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Chapter 22 – It Came With Its Own Red Cape!
Friday, June 20th – Masen's Birthday (continued)
Once the guys had finished setting up the tents, they'd joined the ladies in the unloading of the truck. It had taken just over an hour to get everything situated inside and outside of the tents, including building a small fire pit on the beach below their campsite to light once the sun set.
As soon as they'd finished with the setup, they'd moved right into play time. Lee, Whit, and Edward had shed their shirts, grabbed their boards, and raced into the water. Gopher had gone out with his own board, but he seemed to be just enjoying the waves while the others competed and taunted each other.
Esme had chosen to spread out on a towel under a huge beach umbrella with a paperback and a bottle of water. Lizzy split her time between running over to chase the surfers when they landed on the beach and enjoying the shade with Esme.
Bella was also enjoying the shade. Her downtime had started with taking in all of the sights and sounds of this amazing and gorgeous beach. She was no stranger to traveling to exotic locals but there was something so secluded and pristine about this particular beach. It felt intimate, as if it was her own private slice of heaven. Even though she hadn't taken any yet, she already knew the truth—no photo could hope to capture the divine beauty of this place.
The next vision that had captured her attention had been the utterly magnificent and ridiculously tempting sight of Edward striding out of the surf and onto the beach. It had been completely commercial worthy—his hands had slid over his hair, slicking the wet tendrils back, while the sun had illuminated the water dripping from every inch of his golden skin. Wet hair, wet chest, wet lips … All that had been missing was an appropriate sexy soundtrack.
After paying a little attention to Lizzy and tossing her ball to her a few times, Edward had returned to the waves and Bella had pulled out her journal to start on the entry she'd promised to make for him. She had the basics laid out now …
Sighted: Great White Sharks
Where: Mossel Bay, In the cradle of a ship called The Submarine
Description: This description pertains to the shark I had a personal encounter with
Male, Thirteen feet-four inches long
Grey upper body that fades to white
Short snout, slightly cone-shaped
Torpedo shaped body
Upper and lower caudal fins of tail are nearly exact in size
All that was left was for her to delve into her experience overall, touch on her initial and final impressions, and then mention the new technical aspects she'd learned about Great Whites.
Technical (overall) – The body of a Great White is not one color as I'd thought previously. It has a grey upper body meant to mimic the sea floor when viewed from above and a white underside to resemble the sky when viewed from below. Edward says they can also be colored dark blue, brown, or black along their backs.
Great Whites do not have a nictitating membrane like the Tiger Sharks we saw on the way here; their eyes roll back into their orbits to protect them from damage. I was able to see one of the shark's big black eyes roll back and then forward again when the crew of The Submarine was removing a towel from a shark's head.
It's believed Great Whites don't begin breeding until they're at least twenty years old and this accounts for some of the huge decrease in their numbers over the past three decades. Another major factor is overfishing, especially finning—the practice of removing a shark's fins and then tossing it back into the ocean to die. Shark meat is not edible because it contains high levels of mercury which is poisonous to humans so the bodies are discarded.
Some of these technical details came from actual experiences aboard The Submarine and some were from getting to work beside Ben and Angela. They were both very gracious and never seemed tired of answering my many questions. I appreciate what they do but I don't know that I could focus all my efforts on just sharks. I know they're important to the marine ecosystem but still … Sharks.
Personal – It wasn't an easy choice to make, deciding to get on that small wooden cradle, inches above the deep, murky waters of the South Atlantic. The shark-infested waters.
I did and do believe it was a necessary choice but that didn't mean any part of it was easy. The first glimpse of that shark … It seemed to take up all the space in the cradle along with the air around me. But the longer I stood there, the more I was able to see past the unstoppable monster in my head and look upon the captured shark in front of me.
I firmly believe my progress is MMR's success. Being able to trust in every single one of them was what allowed me to get on that cradle and have a successful, safe encounter with that Great White. Just the day before I wouldn't have believed I would get on that cradle, but then something happened. Edward was knocked underwater by the tail of a Great White. Just its tail had the power to bruise his body, knock his legs out from under him, and leave him disoriented under the water. My initial reaction was to give in to my fear and give up on my internship. Maybe that sounds rash or dramatic, but I'm not talking about being afraid in the way a scary movie jolts you and then you're fine when it ends. I'm talking about a fear that makes your entire body break out into a cold sweat. Your pulse races and your heart pounds so hard that you can barely hear anything but your own rapid-fire heartbeat. You tell yourself everything is fine. You order yourself to calm down and breathe slowly. But you can't listen and that scares you almost as much as the physical symptoms. You are not in charge of your own body and that makes it harder to be in control of your mind.
And then it's over and you're embarrassed you couldn't control it and you're mad it happened again. If you're lucky like I was, you have some friends nearby to help you think things through. My MMR teammates helped me to see that a shark isn't a nightmare monster yet it's also not just a fish—it's power, raw and uncontrollable. As willing as MMR is to get near sharks, they understand that and plan for it as much as possible in all they do. They have a healthy respect balanced with vigilant precautions—that's what I want for myself when this summer comes to a close.
With my teammates at my side, I ventured into the cradle. The shark—my shark—was a male. He was recorded at thirteen feet-four inches long. To give some perspective, that's the size of the first small skiff I ever drove. I wasn't sure if I would move any closer until I was already doing it. I was able to touch it near its tail and feel the dermal denticles Ben had told me about. No matter what else happens this summer, I did that. I was able to swallow down the fear and the apprehension and trust that my teammates wouldn't allow me to do anything that would bring me harm. And in doing so, I let go of the monster in my head and acknowledged the powerful yet vulnerable creature in front of me.
I am by no stretch of the imagination okay with sharks now. But I also no longer feel crippled by my fear. I do need to be careful and vigilant near them but that is much easier and more safely done when I'm not expecting to be killed by them. I can't say at this point that I would be brave enough to venture into a shark cage as Edward and Whit have done, but the very idea of doing it isn't sending me into a panic attack. That's progress I never dreamed of making—I just wanted to be able to look at sharks through the aquarium glass without having to fight a panic attack.
