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Chapter 25 – For Love & Tacos
Monday, June 23rd
The sounds of sea birds and waves woke Bella and she smiled as she stretched in the sunlight. The ache in her leg was so much better, her head didn't feel as heavy, and her stomach didn't feel twisted in knots like before. She must have been looking pretty good too because Edward wasn't in bed watching over her.
After taking some time to test her weight on her leg and make sure she was steady, Bella limped across her room and into her doorway.
"Guppy, do you have your nurse's permission to be doing that?" Gopher called out.
She looked up to find him in the kitchen with Lee. "I'm okay. I promise." She wasn't about to take his bait and say anything to the "nurse" comment after all the teasing Gopher had done about Edward wearing scrubs.
"Let her alone." Lee smiled at Bella and lifted her chin toward the sliding glass door. "If you're looking for Masen, he should be down on the beach. Lizzy forced him to take her for a walk."
"Thanks," Bella said with a laugh, tickled that such a stubborn take-charge guy could be subdued by his puppy.
She looked toward the patio door, trying to gauge the distance and her ability to limp it without falling over. She probably could have managed just fine but Esme happened to hop off the sofa at that moment and offer to help her out.
"How is he this morning?" Bella asked as she lowered herself into a patio chair.
Esme sat on the arm. "He's better. Less stressed. He actually didn't put up too much of a fuss when Lizzy whined for him to take her out instead of me."
"That's good. Hey, thank you for making room for my uncle and sister to stay here."
"Of course, sweetheart. Your family is our family. Plus your uncle is an absolute doll."
"Esme, are you crushing on my uncle?"
"Breakfast!" Esme's cheery cry had Bella lifting her eyebrows. It also had her wondering if the woman's cheeks were a slightly darker shade than they'd been just seconds before.
Esme not cracking a joke and changing the subject … Interesting, Bella mused. She had only meant to tease Esme but now it seemed there might be some truth there.
"You should have breakfast while you wait for Edward," Esme continued. "We have some fruit and bagels with cream cheese."
Bella swallowed down her laughter to answer her. "Sure, I'd love a bagel. And if we have any grape Gatorade left."
"We've got plenty. I'll be right back."
Bella laughed under her breath at Esme's quick exit. She then relaxed into her chair and closed her eyes, humming in contentment to be out in the sun—even if it was just on the patio. A pang of guilt hit her, making her wonder what adventures they were all missing out on because she was sick, because she'd been too absorbed with following that fish to pay full attention to her surroundings. She'd been so worried about sharks that she'd forgotten all the other dangers in open water.
That was one of her main reasons for needing to see this internship through—she would never be able to hold her focus if she continued to be this freaked out by sharks. She should absolutely be cautious and wary but she shouldn't be worried to the point that she didn't notice her immediate surroundings. She should have seen that ray. She knew they loved hiding in the sand to camouflage their bodies, just as she knew they didn't like being startled. She was damn lucky she hadn't been bending over or she might have been hit in the face.
"Gimme my ball."
Bella smiled, picturing Lizzy running hard with a tennis ball wedged in her mouth and Edward pretending to chase her. She'd seen them playing this game at Buffel's Beach that first day.
Lizzy's growl reached her ears and it was followed right after by Edward's laugh. "You're not getting away. I've got you."
The next sound was Edward groaning. "Lizzy, come on. Not the face."
Bella covered her mouth and nose with her hands to quiet her giggle.
"What am I gonna do with you? Huh?" He must have gotten a lick to an acceptable body part because he was back to being soft and sweet with her. "My best girl. Coolest puppy ever to strut around the world."
Lizzy gave a couple of yips in response and then Edward told her, "I love you."
Bella had to bite the inside of her cheek to hold onto the "awe" that wanted to come out, knowing it would embarrass Edward even though he had absolutely no reason to feel that way in her opinion. She thought it was great that he loved his pet so much, that he treated her like a valued member of his family.
"What is it about those words, Lizzy? How come I can say them to you and mean them and that's it. No worrying about if it's the right time to say it or if you'll like knowing it or if you'll feel the same."
Bella squirmed in her seat, feeling uncomfortable about listening in now that the subject had taken such a private turn. She was halfway out of the chair and would have gone inside to respect his privacy but then she heard her name.
"Why can't it be that way with Bella? Why does it feel like I'm forcing it with her when I'm not. It is how I feel about her and I want to her to know."
He loves me? Edward loves me? I didn't … How is that possible? I mean, not how, how because that I get but … A slow smile spread across her face as she said the words in her head as a statement of fact and not a question. He loves me.
Edward started speaking again and Bella craned her neck, not wanting to miss a single word. "The first couple times it just wasn't right with her being so sick and then her bratty little sister upsetting her. But then last night when we were on the sofa together I really wanted to tell her. I just couldn't get the damn words to come out."
Little liar! I knew he had something on his mind last night. Then again it's not like I've been in an all-fire hurry to tell him. But in my defense he was freaked out just by the fact that he liked me so I seriously doubted he wanted to know just how deeply I care about him.
"There really needs to be a chart for shit like this. If Woman is Type A, then follow Guide 1. If Woman is Type B, then follow Guide 2." His sigh was followed by a long pause. "I don't know … I'd ask Whit but he's so damn distracted with Alice ... What do you think, Lizzy? Should I just keep waiting? Or should I go talk to Esme about it?"
"Sweetheart, I forgot to ask what type of cream cheese you like," Esme said as she walked out onto the patio with a tray. "I brought regular and honey-nut just in case."
Bella tried not to look guilty but she could feel the heat in her cheeks.
"Everything alright?" Esme questioned.
Bella nodded and reached for the glass of Gatorade. "Just great!" she said with a smile, hoping Esme would believe her. "Thank you so much for putting this together for me."
"No trouble at all. I'll leave a crack in the patio door and you can just yell if you need anything."
"Or I can just get it for her." Edward was leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest and what appeared to be a barely refrained smile.
Bella was pretty sure he was going to try and say she shouldn't be outside yet and she also knew she would tell him where to stick that idea. As long as she was honestly feeling better she planned to stay out of her bed.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked her while smiling at Esme as she passed him and patted his arm.
Bella pointed her very threatening butter knife at him. "As far as I know, I'm not contagious and quarantined to my room. Besides, it was all fine and well for me to be out of my room last night when you wanted to watch that movie with Lee and Gopher."
"It was supervised release," he said, grabbing a couple strawberries from her bowl and taking the seat beside her.
He snorted. "You've been spending too much time with Lee and Whit."
"Right. It has nothing to do with your overprotective behavior."
"I knew you'd see things my way." He showed off his shitty grin for a few seconds and then he leaned in and kissed her softly. "Morning, kapu."
"You know, you make it very hard to stay mad at you when you do things like that."
"Can't be helped. I was born this irresistible."
Bella laughed and rolled her eyes. "You are a mess, Edward Masen."
He completely invaded her personal space but it didn't come with a kiss, just a comment that turned her cheeks pink and made her heart beat a little faster. "Then clean me up."
Yep. A big giant mess, she thought as she shook her head at him and his smirk. She was absolutely going to have to talk with him about what she'd overheard but it didn't have to be right this second, not when he finally seemed to be relaxing. Soon, though.
"Stop it," Bella ordered.
"Stop what?" Masen knew exactly what she was referring to but he thought if he pretended otherwise she might let it go.
"You know what."
"I'm just sitting here with you."
"I can see your reflection in the glass of the patio door."
"Alright, I'll stop." He'd stop glaring at Alice but he damn sure wouldn't stop being pissed at her for being such a brat to Bella. She was acting like she had an actual reason to be angry and was still ignoring her sister despite Bella's repeated attempts to talk to her, including twice just this morning. The damn girl had only been here for twenty-six hours and all she'd done as far as he could tell was wreak havoc.
"Come on, Edward. Please? I just want some sunshine and relaxation with you."
"And I want your sister to get her shit together and let you explain."
Bella snorted. "Tell me how you really feel."
"Alright … She's being a brat."
