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Chapter 18 – The Nudger Strikes Again
Tuesday, June 17th
Bella paused in putting on her shoes to turn and look at the right side of her bed—the side Edward had spent the night on, awake and watching. She knew he wasn't really big on sleeping but she still felt a little guilt over keeping him up. And there was a huge amount for knocking him in the jaw with her head. At least his jaw hadn't looked bruised when he'd left earlier.
She wondered where he would have ended up last night if she hadn't gone out to the balcony to check on him. Would he have stayed out there alone all night? Or was there a chance he would have stopped by to visit and then ended up staying? She wanted to believe he hadn't told her about his mother simply because she was the one to step outside that sliding glass door.
It was strange. Her feelings for him. Feelings that had never surfaced for anyone else and definitely not with anyone else. Her anger for his hot and cold behavior and then her quick and complete forgiveness of his mistakes. She'd always had a strong, independent personality—a trait she had inherited from her father. Not that she'd been able to show much of that here where she often felt crippled by her fear of sharks. Except that wasn't quite true. She did feel brave at times. Times when Edward was right there beside her, giving her strength in her moments of doubt and fear. He believed in her, in her ability to change her life for the better and let go of her fear, at least enough to have a happy, healthy life.
Bella blew out a breath; her thoughts and emotions were swirling in confusing patterns and that feeling of being tugged two ways was back stronger than ever. Professional versus personal and the idea that there was really no such thing as a choice and never had been. Not since she had placed her hand in his that first night in the bar.
And it wasn't as though she was unhappy about yesterday's events. No, what she was, was terrified today would be nothing like yesterday.
She really had tried to be dispassionate and impartial to him yesterday, thinking of him as just a colleague. She'd laughed at him putting his hat on her and had brushed it off as nothing more than him worrying she'd get sick from being sunburnt and somehow delay MMR's plans.
Then there had been that moment when he'd been talking to her about the right whales. She knew—knew with all the certainty that she knew the sky was blue and the ocean was deep—he had been leaning toward her the same way as he had the night before on the beach. That lean of his was incredibly distinct and she'd never seen it without a kiss following it. Well, not unless he was interrupted by a ringing phone or a yelling Gopher. Though, she had to wonder if he really would have gone through with it right there in the open in front of so many witnesses after all of his talk about perception and saving careers. In the end, she'd written it off as nothing more than a trick of her eyes, telling herself if he'd moved at all, it was only to get into a more comfortable position on the rocks.
It was easy enough to fool yourself into believing things meant nothing when it was a single item or two. Quick moments that came and went. But his hand on her lower back … Sure, at first, it had absolutely been to get her on her feet and moving toward Gopher and the others. But then his hand had stayed there. Not just for the walk over either. During the entire talk with Brett and then all the way up the slight slope of the land to the table where Esme was sitting in the shade. Friends—even best friends—they just didn't do things like that. A guiding hand on a lower back, that was something intimate, a connection between two people marking them separate from everyone else in the crowd. It was how men had been staking their claim on the women in their lives for centuries. Only, she knew the normal impression of a hand on a back couldn't possibly hold the same meaning as Edward's hand on her back—nothing had been normal about her relationship with him yet.
Still … She wondered …
Add in the fact that his eyes had remained a vibrant green last night from the house to the restaurant and back, and that he'd trusted her with memories of his mother, and then had spent the night making sure she was okay … Where did the brushing off end and the lying to herself begin? Bella considered that question as she lifted her father's watch from the dresser and fitted it over her wrist.
It was another set of fingers that closed the clasp for her. "I could have gotten it," she said, trying to gauge his mood from his expression.
"I know but I wanted to." Edward adjusted the watch so that the face sat perfectly in the middle of her wrist. She was surprised he'd come back into her room since she could hear Lee and Gopher's voices coming from the kitchen. On one level, it gave her hope that today would be very much like yesterday. On another, she worried this was the calm before the storm.
"How's that?" he asked, lifting his eyes to hers. They were a stormy blue this morning and she wondered if he was feeling anxious about what they'd shared with each other last night, if he was somehow regretting it. She certainly hoped that wasn't the case, that she wasn't the only one feeling they had reached a new level of trust with each other.
The way he'd been so honest and open about his mother and how losing her had felt … She wanted him to know it meant a lot to her but she wasn't quite sure how to say it. She tried what seemed the simplest route first. "Thank you for last night."
"Don't worry about it. It was no big deal. You only woke up a couple times and my jaw doesn't even hurt anymore."
"No, that's not … Well, I do want to thank you for that, too, but what I really wanted to thank you for is sharing with me about your mother. I know how hard it can be to share, to open yourself up to thinking of what you've lost."
His hands brushed her hair away from her shoulders and then one of them gently gripped the back of her neck. She was so busy relishing in how good it felt to have his warm skin against hers that she nearly missed what he said. "You're kapu."
A smirk curled his lips up and to the left so she figured whatever it was he'd called her couldn't be that bad. "Kapu. Hawaiian for forbidden. You're like that apple in Eden."
She grinned at what she believed to be his teasing and joked right back. "Oh yeah? What's the word for shark? I need to call you that since you're definitely a predator."
"Mano." His smile faltered and his eyes darkened, making her worry she'd hurt his feelings.
"I didn't mean predator in a bad way. Okay, I did a little but not completely."
He used his hold on her neck to draw her closer, looking every bit the predator about to devour his prey. "Mano has two meanings and I was thinking of the other."
"What … What's the other?" she asked with a worried gulp.
He brushed the edge of his nose against her neck just below her ear and sent shivers racing down her spine. "Passionate lover."
The spell he'd been weaving over her broke with the first loud guffaw that spilled out of her. "Seriously?" she asked, giggling and pushing against his chest. "You couldn't have really expected me to believe that. I might not know a lot about sharks but I know when my leg's being pulled."
