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Chapter 17 – Course Correction
Monday, June 16th
The sound of the sliding glass door opening caused Masen to look up from the photo album he'd been slowly reviewing page by page. It was his morning ritual on Elizabeth's birthday and he preferred to do it alone, though he never complained if Esme wanted to join him.
"Sorry," Lee said as she leaned down and kissed his cheek. "I didn't mean to interrupt. I was just bringing you some coffee."
"It's fine," he assured her as she sat down on the arm of his chair.
She looked over the album pages and then laughed. "This is one of my favorites." She tapped the edge of the picture that had her tickled. "You were so cute with your toothless grin."
"It wasn't toothless," he corrected. "I was only missing my two front teeth."
She ignored his correction and tapped the other side of the photo. "Look at Elizabeth. She was so proud of her blue ribbon winning boy."
He grinned as he remembered Beth making a big deal of the ribbon and treating him to a special dinner out, just the two of them. "She didn't always get my love of science but she always encouraged it."
"She was very much like Esme that way. Or is it that Esme's like her since she's the younger sister?"
"Whichever it is, I'm glad for it," he said as he closed the photo album and set it on the patio table.
"How are you feeling?" Lee asked, folding herself into the chair next to him.
He shrugged before sipping at the coffee she'd brought him. "About the same as every other year, I guess."
She smiled but he could tell it was slightly forced; she always worried for him, afraid his mother's birthday would dredge up painful memories and make him miss her more. For him it was never about missing Elizabeth because that was an everyday occurrence. It was about celebrating her and acknowledging how lucky he was to have had her in his life.
"Lee, stop it. We go through this every year and every year I tell you that I'm fine."
"I know, I just … I never feel like I know what to do. I never know if you want us to talk to you about her or if you just want us to let you have the day to yourself."
He put an arm around her and asked, "Lee, what do I always say I want to do?"
"Spend the day with your family."
"Exactly." He set his chin on her head and hugged her as tight as he could, trying to erase her worries.
It seemed to work because when she pulled back she had a real smile on her face. "So I was hoping I could convince you to take a trip to the market with me—just the two of us since Esme's still sleeping. Gopher's got a few things he needs in order to make breakfast this morning. Plus, I want to ask around for a great place for dinner tonight."
"That actually sounds like a lot of fun," he said, giving her his shitty grin.
She playfully slapped his arm. "Don't sound so surprised. You know I always have the best ideas."
He snorted but didn't otherwise comment; she had clearly forgotten the epic fail that was her idea to bungee jump off an old bridge in Costa Rica a couple years ago. They'd taken one look at the bridge and turned around to head back to town. Instead of reminding her of that he asked, "When do you want to leave?"
"Five it is." He took the photo album inside with him and put it back in its spot in his trunk. He then pulled on his sneakers and grabbed his watch, wallet, and keys.
The drive to Cape Town was an enjoyable forty minute ride in his Bronco with the windows down and Lee chattering away beside him about potential surfing spots. Next to being on the water, taking a scenic drive was his favorite thing to do. Masen was enjoying it so much that he didn't even care about Lee having her bare feet on his dashboard. Well, he did, but not enough to mention it this morning.
The two friends reveled in wandering around the town in search of the items on Gopher's list while also stopping frequently to check out whatever caught their eye. When they found a stand selling fresh olives, in addition to getting enough for Gopher's use, they got extra to share on the ride back to Gordon's Bay.
Masen had the opportunity to once again be impressed by Lee's ability to learn and speak different dialects when they stopped at a plum stand. Even though it had been a couple years since she'd had the chance to speak it, her Afrikaans was pretty fluent. Knowing her as well as he did, she'd probably found some way to practice it before they'd left Hawaii. All he knew about the language was that it was derived from Dutch—another language that had baffled him. ****
Lee smiled at the stand's owner. "Goeie more. Het jy dalk 'n oomblik om met ons te gesels?"
The woman came out from behind the counter and shook hands with both Lee and Masen before turning to Lee and answering her question. "Awe, my lanie."
"Kan jy dalk vir ons se waar die beste plek is om die walvisse te sien? Ons weet daar is 'n klomp plekke langs die kus af, maar ons soek regtig 'n plek met 'n goeie uitsig. Ons is 'n groot groep mense en wil so naby as moontlik aan die walvisse kom."
"Hermanus is waar jy wil wees, ne. Daar's 'n befokte plekkie daar, Bietangs Cave. Hy sit op die rotse waar die walvisse sommer tot teen jou swem."
After writing down whatever it was the woman had told her, Lee asked her something else. "Weet jy hoe ver dit is van Gordonsbaai af?"
"Soos die kraai vleig, seker 'n uur of so."
"Wonderlik! Is jy bekend met Gordonsbaai? Ons is opsoek na 'n plek waar ons kan eet vanaand."
"'n Lekker eetplek is Harbour Lights Seafood. Dis reg langs die dokke en het 'n moerse nice uitsig van die see."
Lee was smiling happily as she shook the woman's hand again. "Baie dankie. Jy was 'n groot hulp." She then turned around and showed Masen the notes she'd written in the pocket notebook she always kept with her. "We have a plan for today."
While he was really glad for that, he had a one-track mind at the moment and it was focused on the fresh fruit right in front of them. "Good, so we can get some plums now? And get a lot. Between Esme, Whit and me, we'll take out at least dozen."
After rolling her eyes at him, Lee turned back to the woman who owned the stand and spoke in Afrikaans again. "Kan ons asseblief twee dosyn pluime kry?"
Next to this stand was one selling grapes and the male owner waved Lee over to take a closer look. Masen figured he could handle paying for the plums on his own so he let her go while he dug out the money from his wallet.
"How much?" he asked, showing the money to the woman.
She gave him a big smile as she took the notes from his hand and he smiled right back, enjoying how friendly everyone seemed to be in the Western Cape area so far. The men who had helped them at the marina both times they'd docked Galeos had been just as nice and eager to help.
Before he could put his remaining money away, Lee snagged it. "Masen, do you have any idea how much you just paid for those plums?"
"Uh … Fair market price?" he guessed. "She seemed happy with the transaction," he added, discreetly pointing at the stand's owner.
Lee snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure she was. You basically paid three times what they're worth."
His grey eyes grew wide with shock. "Are you serious?"
She laughed and shook her head at him. "Mase, you really need to work on your language skills."
"No, you need to be in charge of the money from here on out."
"I can live with that," Lee said, grinning as she stuffed his money into the front pocket of her shorts.
By the time they were ready to head back to Gordon's Bay, they were loaded up with the items from Gopher's list, along with olives, plums, pears, and a good sized amount of fresh calamari that Masen planned to cook himself. He wanted to make sure Esme had some so he planned to freeze it for now and then make it when he was home with her for his birthday.
When they got back to the house, they found the others had woken so they put Gopher and Whit to work helping to unload the Bronco. Once the chore of unloading was complete, Masen headed off to do another task he'd assigned himself. While walking around the market, he'd passed a hand over cheeks and chin and he'd decided he would shave a bit. Not only would buzzing down the hairs make Esme happy, it would make his full face mask fit better when they got back in the water tomorrow.
He stripped off his t-shirt, grinned at the plum juice stains he'd gotten on it, and then tossed it into the pop-up hamper. Next he grabbed the plastic bin with his name on it and pulled out his electric shaver. He smiled as he remembered his first shaving lesson and how awkward both he and Esme had felt. She'd been determined to teach him, though. Of course, she'd also laughed over his face being covered in little dots of toilet paper marking the spots where he'd nicked himself.
Masen had just made the first pass with his shaver when Esme appeared in the mirror. "Mom," he greeted with a smile.
"Kid," she returned, her reflection smiling sweetly at him.
"What are you doing?" he asked, suddenly feeling very suspicious of her.
She pointed at herself. "Me? Nothing. Why would you think I was doing something other than standing here and looking at my kid?"
He snorted and turned to face her. "Drop the innocent act. What do you want?"
"Well I was hoping I could see that for just a quick second," she said, pointing at his hand.
"My shaver? Why?"
She held up a single finger. "I just want to see it for one little second."
Now he was really worried about her motives, but he still handed the electric shaver over. He watched it disappear into her back pocket and now she was holding out a regular razor.
He smiled as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter; she could give him all the sweet, motherly smiles she wanted but he wasn't going to use that razor. "You know this isn't happening."
"It could. There's shaving cream right here on the counter," she said as she set the razor down next to the can.