As happy as I am with my progress, it comes with worries for my family. I worry whether my father could really be proud of me for naming a shark after him. I worry if Alice will be hurt when the summer ends and I share all of this with her, and if so, if she'll be able to forgive. So far as I know, she's never blamed me for what happened to our father, though I've blamed myself plenty. I hate to risk that changing but I know I can't be the person I want if I don't keep pushing forward. Uncle Carl has always been so understanding and supportive but this could be too much for him. It may be improbable but I still feel it's possible and so I worry. I've always identified more with my father but these worries that stick tight and color my dreams, they are what tie me to my mother. I know she can't be proud of me and I don't hold it against her. I only wish she could have kept it together enough to be in Alice's life.
Overall, I consider what I did to be a huge step in the right direction. For me it's tangible proof that I'm changing, that I can change. I can be the woman who knows about sharks rather than the girl who is deathly afraid of them. I can be as successful as my new friends believe I can be. And I want that more than any words I can write in this journal could ever explain. I've had my hand on a shark and now I've got my eye on a future with new possibilities.
The last thing I want to note is the one that means the most right now and that is the friendships I'm building here. Some welcomed me with open arms and others were a bit slow to warm, but everyone here cares and makes a point of letting me know it. Some are outright hilarious, some are more serious, and one in particular is highly driven. They are all special to me and I hope to carry on these friendships for the rest of my life.
Taking into account everything I have learned and experienced first-hand since starting this internship, I know I could not have chosen a better forum for conquering my fears. I am lucky and proud to be a member of MMR.
Bella smiled as she closed her journal, feeling as positive about her choices and chances as the words she'd used to describe yesterday's adventure.
"I certainly hope that's pleasure writing," Esme said. She had her sunglasses resting on top of her head and looked as if she might have been paying more attention to Bella than her book. "I'd hate to ground my kid on his birthday for assigning you work."
Bella laughed while slipping her journal into a waterproof bag. "Mostly pleasurable so you can let him slide. Besides, I'd hate for all the work you and Lee put into this camping trip to go to waste."
Esme's smile reminded Bella of the way her Uncle Carl looked whenever they talked about her father—equal parts happy and longing. "Edward has always loved the water. He takes after Beth for that. I love the water, don't get me wrong. But she was the one who would have been happy to live her life on a boat. You know, she took him for his first sail boat ride before he could even crawl. And when they moved to Hawaii to live with me, right away she signed him up for surfing lessons. He was so excited to have another reason to be in the water."
"He misses her an awful lot." Bella suddenly worried that wasn't the right way to phrase it, that it would somehow hurt Esme's feelings and she made a blundering attempt to fix it. "I don't mean that he doesn't love having you as his mom, because he does. I wouldn't even know you weren't if he hadn't said anything. Anyone would be lucky to have you as their mom."
"Relax," Esme encouraged, putting her hand on Bella's arm and squeezing gently. "I know exactly what you mean, both about him missing her and him loving me. It's a complicated relationship, much like your own with your uncle I would suspect."
"He loves us and he always says he enjoys having us live with him but sometimes I wonder. Would he have a family of his own if he hadn't been busy raising us?"
"Sweetheart, he has a family of his own. You and Alice are his own as much as Edward is mine. It's not an easy decision to make to step into a child's life and become his parent but once you make that commitment, it's done. It might not be traditional, but it is a family and it's the most important part of your life. And I also promise you that your uncle will absolutely understand your decision to name your shark after your father."
"Edward told you about that?"
"He mentioned you had some concerns. He truly does care about you, Bella."
Bella's eyes widened as she continued to look at Esme and not the person yelling her name. "It's like he knows! Like he can hear us from way over there."
Esme snorted. "His hearing's not that good."
"Hey, Bella!" His voice was louder this time.
"But I do believe he's trying to get your attention," Esme said with a laugh.
"So I hear," Bella mumbled, feeling the heat of her blush starting to spread.
"You know, it is his birthday," Esme mentioned. "Maybe you could let him slide for yelling your name and go see what he wants?"
Bella snorted as she looked up at her. "Are you helping Whit nudge?"
Esme gasped but Bella was pretty sure it was fake. She definitely knew it was after hearing her response. "Nudging is a sort of guidance moms aren't afforded—we can't be that honest or our kids will do the opposite out of spite. I'm more playing the role of wingman."
Bella felt a mix of relief and surprise sitting there with Esme. "You really do support Edward's choice to have more than a friendship with me."
"As long as it makes you both happy, then I am absolutely supportive."
"You didn't mention the work aspect."
"I have no worries when it comes to your work or his. You're both determined professionals in your own ways. And from what I've seen so far, you'd both succeed just to prove the other wrong."
She jerked her head his way and called his name out in that same demanding tone, making Esme crack up beside her.
"Yep. Headstrong," Esme said, still laughing some as Bella got to her feet.
After wrapping her waterproof bag in a towel as an extra measure of protection, Bella headed down to the water to find out what Edward wanted. "You know, you're perfectly capable of walking over there instead of yelling my name out."
Edward grinned. "I'd have to carry my board there and back so this was easier."
"Why not just set it down?"
He snorted. "You never put your board down. Not unless you want it to float out with the tide and have to swim after it."
"Thanks for the lesson, oh surfer guru. How about telling me what you want now?"
Edward suddenly started to scratch at the bridge of his nose—she wasn't positive yet but she suspected it was a physical sign of his nerves like her giggle was for her. She'd only seen it a couple times and always in personal situations, never during work.
"We were wondering if you'd like to surf with us and we thought we might have a better chance of you agreeing if I was the one to ask," he told her. "You could use Esme's board."
Her immediate, unconscious reaction was to take a step away from the water and him. As soon as she realized she'd done it, she regained her ground and forced herself to focus on his question and not her worries. "This water … It's far from where we've been on Galeos and The Submarine but it's still shark water. I know yesterday was a big step, Edward, but not … I can't. I'm not saying never, just not now. If that helps."
If he was upset at all, he didn't show it. "Alright. How about the tidal pool? It's not too far of a walk. You and I can take the T1 you're in love with and snap some photos."
"Edward, really, you don't have to stop surfing."
"I can surf again tomorrow and the day after. Right now I want to do something with you. Unless you'd rather not be seen with me."
"Hey!" she cried while poking him in the chest. "That's your hang up, not mine."
He laughed and wrapped his hand around hers, holding it against his warm, wet chest. "So what do you say? Tidal pool with me?"
