Enjoy after the jump...
Watching the water fill the crevices of the rocks beneath her feet, before receding back into the ocean and beginning anew, gave the blonde girl waiting at the docks a chance to slow her beating heart, as she was doing her best to calm herself before setting out on a voyage unlike any she’d ever ventured on before.
After a moment, a crab caught her eye, its glistening, bulky body trekking over the rocks clumsily before each wave of ocean water buried it, whereupon it would pause, as if to hold its breath, before continuing when the water had been drawn back once again. She watched the crab continue in this way until it was hidden from view behind some larger rocks.
A wind stirred her hair, spraying salt water into her face, which she found refreshing, although she gave in to a little squeal of surprise, sending her heart rate back into territory she’d worked so hard to bring it down from. But it was quite hard for her to keep calm when she was finally going to get a taste of freedom from her stifling upbringing, and, as she saw it, make a name for herself doing what she wanted to do more than anything.
"Miss Thyme?" a voice asked tentatively, shaking her from her reverie.
"Please call me Rachel," she looked up at the man, nearly forty with a head of shaggy blonde hair peeking out from beneath the sort of hat she imagined people would wear on a safari. He was so tan and leathery that she mused he must spend most of his time out of doors, perhaps doing the sorts of things they were setting off to do themselves just then. Perhaps he was actually in his early thirties, but the environments he found himself in were so harsh that they’d prematurely aged him. With a tiny smile, she congratulated herself for having the insight to pack several bottles of sunscreen and various products and moisturizers that factored in the harsh side effects of too much time outside. If she was to make a career of this, and retain her youthful radiance for as long as possible, she would need to be wary of the many roadblocks she would encounter, the most obvious being prolonged exposure to the sun, but she would be accounting for free radicals and a lack of resources on her expeditions as well. Which is why she’d packed so…thoughtfully. She frowned and bit her lip, refusing to let her mother’s obsessive regimens when it came to beauty get in the way of her dreams. She would take care of herself, but she would not become obsessed if she could help it, even though at that very moment she was wondering if she hadn’t been light on the sunscreen she’d already applied. Shaking off this doubt, she flashed the man a brilliant smile. "And you must be Professor Grant?"
"Ah, yes," the man seemed to recollect himself and held a hand out for her, which Rachel gave an enthusiastic shake. "How rude of me. At your service, my dear."
"I’m very grateful for this opportunity, Mr. Grant," she told him. "I’m very excited about what we can accomplish here and I’ll work very hard to help in any way I can."
Mr. Grant seemed impressed with this speech and beamed at her. "Yes, well, if your father’s reports are any indication, you will be quite the commodity. You seem rather enthusiastic, if anything."
Rachel chuckled and inwardly let out a sigh of relief. She’d been hoping for a warm group of people to be patient with her in her first archaeological expedition, and it seemed that her father had not let her down in that regard.
"Professor Grant!" a man’s voice rang out.
They turned to see a figure jogging lightly toward them from where a nearby boat was docked. From the distance, she could tell that he was in prime shape, dressed casually in a yellow polo and khaki shorts. As he drew nearer, she admired his arms, one of the first physical attributes she noticed in men, and was immediately struck by his handsome face with his high cheekbones and dark chocolate brown hair that seemed to be styled in that way that boys had of making it look like they hadn’t spent much time on it, though it had been meticulously fretted over.
When the boy was a dozen or so feet away, he slowed to a stop and grinned, a drop of sweat gathering on his upper lip, of which she could hardly fault him, as Australia was rather warm and more humid than what she was used to in her hometown in Mississippi at this time of year, or even the private school she’d attended in France.
"Aw, Chase, my good boy," Professor Grant waved him toward Rachel. "Meet Ms. Thyme, who will be joining us."
"It’s Rachel," she insisted, taking his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Rachel," he said with eyes that traveled over her quickly, admiringly, before breaking off and turning to the professor.
Rachel blushed a little. Having spent the past four years in an all girls’ school, she wasn’t very used to the attention of boys, although her figure would most likely tell a different story, as she was really quite beautiful.
Watching the two men exchange words, Rachel looked down at her designer Jeans and one-of-a-kind top and felt overdressed for the occasion. She didn’t have much in terms of work clothes, but had had the foresight to buy a variety of casual shirts and shorts for the trip, yet she hadn’t expected them to never have the opportunity to dress up a bit. They would have some nights off, wouldn’t they? She bit her lip. Of course, if they were to dress up, their initial boat ride to the island would be the time, would it not? She took a mental inventory of her clothes quickly, although the sudden screeching of a few seagulls circling overhead tested her concentration. She glanced up at them with an annoyed glare.