"I'm going to give you one chance. Hand over my shaver and I won't have to hurt you."
She smiled wickedly and challenged him, "You and what army?"
He took exactly one step toward her and she turned and ran, screaming for reinforcements. "Whit! Gopher! Lee!"
Masen grabbed Esme around the waist and lifted her feet from the floor. "They're not gonna help you. They know better," he assured her.
He brought her kicking, laughing, and screaming into the living room and dumped her on the sofa. "Last chance. Give it up," he warned, leaning over her.
"Never," she cried, laughing and trying to scoot away from him.
"You asked for it." He flipped her over as if she weighed nothing and grabbed for his shaver but she twisted her body and pinned his arm between her and the back of the couch.
By this point, they had a full audience that included a barking Lizzy who was also trying to jump up on the sofa. Lee was encouraging Esme to keep fighting … Gopher was trying to grab a hold of Lizzy … Whit was telling Esme to give up before she got hurt … And Bella was standing there staring wide-eyed at all of them.
Feeling that he'd let her have enough fun, Masen yanked the shaver out of Esme's pocket. She rolled over and blew her hair out of her face so she could see him. "Kid, you suck."
Smiling, he leaned down and planted a loud kiss on her cheek. "Love you too, Mom."
"Esme, I love your persistence, but you knew it wasn't going to end well," Whit said as he helped her to her feet.
"A girl can dream," she replied.
Masen had been on his way back to the bathroom but he stopped and turned to say, "In your case, a mother can nag."
Esme set her hands on her hips and gave him a dark look. "I might have lost this battle, but the war rages on. I'm not giving in, Edward Masen. I will see you shaved before this year is over."
He snorted at her and then went back to the bathroom.
Lizzy followed right behind him and so did Whit. "That was pretty damn funny, bro," his friend said, standing in the doorway as Lizzy circled his feet.
Masen shook his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do with her. And the funny thing is that I was going to shave it down real close for her but now I'm just going to do a light buzz."
"Come on, bro. Make her day and be as stubble-free as you can honestly stand."
"You know, you are my best friend and not hers."
"Yeah, and as your best friend I know you're gonna feel bad later on if you don't clean yourself up for her today." Whit had already convinced Masen but what he said next really sealed it up. "Make both your moms proud."
"Fine. But I need someone to walk Lizzy. That dance she's doing around your feet is her way of warning a puddle is imminent."
"Come on, Lizzy," Whit said before whistling to her. "Let's you and me take a walk. We'll see if Guppy wants to come too."
"Why do you want to take a walk with Guppy?"
Whit shrugged. "No reason. Just being friendly." He gave a wicked smile then. "And I'm curious to know what went on during her long walk last night that prompted you to give her your favorite ice cream before taking your own bowl."
"I'm standing right here. Ask me."
"I already know what you're gonna say. I want her side of the story." He left with Lizzy before Masen could come up with a response.
It was probably just as well since Whit had a way of turning everything Masen said into meaning something else; he left out the part about the majority of it being the truth. He decided instead to focus on getting himself presentable enough to get a big smile out of Esme.
"I remember how much Beth loved to brag on you," Esme mentioned, smiling and stirring her drink with her straw. "When you were a baby, she would call me every time you hit a milestone. And then once you were in school, it was for every good grade and award you got."
Masen chuckled. "Yeah, she thought I was pretty special."
"Her special boy," she agreed with a nod.
He squirmed in his seat, hating that he could no longer remember how his mother's voice had sounded; these days it sounded exactly like Esme's. But he did remember the way Elizabeth had smiled every single time she'd ever called him "my special boy"—delighted and proud.
"I'll never forget your first day on the island. You were so bowled over by the color and clarity of the water and you couldn't wait to get in."
His grin matched hers. "And you were more than happy to toss me in the first chance you got."
"Oh, Beth was so mad at me." Esme laughed softly. "I was actually a little afraid of her."
It was Masen's turn to laugh. "She couldn't hurt a fly. Literally. She'd just shoo it out of the house."
"When it came to you, she would do anything to protect you, Kid."
He stopped twisting the napkin in his hand and lifted his eyes to meet Esme's. "It's harder to remember her each year. Do you think that's my fault for not talking about her much?"
She thought about it a moment before answering him. "I think it has much more to do with how young you were when she passed. And I happen to know that how often you talk of her is no indication of how often you think of her."
Before he could ask her how she knew that, he was distracted by Bella's laughter. Even with a crowd full of spectators it wasn't hard for him to find her. She was pushing against Whit's back while Lee and Gopher stood nearby laughing at them.
They were spending part of the day at Bientangs Cave, a restaurant in Hermanus that was situated right on the rocks, with tiered seating specifically for whale watching. There was also a pathway that led down to the rocks and so close to the water's edge that visitors were hit with the spray from the waves crashing against the edge. Masen and Esme were seated on the bottom tier while everyone else was down below on the rocks.
Esme leaned over to put herself directly in Masen's line of sight. "Why don't you go down and join her?"
He smiled and shook his head. "I'm spending the day with you."
"That doesn't mean you have to be at my side every single second. Besides, you're completely killing my chances of meeting a tall, handsome, mysterious man who will sweep me off my feet. The rule is you never let the guy meet your kid before the third date."
He snorted. "Whatever you say."
"I say go down there and have some fun. Elizabeth would want you to have fun on her birthday."
"What about you? She'd want the same for you."
"Trust me, Kid, being able to see you the way you are around Bella …" She tilted her head in the direction of his friends. "Go on."
He kissed Esme on the cheek and then headed down to his friends, his eyes focused on Bella the entire time. She was laughing again, this time using her hands to block the spray and keep it from completely wetting her face. From this distance he could already tell her nose was turning pink and he wondered how someone who lived year-round in Florida could be so bad with sunscreen application. Then again, Esme had been in Hawaii for decades and she still forgot to coat some part of her.
As soon as he was close enough, Masen snagged hold of her wrist and pulled Bella toward him. "Come here."
"Why?" she asked, smiling at him.
"Your nose is turning pink," he said, pulling off his navy blue hat with MMR in white lettering.
She had obviously caught on to what he was planning. "I have sunscreen in my bag."
"This is a quicker fix." He threaded her ponytail through the back and then settled the hat onto her head, making sure the bill was shading as much of her face as possible. From the corner of his eye he could see Whit and his one raised eyebrow. He could also hear Lee mumbling "first the shirt and now the hat". He ignored them both for now, caring more about Bella's smile than their smirks.
"I keep forgetting to ask you, what did you think of Guppy's blog?" Whit and Masen were sitting on some rocks while Lee and Bella stood nearby taking turns with the camera. Gopher had just left them to head up to the restaurant to get waters for them all.
Whit elbowed Masen after not getting a response. "Mase, have you read her blog yet?"
"No," he answered, leaning down to pick up a small rock that had caught his eye. "I have zero interest in reading about how I'm a dick tater. That's why I left Lee completely in charge of reviewing the entry and posting it."
"You should read it. Guppy said some really positive things about MMR." Whit waited until he'd pulled up their website on his phone to add, "There are a few about you too."
Masen took the phone and started reading Bella's blog post. He started smiling as soon as he got to her mention of the orca pod they'd seen. They'd been such beautiful creatures to observe and photograph. And Bella had really been happy with him for bringing her to see them.
He continued reading, finding compliments about his photography skills, his marine knowledge, and his ability to make his own lens hoods. He'd known she was intrigued by it but certainly not to the point of writing about it like this.
In the next paragraph, the words "Maui Ocean Center" seemed to glare at him, reminding him of how horribly he'd handled her fear that first time. He read the section a couple times for two reasons … One, she remembered what he'd shared with her about hammerheads. Most people would have taken a bad day like that and completely pushed it out of their minds, but not Bella—she'd learned from that day instead.
The second reason he was in awe of what she'd written was that there was no hint at all of her fears about sharks. She even did the exact same in the following paragraph with the tiger sharks.
Overall, her words were informative and educational without being stuffy—and completely free of her own bias towards these creatures. And the fact that she'd taken the time to go through shark pictures and pick out some to go with her blog …
She has a lot more strength than I've been giving her credit for, he thought. This was not what he'd expected from her and he felt guilty for assuming Bella would run with Lee's idea to make the blog a joke on him.
"It's good, right?" Whit asked as Masen passed his phone back. "She made us sound professional, smart, and caring all at the same time. We didn't come off as some stuffy outfit or a group of shark-loving nuts."