The change in him … The openness … It was both thrilling and scary—but Bella wanted to only focus on the thrilling part. She smiled as the perfect teasing answer came to her. "I'll go with the camera. You can tag along if you want."
He looked shocked for a moment and then he started laughing. "The more comfortable you get here, the more of a challenge you are. I'm not sure how I feel about that."
"You can figure it out while we look at the tidal pool."
He rolled his eyes but he was still smiling when he let go of her hand so he could tuck his board under his arm. "Give me a minute to put up my board and get the camera."
Edward headed up the beach and over to Esme. He stuck his board in the sand next to her and then dropped down onto her towel, making her shriek from the water dripping off of him and onto her. Bella couldn't help laughing, especially as she watched Esme smack Edward in the head and shoulder with her book.
After being run off by Esme, he quickly dried his board and then disappeared into the tent he was sharing with Whit. It wasn't long before he came out with his camera bag hanging from his shoulder and his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.
He stopped to say something to Esme and then he started walking towards Bella. She noticed once again how his feet matched the rest of him—a perfectly golden tan on every bit of skin that wasn't covered by his board shorts. Every step brought him closer to her and made it easier to see the flex of his muscles in his arms, chest, and legs. Not even the slight discoloration on his side could take away from the sense of power he gave off with every stride. And just like that, the sun's warmth was nothing compared to the internal heat he created inside of her.
Bella wondered just how much her face was giving away because Edward looked pretty pleased with himself as he slipped his fingers through hers. She also wondered if he was being so brazen only to reassure her or if he really didn't mind being seen holding her hand.
She had just decided to come right out and ask when he spoke up and distracted her. "Tell me some more about your little sister. What's she like?"
He squeezed her fingers until she looked up at him. "Because she's important to you and I want to know about her."
She blushed under his intense gaze but her reason for looking away really was so she wouldn't trip over her own feet. "You've already dubbed her bubbly so let me see … She's bossy. You would think she was the older sister with the way she likes to take over and run things. When she found out about my trip, she planned out what I should and shouldn't pack."
"Bossy and bubbly," Edward said, shaking his head. "That's a hell of a combination to deal with."
"Sometimes," Bella answered with a shrug. "But she's also really sweet and thoughtful, and she tends to show it in the most unexpected ways. She wasn't too thrilled about me spending an entire summer away from her and yet I've found music and books she snuck into my luggage. And I know she was really thinking of me because they aren't her style at all."
He grinned. "I like that. It sounds like something Esme would do for me if I was going to be away from her for an extended period of time. What else you got?"
"Well … Alice likes anything pink and sparkly."
"Pink and sparkles, huh?" he asked with a hint of laughter in his voice.
"She's been that way since birth. Literally."
"I'm serious," Bella protested. "The day she was born, she came out of my mom, got cleaned up, and somehow managed to get pink glitter on her body in between the cleaning and being put in my mom's arms. Every single day, there is some part of her body that has glitter on it."
"What about you?" he asked, brushing his arm against hers. "Am I going to find any glitter on you?"
She answered his teasing smile with one of her own as she replied, "Not any time soon."
Masen wanted to take Bella's teasing comment as a challenge—he wanted it so much he could actually see it happening in his head. But he also knew the timing was all wrong and the chance of it being a quick way to fucking things up between them was too high. He had just regained the ground he'd lost with his indecisive behavior and he wasn't about to let it happen again. He would keep his focus on discovering what more meant with Bella. For now, that meant learning more about her and the people she loved.
"So what's Alice's passion in life?" he asked, honestly wanting to know more about the girl. "Obviously not marine life from what you've told me about her so far."
Bella smiled and it was one he recognized well—admiration. He'd seen it reflected in pictures of him with his family. He admired them all in various ways … Esme for her heart, Whit for his bravery, Lee for her genius, and Gopher for his steadfastness.
"Alice's passion is helping people," Bella confided. "She tutors, she mentors, she donates, she volunteers … if it's a cause that touches her heart, she's all over it."
She grinned and shook her head. "When she was in eighth grade, she used to get home a couple hours before me and Uncle Carl. She would usually sit in the kitchen and do her homework while waiting for us. This one day, though, I come home and the kitchen is empty. There wasn't even her usual empty dishes on the table from her after-school snack. I remember being worried that she hadn't made it home.
"So I go tearing through the house, calling her name, and I hear her voice but it's really muffled. I think maybe it's coming from her room so I go in there but I don't see her. I call out for her again, and again I hear the muffled voice but this time I know where it's coming from. I open her closet and I find her practically imprisoned by stacks of folded clothes with only a few items left on the hangers. I'm even more worried at this point because Alice is a neat-freak. Everything in her closet is pristine, ironed, and hung in order of color.
"I ask her what she's doing and she looks up at me with her big brown eyes. And then she bursts into tears. I manage to pull her out of her fabric prison and after I get her calmed down, she tells me how they learned at school that day that a tornado had ripped through a town in the Midwest and nearly everyone there had lost their homes and everything they owned. She couldn't stop thinking of all the girls her age with only a single outfit—the one on their back. She had come home determined to give away everything she owned since she was lucky enough to have an uncle who could buy her more clothes. But while she was folding up all of her clothes, she couldn't bring herself to part with the ones still on the hangers and that had made her feel guilty and selfish and was the source of her tears."
Masen waited for Bella to say more for as long as he could before pressing. "What'd you say to convince her she was a good kid?"
Bella blushed, shaking her head. "It was nothing. Not really."
"It was something that made your sister feel better. I know it. And that kind of power, to ease your family's hurt, that's never 'nothing', Bella."
"I told her that it didn't matter how many of her clothes she gave. If it was an entire closet or just one outfit. What mattered was that she was giving a little of her heart, sharing a little of her light and love with someone in need. And then I took her to my room and after setting aside all the items I was permanently attached to, I tossed all the rest at her and told her to get busy folding them up, that we had to fill some boxes and ship some clothes. So I'm not really sure if it was what I said or giving my clothes up that helped her."
"It was what you said," Masen stated confidently, "and the action was a nice backup to it."
"Is that what you're doing?" Bella asked, looking up at him and then down at their joined hands. "Is this trip to the tidal pool your way of backing up your choice for more?"