Bella sat up and turned sideways on his lap to see his face. "Maybe she is, but can you honestly say she doesn't have a right to be? She had no idea what I was really doing here and she had to find out from a photo because I was too sick to tell her. And let's not forget that she also has been dealing with a certain overprotective shark researcher she doesn't know at all giving her orders."
While everything she had said was true it didn't make it any easier for him to stomach her unhappiness. "I'm just trying to take care of you."
She must have seen in his face how miserable he felt because her annoyed expression melted away and she gave him a tender kiss. "I'm not being very fair to you, am I? It's not like this situation isn't new to you too."
"Tell me what to do and I'll do it," he promised.
"I wish I could. I wish I could give you a book to read or a website to review, that you could research it the way you do a new territory before you move into it. But, Edward, personal relationships don't work that way. I know this whole situation has you feeling out of your element but I also know you're capable of anything you set your mind to. You have to work on relating to people on a personal level rather than you giving out orders and expecting them to be followed."
He nodded, knowing she was right but not feeling any closer to understanding how to do what she was asking. The only comment to come to mind was a smart-ass one. "If you all just came with guides, this would be a lot easier."
She smiled while running her thumb along his earlobe, doing a damn good job of driving him to distraction without even realizing it. "For someone who swears he likes challenges, you seem to be trying pretty hard to get away from this one."
"I'm not going anywhere, kapu."
She studied him for what felt like a long time and as hard as he tried to read her expression, he couldn't figure out where her head might be at.
"I think maybe we should talk."
He couldn't help snorting. "I thought that's what we were doing. Exchanging words and ideas. That generally qualifies as talking."
Her expression remained unreadable. "I just … I need you to listen and not freak out."
"Come on," he said, rolling his eyes. "When have you ever seen me freak out?"
She started lifting fingers as she listed locations of instances. "The bar. Your project room. The de—"
"Lies, all lies," he joked as he covered her lips with his hand.
Bella moved his hand so it was pressed against her heart. Her eyes searched his for a moment and then she very clearly said the three words that had been filling his head for days. "I love you."
He jerked in his seat from a combination of shock and worry; it didn't seem possible she would so easily express what he'd been struggling with for days.
"Please don't freak out," she begged, rubbing at his ear again with her thumb. "I know this is a big deal for you and I hope you realize that it is for me too. It's not something I say to just anyone and I would never say it unless I felt that way one hundred percent."
For the first time in a long time, Masen's mind was completely blank. He felt that he should say something, and that he should know what to say, but he could only stare at her in wonder.
"I love you, Edward, and I just wanted you to know it."
She loves me. Bella loves me. Esme said but I … Holy shit! She loves me. He cradled her precious face in his hands and kissed her tender lips, trying to show her he felt the same even if he couldn't say it as easily.
Then he looked at her, really looked—he saw the love and light in her caramel eyes, the happiness in her smile, and felt the strength in her hands holding tight to his wrists. She not only loved him, she didn't want to let go either.
He was gripped with the sudden need to have her hear those words and he decided to try using Hawaiian first and then English. "Aloha Au Ia 'Oe. I love you, kapu."
Tears slipped from her eyes and she sniffled as she said, "Now was that really so hard?"
Laughter shot out of him and he just had to hug her and hold tight to her. "I love you and I promise I'm going to try harder with your sister. And you. And people," he promised, his voice rising with his excitement.
"Edward." It was a strange mixture of a sigh and a laugh. "I'll help you. Whenever your skills are lacking, I'll pull you aside and explain how and why so you're aware of it. The more you know what you're trying not to do, the better you'll be at avoiding it."
"That's a lot of trouble for you to go through. You sure you want to do it?"
"Yes." Such a simple answer, but also full of honesty.
He smiled while toying with a lock of her hair, feeling luckier than he could ever remember. "You're pretty amazing."
"Thank you," she said and let out a short giggle.
"Don't you have something to say to me?"
"I just did. I thanked you."
"You know, I'm starting to see where Alice gets the brat in her from."
Bella laughed fully and playfully slapped his chest. "Esme would disapprove of you fishing for a compliment this way."
"Probably," he agreed with a nod. He took a few minutes to just hold her and revel in the knowledge that she felt the same as he did, and that she was willing to accept him as he was—mostly. "So this whole trying with people … Where do you suggest I start?"
"No more glaring at Alice for starters."
"Done. I will keep my annoyance private."
She let out a heavy sigh but then laughed right after so he didn't feel too worried. He felt even better after hearing her smart-ass comment. "Some messes can be cleaned with a mop and some require complete demolition. And then there's Edward Masen."
He smiled and hugged her tighter, amazed to have stumbled upon this fascinating woman and to have her as his own. All those times Esme had told him it would someday happen for him, he'd never believed it. He'd thought both her and Elizabeth were crazy to think there'd be someone willing to deal with him twenty-four seven. And to have it end up being a woman afraid of sharks—yeah, his life was definitely stranger than the fiction he typically read. Except for those Stephen King books because that guy's monsters are in his brain instead of his closet. He shook off that thought and focused once more on the woman in his arms. There had to be something he could do to fix things for her with Alice and he needed to figure it out quick.
"I cannot believe her," Alice growled, staring hard through the glass patio door. She had her arms crossed over her chest, gripping herself hard enough to mark her skin. Her foot had yet to quit tapping against the floor. She felt like a kettle about to boil over and erupt—and it was all that Masen guy's fault. He had done something, found some kind of way to make Bella believe she needed to stay here with these crazy shark-loving people.
Except for Whit. She'd never expected to meet the man in her dreams, assuming he was a manifestation of her wish list of desirable boyfriend qualities. But he was real and he was here sitting beside her. He seemed exactly as he had in her dreams—calm and safe, with a big heart. But even that caused her confusion because how could he be the man from her dreams and be that Masen guy's best friend? That guy was nothing but a controlling jerk. And a brainwasher too.
"How can you expect to believe Bella when you still haven't spoken to her?" Whit asked.
Alice chose to rant rather than answer his question. "She's acting like she's known him for months instead of weeks. Laughing with him out there like this is all so normal."
Whit lifted an eyebrow at her. "How is that any different from the two of us having dreamt of each other for months, and only just now meeting?"
She rolled her eyes, wondering how he could possibly think their unique relationship in any way compared to what was going on between Bella and that Masen guy. "You're not changing me."
"You didn't come here for a change. But your sister did. I know she hid it and you couldn't see how unhappy she was before. Looking at her right now, though, you can't deny she's more relaxed, more at peace with herself."
"I can't see anything with him in the way." She couldn't believe he'd had the nerve to order her around like she was just some random person instead of Bella's family. And her sister had let him!
"Alice …" The cool calmness Whit had been showing since yesterday's argument was finally starting to crack. "Please trust me on this. He's truly a good guy. You just happen to have caught him during a bad time when he feels protective."
"She's my sister."
"I know. But she's also his kapu."
"Kapu. It's a term of endearment and means sacred. He's in love with her and he will do anything to protect her. Including ordering her sister around."
"She's been here three weeks and six days. He can't possibly even know her, much less love her. And even if he does, that doesn't mean she feels the same. She's just confused and he's taking advantage of that."
"You don't really believe that. I know you don't. For one, you believe in love at first sight and soul mates. For another, you know how incredible of a person your sister is, how easy she is to befriend and to love."
Alice shook her head to deny the idea even as she felt the truth of it deep inside. Her sister was an amazing person and everyone always loved her—but Alice needed that to not be true this one time. Bella couldn't love this guy or Alice would never get her home where it was safe.
"I can see in your eyes that you know it's true," Whit stated. "What I don't get is why you hate the idea so much."
"I don't mind the idea of my sister being in love. I just want it to be with someone worthy of her. I'm not sure this Masen guy is the one." Deep down, Alice wanted him to be a bad guy to make it easier to convince her sister to leave this place. I know it's such a wrong way to feel. I know I should be happy for my sister. But isn't the most important thing to protect her rather than allow a dangerous relationship to continue? She's not safe here!