"It's really good. Really generous too when you consider there's absolutely no mention of my failures as a mentor."
Whit snorted. "Bro, she knows this is your first rodeo as mentor, just like it's her first time being an intern. She's not going to publicly bust your balls over a few screw-ups that you honestly apologized about."
He glanced toward Bella and Lee and found them both laughing and tilting their heads so their hats could block the spray. It made him happy to see them getting along and becoming friends.
Whit suddenly stood and called out, "Hey, Guppy! Masen has a whale pop-quiz for you."
"What the hell, bro? What are you doing?" Masen hissed, looking between his best friend and the smiling brunette now heading his way.
He was grinning mischievously while taking a few steps backwards. "I'm nudging. I'm a nudger now."
Bella was too close for Masen to respond without her overhearing so he was stuck having to sit there and smile when what he really wanted to do was smack his best friend upside the head.
"What do I get if I pass the pop-quiz?" Bella asked, taking up the rock Whit had been sitting on.
"You won't have to write a formal report on southern right whales," Masen offered.
Her nose scrunched in dislike. "Can't it be more of that homemade chocolate milk?"
Masen snorted. "Yeah, sure, but you pilfer the chocolate this time."
He looked at her curiously, surprised by her answer. "Are you really going to steal Whit's chocolate?"
"Of course not," she said with a giggle. "I'm going to ask him for some."
"What if he says 'no'?"
He laughed at her certainty. "Alright, Guppy. Good luck with that."
"I have to pass the quiz first. So what's the first question?"
"What do you know about the southern right whale?"
Bella thought about it for a bit before saying, "I know it's a baleen whale because it has plates for filtering food from the water instead of teeth. Other than that, I haven't read much about them." She seemed like she was done but then she quickly added, "Oh, and I can see that they have callosities on their heads like the North Atlantic right whales we have off the coast of Florida."
"Very good, Guppy. The southern right whale also resembles the North Atlantic species in that it has a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a mouth that arches and begins above the eye. These right whales can be dark grey or black and some have white patches on the belly."
"Are they always here in such large numbers?" she questioned, looking out at the group of three swimming near the rocky edge and the six or so further out.
"Only from June to December. They spend the rest of the year in either Brazil or New Zealand," he informed her.
"Do they migrate any further?"
"No, they're pretty much stuck. The warm waters form a natural barrier between those in the northern hemisphere and the southern. Their blubber insulates them so well that they have no way to dissipate their internal body heat in tropical waters."
"So if they tried to cross, they'd burn up on the inside? That's pretty horrible."
"It would be if they weren't smart enough to realize it and steer clear."
Bella turned toward him and pushed the bill of her borrowed hat up to see him better. "How do you know so much about them? I thought you'd never been to this region before."
"I haven't. But I did read a lot of articles about the area before I brought it to the crew as a possible location."
She giggled. "You're like the boy scout of marine research. Doing your homework before it's even been assigned."
He shrugged. "That's my job. I won't go into any area blind and I damn sure won't let my crew do it."
"You know, you're really kind of awesome for that." Even though she was smiling, he could see in her pretty brown eyes that she meant her words as a compliment and not a joke. Just like last night, he was gripped with an overwhelming urge to be closer to her, to feel her lips on his and feel that rush of excitement that came with kissing her.
And just like last night, the moment was interrupted.
"Mase! Hey, Mase!" Gopher was waving his arm in the air in addition to yelling, making sure he wouldn't be missed. There were a couple of men standing next to him, along with Lee and Whit—Masen hoped the man hadn't gotten himself into any trouble.
"Let's go see what's up," Masen said to Bella, putting his hand on her lower back and giving a light push to get her on her feet. He didn't take his hand away once they were standing. Or as they walked. Or even when they reached the crew and the newcomers.
"Mase, this is Brett Irvine. He's the captain of the Colossus crew on the research vessel The Submarine," Lee introduced. "Brett, this is our captain, Edward Masen."
Brett shook hands with Masen. "It's good to finally meet you and your crew. We first discovered you guys through your photos and that led us to your research papers."
"And my shirt led them to you," Gopher proudly stated, pinching part of his shirt to make the MMR logo more visible.
Brett grinned and nodded in agreement. "We wanted to meet the crew that doesn't chum. It's pretty amazing what you guys have accomplished without baiting the sharks to come to you."
Lee cleared her throat and crossed her arms but she was also grinning.
"And gals," Brett added. He then turned his attention to Masen. "I have a proposition for you, if you're interested. We'd like you to come aboard The Submarine and spend a couple days watching how we do things. We'll trade you time with our crew and our scientists in exchange for some of those amazing photos you guys get."
Masen quickly weighed the pros and cons in his head, thinking of his team's safety first and foremost. He looked at his crew … Bella was nervously chewing on her lip, Lee was vibrating and giving him a pleading look to agree, Whit gave him a shrug, and Gopher was smiling as if he already knew what Masen would decide.
"It sounds like a good trade," Masen finally said. "But I have to warn you, we won't take any underwater shots near a chum slick. I've seen how aggressive sharks get around chum and I won't put my team at risk."
"We would never ask you guys to do that. We are completely fine with you taking photos from the deck of our research vessel and possibly also on our skiff," Brett assured him.
Masen had a huge grin on his face as he offered his hand for a shake. "We'd be honored."
The drive to Hermanus had seen Esme sitting between Masen and Lee in the front with Gopher, Bella, and Whit in the back. The drive back to Gordon's Bay found Masen grumbling in the backseat with Whit chuckling and Gopher napping. Esme had commandeered his keys after finding out she'd somehow forgotten to tell Bella to pack a dressy outfit. He didn't understand why Bella couldn't just wear one of her many sundresses but he also knew better than to argue with his mom once she'd made her mind up about something. Not to mention that Lee was onboard for a trip to the mall so there really was no chance in hell of stopping them.
Esme dropped the guys off outside of the rental house with strict orders to shower and make sure their shirts were pressed and their shoes shined. She was definitely taking advantage of the day and the rare opportunity to boss Masen around without argument.
He smiled at the thought of how happy she'd been all day, from seeing him somewhat shaved, to watching the whales, to finding out about the invite from the Colossus crew. There was a small part of him that felt like making her happy and proud translated into Elizabeth feeling that way as well. But he would do anything to make Esme happy even if he didn't feel that way; he would do it simply because he loved her and considered her an amazing mom and friend.
He decided to spend his free time taking a run on the beach with Lizzy which inevitably led to him having to give his puppy a bath before he could take his own shower. Even with that he was still going to be done before the women since they'd only returned from the mall a few minutes before he'd come back to the house with Lizzy.
"Edward, are you almost ready?" Lee asked while knocking on his door. "Esme wants you to come to her room."
"I'll be right there." He pulled his dress shirt from the hanger and quickly slipped it on. Once he had it tucked in, he rolled the sleeves up to his elbows, finding it too warm for his taste to leave them down. He grabbed the last thing he needed to be ready and worked on closing the clasp of his watch while walking across the house to the room Esme had claimed as her own.
"Mom?" he called, knocking on her closed door.
"Come in, Kid." As soon as he was in the room, she turned her back to him. "Zip me up."
He did as he was told, careful not to catch her hair in the zipper. "Is this what you wanted me for?" he asked doubtfully.
"No," she said as she closed her door. She turned to face him while leaning against it. "I wanted to make absolute sure you're okay with toasting Elizabeth at dinner. I know her birthday isn't always an easy day for you and I need to make sure you're going to be okay."
He smiled and gave her a tight hug. "I love you for worrying but I'm really fine with it. I promise."
She pulled away enough to see his face. "This is your last chance to back out. No harm, no foul."
He ignored her comment and focused instead on what she was wearing. "This is a really great shade of blue for you."
Esme smiled and turned so she was in profile. "I found it a couple months ago and have been dying to wear it. And I love how well it goes with these pearl earrings Beth gave me for my birthday."
He smiled, remembering his mother and aunt hugging and squealing over a homemade pineapple upside down cake that he'd been desperate for them to cut into. He'd had to wait until Esme had put in her new earrings and his mom had taken about a dozen pictures.
"You look great," he complimented.
"You don't look too shabby yourself, Kid," Esme replied as she straightened out the shoulders of his dress shirt. "Beth's favorite shade of green. And you actually remembered to iron your black slacks without me asking."
