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Chapter 21 – Are We There Yet?
Friday, June 20th – Masen's Birthday
Bella slept curled up on her side with her head resting on Masen's thigh, her body hidden beneath the throw blanket and his lucky shirt. He probably should have woken her last night once the movie had ended but she'd seemed so peaceful that it had felt wrong to wake her. Plus there had been the chance that waking her would make it hard for her to fall back to sleep. Not to mention that he hadn't really wanted her to leave.
So he'd left her sleeping and he'd grabbed the book Esme had recommended from the coffee table, planning to spend the night finishing Duma Key. Reading was one of the few things he could count on to force his mind to focus on something other than work.
While the book had been as good as she'd said, he had found himself on more than one occasion stopping to watch Bella as she stirred in her sleep. Each time she had, he'd rested his hand on her shoulder and she'd settled right down and slept peacefully once more. It was a strange power to wield over a person, the power to ease their worries. He wasn't really sure he wanted that kind of responsibility and yet he'd never hesitated to touch her throughout the night.
And now he couldn't resist waking her. The sun was just about to come up outside and he wanted to start his birthday by watching it rise with Bella.
"Kapu, wake up," he whispered while using his fingers to brush her silky hair from her face. He'd freed it from the ponytail holder just after she'd fallen asleep last night.
She let out a groan and covered her face with her arm—and the sleeve of his lucky shirt.
"Ssh," he whispered. "Don't wake the house."
She slowly uncovered her face and blinked up at him with a confused look. "Something wrong?"
"No, I just wanted to watch the sunrise with you."
She gave him a sleepy smile and then rolled over so she could sit up.
He stood and helped her unwrap herself from the throw blanket and then led her out of the sliding glass door and onto the balcony. The early morning air was chilled and he quickly settled into a chair with her on his lap so he could cover them both with the throw. He had both arms wrapped around her beneath the blanket and she gave a contented hum as she leaned completely against him with their cheeks pressed together.
He had to admit, he was pretty content right then too. This was his favorite time of day; he loved the calm and the sense of balance he felt around and in him. And on his birthday he wanted nothing more than to share this with Bella.
It was a cloudless morning so the sun appeared like the bright beam of a flashlight suddenly flicked on, seeming to sit directly on the water while striping the sky in yellows, oranges, blues, and grays.
"Beautiful," Bella whispered in a reverent voice.
"Very," he agreed, not completely sure if he was talking about the sunrise or the woman in his arms since he couldn't decide which he wanted to look at more.
She twisted in his arms, showing a smile so genuinely happy that it made him grin. "Happy Birthday, Edward."
His grin turned into a full smile. And then was lost behind her lips as she tenderly kissed him. It was the oddest kiss he'd ever experienced because as much as he wanted to concentrate on her soft lips, he was continually distracted by the contrast between her cold nose and flushed cheeks. He tried holding her closer and kissing her deeper but he wasn't a match for the chilled air and had to do the responsible thing and get them inside before one or both of them ended up sick.
After queuing last night's movie to the spot where she'd fallen asleep, Bella settled in beside him on the couch, propping her feet up on the table right next to his and sliding under the throw blanket with him. He was slouched down into the cushions enough that their heads were at the same height and she leaned hers against his. He waited to feel crowded by having her right up against him but it never came. There was just more of the calm and balance he'd felt outside while watching the sunrise with her.
It didn't take long for Bella to warm up beside him—or to fall back to sleep. He liked that she was so comfortable with him and didn't try to force herself to stay up. She did her own thing and he was free to do his; it just so happened that what he wanted this morning was to stay right here with her. He was enjoying it so much that he even closed his eyes and let his mind wander as he tried to figure out what Lee and Esme might have planned for his birthday.
Sometime later Masen was jerked out of his dozing state by a loud thump that was followed by female laughter. He knew it was Gopher and Lee but he had no idea why they would be up so early. They tended to be the last to get up on days off that didn't include specific plans. He wondered once again what was planned for his birthday and why they weren't telling him.
He heard the creak of a door opening behind him and while he didn't exactly care if anyone saw him on the sofa with Bella, he also wasn't naive enough to believe for a second that it wouldn't lead to more teasing and nudging and he really wanted his birthday to be peaceful. At least as peaceful as they ever allow, he thought with a grin.
The light tread of the footsteps told him it was Lee approaching and he figured his best bet was pretending to be asleep since she wouldn't dig in right after waking him—she'd prefer for him to be fully alert so he wouldn't miss any of her jabs. He made his face as blank as possible and closed his eyes. And hoped she would be convinced.
He had expected to feel her hand on his arm, sure that she had come out here to wake him and wish him a happy birthday. Instead, she was waking Bella. "Rise and shine, little fish. Time to go shopping."
Bella sighed and mumbled out something he couldn't understand but that made Lee laugh.
"I'm sure it's very warm snuggled up to Masen but we have to go shopping."
Bella jerked beside him and her elbow dug into his sore side but he kept himself completely still. "Hi?" Her greeting came out as more of a question and Masen would have bet his truck that her cheeks were flushed a dark pink.
Lee chuckled. "Morning. Ready for some shopping?"
"Yeah. How long do I have to get ready?"
"Fifteen minutes enough time?"
"Plenty." He felt Bella slide out from under the blanket and get up from the sofa but he could feel she wasn't moving away. "Should we wake him?"
"Oh, we don't have to worry about that at all." Something about the way Lee spoke made him think she knew he was faking. "But you might want to leave his lucky shirt. He'll want it when he takes Lizzy out since it's pretty cool this morning."
There was some rustling from Bella taking the shirt off and then he felt the air change from them leaving. He waited until he heard two doors shut and then he opened his eyes. He was alone and his lucky shirt was neatly folded beside him.
Feeling pretty sure Lee knew he hadn't been sleeping, he went ahead and got up, slipping his shirt on before heading toward the kitchen to put a pot of coffee on for everyone.
He didn't make it there, though. He was stopped by a throat being cleared from just inside Esme's doorway.
"Well someone is certainly having a Happy Birthday so far," Esme said, giving him a pretty accurate look at his own shitty grin.
He stretched his arms out and wiggled his fingers. "It's not happy until my mom gives me a hug."
Esme smiled and stepped into his arms, but he also saw her eye-roll. He wondered what she'd seen while she gave him a tight hug and kissed his cheek. "Happy Birthday, Kid."