He caught her by the wrist before she got too far away. "Come here."
She laughed and made a half-hearted attempt to pull away. "I'm standing right in front of you."
"Yeah and it's too far away. Come here." He gave a tug, pulling her into his arms and against his body. She couldn't tell if it was her heart or his that was beating like crazy against her chest. She was going to ask him what he was doing but it became clear when he leaned in to her and slid his tongue along his bottom lip, moistening it and drawing her eyes to it.
"Don't. Not unless you truly mean it." It was both a warning and a plea—no matter how much she wanted to feel his lips on hers again, she didn't want it if there was any chance he would regret it.
"I can't think of anything I mean more right now."
His lips covered hers, softly at first, as if he might be worried she would refuse his kiss. She pushed forward just enough to show she wanted this as much as he did and his arms immediately tightened around her, pressing her into his body. She sighed at how good it felt and he took that as an invitation to deepen the kiss, sliding his tongue against hers. Her whole body warmed from the sensation as if he was the sun and she was the sand soaking up his heat. She held him to her with one hand in his hair and the other pressed against the stubble covering his jaw, desperate for more of the passion and want fueling their kiss. She was also a little afraid he would change his mind once they were no longer stuck like glue to each other.
No matter how tightly she held on, the kiss came to an end simply because that was what kisses did. They ended and for the very lucky, new ones began. Bella wasn't that lucky this morning, though Edward didn't unlink them in any other way.
His eyes had changed during their kiss to the vibrant green she'd seen before, only this time they were softer in a way she couldn't pinpoint. He spoke in hardly more than a whisper, "I want you to know, I really did mean it when I said I was worried for our careers. I still am. But I'm tired of fighting what I feel when I'm with you."
"What if we draw a line? What if we don't hide what we feel but we don't act on it either?"
He snorted and then pressed his mouth to hers for what had to be the world's shortest kiss in her opinion. "Do you honestly believe we can keep our lips off each other?"
"I figured kissing would be allowed, just nothing else until the internship is over. It's only a couple of months."
"I can't ask you to do that."
"You're not. I'm offering." She could tell from his intense gaze that he wasn't convinced so she figured she'd try teasing to lighten his mood. "As long as I can kiss you whenever I want, I don't mind having to do it in private."
Her joke left him looking even more serious. "I'm sorry," he said, pressing his hand against the back of her neck again. "I never meant—"
She put her finger over his lips to stop him. "All I want to hear from you is that you're sticking with this decision. You want more than a friendship with me and you're not going to change your mind in five minutes or five hours or five days."
He finally cracked a smile. "I don't know. Five days is a really long time."
Bella smacked Edward in the chest and tried to push away from him but he easily kept her right there in his arms.
"I won't change my mind, kapu."
She blushed at the nickname, but it wasn't because of the meaning. It was how he said it, all the feeling he put into such a small word.
A knock on her door had them both turning toward the sound. "Yes?" Bella called out.
"It's Whit. Is Masen in there with you?"
Edward let her go but not without one last, quick kiss and a cocky grin that made her roll her eyes and shake her head. He pulled the door open quickly and Whit stumbled in—she was pretty sure he'd had his ear pressed against the door.
"You alright there, Whit? You seem a little unsteady on your feet," Edward joked while slapping his friend on the back of the shoulder.
Whit's eyes flickered between Bella and Edward. "I'm fine. Are you fine, Mase?"
"Perfect. Bella and I were just discussing her change of heart. She's going to come aboard The Submarine with us after all."
Whit smiled at her. "Glad to hear it, Guppy. And don't worry—you'll do great."
"That's exactly what I was telling her," Edward said, winking at her from his spot behind Whit.
"Come on, you guys," Lee called from the doorway. "You're holding up breakfast and I'm starving."
Bella scooted past the guys and over to Lee. "What are we having?"
It felt a little weird to just walk away from Edward after sharing so much with him but this time she carried the knowledge that there would be more with him. She could handle a couple months of stolen moments as long as she was assured there was more to come once the internship was over. And after the kiss they'd shared just minutes ago, she was convinced Edward wanted there to be more as much as she did.
Masen was smiling even before he turned his head to see Bella. But one look at her worried expression had his smile faltering. "What's wrong?"
She fidgeted, twisting her watch and shifting her weight from one foot to the other. "Can we talk or do you need to focus on driving the boat?"
"I can do both." What he really wanted to say was for her not to change her mind because that was the first thought that had jumped into his head. It would serve him right with as many times as he'd done it to her but he really hoped that wasn't it.
"I'll just wait. You need to focus."
"Come here," he said, waving her over. There was no way in hell he was letting her walk away without talking to him first.
She gave him a wary look but still walked over to him.
"I want you to give driving Galeos another shot," he said, moving her to stand between him and the steering wheel. "The water isn't as choppy as last time so there's no excuse for you to not enjoy it."
She looked over her shoulder at him and he couldn't help grinning at the unsure look on her face. She had a lot to learn if she thought he'd really let her put his boat in any kind of danger.
He gently held her head between his hands and turned it forward. "Eyes on the water, Guppy."
"If we end up not making it to Mossel Bay, it's going to be your fault, not mine," she warned.
He slipped his left arm around her waist, holding her steady between his body and the steering wheel. "Relax and trust me. You'll do fine."
She leaned into him and he felt some of his anxiety dissipate. She wouldn't be so comfortable with him holding her if she was about to change her mind. At least he didn't think so. Then again, he'd never spent this much time with the same girl—he didn't count Lee since she had never been more than his friend.
Bella's next words brought back all of his anxiety and then some. "Edward, I think I made the wrong choice."
He couldn't remember his throat ever feeling so dry and tight. "About what?"
"Working with this other crew. I feel so unprepared and I don't want to make a fool of myself and have that reflect badly on MMR."
