|Beneath The Surface
Author: My-Bella PM
One summer, an internship in Africa, bloodlust, sharp teeth, and a boatload of fear are all that stand in the way of Bella Cullen landing a job at the Atlanta Aquarium - As long as she doesn't count cocky shark expert Edward Masen on her list.Rated: Fiction M - English - Adventure/Friendship - Bella & Edward - Chapters: 26 - Words: 280,023 - Reviews: 1,330 - Favs: 674 - Follows: 1,000 - Updated: 05-16-13 - Published: 11-17-11 - id: 7558623
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. Stephenie Meyer owns anything and everything relating to Twilight. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended and in order to keep it that way, No reproduction, copying, reposting, downloading, or any kind of redistribution of this story is allowed. This is to cover my arse as much as yours! And finally, the Original characters, plot, names, nicknames, songs, poems—anything I created from my very own brain—are all the property of the author of this fanfic, My-Bella. Unauthorized use of the material is plagiarism so please be kind and don't steal my creations.
Chapter 20 – A Sunken Shark & A Parachute Jump
Thursday, June 19th
Bella woke up to the sound of her alarm and an empty bed. Or so she thought until she noticed a note and her journal lying on Edward's pillow. She was beyond curious as to what her journal was doing out but she forced herself to read the note first.
Wanted to get some work thoughts out of my head. Down in my project room if you need me.
There was some squiggle underneath that she assumed was supposed to be his name and she smiled as she ran her finger over it. She could picture his hand jerking across the page in his impatience—wanting to be downstairs already while also wanting her to know why he'd left.
She reached for her journal next, remembering how excited he'd been last night when she'd pulled it out and finally shared it with him. He'd read every word she'd written so far and then he'd gotten her to promise to show him the other journals sometime. He'd asked about a few entries and questioned things in others, showing a true interest in her sightings. He'd also thanked her. He'd thanked her for staying, for trusting him with her journal, and for believing he was serious about wanting more with her.
Bella let go of those thoughts with her next breath and gripped the white ribbon that marked where she was in her book. She pulled back the pages and just below her neat, well-spaced script she found Edward's tight lettering with its sharp corners.
Where: In bed with me
Side Note: Being around you comes with random knowledge. When I was seven Beth let me rescue a cat from the local shelter. I named him Jolly after the Jolly Roger pirate ship from Peter Pan. I went through a pirate phase and wanted to be one when I grew up. (Don't judge - You told me last night you once believed smurfs were real)
Whenever Jolly was tired he would come lay beside me and rub his head against me until he found a spot he liked and then he'd fall asleep. When you lay down at night you rub your forehead against your pillow in that same way. See my point? It's random to know you do that before you go to sleep. Random knowledge and I'm glad I have it.
She was smiling as she hugged the book to her chest, wondering what to make of what he'd written. He'd shared something new about his mom and a piece of his childhood but he'd also compared her to a cat. She wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or sock him in the shoulder. She did know that, like him, she was glad to have this random knowledge.
Last night … The things he'd said … And he had meant them. She'd never once felt that worry that he'd think back and end up regretting them. The honesty in his voice and his touch … That couldn't be forced or felt on a whim. There had to be true feelings driving that kind of emotion. Even now she believed him completely. He wanted more. With her. And he truly believed it was possible to overcome her anxieties to make the internship successful—and to figure out together what "more" meant for them.
She slid her journal back under her pillow and considered going down to his project room to see him; surely she wasn't still banned from it for eternity. Unfortunately she couldn't test her theory because the hour showing on her clock made it all too clear she didn't have time. She needed to get dressed and head up to the kitchen—she had breakfast duty with Gopher this morning.
When Bella walked into the kitchen, Gopher was already halfway through with cooking. There was a tall stack of pancakes on the plate beside him and four more on the griddle in front of him. She checked the time on her watch to make sure she wasn't somehow late and found that she still had a few minutes to spare.
She was just about to ask him why he'd started without her when she realized he was singing to himself.
"Scotty doesn't know-oh. So don't tell Scotty."
Bella snorted, knowing this song very well and the movie it had come from. It was a favorite of Jacob's and she'd easily watched it a couple dozen times with him.
Her snorting caused Gopher to spin around and face her. He looked embarrassed at being caught for all of two seconds and then he wiggled his eyebrows and used his spatula as a microphone.
"Scotty doesn't know,
That Fionna and me,
Do it in my van every Sunday."
For a quick second she worried she might pee her pants laughing at his antics. Here was this large, muscled man in a small kitchen, swaying his hips and belting out lyrics as if he had a huge empty stage to fill with his personality.
Gopher held the spatula toward Bella but she shook her head at him. "Come on, little fish," he sang sweetly. "I know you know the words."
"I can't," she said, shaking her head again while her cheeks pinked up.
"You know you want to," Gopher replied with a wide grin.
Bella bit on her lower lip, conflicted between having fun with him and making a complete ass of herself. She'd technically already thrown caution to the wind by deciding Edward was worth putting everything she had into this shark thing so what was a little karaoke in the kitchen compared to that?
With a smile to match Gopher's, she leaned toward the spatula and sang the next few lines of the song.
"She tells him she's in church,
But she doesn't go,
Still she's on her knees, and..."
Together, they sang the refrain, both of them bopping their heads to the beat. At least for part of it—it didn't take long before Bella was doing more giggling than singing.
"Scotty doesn't know.
Oh, Scotty doesn't know-oh.
So don't tell Scotty!
Scotty doesn't know,
Scotty doesn't know.
SO DON'T TELL SCOTTY!"
Gopher wrapped Bella's fingers around the handle of the spatula, forcing her to take it. "Phone call verse."
"No, no, no," Bella chanted while trying to give back the utensil.
"Yes! It's all you, little fish. Do it! You know you want to."
As much as she knew she would regret it for all the teasing that was most definitely going to come her way, she did want to. And besides, it was only Gopher. She knew if she asked him not to, he wouldn't tell anyone else about this little song fest.
"Do it!" Gopher encouraged. "And put some feeling into the 'nothing' when you get to it."
Bella snorted, took a deep breath, and then gave Gopher exactly what he'd asked for.
"Fionna's got him on the phone,
and she's trying not to moan.
It's a three way call,
and he knows … Noth-ing."
She sang the last note and instantly felt ridiculous and embarrassed which prompted her to start giggling nervously. It didn't last long, though—Whit made sure of that.
"This is either really hot or really fucked up," he announced loudly. "I can't decide which. Mase?"
Bella was frozen, rooted to the floor, and stuck staring at a guffawing Gopher because she was absolutely positive she would literally die of embarrassment if she turned to face Whit. She was also busy pretending Edward was not in the room since he hadn't spoken yet and that allowed her deniability.
"Mase?" Whit questioned. "Fuck, bro! Breathe!" Whit's command was followed by an audible thump and then Edward coughing.
She mustered up all the courage she could, straightened her spine, and walked right past Gopher, then proceeded to flip the pancakes on the griddle as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had just happened in this kitchen. She prayed that acting as if it hadn't happened would keep them from talking about it. If it wasn't acknowledged, it didn't happen—at least in her mind.
Edward's coughing turned to groaning and though she was sorely tempted to look and see if he was alright, she knew it would draw more attention to her so she kept her eyes on the pancakes.
"Here. Drink some water," Gopher suggested. "It'll help cool your throat off from the coughing."
"It's not his throat. And water won't help his ribs," Whit replied.
"How bad is the bruising?" Gopher asked.
"Enough to hurt but not enough to wrap," Whit told him. "Not that I could wrap him since he's planning on getting some final underwater shots for Brett."
"Really? I thought there was supposed to be some more bad weather coming in today."
"Let's go check the weather reports and find out."
Bella had been paying so much attention to their conversation that she hadn't heard the footsteps behind her and she jumped when Edward put his hand on her hip. He chuckled, his warm breath sliding over her neck and causing her to shiver. "You okay?"