"Now you're going to tell me what we're doing today, right?"
She laughed and patted his cheek. "Not a chance in hell."
He huffed and pulled her hand from his face, tired of the curiosity and wanting to know now what was planned.
His frustration had no effect on her smile. "I hope you aren't too annoyed to refuse a walk on the beach with me."
"Fine. I guess," he replied with a sigh, dropping his arms and pretending to be put out by her request.
"You know, you're never too old for a spanking, Kid."
He snorted. "Whatever. I'm going to turn the coffee pot on before we go. I think I heard the others stirring."
"You grab some shoes and I'll handle the coffee. It's chilly out and you don't need to catch a cold." Her motherly tone made him suspect she knew he'd already been out in the chilled air this morning.
It wasn't long before he was dressed and standing in the kitchen accepting a cup of coffee from Esme and "happy birthday" wishes from his family. He'd expected them to stick around and for everyone to have breakfast together but they'd filled up a few coffee thermoses and then had taken off, leaving him and his mom alone.
"What do you think they're up to?" he asked Esme as they made their way down to the beach with Lizzy prancing a few feet ahead of them.
Esme grinned while hooking her arm around his. "I would guess it has something to do with a certain someone's birthday."
"Seriously, Mom, it's time to tell me. What do you have planned for today?"
Her smile widened and she pinched the sleeve of his lucky shirt between her fingers. He hung his head, knowing there was no way he was getting off this beach without discussing Bella.
"What do you want to know?" he asked, figuring the best way out was straight through.
She surprised him by asking the one question he hadn't expected. "How long have you known about Bella's father?"
"How do you know I didn't find out last night?" he replied, watching her eyes in hopes she'd give something away.
She didn't. She just smiled. It was crazy how good she was at using a smile to get information out of him—he just couldn't bring himself to deny her.
"Beth's birthday. You guys had all gone to bed and I was out on the balcony and Bella came out there. I don't know … I just … I was sitting there thinking about Beth and I felt like talking to Bella about her so I did. And she told me about her dad."
"I'm very proud of you for the way you were with her last night. She needed someone to be strong for her and you were that person."
"It honestly didn't feel like a big deal." He shrugged. "I know it hurts her to talk about losing him so I let her know she had someone with her who understood."
"What kind of impact have the details of her father's passing had on your outlook for her potential as our intern?"
"None really. I'd had a pretty good idea from her behaviors that her past included a personal shark attack. I'd already slowed things down and changed some of my plans to fit her situation. As far as I'm concerned, she's still right on track to be our first success story."
"And your friendship with her?"
He grinned, knowing Esme had to be extremely curious to pop out her "real" question so soon. And then he let out a breath while trying to figure out where to start because the truth was that he wanted to tell her. Maybe if she knew then she could explain some of it to him because there was a lot about his relationship with Bella that baffled the hell out of him.
"I can't just be Bella's friend. I tried my best and I honestly believe I did it to be responsible. But I can't turn it off or shove it aside. I want more with her. I've admitted that to her and I've also told her I don't know what more means yet. She seems like she understands and wants to give me a chance to find out with her. I know she cares for me so that's a good place to start I guess."
He paused and ran a hand through his hair as he struggled with all the happy and worried thoughts swirling in his head. "I've gotta admit, these past few days of allowing myself to enjoy being with her … they were better than I had hoped. I'd been concerned our personal relationship would interfere with our professional one and while there are definite changes because of it, in some ways I think it helped make it better. I can't say for sure that she would have trusted me enough to take her into that cradle yesterday if she hadn't known that I care for her more than I do the internship. Which is a really fucking strange thing to say, Mom, but it's the honest truth."
He looked down at Esme in anticipation of her sharing her own thoughts and saw that her eyes were glassy and her smile was that tender motherly one that made him ache for both her and Beth. That particular smile always left him feeling incredibly guilty because it made him wish for his mother when he had a wonderful mom already standing right beside him.
Esme still hadn't said anything and her silence made him jittery enough to fill up the silence. "I did think about what you said, about not wanting my life to change. I don't mind a few changes here and there, I just … I never wanted to be in that spot where I had to choose between work and caring about someone. I don't feel like Bella would make me choose."
When Esme didn't say anything, he let out a breath and shared the reason he believed that. "She had the chance, Mom. She had the opportunity to force me to choose between my work and being with her. She was so freaked out when that shark knocked me down the other day. She was even thinking of giving up on working with marine life altogether. But we talked and I told her how important safety is to me and I pointed out examples she'd already seen. And I told her that this isn't some game to me or done for a thrill, but to really help these creatures. I do this because it means something to me—it's my way of putting something good into the world. And by the end of our talk, she was better. She wanted to stay and work. And to stay to be with me."
He pushed himself to say the words sitting on the tip of his tongue, knowing Esme would understand the gravity of them and worrying for that exact reason. "It's just like Beth said it would be—I don't want to let Bella go."
Despite Esme's furious attempt to blink back her tears, a few fell from her gray eyes and she quickly used the back of her hand to wipe them away. Her lips were pulled up into a wide, proud smile, resembling very closely the smiles he'd seen when he'd graduated high school and college, and when he'd signed the papers to start MMR. Just as she had on those occasions, she took hold of his face and kissed his left cheek. "That's from me." Then she pressed her lips to his right cheek and said, "That's from Elizabeth."
Masen pulled her into a hug, resting his chin on the top of her head and closing his eyes tightly. After all these years, he still couldn't stand this rush of love for Esme and longing for Beth. But he also still felt like he needed it. He needed both of his mothers to have any chance at becoming the kind of man they wanted him to be—that he now wanted to be—the kind that could balance work and life and share them both with Bella.
Esme cleared her throat and stepped back. She was grinning now and she playfully tugged the sleeve of his lucky shirt. "All this wonderful news from you and here I was just trying to borrow the lucky shirt to go get some lottery tickets."
Masen groaned but it quickly turned into a laugh as he tucked her under his arm. "Mom, it's my birthday. This is the one day each year when you're supposed to have to be nice to me."
"Kid, I'm being very nice. I haven't said 'I told you so' once yet. And I also haven't mentioned you sharing your lucky shirt and the sofa with Bella last night."
His head jerked in surprise. "How do you know that?"