"Actually, Whit did that," he admitted with a grin. "Is there anything else you need from me? I want to check Lizzy's dishes before we leave."
"No, I'll be right out and then we can go."
He kissed her cheek, careful not to mess up her makeup, and then left her to finish getting ready.
After making sure Lizzy's dishes were stocked with food and water, he decided he wanted to give her a treat since he would be leaving her for the second time today. He pulled out one of the rawhide bones she loved and took it into the living room, expecting her to be curled up in her bed.
She wasn't there so he called her name and whistled for her, getting one of her little barks in return immediately. She came racing out of Bella's room through the crack in the door and made a bee-line for him.
He laughed as he scooped her up and tucked her under his chin. "What were you doing in Bella's room? You better not have been chewing on one of her shoes. You remember how mad Lee got the one time you got hold of hers?"
Lizzy was busy trying to get her little mouth around the bone in his other hand.
"Alright, alright," he said, smiling as he set her down in her bed with the bone. He scratched behind her ear while she smiled around the piece of bone she'd managed to grip with her teeth. "Behave yourself while we're gone, sweet girl."
Whit chuckled from behind him. "Mase, that bone is almost as big as she is."
He stood and stepped back, taking a look at his puppy and her bone. "She's got a couple inches on it," he joked.
The door to Lee's room opened and she stepped out with Gopher right behind her, the both of them smiling. She looked radiant in a white dress with the pinkest shoes Masen had ever seen. She also had a pink purse and those dangly type earrings with pinks and blues and reds in it. She even had a matching boyfriend with Gopher dressed in a white button down with khaki slacks.
"You two trying out for the cutest couple award?" Whit joked. "And, Lee, may I just say that if your ass looked that good in the shorts you typically wear, I might have asked you out."
"Whitlock, she'd break your skinny ass." Gopher was smiling as he said it but there was a seriousness to his tone that caused Whit to lift his hands in a no-offense gesture.
"Don't worry about him," Lee said, rubbing a hand along Emmett's chest. "We all know it's Esme he really wants."
"If that woman would have me, damn straight," Whit replied, glancing at Masen who rolled his eyes in return.
"Did I hear my name?" Esme asked as she joined them in the living room.
Whit let out a whistle. "Esme, you're always a hot mom but damn!"
"Thank you, sweetheart," she replied, planting a kiss on his cheek. "We complement each other well with the light blue of my dress and the dark blue of your shirt. Did you plan this?"
"Totally," he joked, slipping an arm around her waist.
"Bro, hands off my mom," Masen ordered, giving him a fake glare.
Whit leaned in so he wouldn't be overheard. "You just worry about filling your own hands."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Whit's grin was one-hundred percent evil. "You'll see."
"We're missing a Guppy," Gopher said, looking around the room.
"Oh, I bet she needs help with the zipper." Lee handed her purse to him and then disappeared behind Bella's door.
The two women emerged from the room after a handful of minutes and just as many laughs. Lee had a pleased look on her face and Masen was pretty sure it meant she'd had a hand in Bella's outfit.
His blue eyes moved over to Bella and then immediately glazed over in lust and began the change to a green that would end up matching his shirt. The things her red bikini had done to him had nothing on what the red dress she was currently wearing was doing. The damn dress showed off every little curve she had and just to drive him extra crazy, it had ruffles from the one shoulder on the right all the way down to the bottom edge on the left. She'd pinned her hair back, revealing that long neck he'd gotten very intimate with one night in a dark corner. And her matching red shoes gave her enough height that he'd be able to kiss her shiny red lips without having to bend down.
He couldn't handle this much temptation from her and though he tried to be as discreet as possible in adjusting himself, Whit noticed. Of course he did, Masen thought as he grunted and tried again to make his slacks more comfortable. Fucker must have seen her in the dress earlier.
"Having some trouble there, Mase? Need a little extra room in your slacks all of a sudden?" Whit asked, talking just loud enough for him to hear.
Masen tried to force his eyes to look away from Bella but she started to blush and he just had to find out if she would get as red as her dress. It was then that he noticed her finger and toe nails were a matching shade of red. "Fuck me," he muttered to himself.
Whit chuckled beside him. "It's not me you want fucking you, bro."
"Thank you all for dressing up," Esme gushed. "Oh! We have to take a picture. I've got the camera right here," she said as she pulled it from her purse.
"Want me to take the picture?" Bella offered.
"No, no!" Esme assured her with a pat to her arm. "This camera has a self-timer. I want you right next to Edward." She set the camera on the counter and then ran over to stand between Masen and Whit. "Everyone smile big!"
Smile? Is she fucking serious?
Calm down, Mase. And definitely little Mase. What the fuck? I don't call it that. Fucking Whit. Fucking nudger.
Is this fucking flash ever going to go off?
She smells incredible.
She's Kapu. Forbidden. Off fucking limits. The damn apple from Eden.
The flash finally went off and Masen sighed in relief as he darted forward to retrieve the camera. A second more and he really might have forgotten all about the forbidden part and just focused on the incredible.
"I call shotgun," Esme announced as she took the camera from Masen. He was pretty sure she'd winked at him but not sure enough to mention it. The last thing he needed was to have to explain to her in front of everyone why he was suddenly twitchy and sweating.
"I get a window seat," Whit called, putting his arm in the air for good measure.
"Well I want to sit next to Gopher so I guess we're in the back," Lee said.
"Perfect. Bella can ride up front between Edward and me," Esme chirped as she put her arm around Bella's. As they walked past Masen, he heard his mom say, "Lee was right. This shade of red looks delicious on you."
Repeating it three times didn't do that much for Masen's shaky self-control but he pretended it did. And to make matters worse, Whit's grin made it very clear he had a good idea of the feelings raging inside of Masen. Of course, it didn't help that Whit saw him trying and failing again to adjust himself so Bella's effect would be less obvious.
When it was only the two of them left standing outside of the Bronco, Whit proved just how much he knew. "The nudger says kiss de girl."
"You fucking sound like that damn crab from that mermaid movie Lee makes us watch on her birthday every year."
"Good 'cause that's exactly what I was going for. The movie had a boneheaded bro totally falling for the girl and pretending otherwise, just like our current real-life scenario."
"She's kapu, Whit."
"She's kekoa. And you should be too."
"This doesn't have a damn thing to do with being brave. It has to do with careers and MMR."
"Bro, you don't believe that shit any more than I do. You're just not ready to admit it yet. A word of advice, though … Don't wait too long. While you're busy pretending she doesn't light every single fiber of your being on fire, some other guy could swoop in and take up your slack."
Masen kept his eyes and mind strictly on the road during the short drive to Harbour Lights Seafood. He even managed to calm himself down as far as Bella was concerned—he was still slightly pissed at Whit for being such an annoying nudger. He was even more pissed that his best friend had a point.
But that all changed when Bella reached her hand out, silently asking for help getting out of the Bronco. His hold was both tight and careful, making sure she was stable on her feet in her high-heeled red shoes. The sun was just starting to set over the marina and restaurant and the golden light fell across her face, brightening the brown of her eyes to more of a caramel color.
He only nodded as he let go of her hand and shoved his own in his pocket.
She frowned. "I know you said it was okay earlier, but are you upset about me staying behind on Galeos tomorrow while you're all onboard The Submarine? If you changed your mind—"
He silenced her by taking hold of her hand again. "I'm not upset."
"Are you sure? I'll stay in Gordon's Bay if you'd rather. I just don't want to be the reason you don't have fun at dinner tonight. Esme's so excited and you were too earlier."
He was definitely excited, it was just for a reason he couldn't do anything about. But that wasn't her burden and he wanted her to enjoy dinner just as much as he wanted that for everyone else. He forced himself to smile as if he didn't have a care in the world. "You're coming, Guppy. There's no getting out of it. Now let's go inside and enjoy dinner. No more shark talk tonight."
She answered him with her genuine smile and a squeeze of his hand.
He'd originally planned to make sure he didn't sit anywhere near her for this dinner but now he couldn't imagine sitting next to anyone but her. And it wasn't about the dress or how much he wanted to find out what was under the dress. It was because she honestly cared about him and wanted to see him happy. He probably shouldn't have liked that since she was kapu, but he couldn't seem to help it and for tonight he figured it was okay not to care. After all, Elizabeth would want him to be happy on her birthday.