She took a quick peek at him. "Are you?"
"Other than you nearly making me swallow my tongue, yeah, I'm fine."
She could feel the heat of her blush climbing and was pretty sure she'd gone from pink to red. "You weren't supposed to see that. No one else was ever supposed to see that or know about it."
"That's a shame, kapu," he whispered against her skin before pressing his lips to her neck. "'Cause it was really kinda hot. Maybe you can sing for me in private later?"
"I really don't like you right now."
"If you're not up to singing, I'll settle for that tongue-flick thing you did."
Burgundy. Yep. Burgundy has to be the color of my face right now. Can't let him think he's getting to me, though, or he'll never let me live this down. "I'm pushing you off the boat later."
He snorted and squeezed her hip. "Liar."
She was ready to argue with him but then he coughed and all she could think about was his side. She glanced quickly at him, afraid if she looked too long she'd forget to check the pancakes and burn them. "How's your side? Be honest."
"It's sore and it hurts like a bitch when I bend over but it's not anything to worry about. I'll be completely fine in a couple days."
"Are you sure you're okay to go in the water today?"
"Positive. If I wasn't, I'd ask Whit to do it."
She nodded while replaying his speech about safety last night. It was an area where she was going to have to have faith and trust that he meant everything he'd said. It was likely to be the hardest information to force her brain to digest and accept.
"What about you?" He lifted a loose strand of hair from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. "Are you okay to come back on The Submarine with us?"
She looked him in right in his blue eyes while answering firmly and confidently, bolstered by his belief in her abilities. "It's where I belong."
"Just wanted to hear you say it." He gave her lips a barely-there kiss and then left her to finish the pancakes.
She smiled to herself, feeling lucky to have his confidence and support. He wasn't hovering and treating her as if she was fragile and about to break at any second. He had said he believed in her abilities and he was showing it by acting as if it was just another day with the team. Well accept for the way he'd touched her and kissed her—that had definitely been new.
I think I like this more with him, she thought, smiling as she moved the pancakes from the griddle to the plate.
"How are we on time?" Brett asked, frowning at his watch. Masen found himself frowning right along with him, worried for the first time that they would surpass the time limit. They technically had a few minutes after the official limit but it was always best not to push things when dealing with live animals. Seconds had a way of making huge differences, especially when the animal in question was out of its usual realm.
"Ninety seconds left," one of Brett's crewmen called out.
"Angela, light a fire under your team," Brett ordered. "Let's go!"
"We're moving as quickly as we can," she assured him. "Almost done stitching the cut for her acoustic tag."
Masen quickly crossed the platform to Brett. "What's up?"
Brett relaxed his face into a grin as he gripped Masen's shoulder. "Finally your turn. Give her a name."
Masen looked as excited as any lucky little boy on Christmas receiving the gift he'd wanted all year long. "Athena."
"A warrior goddess. Nice."
"Done!" Angela called out, standing and taking a step back from the shark.
"I want you all off my cradle," Brett yelled. He clapped his hands together as he called out, "Let's go, let's go! Off my cradle. Athena's ready to get back in the water and you're holding her up."
Masen took a few pictures of the crew scrambling off the cradle and then he jumped onto the ladder and clung to the lower rungs, hoping for a couple shots of Athena heading off to her next adventure.
"Cradle down!" Brett ordered.
There was a loud whine from the mechanism overhead and then the cradle started to sink into the water until Brett was knee-deep. "Come on, Athena," he coaxed, holding the shark just above the tail and pushing her forward a couple steps.
"She looks a little sluggish," Ben called down from the deck. "Walk her a little before you let her off the cradle. See if she improves."
"She doesn't seem sluggish to me," Brett replied. "She's slapping me pretty damn hard with her tail. Angela?"
Masen looked up, finding her checking her watch. "We've only got a few hours left and we need two more sharks," she said. "Brett, if you say she's fine, then let her off the cradle."
"Alright, Athena. Let's show them what you've got," Brett said, walking the shark toward the front of the cradle.
Masen saw her tail twitch and smack Brett which was good, but it also looked off, like there wasn't enough power behind it. He almost said something but then she swam out of Brett's hands on her own and gave his leg a good whack, shooting a spray of water up into the air. Masen relaxed and smiled as his shark swam past him, headed for the cradle's entrance.
She seemed okay right up until she was halfway off the cradle and then something went wrong.
"Catch her!" Masen yelled. "Catch her now! She's sinking!"
Brett was already running for the shark as fast as he could and Masen jumped off the ladder to try and help.
They weren't quick enough—they missed grabbing her tail by about an arm's length.
"Fuck," Masen cursed, grabbing his hair with both hands.
"She's probably fine," Brett told him. "I'm sure once she got going good she came back up."
"We need to go after her."
Brett shook his head. "If—and it's a big if—if she's not okay, it'll take a lot more manpower than you and me to get her back on the cradle. Plus, today's the last day for our permit and we have to make our quota."
Masen nodded; he understood needing to put the greater good of the species and the entire research mission ahead of a single shark. But that didn't mean he liked it.
When he got on deck, Angela called him over. "I'm sorry, Masen. She looked fine from up here."
He shrugged, trying to stay positive and ignore his gut feeling. "I thought she was okay too. And Brett still thinks she's alright."
"Still …" It was clear she was upset over the circumstances; it helped to know he wasn't the only one that would feel Athena's loss if she was gone.
"Angela, I know how it is. Sometimes you have to make hard choices. With the info you had and your deadline, letting her go seemed the right call. If you'd seen anything wrong with her, you would have kept her on the cradle."
"I really would have," she assured him. "While we try to get the two sharks we need, I'll get Ben to run her blood and look for any abnormalities to explain her behavior. The satellite tag won't be able to give us anything until tomorrow. But maybe when we're done for the day, Ben can go out with the acoustic mike and look for her."
"Thanks, Angela," Masen sincerely replied. "Let me know what you find?"
Masen sighed heavily as he walked away, hoping the gut feeling he had was wrong. Maybe what he'd seen was just a trick of the sun reflecting off the water and Athena hadn't sunk at all. Maybe it was just like Brett had suggested—she dove down to go under the cradle or the boat and she was now fine and swimming freely. He didn't want to worry needlessly so he decided a distraction was in order and went in search of Guppy.
He found her with Ben in the research office, her face hidden behind the camera as she documented Ben's work. He snuck up behind her and whispered into her ear, "Sing any good songs lately?"
Bella jumped slightly and then landed on his foot, making him wince—he was pretty sure it had been done on purpose. He liked that she wasn't letting yesterday's scare completely affect her behavior today. She had stayed away from the railing most of the day, spending her time with Ben instead, but all that really mattered was that she'd still come back aboard this ship. She was still enjoying working with the Colossus Crew and still committed to the internship. The heart and courage she showed by being here—he respected the hell out of her for pushing through and moving forward.
"Guys, standing around won't make this go any faster," Ben declared, his eyes still firmly set against the lenses of the microscope in front of him. "Besides, you're making me feel crowded. Out with the both of you. I'll come find you when I know something."
Masen quickly towed Bella out of the room, not wanting her to have time to come up with a reason to stay. Having a few minutes alone with her would be an excellent distraction. He took the camera from her and slipped it around his neck, letting it hang against his back with the one in the waterproof casing he'd been using today.
He brought her up to the front of the boat, away from all of the commotion going on at the back. "So how's your day going, Guppy?"
She turned to face him, a smile on her lips and mischief in her caramel eyes. "It was going fine until a few minutes ago."
He reached for her but she stepped back, her smile growing wider when she noticed his pout. "Don't be like that. I was only teasing," he told her.
"Come here." He managed to get hold of her hand and gave it a gentle tug—she didn't budge.
"No way. Not this time."
"What? I was serious," he said as he finally got her to move her feet and come closer. "I like your singing voice."