Once again, he found himself looking at his shitty grin on her sweet face. "Your mom and dad thought I was a hard sleeper who never once heard him sneaking into our hotel room late at night. They didn't do much more than kiss but I don't think that was why he came or she let him in. I think they just really enjoyed being together in the quiet. I think it gave them a sense of peace that they couldn't find either alone or together in the day when surrounded by people. But that's just the guess of a little sister."
"You never asked Beth about it?"
"No, sweetheart. Some things are better left as a secret in another's heart. My silence allowed your mom to feel those memories of your dad had remained hers and hers alone. I believed she needed that a lot more than I needed to know if my guess was right."
"You really are the best. The best sister, aunt, mom, and friend."
Esme's sweet smile turned teasing. "And you've got a crush on the intern. All the women in the world and you fall for Bella Cullen. What in the world are we gonna do with you, Kid?"
He grunted. "Pray I don't fuck it up."
Silence followed his comment and he had just decided she wasn't going to comment when she called his name. "Edward?"
"Don't fuck it up."
They looked at each other for a moment and then both started laughing loud enough that Lizzy gave up on inspecting a shell lodged in the sand and ran over to jump at their legs and get their attention.
While he could never be sure of what was going to come out of Esme's mouth, Masen always knew she loved him as if he was truly her own son. He might have some pretty big checks in his loss column but he also had some great ones under his gains. And Esme was the biggest of all.
Bella watched Esme and Edward from the backseat of his truck until the mother and son disappeared behind the large rental property next to their own. She wondered if he would talk to her about Athena but doubted it because of how he'd hidden the truth about his side. He seemed to want to make sure Esme didn't worry about him. He must have missed the memo about how parents always worry, she thought with a grin while remembering a few times her uncle had been worried over things that had seemed inconsequential to her. He'd once had to be talked out of taking her for x-rays when she'd stubbed her toe against a kitchen chair.
The dip of the truck interrupted her musings. "Um … hi," she greeted Gopher as he clicked his seatbelt.
"Hi." His usually chipper attitude was nowhere to be found. He looked odd without his smile and twinkling blue eyes and Bella felt an overwhelming desire to hug him and cheer him up.
But in order to cheer him up, she first had to know what had him so down. "What's wrong? Why aren't you sitting with Lee?"
His shoulders slumped even more and he let out a deep, troubled sigh. "Banished."
"Why?" she asked while glancing quickly at Lee who was laughing in the front seat with Whit. While Bella was enjoying her new friendship with Lee, she felt an allegiance to Gopher for all of the ways he'd made her feel at home from the moment they'd met.
"Apparently in the middle of the night I woke up and sent a text that woke Lee and then I went right back to sleep while she read the message. All it said was 'Cake. I love it so much'. Lee is not amused with me."
"Well … Maybe you were thinking of cake since it's Edward's birthday."
"That's what I said," he replied, his voice at a much higher register than normal. He let out another sigh but it was at least lighter than the first. "But to be honest, I don't remember doing it at all. And when she asked what kind of cake and I said chocolate, she knew I was lying. Masen only ever wants strawberry shortcake for his birthday."
Bella shook her head. "Leave it to him to be the one person who wouldn't be happy with chocolate cake."
Gopher snorted. "Always has to be different and stubborn."
"Hey, I thought we talked about this already," Bella said, barely holding back her laughter as she thought of that first day in the rental house here in Gordon's Bay. "He's not stubborn. He just wants everything done his way."
Gopher grinned and something about it made her uneasy. "Pretty sure I've seen him making a few concessions for you, little fish."
Bella choked on her breath while her cheeks flamed red. "I … No!"
The man started laughing so hard that he rocked the Bronco. "No!" he guffawed.
"What the hell is going on back here?" Whit asked, leaning between the front seats.
Gopher just pointed at Bella while snorting and chuckling and clutching his stomach.
"Give it up, Guppy," Whit told her with a toothy smile. "What did you say to get him so riled up?"
Bella glared at Gopher for his mischievousness and then grinned as the perfect response came to her. "I didn't say a word. He's really excited about cake."
"Hey!" Gopher cried, his eyes and mouth open wide in shock.
Bella smiled wider, pleased that she'd turned the attention away from her and onto him.
Or so she thought until Whit spoke. "Cake, huh? I figured you two would be talking about you snuggling up to Masen on the sofa."
Bella shrugged, outwardly acting as if it meant nothing while on the inside her heart raced from the memories of kissing Edward last night and this morning. There was a lot about him that still confused her and a few things that worried her, but all of that melted away every single time his lips touched hers. And last night and this morning had been even more consuming because of how unhurried he'd been, as if he truly didn't care if he was seen kissing her.
Bella realized she'd been silent far too long and since she couldn't come up with anything to say, she just shrugged again.
Whit's devious smile widened. "So there was snuggling involved. Interesting."
"No, not really. We just shared a blanket while watching a movie and ended up falling asleep." There, she thought. I said it like it wasn't a big deal so that should get him to think so too. I hope.
"Hear that, Lee?" Whit asked as he leaned back enough to see her. "The birthday boy fell asleep watching a movie."
"I suppose there's a first time for everything," she said and then laughed darkly.
Bella might not understand their inside joke but she was certain the change in her relationship with Edward hadn't gone unnoticed by anyone; she was also sure he didn't see that for whatever reason. She definitely planned to ask him about it, but not today. He should be able to enjoy his birthday. But tomorrow … Tomorrow they were going to talk and he was going to have to give her a clearer definition of what was acceptable to do and say in front of his family and her new friends. For now, she picked up the book she'd brought along and lost herself in the pages.
She was so lost she didn't hear her name being called once they'd arrived in town, and Gopher had to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention. "Sorry. Good book," she told him as she showed him the cover of the book Alice had packed into her suitcase. It seemed her little sister had packed lots of little surprises, like this book and the new music she'd heard the other day on her laptop.
"Alright," Lee called once they were standing together in front of the Bronco. "I'm taking Bella with me since she needs to get a gift for our birthday boy." She tore the sheet of paper in her hand in half and passed one piece to Whit. "You two get the items on this half of the list and we'll meet back here in an hour."
Gopher hooked his finger through the belt loop on the front of Lee's jeans and with one tug he had her pressed against his chest. She didn't look like she was happy about it and he didn't seem like he even noticed with how focused he was on looking right into her eyes. "Be safe."
She cracked a small smile and the lines around her eyes softened. "Stay away from cake."
"I know. I love you."