"Edward? Are you alright?" Bella asked, standing in the balcony doorway with the lamplight from the living room outlining her. She'd traded in her hot-as-hell red dress for a faded Sea World t-shirt and white pajama pants—and he wanted her near him just as much now as he had earlier tonight.
"I'm fine. Why?" He was surprised she was still up since everyone else in the house had been asleep for at least a couple hours.
"It's just … Earlier Lizzy was scratching at the door for a while before I let her out and you didn't seem to hear her at all. You're always so attentive to her needs."
He made a split-second decision and extended his arm, waving her over. "Come here."
If she had hesitated, he would have changed his mind and made up some excuse for calling her over. But she didn't hesitate. She slid the door closed and came right over, fitting her fingers between his and allowing him to pull her down to sit on his leg.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked, whispering the words.
"It just is." He knew that would confuse her but he didn't have a better way to put it. It had been a long time since he'd shared this with anyone and he'd never wanted someone to understand as badly as he did with her. "Do you remember the toast I made at dinner tonight?"
"Of course. To Elizabeth."
"To my mother on her birthday."
Confusion filled her eyes and caused her forehead to wrinkle. "But Esme …"
"Is my mother's younger sister. She's really my aunt."
Bella looked closely at him for a long moment and then she did something he had never expected; she put her arms around his neck and hugged him. She didn't offer an apology or try to console him by saying she knew it must be hard for him. She just hugged him. And made him feel completely understood.
They sat in silence for a long time before she quietly said, "If you want to tell me about her, I'd be happy to listen."
"She liked to go by Beth. Never Liza or Lizzy." He smiled as he remembered the one time he'd ever heard someone call her the latter. "She especially hated Lizzy. She said it was just waiting, biding its time to become Izzy and then Zee. It was a stealer of identities."
Bella giggled against him. "She sounds a lot like Esme."
"They definitely share a similar sense of humor." He took a breath and finally gave in to the urge to wrap his arms around Bella, not wanting to go any further without feeling anchored to her. "It helps that they were alike in a lot of ways. I don't feel like I lost every piece of her the day she died."
He had originally planned to only share pieces of his mother from her life so he had no idea why he was suddenly telling Bella about Beth's last day and her final words. "I was eleven and I didn't completely understand what was going on. I just knew it was really bad and my mom was getting sicker."
Masen closed his eyes, picturing her room along with the sights and sounds from that day …
Fifteen Years Earlier -
The sea-green curtains blowing back and forth in the warm breeze matched the ocean right outside. Edward wished he was in the water right now, letting the waves soothe away all the unwanted thoughts in his head. But he was here instead, shifting around in the chair beside his mother's bed, searching for a way to feel comfortable in her room. He loved his mother and he loved spending time with her, but he hated the antiseptic smell of her room. They almost always left the windows open but it never seemed to help with the smell.
"Edward." Her voice was thin, like her body and her hair. Even just a year ago, the first thing a person would have noticed about Elizabeth Masen was her hair; thick and shiny strands of reddish blond with natural streaks of brown and a slight curl at the ends. Now her hair was lax, thin, and brittle, and the curl was all gone. She was nearly gone and the thought filled him with equal parts anger and fear. She didn't deserve to go like this, to be ripped apart from the inside out slowly and painfully. And he didn't want to face a life without her.
Elizabeth's thin and nearly weightless hand settled over his, the sickly heat of it shocking him and making him draw his own hand back. He gave her a meek smile as an apology and forced his hand to close over hers.
"Edward, I need you to listen to me. Can you do that for me?"
He nodded his head obediently though he wanted nothing more than to run from the room. But even at eleven he understood running from the room wouldn't take away her cancer.
"I have to leave you," she told him. "I don't want to and I would stay if I could, but I can't any longer."
He'd known this was coming just as he knew arguing over it wouldn't do either of them any good. He simply nodded and fought the tears trying to fall from his eyes.
"You have to promise to take good care of yourself. I don't want you filled with anger and doing silly things to get back at the world. It isn't the world's fault that the doctors haven't found a cure for cancer yet."
"Then whose fault is it?" he asked harshly, losing what little control he had over his anger.
"No one's, my special boy. It's no one's fault. It's just life. Someone is born and someone dies."
He blinked back his tears, trying to see her face clearly. "But why you? Why does it have to be you, Mom?"
"It's just my time. It's come much too soon in my opinion but it's here nonetheless. All I can do is make the most of it and make sure you know exactly how much you are loved."
He knew he shouldn't say it, but he couldn't stop himself. "If you love me so much, then stay."
"You know I can't. And I know you don't really want me to stay here like this. You want us both to be happy again as much as I do."
If he had been older, he could have been a better son and kept his own pain hidden to make the end easier on her. But he was only eleven and he couldn't help putting his head on her chest and crying into her nightgown, begging and pleading with her to stay.
She shushed him while running her fingers through his mess of reddish brown hair until she had him calmed enough to listen to her. "Have I ever told you how you came to be my very special boy?" she asked.
He nodded slowly, blinking a few more tears from his blue eyes.
"Tell me then so I know you have the story right," she urged.
"You were on vacation in London with Aunt Esme and Grandma and Grandpa Masen. You wanted to see the zoo but it was drizzling outside and no one else wanted to go with you. So you went by yourself. You were standing in front of your favorite exhibit—the lions—and this man came up beside you to look at them.
"He smiled and you smiled and before you knew what had happened, you were having lunch with him. He told you his name was Edward and that he lived nearby. And he asked you to dinner but you told him how you were there with your family and instead of taking 'no' for an answer, he had you invite everyone to dinner.
"You went on a date a day with him until you had to go home a week later and then he wrote you letters and called you on the phone. He even flew to Chicago to visit you. You guys were smitten which means you really, really loved each other. He wanted to marry you and even asked Grandpa for your hand before he asked you and gave you your ring."
Edward sat up and roughly passed his hands under his wet eyes. "I don't want to talk about this stupid story anymore."
His mother sighed and put her hand against his back. "He gave me his ring and I gave him my heart. Two days later, he boarded Grandpa Masen's plane to fly to London and pack. He was going to move to Chicago and take a position in Grandpa's company. But the small plane hit a terrible storm and I never saw your father again. Not until nine months had passed and my special boy was placed into my arms. From the very start, you had his face, his hair, and his long limbs. It seemed only right to name you after him, Edward Anthony. I lost him but I gained you, and I will always be so very grateful that I knew you and loved you."
Edward wiped at the fresh tears streaming down his reddened cheeks. "But I'm not gaining anything. I'm just losing you."
His mother found the strength to grip his face and turn it toward her. "That's where you're wrong, Edward. You are gaining a new life here in Hawaii with your Aunt Esme." She let go of his chin and reached under her pillow, pulling something out and dropping it into Edward's open palm. "And you are gaining this," she said as she closed his fingers over the small diamond and gold band.
"I don't want a new life or a ring," he said as he tried to make her take the ring back. He wanted her to take everything back. Her ring. Her goodbye. Her sickness.
"But I want you to have them, Edward. I want you to embrace life here in Hawaii with your aunt. And I want you to keep this ring with you until you find the young woman who was made to love you, the way I was made for your father and him for me. It may take a while for you to find her but I know you will."
"How will I know it's her?"
His mother smiled as she closed his fingers over the ring once more. "You won't want to let her go. You'll go to horribly embarrassing family dinners and want to move continents just to be with her."
"But I only want you."
"You'll always have me, Edward," she said as her hand and eyes moved to where his heart beat strongly in his chest. "I'll always be right here inside of you."
"That's not the same."
"I know. But it's all I can give you."
"Then I'm selfish because I want more."
His mother laughed weakly and he nearly cried for the loss of her soft, lilting laugh. "I'm just as selfish then because I want more too. But I know I can't have it so I'll focus the last of my energy on you, my special boy."
"Why do you call me that? What's so special about me?"
She gave him a real smile—the kind he used to see all the time before she got sick. "Everything."
Despite all of his hurt and anger, he laughed at her answer. "You're my mom. You have to say stuff like that."
"Maybe. But it's still true. You are bright and funny. You're outgoing and athletic. You love a challenge and you love to try new things. There is no doubt in my mind that you will be a fine young man and have a wonderful life."
"What if I don't? What if the only thing that makes me special is you?"
"That's where you're all wrong, Edward. It's you who makes me special."
Once again, he found himself laying against her and crying into her nightgown. "Don't go. Just stay here and love me."
Her arm weakly held him against her as she spoke softly to him. "Sweetheart, I will never stop loving you."