"I've got a song for you. Wanna hear it?" The way she was grinning had him feeling pretty sure he wouldn't agree with her choice.
"Maybe later. Right now, I want something else."
"Come here and let me show you."
Bella laughed as she allowed him to pull her against his chest and encase her in his arms. "Don't you want to hear your song? It's a really good one."
"What's it called?"
Masen snorted. "Just what I thought. Some goofy song that's not going to be anything like me."
Bella's grin turned cocky and seeing her so confident blew him away just as it gave him an infusion of determination to see her like this as often as possible. The anxious side of her made him feel protective, made him want to fix everything for her. But this confident side … He wanted to know this woman in every possible way.
She brought him out of his head by wrapping her arms around his neck and lifting up on her toes so they were almost at a level kissing height. At least he hoped she was going to kiss him.
She didn't kiss him but he couldn't say he was completely disappointed by what she did give …
"He's a devil in disguise,
A snake with blue eyes,
And he only comes out at night.
Gives you feelings that you don't wanna fight.
You better run for your life."
He growled and pulled her tighter against him while grinning just enough to show he was playing. "You aren't going anywhere, kapu. And for the record, the guy in those lyrics is nothing like me."
She snorted and tried to wiggle out of his hold. "Edward, you seem to have forgotten we are on a boat full of people."
"Oh, now that you're done teasing me, the boat's full of people."
"It was full before." She gave up on getting away and laughed against his chest instead. "But I really wanted to get you back for your teasing."
He smiled against her temple and then kissed it. "I'm glad you're here."
"Me too. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be to see you on the cradle again. I just kept thinking about what you said, that safety comes first and everyone is watching out for everyone else."
"That's right. It's a team effort."
She lifted her head, her pretty brown eyes full of some emotion he couldn't quite name. "Edward, do you remember what we talked about yesterday?"
He had to laugh at that. "Sorry but you're going to have to be a hell of a lot more specific. Yesterday was a long day with a lot of conversations."
She chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds and then spoke up and shocked the hell out of him. "I want to go on the cradle."
While the idea thrilled him, he had to put aside his excitement and determine where her head was at and if she was truly ready for the experience. "Explain to me why I should let you do that."
"I've been thinking a lot about what you said, about how it could be good for me and help me to see them as predators—not unstoppable nightmare monsters. I could go my whole life and never have this kind of opportunity again, to be on my turf with a shark instead of the other way around."
She looked off into the distance, as if she was searching for something. Almost too quietly to hear, she said, "To be perfectly honest, I'm getting sick and tired of being afraid."
She was silent for a long moment and then her brown eyes once again found his blue ones. "I know if I do this it won't take away all of my fears but it will be something I can hold onto, to remind myself that I'm stronger than my fear."
"Are those your only reasons?" he asked, sensing she was holding something back.
"Why? Those not good enough?" she replied with a smile that was off but not exactly fake. More like it was a nervous smile.
He brought a hand up to the back of her neck and softly caressed her skin, hoping to relax her. "Those are great. I just get the feeling there's something else driving you."
"I want to know if I can do it … If I can push aside the anxiety and work beside you."
He looked deep into her eyes, searching for any sign she was pushing too fast. All he found was a healthy level of caution and a ton of curiosity. "Then let's go tell Whit you'll be taking his spot on the cradle team."
Her brown eyes widened and her voice went up about two octaves. "Really?" She quickly cleared her throat and brought her voice back down, "You trust me to be able to do it? Just like that?"
"Yes. You were completely confident just now when you explained yourself. There wasn't any hesitation on your part and everything you said was sensible and smart. Besides, I'm going to be right there with you, watching your back and keeping you safe."
Her face filled with her smile and then she threw her arms around his chest, hugging him tightly. Even though it hurt like a bitch to have his side squeezed, he wouldn't have dared to ask her to stop. Whatever pain there was, it was so minimal to the overall good he felt whenever she held on to him.
She suddenly jerked away and smiled shyly. "Sorry."
"It's alright. It was just a hug."
Her shy smiled turned cocky. "Yeah, well, that's only because I realized. You'll have to remind me later of what I had planned next."
He smirked and arched his eyebrows at her. "Which is?"
"I'll tell you later."
He continued to hold her gaze.
She blushed. "I was going to kiss you."
"I'm definitely going to remember that later." He slipped his fingers through hers while saying, "Come on, Guppy. Let's go tell Whit he's gotta sit one out."
Holding her hand and walking with her toward the back of the boat, Masen felt proud of his work with Bella and excited that she was really starting to push through her fear. He also felt incredibly lucky that she was here to make this choice with as close as he'd come to losing her to those fears yesterday.
"Again," Edward demanded.
For the third time, Bella used her fingers to tick off the things she had to do. "Keep a firm footing. Stay close to you. Don't force myself. Keep my eye out for any and all movement from the shark. Be aware of those around me. Obey Brett's orders as quickly and safely as possible. If for any reason I fall and go underwater, do not panic. Do my best to get to my feet and know that if I can't, someone will help me up."
"I'm so proud of our little Guppy," Lee exclaimed, giving Bella a tight one-armed hug that made them both laugh.
"Lee, this is serious time," Edward reminded her, using his stern leader face on her.
"Aye, aye, Captain," she replied with a grin and a salute, his expression having little to no effect on her that Bella could see.
He turned his blue eyes back to Bella. "Once more."
"Really? Three's not enough for you?" she asked. She was all for safety and precaution but she really didn't see how repeating the rules over and over was going to prepare her for this experience.
He acted as if he hadn't heard her. "Once more, Guppy."
"Number four then," she said with a sigh. "Keep a firm footing. Stay close to you. Don't force myself. Keep my eye out for any and all movement from the shark. Be aware of those around me. Obey Brett's orders as quickly and safely as possible. If for any reason I fall and go underwater, do not panic. Do my best to get to my feet and know that if I can't, someone will help me up."
"Alright. I think you're ready," he said, allowing just a hint of a smile.
Whit held his hands out to her. "Empty your pockets. Don't want any electrical devices or pieces of paper becoming useless."
"I only have this," she said as she handed him the extra memory card for Edward's camera. She'd had it in her pocket so she wouldn't have to lug the camera bag with her all around the boat since The Submarine was much bigger than Galeos.
"Whit, make sure you get pictures of our intern being bad ass," Lee told him.
"I've got it covered." He grinned at Edward and poked him in the chest with his finger. "You keep a close eye on Guppy or you'll be answering to me."
Edward snorted and pushed his hand away. "You just worry about what you need to do."
"The skiff's coming in," one of the crewmen announced.
"We're up." Edward locked eyes with Bella and gave her an encouraging smile. "Ready?"
She nodded, still feeling completely confident in her ability to do this. This will work, she promised herself. She wanted this and she was going to fight her anxiety and make it happen. She would follow the rules Edward had given her and in return she would end up having the experience of a lifetime.
They joined the people huddled near the ladders and then waited until the shark was immobilized and everyone else was in place. Once all three were standing on the cradle, Lee gave Bella's hand a quick squeeze and then she joined up with Angela's team. Edward stayed at Bella's side, waiting for her to make a move toward the shark.
"Thirteen feet, four inches," someone yelled out.
"Male," another person shouted.
"Roll on three," Angela called out. "One. Two. Three."
Bella had watched this part enough times to know the shark was rolled onto its side so Angela's team could make an incision and install an acoustic tag inside of it. They would also take blood and semen samples since this one was a male, only the second out of all the sharks they'd tagged so far.
"We're three minutes in," Brett yelled out. "Let's keep up the pace."
Edward squeezed her hand to get her attention. "Bella, I'm not pushing, but I need to know if this is as close as you want to get."
She looked deep inside to answer honestly, weighing her anxiety against her curiosity. "I want to get closer if we can without getting in anyone's way."