He let out the breath he hadn't known he was holding and held her tighter. "You scared me, kapu," he whispered, his lips right next to her ear. "For a minute there, I thought I was the wrong choice."
She turned her pretty brown eyes his way and the intensity of her gaze made him want to hold her even closer. "If you want me enough to be scared I'd reject you, why did you fight so hard for us to just be friends?"
It took him a second to process her question since his attention was focused on her lips and how very close they were to his. As much as he wanted to kiss her again, he had a job to do as captain. "Eyes back on the water, Guppy."
She huffed and rolled her eyes. "I'm being serious."
He gave her his best stern leader look. "So am I. Focus on driving and I'll answer you."
She seemed for a moment as though she wasn't going to trust him but then she did as he'd asked, even going so far as to stand up straight instead of leaning against him. "I didn't turn us off-course, did I?"
He leaned around her to see the gauges better. "Still straight as an arrow." When he was standing directly behind her again, he rested his head against hers and tried his best to answer her question. "First and foremost, I felt and still feel personally responsible for your safety and well-being. I'm the one who wanted an intern program and I'm the one who picked your application. That's a responsibility I can't take lightly.
"Then there's the really personal side of all this … I've never had anyone distract me before. It's always been easy to put work first and leave everything else behind until I wanted to deal with it.
"But from that first moment with you, it was like you were an eclipse, blocking out everything but yourself. I didn't know what to do with that and I didn't think I wanted it. To be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure I do. But that doesn't matter.
"What matters is that I never have any doubts when I'm with you, Bella. It always feels relaxed and right. Like last night. The other times I've talked about my mom with someone, it's been hard to pick out what to say and share. With you, I just opened my mouth and there it all was. And your reaction to it was so different from anyone else's. You understood before I'd even really said anything."
"What about those times when you're not with me? Like later today when you're working with the other crew and I'm just standing back and observing?"
"Trust me, there won't be anything on my mind but sharks and safety."
"Well what about when you're alone? What's to keep you from changing your mind?"
He edged forward and pressed his body to hers again then put his lips right at her ear, saying the words with as much feeling as he could put into them. "You, kapu."
After placing a tender kiss on her neck he added, "The way I feel when I'm with you is so much louder than the doubts I have. And those doubts are about if I'm doing the right thing for my company and your career, not you directly. You have to understand how new this is for me—allowing there to be a distraction much less wanting it."
"I don't want to be a distraction. I know how important your company is to you, what it's done for you."
"Again, it's not you directly. Just … Just be patient and give me some time to adjust."
She nodded her head in response.
"Now about this silly worry you have of making a fool of yourself."
"It's not silly," she argued, glancing at him just long enough for him to see he'd annoyed her.
"It is in my view. You keep mistaking your anxiety towards sharks as some kind of personal failure and that's not what it is, Bella. It's a natural reaction to a traumatic event in your life. You never seem to see that just being aboard Galeos is a huge daily victory. You know we are going to see sharks. You know we are going to photograph them and document what they do. You know we are going to get in the water with them. And you still get on this boat.
"So you get anxious and you twist your watch? So what?" He brought his right arm around her so she could see his wrist. "See that scar?"
"Yes." She gently traced the small, slightly raised, jagged line with her finger, making him feel like she was setting his skin on fire.
He did his best to ignore the sensation and focus on helping her. "After Whit was hurt, I used to twist my watch to keep from pacing around his room. I didn't want my agitation and nervousness to affect his health and I knew he wouldn't be able to stand it if he had to watch me pace. So I'd twist my watch. Until one day I caught my skin between the links and sliced into it. Now I only wear my watch to dive or for special occasions like last night."
"You're not just saying that? That's really how you got this scar?"
"You can ask Whit if you want. I'm sure he'll even tell you how annoyed he was with the watch thing even though he didn't say a word to me until he saw the stitches."
Masen could hear the smile in Bella's voice as she said, "He let you have your outlet despite his annoyance."
"He knew it was a coping thing, just like I know that's what your watch is for you. Coping is an indication of trying to move forward, not a sign of being a fool."
"But you know about my dad. I can't tell total strangers about that. I can't even tell the rest of our team yet and I already consider them my friends."
"Then I guess I'll just have to give you an assignment that won't allow you to have idle hands." He heard her breath catch and wondered what was she was thinking; he would get it out of her later but for right now he wanted to keep her focus on work. "Guppy, you are going to photograph the MMR crew at work for use on our website and blog."
"But you need your camera to get the shark photos."
He laughed quietly and placed a tender kiss on her neck. "Nice try but we both know you've seen there are multiple cameras aboard this boat. I've got a Canon T1 that'll be perfect for you to use."
"But those just came out in March. And they're crazy expensive." If Bella thought she was hiding her excitement in her practical words, she was dead wrong. Not only could Masen hear it in her voice, he could feel the excited energy coming from her body.
This time when he kissed her neck, he let his lips linger there while he spoke. "Then be really careful with MMR's property."
"Mase, I think you better look at these weather—" Whit had a huge grin on his face as he looked between his best friend and Bella. "Okay, then. I'll just leave and you two can get back to whatever you were doing."
"Get over here and show me what you have," Masen ordered, reluctantly stepping away from Bella. "I'm just teaching Guppy to drive Galeos."
"I told him if we don't make it to Mossel Bay it's his fault," Bella announced.
"Eyes on the water, Guppy," Masen demanded while taking the weather report from Whit.
"The newest information shows a storm coming into Mossel Bay around ten-thirty tonight," Whit explained as the two men looked over the pages together. "It's not going to be particularly strong but it is expected to stall out and stay over the area for a couple hours."