He kissed her soundly on the lips and then grinned. "Love you too, Babe. Way more than I love cake. Promise."
She laughed and pushed away from him. "You two stay out of trouble and we'll see you in an hour."
Bella waited until the guys were a good distance away. "Lee, were you really mad at him?"
Bella heard Lee's dark laugh for the second time that morning. "About as mad as Mase was sleeping."
"You really don't think he was asleep this morning?" It didn't seem like something to fake to Bella and she couldn't figure out what might make Edward want to pretend to be asleep instead of saying goodbye to her this morning. It's not like he hadn't spent time alone with her before. Unless the others didn't have any idea and he wanted to keep it that way. But then why had he said last night that he didn't want her to worry about it?
"It had nothing to do with you," Lee assured her. "Not really. It's just Masen trying to be responsible for everything and everyone. He'll get over it soon." After a few seconds she added, "I hope."
Bella thought about Lee's comment the entire time she followed her through the first store they entered.
When they were walking out with the few things Lee had picked out, Bella asked, "We're friends now, right?"
"So if I were to talk to you in confidence?"
"Masen wouldn't hear a word of it from me," Lee promised.
Bella nodded and let out the breath she'd been holding. "The other day when I was thinking of leaving and you and Whit were so kind and encouraging …" She paused, unsure of how to phrase the next part.
"Bella, that wasn't a big deal. We honestly care about you as a person and a coworker and we just wanted to see you do your best and not let your fear stop you."
"I know that. And I wish I could say it was your words that convinced me, but …"
Lee grinned. "You are so like Masen in some ways. Whit and I are not stupid or blind, Bella. We knew it was going to take more than us. We knew Masen was going to have to step in and address your fears. We just weren't completely sure he could let down his guard enough to do it. But you're still here and from what I saw this morning, he's not being all business anymore."
"He's not. Well … Sometimes he's not. You said to be patient and I'm trying but he's so confusing sometimes. Last night he said he didn't like me worrying about you guys seeing me with him but then this morning he faked sleeping. I just … I'm really worried he's going to change his mind again and when he does things like this …" Bella met Lee's gaze and said the words she had every intention of saying to Edward tomorrow. "I'm not a toy and I don't want to be toyed with."
Lee linked her arm with Bella's as they walked, taking a minute to gather her thoughts before responding. "Those are the words of a smart woman and that's a hard thing to be when your heart is involved. As his friend, and a person who can be just as clueless about relationships, I say tell him that flat out and make sure he knows you mean it. He doesn't have his own boundaries so you have to give him yours. Emmett used to get pretty frustrated with me for being wishy-washy about some things but once we talked and I knew where the boundaries lied, it was so much easier to be with him.
"Masen honestly doesn't mean to be so back and forth, Bella. He just doesn't know yet how to be with you. But he wants to and that's the thing you've got to remember those times when you're frustrated and confused. Tell him it bothers you and I guarantee he'll do all he can to fix it. Just don't ever expect perfection from him because you won't get it. That's something Emmett had to decide if he could handle with me and thankfully he can."
Bella thought of the look on Edward's face the other night in her room aboard Galeos—pure panic mixed with a longing that was real and possibly as deep as her own. I don't want to let you go, Bella. Please don't make me do that. His words had been so sincere and so heartfelt and hearing them in her head now made her want to cry as much as when she'd heard them that night. It wasn't every day that someone was wanted that much and she certainly hadn't entertained the idea of anyone feeling that way about her. The future she had mapped out for herself included working at the aquarium, reading for fun, and maybe having a cat for company. Honestly, though, that future was looking less appealing the closer she grew to Edward.
"Oh, let's try this one," Lee said as she tugged Bella toward an older looking building. "Sometimes you can find real treasures in the little stores like this one."
Bella had been pretty skeptical of that. And she had nearly given up hope of finding anything after spending the nearly twenty minutes browsing dusty shelves and digging in crowded bins. And then she looked up and saw it. The perfect birthday gift.
She reached up and noticed her hand was shaking as her fingers closed over the hard plastic. She shouldn't be nervous over a gift and yet she was practically shaking in her shoes.
Lee put a hand on her shoulder and Bella steadied under the comforting weight. "It's perfect," her friend assured her. "And so is this."
Bella turned around to see what Lee had found and immediately giggled. "Somehow I don't see Edward agreeing to wear that."
"Oh, it's not for him to wear. The gift is seeing you in it. After I make a few quick alterations, of course."
Bella took the hot pink shirt from Lee and nervously giggled again. "How is seeing me in this shirt going to be a gift for him?"
"Now that you and I are friends, I can let you in on a few secrets about Masen. First, he hates dancing."
Bella thought of how hard it had been to get him to dance that night on the deck of Galeos. "Yeah, I figured that out."
"Yes, but what you don't know is that it has nothing to do with him not caring for music. When Mase was a little kid, he danced all the time with Beth and Esme, and later on with just Esme. And in high school he and Whit were big time into music and even talked about starting a garage band. Back then music was a way to meet girls.
"When I met them in college they had relegated music to a weekend thing but were still into it. But at the start of our second year Whit met this girl and they had a very intense and sometimes stormy relationship. It seemed like Whit always needed to hang out with her or fix something with her, and at times it was pretty damn annoying to have him blowing us off for this girl. But we love him and we wanted him happy so we dealt with it. Without Whit around, Masen gave up on the music and focused more on surfing, especially since that was the one activity that Whit never missed out on. Plus I think he secretly blamed the music since Whit met the girl during one of their little impromptu beach concerts.
"So here we are all these years later with Mase preferring to listen to Jeopardy instead of music. But only when he can't be surfing instead. And only when you aren't the one asking him to dance."
"That's … Wow." Bella honestly didn't know how to respond to all that new information. A girl in Whit's past. A time when Edward had liked music. The mental image of him being a little kid and dancing with his mom. And a deeper understanding of the long history and loyal friendship between the guys and Lee.
Lee shrugged. "Yeah, it's Mase. What can I tell ya?"
"You said the dancing was the first thing so what's the second?"
Lee chuckled. "The second is that this shirt will be a gift for him because flashes of skin are his kryptonite when it comes to women. That is not personally gained information if you're wondering. It's an observation made by Whit and me after years of watching what kind of woman catches Mase's attention enough to get him to be interested in her. It's always the ones who are teasing a little skin rather than putting a bunch on full display."