Whit's voice interrupted her internal debate. "You're hurt and angry and rather than deal with those things, you're prolonging the pain for both you and Bella. You're avoiding her and finding reasons not to like Masen. I don't know why you've chosen to be this way when you've shown such great kindness to others."
He was right. As much as she wanted to protest and argue, she was the one who was refusing to speak to Bella, to let her explain her actions. But it wasn't being done to hurt her sister; Alice loved her far too much to ever purposefully hurt her. She was avoiding Bella to avoid losing her.
She replayed that thought in her head and realized how silly and pointless her stellar plan truly was—ignoring Bella would guarantee distance whereas talking to her might lead to changing her mind.
Alice uncrossed her arms and offered her hand to Whit. He immediately took it and smiled, completely forgiving her awful behavior. "I haven't handled any of this well," she admitted. "Maybe it is time for us to talk. Of course, that depends on if she's still willing to talk to me."
Whit grinned. "She loves you. She'll always be willing." He looked out onto the patio for a moment. "I'll get Masen to take a walk with me and you make things right with your sister."
"Thank you. Here I am, suddenly showing up and showing off my worst behavior, and yet you have made every attempt to be a good friend to me."
"We share more than a friendship."
She smiled and nodded in agreement. "And we will talk about that. At length. But I have to fix things with Bella first."
Whit kissed her hand and then popped off the sofa. Alice really doubted he would be able to get Masen away but she appreciated his attempt all the same.
She was surprised and delighted when the two men walked past her just a few minutes later. Alice took in a deep breath and let it out slowly before making her way onto the patio. She would remain calm, Bella would apologize, and then they'd make plans to head home.
Her sister was relaxed in one chair with her legs resting in another. She had her eyes closed and a smile on her face; she really was at peace. It was such a strange thing because her favorite place had always been the gazebo at home but even there she'd never been this relaxed.
Her sister opened her eyes, revealing the mix of love and hurt she was feeling. "Hi, Alice."
"Can we talk?"
She put her feet down and sat up, offering the chair to Alice. The two sisters sat face to face without speaking for as long as Alice could stand, which probably wasn't all that long even though it had felt that way.
"Listen, I'm sorry for yesterday. I just … I don't understand. Why are you here with sharks? Why won't you come home? Why are you letting that Masen guy order you around?"
Bella had the nerve to snort at her. "Alice, you've got the wrong idea about Edward. He's not ordering me around and I'm certainly not listening to everything he says. He's just doing what he thinks will help me heal in the best possible way. And I'm letting him feel like he's taking care of me by giving in on a couple of the things he wants."
"It's more than a couple."
"He's been scared for me, the same as you, only he shows it differently."
She tried not to feel irritated at Bella for defending Masen but it was proving very difficult to do at the moment. "Whit says this Masen guy loves you."
Bella's entire face lit up, her eyes going to their soft brown happy color. "He does, and I love him."
"More than you love me and Uncle Carl?"
"It's a different kind of love, and I think you know that, Alice. I've seen the way you look at Whit." She reached out and took hold of Alice's hand. "I love you so much and I would never do anything to purposefully hurt you. I'm sorry I didn't tell you the full reason I was joining MMR. I only did it to keep you from spending your entire summer worrying for me. I always planned to tell you everything after the summer was over."
"I can see where you might have thought that was a good idea then but, Bella, staying here now? For a guy no less!"
After shaking her hand free of her sister's, Bella sat back completely in her chair, putting up an emotional wall that made Alice want to scream even as she felt guilty for causing it.
Her sister seemed to be picking her words carefully since she didn't normally speak this slowly. "I can't believe you would say that to me. You know I'm not that kind of person. You know that I have a true reason for everything I do. I'm staying here because it's really what's best for me. In the weeks I've been here, I've already learned so much from the team."
"About sharks," Alice snapped.
"Yes. But also about me," Bella confided. "About the kind of life I want to live. Alice, they really can help me."
"They? Or Masen?" She couldn't control her petulant tone any more than she could the hurt she was feeling for Bella picking these people over her family.
"All of them. Once you get to know them, to see how each of them is brilliant and special in their own way … You will see why I'm choosing to stay."
Alice could feel the color draining from her face and she hoped with everything in her that she was misunderstanding her sister. "You not only want to stay, you want me to stay too?"
"What better way for you to understand than to experience it firsthand. Think about it, Alice. You could swim in open water again."
She jumped to her feet, enraged that her sister would act as if there wasn't a legitimate reason for her refusal to set foot in unsafe water. "What have they done to you? What kind of brainwashing is this?"
Bella used the table to stand and steady herself. "It's not brainwashing. It's seeing for the first time that I don't have to be afraid. I can enjoy the oceans again. And I will, Alice. I'm staying and I'm working with MMR and I'm going to love being in the water again. As my sister, as my family who loves me, please try to understand this is important to me. And if you can't … Well, then, I'll see you when the summer's over." She gave Alice a tight hug and then she went inside.
Alice dropped down into the chair, feeling shocked and confused that the conversation had gone so far from how she'd imagined it. She'd been sure Bella would apologize and they would make the necessary plans to go home—together. Instead, Alice was the one with a decision to make. Stay and support her sister. Or go home and let this distance between them grow even wider.
Carlisle shook his head as Bella's bedroom door closed. He was genuinely concerned for his girls and it was clearly evident that their pain was his own. Esme knew how heavy of a burden it was for him; she'd been carrying a similar one since Beth's passing. It was a tricky thing to replace a parent while also keeping his or her memory alive, figuring out the best way to promote healing and prevent further pain. She had really begun to fear she'd messed up that balance with Edward but then Bella had entered their lives.
A heavy sigh came from Carlisle. "Esme, I just don't know what to do. My girls have never had a rift like this before."
"Maybe some space and a chance to hear what cooler heads think will help."
He turned just enough to let her see his smirk. "And you think your Edward is a cooler head?"
"Heck no!" she said as she joined him in the doorway. "But he truly loves Bella and will do whatever is necessary to ensure her happiness."
"What about the young man with the interest in my Alice?"
"Whit is the sensible one in my lovely band of misfits. He'll find a way to help repair things. He always does."
Carlisle shook his head, once again looking completely miserable. "I wish I could be so confident."
"You know what you need?" Esme didn't give him a chance to answer. "Fresh air! There's a gorgeous beach waiting right outside and a warm sun begging to be enjoyed. Let's indulge the day."
"That doesn't seem very fair when both of my girls are miserable."
"Oh, I don't think they're nearly as miserable as you imagine," Esme said as she watched Edward slip into Bella's room while Whit headed for the patio.
"Maybe fresh air would be best." Carlisle offered his arm to Esme and she quickly and happily took hold. "No shoes?" he asked, glancing down at her feet.
"Nope. And you need to lose yours. Beaches are meant to be enjoyed by bare feet."
He shook his head. "No, not me. I haven't been barefoot in years."
"Then you are way overdue."
He debated his options for a bit before smiling and giving in to her request. She couldn't help laughing at how white his ankles and feet where compared to his legs. She also couldn't help swooning like a teenage girl when he blushed. He might have arrived as a button-upped businessman with only his girls on his mind but he certainly wasn't going to leave that way. Esme planned to make sure of it.
"That smile … I've seen it before and it's never brought me anything but trouble."
She lifted her head to meet his gaze while giving his arm a light squeeze. "There are different kinds of trouble in the world and I can guarantee I'm the good kind. Besides, I'm not trying to get you to streak across the beach …" She paused on purpose and widened her smile. "Yet."
While Carlisle was busy chuckling, she said, "I'm just trying to get you to relax. The girls will work this out. They're sisters. They don't have a choice."
While they walked silently side-by-side through the warm sand, Esme reflected on how things had changed so quickly. Bella had been seriously hurt but was already healing. Edward had been unsure but now he knew he loved Bella, and Esme hoped he would tell her soon. Whit seemed interested in someone for the first time since Maria. Lee had shown she'd whole-heartedly accepted a new person into the group by defending Bella.