Masen quickly went over every scenario he could think of, looking for any possible ways a storm could cause damage to their boat. "Get with Gopher and put some extra ropes around the shark cage. If we can't lock it down to where it can't move at all, we'll have to take it apart, but let's try more ropes first."
"What about the winch base?"
"It should be fine since it's only the base but go ahead and check the bolts on it just to be sure they're as tight as possible. And then get Lee and Gopher to help you bring all the loose furniture inside. Let's not leave out anything that could blow away in a strong wind just in case this storm decides to develop more before it hits."
"I can help you guys," Bella offered.
It was Whit who answered her. "Thanks, Guppy. But I'd hate to interrupt your driving lesson." He lowered his voice so only Masen could hear this next part. "You and me, we're talking about this later."
"Shut the fuck up, you nudger."
Whit had the biggest smile on his face as he replied, "I'm just getting started, bro."
Masen raised his voice to a normal level. "Go prep for the storm. We'll have to wait and see what assignments we get with the Colossus Crew to put someone in charge of keeping an eye on the weather reports."
"Aye, aye, Captain," Whit said with a grin and a salute. "Have fun driving, Guppy."
Masen looked down the hallway to make sure his best friend actually left and didn't try to eavesdrop. When he was sure Whit had gone outside, he once again stood right behind Bella and put his arm around her like before.
With a nervous glance at him she said, "I don't think Whit believed we were just driving the boat."
Masen snorted first and then chuckled a few times. "Not even a little."
"Is that going to be a problem? I know you didn't want anyone to know right now."
"Whit isn't just anyone, though. He's not going to say anything to anyone but me. It's more fun for him that way."
"Are you sure?"
"Completely positive so relax." He reached his arm over her shoulder and silenced the alarm that sounded.
"What's that?" Bella asked, leaning forward to read the text alarm on the digital screen.
"We've reentered the South Atlantic. Now we just make our way around the cape and in about five hours, we'll enter Mossel Bay."
"We should get there at noon then. How long do you think you'll be able to work?"
"If the weather stays on its current path, we should be able to work right up until sunset. So make sure you use your sunscreen."
"Can I borrow your hat again?"
He smiled and held her just a little tighter. "Anytime you want, kapu."
"Welcome aboard The Submarine," Brett greeted, shaking hands with Masen.
"We're glad to be here," Masen replied.
"This is some boat," Whit said as he looked all around them. Masen grinned at the amazed look on his friend's face. They'd never seen so much equipment on a single ship before outside of photos in magazines. The Submarine was easily twice as long and three times as wide as Galeos, allowing it to hold tons of equipment and personnel.
"She's ready to work," Brett replied with a proud smile, laying a hand on the railing.
Lee grinned and rubbed her hands together. "Then let's oblige her."
"Right down to business then," Brett said with a laugh. "I figure the best way to do this is to explain our teams and then take volunteers for each. First up is our fishing team. That's usually me, my first-mate Chad, and my deckhand Sean. Our job is to hook a shark and tow it here to the research ship."
"That's me!" Gopher excitedly yelled, sticking his massive arm up in the air for good measure. "Please pick me!"
Whit laughed and jerked a thumb at Gopher. "Yeah, what he said, but with slightly less scary jubilance."
Brett grinned. "Good deal. Due to limited space on the skiff, we'll take one of you with us this morning and the other this afternoon."
Gopher and Whit immediately played a round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock for the right to "fish" first. For those unfamiliar with the game, it was a play on the traditional with two slots added for Lizard and Spock. The terms were as follows: rock crushed lizard and scissors … scissors could cut paper and take off lizard's head … paper covered rock and disproved Spock … lizard poisoned Spock and ate paper … and finally, Spock vaporized rock and smashed scissors.
Gopher won by having Scissors cut off Lizard's head—Whit congratulated him with a single finger salute that had them both laughing.
"Alright, Gopher. You're first up on the skiff," Brett stated. "Let's see if we can't find something to keep Whit busy until his turn.
"Our next team is the cradle team and we can take more than one volunteer for it. Now this is a fast-paced environment and whoever signs up for it needs to pay attention to time and detail—cradle team actions are directly related to the well-being of the sharks. When you're on the cradle team, you're responsible for securing the shark, hydrating its gills, and helping the science team attach tags and draw samples. Does that sound interesting to anyone?"
Lee was the first to answer. "I'd love to help tag and draw samples, find out more about what you guys are using and what kind of data you're hoping to get."
"I think I'll assign you directly to the Science Team then," Brett replied. "That way, you can see both sides of the coin—the collection and the interpretation. Let me introduce you to the heads of that team." He whistled and waved his arm over his head.
A tall, pretty, dark-haired woman and a nearly foot shorter brown-haired guy with glasses joined them and Brett introduced them. "This is my head of science, Angela, and our head of research, Ben. They're the brains behind the entire science section of what we do. They're also husband and wife. These two couldn't get enough of working together so they went ahead and got themselves married a couple weeks ago."
Masen looked between the man and woman, searching their faces for answers. He wanted to know how they could possibly make something like that work. How did they balance wanting their significant other with wanting to work? And did being married increase the frequency of work being interrupted by thinking or worrying about the other person? It seemed too much to deal with to him—too much of a complicated risk to take.
Lee didn't seem to have any questions or hesitation about it. She immediately shook hands with the couple and happily congratulated them. "Work and marriage while on a boat for most of the year. That's a challenge right there."
What would it mean for them all if Lee decided to marry Gopher someday? Would she need to leave their crew behind in order to be his wife? Masen was definitely not in a hurry to find out.
"It is," Angela agreed.
"But it was the only thing that seemed logical," Ben added. "We love our jobs and we love each other so might as well combine them."
"Guys, Lee here wants to see both sides of our science and research so I'm going to let you give her some cradle and deck duties today," Brett explained.
"We're always glad to have help," Angela replied, smiling at Lee.