"But Whit said—"
Lee cut her off with a head shake. "Whit meant that Masen has never had an actual relationship. He's not a virgin by any stretch of the imagination, but the women he's chosen to be with here and there have only ever been around for a few hours at most."
After all the back and forth, hearing that women in his life tended to last only a few hours had Bella worried all over again. How much longer could it really be before he changed his mind and wanted to be strictly professional again? And this time, it would be a permanent change. Not being perfect and not being experienced was one thing, but jerking around someone's heart was a completely different monster—the only kind that would ever have Bella preferring to be near a shark instead.
Lee put her arm around Bella's shoulders, seeming as if she knew the conversation had made her uncomfortable. "Bella, we all have at least one person in our past. But no one in Mase's history has ever known about Beth. You are the one woman he chose to share that with. And just so you know, he didn't tell me about her until we'd known each other for about six months and we'd been instant friends the moment we'd met."
Bella felt a little guilty for how relieved those words made her feel. Edward wasn't the kind to share something so personal with just anyone and if she meant enough to him to do that, then she had to mean enough for him to really want her—and that had to be enough to keep him from changing his mind.
She smiled and lifted up the hot pink shirt. "So two presents then?"
Lee grinned impishly. "Abso-freakin-lutely!"
"I'm just going to put this stuff in my room and then I'll meet you in yours," Bella promised Lee.
"Just a sec!" Whit called as he jogged over to her. "I have a favor to ask on Masen's behalf."
There was something about his smile that had Bella blushing. "Why do I feel like this is not going to be a favor I want anything to do with?"
"It's a simple request." He leaned in closer and whispered, "Wear your red bikini today."
"What? Why?" she asked, pulling back to see his face and hopefully read his expression.
All she saw was his devilish smile and shining eyes. "'Cause it's his birthday and he really likes seeing you in it."
"How could you possibly know that?"
Whit chuckled darkly. "I'm the nudger. It's my job."
She laughed and rolled her eyes at his silliness. "Whatever. I'll think about it."
He seemed satisfied with that because he gave her a dramatic bow and then spun around and jogged over to Gopher who was pulling bags from the back of the Bronco.
She was still shaking her head at his antics when she entered her room. And then she jumped because her door closed behind her all on its own. She spun around only to find that the door had, had some help after all. "Edward, what are you doing?" she hissed, annoyed that he'd frightened her.
He answered with a kiss. Not a sweet "welcome back" kiss or a soft "hello" kiss. No, this was a "come here" kiss, the kind of kiss that consumed everything … thoughts … breaths … sounds. Or at least most of the sounds because there was something about a kiss so hot and intense, a kiss that heated a body from the inside out … a kiss like that made it damn near impossible to control the level and frequency of the resulting moaning.
When they finally came up for air, they were both breathing harshly. Her bags were forgotten on the floor and she was pressed against the wall in a way very similar to that night they'd met in the bar. And just like that night, her brains were so addled by him that she was barely able to speak. "Hi."
He was so close that she could only see his eyes—a sea green that rivaled the majesty of the ocean—looking right at her. Maybe even into her from the way she felt so exposed, as if he could see right inside and knew exactly how much she wished she wasn't the intern in that moment. That feeling intensified when his lips softly brushed against hers; an apology for now and a promise for later.
He set her on her feet and after they were both sure she was steady, she asked, "Did you have a nice time with Esme?"
He didn't answer right away. "I told her about us."
"What did she say?" She was desperate to see the look on his face but she also wanted to make sure he didn't accidentally see his gifts so she stayed focused on making sure he couldn't see into the bags while she moved them from the floor to her bed.
She was a little too focused and he was able to take her by surprise again, wrapping his arms around her from behind and kissing the back of her neck. "She likes you."
He followed the admission with another tender kiss to her neck. "She likes me with you."
There was another kiss and Bella had to close her eyes and bite her lip to keep from moaning. She felt his lips again and this time, his smile—he'd obviously felt her shiver and liked it.
He moved his warm lips to the shell of her ear. "She'd also like it if I didn't screw things up."
"I'd like that too." She probably shouldn't have just blurted it out that way, but it was undeniably true.
His breath was hot against her ear. "Kapu."
She turned in his arms, needing to see his face—his eyes. Instead of making her feel special like it usually did, the word had brought back her worries of him changing his mind. "Why do you still call me forbidden if you want to be with me?"
His fingers played with her ponytail while his eyes seemed to be taking in every detail of her face; he was stalling. Just when she felt she couldn't take his silence another second, he answered her question in a low, rough tone, sounding as if it hurt in some way to confide in her. "Because kapu also means sacred, as in important and entitled to respect."
"You don't like that version of it, do you?"
"I like it just fine. And I like you. It's just new … and strange."
"I really was going to wait until tomorrow, but, Edward … Listen, I like you. A lot. You know that. But I also need you to know I'm not a toy and I don't want to be toyed with. If you're not sure what you want, we should stop right here and go back to being just co-workers."
He looked honestly shocked. "How can you say that? I told my mom about us, Bella. How can you think I'm not sure what I want?"
"Yeah, you told your mom, but you also just said you find it strange for me to be important to you."
"No, I said you are important to me. Having someone be important is new and strange, but that doesn't change the fact that you are important to me. And I don't want it to change. Bella, I meant what I told you the other day. I care about you and I want you here with me."
"Okay, but last night you said you didn't like me worrying about your family seeing us together and then this morning you pretended to be asleep."
He groaned and rubbed his hand over his face. "I knew that was going to bite me in the ass. I just didn't know it would be with you." He moved his hand and looked at her, right into her eyes. "Bella, I did that because I didn't want Lee to tease either of us this morning. I didn't want you to feel uncomfortable and then not want to sit with me on the sofa anymore."
She was surprised by how badly she wanted to believe him but she had to be sure. "They're not just your family anymore, Edward. They're my friends too. I can understand and respect your desire for privacy, just be clear with me about what is and isn't okay to share with them."
"To be perfectly honest, I don't have any idea. I've never done this before. When this …" He shifted his weight and ran a hand through his messy hair, clearly uncomfortable in Bella's opinion. "If they see us together, I think they'll be okay with it. Actually, I'm pretty sure they'll be so busy trying to find a way to tease me about it that they won't even really pay much attention to what you and me are doing.
