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Chapter 27 – A Rhombus and Other Surprises
Wednesday, June 25th
"Left. Left. Left!" The absurdity of the situation made it impossible for Masen not to laugh as he altered his command slightly. "Your left, for fuck's sake!"
Gopher repeatedly spit out "shit" and "fuck" while tangling with the decoy seal, eventually getting it set in the water the way it needed to be. He stood bent with his hands on his knees, breathing heavily and giving Masen a harassed look.
"Bro, this is all on you," Masen said, making no attempt to hold back his smirk. "I explained it twice on the boat and I was giving directions as you did it."
"I was fine until you started yelling."
"I didn't start yelling until you were well into doing it wrong," he defended.
Gopher's expression turned to pleading. "Can we leave this shit out of the daily?"
He shrugged with his smirk still firmly in place, enjoying a little innocent torture after all of the guy's comments the past few days. "Depends on how you do the rest of the day."
With a heavy sigh, Gopher stood to his full height and peeled off the tank top he'd turned into a sweaty mess. "I sure hope these fake seals turn out to be worth the hassle."
In order to prevent damage to the shark's teeth, the decoy seals were made of a soft foam wrapped up in old wetsuit material that Esme and Lee had sewn together. They weren't really heavy but their size and shape made them awkward to handle. If they weren't set just right, the fake flippers would fold under or over and require a hand to be in the water to fix it. That was not an acceptable risk for Masen; he'd prefer to reset the decoy ten times than have Gopher's hand in the water once.
The radio sitting on the captain's chair crackled and then released Whit's voice. "You two okay out there? The skiff was leaning to the side pretty heavily."
Masen laughed and clapped Gopher on the shoulder before grabbing for the radio. "All clear here. A little trouble setting the first decoy but we've got it now."
"Good thing we aren't filming the setup. Guppy would sure as hell shit herself seeing the boat leaning that way with you two in it."
"It looked worse than it was, bro. Trust me."
"I do trust you. That's the only reason I'm on the radio and not driving Galeos toward you."
"You better not move my boat," Masen warned. "It took us twenty minutes to get her into the right spot."
"Quit your whining and get the other decoy set, will ya?"
"Whit, shut the fuck up."
His best friend's chuckling laughter came through the radio loud and clear.
He looked toward the boat and flipped his friend off, knowing Whit was watching them through a pair of binoculars. "Asshat."
"You calling him that for yanking your chain? Or for being in love with Alice?"
"The heart wants what it wants, Gopher. I can't fault him for that any more than I can for his superb taste in friends."
"Yeah, me and Lee are a catch."
The two looked at each other and shared a laugh, and then Masen put them right back into work mode. "Let's try to get this second decoy right the first time. Take us about thirty yards southeast of this spot."
Gopher got the skiff moving and then asked, "So basically we're making a v-shaped path from the edges of the shark cage to these two decoys?"
"That's the plan. Gives us a great line of sight and keeps Galeos safe from the effects of a breach."
"What's that gonna be like? An actual full-on breach that's close enough to see it without binoculars?"
"With any luck, it'll be sheer fucking joy and completely caught on film. You're not going to see that much when it happens because a breach only lasts a second or two, but tonight when we go through all of the footage we should see some amazing details."
"Think Guppy will watch the videos?"
Masen grinned, trying to appear far more confident than he felt about his future. "We'll watch together."
"How's the leg?"
He didn't answer; he didn't feel it was anyone's business that he'd called Bella last night and found a text from her this morning.
"Come on, Mase. There's no way you've gone over twenty-four hours without talking to your kapu and I want to know how my friend is doing."
It was only because he could tell Gopher was honestly concerned that he answered. "She's okay. Says she's limping less and eating more."
"Good. She'll be back with us in no time."
Masen didn't say anything but he really wanted Gopher to be right.
By the time they got back to Galeos, Lee and Whit had the still and video cameras ready to go. Gopher would be in the crow's nest calling out shark sightings while Lee would be at the front of the boat with one of the video cameras, and Whit would be at the back with the other. Masen would have his still camera with him in the cage, though he wouldn't be exactly underwater today. His line of sight was going to be the surface so the cage was only set halfway into the water.