"Guppy, why don't you stick with me?" Lee offered, calling attention to Bella. She was standing between Whit and Gopher with her arms wrapped protectively around the camera bag Masen had given her just before they'd boarded The Submarine.
"She's already got an assignment," Masen said to Lee while giving Bella a reassuring smile. He turned his attention to Brett, "I thought it would be a good idea if we got action shots of our crews working in addition to the shark photos. We plan on using ours for our website and our marketing material for our new intern program."
"An intern program, huh?" Brett questioned.
"A big obstacle to saving sharks is their bad reputation," Masen explained. "People don't have any sympathy for a four thousand pound apex predator with razor sharp teeth, and we want to show that sharks are important to the ecosystem and worthy of our protection. We came up with a summer intern program and Bella is the first. She's not a real shark fan and we're hoping that working with us and the sharks will help to change her view by the end of the summer."
Brett glanced at Bella and then said, "That's pretty risky. If she still doesn't like them when the internship is over, then you could have some mighty bad publicity on your hands."
"True," Masen agreed. "But when she sees them differently, we'll have some great publicity. Bella is set to work at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta this fall, home to one of the largest shark exhibits in the United States. Having her promoting MMR and shark conservation on a daily basis is going to do a lot of good for our field."
Brett grinned. "You are definitely forward-thinking. I'm excited to see what other ideas you have for our field. But for now, let's get everyone assigned and start the day's work. Cradle team—securing the sharks and helping the scientists. Who's up for that?"
"Whit and I will take that post," Masen answered, looking to his friend for confirmation of what he already knew.
"Oh hells yeah," Whit agreed with a wide smile.
"We'll take turns so that I have plenty of opportunities to photograph the sharks coming into the cradle," Masen assured Brett.
"Good deal. Since Guppy already has an assignment, that means we're ready to get to work." Brett turned and addressed everyone on deck. "We've only got a few days left to our permit and a lot of sharks to catch, tag, and safely release. I want everyone working quickly, safely, and thoughtfully. Let's not harm any humans or sharks, people."
The crowd dispersed and everyone seemed to know exactly what they were supposed to be doing and how to get it done. It all appeared organized and streamlined and Masen was impressed.
Gopher grabbed Masen's attention when he slipped an arm around Lee's waist and pulled her to him, getting her to laugh. He smiled at her and then kissed her soundly on the lips. "Be safe. I don't want to come back from fishing and find even a scratch on you, you hear me?"
She held his face in his hands and tilted it down until she could kiss his forehead. "I'll be safe if you be safe."
He kissed her once more and hugged her tight. "Always, babe."
Masen looked over at Guppy who was watching the couple closely with a small smile on her lips. He wondered what she was thinking, if their public display was making her rethink her private decision.
She must have felt his eyes on her because she suddenly looked directly at him and gave him a genuine smile. He walked the few feet to her and took the camera bag from her arms.
"Guppy, you have to actually use the camera inside and not just hug the bag like it's Lizzy."
"Shush you," she said, giving him a great scowl that was only proved fake by the brightness of her pretty brown eyes. "I'm just waiting for you to actually do some work."
"They have to fish me a shark first."
"Yesterday when Brett explained how they pull sharks into the cradle and lift them out of the water to tag them, I knew that was going to be your pick."
"Are you worried for me?"
She shrugged. "No more than usual. This is what you do, who you are. It's as non-negotiable as you having blue eyes when you're excited or frustrated."
Masen stood very still, only able to look at her. Sure, he'd known that she knew his eyes changed color but he'd never dreamed for a single second that she would know what it meant.
Bella giggled. "Oh, did I forget to mention Whit explained all about your eyes and what each of the three colors mean?" She proceeded to take the camera out of the bag he was holding as if this was a conversation about something trivial, like chocolate milk. Only not even chocolate milk was trivial where Bella was concerned.
She smiled and said, "I'm going to go take pictures now." After zipping up the camera bag and slipping it over her head to rest across her body, she put her hand on his chest and gave it a pat. "You have fun but don't forget you have your own pictures to take."
She walked past him and he quickly turned and called out to her. "Bella?"
Even with her face shaded by his hat, he could tell her cheeks had gone pink. "Green. I like green the best."
He had no idea if that was what he was going to ask her because he couldn't remember that far back. He could only think of what she'd said and what it meant and how close he had come to never knowing it because of his stupid idea to not get any closer to her. He shook his head, struggling to center himself and get his mind on sharks and safety.
Whit set his hand on Masen's shoulder. "Let's hope Gopher is better at fishing for sharks than he is at fishing for dinner," he joked. "I want to see this cradle business in action something fierce."
Masen's head was full of sharks and Bella and stolen kisses—and the man standing next to him shouldered a big part of the blame for it. "Whit?"
"You're a fucking nudger."
Whit chuckled darkly. "Love you too, bro. Now let's go get a look at the tools these guys have for tagging."
Bella pivoted on her foot to change the view in the camera lens and found herself watching Edward approach with his hands full of gear, the muscles in his arms stretched taught by the weight of it all. His head was slightly bent, just enough to hide his eyes but not the way his lips were moving. She was pretty sure he was going over a plan in his head.
He stopped a few feet in front of her, put the gear down, and then kicked off his water shoes. She wondered how long he'd been wanting to do that—she figured it must have been annoying with him being so used to going barefoot and now having to wear shoes here on The Submarine. He hid it well, though; she hadn't heard him complaining. Then again, maybe he was so hungry to work with this Colossus Crew that he didn't even notice the inconvenience.
She noticed something else while he was busy pulling things out of his bag and setting them down on the deck—he'd changed out of his jeans and into wetsuit pants that only went to his knees. She felt troubled by so much of his legs being visible even though she knew perfectly well that a wetsuit couldn't stop the teeth of a shark, especially a Great White.