And then there was Carlisle. He'd sounded much older on the phone than the man who had arrived on her doorstep. He couldn't possibly be that much older than her and even if he was, he had damn sure aged gracefully. And to go with that handsome face of his was a killer smile and a kind heart. Watching him with Bella and Alice … seeing how much he adored them … He was definitely one of the good guys in this crazy world.
She smiled even as she told herself she was being ridiculous in liking the sound of her name in his voice. "Yes?"
"What if their choice is not to work it out?"
"Then you whip out your parent card and demand a fix."
"Is that how you would handle things if it was Edward and Whit?"
"Oh no," Esme answered with a laugh. "No, no, no. That would never work with my Edward. No, I'd talk privately with him and subtly make suggestions that would lead him to proclaim that he needed to fix things."
"Make him think it was his own idea? That's brilliant."
She blew on her knuckles then brushed them against her shoulder, pretending she felt she was much more awesome than she actually believed she managed to pull off. "I got a late start on the whole mom thing but I'm pretty good at it now."
"From what I've seen so far, you've done a wonderful job stepping in as Edward's mother."
It was Esme's turn to blush. "That's … Thank you."
"Since you are so good at this, I'd like your opinion. I've been hesitant to get between my girls but I also expected them to have fixed this by now. Should I step in and talk to Alice? Maybe hearing why I give Bella my full support will make a difference."
"I think Alice is too hurt and confused to listen to her family right now. She feels a sense of betrayal since she didn't know the real reason Bella joined MMR. I truly think our best bet at this moment is Whit."
"What about you? You seem to see this from every side."
"Unfortunately, she's going to see me only as Edward's mother right now."
"Esme, I don't think anyone could ever see you as only a mother."
A blush and a swoon and a silent Esme followed his comment.
"Have I made you uncomfortable?"
"No!" she shouted out of shock. "I mean, of course not. Me? Uncomfortable? Not happening."
Carlisle did a mostly good job of not smiling. He at least didn't come right out and laugh at her for being such a spaz.
"So how about that sand under your feet? Good, right?" she asked, wondering if he'd notice if she fanned herself to cool the heat in her cheeks.
"It's not bad. Still feeling a little rusty with walking and not sinking so far that I fall."
"We could hold hands. For the sake of your balance."
"Balance." He'd repeated the word slowly while studying her face.
She shrugged on the outside while screaming at her sudden attack of teenage-angst on the inside. You're thirty-five for Pete's sake! You left fifteen and awkward back in the land of far, far away. Get it together and stop being a spaz.
"It's probably just an old wife's tale I heard somewhere in my travels with the team," she told him, hoping it sounded plausible to him.
He bowed slightly while offering his hand. "I've never been one to tempt fate."
"Me neither," she said, grinning too much and not being able to help it. "At least not on a Monday," she added as she put her hand in his.
She may have also taken a quick glance at his ass—in her defense, it was a really nice ass. And it was all just a little harmless flirting anyway. Carlisle would relax, she would have some fun, and they'd both enjoy each other's company until it was time for him to head home.
While Esme was busy flirting with and reassuring Carlisle in almost equal measure, Masen was lying in bed with Bella, smiling at the obvious love she felt for his puppy. Despite his protest that it was a bad habit to teach Lizzy, Bella was thoroughly enjoying their game of tug of war with her sock.
"You might be the coolest puppy ever, but you're not getting this sock," Bella teased. "Nope. Not getting it."
Masen's eyebrows lifted. What are the odds she would come up with that phrase versus hearing me say it this morning? If she did hear me, why hasn't she said anything? And do I care if she heard me? Isn't the important part that we both admitted to how we feel?
Bella suddenly let go of the sock and Lizzy tumbled over onto her side then rolled into the dip Masen's body had made in the mattress, finally coming to a stop against his chest. She whined while she struggled to get onto her feet and then she barked and charged at Bella. He grabbed hold of his puppy seconds before she would have bumped right into Bella's face.
"Enough rough-housing," he declared, tucking Lizzy into the crook of his arm and petting her to calm her. The last thing he needed was for Bella to get a busted nose or black eye from his excited puppy.
"Admit it," Bella said as she set her head in her hand. "You're jealous she likes me so much."
He snorted. "Why would that make me jealous?"
"Because you're used to her really only wanting your attention and you've been pretty much ignored while we were playing."
"Actually, I was wondering about you calling her 'the coolest puppy ever'."
Bella blushed. "Oh yeah?"
So busted, he thought as he forced his face to stay neutral. "Yeah. Thought maybe you might have overheard me call her that."
"Probably. At the beach. We played with her a couple times at the beach."
"We did but I'm pretty sure it wasn't on that beach that you heard me say it."
Her cheeks went from pink to red. "I didn't mean to do it. I promise. I just … You said my name and I couldn't help listening. I was going to tell you, just not on the same day. I didn't want you to think that was the only reason I said it."
He believed her and that was why he leaned in half the distance to her and waited for her to fill in her half. He figured she'd hesitate a little before giving in but she surprised him by immediately smiling and bringing her lips to his. He made it a good kiss, the kind that would get her past her embarrassment over being caught.
He brushed his lips along her cheek and brought them to her ear. "I love you." Now that he'd said it a couple of times, it was as easy to do as breathing.
He had every intention of kissing her again but Lizzy decided he wasn't sharing his attention properly and nipped his chin. He jerked back and then lowered his head so he was nose to nose with his puppy. "Not. Cool."
"But really funny," Bella said through her giggles.
He set Lizzy on the floor and then rolled over to face Bella again. "You know all about my conversation with Lizzy, I think it's time I know about yours with Alice."
She wrinkled her nose as if she'd smelled something gross. "We are definitely going to have to work on the impression you made with her. She calls you 'that Masen guy' like you're some shady character not to be trusted."
He shook his head, sure he'd heard her wrong. "Why would she think that? What did I do to her?"
Bella's eyes grew wide and after fighting her smile for a few seconds, she managed not to laugh at him. "Edward, you've done nothing but boss her around and glare at her. What did you expect her to think of you?"
"How is this my fault? She's the one who threw a tantrum and said some pretty cruel shit."
Bella pressed her hand to his cheek and he nearly closed his eyes from how good it felt to have her soft palm rubbing against his stubble. "I never said it was your fault. I only said we need to work on it. And you're right. She hasn't made a good first impression either. But here's the difference to me … You know why she flipped out and she knows next to nothing about why I trust you enough to stay here."
Between her touch and her sensible argument, she could almost get him to stop being annoyed with her sister. Almost. "Even if I agree with that, it's still her own fault. She's the one not willing to listen."
Bella grinned and pointed out a time when he'd done something similar. "I seem to recall you not wanting to hear any explanations my first night in Hawaii."
Masen couldn't argue with that so he went for a distraction. He quickly slipped his arms around her, pulled her against him, and growled against her neck. She laughed just as he'd hope she would and then she surprised him by putting her arms around his neck and hugging him tightly.
"Everything okay?" he asked, wondering if he should have waited to talk about Alice tomorrow. Bella was definitely on the mend but she wasn't completely herself just yet.
"What time do you guys leave tomorrow?"
"Who said anything about leaving?"
"You have to get back to work and I know Whit isn't going to clear me to join you guys. I'm not mobile enough to be useful."
"I'm not leaving you here to deal with Alice on your own."
Bella pulled back enough to see his face. "Yes, you are. And I won't technically be alone since your mom and my uncle will be here with me."
"No. There's not even a discussion here, Edward. You're going back to work and staying on schedule while I stay here and finish healing. I messed up your birthday by not paying attention and getting myself hurt. No way am I going to let this impact MMR's plans."
From the rigid set of her jaw to the fire in her eyes, he had no doubt she would do her best to argue him into submission. If he'd felt she was well enough for it, he would have enjoyed letting her have at it. But he knew she still needed rest so he put an end to it. "I'll go if you promise to take it easy and really rest up. I want you fit and ready to work by the time we get back."