Edward stayed in her loose embrace listening to her heart slow until it reached its final beat and her last puff of breath blew into his hair.
Masen left out the bit about the ring but he shared everything else with Bella, including his worries about whether or not Esme would really keep him. "It was three days after my mom had passed that I finally knew for sure Esme wanted me around. She came into my room and told me to get my shoes on, that there was food to be bought and cooked and she needed someone strong to push the cart around the store. To my eleven-year-old brain, it was proof because she wouldn't buy me food if she wasn't planning on keeping me around. Adults didn't waste money that way."
Bella once again did something he never would have imagined. "It was hers, wasn't it? The music box you couldn't put back together. It belonged to Beth."
"I still have it," he confided.
She pulled her arm between them and the watch on her wrist caught the light coming through the sliding glass door. "This is my dad's. He was wearing it that last day."
Masen held her against his chest as tightly as he dared, wishing that he'd been wrong about her losing someone she loved to a shark.
"It was just him and me and Uncle Carl on this trip." Her voice sounded far away, as if the wind was catching it and blowing it in the opposite direction. But the air was mostly still tonight and regardless he'd know from experience that it was being lost in her past that made her voice sound that way.
"Bella, you don't have to just because I did." As much as he wanted to know, he didn't want her to feel forced and end up regretting it later.
"I've wanted to tell you for days now but I just … But after hearing about your mom … Sharks were just animals in the ocean to me at the time. I didn't think about them at all really. And I certainly didn't have any idea they could be in the same water as us.
"I don't remember everything. I have big chunks of time missing … But sometimes … sometimes I dream and it feels so real, like they're memories and not just nightmares.
"It was a bull shark. It was only in the area because some people were sport fishing just a few miles from our boat. The fishermen tried to warn people, putting out a call on the radio … If we'd only swam back to the boat the first time my uncle had called for us, maybe my dad would still be alive."
He hadn't been completely sure she was crying until right then when she hiccupped; Lee always got the hiccups when she tried to cry quietly.
"But he was distracted," Bella continued. "He was talking to me."
"Don't do that," Masen whispered into her ear. "Don't blame yourself."
"But it was my fault. I begged to go on the trip and I was the one who wanted to swim that morning. And I was also the one distracting him, keeping him from listening to my uncle."
"You were just a kid spending time with her dad. You didn't make it happen, Bella."
She didn't seem like she'd heard him at all—she was probably just as lost in her past as he'd been in his earlier. "I tried to save him, though. I really did. I pulled and pulled and didn't stop, no matter how much it hurt. But we couldn't get him out of the water. We couldn't save him. I couldn't save him."
"You were what, fourteen? And probably weighed as much as a wet noodle. There's no way you could have hauled a full grown man out of the water. It's not your fault, Bella."
"Someone has to be at fault. If it's not me and it's not the shark, then who is it?"
"It's like my mom's cancer. It just is. It sucks and it hurts but it's not anyone's fault. Nobody purposefully did anything to cause it."
"I want a real explanation. I want to be able to say this is what caused it. I want proof it wasn't me, that I didn't destroy my family."
"You still have a family, just a different kind. You have your uncle and your little sister."
Bella shifted in his lap and although he allowed her to sit up, he kept his arms around her as much as he could. "My uncle was forced to become a surrogate father to his nieces because my mother pretty much lost her mind when she found out what happened. When she learned that my dad had chosen to save me instead of himself, it broke something in her. And when she found out a few months later that I still wanted to work with marine life, she had a complete mental breakdown. Now she lives in California at one of the family vineyards with one of my dad's second cousins. It's my fault that Alice has had to grow up without her parents."
Masen held her wet face in his hands and looked straight into her sad brown eyes, wanting more than anything for her to believe him. "You didn't kill your father, Bella. He lost his life in an unexpected shark attack. If your mom couldn't handle that loss, that's on her, not you. You haven't really told me anything about him and already I know you loved your dad with all your heart and would have done anything to save him."
She looked down at the watch and a tear splashed against the face of it. "I got my fingers on this band but they slipped before I could get a grip. And then my uncle pulled me away, made me leave and get on the deck of the boat."
Masen felt guilty for all the times he's cursed that watch, never thinking for a second that it could be so important to her—the last tie to her father. He used the end of his shirt to dry the face for her. "It's a good watch."
"I gave it to him for Christmas just months before. Uncle Carl had helped me get it for him, giving me an advance on my birthday money."
"I bet your uncle never stuck to that. I bet he still got you a birthday gift." Masen smiled, not really expecting a reaction in return; he was happily surprised when she returned it.
"Yeah, he did."
"Do you really think if you had done something to harm your dad that your uncle would take you in and raise you as his own?"
"No, not really. It's just … It's easier if I know why. If there's a reason for it. Wrong place at the wrong time just doesn't help me."
"Unfortunately, that's really what it was, Bella. It's the same with what happened to Whit."
She wiped at her eyes with the backs of her hands until her cheeks were mostly dry and then took in a deep breath. "You didn't always believe that. Whit told me so himself."
"And he's right. I didn't. I felt like there must have been something one of us did to make the shark decide to go for Whit instead of me. But that changed once I started doing research and came to understand them. I sincerely hope it will be the same for you."
"Could we … Could you not tell the others yet? I just … I want to show some progress first and prove that I belong here."
"You don't have to prove anything to us. You're here so we can help you."
She lifted her eyes to his, already begging before her lips parted. "Please?"
He nodded in agreement and then gave her a tight hug. "Come on," he said as he tapped her on the leg. "You need to sleep. It's going to be a big, busy day with us joining up with the Colossus crew."
"I'm not really tired right now," she protested despite letting him lead her inside and toward her room.
"Then just lay down with me. Some rest is better for you than none."
He managed to coax her to lie down beside him but he couldn't get her to close her eyes. Not at first anyway. It took him coming up with a subject Bella would find boring and then talking about it. Twenty minutes of listening to him rattle on about engineering principles and Bella was out cold, curled up against him with Lizzy asleep in her arms.
As pleased as he was at getting her to go to sleep, he was no fool and he knew it wouldn't last. Not with how she felt about her father's death. It was why he had no intention of leaving her alone in her room. When she woke up disoriented and afraid, she would have more than a bedside lamp to help her. He would be there to let her know she wasn't alone.
Bella could feel her mind trying to pull her down far enough to dream but she fought it, using the rumble of Edward's voice and the warmth of Lizzy to keep her connected to the waking world. She didn't want to relive that day eight years ago and she knew that was exactly what would happen if she allowed herself to fall into a deep enough sleep for dreaming. She even considered once or twice rousing herself enough to ask Edward to stop talking. Even if he didn't agree, the arguing about it would help keep her awake.
In the end, it felt too good to be so close to him and having him watch over her, even if it was just so she wouldn't be tired tomorrow when they joined up with that other crew.
Her first few dreams centered on Edward and Lizzy. In the first, it was just Edward and herself sitting on the rocks and watching orcas and right whales. The second had her chasing Lizzy down the beach and laughing. The final enjoyable dream of her night had her watching a sunset on the beach with Edward and Lizzy sitting beside her.
And then the dream made up of her worst memories took over …
"Dad!" Bella squealed, lifting her hand in front of her face to block the spray.
"Gotcha." Her father laughed and splashed more water at her.
"This isn't swimming," she told him.
Her father stopped splashing her and swam a little closer to her. "Did you see those dolphins following the boat on the way out here yesterday afternoon, Bug?"
Bella nodded, her smile wide and infectious over the subject matter and her father's term of endearment for her. When she'd first learned to walk, she would follow her father all over their house, always close enough to get stepped on just like a bug—hence the nickname.
As for her marine life sightings, that had begun as a game with her father nearly a decade ago. At fourteen now, she'd filled an entire journal and was halfway done with a second. It was her father who had bought her the first journal, teaching her the alphabet and how to write so she could describe the animals she came across. She loved looking through her journals to see how her handwriting had changed and grown over the years, but she especially loved the early entries written in her father's large looping handwriting.
"How many dolphin sightings does that bring you up to?" her father asked.
"Close to three dozen now, Daddy."
He grinned at her and flicked a few drops of water her way. "You're going to have to count your summer camp as one encounter or we'll be looking for a new journal for you."
"Hey, you two! Breakfast is ready whenever you are!" Bella turned and looked toward the boat where the yell had come from, seeing her uncle standing at the edge and waving to them.