He tugged her to a stop and then folded his arms around her. The brush of her warm skin against his gave him a sense of being energized, like some kind of contact high equal to an energy drink. He felt like he could run the full length of this beach without breaking a sweat, only he had no interest in moving from this spot, in letting go of the woman in his arms. It was a completely foreign feeling for him and a little intimidating to suddenly want this one person around so much.
"Maybe a little," he admitted, hoping what he saw in her deep brown eyes was this same need he felt. "But more than anything it's a chance to get to know you better. You fascinate me, Bella. The way you think, how you can sit back and take an objective view even as you fight against your fear … You're someone worth getting to know."
"I want to know you too, Edward." Her smooth hands embraced his neck and brought his lips down to hers for a kiss that promised more was definitely in their future. He was sorely tempted to take over and see just how far she'd let things get but he was also curious to see what it would be like to let someone else be in charge for once.
Curiosity beat temptation this time. It wasn't as unpleasant as he'd imagined to follow instead of lead but it also didn't feel right. He definitely preferred to be in charge, or at the very least to share the control.
"Too much too soon?" she asked, her thumbs softly running along his earlobes. It was barely even a touch but it absolutely required his full self-control not to physically react to it. He had the same fleeting thought from that night in the bar, that she might be some kind of devil sent to bring him to his knees.
He pulled her torturous hands away and safely secured them in his own. "Why would you ask that?"
"I'm not claiming to be a pro or anything, but I know when a guy's not giving his all to a kiss. And I definitely know with you."
"I just thought I'd let you be in charge for a change."
"I'm a much better follower than a leader, especially with the way you kiss."
He laughed as he draped her arms over his shoulders, unable to resist any longer his desire to have her as close as possible. "Describe it. How do I kiss?"
That confident grin he'd caught a glimpse of on The Submarine was back and twice as big, lighting up her eyes and making it dangerous to be this close to her. "And inflate your already massive ego to world destructive proportions?" she mocked. "No, I must protect the innocent."
"Tell me. Please."
"The 'please' wore you down some, right? What if I say please, please, please, please? Please?"
She laughed, twisting her body and ducking under his arms to get away. "Begging doesn't work with me."
With his long strides it was easy to catch up to her. "Tell me what does."
"Why should I make it so easy for you? Why don't you try figuring it out? You did say you wanted to get to know me."
"Well, yeah, sure, but no guy is ever going to turn down the chance to get his hands on the cliffsnotes."
"Alright, Edward. You give me yours first and then I'll give you mine."
"Or you could just give me yours as my birthday gift," he suggested.
She looked at him with that confident, teasing smile once more. "I had something a little more personal in mind for your gift but if you'd prefer information you are perfectly capable of getting on your own, who am I to refuse?"
He groaned and rubbed his hand over his face. "You are not going to make any of this easy, are you?"
"Edward, if it was easy, you'd already be bored." There was no teasing in her expression this time, just an honesty so deep that he didn't dare attempt to deny she was right.
"Oh, wow," she said as they rounded the corner and got their first glimpse of the tidal pool. He'd seen a lot of places and read about a lot more but he agreed completely with Bella on this one—it had the power to strike a person speechless with its beauty.
"Okay, I know I can be a little off sometimes after having sharks on my mind but I swear those hill tops look like dorsal fins."
"I had the same thought when we first drove past them," he assured her. "It's amazing how it all just fades into each other. The water touches the beach which turns to grass then meets with the rocks and gradually builds up into these mountains."
"Are they mountains? I wasn't sure if they were tall enough to classify."
"It's all considered one huge range. You're looking at Table Mountain."
"Technically, I'm photographing it," she corrected, smiling behind the camera. He hadn't even realized she'd taken it from him.
He let her take a few more photos and then he took hold of her hand again, leading her down the embankment and toward the water.
"So it's a man-made pool?" she asked as they stepped foot onto the rectangle of concrete rising a few feet above the water.
"I'm not really sure. We'll have to ask Lee. Or look it up ourselves."
"Look at this thing," Bella urged, squatting down to take a photo of the pool. "You can swim in the ocean without actually going out into the ocean."
"It's not even close to the same. The adventure of being in the ocean is feeling its power in the waves and undercurrents."
She took his offered hand and pulled herself up. "Yeah, well, we can't all be the Indiana Jones of the oceans."
Masen pulled his lips up in a smirk. "I would look damn good in his hat."
Bella rolled her eyes as she walked off toward the strip of sandy beach beside the pool. He followed after her and then moved ahead to lead the way through the rocks so they could get a closer look at the small hidden pools between them.
"Careful through here," he warned. "Tricky footing."
"I know how to climb rocks, thank you. I might not go out in deep water but I do love a good tidal pool."
"You climb? You mean you lift your leg really high and basically sit on one side of the rock and slide down the other?" he questioned, laughing a little.
"Sure, if I have a camera in my hands," Bella answered as she approached the next large rock. "But I've also scaled a few beach cliffs in California with my uncle."
"Alice didn't join in?"
Bella's smile faltered and she slowly shook her head. "She was visiting."
Masen nodded, knowing it was their mother Alice had been visiting and understanding why Bella hadn't been with her. "You know what this means?" he asked, hoping his smile would bring back Bella's. "You and me, we're going climbing when we get back to Hawaii."
She did better than smile—she laughed. "If the way you walk the rocks around a tidal pool is any indication of your climbing abilities, I'll stay home."
"I've got this completely under control. You're the one who needs to be careful, especially with those sneakers you're wearing. If you step wrong, you'll lose traction and end up in the water with my camera." No sooner than the words were out of his mouth, Masen found himself sitting on his ass in the cool water of a small tide pool.
"Oh, that's gonna bruise," Bella said through her giggles. "Hope you didn't squish any poor creatures when you landed."
He swept the back of his hand through the water, tossing a cold spray at her and making her squeal and laugh at the same time. "Don't even think about taking my picture," he warned.
Bella giggled. "And disappoint Esme when I tell her this story without photographic proof? Sorry, Edward. I just couldn't live with letting your mom down that way."
"Kapu, come on. It's my birthday," he pleaded.
Her smile widened as she squatted down and snapped his picture. "I know. And that's why I'm going to save the story and photo for tomorrow."
"I could make you delete it."
"You probably could. But you won't."
"Yeah? What makes you so sure?"
