything in his bag.
"I'll check back in on you in a few days to see how you're doing," he promised, and then he left.
I blinked at the two women I was left in the room with. "Well . . . what now?"
"I think you should come back to the animal shop. Taro and his family took care of your animals and land today, and I think they'll continue doing so for a while, if you're not up for it," Mirabelle said.
She fidgeted with a key around her neck, shifting her weight from foot to foot, clearly antsy.
"I have animals? And land?" I asked. I slowly got to my feet, exhaling a sigh of relief when my legs accepted the weight of my body. Felicia moved to help me, but I waved her off, wanting to do it myself.
"Oh yes," she said, "you're a farmer. It's what you do, here on the Islands. You have livestock, crops, a house and many other things. You're our main financial provider, aside from a rich man named Regis who owns a mining company."
"How did I fall?" I wondered.
"You fell down a mine in a volcano, looking for jewels to sell to Regis," Mirabelle said, irritation flashing in her eyes, "even though it's dangerous. Vaughn's going to be mad when he finds out."
Again with this Vaughn person. I opened my mouth to question her, but at that moment Julia stepped in to the room and smiled at me.
"Good to see you standing, Chelsea – come on, let's go to the shop."
I followed the three of them outside and took in my surroundings. I had apparently seen it all a hundred times before, but it seemed brand new to me. They really were small Islands, with buildings scattered here and there, a beach with pristine white sand on the south shore. We walked to a red building with a shiny decorative horseshoe on the door. Felicia parted ways with us on the path, heading toward an oddly shaped one story house with after a hand pat and a "feel better soon, dear".
"This is our Animal Shop," Julia told me, "it's where you buy stuff for your animals."
"Oh," I said.
I took a seat on one of the stools by the counter with an ancient looking cash register resting on the wood. This whole thing felt so surreal. Even though this all felt new, I could swear there was a touch of familiarity to it all, like the memories were dancing along the edges of my mind, but every time I tried to grab at them, they danced away from my searching mental fingers.
Julia took a stool next to me, and Mirabelle sat on the green, tattered couch by the wall, staring at the both of us with worried eyes. Julia bit her lip and stared at me.
"So," I said, "what are you to me?"
I didn't really mean for it to come out so bluntly, but it did. Her eyes widened a little and one of her blond eyebrows arched.
"What am I to you? I'm your best friend."
"Oh." I wracked my mind for memories of her, but came up blank.
She gestured to Mirabelle and added, "That's my mom."
"How did you find me if I was so deep in the mine?" I wondered.
She laughed, and it sounded like she trying to act relaxed, but there was a nervous edge to it, so it wasn't fooling anybody. "You were supposed to meet Lanna for lunch in the Café. I guess you forget, because you never showed up. She started to worry and asked Kirk if you'd taken the boat anywhere. He said you were on Volcano Island, but hadn't come out of the cave in a long time. When it was getting dark, a bunch of us got together and went to look for you. You were on the fifty ninth floor, Chelsea! I wonder how many floors you fell through."
I shrugged. "It's a mystery to me."
"I think you should stay with us here for tonight, and we'll figure out how we're going to go about all of this tomorrow," Mirabelle said, "We don't want to overwhelm you. But hopefully picking up your life from where it let off will jog your memory."
I nodded my head thoughtfully. "I'll try anything at this point. You guys seem really nice. I wish I could remember you."
"Yeah." Julia looked down, a deep sadness in her voice. It's like a punch in the gut. "Me too."
I can't not feel guilty for not remembering her. If I had a best friend and she'd completely forgotten me, it would make me sad to. Hesitantly, I put a hand on her arm and waited until she looked up to speak.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly, simply.
Julia shrugged. "I would say it's not your fault, but you should never have been that deep in the mine to begin with! You knew pitfalls get more scattered and harder to predict the farther down you go . . ."
"If you say so," I said.
She shook her head forlornly.
"There's nothing we can do about it now," Mirabelle told her daughter firmly, "Let's have some lunch."
Mirabelle made us some delicious potato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. When we were finished, Mirabelle started doing the dishes and Julia and I went back into the main room after she declined our help.
"The guest bedroom is down the hall on the right," she told me, "the first door, not the second."
"Alright," I said, "Can I have one of those pain pills you said the doctor left me? My head hurts."
It was nothing like the pounding I'd felt when I'd woken up, but enough of an ache to be annoying.
"Yeah, they're in my room. I'll get them." She rose and disappeared down the hall.
I swung my feet back and forth on the bar stool, wondering idly what I had done to suddenly have everything in my life taken away from me like this. Just then, the door burst open, and a man stepped inside. I swiveled the chair to watch as he strode over to me, stopping just a foot before me.
I barely had time to get out one word before he'd wrapped me in his arms, hugging me close. His hand came up to cradle my head against his shoulder, and I was so shocked that I merely froze.