"I will be ready for duty by Friday," Bella promised.
"Alright. You've got a deal then. Want to help me prep or would you rather grab a nap?" He knew her answer from the way her eyes both widened and brightened. "Sit tight and I'll be back in a minute with my gear."
No sooner than he was off the bed, Lizzy was on it and stretching out beside Bella. He couldn't believe she was choosing to stick around with Bella instead of following him like she normally did. Then again, he had just been ready to stay on land a couple extra days to wait for Bella to be well enough to board Galeos. He shook his head at the strangeness of feeling this way and then headed off to find his gear.
When he got back to her room, Lee was on the bed with Bella, and Gopher was sitting in the chair. All three of them were laughing while Lizzy had decided Bella's lap was a perfect place for a nap.
"What's got you three so tickled?" he asked as he set his backpack on the edge of the bed.
"We're discussing dinner plans," Lee told him.
Masen hugged her from behind. "Yes! You're making your tacos. I love your tacos. And you. And tacos. Did I mention I love tacos?" He had them all laughing again with his excitement over tacos.
"So you do like tacos? You weren't really clear about that," Bella teased.
"Lee makes the best tacos but she only does it a couple times a year," he explained. "She does it specifically to torture me."
Lee snorted and tilted her head back to see him. "You gonna cry if it's not tacos?"
"Yes. Yes, I will," he assured her, almost completely joking. He wouldn't cry but he would be disappointed.
"But!" Bella called out, getting his eyes to lock on hers. "In order to get your tacos, you have to invite Alice to join us for dinner."
"Me?" he questioned with a snort. "We were just talking about how she can't stand me."
"All the more reason for you to extend the taco branch," Gopher pointed out.
He surveyed each of their expressions while he tossed around the pros and cons of their request. If the invite and the dinner went well, it would help smooth things out with Bella's sister and thereby make Bella happy. Plus he'd really be able to enjoy his tacos rather than being concerned about Bella being upset. If the invite or the dinner tanked, it would be that much harder for Bella to sort things out with Alice. Knowing Whit and Lee would be at the table, he seriously doubted even he could manage to tank a dinner. His friends were always the life of any party they attended.
He let out a sigh while shaking his head. "The things I do for tacos."
Lee got up from the bed and gave him a playful push to the shoulder. "You're doing it for the woman you love, asshat. The tacos are a bonus."
Gopher managed to pull her into his arms before Masen could retaliate. "Dinner's at seven. We'll give you until noon to deliver the invite."
"An hour?" Masen questioned.
Lee chuckled. "For a genius like you, an hour should be plenty of time to come up with a good way to handle it."
"I have prep work to do," Masen pointed out. "Can't you just tell me what to say?"
Gopher grinned and pressed his finger into Masen's chest. "Only you can prevent forest fires. And invite the little sister to dinner."
"But you can also use a lifeline and get suggestions from Bella," Lee added. "You just can't have her tell you exactly what to say or it won't be genuine."
"I want a minimum of five tacos for this," he stated while purposefully showing her six fingers.
Lee laughed and pushed his fingers against his face. "Invite the sister."
He sighed while saying, "If I must." Then he pushed his friends out of Bella's room, closed the door, and turned to face her. "This your idea or hers?"
Bella grinned. "Both."
"Then there's no other choice … I hereby ban you two from hanging out together." His demand was met with a snort.
"As if you could."
"If only," he said, plopping down beside her on the bed. "Once Lee is your friend, it's set in stone."
"So what do you plan to say to my sister?"
He dropped his voice an octave to say, "Come to the dark side! I have tacos!"
Bella almost chocked trying not to laugh at him while swatting him on the shoulder.
"What? She doesn't like Star Wars?" he joked.
"Whether she does or not, that's not a proper invitation and you know it."
"Don't worry, kapu. I'll get your sister to the table."
"Ropes aren't allowed."
"Damn it, woman! Stop vetoing my ideas." They both laughed and then he gave her a sincere promise. "I'll make sure she wants to have dinner with us. Trust me."
Her soft palm grazed the stubble on his cheek. "I do trust you, Edward."
For half a second he debated on the best smart-ass reply and then he decided to go with an option that would show her he truly cared—he kissed her soft and slow, and long enough to make her smile fill her face.
"Alice, you're looking at this only from the point of view of what you think is the safest choice. Could I offer you a different view?"
Alice had been leaning against the railing, looking down at the beach, but now she stood and turned to face Whit. "If this is about Bella liking that Masen guy—"
"Loving is the word. And that's only part of it. If you look at this situation from the angle of what's best for both you and Bella, then staying is the only one that makes sense. Bella gets to tackle her fears without feeling guilty for upsetting you, and she also gets to explore her relationship with Masen. I realize you aren't sold on them being together but you need to realize that together, they make each other happy on a deep-down level. And while Bella is doing those things, you can be learning more about me and vice-versa. Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed our dreams thoroughly. But the chance to get to know you better face-to-face … I want that, Alice. Don't you?"
That should have been one of the first thoughts in her head but until he'd said it just now, she hadn't realized that leaving here meant leaving him. But Bella's safety. Those sharks. How can I risk losing her forever?
"If you can't believe me when I say that Masen will protect Bella, then can you believe that I will protect her?"
"Whit, I'm sure you're an amazing man, but that's just it … You're a man. And those are sharks out there," she said, jabbing her finger toward the blue-green waters surrounding this stretch of beach.
"I've been diving with tigers, lemons, hammerheads, white tips … I've even been in a cage while a Great White circled around me. And while I may have been in a dangerous situation, I was never in danger. There were protections on top of protections, the biggest being Masen himself. He puts hours upon hours of research into our plans before he ever lets any of us touch the water."
"He doesn't seem much like a planner to me," she replied, thinking of how quickly he'd ordered her around.
"Let me show you then. He's prepping right now for tomorrow's leave. Let me show you just a few of the many things he verifies before we even board the boat."
Alice didn't get a chance to agree or disagree because the patio door slid open and Masen stepped outside. He gave a nod to Whit and then set his focus on her. "Alice, would it be alright with you if we talked alone for a minute?"
She looked to Whit and wasn't surprised at all by his pleading look. He really did believe this Masen guy was a good person. She turned to Masen, "One minute."
He seemed like he was going to smile for a second but he didn't. "I'll be as brief as I can but it will probably be longer than one minute. I have a couple things I need to say to you."
As much as she didn't want to do anything he wanted, she also wanted Whit to see she was trying. "Fine."
"I'll be right inside." Whit followed his promise up with a kiss to her cheek and then gave Masen's shoulder a pat before leaving.
"Do you want to keep standing or sit?" Masen questioned.
"Whatever floats your boat." Just because she was going to let him speak didn't mean she had to like him—or even pretend to like him.
He sat in a chair, put his arms on the table and linked his hands together, looking her right in the eyes the entire time. It was slightly unnerving but at the same time it gave her a sense that everything he planned to say would be the complete truth.
"I was ready to like you. Bella told me all about this little sister that was bubbly and fun and whose passion in life was helping people. I wanted to meet that person."
Alice was so shocked by his confession that she didn't even try to speak.
"And while I can understand to a point why I met this scared, angry girl instead, it doesn't completely justify your behavior with Bella. I'm sure you don't think I've known her long but I can testify to her devotion to her family, to her need to take care of everyone she loves. You've known her your whole life and yet you're acting as if you don't know a thing about what drives her. You say you can't understand why she's choosing to stay but I think the truth is that you just don't want her to stay. You want to keep her locked away in a bubble, safe from everything you deem harmful."
"Why shouldn't I? Why should I let her risk her life with you and those awful creatures out there?" she barked.
"You're right. You should lock her up," he replied, thumping the table with his fist. "Doesn't matter if she's happy or not. Just so long as she's safe for you. Right?"
She couldn't explain it but she somehow knew his anger wasn't directed at her, that it was just in general at the whole situation. It made her want to give him an honest answer. "No, not entirely. I do want her safe but I also want her happy."
"Then support her decision to stay. Let her finish what she started."