She leaned in, bracing herself by pressing her hand against his chest. He was certain she was going to kiss him and that was how he became distracted with trying to decide if he would leave her dry or risk the camera by pulling her into his lap. It took him a good ten seconds to realize her lips still weren't on his.
"Any time now," he told her.
"For you to kiss me."
"Who said I was going to kiss you?"
"You're in my personal space. It's implied."
"You get in my personal space a lot and it doesn't always involve a kiss."
Masen shrugged while continuing to hold her gaze. "I like your personal space."
"I like yours too. So where does that leave us?"
"With you deleting the picture and me kissing you in thanks."
"I think I should keep the picture and you should kiss me to make up for that earlier non-kiss."
"I don't owe you anything since you never told me how I kiss."
Her lips parted and he just knew she was going to give in. But before she could get out one word, they were surrounded by tourists asking Masen if he was okay and offering to help him to his feet. Bella smirked, knowing full well she'd just gotten saved by a bunch of strangers. Let her enjoy it, he thought as he watched her reassure the tourists that Masen was fine. I'll get it out of her soon enough.
Masen held Bella's journal up to her while tapping his finger against the page. "Tell me the truth this time. I'm the outright hilarious one, right?"
She rolled her eyes at him just as she had the other three times he'd asked her. "Sure you are."
"Fine. Be that way. I still really like it even if you're lying in parts of it."
She flicked him in the back of the head and then giggled; it made him smile because he knew he was making her happy and it wasn't out of nervousness.
He had been excited for this particular journal entry because he'd known it would give him a true glimpse into her head that he couldn't get from her body language or spoken words. But he had never expected just how deep he would see into her heart—or how much stronger the pull toward her would feel by the end of it. Bella wasn't like any one person he knew; she was the embodiment of every good quality the women in his life had ever possessed. She wanted everyone taken care of the way Beth had. She had the ability to see what others missed like Esme. And just like Lee, she could be fiercely brave when she felt something was worth fighting for.
Bella could also be a worrier like Masen. She felt responsible for her younger sister in so many ways and it was obvious to him that the depth of her love for Alice was equal to the way he felt for Whit and Lee. He would do anything to keep them from harm, just as Bella would do for her sister.
The feel of Bella's nails scraping against the back of his scalp pulled him from his thoughts. After closing her journal, he turned to face her and she bent forward so they were almost eye level with each other; her brown eyes seemed to shimmer in the campfire light.
"Thank you for writing this today and sharing it with me. Your perspective is so different from ours and seeing it through your eyes will help me to help you. And aside from all of that, I just like the way you write. It's honest."
"There wasn't always a side note area." He could tell this was an admission from the blush in her cheeks. "I started that after the … well, it just seemed like a good idea to remember there are a lot of emotions for a person to feel."
"I'm glad you did. The side notes are my favorite."
Her blush deepened. "Yeah?"
He nodded. And then he teased her by saying, "It's not every day my talent of being outright hilarious is noticed."
She laughed and pushed against his shoulder. "That was Whit, not you."
"Sure, sure," he joked while tucking her journal back into its waterproof bag. He would have just laid it beside her on the log she was sitting on and he was leaning against but he knew Bella would feel better if it were put away in her tent.
When he got back to the small campfire, he found Whit had taken his spot. He thought about ordering him to move but then figured that was exactly what his best friend was hoping would happen so he sat down next to Esme instead.
Whit gave him a shitty grin and signed the words "This spot is comfy" to him.
Masen pretended he was too busy watching Lizzy get a belly rub from Gopher to see his friend.
"Having a good time?" Esme asked while patting his knee.
"It's been a great birthday so far, Mom."
"Time for presents!" Lee announced while thrusting a brightly wrapped box at him.
Masen looked at her warily. "I thought the beach was my present."
"It's Esme's present. This one is from Gopher and me," she explained. "So open it! Hurry up!"
He laughed at her excitement because she was usually the calmest person he knew. "Must be something really good. Or it's really for you and you're just claiming it's mine for now."
"You'll never know if you don't get it open."
He carefully peeled back the silvery paper to reveal an unmarked cardboard box. It took two tries because of all the tape she'd put on it, but he finally popped the top open and took out a small batch of paper that was stuffed inside.
"Is this what I think it is?" he asked as he lifted the gift out of the box.
"Yep," Lee proudly answered. "A digital picture frame. And that's not even the coolest part! It can stream pictures from an online account through the wi-fi built in!"
Masen snorted as he looked up at her. "You already set the account up and loaded the pictures."
She laughed and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. "You bet your sweet ass."
He got up from the log so he could give her a hug and then he gave Gopher a nod and a "thank you". Looking at Lee he said, "You better have put good photos and not just ones from your blackmail stash."
Lee looked at Esme for a moment and then smiled wide at Masen. "Only the best for you."
He didn't like her looking at his mom that way and he liked the mischievousness of her smile even less. The two of them in cahoots with each other always spelled trouble for him.
"Me next," Whit said, wiggling a thin, square package at Masen.
"You're not even gonna get off your ass to give it to me?" he asked.
"Nope," Whit replied, making the 'p' pop. "You're already standing."
He snorted and bent over to take it from him. The gift was wrapped in plain brown paper and was too thin to be anything other than a movie. Masen hoped it was that action one with Liam Neeson they'd enjoyed so much they'd seen it in the theater three times.
But it wasn't a movie. It was a CD for a band named Poked With Precision. Masen snorted at the name even as he felt like he'd heard it somewhere before.
"Start with Track Four," Whit suggested. "I think it'll resonate with you."
Masen stared at his best friend, trying to figure out why he felt such a strong sense of nudging coming from him when he didn't seem to be up to anything.
"Speaking of music," Lee said, drawing Masen's attention to her. She was once again standing beside him but this time she had an acoustic guitar in her hands. "You and Whit are going to be our entertainment tonight," she informed him while passing the guitar to Whit.
"I claimed ignorance but she threatened to have Gopher sit on me," Whit admitted.
Masen snorted. "Nobody wants to hear the screeching, rusty sounds that would come out if we tried to play something."
"Nails on a chalkboard," Whit promised. He didn't look any happier at the prospect of having to play than Masen felt.