"God, Chelsea, I was so worried," he said in my ear, squeezing me tighter. "I came back as soon as I got home; Mirabelle and Denny left a million messages on my machine. I figured you were at the Café with Lanna when it was time for me to leave, so I just went back . . ."
Motion came back into my limbs; the shock wore off, leaving confusion and irritation in its place. Who was this man, and why had he suddenly grabbed me like this? My hands were sort of squashed between our chests, but I pushed against him, hard. Feeling my resistance, he let go, and stepped back, questions in his eyes. And what beautiful eyes they were.
Such a piercing dark, rich purple that I'd never seen before. He had to be wearing contacts. Nobody's eyes are that gorgeous on their own. His hair was a very light shade of silver, and it brushed his jaw. Not silver the way an elderly person's hair was; it was lighter, softer, beautiful, like his eyes. He was dressed almost entirely in black, save for a white bandana around his neck. I, come to think of it, had one, too. A red one, tying my hair back.
His brow furrowed in confusion at me. "What's wrong? Did you hurt yourself? I told you to stay off that damn island. If Regis wants jewelry, then he can get off his rich, lazy ass and get it himself."
I blinked at the intensity of his words. I glanced around, hoping someone would come and explain this to me. I'd been innocently sitting on a bar stool, thinking, when a man I have never met before comes barging in, grabbing at me and making demands. Granted, I probably had met him before, but this is so disorienting . . . I narrowed my eyes at him.
"Who are you?" I asked.
He blinked, and for a moment looked completely dumbfounded. Then the irritation was back, turning his beautiful features harsh.
"Chelsea, this is so not the time to be screwing with my head. Are you okay?"
"I'm alright," I said, "But" –
"Here they are." Julia appeared and handed me the orange prescription bottle and bottled water.
"Thanks," I said.
Julia turned to the man, who was glancing between the two of us restlessly.
"Have you talked to her?" she asked him, like I wasn't there.
"I tried to, but she's acting really strange."
"I'm right here, you know," I told them both grumpily.
"Chelsea's okay physically," Julia sighed, biting her lip.
"Yep," I said, "just a few aches and pains here and there, nothing I can't handle."
The man exhaled as if this knowledge had been the difference between life and death to him. He reached for my hand and squeezed it. I gave him a hard look and pulled my hand back. He frowned at me.
"What's wrong?" he asked quietly.
"I have no idea who you are," I told him, "and I don't like to get touchy-feely with strangers."
"What do you mean?" he asked, "Of course you know who I am."
"No," I said, "I don't."
"She has amnesia," Julia said softly, resting a hand on the man's arm, "and she can't remember anything or anyone. The doctor is hoping it's only temporary, but we don't know how many floors she fell through."
The man didn't seem to know what to make of this. He stared at her, and then at me, for a long time. He reached up to touch me, but then dropped his hand at the last minute. Pain ripped through his eyes, and I felt a stab of guilt again. Hopefully my memory would return soon so I could stop hurting all these people with my lack of recollection. All the people before have seemed upset and concerned about my accident, but this man . . . he looked like I just drove a knife into his heart.
"Amnesia?" he repeated, like the word was totally foreign to him.
"Yes," Julia said again, sympathy lacing her voice, "She doesn't remember a thing."
The man shook his head. "You remember me, Chelsea. I know you do. Just try and think, please? Try."
I bit the inside of my cheek and swallowed hard. Even though I knew it was futile, I attempted to access my mental storage units for information concerning the distraught human being before me. But there was nothing. I was met by a white, blank sheet of nothingness. He watched me, I think with a touch of hope.
It killed me to say, "I'm sorry . . . but I don't . . ."
He stared at me, while Julia stared at him. It felt like a million years passed before he said, "Alright."
"You could re-introduce yourself to me. A lot of people have already," I suggested.
He nodded once. "Alright," he said again.
He held his hand out for me to shake. I did, after putting my things on the counter beside me. His grip was warm and strong.
"My name is Vaughn," he told me.
"Hi, Vaughn. I'm Chelsea," I said, trying to lighten the atmosphere by adding my name even though he already apparently knew me well.
"I'll let you guys talk," Julia murmured, and she exited the room into the hall without another word.
"So, Vaughn," I began, "are you my friend? My brother? My third cousin twice removed?"
A wry smile twisted his lips. "No," he said, "I'm not related to you in any way."
"My good friend, then?"
"Well, yeah. We're friends."
"Oh, good," I said, "I seem to have a lot of friends."
He sighed. "I'm not just your friend, Chelsea."
"I'm your fiancé," he said, watching me carefully, "and we haven't set an exact date yet, but we're getting married fairly soon . . ."
I swallowed against a lump that suddenly lodged itself in my throat. "I'd like to think I'd remember if I had a fiancé."