Of course, knowing something didn't always translate into complete belief. "Why aren't you wearing the full wetsuit you normally do?"
Edward's head jerked up as if he'd forgotten there was a boat full of people around him. "Sorry, I was concentrating on this. What did you ask?"
She felt self-conscious now that he was looking at her and her blush started to creep across her cheeks. "Why aren't you wearing the full wetsuit you normally do?"
"Since I want to take turns in the cradle, I need to be able to change quickly. These wetsuit shorts won't get in my way and I can quickly exchange my rash-guard shirt for a t-shirt. Why?"
"Just curious. I haven't seen you in anything else."
"I typically keep this for my surfing but it also comes in handy for days like today and when I go snorkeling."
She was so excited to find out he liked snorkeling that she forget all about the wetsuit issue in her head and went to sit beside him. "You snorkel? Really? I would have thought you'd be bored by that."
He smiled at her and then went back to checking over the air canister in his hand. "Why? Because it's slow and quiet?"
She blushed a little at being caught but she mostly smiled at finally finding something in common with him. "Yeah, actually, that's exactly why."
"I do slow down and enjoy life, Guppy. It's just not while I'm working."
"Maybe I can see that some time. You not working." She hadn't meant to actually say those words to him but now that she had, she wasn't going to take them back.
He didn't seem to mind her comment, not with the toothy smile he was sporting. "Count on it, Guppy. But for now, I need you to be my gopher since the real one is out fishing." He opened an interior pocket in the bag and pulled out a folded piece of fabric. Inside was his watch and he handed it to her. "Set this to match yours, down to the second."
"And then what?" she asked as she compared his watch with the one on her wrist. His had a bluish-purple face with fairly large squares marking off each hour. There were three gears to measure 60 seconds, 30 minutes, and 1/10th of a second, collectively called chronograph subdials. There were also spots for the day of the week and the day of the month. The band was made out of steel and some other metal material, and had a buckle style clasp to it. There was a cleanness to the style of it and she found it very fitting for Edward's orderly personality.
Edward had noticed her checking out his watch. "Nice, huh? Has a mother of pearl face and the band is a mix of stainless steel and polyurethane."
"It looks just like a black metal."
He grinned. "Yeah, that's one of my favorite things about it."
In comparison, her father's watch was a shiny attention-getter. It was meant to look good no matter what he was wearing and to be a conversation starter. Edward's watch was all about having the information necessary to do his job. Not that she loved her dad's watch any less—it was just different.
It had a bold blue face with three smaller dials located within the main dial. The smaller dials held similar functions as those on Edward's watch, only these were for 12 hour, 30 minute, and 1/10 of a second measurements. Her watch could also tell you the month, the day of the month, and the day of the week. As nice as those bells and whistles were, the true reason she'd been so set on this watch for her father was that it was NASA approved for astronauts to wear into space. At the time, she'd thought that was the coolest thing ever, to be able to say you wore the same kind of watch as astronauts. And with her dad having loved stars so much, it had seemed perfect to her teenage mind.
"You're going to be my time spotter, Guppy."
Bella looked up and found Edward in the middle of removing his t-shirt, baring his chest up to his pecks and covering his face with the grey fabric. He was all tan skin and defined muscles with just a light patch of hair that looked almost golden starting at his navel and disappearing into his wetsuit. With as flushed as she felt, she was sure her cheeks had skipped right over pink and gone straight for fire engine red.
"Did you put any sunscreen on?" Edward asked, sounding a little annoyed to her ears.
"Of course. But I probably need more. With the heat. And the sweating." She wanted to face-palm herself for her blathering but knew that would absolutely give her away if her silly response hadn't already.
"The heat and the sweat, huh?" Edward's cocky grin told her just how busted she was.
"Whatever," she said, tugging the hat's bill lower over her face. "Just tell me what a time spotter does."
Edward's hand came into view and pushed the bill of the hat up to a normal level. "My canister has fifty-five minutes of air. I want to keep a fifteen minute window open just in case. Your job is to make sure that I come out of the water at forty minutes. You'll need to keep track of how much air I use each time I go in."
"How will I do that?" she blurted out, suddenly afraid he meant for her to get in the water. "I mean, how will I signal you from up here on deck when your time is up?"
"Brett's assigned a deckhand to be in the cradle watching my back so you'll tell him and he'll signal me."
She breathed a sigh of relief and then immediately scolded herself for jumping to conclusions. Of course he wouldn't have her in the water without talking to her about it first. It was just her nerves making her jittery and silly.
He twisted his t-shirt up and then stuffed one end into the front pocket of her shorts. "Hang on to this for me."
While Bella blushed and quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching them, he pulled out a rash-guard shirt that matched the grey of his shorts. She wondered if he wore muted colors as camouflage—Jacob's and Leah's surfing suits were always full of vibrant blues and oranges. She didn't want to risk interrupting his ready routine so she would have to remember to ask him later.
"Watch me, Guppy," Edward said a few minutes later, offering his arm to her and laughing at his own joke.
"That was awful. Really awful," Bella confided after she stopped giggling.
"I could tell from your giggling." Edward moved her fingers aside and closed the clasp, having seen that she was struggling with it. "Alright. Watch is on, camera's ready, and air's good to go."
"Now you just need Brett and Gopher to tow a shark in."
"They're working on that right now."
Bella could feel her eyes widening with her anxiety. "Really? Another so soon?"
The first shark had been fished, cradled, tagged, and released only an hour ago. That didn't seem like much time at all to Bella, especially after forcing herself to stand at the railing and look down at the shark in the cradle. She'd also had to force herself to pretend she didn't know Lee, Whit, and Edward were down there, but she'd looked. The size of it had been scary enough but then she'd seen it moving with men as large as Gopher holding it down … the power of it was truly terrifying. And then to hear the crew call it a small female … She didn't want to imagine what it would take for them to call a shark large.