"You're doing it." Lee looked more than ready to fight them on this but it was going to be a losing battle for her because there was no way Masen was going to make a complete fool of himself with Bella sitting right there. He'd already given the woman enough to tease him with during their time at the tidal pool—he'd been busy telling Bella to be careful when he'd slipped on the rocks and busted his ass.
"Oh, Edward, it won't be that bad," Esme promised, rubbing his back reassuringly. "It's been so long since you two played for us. Won't you please consider it? For me?"
He groaned and laid his head on her shoulder. "Mom, can't you want something else? Like a campfire story?"
His groan was louder and longer this time. There was no way he could deny Esme when she pleaded so sweetly and she damn well knew it. He sat up straight and looked at his best friend. "Whit, what songs do you remember?"
Whit let out a grumble of his own but Masen knew his friend was just as helpless when it came to Esme because she so rarely asked anything of them. "Uh … What about Norwegian Wood by The Beatles?"
Masen shook his head. "Nah, we need two guitars to do it right."
"The Cure's Love Song?"
"Hell no! Even if I remembered the lyrics, I'd still say no." Masen gave him a pointed look, knowing Whit would catch on and remember exactly why he hated that song.
Whit laughed, clearly remembering. "Right. Sorry. Uh …"
"I have a suggestion," Esme announced, getting both of them to look her way. "Beth's favorite?"
Whit immediately plucked a few chords and Masen smiled as a very old memory filled his head. He was just a little kid, still light enough for Beth to pick him up. She was smiling at him while she slowly swayed with him to the sound of the haunting voice coming from the stereo. He hadn't known to think of it then but now he wondered what she had thought about while dancing to that song, if it had made her miss his father more or less.
The story went like this … On one of the nights they'd rambled around London together, they'd heard singing coming from a pub. It had been so off-key that it had made them laugh and want to investigate. They'd found a pub full of people watching as patrons and musicians alike got up on the make-shift stage to sing and play. After sitting around and watching for the better part of an hour, his father had suddenly jumped up, borrowed a guitar from a perfect stranger, and then got up on stage to sing for his mother. Beth would always laugh at that part of the story and then say, "He could play just fine but his singing … He was horrible and I was so embarrassed for him, but he just kept smiling and singing to me. He was never afraid to make a fool of himself in showing how he felt for me."
"So what's the verdict?" Esme asked, drawing Masen out of his head.
He grinned at her and then turned his attention to Whit. "Play it."
Whit chuckled for a moment but then grew serious and started to play. Masen hummed, trying to match his chord, and then they both laughed at how far off he was. They tried twice more and on the third time they finally matched up.
"I'll be your man.
Masen's voice cracked and that cracked up everyone around the campfire, including him.
"Come on, Mase," Lee demanded when the laughter tapered off. "Sing it like you mean it."
"Sing it like you feel it," Whit told him with a not very discreet nod toward Bella.
For just a second, Masen considered backing out of this whole business. But then he thought of how much his mom had enjoyed that memory of his dad and of how she'd still smiled over it even at the very end of her life. And suddenly it was no longer about entertaining his friends—it was about giving Bella a memory for a lifetime.
Bella had been too mesmerized by Edward's singing to fidget under his intense gaze. Not once had he looked at anyone but her while singing about a man loving a woman and wanting to be there with her, to be her lover. She had wanted to play it safe and assume she just hadn't noticed him looking at the others but that hadn't felt like the truth. It still didn't.
Now that it was over and everyone was busy laughing and joking about the impromptu concert Edward and Whit had performed, she felt she could finally move. She walked to the tent she was sharing with Esme on shaky legs, still reeling from Edward's stare.
She gave her head a rough shake, trying to clear it and focus on what she'd come into the tent to get—his gift. But her mind wasn't quite ready to let go. Edward didn't have the best voice she'd ever heard and he was clearly out of practice with the breaks in his voice and the laughs that had been mixed in with his singing. But there had been honesty in it, an overwhelming sensation that he truly felt the passion he put into the words. Once again, she found herself wondering if his feelings for her could be as deep as her own. Could he be in love with her? And was she starting to hope more than wonder?
Stop. Breathe. Focus. Bella did her best to listen to the orders she gave herself. She knelt in front of her duffel bag and dug under the layers of clothing until her fingers touched the smooth wrapping paper of his gift. They'd managed to find a box just big enough to hold it and then Lee had wrapped it for her. She had never been any good at it and had never really tried since Alice was always eager to do the honors.
Bella hugged the gift to her chest as she headed back to the campfire, hoping Edward would like it and appreciate the thought behind it. She spotted him standing with Gopher and Whit, the three of them laughing and drinking beers, and she decided to wait just a little longer.
She went to sit down beside Lee but Lee shook her head and pointed toward the guys. "Stop stalling," she ordered. "He'll like it. I promise."
"I second that," Esme said, smiling sweetly at Bella.
"You know what it is?" she asked.
Esme's smile widened. "It's a gift from you. That's the important part."
Bella nodded and after taking a deep breath, she walked over to the guys. Their boisterous conversation came to an abrupt end and she couldn't help blushing with all of them watching her, waiting for her to speak.
"Happy Birthday," she said as she held the gift out to Edward.
Not only did he look surprised, he didn't move to take the box. "You really got me a gift?"
She shrugged, trying to hide how nervous she felt. "It's not much but I thought you might like it."
He passed Whit his beer and then took the box from her. He opened it with the same slow, deliberate motions he'd opened his other gifts and once again Bella found herself smiling at how different he was from other people. Everyone else she knew, including her own self, would rip into a gift out of excitement. But Edward took his time every time.
"Holy shit!" Gopher exclaimed as Edward pulled the gift from the box.
"Dude!" Whit cried, slapping Edward on the back. "You've been wanting one of those."
"It might not work," Bella quickly told them. Looking only at Edward, she explained further, "I found it in a thrift shop so there's a chance it doesn't. But I just thought if it didn't, you wouldn't mind trying to fix it."
Edward didn't look up from the swim mask with the built-in camera but Whit and Gopher smiled at her. She tried to smile back but she was too nervous. She knew it was silly to be anxious since there were only two outcomes to this … One, he could love the gift and enjoy it whether it worked right away or he fixed it. Two, he could prefer his lucky mask and not feel up to making this one work. Either way, he'd still know she cared enough to celebrate his birthday with him. She just hoped he wouldn't make her wait too much longer for his opinion.