"Well, obviously you don't." He glanced away from me, the pain still there.
"I – I'm sorry," I whispered, "Really, I am. I'm hoping my memories will come back soon, and then maybe we can . . . continue from where we left off. But for now, you seem like a total stranger. So I won't be marrying anybody as long as my brain refuses to cooperate with me."
He nodded. "Yeah, I sort of assumed that."
A long silence passed between us, and I fidgeted uncomfortably in my chair. Understandably, my friends were very upset I'd forgotten them, Julia in particular, it seemed. And though it must suck for them, it must be a thousand times worse for Vaughn.
It can't be a good day for you when your significant other completely forgets you exist. His hands are fists at his sides, as if he's restraining himself from touching me again. And maybe he is.
"So what are you going to do?" he asked, his tone oddly flat.
"I, um, I guess I'm going to stay here for now. Mirabelle and Julia seem to think I'll remember things quicker if I go back to living how I did before, but since I have zero idea how I lived before, I'll need help . . ."
"I'll help you," he told me, "I'll stay here. I'm usually in the city working every day besides Monday and Tuesday, but this was my last week anyway."
I shrugged. "You don't have to do that. I'm sure it'll be a lot of work. I don't want to bother you or anything. I mean, I'm sure Julia will help me . . ."
He gave me a don't-be-stupid look. "Chelsea, I am very much in love with you. And, even though you don't know it right now, you love me just as much. I'm staying right here, and it won't 'bother' me at all."
He said this fiercely, like he can't believe I suggested such a thing. I studied him for a little bit. If I really had been so in love with him like he claimed, and my memories never came back – I shuddered at the thought – could I love him again the same way I did before? What if I couldn't? I didn't know him at all, but right off the bat, he seemed rather moody, no matter how gorgeous he was.
But I didn't think he was lying to me, so I said quietly, "Okay. Well, can I see where I live?"
He held out his hand. "Yes. Come on, I'll take you."
Hesitantly, I slid off the bar stool, took his hand, and grabbed my pills. And we walked out of the Animal Shop.
We passed a few other people who lived on the Islands, all of whom were worried about me. I met men named Elliot, Pierre, Will, Chen, and a little boy named Charlie. I met women named Lanna, Lily, and Sabrina. I assured all of them I was okay, just having some memory problems, and they all shot Vaughn sympathetic glances out of the corner of their eyes. When we finally got to the land that is supposedly mine, I gasped a little in delight.
There was a huge plot of land for crops, pastures for animals, where cows and sheep and loitering about, a stable for horses, a barn and coop, and a small one story house in front of a well where my water must come from. I didn't know what sorts of things I liked before, but the thought of animals and work like this excited me.
"Do I run all this by myself?" I asked, awed.
"Yes, you did. But we were going to start doing it together when I moved in," he said, leading me to the house.
"I must have been busy all the time."
The inside of the house is neat, cozy and tidy. I guess I'm not a neat freak, but I'm not a slob, either. It's so weird to see your own house and life from before. It's so odd to get to know yourself, to not have any idea what kind of person you are. Am I a content person? Am I energetic, am I sarcastic, am I spontaneous or organized? What kind of romantic relationship am I in? Was it a healthy, good one? Was I genuinely in love and happy? I'd have to get to know this man who claimed to love me and see.
"I like it," I told him, pulling out a chair from the little square table and sitting down. "It's quaint."
"Yeah. Gannon, the carpenter, was going to expand it for us at some point."
"Why?" I asked, "It's big enough for two people."
He shrugged, not meeting my gaze. "I don't know . . . kids, maybe . . ."
It was kind of cute to see him mumble uncomfortably.
"I see," I said, "Am I good cook? I'm starving."
He laughed, pretty softly, as if he wasn't the kind of person who laughed often and was still getting used to doing it.
"Uh, no," he said, smirking, "you were luck to create something that somebody could successfully keep down."
I made a face at him. "Well, then, you make me something, Mr. I'm-so-in-love-with-you. If you love me, you'll feed me."
"I agree," he said, pulling open my refrigerator door and frowning at the contents.
"Vegetables," he grumbled, and I chuckled.
"So," I said as he got out eggs, cheese, and a package of bacon, "how long have we been together?"
"A year," he said, "But we've known each other for two."
"Oh. Were we friends first?"
He shrugged, and switched on the old oven, getting out some pans and cooking spray. "Sort of, I guess. You insisted on talking to me."
"I don't know. You liked me." He was smirking again.
"You antisocial or something?" I asked.
"Something like that, I guess. I just prefer to be alone, most of the time. But I like to have you around, now."
I laughed as he cracked the eggs into a bowl and added pepper and cheese. "I think you'd have to be, if you asked me to marry you. How old am I, by the way? I seem a little young to get married."