"I don't know if I can."
"Bella needs you to do this for her, Alice. She's not here to touch sharks. She's here so she can handle seeing them without reliving the worst day in her life and feeling the loss and the guilt all over again. I want that for her. My team wants to help give that to her. As her sister, shouldn't you want that more than all of us put together?"
Alice spun around and gripped the railing she'd been leaning against. She couldn't look at him. She couldn't handle the sincerity in his eyes or the way he visibly ached for her sister's pain. She also couldn't stand the idea of him seeing her cry, of him knowing that he'd gotten to her. Just because she now believed he loved her sister didn't mean he was forgiven for being such a bossy beast.
"Was there anything else you wanted to say?" she asked, still refusing to look at him.
"There is actually. Dinner tonight at seven. No hassle. No talk of sharks. Just a group of people having a meal together. I'd really appreciate it if you joined us."
She glanced at him over her shoulder. "You mean Bella wants me to join you."
"Of course she does. But this is my invite. My best friend's dream girl has finally arrived in the flesh. That requires a family celebration and we've got tacos."
She couldn't believe it but the bossy beast actually had her smiling and facing him. "Tacos? For a celebration?"
Masen smirked at her. "You haven't had Lee's tacos."
"I'll consider it."
"You do that. And if you're half as amazing as Whit and Bella both say you are, I'll see you at seven." He turned and went inside without waiting to see if she had a response.
"Stupid bossy beast," she grumbled under her breath.
"Everything okay?" Whit asked, looking at her from the doorway.
"That friend of yours …" she said as she pointed in the direction Masen had gone, "… he's a real piece of work."
Whit laughed, joining her on the patio. "He went on and on about the tacos, didn't he?"
"You seem just as excited as him. Are these magic tacos?"
She laughed while he studied her face.
"Admit it. He charmed you some," Whit pressed.
"He did no such thing." She crossed her arms for emphasis but doubted it held any power since she had to bite her lip to keep from smiling.
"I know that look, Alice Cullen. He's got you thinking even if you don't yet want to like him."
"You only think you know my looks from our dreams. There's still tons you don't know about me," she assured him.
"Maybe so, maybe no. Doesn't matter because I'm going to learn everything there is to know about you. How long that takes will all depend on if you stay here with us."
"Still think that's a good idea, huh?"
"Honestly … I think it's the only one that will bring happiness to both you and Bella. Whatever you decide, I'll still be here for you."
"You really mean that?"
Whit grinned. "It'll take more than a bad decision to run me off."
And maybe it will take more than a bossy beast to send me home, she thought but didn't say. She had to make a choice and she definitely needed to get it done soon but maybe it really would be helpful to put it aside. At least long enough to find out why Whit and Masen were so excited for some tacos.
"So how long did she last?" Lee asked, lifting her chin to indicate Bella. Seated between Whit and Gopher at the dining room table, she had a smile on her face and seemed to be intently listening to whatever story Gopher was sharing.
Masen snorted, careful not to take his eyes off the tomato he was dicing. Since he'd wanted the tacos so much he'd felt it was only fair for him to be Lee's assistant in the kitchen. "Hour, hour and a half. Then she curled up under the blanket and watched me for maybe another ten minutes before passing out."
Lee laughed softly while shaking her head. "Told her she had no idea what she was getting into helping you prep."
"It was good for her, though. She really sees that I don't just jot down a few notes and call it ready."
"Nope. There are current weather predictions, historical weather patterns, topographical maps, ocean current maps, a daily plan with individual staff details, a backup for the daily, and then a backup for the backup. Hell, I'm getting tired just talking about it."
"You might not enjoy the work, but you love the benefit."
"Yep. Everyone aboard safe and sound that night."
Esme's laugh caught Masen's attention and he watched her for a bit, taking in her facial expressions and body language as she shared the floor with Carlisle. Masen pretended not to notice she had the family photo albums spread out around them. However, he did admit he'd seen something different about his mom every time he'd seen her with Carlisle the past couple days. He wasn't sure if it was just having someone in a similar parenting situation or if she might really be into the guy; he just knew he hadn't seen her this quick to entertain since the early months of her relationship with the athlete guy. She had really liked him but he'd decided to take a trade and had moved back to the states; neither of them had felt a long distance relationship would work.
"Stop spying on your mom."
"I'm not spying. I'm decoding. Besides she's in full view of the public."
"She's also crushing big time on your kapu's uncle."
"Mase, she pulled out the photo albums. That's typically tenth date material," Lee replied, waving around the hand with the knife in it.
He reached out and pushed the hand and the knife further away from both of them. "I don't know … I think she's just glad to know a parent in a situation similar to hers."
Lee snorted. "And you're just friends with the intern." Lee glanced at the table. "Where do you think her sister's gotten off to?"
"I'm sure she's sulking somewhere. Maybe even debating on joining us for dinner when she's not too busy thinking of how unfair all this is for her."
Lee set her knife into the sink and then turned to face him while wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "You're really taking this tiff between sisters personally."
"That look of pain on Bella's face when her sister brought up their dad … Alice went straight for what she knew would cut the deepest. I don't understand how she could do that. And it's not helping that Bella described this loving little sister but all I've seen so far is a selfish brat."
"I'm sure Whit being gaga over her is making it that much more confusing for you. I know I'm not doing that great at wrapping my mind around it. But I'm not worried, and you shouldn't be either. Bella knows what she wants and she's not going to let her sister bully her into changing her mind."
"I'm not worried about her leaving. I'm worried about her getting hurt."
"You can't protect us all every second of every day, Mase. As much as you would love nothing more, shit's gonna hit the fan from time to time. The important part is that you're always there for us when it does."
But I'm not going to be here, he thought as he caught sight of Bella laughing and leaning against Whit's shoulder.
"You're going to miss her." Lee wasn't guessing or asking.
"I don't know …" He shrugged. "It kind of feels like it, but that doesn't make any damn sense. This is work. It's why we're here at all. It's what we do."
"That's all true, but it doesn't mean you can't miss her. And believe me, you're going to miss her. Just don't be an idiot about it and try to hide it. All you'll end up doing is pissing yourself off and then pissing off the rest of us."
He rolled his eyes. "It's a three day stint. That's nothing. I probably won't even notice she's not there."
Lee stared at him wide-eyed. "Masen!"
"Talk about putting the nail in your own coffin." She took him by the shoulders and forced him to face her. "Fighting what you feel is only going to intensify it. Especially when there's no need. You're going to miss her. It's expected and natural. I get that it's strange for you and that you're probably confused as hell that you're not excited to race back to the boat for the first time in forever. But, Mase, it's a good thing. Missing her is a good thing. It means you have someone."
Masen was just about to thank Lee for trying to help when Alice entered the kitchen. "I hope I'm not interrupting. I was just wondering if you needed any help."
Lee smirked at Masen and completely ignored the slight head shake he gave her in return. "Perfect timing! Masen was just about to set the table. Why don't you help him out?"
Lee is a dead woman, was his first thought. His second was about Bella and how she would probably enjoy seeing him getting along with her sister, no matter how briefly. "I'll get the plates. You get the glasses." He only did it for Bella but he added a "please" and a friendly smile.
Once they had their hands full, he led the way to the table and found it curiously empty. A quick glance around revealed that Esme and Carlisle had also disappeared. If this is supposed to be some way to encourage me to like Alice, they're all delusional, he thought as he set the first plate down on the table.
"Why is everything phrased as a command with you?" Alice asked, reaching out to set a glass next to the plate.
He didn't even attempt to hide his smirk. Maybe it was wrong to be proud of irking her without even doing anything but it kind of felt like getting her back a little for being cruel to Bella. Absolutely childish, of course, but still the way he honestly felt.
He turned Alice's question around on her. "Why do you consider delegation to be the same as a command? It's a team effort here and we all pull our weight."
"Let's say I believe that. Why do you get to do the delegating?"
He looked back at her over his shoulder. "Who do you think should be doing it? You?"