He smiled and lifted his chin toward the back of the cradle. "That way."
She took a deep breath and then stepped toward the tail of a Great White, toward her future, and toward a life with less fear. And Edward was at her side for every second of it.
It took a couple false starts but she finally got her hand to touch the shark's skin. It felt so foreign under her palm, leaving her struggling to find something in her daily life to compare it to. Her conversation with Ben about dermal denticles came to mind and she increased the pressure of her hand on the shark until she could feel them.
I'm touching a shark.
My hand is on a shark.
And I'm not freaking out. Well I am, but not in an uncontrolled way.
Bella looked up at Edward, suddenly needing to make sure he was watching this, that he was seeing her do this.
His smile was one she couldn't recall having seen before—at least not as one expression. It was a mix of his proud smile from the day he and Whit had gone into the water with the tiger sharks, and the excited grin he'd worn the night she had shared her chocolate milk with him. The way he was looking at her right now … she hoped she'd never forget the beauty and the power of it or the way it made her feel accomplished and strong.
He squatted beside her. "See how it's white on the bottom and fades into grey as you get closer to the top of the shark? That's good camouflage because the white blends in with the sky when you're a fish looking up. When the shark's below the fish, it blends in with the sea floor."
He stood and offered his hand and she took it without hesitation, following him to the front of the cradle. The shark's eyes were covered with what looked like a dark, wet beach towel and a large hose was wedged into its mouth, forcing water through its gills.
Edward went around to the nose and after releasing Bella's hand, he put his own on the snout of the shark. "Compared to other sharks, the Great White's snout is fairly short and a little cone-shaped. Paired with its torpedo-shaped body and symmetrical tail, this species of shark is built for fast swimming. It allows them to reach a top speed of twenty-five miles per hour, a necessity for chasing seals."
Her legs were shaking as much as her hand but Bella wasn't about to stop now. She took strength from Edward's presence and his belief in her and reached out, her fingers touching both man and shark.
"In comparison, tigers have a longer top lobe and can only get up to nineteen miles per hour. They generally swim slowly and then once they have prey in sight, they'll use a quick burst of speed to catch their meal. They aren't capable of the sustained chase the team witnessed near Seal Island on Saturday."
Bella looked up at him, squinting to cut the glare from the sun. "I saw a little of that. Not a lot, but enough."
Edward nodded. "I suspected as much. Thank you for admitting it."
"We're getting down to the wire, folks," Brett announced. "It's time for all non-essential cradle personnel to get on deck. The rest of you, pick up the pace and finish up! We need to get this shark back in the water pronto."
"Thank you," Bella said to Edward as he helped her stand up straight on her still shaky legs.
"This was all you, Guppy. Be proud. I know I am."
They went to pass Brett but he stopped them and looking only at Bella he said, "Name him."
She said the first thing that came to mind. "Bruiser."
Brett smiled and patted her on the shoulder. "Bruiser it is. Now get up on deck."
Edward towed her to the ladder and made her go up first. Lee and Whit were waiting at the top and as soon as she cleared the ladder they started hugging her and congratulating her.
"Alright, let her breathe," Edward ordered, gripping her shoulders and pulling her back until she bumped into him. "So proud of you, kapu," he whispered into her ear.
"You had your hand on a shark, Guppy. How do you feel?" Whit asked.
"Um …" She tried to pick just a few words out of the jumble of emotions in her head and heart.
"Ten words or less," Lee teased, winking at her.
"Weird. Oh and accomplished. So … weirdly accomplished?"
Edward moved to her side and grinned at her. "You did great."
"Thanks. I really doubt I could have done it without your help."
"Of course not," he teased, bumping her shoulder with his.
"Ha, ha," she said, rolling her eyes at him.
"So why Bruiser?" he questioned.
"Yeah, how'd you come up with that?" Whit asked.
Bella shrugged. "It just came to me. My dad was a baseball pitcher in high school and that was his nickname."
She had expected more smiles or at least a nod from them but what she got was all three of them being very still and silent.
"What? What's wrong?" she asked, looking to Edward for the answer.
He set his hands on her shoulders and fixed his blue eyes on her. "Bella, do you realize what you did?"
"Um … Named a shark?" she replied, fidgeting nervously under his sharp gaze.
"You associated your father with a shark in a positive way. Bella, that's a huge step forward. For the rest of this shark's life, every time he appears in research papers or data reports, he'll bear your father's nickname. That's just …" Edward smiled wide and ran a hand through his windblown mess of hair. "I can't even begin to tell you how amazing that is. I'm blown away."
Bella was blown away too, but in a very different way. The enormity of what she'd done was suffocating her and the world was beginning to sway and swirl like it had yesterday. But unlike yesterday, she didn't have time to bite down and refocus herself.
"Easy, Guppy," Lee said next to her ear, holding her tightly and helping her to sit on the deck.
"Deep breaths, Bella," Edward ordered, rubbing her hands between his. He looked past her at Lee. "Is this what happened yesterday?"
"Not as much swaying on her feet but yeah," she answered.
Whit squatted at her side, rubbing her shoulder. "Can you tell us what upset you?"
"I wasn't … I wasn't thinking. Uncle Carl and Alice … they're … I didn't think." She was trying to get out that she was worried she would upset her uncle and sister by associating her dad with a shark.
"Bella, listen to me," Edward said as he gently lifted her chin to get her to look at him. "From what you've told me about your uncle, I have no doubt he's going to understand and be okay with it. I can't say for your sister because we haven't talked about her in relation to sharks. But you have told me how much you two love each other so I have every confidence she'll support you even if she doesn't understand."
Bella could feel her eyes were too wide and hear her voice was too high and she struggled to get control of both. "If he doesn't … I can't hurt them. Take it back. Name it something else."
Lee cupped her chin and turned her head. "You named that shark for your father. Why?"
"I didn't think. I just said the name."
"Not buying it," Lee replied, shaking her head. "I already know you better than that, so try again."
"Because … Because he taught me to love the oceans and the animals in them."
"Then it was the right thing to do and everyone who supports you will understand that." Lee sounded so sure about that and Bella found herself wanting to believe it, maybe even more than she needed.
"She's right," Edward agreed, drawing Bella's eyes to him. "You did a great thing, both for your dad and yourself. Be proud, Bella. He would be if he'd seen you on that cradle."
She took a deep breath and nodded, deciding that her friends were right, that this was a good thing to be proud of. There was a chance that her uncle and sister would be upset but there was also the possibility that they would understand.
And the idea of her father being proud of her … Whatever you choose to do, I know you'll make me proud. He'd said that. He'd said those exact words on their last morning together.
"Just for the record," Lee began, smirking at Masen before shifting her eyes and smile to Bella, "Bruiser is way more bad ass than Athena."
"Screw you," Edward replied, pushing on her shoulder and trying to look angry while laughing.
"Screw both of you," Whit said, pointing at each of them. "My shark has the most bad ass name."
Bella giggled, Lee both laughed and snorted, and Masen rolled his eyes.
"Oh come on! You know I'm right," Whit insisted. "Someone asks who's this shark and I get to answer 'This. Is. Sparta!'"
No one responded—they were all too busy trying to contain their laughter.
"Fine!" Whit huffed. "But can we at least all agree Gopher's was the silliest? A shark named Scotty!"
"Beam me up," Bella blurted out between escaping giggles. The mix of adrenaline and worry and relief was making it far too easy to find things funny.
"Alright," Edward said as he rose to his feet. "As fun as this is, we still have work to do." He waited until everyone else was standing to give orders. "Whit, give Bella the camera back and then check in with the cradle team. Lee, let's go check in with Ben and Angela and see if they need any help while we wait for Brett and Gopher to catch another shark."
"Hey!" Bella called out, getting Whit, Lee, and Edward to look at her. "Thank you. All of you."