"Then it looks like we will be taking off," Professor Grant suddenly remarked, turning to her. "Chase, please take Miss Thyme’s luggage onboard for her."
Chase made to reach for them, but Rachel intercepted him, picking up the two heavy bags herself. "No, really, I insist on doing it myself," she protested, wincing at the weight and chiding herself for over packing.
With a shrug, Chase walked alongside the professor over to the boat with Rachel trailing after them, attempting, with some difficulty, to look as though the bags were not as heavy and awkward as they were. She did not want to begin the voyage with other people having to help her out already. She was committed to being as independent and helpful as possible. She would be a hindrance to no one.
Chase and the professor passed by the large boat docked nearby that Rachel had assumed would be taking them across the water, and instead walked up the dock to a much smaller yacht. She must have looked surprised, because Chase cocked an eyebrow and said. "Not up to your usual standards?"
Rachel sent him a dirty look as Professor Grant was helped onboard by a young tanned man with an open, billowy white button-up shirt, whom she assumed was native to Australia, and soon understood to be the captain of the yacht, although he seemed rather young to her, probably in his mid twenties. "No, it’s just fine. I just thought we’d have a larger crew of people on this expedition. This could hardly carry more than six."
Chase nodded. "Yeah, most everybody is already on Black Forest Island setting up camp. We’re the last little group. But look at the nice intimate setting as a chance to better acquaint yourself with your colleagues." He jumped aboard the yacht and offered a hand back to Rachel, who handed her bags over to him.
"Whoa," Chase looked startled with the first bag he took from her, and sent her a questioning look, but said nothing further about it. "We have to take a few trips to get everyone to and from the island, but we didn’t really have any need to rent a bigger boat. That luxury would require more funding. And from what I’ve heard, we’re barely squeaking by on the budget we’ve got. Nobody’s expecting much from this dig."
Carefully stepping into the boat, Rachel looked around the small deck with a perimeter of benches and two folding chairs, the word "cozy" coming to mind, although she’d learned years earlier that the word was interchangeable with "small." Coming from a rather rich, indulgent family, she was consciously trying to keep such materialistic thoughts at bay. She’d also learned long ago that money couldn’t buy happiness. That had most likely been one of her first lessons in life.
"Not expecting much?" Rachel echoed him, shoving her luggage in a corner of the deck, near what she assumed was his. "Why not? The ruins on this island…"
"Old news," he said. "The ruins have been tagged and bagged by various groups. Professor Grant’s new theory of underground chambers is based on some ruins on the Australian mainland. Not many find it likely that there will be anything so elaborate on an obscure island, despite the similarities."
"Well, we’ll just have to prove them wrong."
Chase blinked, then let out a short laugh. "I guess we will."
Professor Grant stepped out onto the deck from below with the captain, who quickly left his side to pull in all of the ropes keeping them docked, before setting off.
"The camp site should be set up by the time we arrive," the professor informed them. "And as dusk is fast approaching, the entire camp may already be asleep as well."
"How long is the ride out there?" Rachel questioned.
"I believe our last trip took about two hours. Once we get past the reef, it’s just north a tick. Enjoy the weather while we go; This is the perfect time of year to be in Australia."
"Too bad we won’t be enjoying the sights," Chase remarked, pulling a bottled water from a cooler and handing another one over to Rachel, who accepted it gratefully as she sat down on the bench near him.
The professor said something else, but his voice was drowned out by the sound of the engine as it started up and they began to move away from the dock. Not long after, he left them alone and went below deck.
Soon the air was speeding by them, cooling Rachel’s skin, which was a relief. She felt rather alive on the ocean, the mist tossed onboard by the boat, watching other vessels grow closer, then further away as they went along. It was very peaceful, yet exhilarating at the same time. The clear blue sky overhead didn’t hurt, but once the sun began its descent over the water’s horizon, she didn’t mind either, as it provided quite the spectacular scene. It was as if the ocean was putting on a show for them, the salmon pinks and blazing oranges thrown over the water in the distance like it were on fire. The water’s rocking and roiling only furthered in giving it the illusion of living, breathing flames.
"Nervous?" Chase asked, breaking the long silence that had felt like a spell of sorts.
She tore her eyes from the sun and looked over at him. "Nervous? Why? Should I be?"
He smiled easily. "I thought this was your first time."