Masen couldn't believe it—he was holding the mask he'd been dropping hints about all year in hopes Esme would get it for him as a birthday gift. And it was Bella who had given it to him. The body was scuffed up and there was a small, thin scratch on one lens, but the camera body and camera lens both looked intact. He had to admit, though, he wasn't at all opposed to opening it up and seeing what was inside.
"Bro, she's waiting," Whit whispered, nudging the back of Masen's leg with his knee.
Masen pulled his eyes off the mask and put them squarely on Bella. She looked nervous as hell, standing there twisting her watch and flicking her brown eyes between him, Whit and Gopher. He tried to imagine this from her point of view to understand why she'd be worried but he couldn't come up with anything. He figured the best thing he could do for her would be to let her know exactly what he thought of the gift—and the woman who had given it to him.
After passing his mask to Whit, Masen curled his long fingers around her slender hips and pulled her to him until they were chest to chest. His mouth settling over hers definitely caught her by surprise because it took her longer than usual to respond to his kiss. The second she did, the kiss went from a complex "thank you" from him to an undeniable statement of "you're important in my life" between them.
He could feel the eyes on him but it was more of a back of his mind kind of thing because the majority of his focus was on Bella's soft lips and the sting of her hand squeezing his side as she held on to him. He even sort of liked the idea of them knowing he had someone who was important to him. Besides, if he listened to that nudger of a best friend of his, they'd known longer than he had.
Masen smiled against Bella's lips at feeling the heat of her blush on his own cheeks. Since he'd already let the cat out of the bag so to speak, he went all in and used his private nickname for her in front of everyone. "Thank you, kapu."
Lee and Esme blurted out "What the hell?" at the same moment. They both knew the meaning of his name for Bella, just like they knew he'd never used it for anyone before.
But their reaction was easily overshadowed by Gopher's declaration. "That was a Superman kiss," he yelled, pointing at Masen and Bella. "That kiss came with its own red cape!"
"Fuck yeah!" Whit agreed, giving Gopher a high-five.
"Kid, is there something you want to share with the class?" Esme asked, smirking at him.
Lee wore a similar evil smile. "Yeah, Mase! Care to share?"
Masen was about to answer when he heard Bella groan softly and felt her forehead bump his chest. He knew if he looked at her that her cheeks would be solid red instead of the soft pink he usually brought out. He couldn't help laughing but he did try to make up for it by wrapping his arms around her and shielding her a little bit from all the eyes trained on them.
"What? She gave me a great gift so I gave her a great 'thank you'," he said, giving Esme and Lee his best shitty grin. "You two act like you've never seen me be appreciative before."
"Not while sucking face," Gopher blurted out.
"You've never given me a gift I liked enough," Masen joked.
Gopher grunted. "Thank fuck for small favors." His comment had them all laughing, even Bella, though she didn't move from her hiding spot at all.
"Oh would you look at the time," Esme announced, tapping her wrist as if there was a watch on it. "We should get to bed so we can all enjoy an early sunrise and surfing."
"Right. Early sunrise," Lee agreed, winking at Masen as she passed him on her way over to Gopher.
"But we haven't told campfire stories yet," Gopher pointed out.
"Tomorrow, man," Whit promised. "Esme, may I have the pleasure of escorting you to our tent?" he asked, offering his arm to her.
She chuckled as she hooked her arm through his. "I'd love nothing more."
"Hey, hold on just a damn minute," Masen called out, causing them to turn around and face him. "Since when are you two sharing a tent?"
Masen could tell from Whit's smile that his best friend was in full nudger mode. "Since you ate two big bowls of Gopher's beans. There's no way in hell I'm sharing a tent with you with the smell that's sure to come."
"Hey!" Bella cried, finally coming out of hiding. "What did I do to deserve getting stuck with him?"
Whit looked as if Christmas had just come. "You kissed him."
Bella looked exactly like a Guppy fish with the way her mouth was opening and closing with no sounds coming out. Masen felt bad for laughing but he couldn't stop himself. The sound of it broke her from her stupor and she narrowed her eyes at him.
"What? It was funny," he defended.
The next thing he knew, he was lying in the sand with her giggling on top of him. "This is funny," she told him.
"Lizzy doesn't like it when I'm man-handled."
"Good thing Esme took her then."
He didn't really want her to move but after his earlier fall and then being squeezed, he couldn't handle any more pressure on his bruised side. "I'm not entirely opposed to this position but could you move your knee out of my side?"
She scrambled as fast as she rambled. "Oh, no! Did I hurt you? Should I get Whit?"
"What the hell is Whit going to do?" Masen asked as he sat up.
"I don't know … Give you something to make the pain go away?"
He grabbed the sleeves of her hoodie and tugged until she was sitting in his lap with her arms resting on his shoulders—and her knees in the sand rather than his side. "I'd rather you give me what you promised me this morning."
She shook her head at him even as she smiled. "We should probably put out the fire and turn in with the others."
After looking around to verify that they really were the only two outside, he said, "Yes to the first but no on the second. Not until I get what I was promised."
"Yeah, well, when I made that promise I wasn't annoyed with you for laughing at me."
That just made him think of her fish-face and laugh all over again. Right up until she pressed her lips to his. He knew she was doing it mostly to shut him up, but he also knew that wouldn't be what it was about when he finished kissing her.
After finally breaking apart and putting out the campfire, they headed up to his tent and found more of Whit's nudging—Bella's sleeping bag was rolled up next to Masen's and Whit's was nowhere in sight. "Beans my ass," Masen mumbled as he unrolled his bag.
"It was kind of funny," Bella finally admitted, grinning as she unrolled her own bag. "So what side do you want me to put my bag on?"
"Mine." He grinned up at her and then he flipped his bag open so that it covered most of the tent. "We'll sleep on mine and cover up with yours."
"How do you know I want to be that close to you?"
"I don't. I'm just really hoping you will. It is my birthday after all."
"There is that," she agreed while nodding.
He stretched out on his back and held his hand out to her. "Come here, kapu."
She accepted his invitation right after she unzipped her bag and spread it over him. She was on her side with her head on his shoulder and her arm resting right in the middle of his chest. "Is your side still hurting?" she whispered.
"Why are you whispering?"