Lee grinned and playfully socked her in the arm. "No sweat, Guppy. We take care of each other on Team Masen." She slung her arm around Edward's shoulders and gave Bella a wave and wink as they walked past her.
"Hey, when you order Guppy's shirt, I need a new one," Whit called after her.
"Really? I get a shirt?" Bella asked.
"Of course," Whit assured her. His lips pulled up into a sly smile. "You'd look pretty silly trying to wear Masen's." He tipped an imaginary hat at her and walked off, leaving her standing there with her mouth gaping open like a fish.
A little fish with amazing friends who had helped her accomplish more than she'd thought possible.
Masen was fidgety and kept glancing at the clock on the corner of the desk in his project room. He had expected to hear from Angela by now on the fate of Athena. The more time that passed, the more he couldn't deny the gut feeling that had been with him since the moment he'd seen the female shark sink off the edge of the cradle.
He shook his head, cursed under his breath at his lack of attention, and then refocused his mind on the sketch in front of him. He'd done a preliminary plan for their use of decoy seals days ago but after his experiences with the Colossus Crew, he no longer trusted his initial theories and wanted it all redone before he allowed himself to take time off for his birthday.
He'd left his guilty-pleasure playing on the small television behind him and Alex Trebek announced a new clue. "This drink made with red wine and fruit juices isn't so appealing when you know its name is from Spanish for 'Blood'."
"What is Sangria?" Masen answered, smirking at the memory of Esme dancing with Irina. His mom never passed up a chance to have fun with her friends.
Masen shifted and winced in pain. His soreness was behind the scrapping his original plan. With creatures the size of Great Whites it wasn't expected for them to be able to move that weight around quickly. He'd learned the hard way that wasn't the case and he refused to risk any harm coming to one of his crew.
"Homo Sapiens had a higher and more rounded one of these than did Homo Erectus," Alex declared.
"What is a skull?" Masen called out, his hand jerking as his pencil scratched across the page, leaving behind charcoal lines that created a rough outline of a shark.
He had lifted the page and was busy blowing across the sheet to clear it of loose charcoal dust when Alex posed the next answer. "The Swedish company Poseidon helps you with this pastime with products like hoses, regulators, and pressure gauges."
Masen answered before the clue was completely given and said it a second time since the contestants weren't saying anything. "What is scuba diving?"
The show went to commercial and Masen went back to work. He tacked the sketch to the patch of wall right in front of him and then leaned back in his chair, studying it with a critical eye. He wasn't completely sure what he was looking for, just that there was something not quite right about his new plan.
A few minutes later he let out a sigh and grabbed his wild hair with both hands. "Where are you? What are you? I know you're there and you shouldn't be."
The paper didn't give him any answers. And the one Alex offered had nothing to do with Masen's field of work. "This development divides prehistoric times from historic times."
"What is writing?" Masen called out, pointing his pencil at the sketch on his wall.
He twirled his pencil between his fingers and let his mind focus more on the television since he was actually able to answer the Jeopardy questions. Alex announced the next clue, "More than one thousand islands make up the Alexander Archipelago in this U.S. State."
The answer came quickly. From Bella. "What is Alaska?"
Masen spun his chair to face her, finding her peeking through the gap he'd left in his door.
"I'm in the hallway," she declared, pointing at her feet placed well before the threshold to his door.
He snorted and waved her in. "Come here, kapu."
She smiled and came right in, walking over to him without any trepidation. He liked that she wasn't being mousy about being in here after the lens incident. Honestly, he just plain liked her being in his project room right then.
"Thanks for suggesting the hot shower."
"Glad it helped." He resisted the urge to reach out and pull on a wet tendril, suddenly positive that it would only take one touch to completely derail his mind from its work path.
"What's this?" she asked, leaning across his desk to get a good look at the sketch he'd been studying. He wondered if she would be able to spot the problem if he explained what it was supposed to be.
Before he could give it a try, she turned and the unsure look on her face momentarily pushed the sketch out of his focus. "Edward, I … If I caused any embarrassment to you or anyone here at MMR or with the Colossus Crew … I just want you to know that I really did try to control my anxiety attack. It just happened so fast and I wasn't expecting it."
He slipped his fingers between hers and pulled until she stood between his legs. "What did I say to you about your view on your anxiety?"
She lowered her head and her pretty brown eyes disappeared from his view. He needed to see them, though, so he curled a finger and set it under her chin, gently pushing until he could see her eyes again.
"What did I say, kapu?"
Her fingers twitched against his and her cheeks started to pink up. He'd noticed she blushed nearly every time he used his personal nickname for her and he was surprised by how much he liked that. It was a goofy thing if he really thought about it, but it also made him happy, like watching her smile in her sleep.
Bella smiled shyly while answering him. "My anxiety isn't a personal failure. It's a natural reaction to a traumatic event." She quickly added, "But that doesn't mean it doesn't get in the way or cause trouble."
"All it did today was take a few minutes out of our congratulating you on a job well done. No harm, no foul."
She sighed and her entire body relaxed before his eyes. "Good. I was worried since we left not long after that."
"We left to get out of their way. They had to finish up so they could pull anchor and leave the area. It was easier for them to do that without us in the way."
"Do we have a permit that expires like they do?"
"Yeah, but ours is for the whole summer. We were able to get such a long one because we aren't going to chum or try to capture any sharks."
She fidgeted, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "Edward, would it be too public for you to sit beside me later tonight?"
He managed to hold back his snort but there was no stopping his smile. "This may be the oddest question I've ever been asked, but yeah, sure. I'll sit beside you."
"It's not odd at all," she defended. "You said you didn't want whatever this is between us to be visible to everyone. It's not like you explained what is and isn't okay."
"That's because I don't know. And really, this isn't what you should be focusing on. You should be telling me why you want me to sit beside you so badly."
"Because …" She let out a breath and when she spoke again, her voice was lower and her tone wasn't so annoyed. She also looked smaller somehow, but maybe that was just because she looked so hesitant. "Because after all their help yesterday and today Whit and Lee deserve to know about my dad, about why I get panicked. And I can't tell them and not tell Gopher and Esme. It just wouldn't be right."
He leaned forward to wrap his arms around her waist, leaving just enough room between them to clearly see her face. "Bella, there's nowhere else I would be than right beside you for that. I'll even hold your hand or put an arm around you if you need. You are that important to me." He smiled, trying to lighten her mood and let her know it was really going to be okay. "Besides, the worst that will happen is Lee and Whit will have new comments for me."
"New comments?" Bella questioned, her head tilting to the side a little as she studied his face. "Does that mean there are old comments? And how old? And what are they?"
Masen was saved from her interrogation by Whit's yelling. "Mase! Hey, Masen!"
He leaned away from Bella so he wouldn't be shouting close to her ears. "What do you need?"
"Brett's on the radio asking for you!"
"Be right there!" He turned his attention and his eyes back to Bella. "I gotta go."
"What do you think he wants?"
"Hopefully, it's to tell me about the shark I named."
Bella frowned. "You still think something was wrong with her, huh?"
He nodded and let out a sigh. "It's one of those things I feel like I just know."
"Then I'll go with you. If you want, I mean."
"Totally up to you. But right now, I need a minute alone before I head up."
"Edward, I really do hope she's okay."
"I know you do, kapu. Go on up and I'll follow in a minute."
She squeezed his hands and tried her best to smile before extracting herself from between his legs. She was almost to the door when she suddenly ran back and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him as hard as she could.
He didn't know what to say to that or why he liked it so damn much so he just patted her on the shoulder and told her to go upstairs. He needed a moment alone to clear his head and lock himself down, to become the pragmatic professional he had been constantly before Bella had walked into that bar and his life.
Bella stared at the door she'd just closed, chewing on her lip and wondering if she'd done the right thing.
"Guppy, fancy meeting you down here."
She spun at the sound of the voice and went bright pink at the sight of Whit in the stairwell, leaning over the banister and grinning like Christmas had come early.