Scowling, Rachel crossed her arms, suddenly a little chilly at the night’s first cooling caresses. "It is my first expedition, but I take direction well, and I’ve studied in depth what will be required of me, so…"
"I didn’t mean any offense," Chase explained. "You just have that look. You know, ready for an adventure into the unknown. Wide-eyed and innocent, don’t want to miss a thing. But the reality of it is that archaeology usually tends to be a lot of work with little to no results to show for it."
"No, it’s not… It’s just refreshing to see that look, is all." He offered her a smile, and all at once, Rachel felt a knot of tension release from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized she was getting so defensive and had been bracing herself for a fight. She wondered why she was so paranoid. Chase seemed like a genuine, warm individual. Resolving to let down her guard a little, Rachel ran a hand back through her blonde hair and turned to him, all seriousness. "Can I tell you something?"
He leaned forward and nodded.
"My dad pulled some strings for me to get here."
Chase nodded again after digesting this for a moment. "Why would he have to do that?"
"Oh, probably because most people out on an honest-to-god dig like this have gone through years of training in college."
"I just graduated from high school." She sent him a quick look, a little afraid of what she’d see written on his face. Horror? Anger? Resentment? What she wasn’t prepared for was admiration.
"That’s wonderful," he told her. "You know what you want and you’re going for it, and you’re getting the experience a lot sooner than other people. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that. To get an opportunity so young…" He paused and looked her over quickly.
"I’m eighteen," she filled in the blank with a wry smile.
He opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it, considering.
"What?" she pressed him.
"I just…I guess the no drinking policy won’t be a problem for you."
Rachel laughed. "No. I…I actually don’t drink anyway."
"But you are legal," he leered at her. "Good to know."
She imitated offense and punched him lightly on the shoulder good-naturedly.
For a few minutes, they just sat and watched the sun transform into a round red ball in the sky, the water likewise, became a sea of blood. Slowly the sun descended until the blood seemed to devour the sun whole, and all was left violet, and then inky dark. With no lights visible from the coast, the darkness closed in quickly and without hesitation, making Rachel feel much smaller and more isolated than she’d expected. They were traveling a long way from the mainland.
"The stars are bright out here," Chase murmured.
Rachel looked up and agreed. The sky was full of shining diamonds, shimmering brightly, cutting through the black sky and sea, offering a field of light, should the night be too overwhelming.
Rachel hadn’t realized she’d been shivering until Chase put a light coat around her shoulders. She smiled gratefully and pulled it tight around her to ward off the chill of the evening.
"There is another reason you should be nervous about going to this island," Chase said as he scooted closer to her on the bench.
"Mmm. What’s that?"
"I stayed overnight at a hotel and when I was at the bar last night, I was talking to a local. I don’t know, he must have been a superstitious type or something."
"Superstitious?" Rachel sat up and watched him carefully. "What do you mean?"
"Well, when I told him where I was headed, he got this scared look. Then he crossed himself and said he would pray for my soul."
Rachel waited for him to continue, letting the words sink in. "Well? Then what?"
"Then nothing." Chase shrugged. "He got up and left. But left me feeling creeped out."
"Is there some sort of local legend associated with Black Forest Island?"
"Not that I’m aware of. But then again, I didn’t really ask around. I kind of had my blinders on going into this thing, only concerned about the ruins and what we might find there." He glanced at Rachel and smiled. "Did I scare you?"
Rachel rolled her eyes. "Hardly."
They both looked up at the stars then, Rachel attempting not to indulge the shiver that threatened to steal over her body at his words.
It was nearly eleven at night by the time they docked on Black Forest Island, and while the sunset had only been an hour prior, their colleagues were already fast asleep, as the professor had predicted, having had a rigorous day of setting up the campsite. However, the site architect, another professor named Candy Brooks, was awake to greet them as they made their way to the beach on a smaller raft, as the yacht had to anchor a short ways distant, and show them to their tents.
Candy was a timid-looking woman, very thin and tall with a nervous smile. She was a little awkward conversationally, letting the others do the talking and chiming in from time to time to add a scientific fact or observation, or to laugh in a way that sounded to Rachel like she was asthmatic and gasping for big gulps of air. But she was nice enough, and Rachel tried not to let her shortcomings color her in a negative light. Candy was, after all, another person who would be determining her future in the field, and Rachel could kiss ass with the best, and was not above doing so. Although with a quick glance, Rachel noted several things that Candy could incorporate into her regimen to improve her complexion overall, she would keep them to herself for the next three months, if she could help it.
Or maybe I could innocently offer her something in a non-threatening way, Rachel debated. Oops. I dropped my toner. Could you get that for me? You know, this would do wonders… Rachel shook her head. She sounded like an Avon lady.