"You're nineteen," he told me, "I'm twenty two. And age didn't matter to us."
"Huh," I said. Something occurred to me, and a blush colored my cheeks red.
"Have we . . . ?" I trailed off.
"Have we what?" He dumped the eggs into the pan and started pushing them around with the spatula. He turned to face me with a curious expression. I glanced at the bed meaningfully. One of his eyebrows arched.
"Have we had sex?" he clarified.
I nodded. A wicked glint flashed in his eyes suddenly.
"Yeah," he said, "we have. Many times, as a matter of fact."
I blushed again, deeper this time. Knowing I had been physically intimate with this man, and had no memory of it, was deeply unsettling.
"When was the last time?" I wondered.
"Last week," he said matter-of-factly.
"Really?" I asked.
"Mmm-hmm." His tone was far away, and I knew he was probably flipping through his own, fully intact memories of us.
"And you're sure we're in love?" I pressed, "I wasn't marrying you for money or because I felt pressured or something? You're not an abusive stalker, are you?"
He snorted and dumped the eggs on a plate. Then he moved onto the bacon. "No," he said, "I'm not, and yes, I'm sure."
I let him work in silence for a long time. When he gave me the plate of eggs and bacon, I thanked him quietly, and he sat down across from me with his own.
"It's so weird to tell you all of this," he said softly, "That you could forget . . . us . . ."
"I know," I murmured, "it sucks." "Yeah."
"Well." I took a bite of the bacon. It was crispy, just the way I liked it. Somehow, I knew I preferred bacon that way.
What a strange thing to know when you have amnesia. We ate quietly, with him glancing up at me periodically, like he was afraid I would vanish before his eyes. It was early when we got done, probably six or so in the evening, but I took one of those pills when we got in the house, and I think it's made me sleepy.
"I'd like to go to sleep," I told him, "where are my pajamas?"
He went through and showed me where everything is without complaint, patient with my questions. I got dressed in the bathroom; tossing my old clothes in a hamper I had by the sink. When I exited, he's standing there, with his hands in his pockets.
"I . . . I guess you usually sleep with me, huh?" I asked.
"Yes, usually do. But . . . I'll take the couch tonight, okay? You don't have to be uncomfortable or anything."
I exhaled a sigh of relief. Honestly, a part of me wouldn't mind having his body next to me, comforting me, but I just didn't know him at all.
"Thanks," I said quietly.
He nodded and opened the fourth drawer in my dresser. He pulled out some clothes and slipped into the bathroom. I climbed into my bed and pulled the covers over me, yawning hugely. Maybe I'd wake up tomorrow and everything would come rushing back to me. Hopefully. Vaughn exited the bathroom in a pair a black pajama bottoms, and nothing else. I refrained from looking too closely at his upper body, lest I invite him to sleep with me, stranger or not. But I feel him approach, and I open my eyes, finding myself staring into his strangely colored ones.
"Goodnight, Chelsea," he said quietly.
He leaned down and pressed his lips against my forehead. Then he turned and headed for the couch.
When I woke up in the morning, I remembered the previous day, but that was it. No great surge of memories from the past, no sudden earth-shattering epiphany. But then, I wasn't thinking too clearly anyway because of the alarm that was blaring in sharp, evil beeps. I glanced at the clock. Six o' clock in the morning?
I didn't feel like a morning person. I stumbled out of bed and slapped the off button. The clock was on a small table a good distance away from the bed, and it had probably been placed here purposefully. It's hard to hit the sleep button, roll over, and go back to sleep if you have to drag yourself out of bed just to get the noise to stop.
When I finally cut the noise and yawned, I heard the sound of a shower running in my bathroom. Hmm. My supposed fiancé must rise even earlier than I do. I walked to a tall wardrobe by the huge wall calendar and examined the contents with interest. Mostly I just found jeans, t-shirts, spare bandanas and underwear. But there a few dresses, a couple skirts, but they're shoved in the back; probably neglected for years.
I also find some pretty skimpy lingerie that's evidence of the sex life I apparently had. I bit the inside of my cheek. He wouldn't expect me to jump right back into that kind of thing, would he? I put away the black and red lacy fabric and shook my head. No, I don't think he would.
He seemed like a reasonable guy. I selected one of the lesser worn out pairs of jeans and black and blue sweater. The shower was still going, so I figured it was safe to change out here. Afterward, I went into the kitchen to see what kind food I lived off of. Apparently, I was pretty into fruits and veggies. But then, I guess I would be, if I grew them myself.
As I turned with an apple in hand, a small decorative boat with a tiny white sail on the sink caught my eye. I stared at curiously for a moment. Something about it was making a memory dance around the edges of my mind . . . had I ever been on a boat? Well, obviously, since I lived on a freaking Island . . . I blinked as the image of a small boat lying broken and smashed on the beach.