Alice's face took on a total "fuck you" look that made him want to laugh; he'd always found angry kittens to be hilarious. "I really don't get what they see in you," she told him.
He stopped, the plate in his hand hovering just above the table. He considered for a second being a smart ass but then he figured some truth might do this girl good. He set all the plates down and turned to face her. "You don't get it because you don't know me. You haven't made any effort at all to get to know me. And you won't. Not because I'm a bad guy. Not because you think I'm commanding. You won't do it because you don't want to know me. You don't want to risk liking me. Because then you'll actually feel guilty about trying to get Bella to end both our personal and work relationships and leave here. There's just one little thing you're forgetting … Bella makes up her own mind."
After picking the plates back up, he looked at her once more. There was no smile on his face, no anger in his expression or his tone. There was just the truth as he saw it at that moment. "Something else you might want to remember … Not getting what they see … That goes both ways."
He had expected her to storm off, to go cry to Whit about how terrible Masen was. Instead she stood her ground and maybe even looked a little apologetic. "You meant what you said earlier, didn't you? About being excited to meet me?"
"I did. I wanted to meet the girl who loves pink and is a glitter magnet. The girl who cleaned out her closet to send her clothes to people who needed them more. The girl who loves my kapu and looks up to her."
"I lied." Alice's eyes were so big that he knew there was no way she'd meant to say that.
He set the plates down and gave her his full attention, leaning forward with his arms resting on the back of the chair in front of him.
"Well … Not completely. I mean, she didn't come right out and say it. But I suspected."
He held in his laughter but the smart ass in him couldn't be restrained. "The babbling, it's cute and all, but I have no idea what the hell you're saying."
"Bella's emails about the team and you … I knew she felt something for you because she speaks so highly of you. She finds you highly annoying at times as well, but overall, she admires you. She says you're the protector, that you stay detached so you can see every angle and keep every person safe. But that underneath that hard shell, there's a heart full of love and light."
He shook his head, not out of denial but from pure disbelief that Bella would describe him so kindly. He found "annoying" to be a weak and lacking word for the past mistakes he'd made with her and yet he had no doubt she truly thought of them as just that. He had that feeling again that his life had become stranger than fiction, that he could find the one woman capable of dealing with him simply by selecting an essay from a pile on his desk.
"Wait … You … You're actually modest?" Alice's wide eyes and high-pitched tone nearly had him laughing for shocking her so thoroughly.
There was a lot he could have said and maybe some things he should have said, but in that moment he really didn't think she was ready to believe much of anything from him. So he gave her what felt true to him. "Alice, all I am is a guy trying to figure out the oceans while keeping my team and my family safe."
He followed his truth up with a smart ass comment, "And occasionally, I'm a guy trying to get dinner and that's me right now because I can smell the taco meat. So let's get this table set so we can all eat."
For the first time since she'd arrived, he saw her smile and in her face saw a younger version of Bella. Same caramel eyes and same laugh lines, and almost as pretty. "Are you actually going to let anyone else have these magic tacos you keep raving about?"
"Depends on what's in it for me," he joked. "What are you offering?"
"A truce during dinner. I don't ignore you, you don't glare at me, and neither of us makes my sister unhappy."
"And you make an honest effort to get to know all of us, not just Whit," he countered.
She offered her hand to him. "Deal."
He repeated the word while shaking her hand. It wasn't a permanent fix but a nice strong band-aid was still a step up from where they had been.
Masen had always figured the others were listening in but he knew it for certain when Whit suddenly popped up and declared that he was starving and couldn't wait any longer.
"Come and get it," Lee called out as she set a platter full of shells in the middle of the table. Gopher was right behind her with a big bowl of taco meat. Before they left to get the toppings from the kitchen, she winked at Masen and signed with her hands "good job".
He wasn't so sure about that but he did hope she was right.
"Kid, do you want me to make your plate while you make Bella's?" Esme asked as she walked up to him.
"How did you know I was going to make her a plate?"
Esme chuckled and patted his cheek. "You're my kid. I know everything about you. Besides, it's what I would have done."
"Speaking of what you would and wouldn't do … Want to tell me anything about you and the uncle?"
"Yes. We like long walks on the beach and a good bottle of wine. But that's where the similarities end. I'm a papaya gal and he's barely a pineapple guy. We're fruits of different trees, Kid."
Masen snorted and pulled her into his arms for a tight hug. After a quick kiss to the crown of her head, he let her go and said, "You don't fool me for a second. I know you too."
She only smiled and then scooted past him to jump in line in front of Gopher.
Masen turned his attention to Bella, finding her exactly where he wanted her—already seated at the table. She sat at the end, probably to prevent him and Alice from fighting over who sat next to her.
"So how many tacos can I get for you and what toppings would you like?" he asked.
Bella grinned, her happiness lighting up her face and turning her eyes caramel. "Top secret info like that has a pretty big price tag on it. Sure you can afford it?"
Holding on to her chair and the table top, he leaned in so close that he could feel her breath on his cheeks. "Sure you can handle finding out?"
"You're in my personal space again. It had better come with a kiss this time."
He smirked, positive he had the upper-hand and would end up making her cheeks turn pink just for him. "I could kiss you now. But it would be small and company-friendly. Or I could kiss you later, alone in your room, as hard and for as long as you can stand. Your choice. Just let me know."
Her cheeks did turn pink but he had badly misjudged her ability to knock him on his ass. She licked her lips and then so quietly that he had to lean in to hear, she said, "That night in the bar … that kiss we shared, pressed against each other … you pulled away first, not me. So you might want to be careful about promising to kiss me for as long as I can stand. Wouldn't want to risk your safety."
While he was still struggling to get some of his blood to flow back into his brain, she kissed his cheek and asked for two tacos with everything on them and a glass of tea. He shook his head once. Twice. On the third time he popped his neck and still he couldn't see anything but her that night in the bar, couldn't swallow without tasting her skin.
"Edward … Sorry … Your face." Bella's stuttered words between her giggles acted like a glass of ice water being tossed at him and he grinned as his head finally started to clear.
"You know you're gonna pay for that later, right?"
"Nope," she replied, still laughing a little. "I'm injured. Remember?"
"Oh, I remember how you were injured. I also remember you getting your doc to clear you."
"Hey, that's not fair."
"I agree. And yet I'm still gonna make you pay." He could hardly kiss her with his smile being so big but he also couldn't walk away without feeling her lips on his.
Gopher turned as soon as Masen was standing behind him in line. "You know, you keep being all Charmin Ultra with Guppy and I might just start to think you have feelings for her."
"Shut up, bro."
"Oh! Look at that smirk! It's true! The tin man does have a heart."
"Gopher, seriously, shut the fuck up."
Gopher held up his fist like a mic. "The tin man, not often seen in the wild, usually prefers a solitary life among—"
"I'm gonna prefer to have my foot up your ass if you don't stop."
"It's cool. I know it even if you aren't ready to say it yet. And I just want you to know, Mase … I love you too. Come at me with a hug anytime, bro."
Masen found himself laughing and squeezing the big guy's shoulder. "I wish this was your neck, but Lee would kick my ass. You can never just shut up. I swear your brain is wired to not let your big mouth close."
"I often observe without commenting. Way more than you ever realize. But now that you aren't being a stupid dick by trying to hide what everyone can see, I'm happy for you. This is my way of expressing happiness. Deal with it."
"Are you actually giving me an order?" Masen asked, humored by the thought.
Gopher stood up taller and straightened his shirt as if he was trying to be serious—his dimpled grin ruined the effect he was going for, though. "Yeah. So shut the fuck up, bro."
"Only if you move your ass so I can get some tacos."
"You do know you have to leave some for the rest of us, right?"
"Yeah, I know. And you'll have your chance since I'm making Bella a plate first."
Gopher stepped back against the wall. "In that case, go right ahead."
"Guppy needs nourishment for the healing process."
"You know, you're kind of a good guy when you're not being an ass."
Gopher clamped his hand over Masen's shoulder. "Mase, I say the same thing about you all the time, bro."