She'd been so focused on the thoughts in her head that she'd completely missed Edward moving closer—one second she'd been thinking of sharks and the next she was fixated on his hand holding hers.
"This is going to be just like before, Bella. The shark is hooked on a line and will only go where Brett's team leads. It's not even going to notice me in the water. And I'll only be in open water long enough to photograph it coming into the cradle and back out again. I'll be on the cradle with everyone else the rest of the time."
"Just promise you'll care more about your safety than getting the shot of the shark."
He lowered his voice to ensure only she could hear him. "I don't need to promise, kapu. Safety always comes first for me. I know you remember how I called off the dive that first day with the tiger sharks."
"It's just … You made such a big deal out of using the shark cage and now you're getting in the water with no cage and Whit's not going to be with you."
"Bella, every setup has its own circumstances and needs. Our small crew on Galeos has to take precautions that The Submarine doesn't because it's full of personnel and equipment. Trust me, if I thought for a second that it was necessary, I'd insist on having a cage. But with the fairly calm and clear water conditions today and the way the shark is pulled into the cradle, I'm confident I'm fine without it."
Gopher's words from the other day came to Bella … The guy comes off as shark-happy but he's actually shark-smart. If those who knew him so well trusted Edward to make the right call, then she had no right second-guessing him.
"Well then you don't have any excuse for not getting some really awesome shots," she told him, even managing a mostly real smile.
He snorted. "Don't take this the wrong way, Guppy, but how will you know they're awesome? You still hate looking at pictures of sharks."
This time, her smile was completely genuine as she stared up into his blue eyes. "I'll know because you'll be happy."
Bella huffed at the ceiling, tired of staring at it after three fruitless hours of trying to fall asleep on the storm-rocked boat. There should be no way for her to be awake, not after the long day on The Submarine and coming back to Galeos and having kitchen duty with Lee. Yet here she was, wide awake and staring at the ceiling. She doubted even having Edward beside her could get her to relax enough to sleep but there was no way to know since he'd gone to bed right after dinner, along with Whit and Gopher. She wished she was brave enough to sneak into his room but the certainty she felt that someone would catch her was too strong.
That only left her one option. But she wasn't about to try it empty-handed. She slipped into the kitchen and made a fresh pot of coffee. She was careful to put the exact same items and quantities she'd seen Gopher use, and then she brought the cup of coffee to the helm where Lee was on duty.
"Care to trade coffee for company?" Bella questioned, trying not to fidget under Lee's sharp gaze.
Lee replied with a question of her own. "What in the world are you doing up?"
"I can't sleep with the storm. It's rocking the boat too much."
Lee thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Come on. Hand over the coffee and grab a seat."
Bella happily complied with both requests. "How much longer until the storm moves out of our area?"
At first, Bella only heard the hum coming from within the coffee cup since Lee was happily enjoying her drink. But after a few gulps, Lee emerged to answer her question. "Last weather report was a half hour ago and it said the storm would dissipate in this area around one. So we've got another hour left of rain and rocking."
Bella let out a frustrated sigh. She was so tired and wanted so badly to sleep.
"You look exhausted. You know Masen is going to have a shit fit if you don't get any sleep tonight. No way will he let you come on The Submarine if you're not a hundred percent. Hell, I won't let you."
"I know. I just … I've never been on a boat during a storm like this and the rocking is making me feel sick and that's making it impossible to fall asleep. And the last thing I want is to be left behind because I really did enjoy today." And she meant that completely. Even with the times she'd been anxious seeing her friends on that cradle kneeling right next to sharks, she'd enjoyed seeing them all in their element and loving their work.
Lee smiled and patted her leg. "Alright, Guppy. Calm down. Tell you what … I'm going to run down to Whit's medic room and get you some Dramamine. Then we'll talk until it kicks in or the storm moves on, whichever comes first."
Bella nodded, already having figured out it was better not to argue. Lee and Edward were really similar in that regard; once they got an idea into their head, it was nearly impossible to change their minds. So while Lee went after the Dramamine, Bella looked over all the gauges Edward had taught her how to read this morning on their way to Mossel Bay.
When Lee came back, she was snorting and giggling to herself. She came to a dead stop, took one look at Bella, and then started laughing openly and loudly. "It's just so ridiculous," she said, wiping away a laughter tear with the back of her hand.
Bella grinned, infected by Lee's mirth. "What happened?" she asked after she'd swallowed down the pill and water Lee had handed her.
"All three of them … They're just sleeping so damn hard. They never do that. Whit's laid out on his back, mouth wide open, and the most god-awful snores coming out of him. Gopher is passed out on his stomach, one arm dangling off the bed, and his face stuck to his pillow with drool. And Masen … I'm not sure what he was trying to do beforehand, but he's passed out at the foot of his bed wearing only a towel with his arms curled up under his head like a pillow. I think he meant to get dressed and just didn't make it because there's a pile of clothes next to his head."
Bella couldn't help but giggle at the images. "Guess the Colossus Crew really wore them out today."
"After two more days of this, even Masen will want all three days off for his birthday."
Bella sat up straight in her chair. "Birthday? When?"
"On the twentieth. That's why we're scheduled to have off the twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-second. He doesn't know it yet, but Esme and I arranged for us all to camp on a beach in the Table Mountain National Park. We'll be able to surf and snorkel, and just have a good time."
"That sounds lovely. I'm sure he'll like that." She hoped she sounded honest because she certainly meant her words. But she couldn't help but feel bad that she had no way to get him a present. Not that he wanted one from her or needed one but … But she really would have liked to get him something. It had to be hard to have his birthday so close to Elizabeth's and it would have been nice to get him something that could make him smile.