A beach that was very similar to the one I saw yesterday. I remember sitting up, feeling sore, wondering where I was . . . and then the memory was gone. Just as quickly as it had come. I tried to keep it, but I couldn't. As frustrating as that was, it was exciting to have something come back to me. That had to mean more information would follow, right?
That I wasn't completely doomed to never accessing my memories? Just then, the bathroom door swung open and Vaughn stepped out, dressed in black, the same as yesterday. When he caught sight of me, he offered me a small smile.
"Morning," he said, "I forgot to turn off your alarm. I was going to let you sleep in today."
"That's alright, I want to start re-learning everything right away. From everything I've heard so far, I'm a pretty busy bee."
"There were nights when you fell asleep while we were having dinner. You worked all day, every day," he said, "You're a very dedicated and determined person."
He didn't make it sound like flattery, not really, he just said it very matter-of-factly, like he was telling me my jeans were blue. But there was also a note of respect in his voice that I could definitely appreciate. As he stepped closer, I inhaled a musky, masculine scent that was very pleasant to be around.
"I'm glad I was such a well-rounded individual," I laughed, "Everyone makes it sound like I was some kind of saint."
A joking glint came into his eyes. "Oh, you had your faults, same as everyone else," he said, moving to stand right in front of me.
I raised a challenging eyebrow at him. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," he said, "for one thing, you can't take no for an answer."
"That goes with being determined," I said, pretending to sound haughty.
"Right," he muttered, "You're much too social."
"Am I? I must be, for everyone to be so concerned. Nothing wrong with having a lot of friends."
"Well, you eat too many vegetables."
I chuckled again. "Just to be healthy."
He pursed his lips and pretended to look confused. "Well then . . . I guess you really are a saint."
I giggled. "That's not a high standard to live up to at all. Maybe I woke up a totally different person. Maybe I'm a devious devil."
He stared down at me for a few moments, all kidding leaving his eyes. He searched my gaze for what felt like a very long time, looking, probably, for the person he's known. I hoped he saw what he wanted to see, but honestly, I had no idea if I was the same or different or somewhere in between. Could a head injury change someone's personality?
"No," he said quietly, reached up to cup my face in his hands. "You're still Chelsea." His hands were warm and soft, his tone so low and serious.
"I hope so," I said quietly.
"You are," he said again, and kissed me.
I froze for a second, unsure how to respond. The logical part of my mind told me that this was still a virtual stranger to me, but the other part, the stronger part, told the logical part to shut up and kiss him back. So I did. I wrapped my arms around his neck and was surprised to find that it actually felt a bit familiar. A weird wave of déjà vu passed over me as he deepened our kiss, pressing me against the counter and stroking his tongue with my own.
It was like my mind didn't remember this, couldn't give me an accurate picture, but my body remembered. I somehow just knew how to kiss him, where to touch him, and it was obvious he knew my body as well as I knew his. Moaning quietly, I let him put me on the small counter and slide his hips between my legs. But I felt like I had to stop him when his mouth moved down my neck, over my collarbone and down to in between my breasts. My fingers pulled on his hair to pull him back and he glanced up at me, his eyes slightly glazed over.
"I'm sorry . . . ," I said quietly, "but I'm not . . . I mean, I can't . . ."
He pulled back more fully and stared at me with sincere eyes after taking a moment to clear his throat and gather his wits.
"That's alright," he told me, "I understand. I never want you to feel . . . pressured. I can be patient."
"You might have to be very patient," I warned him.
"You're worth it," he told me.
I smiled at him. I didn't get the feeling that he was the type of person who said words like that lightly.
"Thank you," I whispered, "for understanding. I just . . . don't feel like I know you very well."
"I know. But I'll tell you everything again. And I'll tell you exactly what you were like."
I told him about the flash of memory I'd had when he was in the shower. Excitement lit his lovely eyes.
"That's good," he said, "That must mean other things will come back, too. Maybe you'll remember before the week is over."
"What if it doesn't?" I asked quietly, biting my bottom lip, a wave of emotion hitting me hard. "What if this is permanent and I never remember? What, then?"
"Then you'll just learn everything you did before and make new memories. Better than the old ones," he said fiercely, his eyes flashing.
"And you'll be here?" I asked.
"Yes. Always here. I promise."
"Okay." I exhaled. Though this situation was hard for everyone, it made me happy to know that I wouldn't recover alone.
"Everyone on these Islands loves you," he told me, "and they have ever since you showed up and started making them feel like a home to people. They'll all make sure you're fine. They're all like family."
"Do they love you, too?" I asked.
He grimaced. "Well . . . no. No, probably not. I'm not the most . . . friendly person, Chelsea. But not to you. I love you."
"Hmm. Do you have family in the city?"