He quickly stripped down to his boxer briefs and put on his full wetsuit. He would have preferred his surfing shorts and shirt but since this was something new it was safer to have the full suit and be prepared for anything. Gopher helped him with his watch and made sure he had an air canister strapped to his waist, then passed him his lucky mask. Even though his head and most of his chest would remain above water, he was taking the mask and canister just in case something went wrong and he ended up underwater for a prolonged time.
"Everybody understand what they're doing?" Masen asked as he set his mask on top of his head, smashing down his wild hair.
"I'm keeping my eyes open for sharks and yelling out the direction they're coming from," Gopher answered.
Whit jerked his thumb toward the water. "Videoing the left side decoy."
"Right side decoy," Lee said while checking the ropes on the waterproof case one more time. They had attached a small rubber ball full of air to each side so the case would float on the surface instead of needing Masen to hold it there. Satisfied everything was as it should be, she passed the case and the camera within to him.
"Mase, wouldn't it make more sense for me to be in the skiff, ready to reset the decoys?" Gopher questioned. "It just seems to me that we're going to lose a lot of time with me having to get down from the nest, get on the skiff, drive out to the decoy, reset it, and then drive back."
"I agree we're going to lose some time, but I'd rather lose time than you," Masen replied. "You could be leaning over to reset that decoy when another shark comes out of nowhere to go after it and gets your hand instead. Maybe it misses you completely on the launch but then lands on the skiff during the return, hurting you and damaging the boat."
"See? Wisdom of Xavier," Gopher said, pointing at Masen and looking at Lee.
Masen snorted at being compared to the head of the X-men.
"Except with way more hair," Gopher added, causing Whit to laugh and Lee to shake her head.
"Just remember I don't want you on the skiff alone," Masen warned. "Take Whit or Lee with you every time."
"I won't let him forget," Lee answered before Gopher could.
Satisfied everyone was ready, Masen used a rope ladder to climb down the side of Galeos and enter the cage from the top. Without the weight of a full-size air tank on his back, it was easy to make the climb down. Plus it was safer than swimming around the side of the boat alone.
Treading water inside the cage with his camera at the ready and his focus on the two decoys, Masen could feel the excitement pulsing throughout him. He had complete confidence the decoys would work and the footage they would gain would be invaluable to their research, not to mention unique and amazing. Once he had time to really study the videos, he'd be able to use the information they'd gathered to extend their decoy research, allowing for better and closer footage.
While he kept the majority of his senses trained on the decoy seals, he also made sure to be aware of his immediate surroundings. He had no way to know if the cage might be more interesting to the sharks than the decoys. He certainly hoped not, but this was definitely not a time to assume anything. It was also not a time to be impatient. A breach could happen at any time with hardly any forewarning; he'd be pissed if he missed it because he allowed himself to get bored and his mind to wander.
And yet, there remained that little corner of his mind that held onto thoughts of Bella no matter how hard he tried to push it toward work.
After a night full of oddly enticing dreams about a woman he'd basically just met, Carlisle couldn't stand to be in bed a moment longer. While he dressed for the day, he made a preliminary plan of things to do with the girls and tasks to accomplish for work. He had a few emails he needed to respond to in order to make sure his absence didn't hold up any projects. He would eventually have to schedule a return trip but that didn't have to happen today. He could stay a few more days just to make absolute sure Bella would be okay. He also reasoned it wasn't wise to leave before knowing Alice's final answer on if she would remain here or return with him. The one thing he didn't allow his mind to focus on was the conundrum that was Esme Masen.
The first assignment he'd given himself was making breakfast with Bella. He felt it would be good for her to perform a task from home, and it would allow him to really talk to her without her filtering answers for her sister's sake.
He was so focused on what he would say when he woke Bella up that he nearly walked right past her. She was curled up in a corner of the couch with her nose in a book, absentmindedly twisting her finger up in a length of her hair. It was unsettling to look at her and see both the woman she had become and the little girl who had been the pride and joy of his brother. That urge to apologize to her welled up inside of him and just as he prepared to push it away, Esme did it for him. You did the best thing, the most loving thing … The years you have given them are what you should focus on …
He took a breath and then smiled for Bella before calling out to her. "Bug, you're up early."
Bella looked over the back of the couch, smirking at her uncle. "Shouldn't that be my line?"
Carlisle studied her face, trying to glean what she'd seen and possibly heard of his evening with Esme.