"Tent walls are pretty thin and everyone else is trying to sleep."
"I have a few. Now about your side …"
"It's alright. I just aggravated it when I slipped earlier."
"Yeah. You kissed me and made it better," he teased.
"I'll leave you alone about your side if you answer me honestly about something else."
Her serious tone had him feeling uneasy and reluctant to agree. "I'll consider it after I hear your question."
"How are you feeling about losing Athena?"
He couldn't believe she was asking to talk about a shark, especially knowing from her journal entry how much of a struggle it still was to think about them. She cared enough to ask and he respected her for that enough to be honest. "I'm upset about it. I feel bad that I didn't trust Ben's gut instinct, especially when I think of how I'd feel if my crew didn't trust mine. I guess I just thought he was being overly cautious since he's a science guy and I was the one in the cradle with her."
"Brett didn't trust him either," she pointed out.
"Yeah, and that's another reason I thought Ben was wrong," he admitted. "I just … I wish I could have done more for her. Maybe if I had swam after her, I could have gotten her back into the cradle and then Angela could have figured out what was wrong and fixed it."
"That's a lot of 'if' scenarios, Edward. And while you might kiss like Superman, you aren't him."
He snorted at her attempt at humor. "Smart ass."
"Seriously, though, as much as I respect your talents, I don't see how you alone could have gotten that large shark back into that cradle. And even if you had, there's no guarantee Angela could have saved it. A lot of her work is still theoretical, just like yours."
"Trust me, I realize the futility of it all. But that doesn't make it any easier to accept."
She sat up just enough that they could see each other's faces. "I'm not just saying this to make you feel better. I really do believe it. If Angela, Brett, and you didn't see anything wrong with Athena, then it was an internal problem that none of you could ever have spotted just from looking at her. So in my opinion, you did do everything you could. You marked that she once lived through your photos and that will make sure other people know she was here chasing seals and doing whatever it is Great Whites do when they aren't leaping out of the water."
"One day I'm going to find out what that is."
"I know." There was no doubt in his mind that she truly believed it and her confidence made him feel better. Not about Athena because nothing could do that, but about himself. He had failed this one shark but he still had time and opportunity to save others.
"Edward ..." She sighed and then tried again. "Edward, when you were hurt by that one shark, you didn't seem bothered by it one bit. You seemed to just accept it as a natural part of your day."
"Yeah, I guess I did. To me, it wasn't any different than if we had been working with jellyfish and I'd have gotten myself stung." He covered her hand on his chest with his own. "Why do you ask? What are you thinking?"
"I just want to understand you more, that's all. Getting hurt didn't affect you in the least but losing Athena … I know you named her and that made it personal in a way … It just made you so incredibly sad."
Masen wasn't really sure how to answer for that but he wanted to try for her anyway. "The hit happened during my work and I had a job to do so I did it. I didn't even really have time to think about it. Maybe that made the difference, because when Athena sank I didn't have a task I was responsible for. I had time to think about her and replay what had happened. And yeah, I named her so on some level she felt like she was mine. But more than anything, I'm bothered by the fact that I wasn't able to save her."
"I'm sorry she didn't make it."
He brought her closer and though he was itching to kiss her for being so damn amazing, he also wanted her to know he appreciated her attempt to make him feel better about Athena. "Thank you. I know that wasn't easy for you."
"It's kind of funny—I mean, that I'm just now realizing something, not what happened. Because that's not. I just …"
He smiled to show he wasn't offended and hopefully relax her. "Breathe, Bella."
She still looked upset so he made an attempt to distract her by reaching up and grabbing hold of her ponytail. She stayed still and silent while he carefully freed her hair and let it cascade across her shoulders and onto his chest.
"I don't think I've ever said this before outside of just trying to impress a girl … You have really pretty hair."
She smiled and her cheeks pinked up the slightest bit. "What I was trying to say is something I would have considered hard to do with anyone else wasn't so bad because of how much I care about you. I know caring about someone changes things but I had no idea just how powerful it can really be."
"Really? Because I'm pretty sure that's what nearly caused you to run out on me."
"No," she whispered, looking right into his eyes. "That's what made me stay. It was the fear that had me wanting to run. But then you said you didn't want to let go and I care so much that I didn't want you to so here I am."
"As long as I have a choice, I'll never let you go."
"So then it's probably a really good thing you're the boss and make all the big decisions, huh?" she said, clearly teasing from the size of her smile.
"Let's test that theory … Come here and kiss me, kapu."
He had expected her to argue at least a little just to tease him but he was more than happy to accept her quick compliance and her sweet kiss. He was even happier to turn it into more, rolling to his uninjured side and hitching her leg over his. Her hands sunk into his hair, pulling his lips tighter against hers and filing him with a need to have her closer, to feel more of her body pressed against his.
As much as his body ached for more, he knew it wouldn't be right. Not now. Not yet. He couldn't risk screwing this up before it even really began. Reluctantly, he slowed their kiss and put her leg down. But that was as much as he was willing to let go tonight and he hoped she wouldn't be too uncomfortable sleeping in his arms.
Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Edward, can I ask you one more question?"
"That song tonight?"
He was a little surprised that he didn't hesitate, but not by how much he meant his answer. "For you, kapu."
She somehow managed to find a way to snuggle closer to him and he smiled, feeling as if this was the real birthday gift from her. Yeah, he was pretty damn smitten, to borrow one of Esme's words.
And then he wondered if maybe he shouldn't be borrowing one of Lee's because he was feeling that sensation of complete rightness again, like nothing could ever be missing as long as he was lying here with Bella. It scared him because he'd thought he'd felt that on Galeos with his family at his side but that was hardly anything compared to this feeling with Bella. And it was that fearfulness that convinced him it wasn't love because Esme and Beth had never mentioned fear in any of their talks with him about being in love with someone.
But it was okay that it wasn't. After all, it wasn't like Bella was in love with him. And there was still time, still plenty of summer and plenty of things to share with each other. Like snorkeling with her tomorrow and finding out more about her sister and her uncle. For tonight, this was enough. She was more than enough.
A/N: Masen is a lucky man with a birthday like that! And Guppy is enjoying seeing this more relaxed and open side of him. So are we! LOL EA has posted photos of the tidal pool and the camera mask mentioned in this chapter.