While her father yelled back to her uncle, Bella compared their physical features. Her father's hair was jet black and kept close to his head. Her uncle's hair was a slightly darker brown than her own; it was longer than her father's but always kept neatly trimmed so it never seemed overgrown. Her father had the same dark brown eyes she did while her uncle's eyes were the gray of a stormy sky. She knew if they stood side by side they'd be the same height just like she knew her uncle had a few pounds of lean muscle on her father. Uncle Carlisle had a home gym and personal trainer while her father had her mother's irresistible cooking.
Carlisle and Charles Cullen were born two years apart and raised in Santa Rosa, California. The two men were extremely close and even owned a company together that manufactured safety gear for police officers. They also shared a love of the outdoors, especially fishing. Unlike their father and grandfather before them, they'd chosen not to take part in the family vineyards and had instead struck out together to earn their own fortune in their own way. They had achieved their goal with over a decade of hard work and were now at a time in their lives where they could relax—and take weeklong fishing trips at the drop of a hat. Though, there was a lot more swimming than fishing this trip and Bella loved having her father's attention all to herself this way.
It wasn't like her father didn't pay attention to her when they were home in Chicago because he certainly did. But back home, he also had to give attention to her mother and her younger sister, Alice. Out here, though, she only had to compete with the fish and today they would only be fishing for dinner, not sport. She looked forward to meals on the boat, knowing once dinner was nearly through her father and uncle would start to tell outlandish and impossible stories of their journeys together. She wondered if she would ever travel with Alice the way her father and uncle did.
The sound of her name pulled her attention back to her father. "Bella, are you excited for summer camp?"
"Just a little," she said, giving a shrug to pretend it was no big deal.
But her father saw right through her. "Can't fool me, Bug," he said with a laugh. "I can see in your eyes how excited you are. My future marine biologist. Before I know it, you'll be traveling to study all the world's oceans."
Bella looked up at her father so she could gauge his reaction. "I might decide to be a marine veterinarian instead. Then I wouldn't just be studying marine life, I could save them."
Her father tapped his wet finger against her nose, making her giggle as the droplets of water slid down her cheeks and chin. "Whatever you choose to do, I know you'll make me proud."
Bella's cheeks reddened at the praise and her heart felt ready to burst from all the love she felt for her father. She had been a true daddy's girl from birth, always preferring to spend time with him over any other member of her family. Sometimes her sister got jealous that Bella was allowed to travel and she wasn't, but Bella considered it her perk for being the oldest.
"So your mom mentioned a boy …"
A nervous laugh escaped Bella and she dropped her eyes to the blue water directly in front of her. "Mom's exaggerating."
"Really? You're acting mighty shy, Bug."
Bella huffed as she brought her eyes up to meet her father's gaze. "He's only a friend and barely one at that. I only know him because we were math lab partners. It's not like I want to date him or anything."
"Not your type?"
"Not at all," Bella said, her words come out slow and firm.
"You seem pretty sure about that." From the grin on his face, Bella knew her father was teasing her.
"Yep. When I date a guy, he's going to be respectful and polite and he'll never tell me I can't do something just because I'm a girl."
"My daughter has standards." Her father was still smiling at her, but Bella could tell it had changed from teasing to proud and it made her heart swell with her own pride.
"Charles!" her uncle Carlisle yelled.
"Just a minute, Carl," her father called back without even looking at his brother. "There are too many women in this world who don't understand their value. It makes me proud to know you aren't one of them."
Bella let out a little laugh as she pictured her mother in her head. "Like Mom always says, you set the bar pretty high, Dad."
Her uncle's yell sounded off again, this time calling both of their names. "Charles! Bella!"
Bella looked toward the boat and noticed him waving at them. "Dad, I think Uncle Carlisle is feeling left out and wants us to wave to him."
"In a minute. I want to finish my conversation with you first. Someday, and much too soon for me, a young man is going to enter your life and turn your world upside down because that's just what young men do. I want you to remember your words from earlier and if that man isn't giving you respect and support along with his love, well then it isn't really love and he doesn't deserve you."
Before Bella could say anything, her uncle yelled out again. "Charles Cullen!"
"What?" her father yelled back, looking very annoyed with his brother.
"Get out of the water!"
"If you're bored, find a book. I'm not here to entertain you, big brother."
"There's been a shark sighting nearby."
Fear spiked through Bella and clutched at her heart, immediately making it race and pound in her ears. She'd only seen sharks at the aquariums she'd visited and although she knew there were plenty in the wild, she'd never dreamed she would swim where they did. What if one came close? What if it tried to bite her?
"Bella." Her father's authoritative tone sliced right through her panic. "There's no reason to worry. It's just a sighting and honestly, I'm surprised we didn't get one yesterday. So just stay calm and swim for the boat. I'll be right behind you."
Bella nodded to show she would do as he asked though she really doubted she could stop herself from worrying. She took in a breath and made her first few strokes toward the boat. She focused on her uncle waiting for her on the boat's platform as a way to keep her strokes even and steady, but quickly found the more she focused on him, the farther away he seemed.
"Dad, the boat's moving away," she said, her voice laced with pure panic.
"It's not, Bug. It's right where it's been this whole time. It's only your fear making it seem farther away. Just keep swimming and before you know it, we'll be on the boat having breakfast with Uncle Carl. The shark probably didn't even come this way. It's just a precaution."
"Just a precaution," Bella repeated. Her arms were already starting to feel heavy and she scolded herself for not taking those swim lessons with Alice this year all because she'd wanted to do things without her sister for once. So while Alice had become a better and stronger swimmer each afternoon, Bella had participated in a variety of afterschool clubs.
"Come on, Bug. Just a little farther," her father encouraged from right behind her.
She knew he was a strong swimmer and could have already been on the boat, but he was making sure she got there first. A desire to make him proud flooded her and she pushed her body harder, trying to make her strokes longer and more forceful.
"That's it, Bella," her uncle called out. "Almost here now, Sweetheart." He was slightly bent over and offering his hand to her. She focused on his fingers and swam straight for them.
"Gotcha!" Uncle Carlisle shouted as he gripped her hand.
Bella smiled as she reached her other hand out to him, feeling silly now for being so scared of nothing.
"Up you go," her father said from behind as he grabbed her foot and pushed her upwards toward her uncle.
With both men working to get Bella out of the water, neither saw the dark gray dorsal fin break the surface just a few feet from the boat. They didn't see the dark shadow in the water or the way it suddenly darted forward. One moment, they almost had Bella out of the water and the next she was screaming and being pulled between the two men.
Her father let go of her foot as soon as he could but it wasn't soon enough to keep her and her uncle from falling into the water. Bella hadn't been expecting to go under and her mouth and lungs filled with water, choking her and flooding her body with fear and adrenaline. She tried to calm herself and push up through the water but her limbs froze in terror as her eyes latched onto the large flat-nosed shark swimming straight for her.
Bubbles swarmed her head as she screamed underwater, and her arms and legs flailed about as she tried to swim upwards. Her eyes stayed on the shark during her struggle until finally she closed them so she wouldn't have to see the shark bite her.
She was suddenly grabbed but it didn't hurt the way she'd expected. And it didn't drag her down either. Bella was propelled upward so hard and fast that her upper body landed hard on the boat's small platform. Pain flared in her arm and shot back and forth between her elbow and fingertips but she ignored it, focusing instead on getting her legs and feet out of the water. No one would realize until late that night that she'd broken her wrist in the landing.
She also ignored her burning throat and the coughs shaking her thin frame, screaming one word over and over as loudly as she could. "Daddy!"
A hand came up out of the water and slapped against the platform, scaring Bella more than she'd thought was possible with the fear she'd already had clutching at her heart. She got up on her knees and grabbed hold of the wrist, trying to pull her father up without falling back into the water. Her own arm screamed with pain and she did her best to ignore.
"Daddy, get out of the water," she pleaded as she tugged with all her strength.
The head that broke the water had brown hair and Bella couldn't help herself from feeling upset that it wasn't her father. She didn't stop tugging, though—not until her uncle was out of the water and kneeling beside her on the platform. Blood was coming from his foot, staining the platform and the water but Bella didn't see it. She was already standing and screaming for her father again.
"Bella, get up on the boat," her uncle ordered. "Get away from the water."
Just as she reached the deck, a splash to her right had her head darting in that direction and she breathed a sigh of relief at seeing her father's black hair. He had an odd expression on his face and didn't seem to be in a hurry to get on the boat.