His niece started giggling and shaking her head. "I haven't even said anything yet and you're blushing."
"Men don't blush, sweetheart. You do."
"Yeah? Then why are your cheeks and ears pink?"
"Obviously I've had too much sun without enough sunblock."
Bella snorted. "Allow me to borrow from Whit … Your butt must be jealous of all the crap coming out of your mouth."
"Isabella!" Carlisle had never heard her say anything like that to anyone and definitely not to him. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to reprimand her or if it was okay to give in to his urge to laugh.
"Oh, come on, Uncle Carl. I can see you want to laugh. Besides, it is true."
He shook his head while rounding the couch, then sat down beside her. "I've never heard you speak that way."
It was her turn to blush. "I know. I just …" She lifted her head fully, revealing the expressive brown eyes she'd inherited from her father. Carlisle could see a mix of love and uncertainty in those eyes. "Maybe I thought it was best to be really good and not even give the impression of being out of line."
It physically hurt to hear her say that, despite knowing it was a valid fear after her mother's reaction to the loss of Charlie. But this moment wasn't about his own hurt. It was about helping Bella to alleviate herself of a burden she never should have been carrying.
Cupping her cheek and holding her gaze, he made her a promise he meant with every fiber of his being. "Bella, there is nothing you could say or do that will change how very much I love you."
As expected, she blushed and tried to look away, but he kept their eye contact. "That may sound like a lip-service to you since we can't know what the future holds, but I assure you it's not. It's a promise I know I can uphold because I know you and what's in your heart. You will never purposefully hurt me, just as I will never hurt you or leave your life. We are in this together for the entirety of our lives, Bug. You have my back and I have yours, and we both have Alice's."
Bella carefully scooted closer, mindful of her leg, and then gave him the hardest hug he'd ever received from her. "Thank you."
He smiled into her hair while hugging her back, feeling mostly lucky to have her love with a little guilt for having a father-daughter moment with her. "It's me who needs to thank you, Bella. Just think how boring my life would be without you girls in it."
She let out a short giggle as she relaxed her hold and moved her head to his shoulder. "I bet Esme doesn't think you're boring."
"I don't know what you think you saw, young lady, but I—"
"Oh, so it was your doppelganger out on the patio kissing her hand?"
Carlisle figured the best response was none at all. Maybe if I don't acknowledge it, she'll let it drop.
"I think she'd be great for you."
Of course she wouldn't. Neither would her father if he were here.
"You can like her, you know. There's nothing wrong with that. It's not like anyone could ever say I got the internship because of a relationship between you two since I was already here before you met."
"Why would anyone say such a thing?"
"I don't know. I'm just saying it would be evident it wasn't true if someone did."
Carlisle wanted out of this conversation desperately; he worried he would give in to the urge to tell her all of his thoughts about Esme. If they started down that path, they would most likely stay on it and he'd never get the chance to get the answers he needed to make sure Bella was truly doing okay here.
"You know, Bug, I think you're far too interested in what you imagine you saw last night. How about we focus your mind on something else? I was actually on my way to wake you when I noticed you on the couch. I thought it would be fun for us to make pancakes together like we do back home."
Bella's smile reached her eyes and lightened them, just as Charlie's used to do. "I'd love to."
"Up you go then," he said, holding on to her elbow and helping her to her feet.
Once they were actually standing in the kitchen, Carlisle realized he didn't know where a single thing was in here, or if there were even ingredients for pancakes. Scratching his head and wondering what his backup plan should be, it took him a minute to notice Bella was pulling things out of cabinets and setting them on the counter. It drove home for him what she'd been saying the past couple of days—she was part of this group living and working together.
"Would you grab the eggs and milk, Uncle Carl?" she asked. "And then I need the big mixing bowl from the top shelf of that cabinet right in front of you."
He gathered up the items and together they began cracking eggs into the bowl. Carlisle figured now was the best time to start finding out where his niece's head and heart truly lied. "Bella, tell me about Edward. I know all about him as your mentor from the emails and phone calls, but what about this personal relationship you've begun with him."
Her blush began filling her cheeks as she smiled softly. "It's kind of hard to explain, really. It just sort of overwhelmed us both. But I think maybe the best way to sum it up is to say he makes me feel stronger and I make him want more than work.