He chuckled darkly. "I figured you were in there when he didn't come running out to get to the radio. Let me guess … He was teaching you to drive the boat?"
Bella bit back a smile while walking over to him. "Don't be silly. There's no steering wheel or gauges in his project room."
"Then what, oh what, where you doing in there? Last I heard, you were banished for all eternity for breaking his lens prototype."
The door to Edward's room opened before she could reply. He looked from her to Whit and back again, but didn't say anything. He just shook his head and then jogged up the stairs.
"And he's off!" Whit joked. "Come on, Guppy. Let's go find out if it's good news or bad."
She joined him on the stairs and they climbed them together, silently at first but then her worry over what Whit might be imagining got the better of her. "I was thanking him for his help earlier and making sure that my anxiety attack hadn't caused any trouble."
Whit lifted one eyebrow at her. "What kind of thanks is Masen accepting from you these days?"
The pink that had started to fade from her face immediately intensified. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yeah, you do. You know I know all. That's my job 'cause I'm the nudger."
"The what?" she asked, laughing at his silly comment.
"The nudger. I see something that's not quite right and I nudge those involved until it gets right. You and Masen are on your way, but I sense a little more nudging on my part is needed."
She snorted. "He said you wouldn't say anything to anyone but him. That it was more fun for you that way."
"You're an invested party, though, so it's kinda like I'm only saying it to him. Besides, I'm not gonna say too much to you just yet. In fact, I wouldn't even be saying this much if I wasn't worried for him. I've got a bad feeling that Brett's news is bad and a worse feeling that it's gonna cause Mase to put his head back up his ass where you're concerned. No matter what he says, no matter how much he tells us all to leave him alone, it doesn't apply to you. Trust me on this, Guppy."
They reached the top of the stairs and Bella turned to face Whit. "If he really wants to be alone—"
She nodded, trusting him completely. She wasn't sure if it was the conviction in his voice or the surety in his expression, but she was absolutely convinced. She also hoped Edward would be consistent and want her there as he had yesterday and today; she didn't want there to be yet another backslide with him. Still, if his shark had died … She might not understand his commitment to the creature, but she completely understood the loss of something important and how that loss could make a person act strangely.
They walked in on Edward turning dials on the radio and looking frustrated. "Come in Submarine. This is Galeos. Over."
Static was all that answered for the longest time until he turned some other dial and Brett's voice came through loud and clear. "Galeos, this is Submarine. Over."
"Brett, it's Masen. Where you guys able to get out of Mossel Bay alright? Over."
"We're just pulling anchor now. Gonna make our way to Gan's Bay near Gansbaai next. Over."
"We wish you guys luck there. We're taking a few days off before heading back to Seal Island. Over."
"Good deal. Listen, a team of guys and Ben took the skiff out in search of Athena with that acoustic mike. We were able to track her but unfortunately the news isn't good. We're sorry, man. We lost her. Over."
There was a coldness in Edward's voice she'd never heard before, not even when she'd broken his lens hood. "Acknowledged. Please thank your crew for having us and sharing their time and knowledge. Over."
"It was our pleasure. And Angela is going to radio you with more info once she and Ben are done with the blood tests their running on Athena. Prelim results show a low blood count. They think she might have been sick. Over."
"We will be out of radio contact until the twenty-third. Over."
"Noted. We'll talk again then. Masen, you should know that my entire crew is truly broken up at her loss. We are going to find out what happened to her and do what we can to make sure it doesn't happen ever again. Over."
"Thank you, Brett. Sincerely. Talk to you again soon. Over and out." Edward hung the mike on the side of the radio and then he hung his head, leaning his forearms against the panel of the huge dashboard.
Whit jerked a thumb toward the hall and then silently left.
Bella stood where she was for just a moment, running through every single thing she could possibly say that might be comforting to Edward in this moment. In the end, she decided there was nothing to be said, only done. She crossed the room and hugged him from behind, her arms wrapping as tightly around him as possible.
He covered her fisted-together hands with one of his own but otherwise didn't move until much later when an alarm sounded for a course correction to be made. After, he sat down heavily in a chair and she stood nearby, watching him closely and waiting for a sign from him of what he wanted right now, whether it was to be alone or have her near. Not that she was actually going to leave the helm, but she would give him space.
He said two words very quietly but clearly. "Come here."
Bella didn't hesitate to go to him or to put her arms around his neck and let his head rest against her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
He sighed so heavily and she suddenly knew what Whit had really been trying to tell her—Edward didn't know how to accept the loss or the comfort for it. She wasn't sure if that was something she could teach him but she was certainly going to give it her best shot.
"It's okay to be sad or angry or whatever it is your feeling over this," she told him.
"This is work. And I'm a professional."
"You're also a guy with a soft spot for sharks. And that guy is hurting right now. Is it really so awful to be comforted by someone who cares about you?"
"Bella, I'm good at my job because I don't let myself take it personally when a shark doesn't make it. If I start now …"
"It's one time, Edward. It's one shark that you named, that you made a personal connection with. It's not like the tiger you named with your crew. This is different. This one was yours. And it's okay this one time to take it personally."
He didn't say anything but he did put his arms around her. She smiled into his hair and stood there holding him until she felt his body relax against hers.
And then she held him some more just because she could.
It was entirely too quiet at the patio table, especially now that Whit had given up on pulling Edward out of his funk and was busy finding the perfect angle to rest the fedora on his head. It was as though the loss of Edward's commanding personality had left them all adrift.
Getting hit hard enough to bruise him for days hadn't fazed Edward in the least but the death of this shark … Bella had expected to see some sadness from them all at the loss of Athena but she'd never imagined this deep silence that had pervaded the late afternoon, lasted all through dinner, and now seemed thicker than the darkness Bella was looking out at. She wanted so badly to have him explain their reactions but it would have to wait until he seemed ready to talk.
Lee and Gopher sat next to Whit, their shoulders and heads leaning against each other. Gopher had his hand wrapped around Lee's and held it against his chest; Bella saw it as a sign of reassurance and love from him to her. She wished she could do the same for Edward but he wasn't ready for that. She settled instead for reaching over to pet Lizzy and making sure her hand brushed against his as much as possible. She hoped it brought him some measure of comfort or at the very least the reminder that she was there for him.
Esme had been sitting on the other side of Edward but she'd gone into the house a while ago. Bella wondered what she was doing and if she was ever going to come back out. She had a feeling that if anyone could fix this situation, it would be Esme.
And just like that, as if she'd heard Bella's thoughts, Esme appeared at the edge of the table next to Bella and Whit, her arms loaded with items. He jumped up to help and together they set out a six pack of beer, a bottle of red wine, and a bag of red plastic cups.
"Here's how the rest of this night is going to go," Esme announced, surveying them all. "We are going to pick our poison and then you five are going to fill me in on the past few days with the Colossus Crew. I want it all. The ups, the downs, the oh-my-god-what-is-wrong-with-you moments … All of it."
"We sent you our daily reports." Edward didn't even look up, his blue eyes still fixated on Lizzy.
Esme went around to him and managed to contort herself enough to get her arms around his neck from behind his chair. "Daily reports have not ever, nor will they ever, cut it with me, Kid. They're just facts. I want the real deal. I want to hear the excited tones and see the amazed faces. I want the talking-over and the squabbling and laughing and congratulating."
Edward finally cracked a small smile. "I did get to touch a Great White," he said, turning his head to see Esme as he patted her arm.
"Now that's more like it," she excitedly said, sinking into her chair beside him. "What else?"
Lee pointed a finger at Edward. "No, you have to do it the way you did it to me. You have to show her the magical hand that touched the magical shark."
Esme and Edward snorted together.
"I'm serious, Esme," Lee cried as she sat up straight. "His hand was right here," she said, demonstrating by having her palm just a breath away from the end of her nose. "He nearly smacked me in the face."