"But that's because they know me—they know I'm not playing around with you or our careers. They know this is real for me. And they know that about you too, Bella. But people outside of them won't. Does that make sense?"
"You would like to be discrete around people like the crew of The Submarine, but around your family it's okay if you want to hold my hand?" she questioned, hoping she had understood him right.
Edward smiled and slipped his arms around her; he was so close she could feel the heat of his breath on her lips. "You could always hold my hand first for a change."
"What if I want to hug you instead?"
"I'd rather you kiss me."
She smiled, her entire body relaxing in his arms as the relief she felt seeped through her.
"Kapu, I haven't changed my mind and I'm not going to change it." If not for the knock on her door, he probably would have kissed her and it undoubtedly would have been a damn good one too. But there was a knock so there was no kiss.
"I'll be right there," Bella called, positive it was Lee knocking since she'd promised to bring the pink shirt to her room.
"Where do you think you're going?" Edward asked, holding her tighter.
"I promised to help Lee with something."
"Let Whit or Gopher help."
"No, I promised so I have to do it."
"A stickler, huh?" he asked with a smirk that guaranteed he was up to no good. "Promise to kiss me later."
She didn't see the harm, especially if it got her out of his arms quicker. "I promise I'll kiss you later. Now let go so I can follow through on my promise to Lee."
"Okay, but first I want to know if you wrote about yesterday in your journal."
Bella could feel the look of confusion on her face. She knew he'd liked reading her entries but not enough to ask about a particular one like this. "No, I haven't had a chance yet."
"Will you bring it wherever we're going so you can write it?"
Unlike him, she knew where they were going and she would rather leave her journal here in the house. "I really don't think I'll have the chance for that."
She could see he was really intent on this, she just didn't know his reason. "What's so important about me making this particular entry?"
"I really want to see yesterday the way you did. I want to know what it felt like for you to be on the cradle with that shark, touching it and naming it."
She was too stunned to speak and just barely managed to nod.
He had a very happy grin on his face as he asked, "Can I thank you properly or do you really have to go?"
She groaned and forced herself to back away from him, not trusting herself to stay close and stay clear-headed. "I really have to go."
"Fine," he said with a sigh. And then he flashed her with his shitty grin. "Just remember your promise to me."
Bella huffed at him while grabbing the bag with the shirt. "I'm going help Lee. Why don't you go find someone else to annoy for a while?"
Her fingers touched the doorknob and his arms banded around her, pulling her flush against his back. Before she could ask him to let go, he whispered into her ear, "I'm not going to let you go, kapu. I promise."
She felt the sting of tears and quickly blinked them back while telling herself to smile because those were good words. Words that she had really needed to hear. And Lee really can wait just a few more minutes, Bella reasoned as she turned and found his lips with hers. She and Edward might not be saying it with their words, but she was pretty convinced their kisses had a lot to say about the depth of their feelings for each other. And right now, hers was definitely saying "thank you" and "don't let go".
"Keep your hat down," Esme ordered.
"It's down, Mom," Masen assured her, laughing as he followed her sandal-clad feet out of the house. "I wouldn't dare ruin your surprise."
"Kid, we both know you would if you thought you could get away with it."
"That's true," he agreed.
"Alright, stop." She gripped his shoulder and moved him to the left. "Right here should be good."
"Can I lift my hat now?" he asked, holding the brim with twitchy fingers. He was tired of waiting to find out what they had planned.
"Don't have any, Mom. You used it all up."
She laughed but it didn't come from right next to him. "Alright. Lift!"
Masen pulled his hat completely off and after blinking to adjust to the brightness of the sun, his eyes zeroed in on Esme and the surprise she was standing beside. The back of his Bronco was packed full and there were surfboards tied to the roof.
"Wanna take a guess at your surprise?" Esme asked. She had a huge, happy smile on her face that told him whatever this was a part of, it was designed with his favorite things in mind. Not that he'd expected anything less from her. She always found a way to make his birthday fun for him no matter where they were in the world.
Whit and Gopher were near her, sitting on the tailgate with Lizzy lying between them with her head on her paws. "We'll give you a hint. It's not Disneyland," Gopher told him.
"I'm hoping from these boards that surfing will be involved," Masen said to Esme, reaching up to touch his board and using his other arm to hug her.
"I can confirm surfing is involved."
"Nope. That's all you get until we get to our destination."
Masen let out an aggravated groan that caused Esme, Whit, and Gopher to laugh at his reaction.
She ruffled his hair. "Relax, Kid. You'll know soon enough. We're just waiting on Lee and Guppy so we can get on the road to the other part of your surprise."
"We're here," Lee called from behind them.
Masen turned to ask her for his keys because there was no way in hell he wasn't driving his truck on his birthday.
One look at Bella, though, and he was seriously questioning his ability to drive; he was pretty sure all the blood that should be in his brains to allow for safe driving had just dove down to a southerly region.
She had on a sleeveless pink tee that stopped just above her bellybutton, leaving a swatch of her toned stomach on view. The tee had a deep v-neck and he was pretty damn sure it was her red ruffled bikini that was peeking out of the edges. The shirt was tight across her chest and so loose beneath that it swayed with each step she took and flashed him with different slivers of her tanned and toned belly. He grunted and shifted his weight from his left to his right foot, hoping like hell that his board shorts weren't showing off how much he liked her outfit.
Bella walked right past him as if she hadn't seen him standing there but he knew from the almost matching pink blush in her cheeks that she'd seen him and his reaction to her.
And from the shitty grin Lee was wearing, he knew she was behind this outfit choice. Even without the grin, though, the writing on the shirt screamed of her input: Think of me as the Barbie you'll never get to play with.
"Here are your keys," Lee said, dangling them from her finger. "Think you can drive?"
Masen only grunted at her while snatching his keys away. He slipped behind the wheel of his truck and shook his head, trying to compose himself while everyone piled into the Bronco.
The passenger door opened and he looked up to see Whit holding onto it and Bella sliding across the bench seat. "I won shotgun and Lee wants to sit with Gopher," Whit explained as he got in and closed the door. This didn't explain why Esme was in the back but Masen was too distracted by Bella smiling at him to realize it in that moment.
Whit slapped his hands against the dashboard in a quick rhythm. "Let's go, birthday boy. We have a surprise to get to."
Masen shook his head again and then got the Bronco started. "Gonna need a direction, Mom," he said, looking at her in the rearview mirror.