"No. Mirabelle is my aunt and Julia is my cousin. They're all the family I have." He didn't say this sadly, just matter-of-factly.
"Oh," I said quietly, "What about me?"
"You have parents in the city, and a sister. You left home when you were seventeen because you weren't doing the things they wanted you to do. But they still love you; they're just . . . difficult. And they're none too fond of me." Again, very blunt.
"Oh," I said again. A few moments of silence passed as I processed this new information.
"Well, show me what I do every day," I said, determined to go on with my life as I would have before. What I did seemed to make me happy before, and damn if it wasn't going to do the same for me now.
"Alright," he said, "I will."
He leaned forward and planted a kiss on my lips, a soft, chaste kiss that sent shivers through me.
Vaughn hadn't been kidding when he said that I worked hard every day. The first thing I supposedly did was water crops – and man, did I have a huge garden. I would have to read up on how to cook fast. I mentioned this to him as we watered tomatoes and he laughed.
"You've tried to cook a lot of times, Chelsea. Pierre – the weird man you met with the purple top hat and little spoon – is a chef. He's tried to teach you several times, but it couldn't be done."
"Hmm." My lips twisted in a grimace. "That sucks. What do I do with all this stuff?"
"You ship it," he said, "Taro and his family is in charge of all that stuff. Same goes for animal products and jewels and fish."
"Jewels?" I asked, raising one eyebrow. "Where would I be getting those, exactly?"
His eyes darkened, and I wondered what I'd said to make him angry.
"There's an island south of Vendure with a volcano on it, and it houses a deep mine. It's got valuable items in it, but the pitfalls make it extremely dangerous. It's where you fell."
"It sounds exciting," I said honestly. Maybe I was an adrenaline junkie or something. He turned to face me, still troubled.
"It's that sort of thinking that got you into this, Chelsea," he said, "I don't want you to go there anymore."
I made a face at him. "I understand that you're upset about this and I probably will steer clear of there for a while, but don't tell me what to do."
He opened his mouth to retort, but he snapped it shut at the last moment and went back to his work, muttering something under his breath. After the crops came the animals. I had cows, sheep, a horse, a dog, a cat, and chickens. It took us two hours just to tend to them all, feeding and brushing and milking and getting them all outside for exercise.
Vaughn seemed to have a certain way with animals that made them want to be around him and listen to what he said. He was very gentle with them all, and seemed to enjoy just being in their presence. It was actually really peaceful.
"And that's the morning chores," he told me when we were done, standing outside my house.
"Whew," I said, wiping a bead of sweat off my temple. I glanced at my wristwatch. "It's already ten."
The voice sounded somewhat familiar, and it was coming from behind me. I turned and saw two girls approaching. One was Julia, the one who'd spoken, and the other was a tall dark-haired girl with pale skin and round glasses. They stopped a few feet short of us.
"Hey, guys," Julia said, "Just thought we'd stop by to see how everything was. Is Vaughn showing you around?"
"Yeah," I said, "I apparently work my ass off every single day."
The dark haired girl smiled a little. "Yes," she agreed, "You work very hard for everyone who lives here."
I looked her up and down. I remembered meeting her briefly yesterday, but I couldn't recall her name. "Who are you again?" I asked.
"I'm Sabrina," she said, "I live in the big house on Sprout Island. My father owns a mining company, and I'm afraid he may have been pushing you a little too hard to go to Volcano Island and find things for him. I wanted to come here personally and apologize for his behavior, even if he won't. He's really a good person, he's just a little . . ."
"Greedy?" Vaughn suggested, a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
Sabrina shrugged, and bits of red colored her cheeks. "Yes . . . ," she said quietly, and reached out for my hand. "I really am sorry."
The genuineness of her tone touched me. "It's alright, Sabrina," I said, "I'm sure I made my own decisions."
She nodded and let go of me, reaching up to readjust her glasses.
"Come by the Shop today," Julia told me softly, "You need to get reacquainted with your best friend."
She looked up at Vaughn and pursed her lips.
"I know you're used to hogging Chelsea all to yourself when you're here," she said, "but you'd better make sure she gets time to come and see the rest of us, too."
He half-smiled at her and nodded. They dispersed and I watched them go.
"It must be really peaceful around here," I commented, "For everybody to care like this."
"It is," Vaughn said simply, "but to be honest, it can also be pretty boring."
Over the next few days, I eased back into my routine. I gradually re-learned all the names of the Islanders, and got used to performing my chores. Vaughn always helped me, but sometimes he would go help Mirabelle around her shop or spend a little time with Denny, the lighthearted brown eyed fisherman that first comforted me after I woke up from my nasty fall. One afternoon when he wasn't around, I was at Pierre's house. He was putting the finishing touches on my "Get Well Soon" cake while Natalie perched on the counter, swinging her feet back and forth.