"You know …" Lee said as she studied Bella, "… if you wanted, you could come into town with me Thursday night. I've gotta pick up a few supplies and you could look for a gift if you wanted."
Bella declined, worried that wanting to get him a gift would seem like an odd thing for an intern to do.
"Bella, I hope you're not just saying 'no' because of me. We got off on the wrong foot, you and me, but I hope you know that's past us. I'm not going to be mad if you want to get Masen a gift. In fact, I think he'd really like to get a present from you."
"Does he even like celebrating his birthday?" she asked, definitely not wanting to buy him anything if he didn't like celebrating.
Lee cocked her head to the side and looked closely at Bella. "You know. He told you about Elizabeth." She suddenly jumped up from her chair, ran a hand through her wavy, brown hair, and started pacing and ranting. "Holy shit. This is huge for him. Esme's going to have puppies when she hears! I just thought it was a crush sort of thing but if he told you …"
She whirled around and took Bella by the shoulders. "He told you, didn't he? Be honest."
"Yes, but you can't tell him I told you. He asked me not to talk about it." That wasn't quite what she'd agreed to keep private, but it was close enough.
"As if I'd say anything to him," Lee replied while rolling her eyes. "Listen, though … You like him, right?" Before Bella could answer, Lee interrupted to add, "Ten words or less."
"I really do, but it's complicated."
Lee snorted. "That's a given with him. Just … If you like him, and you really want to get to know him, then you have to give him space and be patient. He's so logical and methodical all the time that he's not really good at just being and feeling. Not that I'm the best at it either, but I manage way more than he does. I think that's why it took us so long to admit we sucked at being more than friends."
"He told me a little about that."
More snorting from Lee was followed by something Bella had desperately wanted to know but had never been brave enough to ask. "Did he tell you we never even really kissed? Sure, he'd kiss me on the lips but it was the same kind of kiss he'd give to my cheek before. It was a complete sister kiss.
"At first I thought his dating skills were just so awful that he was on a middle school level where hand-holding was equivalent to feeling a girl up. And then I thought it was because his head was so full of ideas and tasks for MMR. But then I met Gopher and the way I felt about him was so far above and beyond anything I'd felt for Masen … Love isn't logical and you can't make it conform to your plans. I think that might be what bothers him most about you."
Bella was too stunned to respond which was just as well since Lee wasn't done yet.
"I'm not saying he loves you, just that he feels around you. You're actually able to steal his focus away from his work. When I told him to either accept you'd be in the way or to assign Whit to be your mentor, I already knew which option he was going to take. I'd known since the day before when he'd stopped everything to pry your hand off the doorframe and ease your fears over Whit and him being in the water with the tiger sharks. He's done a few other things since then that have shown me just how much you affect him. And his telling you about Elizabeth …" Lee smiled as she said, "Guppy, you damn well better tag along with me and get that man a birthday gift."
Bella smiled in return. "If you're sure he won't mind, then I'd really like that."
"I'm one hundred percent positive." Lee looked past Bella and out of the large window. "I'm also positive the rain's letting up and you need to get to bed."
"Yeah, that's probably a good idea," Bella said as she stood. "Thank you for letting me keep you company."
"I do like you, Bella, and I consider you a new friend."
She smiled wide and before she could talk herself out of it, she gave Lee a tight hug. "I think of you as my friend too."
Lee chuckled. "Go on, little fish. Get yourself downstairs and get some sleep before you end up pissing off the mano in charge."
Bella giggled since she knew what the word meant. "Yeah, shark in charge is kind of appropriate." She smiled once more at Lee, wished her goodnight, and then headed down to her room.
Standing outside of her room, she could actually hear Whit's snores coming from behind his door. She wondered if he'd have a sore throat in the morning from those loud rumbles coming out of his throat. And then she was looking at Edward's closed door and imagining what Lee had described to her. It didn't take long for her blush to start creeping across her cheeks and she quickly ducked into her room, suddenly positive she was going to get caught.
And she almost was because no sooner than she was nestled under her covers, Edward slipped into her room. He must have been listening for her door with how quickly he'd appeared—and the fact that he was dressed in basketball shorts and a white t-shirt instead of the towel Lee had seen.
"Have a nice chat with Lee?" he asked as he put an arm around Bella and towed her back until her body was fitted tightly against his.
"How do you know that's where I was?"
He hummed into her hair and then pressed his lips against the back of her head. "Logical guess."
"Yes, actually, I had a really nice time with her. I couldn't sleep so I thought I'd keep her company until the storm passed." She turned in his arms so she could see him. "But what are you doing up? Lee checked on you earlier and you were sound asleep."
He kissed her softly on the lips before answering. "Why? Do you want me to go back to my room?"
"Of course not. I was just curious."
"I woke up, that's all. I rarely sleep the whole way through the night. And since I was up, I figured I'd check on you but you weren't in your room."
She found it sweet that he wanted to check on her and thanked him with a kiss to his jaw.
He let out a groan and tucked her head under his chin. "Go to sleep, kapu. Before you tempt me to keep you up."
She slipped her arm from between them and put it around his side, hugging him as best she could and thinking about her talk with Lee. He had checked on her because he felt for her and he was here in her bed holding her close because he felt for her. That was certainly some unexpected and important information to have. And it made it easier to believe all the things he'd confided to her this morning about wanting more with not knowing the right way to deal with it.
With that surety in her heart, the boat no longer rocking harshly, and Edward holding her close, Bella fell asleep quickly and with her lips curled up in a happy smile.
A/N: We hope you guys enjoyed this very different side of Masen as much as we did! And that Bella's attempts to be an asset to the team and a friend to Lee made you smile. We've put some pictures up on the blog to go along with this chapter. Thank you all so much for your love and support for this story. We wish you all a safe and Merry Christmas with friends and family.