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 on 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 on 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, but 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 overpacking.
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 soon 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.