Chapter 1: Blackburns and Sudden Engagements
It's not everyday you find out your best friend is getting engaged to a man you've never met.
I glanced at the street, watching as the taxi I had arrived in peeled away.
Frowning, I wondered if no one was home, or if they were all asleep at two in the afternoon.
As I raised my hand to knock again, the door flew open and a pair of arms were thrown around me.
"Oof!" I exhaled sharply as I was pulled against the thin yet strong body of Annalisa Young.
"Ava!" she squealed into my ear. "It's so good to see you!"
Pulling away from the hug, I smiled amusedly at her. "It's good to see you too."
Annalisa sent me one of her signature million watt smiles as she grabbed my small suitcase from me, pushing me through the front door.
A woman with light brown eyes rounded the corner of the hallway, her face lighting up when she saw me.
"You must be Ava! Come in, come in," she said heartily. "Oh, shoes off, please. "
I couldn't help but smile when I entered. The room was bathed in a warm yellow light. Every piece of furniture-from the dining table to the doors of the kitchen cabinets-matched, while the walls were painted a light blue. A vase of flowers stood delicately in the corner of the room next to a large cabinet filled with various pictures of same girl.
Annalisa placed her hand on the older woman's arm. "Ava, this is my mom. Mom, I'd like you to meet Ava."
I held out my hand. "It's so nice to meet you, Mrs. Young."
She waved her hands as if she was swatting at flies. "Oh, none of that nonsense! You're Annalisa's best friend. Call me Marge, please."
"Marge, then," I corrected with a smile as she pulled me into a warm hug.
"Aren't you lovely," she said happily as she shot Annalisa a playful glance, who responded by sticking her tongue out cheekily. "You're welcome to stay in our guest room if you like. I know you had to come in a hurry."
I shook my head. "There's no need. My sister is working here, so I can crash at her place."
Mrs. Young just smiled. "If you insist."
Taking my hands in hers, Annalisa led me away and into a room whose walls were covered in posters, a twin-sized bed pushed haphazardly against the wall to make space for a large easel and paint-splattered, newspaper-covered floorboards.
"Oh my God, I forgot how messy my room was," Annalisa said, red creeping up her neck. "Pretend you're blind."
I let out a laugh, reaching over to pinch her cheeks. This was something I had started doing for fun when I had just met her. Now, it was just habit. Back then, Annalisa's face had been fuller, and her smiles softer.
"Don't worry, my room back home is way worse," I reassured her. "Besides, I've seen your dorm room before. This is probably one of your better days, honestly."
She punched my arm in response. "Shut up. Just let me get changed and I'll show you around town."
"Hold up," I said, stopping in my tracks. I folded my arms across my chest as I remembered why I had rushed to the small seaside town of Kennedy Bay in the first place.
"How come I literally just found out this morning that you're getting freaking engaged?"
Annalisa sighed. "I'm sorry, Ava, I would have told you. It's just that it all happened so fast."
"You remember that you're still in college, right?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes, of course," Annalisa rolled her eyes, "but we just couldn't wait anymore."
I raised my eyebrows, still in disbelief mode from this morning.
Annalisa had always been the outgoing type. It would have been weird to see her not flirting with some guy or another between lectures. She had always been the prettiest out of all of us, having been blessed with the best genes from both her American mother and her Korean father. Now that she had spent the last year deciding that she wanted to be slimmer, her features had become even more defined and striking.
I first met her in my freshman year of college, when she had decided to sit next to me in our Chemistry lecture. That day, I had just found out that my dog had died. It was almost as if Annalisa had a radar for people in desperate need of happiness and comfort, because she plopped right down beside me and became the ray of sunshine that I so gravely needed.
"Who is it then?" I finally asked. "Don't tell me it's that guy from that first Halloween frat party."
Annalisa rolled her eyes again. "As if. No, it's Theo."
I racked my brain, filtering the name through my mental database of Annalisa's many boyfriends. The name was familiar, and I was sure Annalisa had mentioned him before, but no face was coming to me. I opened my mouth to interrogate her again when she bounced up from her bed.
"I know you have questions, Ava. Just let me change and I'll take you to meet him," she said briskly.
As it turned out, Annalisa and this Theo had been friends since they were children.
"How did your mom agree to this, though?" I wondered aloud as the car moved through the streets of Kennedy Bay.
Annalisa pursed her lips as she gripped the wheel. "Well, she wasn't very happy. She still isn't."
Annalisa's voice betrayed a hint of disappointment, and I couldn't help but feel a pang of sympathy for her. Knowing Annalisa, she would have wanted nothing more than her mother's approval.
She sighed. "It's understandable though. It doesn't help that I'm turning 22 in October and he's already 27."
The small shops, dingy bars, and boat-filled docks that had made up Kennedy Bay were soon replaced by large, neatly trimmed lawns. Polished houses and fancy garages sat upon each lot, from within which expensive cars glimmered in an almost menacing way.
"This is where he lives?"
Annalisa shook her head. "Just wait."
Before long, we had pulled up at a roundabout that concluded the long winding street of manors. In front of us sat a mansion that made the houses before look like children's toys, its black-tiled roof and white walls managing to gleam even under the cloudy sky. Light glittered from within the mahogany framed windows, and every now and then a figure would hurry past. It was clearly a busy household.
Annalisa pulled the car into the driveway. Her small red Ford looked almost laughable next to the numerous black Mercedes already parked there.
Annalisa turned to me as we walked up the front steps. "So, don't be scared, but I want to warn you about his parents. They're a little...intense."
I stared at the mansion in front of me. "And clearly crazy rich."
Annalisa looked uncomfortable, and I immediately regretted mentioning it.
The polished front door opened, revealing a young maid. She threw me a curious glance before nodding to Annalisa. "They're waiting for you."
She led us through the foyer and into a big waiting room, her shoes clicking against the glossy marble floor.
The three people inside had been talking quietly amongst themselves, but stopped when Annalisa and I entered. The young man closest to us lounged lazily in a beautiful but obnoxiously puffy couch, while the older man stood stiffly next to an older woman who was perched delicately on an armchair (that was rather obnoxiously puffy). All three were dressed in stylish clothing that gave off an air of utmost elegance. It was like stepping into the scene of a movie.
The man on the couch broke the silence. "Hey, baby," he greeted Annalisa, standing up to embrace her warmly.
I fidgeted with the hem of my shirt, feeling incredibly out of place. The older woman gave me a tiny nod to acknowledge my existence, her face unreadable.
It was a small gesture, and not an unkind one, but it still made me want to bolt. Before I could do so however, the young man had turned to face me, holding out a hand. "And you are...?"
"Ava," I replied quickly, gripping his hand. I hoped he couldn't tell that my hands were beginning to feel moist. "Ava Mackenzie."
The older man seemed to perk up at this. "Mackenzie? Could you possibly be related to the influential Mackenzie family in Portland?"
"Uh..." My mouth felt dry. As far as I knew, my dad was just an ordinary elementary school teacher in Seattle, and my mom had been a waitress when she was still alive.
The young man in front of me sighed exasperatedly. "Father, how many times do I have to remind you? It's not polite to ask."
He turned back to me. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ava. My name is Theodore Blackburn. You may call me Theo."