After finishing a brief meal at a small campfire, they cleaned up after themselves and made their way to the tents that were erected just a little ways back from the beach, in a small clearing not far into the otherwise dense forest. Unfortunately, Rachel couldn’t make much out in the dark, so any exploring of the camp would have to wait for morning, which was a little disappointing. While the others seemed rather tired by their day, she was bursting with energy on her first evening in the field.
Since all but two of the tents were occupied already, they paired off by gender, leaving Rachel to bunk with Candy for the night.
"But just for the night," Candy had assured her. "I know how intimidating it would be to share a tent with one of the professors for months on end." Cue nervous asthma-laugh.
It was bad enough sharing the tent with the professor, but the tent was tiny. There was just enough space for them to stretch out in their sleeping bags, with their luggage on either side. And while Rachel wouldn’t be falling asleep for hours, Candy began to snore like a freight train the moment her head hit the pillow.
Thank god it’s only for the night, Rachel thought darkly, or I might be tempted to smother her with a pillow already.
After fifteen minutes of lying motionless, Rachel got up and left the tent after throwing a hoodie on over her t-shirt. She just had too much pent-up energy. She decided a quick walk along the beach to tire herself out was just what she needed.
There were several bird calls that resounded from the forest as she walked along the beach, but it was too dark to make out any forms. It was eerie in the middle of the night, with no sign of civilization anywhere once the campsite and yacht were out of range.
After walking for a few minutes, she slipped off her flip flops and walked through the sand with a smile, enjoying the feeling of the water running over her feet and the soft sand gushing between her toes. It was still rather cool, so gooseflesh covered her bare legs before long, but the hoodie was warm enough to compensate for that neglect, making the walk still rather pleasant.
The island was beautiful, she decided, as she admired the eucalyptus trees, as well as the more familiar pines and firs. She could see why it was called Black Forest Island, as the foliage was rather dense and made the actual forest floor pitch black. She imagined that during the day it would still seem very dark, and perhaps night-like. It might not be the palm trees that most people would wish for on a deserted island, but she, for one, was ultimately charmed by the setting. It was peaceful and quiet and just picturesque. She felt a million miles away from everything. And the beach…that didn’t hurt either.
Before long, Rachel began to hear noises in the dark. At first they were distant and muffled, but the further she walked, the louder they grew, until she identified them as shouts and the sound of water splashing. A smile played over her lips as she hugged the treeline while approaching the people playing in the water, keeping out of view, with the intention of turning around and returning to camp after a quick look.
By cover of the trees, she watched the forms of the young men and women frolicking with humor, and completely unobserved by them. There were two guys and three girls altogether, although in the dark, it was difficult to make out much when it came to features. But she couldn’t help enjoying the sight nonetheless, when the three girls pulled one of the guys, protesting all the while, into the water with all of his clothes still on.
"No fair!" the wet guy yelled good-naturedly. "Three against one? Rick, what, you couldn’t help a bro out?"
"I wasn’t going to get in the way of the girls," the other male replied. "Once they’ve set their eyes on something…they get vicious."
"I’ll show you vicious!" a blonde girl ran out of the water straight for him, squealing with pleasure as he quickly yanked her off of her feet and threw her over his shoulder, making a beeline back into the water, where he dropped her unceremoniously among the others again.
Rachel jumped and stifled a scream before registering that Chase was standing next to her, a lopsided grin on his face. "You scared the crap out of me."
He chuckled. "Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. You seemed so…engrossed."
"Hardly," Rachel shrugged. "I was just seeing what was making the noise. I was about to head back."
"And once you uncovered the ghastly scene, you couldn’t help but be so distracted as to not notice someone walk right up to you?"
Rachel opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t come up with a sharp retort, so she just held up her hands in guilt. "Think what you want."
"That you’re a perv?" Chase teased. "I like."
Rachel laughed. "Hardly. Speaking of perverts, what were you doing following me out here anyway? Going to lie in wait for your moment alone with me?"
He looked taken aback for a moment, but it didn’t last long, as one of the guys had come to investigate the noise they were making.
"Chase? That you?"
"Yeah, it’s me, alright."
In the moonlight and full sky of stars, Rachel saw the blonde guy step up to greet them, bare chested, and couldn’t stop her admiring eyes from drinking him in.
"And you come bearing gifts," he said, noting Rachel in much the same way she had appraised him.
"Rachel," she held out her hand.
"Rick." He shook it firmly and called back to the others "Hey, we have a guest!"
Giving Chase an uncertain look, she turned back to Rick to find him checking her out again. She would use the word "leering," actually, and any immediate attraction to him waned quickly as she took an unconscious step back toward Chase.