"It wasn't that close," Edward argued with a shake of his head. He passed Lizzy to Bella and then poured some wine into a cup for Esme before taking a beer for himself.
Whit had been the first to grab for a beer and now he let out a very loud and fairly impressive belch. After receiving a round of congratulations for his efforts—with Esme being the first—Whit shared one of his favorite moments. "Fishing for a shark with just some meat on a hook on the end of a rope … I realized two things. One, you gotta be at least a little crazy to try the shit. Two, you better have some upper arm strength or even the smallest shark can pop your shoulder out of socket."
"No injuries, I hope," Esme said as she eyed each of them closely.
Whit pointed his beer at Edward while replying, "Just some bruised ribs and muscles on the boy wonder there."
Esme's eyebrows lifted and it became quiet again, but this was a waiting quiet, not that sad silence from before.
Edward put his head on Esme's shoulder and grinned up at her. "Hi, Mom."
She mirrored his smirk perfectly.
"It's barely bruised. I don't even really feel it," he told her. Bella bit down on her lower lip to keep from asking how he'd gotten so much better since this morning.
Esme turned her grey eyes on Whit who immediately lifted his hand and his beer in surrender. "Hey, there's hardly any discoloration so that means I have to take him at his word."
"I got to stick my hand in the mouth of a Great White and still keep it," Gopher announced, twisting off the tops of two beers. He handed one to Lee and took a long swallow from the other.
"Lee, what about you, sweetheart?" Esme asked.
She shrugged. "I did the more sciency, technical stuff so it's about as exciting to hear now as it was to read in the daily reports." She suddenly sat up straighter and turned her eyes on Bella, smiling like the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. "Except for that one really exciting shark tag today where our bad ass intern, Bella Cullen, got down on the cradle with us and touched herself a shark. And gave it a bad ass name too."
Esme's eyes were wide as she leaned forward to see Bella. "You were able to do that? To get on the cradle that way?"
Bella immediately began to blush and fought to not shrink back into her chair and shy away from the attention. "Yes, but only because I had a lot of help from everyone."
Esme let out a squeal and grabbed Edward around the neck, hugging him fiercely and even shaking his upper body a bit. "Kid! I knew you could do it. I'm so proud of you."
"Mom! Mom, stop!" Edward begged while Lizzy barked at his loving attacker and everyone else at the table laughed.
Esme finally released him but not before planting a big, loud kiss on his cheek.
"It was nothing," he said, being far too modest in Bella's opinion. "I just pointed out that it was possibly the most controlled circumstances Bella would ever be in and worth taking a chance if she felt up to it."
"How was it?" Esme asked, her focus once again on Bella. "Did it change anything for you either in the moment or permanently?"
"It certainly made me grateful," Bella answered, looking around the table at these people who were already her friends and quickly becoming a second family to her. "I never could have done it without Edward and Lee and Whit. And even Gopher, though you weren't on the boat with us right then. And certainly not without you, Esme. If you hadn't chosen me for the internship—"
Esme waved her off with a swipe of her hand. "Edward did the choosing. I just made some helpful suggestions."
Bella chewed on her lip, torn between sharing her story with those who deserved to hear it and keeping this lighter, better mood going. If only tomorrow wasn't Edward's birthday. But it was and she was afraid if she waited until after then she wouldn't feel as ready to share and would end up putting it off.
Edward's large hand settled over hers on the arm of her chair and his warm breath tickled when it blew through the hairs around her ear. "Go on," he whispered encouragingly. "Tell them now while you're ready for it."
She squeezed his hand in thanks and then met the eyes of each of her friends as she told them about her father, about the kind, loving man he had been and of how he'd protected her that fateful day. It took her longer than she'd expected with the long pauses and the occasional breathless moments caused by her painful memories, but she made it through. And now they knew about her dad.
And they may all have had even more of an inkling that things were different between her and Edward because at no moment did he stop holding her hand and more than once he'd leaned over and whispered encouraging words to her to help her keep going.
Whit was the first to react when she finished speaking. He grabbed a cup from the bag and pointed between the beer and wine until Bella agreed to have some wine. After he'd passed her the cup, he touched his beer bottle to the side of it. "To Charles Cullen. Father, friend, and protector."
Bella murmured her thanks to each of them in turn as they touched the sides of their drinks to hers. She was glad no one was really saying anything because she felt on the verge of a good long cry and didn't want to do it in front of them. Having to purge overwhelming emotions through tears was awkward enough without an audience.
Esme stood and looked at her as she said, "Bella, thank you for putting your trust in us, and in MMR. I hope you know that we are all committed to seeing you through this summer and ensuring your time with us is a successful growing and learning experience. And on a more personal note, I hope you know we consider you as much a friend as a co-worker. We are here for you in whatever way you may need."
Bella nodded, too choked up to speak. She was just starting to experience the relief that would eventually replace all of the fear she'd held that they would look at her differently once they knew, treat her differently. All she saw in their faces tonight was commiseration and support. She was extremely glad for it but she was going to need some time to process it. But she wasn't ready to be alone and she had no valid reason for leaving and asking Edward to follow—this privacy thing was turning out to be harder than she'd anticipated.
Still standing, Esme let out a loud yawn. "It's getting late, guys and gals. And we have a big day ahead tomorrow. We should all turn in."
"Are you going to tell me now what you have planned?" Edward asked.
She smiled and ruffled his thick hair. "Not a chance, Kid."
He grunted and pushed her hand away.
Esme continued to smile, not affected in the least by his grumpiness. "I love you."
Her so clearly honest and heartfelt words had Edward smiling and getting to his feet to hug her. "I love you too, Mom."
"Try not to think too much tonight, okay? Or if you can't help yourself, come talk to me."
"I'll be fine," he assured her. "Don't worry and enjoy your sleep."
She gave him a kiss on his cheek and then stopped behind Bella long enough to give her shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Whit and Gopher had picked up the bottles and cups and they both called out "Goodnight" as they walked past Bella. Lee was slightly behind them and seemed to be walking slower on purpose.
Bella's suspicion was confirmed when Lee stopped right next to her. "Gopher and I … Look, we're going to be up for a while so if you feel like you need to talk, just come by our room. Okay?"
Once again, Bella found herself too choked up to do anything but nod. Knowing where they had started and having this moment now … Bella was so glad she and Lee had become friends.
With Lee gone, that left Edward, Lizzy, and Bella on the balcony. Edward lifted Lizzy out of Bella's lap and after cuddling the dog for a moment, he fixed his blue eyes on Bella. "She needs her last walk of the night. Want to come?"
Bella answered by getting to her feet. She followed him through the living room, past the kitchen where Gopher and Whit were talking while putting away the bottles, and out the front door. Edward pulled the puppy's leash from his pocket and after attaching it to her collar the three of them set off into the night.
Even with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, it was a quiet night. There were no cars flying by on the road. No loud talking from parties going on in neighboring rental homes. It was calm and peaceful—but it wasn't quite right. Not until the man beside her slipped his hand around hers, walking so close to her that their shoulders brushed together every few steps.
They followed Lizzy as she sniffed around and occasionally stopped to investigate some smell or sight they were blind to, neither of them feeling the need to speak and interrupt the calm quiet that was so different from the earlier oppressive silence. Bella marveled at how completely understood she felt in Edward's presence without a single word having come from him—she wondered if this was how he'd felt the other night when she'd hugged him after finding out he'd lost his mom. She certainly hoped so.
They were nearing the house when Edward finally spoke. "Sorry I was moody tonight."
"You were entitled."
"Yeah, but still … Thanks for sitting beside me."
"Thanks for holding my hand. I hope it doesn't cause trouble for you."
He shrugged. "The nudger will nudge."
Bella snorted, picturing Whit's knowing grin from earlier when they'd been walking together on the boat's stairs.