She wore a Cheshire cat smile, a clear indicator to him that she wasn't in the backseat by chance. "Toward Cape Town, Kid."
"You won shotgun, huh?" he asked Whit as he pulled out onto the main road.
The only answer he got from his best friend was a low, dark laugh.
Masen kept his eyes and mind strictly on driving for the first few miles but little by little his attention started to spread between the road and the woman next to him. She and Whit were arguing about the best comedy movies, but it was the kind of argument friends had where both were laughing too much to mean anything negative they might be saying. He liked that they were already the kind of friends who could do that together.
"Whatever," Whit yelled and then laughed. He looked past Bella to smirk at Masen and then said to her, "You know, there's plenty of room if you want to slide this way some."
Instead of taking him up on the offer, Bella slid closer to Masen until she was sitting right up against him. "Nah, I'm comfortable right here," she told Whit.
"So I see."
Screw it. I want to so I'm going to, Masen thought. He dropped his hand from the steering wheel and took hold of Bella's. He slid his fingers through hers and she squeezed his hand before he got the chance; he was glad she wasn't concerned with what anyone might say. She'd had him worried earlier that she would be the one to change her mind about them having more together. He knew it was his own fault for his earlier behavior with her and he also knew he was going to have to relax and just get used to his family seeing him be different with Bella in order for her to trust him.
Whit held his hand out to Bella. "Hey, mine's empty too. Wanna hold it?"
Bella grabbed it and used it to slap him in his chest. "Hold your own, Nudger."
Masen laughed at the shocked look on Whit's face. It had been a long time since anyone had gotten the drop on his best friend like that.
"Laugh it up, Mase, and while you're busy with that, I'll tell Bella about Kimmie K in the seventh grade."
"She doesn't want to hear that story. Especially not with the way you tell it."
"So both of you tell it," Bella said, looking up at Edward first and then Whit.
The guys exchanged shrugs and Whit started the story. "It was seventh grade and there was going to be a dance at the school. We normally didn't care about dances but we'd heard Kimmie was going to ask one of us to go. Masen was sure it was going to be him and I was positive he'd be home alone with his video games while I danced the night away with Kimmie."
Masen snorted and then picked up where Whit had left off. "I decided to do something to impress Kimmie, and Whit over there tried to copy me."
"The hell I did!" Whit argued, turning to face Masen. "For one, all you did was put a ridiculous amount of gel in your hair to try to get it to stay flat on your head."
"That's not true. I had flowers for her."
Whit snorted and then spoke to Bella as if Masen couldn't hear him. "Flowers he stole from Esme's garden and got grounded for."
Bella giggled. "I can totally picture that. So what did you do?"
Masen answered for him. "The genius over there went to school in his best suit, walked right up to Kimmie, got down on his knees, and offered her up a huge box of chocolates."
"Did that work? Did she agree to go to the dance with you?"
Whit shook his head. "She was already going with this Morrison kid who was in our gym class."
"Wouldn't have mattered anyway," Masen said. "He was grounded the night of the dance for stealing money from his mom's purse to buy the chocolate."
Bella looked between the two of them. "So let me get this straight … You both wanted to go with her … You both got grounded in your wayward attempts to impress her … And the entire time, she already had a date that wasn't either of you. Wow! That must have been some bruise to your egos."
"We were too young and stupid to have bruised egos," Masen replied.
"Yeah, we were way more upset about the grounding than the girl," Whit added.
"Have you ever liked the same girl again?"
"Hell no! Masen's got awful taste." Whit grinned at Bella. "Present company excluded."
Masen let go of Bella's hand to reach across the seat and pinch the back of Whit's neck as hard as he could. "Fucking nudger."
"Bella, call him off!" Whit yelled while squeezing his neck against his shoulder in an attempt to get free of Masen's grip.
Bella giggled. "I wouldn't want to get between two friends the way Kimmie did."
"You gonna leave me alone on my birthday?" Masen asked his best friend.
"No, but you knew that already," Whit replied.
Masen laughed and let him go, appreciating the man's honesty even when it wasn't in his favor. Instead of pulling his arm back, he left it resting on the back on the seat with his hand curled around Bella's shoulder. Since he was gonna get shit anyway, he might as well do something to deserve it.
After driving toward Cape Town for a much shorter time than Masen had expected, Esme had him turn left and follow the winding coastline for a while. She eventually directed him up through Cape Point within the Table Mountain National Park and then onto a road that wound back down toward the coastline. That road pretty much dead-ended into a gorgeous beach and she instructed him to park in a grassy area off to the right of it.
Masen opened his door and used it to balance himself in the doorway, giving himself a higher and better view of the land laid out before him. This section of beach was a half-moon shape and continued on in either direction as far as he could see—white sand for miles, mostly flat with the occasional dunes. The water surrounding it was a stunning shade of blue-green filled with perfect rolling waves and bright white foam caps. Breathtaking—it was the only word Masen could come up with to describe this truly picture perfect setting.
The beauty of this area wasn't just relegated to the beach either—this stretch of coastline was bordered by mountain ranges, dotting the landscape with the browns and greys of the rocks and interspersed with vibrant green shrubbery. A few of the peaks even looked like shark fins looming over the area.
Lizzy's "pay attention" bark did its job and he looked down to find his puppy happily nestled in his mom's arms. "Welcome to Buffels Bay Beach," Esme said, smiling up at him. "What do you think, Kid?"
He didn't get to answer because a very excited Lee bounced over to reveal another part of his birthday surprise. "We've got special permission to stay right here on the beach for the next few days. Not the beach, beach, but the grassy area right here."
Esme laughed as she put an arm around Lee. "She's been dying to tell you for the past twenty-four hours."
"Mase, it's got everything," Lee exclaimed. "Tons of beach to explore, surfing, a tidal pool, and even snorkeling. Great, right?"
"It's perfect," he assured her as he hopped down from the doorway.
Esme handed Lizzy to Lee and then stepped up to kiss Masen on the cheek. "Happy Birthday, Kid."
He pulled her into a bear hug that made her laugh, and then she tugged his head down and whispered a plea into his ear. "Make the most of your time off and this beautiful place, Edward. Make memories you'll always cherish and hold in your heart."
"Why don't we ever go anywhere this nice for my birthday?" Whit asked, causing everyone to laugh.