The two men stared at each other for a second and then burst into laughter that had everyone else looking at them with confused expressions.
Alice looked away from the two laughing guys and found her sister to be smiling where everyone else appeared confused. "Do you know what they're laughing so loudly about?"
"No, but it's nice to see them laugh together."
"I thought everyone here was a fan of Masen."
Bella leveled her sister with a warning glare. "Everyone respects him and understands his motivation is the safety of everyone on his team—his family. He's not out to be mean or bossy to anyone. He's just doing what he believes to be the safest course of action."
"You know, you don't have to defend him every time."
"And you don't have to try to vilify him."
Alice let out a breath. "Can we start this conversation over? I really don't want to upset you or argue with you."
"What do you want, Alice? Besides to get me to go home with you?"
"I don't know … I guess to understand you, and you with him." She glanced up at Masen, still a little thrown off by seeing him smiling and looking so friendly. "Would he be that way with me if our argument hadn't happened?"
"Yes." There was no hesitation at all and complete confidence in her sister's tone. "He's a good guy. Not a perfect guy. Not even close to perfect. Just a real guy with real feelings and real flaws. Sometimes he's too literal and gets lost in his head. But when he lets you get close, when he lets you in …" Bella shook her head and said no more.
"Here, Alice," Whit said, putting a plate before her and sitting beside her with his own.
"Thank you, again. I really wouldn't have minded making my own."
He gave her a sweet smile and said, "I know." Then his attention shifted to his tacos and not another word or glance came from him until all three had been decimated.
Alice noticed the same behavior from Esme, Lee, Gopher, definitely Masen, and even Carlisle and Bella. With a shrug of her shoulders, she finally picked up her taco and gave it a try.
It wasn't magic but it was really, really good. Even better than her favorite Mexican place near her college. While she took her time and savored her food, she observed the others talking, teasing, and laughing. It felt odd and she had trouble pinpointing why for the longest time.
And then it hit her. This was a family dinner. Her eyes welled up with tears as she remembered the last family dinner she'd shared with her parents and her sister and her uncle. It had been the night before her uncle had taken her father and sister on that fishing trip. Alice had never blamed him for taking them. Or her father for going. Or her mother for allowing it. Or her sister for being there. How could any of them have ever known there would be a huge, horrible monster in the water?
But there was anger with Bella. Not for that day, but because she'd still chosen a career path that would put her back in that water. Sure, she'd said she was happy at Sea World, but Alice had always known deep down that Bella would never be satisfied being that far away from real water. As much as Bella seemed excited about the job in Atlanta, even that held doubt for Alice. More animals … bigger animals … How much longer before being in a tank wasn't enough and Bella ended up in an ocean?
If you really think she's destined for the ocean, aren't these the people you would want watching out for her? Alice asked herself as she surveyed those at the table.
Her eyes landed on Masen and she took in his relaxed state, leaning on the table, his head on his arms and her sister's hand running through his hair. He actually appeared content, a stark contrast from the intense man she'd seen so far.
"Kid, you are awfully quiet. Did you put yourself into a food coma?" Esme asked Masen while rubbing his back.
Whit groaned lightly and patted his stomach. "I feel like I might be headed for one."
"Lightweights." Alice couldn't tell if Gopher was joking or not but she figured it was the latter since he bit off another piece of taco.
"Lee, I have to say, these really are the best tacos I've had in a long time," Uncle Carlisle complimented.
"Thanks, Mr. Cullen."
"Carlisle, please," he insisted.
"Carlisle," Lee replied with a smile. "My mom always says a woman has to have one signature dish to bring the men in her life to their knees." She pointed at Gopher first, the most recent to drop his head to the table. Her finger moved on to indicate Whit next and then Masen. "Tacos are mine."
"What's your mom's?"
"An apple stuffed pork chop."
Whit, Gopher, and Masen groaned together—Alice assumed this was a sign they'd enjoyed the pork chops at least once.
"Do you cook often for everyone?" her uncle questioned.
"Oh, no," Lee answered with a shake of her hand. "Cooking is not my forte. We leave that to Gopher. He enjoys it and he gets better with every meal."
"Lee is our linguistic magician," Esme confided, her hand resting on Carlisle's arm. It seemed a little familiar for her to be doing but she also seemed the friendly type so Alice shrugged it off.
"She has this amazing ability to pick up quickly on languages and speak them nearly flawlessly," Esme continued. The visible pride she felt made it easy for Alice to see she truly respected Lee and wasn't just boasting.
"And can I just say how lucky it is for your kid that I can do that," Lee said, smiling as her eyes moved to Masen. "He nearly got his entire wallet cleaned out for some plums."
"They were awesome plums," Masen mumbled, his mouth hidden behind his wrist since he was using his arms for a pillow.
Esme eyes seemed to be sparkling as she said, "I know for a fact he thoroughly enjoyed his plums."
Alice couldn't be a hundred percent sure it wasn't just the lighting in the room, but she thought she might have seen Masen blush.
"Alice, sweetheart, you've been awfully quiet tonight. Feel free to jump in at any point," Esme offered.
"I like listening," Alice replied, smiling kindly and hoping she sounded genuine. The truth was that she wasn't sure what to make of any of them. On the surface, they all seemed like lovely individuals, together making up a fun, loving family. But they were also shark people. And they wanted her sister to be a shark person with them. The two sides just didn't mesh in her mind.
Whit sleepily announced, "You snooze, you lose."
Esme snorted and reached across the table to ruffle his hair. "You need to hush. In fact, you need to go to bed. All of you nearly comatose men need to go crawl under your blankets. You've got an early wake up tomorrow. And you too, Lee."
Over the sounds of chairs being pushed away from the table, Alice heard her uncle ask, "Is this the parent card you told me about earlier?"
Esme nodded. "I use it sparingly and only when it seems they don't see the best option for themselves."
Alice grinned, sure that grown adults—especially Masen—would never fall for that kind of thing. She was too shocked to react when she realized they were all listening to Esme. One by one, they kissed her goodnight and then disappeared into their rooms. Even Whit followed along, though he did stop long enough to tell Alice goodnight and wish her happy dreams.
"You cleared the room," Alice squeaked, staring in awe at Esme.
"Yes, I believe I did. Would you mind helping me to clear the table?"
Uncle Carlisle answered before Alice could. "I'll help you, Esme. It's only fair since Lee and your son cooked and Alice helped set the table."
Alice's protest was cut off by her uncle's insistence. "It's only fair, Alice. You sit and talk with your sister."
"But Bella went with Masen." Alice's reply was missed—her uncle was already in the kitchen asking Esme for more details about her parenting card.
Bella likes Masen. She likes everyone here. Uncle Carl definitely likes Esme. He seems okay with everyone else, even Masen. Am I really the only one with reservations about these people?
Alice laid her own head on the table, sure that she'd spend another night sleepless and worried and questioning what she should do.
A hand on her shoulder, barely a touch, but she knew who it was and smiled. She lifted her head and turned to share her smile with him. "I thought you'd gone to bed."
"I did but then I felt your sadness and I knew neither of us would sleep if I didn't fix things."
"Whit, you're so sweet, but I don't think you can—"
"I know I can't fix them all, but I can fix our sleep problem."
Whit smiled and though it was a sleepy one, it was perfect to Alice. "I've got an air mattress big enough for two and you're my plus one."
"I'm not sure my uncle would be okay with that."
"I'm asking you to sleep with me, Alice. He can wait to worry when I ask him to marry you."
"Is that something you think you'll do? Ask him to marry me?"
Whit offered his hand to her. "Let's sleep on it for now and talk about it later."
She was skeptical she would be able to sleep but she put her hand in his anyway. The second her skin touched his, a wave of relief coursed through her and sleep seemed not only possible but highly imminent. In fact, she just barely made it through kicking her shoes off and getting her head onto a pillow before she was out cold, lost to dreams of the man asleep and snoring beside her.
A/N: We hope you all enjoyed this chapter! EA has posted a fun little video on the blog :)