"Guess that means he's gotten to you."
"Yes, he's quite the nudger," Bella joked. And then she snorted again. It was so much better to focus on Whit's humor than the sadness. She hoped she could keep doing that—and maybe keep the worst of the nightmares away tonight.
They were right outside the front door of the house now, the overhead light casting shadows across Edward's face. One half was shadowed in darkness and the other bathed in light—it was a fitting contrast. The good and the bad, the happy and the annoyed, and everything and nothing. Bella shivered, still not one hundred percent sure of which side of him she would see from one moment to the next and desperately wanting it to be the man from the past few days.
Edward must have seen her shiver because he peeled his lucky shirt off while switching Lizzy's leash from one hand to the other, and then draped the fabric over Bella's shoulders. She immediately and gratefully pulled the ends around herself, incasing her upper body in his warmth.
After a long pause, he quietly admitted, "I don't like you worrying about my family seeing us together."
"Edward, it's not them as your family that I'm worried about. It's them as your crew and my co-workers. It's the career worry you had and still have."
"I know, I just …" He ran a hand through his hair and gave the ends a tug. "I just wish I could explain it right so you would understand … so you would know …" He shook his head as if the thoughts were stuck and he was trying to work them loose.
His blue eyes regarded her—targeted her—and then his mouth covered hers, his lips both hard and soft, frantic and tender. She knew he was trying to tell her something just as she knew she was too lost in the kiss to figure it out. So much warmth! Spreading outward from the inside and covering every inch of her; she was sure the heat coming off her skin would have to be visible in the cool night air. Despite her inner warmth and that of his shirt wrapped around her, goose bumps broke out along her arms and the back of her neck.
Edward pulled away slowly, as if it was taking every bit of strength he had in him to keep himself away from her. He looked for a second like he was going to speak but then he just opened the door and waved his hand for her to go in first.
Bella was absolutely, one hundred percent in an Edward-induced stupor. Every kiss with him was perfect in its own way and she wondered if that was just because she loved him or if it might be that he felt the same way about her.
The only thing her addled brain knew for sure was that she wasn't ready to go to bed yet and she assumed that was how she had ended up on the couch in the living room. She could hear Edward talking to Lizzy and the puppy's toenails clacking on the kitchen's tile floor but she couldn't tell what it meant—she couldn't process anything at the moment. She was far too busy reliving that kiss in her head and touching her fingers to her lips.
What had he been trying to say? It couldn't possibly have been what she'd discovered for herself just yesterday.
Masen could just make out the top of Bella's head above the back of the sofa. He had figured she would go to bed, that she'd want time to herself to process everything she'd experienced today. Truthfully, though, he was glad she hadn't. She might be ready to be alone but he wasn't. And as much as he would have liked to blame it on the loss of Athena, he knew that really wasn't it. He just wasn't ready to give Bella up to sleep yet, though he knew he would have to before long or she'd be too tired to enjoy his birthday with him tomorrow.
Once Lizzy had gotten her fill of water and attention, he set her in her bed in the corner across from the sofa. The puppy yawned loudly, gave his hand a lick, and then closed her eyes.
Masen turned toward the sofa and the woman he couldn't stop thinking about. She was equal parts what he wanted and needed and yet he still worried there was something wrong about it all. Not for him. For him, she was an angel and danger all rolled together and he liked the rush being with her gave him. But he worried if he was what she wanted and needed. Earlier on The Submarine she'd been so confident when she was teasing him with that stupid song. Now curled up on the couch under his shirt, she seemed small and timid. It probably had more to do with talking about her dad than anything Masen had or hadn't done, but still …
It suddenly dawned on him that it was the apologizing that bothered him. He had held her hand tonight because it was the right thing to do. Sure, she could have told the story just fine without it, but she had deserved to know she had his support and encouragement. She didn't see it that way, though. She saw it as a risk and that was his fault. An unintended consequence of his worry about what other teams and professionals might think. He wanted to fix it, to make her see that a moment like tonight's conversation was important on an entirely different level than careers … He just couldn't figure out how to explain it.
"Want to watch a movie?"
His head jerked up at the sound of Bella's voice, his eyes instantly finding hers. "Aren't you tired?"
"I'd really rather watch a movie right now."
Masen heard what she wasn't saying—she didn't want to go to sleep and dream. "Sure. Pick something out. I'll grab a couple plums for snacks."
She gave him a grateful smile and then headed over to the trunk with the movies Esme had brought along.
He quickly washed and dried a couple plums for each of them and then joined her on the sofa. She'd slipped her arms into his shirt and had her legs folded in front of her with the tails of his shirt covering them. She looked ridiculous and cute as hell.
"What?" she asked, having noticed his grin.
He plopped down beside her and passed her the bowl of plums while putting his feet up on the coffee table. "What are we watching?"
"I picked a comedy." She showed him the cover of the case and he snorted.
"Whit's favorite," he replied while plucking a plum from the bowl.
"Hey, I was gonna take that one," she said, giving him a pretend pout.
He grinned and then took a big bite out of his plum, making her giggle and shake her head at him.
"How is it?" she asked.
"Good. Try one."
"It's sweet, right? I don't like the ones that are tart."
He held his plum out to her. "Taste."
She laughed and leaned away. "No thanks."
He playfully took hold of her arm and pulled her back toward him with her laughing the whole time. "Taste it, kapu."
She humored him and took a bite, nodding as she enjoyed it. The brightness in her eyes and the sweetness of her smile was just as much of a treat for him as the plum in his hand.
But as he'd recently admitted to himself and her, he wanted more. He gave her elbow a gentle tug, just enough to get her to lean in to him. He could taste the plum on her lips and tongue as he took his time kissing her, enjoying the little gasps and soft moans she let out.
He was so lost in kissing her that he didn't notice Esme standing in the dark of her doorway watching them. He didn't hear her initial quiet gasp of astonishment or see any of her silent tears of happiness. He had no clue she was witnessing an event he'd told her many times he didn't expect to happen for him.
It was hard as hell to pull away but Masen knew if he didn't do it right then it was only going to get harder to do and he didn't want to risk making any mistakes with Bella after everything that had happened yesterday.
"Start the movie, kapu," he encouraged as he slouched down into the cushions and took another bite from his plum.
A very red-cheeked and somewhat starry-eyed Bella set the bowl on the table, fumbled with the remote and then finally started the movie. She curled up against his side and rested her head on his chest, but before he had a chance to put an arm around her, she sat up to grab the throw from the back of the couch. After she was settled in beside him again, she spread it around the both of them. He found it so sweet of her that he didn't tell her he was fine without it; he figured he'd just pull it off himself once she fell asleep.
As they watched the movie together, Masen marveled at the change his life had taken so unexpectedly. Instead of working away the night, he was sitting with a beautiful woman pressed up against him, a good movie playing, and his favorite fruit. And best of all, he knew she would understand if he wanted to work instead of watching the movie. He could sit right here beside her and focus on MMR and she'd still be happy with him. He had never wanted this but now that he had it he couldn't imagine ever giving it up.
Looking down at the profile of her face bathed in the light of the television, he thought of how he'd always hated the term "falling in love", but he suddenly found himself willing to admit there might be something to it. The sense of weightlessness and pure abandon he felt with Bella was a lot like falling through the air had felt during the parachute jump he'd done with Whit a couple years ago.
It wasn't love. It couldn't be love. But it was something.
It was more.
First and foremost ... Thank you. You guys are truly awesome. The support and encouragement you guys give us with your reviews ... Fantastical! And we truly do appreciate every single one of you.
Secondly, we've posted a blog to go along with this chapter. A few interesting pictures and a quick note about a really special group of people. We hope you'll check it out.
And finally, the next chapter ... Masen's birthday! And it's going to be one he'll never forget for so many reasons that it's going to take us 2 chapters to tell it! We'll be back soon with a new chapter to start the party!