Masen let go of Esme so he could properly sucker-punch his best friend in the shoulder the way he deserved. Whit's cries of pain were short-lived, quickly drowned out by a piercing whistle from Lee.
"I wanna get my surfboard in that water so let's get camp set up quick and right," she demanded. "The guys can pitch the tents while the ladies start carrying down the supplies."
"Hey, General Hale, calm the hell down," Whit told her. "We're here to have fun."
"We can have fun after we handle our responsibilities."
Whit rolled his eyes at her. "You and Mase, two damn peas in a pod."
She gave him a wicked grin. "You're just jealous I'm the best, best friend."
"In your dreams," he replied with a loud snort.
Esme cleared her throat, the sound instantly setting all eyes on her. "As the official tie-breaker of this lovely band of misfits, I say we set up camp first and then play."
Lee poked her tongue at Whit, he flipped her off, and then everyone got busy unloading the Bronco.
Everyone except for Masen and Bella. "A word with you?" he asked even as he snagged her by the band of her shorts, pretty much forcing her to follow him toward the front of his truck.
"Did you miss the order from your mom to set up camp?" Bella questioned with a chuckle, her face shaded and her eyes hidden from him. She had snagged his hat while he'd been admiring the beach—seeing her in his hat and that flirty shirt, knowing her red bikini with the ruffles was underneath … Once again he found himself wondering about the stretching ability of his board shorts.
"Is this because I stole your hat?" she asked.
He shook his head to clear it from flashes of her skin and red ruffles and then answered her. "Borrowed."
"Nope," she replied, popping her lips on the 'p' and grinning. "Borrowed implies an intent to return."
He grinned, sure she was teasing. "You're not a thief."
She shrugged. "Consider it a gift from you to me to make up for previous infractions."
"I thought the chocolate milk did that," he said, his smile widening as he remembered how much she'd enjoyed it.
With a smile to match his, she leaned in and set her hands on his chest, burning his skin through the thin cotton of his t-shirt and leaving his fingers no choice but to grip her slender hips and pull her closer. She tilted her head down the slightest bit and then looked up through her long lashes, teasing him with slivers of caramel. "What can I say? You had a lot of infractions."
He had no choice—he had to kiss her or he'd burst from the force it was taking to resist it.
He caught a hint of the fresh orange slices she'd had this morning as his lips touched hers in a whisper of kiss. And then Lee cock-blocked him with the screech of his name. "Masen! Stop making out with the intern and get your butt over here and help!"
His immediate reaction was to freeze. It was quickly followed by a groan and then his temper rising from the knowledge of what was coming his way.
"Don't use too much tongue, Kid. We women hate that," Esme helpfully provided.
"How come he gets to stand around kissing while the rest of us work?" Gopher questioned.
"Just be glad he's only kissing her," Whit called out. "He could be trying to dry hump her right out of her red bikini."
Masen winced and glanced at Bella; her cheeks were a furious pink and her eyes were locked on her sneakered feet with the toe of one battered shoe pawing at the ground.
"They're idiots," he assured her while taking hold of her hand. "Don't listen to anything they say."
Esme's voice rang out once more. "Edward, sweetheart, as much as I hate to cock-block you, we really do need your help."
As if her comment wasn't bad enough, Whit threw in an extra helping of torture. "Back away from the intern. Deflate the situation."
Bella gasped. And then she laughed—just a few giggles to begin with but it quickly ramped up into peals of laughter that had her clutching her stomach with tears streaming from the corners of her eyes.
Masen couldn't believe it. In just under a minute he'd gone from kissing a beautiful woman to having his family turn her into a mess of laughing, crying girl. As much as he wanted to be angry, as much as he knew he would be if this wasn't Bella, he couldn't do it. Her happiness made it entirely impossible.
Since the moment was already beyond salvaging, Masen did the only thing he could—he lifted Bella up and draped her over his shoulder, carrying her laughing, wiggling body to the back of his truck and his waiting family.
"About time," Lee said, smirking at him. "Put down the intern and grab a tent."
"I didn't know you could do a fireman's carry. Learn something new about my kid every day," Esme mused.
Whit's hard snort was followed by a giddy laugh. "You find out he's lusting for the intern and you focus on how he carries her? Esme, I love you."
Masen set Bella down on the tailgate and then faced his family. "I love you guys. I really do. So know that I say this with love … Shut the fuck up," he ordered.
When they all stopped laughing, Gopher, Whit, and Masen grabbed all the gear for the tents and headed off to a flat grassy area just a little ways from the truck. Lizzy followed after them in a zigzagging pattern, trying to see and smell everything at once.
After surveying the area for a bit, Masen picked a fairly large opening between a group of tall bushes. "Let's put the tents here. It'll be good cover from any wind that kicks up overnight."
Gopher nodded in agreement. "It'll also make for an awesome sunrise view in the morning."
They started in on setting up the three tents, working in companionable silence, but it wasn't long before Whit turned their working silence into working while joking. "So with the one you're working on now, how many tents have you pitched today, Mase?"
Masen laughed because it was funny but he still had to give his friend crap right back. "Shut up, you fucking nudger."
His laughter had captured Lizzy's attention and she came over to inspect their progress. "You planning to help or hinder?" he asked her. She growled at the rope hanging from the edge of his tent and then pounced on it, covering it with her two front paws.
"Hinder it is," he said, chuckling as he picked her up and put her on the other side of him.
He looked up from his puppy just in time to see Bella coming their way. She had both hands wrapped around the handle of a cooler with her eyes fixed directly in front of her, concentrating on each step she took. Just like before, the bottom of her shirt fluttered with her every move, but the steady breeze blowing here took it to new heights, giving him glimpses of the bottom edge of her bikini top. The only polite for public words in his head at that moment were Red with ruffles.
"Guppy is looking mighty damn fine today," Gopher shared as the guys watched her set the cooler down and then head back toward the truck.
Masen surveyed him closely, trying to decide if his seeming innocence was real or pretend. "I know Lee's involved. What about you?"
Gopher grinned. "As much as I would love to claim a hand in torturing your annoying ass, I'm merely an innocent bystander in this fuckery."
"And you?" Masen asked, turning his attention to Whit.
Whit chuckled darkly. "I'm always involved, even when I'm not."
A/N: So ends the first half of Masen's birthday! We hope you guys enjoyed his family torturing him as much as we did! We'll be back very soon with the second half—and more torture :) Pics of the gorgeous beach are up on the blog!