"Where have you been hiding this fine piece of merchandise, Chase, you old dog?"
"She’s standing right there, Mr. Sensitive," a girl with long curly black hair informed him, swatting his chest offhandedly before offering it to Rachel. "Hi. I’m Cyrena, and you want to watch out for this one. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing."
"Transparent sheep’s clothing?" Rachel quipped.
Cyrena laughed. "I guess most girls are blinded by his…charm."
"I’m Kelly," a blonde girl said from behind Cyrena, topless and acting natural in spite of that fact, although Rachel suspected she was annoyed by the intrusion.
Averting her eyes, Rachel saw Chase do the same, for which she gave him some credit.
"Hi, I’m Jeanette. Nice to meet you," a third bubbly girl said, holding her hand up casually as she attempted to pull her long black hair back into a ponytail.
"Nice to meet you too," Rachel said, already forgetting names as she turned expectantly to the final guy, a redhead with a lightly freckled back and shoulders, as well as a collection over his nose and cheeks.
"I’m Lucky," he told her, and immediately shook his head sadly. "And that’s not a come-on either. My parents decided to curse me with the name the moment I was out of the womb."
"Oh. That’s…too bad," Rachel wasn’t sure how to react to the statement, which everyone else had apparently heard before, as there were a few eye rolls at the introduction.
"Well, come on into the water," Rick told them. "We have to celebrate our first day here, and, you know, get to know each other better."
"Much better," Kelly purred, putting an arm around him and sending Rachel a clear look of ownership.
"Oh, I didn’t bring a…" Rachel began, then looked away from Kelly, before she could finish her sentence.
"Skinny dripping’s a rite of passage," Rick countered. "Come on. We won’t bite."
Cyrena shook her head as Kelly coaxed him toward the water. "Don’t mind him. He just wants to get an eyeful of the goods, if you know what I mean."
Rachel chuckled nervously. "I guess so."
"But please join us," Jeanette said. "We’ve got some beer."
"Oh. But I thought alcohol was…" She looked helplessly at Chase, who took the hint that she was rather uncomfortable.
"I think Rachel is probably tired from her trip," he said gently. "Jet leg, like me. We’ll probably go turn in for the night. She just wanted to come introduce herself."
"Too bad," Cyrena puffed out her lower lip in a mock pout. "But you have to promise to have some fun with us sometime, okay?"
"I promise," Rachel said gratefully. "I’m just…yeah, tired."
"See you bright and early then!" Jeanette said as she walked back toward the water with Cyrena and Lucky.
Chase steered her back the way they’d come with an arm around her. "Sorry. I know they can be a little…overwhelming."
"No, not at all," Rachel told him. "I just…wasn’t expecting to run into anybody, let alone everybody."
"Yeah, well, they’re a nice bunch, once you get to know them. We’ve all pretty much met over the past few months before the dig, so we’re all pretty tight. But I don’t think you’ll have any problems fitting in."
"Good to know."
"Except with Kelly. She can be possessive and a little…bitchy." He laughed. "But at least you got the meeting with her girls out of the way already."
"Her gir - oh. Her…yeah. She’s not the shy type."
"You could say that. She takes her top off at every opening that presents itself."
They walked in silence for a moment before the yacht came into view and shortly afterward, the campsite.
"Oh, hey. I’m sorry I ruined your night," Rachel said. "You can go hang out with your friends if you want. I just…"
"I know I can," Chase chuckled. "I wanted to walk you back though. And it has been a long day. I wasn’t just saying that."
"Well, thank you. I appreciate it."
"I’m just sorry I couldn’t rescue you from Candy. I’ve heard her snore from clear across camp before."
"You’re telling me," Rachel murmured, eyeing her tent warily. "But I can handle it. For the night, at least."
"I have the feeling you can handle a lot."
"I try." She looked away shyly before a shudder ran through her body and she recalled how chilly the night actually was. "Brrr. How can they go swimming in this?"
"You can feel warm in the right company," he said, offering her a smile that warmed her quickly enough.
Impulsively, Rachel grabbed his hand and held it for a moment, unsure of what to do once she had it. Her lack of experience with boys was becoming apparent, she presumed, before she felt Chase lean in and kiss her on the forehead softly.
"Goodnight, Rachel. I’m glad I got to meet you first."
Rachel, a little dazed by the kiss, innocent as it was, didn’t respond until he was already to the tent he was sharing with Professor Grant and quietly unzipping it.
Once he disappeared inside, Rachel was finally able to move, putting a tentative hand to her forehead. "I’m glad too."