"Man, that cake looks so good, we may have to keep it and eat it ourselves, Pierre," she said, eyeing said cake.
She reached out a finger to swipe off some frosting, but he playfully batted her hand away with a small chuckle. Pierre was pretty short with a round face and soft blond curls. He was, as I'd learned, very, very interested in food and was almost obsessive about it. But he made time in his life for his girlfriend between searches for new ingredients on the Islands, especially Mushroom (where I had met a surprisingly funny native man named Shea). Though he seemed childish in many ways, he seemed very mature in others.
Just then, there was a light knock on the door, and I strolled over to answer it. At least the person behind it was knocking; nobody on Sunshine Islands locked their doors, and sometimes others just strolled right in like they owned the place. I pulled the door open and came face to face with a tall man with bright green eyes.
"Hey, Chelsea," he said.
I blinked. I was still getting used to people greeting me so warmly, having known me for a long time without my remembering who the hell they were.
"Uh, hi," I said.
I gestured for him to come in. He did, never taking his eyes off me. He was smiling at me, but there was a tightness in his expression.
"Gannon told me what happened," he said, "while I was away. I live on these Islands, too."
"Where'd you go?" I asked curiously.
"Hey, Mark," Natalie called. Pierre didn't even greet him, way too involved in making the intricate roses on the corners of the cake. The man – Mark – half-waved at her.
"I had an eye appointment," he said, "New contact prescription. So, is it really true? You don't remember anything?"
"No," I re-affirmed for about the thousandth time in the past few days.
Everyone insisted on asking me that question, and continued asking it until they were absolutely sure not a glimmer of memory about themselves resided in my brain where I could access it.
"Not even Vaughn?" he asked, a hint of caution in his voice.
He reached up to readjust the blue baseball cap on his head; it hid bright blond hair, blonder than Pierre's. His eyes were the brightest green I'd ever seen, and he was a good head taller than me.
"No, I didn't remember him, either." Thinking it was an odd question, I held out my hand for him to shake.
He blinked at me, and I saw something flash across his face for a split second – longing? Calculation? Pity? – but it was gone as quickly as it came.
"I'm Mark," he told me.
I half smiled at him. "Yeah, I got that from Natalie's 'Hey Mark' greeting."
He smiled, without the cautiousness behind it this time. "How have you been doing since the accident?" "
Okay," I said, "Just have to re-learn everything fast and re-meet everybody. It's been interesting, discovering what sort of person I am."
"Must be nice," he said, "to re-learn how awesome you are."
I chuckled. "Yes, it has been. I have a kick-ass personality, if I do say so myself."
I heard Natalie snicker.
"I've always thought so," he said, and then paused.
I sighed, fully expecting the inevitable question to pass his lips.
"Do you remember anything about me?" he wondered.
I shook my head without even trying. It was pointless; nothing new had come to me besides that one flashing memory of the boat that seemed to be attached with a sense of false hope.
"Sorry, no. We're friends, right?"
"Yeah," he said, "We are. We have been ever since you moved here. You showed me around your farm – it wasn't too big then – because I have quite the interest in ranching myself. I moved to the Islands to learn before I found myself my own. You're a pretty good teacher, except for cooking what you grow."
He laughed, and I rolled my eyes, smiling. I was an awful cook – that was the consensus of everyone who lived here. I questioned Denny about it yesterday when he came by to check on us, and he told me that Lanna had once gotten food poisoning from something I made. My cheeks burned bright red at that, but he laughed and said it was long time ago, and that everyone was well aware that eating my meals had high risks attached.
"Yeah," I grumbled.
The door opened again, and Vaughn stepped in.
"Hey," he said to me, "Julia said you might be here."
He glanced at Mark and the smile dropped from his face.
"I just met Mark," I said, noting his scowl with interest. "He just got back to the Islands, I guess."
"Yeah, he was gone for a long time," Vaughn grumbled, his tone making it apparent that the long time hadn't been long enough. Mark took my fiancé's (I'd started thinking the word and trying to get used to it. If things went the way I was hoping, I would still marry him someday.) ill temper in stride, grinning at him.
"Hi, Vaughn," he said, "I was just coming to check on Chelsea. Gannon said she took a really nasty fall."
"She did," Vaughn answered, seeming aggravated that he had to reply.
Mark looked back at me and frowned. "Volcano Island really isn't the best place to be running around alone," he said, "You should have brought someone with you. I'm surprised Vaughn didn't go."
"I wasn't in town," Vaughn snapped.
I glanced at him, shooting him a what's with you look, but he just looked away. One of his hands came up to rest on my hip, pulling me closer to him.
"Oh," Mark said.
I looked between the two men, wondering what caused their strong dislike of each other. Well, Mark was acting friendly enough, I guess, but honestly, he didn't seem too tickled by Vaughn's company; it was there in his body language.