"Daddy, swim!" Bella screamed at him. She was certain it made him move a little faster so she took up a chant, encouraging him to hurry up and get out of the water.
Her uncle was still kneeling on the platform and it gave him the perfect and worst view of his brother—and the dorsal fin just a few feet behind him. "Charlie! Charlie, swim, damn it!" he yelled.
The fin disappeared and Carlisle breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the animal had turned around. He ignored the pain in his foot and slipped back into the water, planning on grabbing his brother and helping him get safely onto the boat.
"Daddy, it's behind you!" Bella screamed from just above her uncle's head. Spray from her uncle swimming to her father splashed her hands but she barely felt it as she let go of the railing to run for the platform. She wanted to help her uncle get her father out of the water, her terror forgotten in her desire to protect her father.
She had to pay attention to her footing to get down from the deck to the platform and hated every second she had to look away from her father. As soon as her feet touched the wet wood, she lifted her head. She could see her uncle had her father by the arm and was towing him toward her. She could also see the fin poking out of the water and following right behind them.
"Swim! Swim! Swim!" she screamed, oblivious to the way she was clutching her hands and the pain radiating through her arm.
She suddenly remembered having heard something about hitting sharks and scrambled back up on deck. She started grabbing for things, tossing a half filled bucket of bait fish at the shadow trailing behind her father and uncle. She found one of her uncle's water shoes and tossed that too; she hit the shadow but not the thing making it. She tried once more, tossing the other shoe at it and must have hit it that time because the shadow turned and went under the boat.
Bella raced toward the platform, this time jumping down without even trying to be careful. Her uncle was already kneeling on it and trying to pull her father out of the water. She grabbed her father's arm at the elbow and tugged as hard as she could.
"Charlie, you've got to help us," her uncle pleaded. He noticed the way his brother's eyes were rolled back in his head and the deep purple bruises coloring his side.
"Daddy, come on. You're too heavy like this. Help us get you up," Bella begged. She could barely breathe with the way her chest and arms hurt, especially her wrist, but she didn't let that stop her.
Her father groaned as he struggled to get his knee up on the platform and help with his own rescue. His side was an ugly purple where the shark had initially rammed into him and he was having his own trouble breathing, much less moving.
Carlisle reached down and grabbed the waistband of his brother's swim trunks, bunching the fabric in his hand and preparing to haul his brother out of the water. Bella's cry pierced the air at the same moment the shark's teeth latched onto her father's leg just below the knee. Carlisle could feel the difference in his strength versus the shark's and knew if he continued to pull, he would send all three of them back into the water.
His brother knew it too. "Grab Bella," Charlie ordered seconds before he ripped his arm out of his daughter's grasp.
Bella saw the choice in her father's eyes just before he'd pulled his arm away. He was going to let that evil monster have him to protect her, but she didn't want that. She'd rather lose an arm or a leg or both than lose her father. She pitched herself forward to grab his arm again, her fingers raking over the metal of his watch seconds before her uncle grabbed hold of her.
Carlisle tried to hold onto his brother's trunks with one hand while keeping Bella out of the water with his other. But Bella had lost her footing and he either had to let go of his brother to keep her safe or let them all get pulled back in.
Charlie could see only two possible outcomes to the deadly situation he was in and there was only one he could live with. "Take care of Bella," he demanded, looking his brother right in the eyes. Charlie pushed himself away from Carlisle and let the shark pull him under in order to save his daughter. Bella screamed as her father's head was jerked beneath the surface; it was the last time she would see her father outside of her memories and nightmares.
For a moment, she was certain none of this was real and she was safe at home in her bed in Chicago. She'd wake up, go down the hall to her father's study, and crawl into his lap for a good long hug. But then she was falling backwards and she knew without a doubt this was all painfully real.
The way Charlie had pushed against Carlisle to free himself had caused his brother to fall backwards with Bella. Carlisle's back struck the ladder that led to the deck and the pain was so sudden and sharp it caused him to lose his hold on Bella's arm for one long, terrifying moment. If his arms wouldn't have been so long, he never would have got them around her waist and kept her from diving in after her father.
Bella screamed for her father and clawed at her uncle, her view completely blocked by her uncle's wet chest. She was frantic to get free and help her father and couldn't understand why her uncle was stopping her.
Carlisle's arms would have a few faint scars from her gouging and his foot would have a nasty scar from getting grazed by the shark's teeth. But that was for later. Right then, he had to do what his brother had told him and take care of Bella. He struggled to keep his kicking, scratching, screaming niece in his arms as he headed for the boat's radio to call for help, knowing in his heart it was already too late.
Masen rubbed at his sore jaw as he made his way out of Bella's room and toward the bathroom. She'd woken in a panic just as he'd expected—what he hadn't expected was for her to clock him in the jaw with her head when she'd jerked awake. She hadn't even realized she'd done it until she'd caught him rubbing his jaw after he'd gotten her calmed down. If there was anything positive to take from it, it was that having her concerned about his jaw had kept her mind off her father and that had kept her asleep for the rest of the night. Or at least what little had been left of it.
He'd expected to find it boring just lying there beside her but it had been oddly peaceful. And even though he'd waited for it and even searched for it, there never came a moment when he questioned what he was doing. Being there for her last night … holding her close and watching over her as she slept … It had been as easy as breathing. He wondered if that was how it had been for his father when he'd gone to that awkward family dinner just to spend time with his mother.
Masen shook his head to clear away that thought. Last night was over and done with and it was time now to focus on the day ahead. Part of him had to wonder if lack of sleep was involved in the decision Bella had made just before he'd left her room … She was going to come aboard the research ship with them instead of hanging back on Galeos.
Whatever the reason, he was glad she had changed her mind. While he had understood and respected her initial choice that didn't mean he'd liked it at all. She should be there with the MMR team—with him. And it had much less to do with her being the intern than it probably should have. He wanted her there simply because spending time with her made him happy. Well, at least as long as they weren't arguing about sharks.
Something Whit had said days ago came to him then … You're wasting your time and hers by acting this way. And the worst part is that on some level you know it. It's why you can't give me one true, logical reason why you can't commit to getting closer to her.
After last night, there was no need to worry about whether or not it was right to get closer to her. It had happened the second he'd told her about Elizabeth. It had been solidified the moment Bella had put her arms around his neck. Whatever happened from this moment on, it wouldn't involve him wasting any more of their time together.
A/N: Hello, readers! We know we threw a lot at you with this chapter, but it was time for some of the secrets to come out and it needed to be the ones big enough to change the dynamic between Masen and Guppy. It also needed to wait for a time when they truly felt they could trust the other with their past.
We want to give a huge thanks to TheSaintsMistress. She was a huge help with this chapter, supplying us with the Afrikaans that Lee speaks in Cape Town, as well as valuable logistical information. She also shared with us the amazing pictures we've put up on the blog. TSM, thank you again so very much! We truly appreciate your help!
**** For those interested, here is the translation of Lee's conversation with the fruit stand owner:
Lee smiled at the stand's owner. "Good morning. Would you have a moment to speak with us?"
The woman came out from behind the counter and shook hands with both Lee and Masen before turning to Lee and answering her question. "Sure."
"We were wondering if you might know the best place for watching whales? We know there a couple areas along the Western Cape but we really want the best view. We have a large group and would love to be close to the whales."
"In Hermanus you can watch the whales from the rocks. Go to Bientangs Cave, it's a restaurant close to the water."
After writing down whatever it was the woman had told her, Lee asked her something else. "Do you know how far that is from Gordon's Bay?"
"About an hour."
"Great! Are you familiar with Gordon's Bay at all? We would like to have a nice dinner there tonight."
"Harbour Lights Seafood is good. It's right near the marina and has a great view."
Lee was smiling happily as she shook the woman's hand again. "Thank you. You've been so helpful." She then turned around and showed Masen the notes she'd written in the pocket notebook she always kept with her. "We have a plan for today."
While he was really glad for that, he had a one-track mind at the moment and it was focused on the fresh fruit right in front of them. "Good so we can get some plums now? And get a lot. Between Esme, Whit and me, we'll take out at least dozen."
After rolling her eyes at him, Lee turned back to the woman who owned the stand and spoke in Afrikaans again. "We would like two dozen plums please."
- There you have it, readers! Another chapter of BTS has sailed off into the sunset. Next up is shark research with the Colossus crew and it's going to be a whole new ballgame for MMR.