"I've gotta get going," he said abruptly, "feel better, Chelsea."
Then he turned and left Pierre's house.
"Jeez, Vaughn, you might as well have gone all caveman, threw her over your shoulder and yelled, 'MINE!'" Natalie snorted, hopping off the counter to more fully examine Pierre's work.
Pierre stepped back and admired his cake for a second, and then he looked up. "What?"
I smiled a little, knowing he'd been so engrossed it what he was doing he probably didn't even know Mark had stopped by. But my smile turned into a small frown as I turned to Vaughn. Natalie's bluntness was a little brutal sometimes – this trait of hers was very obvious in just a few days – but it seemed she was usually right.
"Yeah, what was with you just now?" I asked.
"Nothing," he grumbled, "I just don't like him."
I exhaled sharply, irritated. My first impression of Vaughn had been correct; he was extremely moody, but it was sometimes hard to care in the face of how sincerely he loved me.
"Why?" I asked again.
"Mark used to be your boyfriend," Pierre told me, turning on the faucet and scrubbing his hands.
I blinked. "He did?"
"Yeah, for about three seasons or so, back when you first came here," Pierre continued, "but you broke up because things got really busy and you didn't feel like you had time for a man."
"Changed your mind next spring, though," Natalie chuckled, "Seemed like you cleared out more than enough time for the second one."
"When it's right, you do," Pierre said quietly, smiling at Natalie fondly, and reaching out to tuck a strand of red hair behind her ear. She blushed a little at his words.
"Yeah, I guess," she said, just as quietly.
"Huh," I said. I hoped I wasn't some kind of slut before I got engaged; that would be a real downer.
"So why do you dislike him so much?" I asked Vaughn for the third time, "Just because I was with him a long time ago?"
"He wanted to get back together with you after you broke up," Vaughn sighed, "he gave you all of winter, because you'd told him you needed some time to yourself to work, but he started trying in spring, around the same time you and me started dating. He was pretty pissed for a long time, since he'd given you what you wanted in hopes you'd clear your head and realize that he was who you wanted. When that didn't happen, he demanded to know why."
This part of my life sounded like some kind of overly dramatic soap opera.
"What did I say?" I asked curiously, as if he was describing the latest episode and I was just an eager viewer.
He shrugged, reaching for my hand and squeezing it. "You just told him you were sorry, that you wanted to be with me, and that you could still be friends."
"Why did I want to be with you?" I asked, "If I had so much history with Mark and he was obviously in love with me?"
Surely three seasons had left some kind of impression on me. It bothered me that I could drop someone after that long like a dirty sock.
"Because . . ." Vaughn trailed off, looking for the right words.
"Because you loved Mark and being with him was nice and everything, but with Vaughn, you got all tingly and wanted to go at it like a rabbit." Natalie giggled, and Pierre shot her a horrified look.
I blushed at her words, wondering if there was anything off-limits to her. Pierre shook his head in exasperation and turned to me with apologetic eyes.
"What Natalie is trying to say is that, you were happy with Mark, but Vaughn made you happier."
"So I didn't get back together with him because I fell in love with you," I said quietly, "Even though we'd already known each other for a year? We fell in love, just like that?"
"We were friends," Vaughn said, "for a long time. We just weren't together because I . . ."
"Am about as warm and cuddly as a swamp monster with a cudgel," Natalie supplied.
He shot her a nasty look, but then he sighed. "I guess you could say that," he admitted.
This was yet another long spiel of information that would take me a while to process. I opened my mouth to say something to Natalie, but Vaughn suddenly turned me towards him, his eyes serious, as usual.
He held my face in his hands and told me quietly, "Listen. I just want you to promise me that whatever you might remember . . . about him . . . later on, it's in the past. I love you."
"Chelsea's not going to go running off to Mark just because she suddenly remembers a smooch from a year ago, Vaughn," Natalie said.
"Honey, maybe we should go see how Elliot and Felicia are doing at your house," Pierre said subtly, taking her hand and leading her to the door.
"Okay," she grumbled as he opened the door and stepped through.
"Just let yourselves out, and don't forget the cake," Pierre called to us.
"And save me a slice!" Natalie added just as the door shut.
"Thank God she left," Vaughn muttered, "one more of her comments and I was going to throw the cake at her."
I laughed. "I like her; she's blunt, but she means well."
I placed a hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat steadily under my palm.
"I promise," I told him, "that I'll stay with you. If everything went down like that, then what I had with him wasn't even real. This is."
I leaned up on my toes and kissed him gently.
He sighed and tightened his arms around me. "I just hope you remember that."
A/N: My internet came back a little sooner than expected, so I can post again. Very happy about this :). This story was meant to be a oneshot, but I accidentally wrote close to 45 pages, so I decided to break it into two parts.