"He's much more practical than romantic, which I'm finding I really prefer. There's an honesty there that makes it so easy to trust him. And it helps him too because he knows when I say that he's being a jerk, he's really being a jerk."
She lifted her head, revealing a pleading expression. "But don't think of that in a bad way. He's not a jerk on purpose. He's just looking at a situation logically and practically when he should be feeling it. Do you know what I mean?"
Carlisle nodded, reminded of how his own father had possessed a rigid black and white view while his mother had seen rainbows everywhere. Witnessing those very different behaviors had driven both Charlie and him to keep their minds open about everyone and everything. It was most likely the root of Bella and Alice's openness, though Alice had yet to show that side of her here.
"Edward sounds a bit like your grandfather," he shared with Bella. "Your dad and I would ask for something and he'd want to know why we needed it, what the cost was, and what would be the benefit of owning it. Luckily for us, your grandmother was a great mediator and she would more often than not get him to see that sometimes a person needed to make a purchase for the sole reason of it would make them happy. She would always tell him that it was impossible to put a value on happy."
"See, that's what drives Edward so hard right there—he wants everyone happy and safe." Bella's smile turned sheepish as she added, "He just doesn't always go about it the right way."
"We all have our flaws, Bug. I would no more judge Edward solely on his than I would want someone to judge me on mine."
"You get it. How come Alice can't?"
"I think she will, but she's just not ready yet."
"I really hope she decides to stay. I want her to really give Edward a chance, to see that he's a good guy with a big heart."
"He certainly holds you in his heart."
Bella's blush was back and stronger than before. "You really think so?"
"Any young man willing to sacrifice a first impression for your comfort and safety is truly thinking of you before himself. That's the very definition of devotion, Bella."
She thought about his response for a bit and then grinned.
Carlisle certainly didn't want to dampen her mood but he had to ask in order to be properly prepared for her future. "Have you two given any thought to what you'll do when the summer ends? Atlanta and Hawaii aren't exactly neighboring states."
"No, and it's way too early for that. I don't even know if I'll be able to qualify for Atlanta. I've still got so much work to do. The picture in my room … It was a big day and a big step but I'm not even close to having this—this fear under control. It's how I got hurt by the ray. I was so worried about a shark showing up while we snorkeled that I didn't even think about the small dangers. Reefs always have rays and eels. Some have lionfish. Heck, even triggerfish will get aggressive if you get too close. I know all of that, have known it for years, and I still forgot every bit that day because of how focused my mind was on worrying about a shark appearing.
"And the worst part of all, I ruined Edward's birthday and the team's time-off. If I had just trusted in Lee's research and Edward's conviction that the area was shark-free. Or at the very least, trusted in his ability to keep me safe, then I would have been paying attention to my immediate surroundings and I would have seen that ray hiding in the sand."
Seeing her so upset got him worked up and set off his need to fix things for her. "Is that what Edward and the team believe? That you spoiled the fun with your fear? If so, I'll be having a strongly—"
Bella snorted. "Relax, Uncle Carl. They would never lay blame that way. Besides, they were all too busy making sure I had the best possible care. I feel bad about the lost time and I feel responsible for it. And I'm absolutely going to fix it."
"Fix what?" Alice asked, stumbling into the kitchen while yawning and rubbing at her eyes.
"Morning, sweetheart," Carlisle greeted while planting a kiss on her forehead. He had counted on her being a much later sleeper this morning but of course she would choose to be an early riser. Doing the opposite of what was expected had always been a skill of hers.
"Ooh, pancakes," Alice crowed as she hopped up onto the empty counter across from their mixing bowls. "Flipping contest?"
"We'll see," Bella replied. "Why don't you set the table for us?"
"You don't even have any made yet. Besides, I'm not completely awake."
Bella chuckled. "Mornings on the boat with you are sure to be interesting. I wonder how many times you'll miss your bathroom time because you're busy 'waking up'."
"Bathroom time? You mean there are limits?"
"Yep. And if you miss your slot in the morning, then you are stuck until that night."
"That's absurd. If I need a shower—"
Carlisle stepped in and used the authoritative voice Alice never argued with. "You'll set your alarm and be in the bathroom on time, Alice."
Her response was typical for her current sour mood; she crossed her arms over her chest and pinched her face in a scowl, looking more like a pug puppy instead of a teenage girl on the verge of becoming an adult woman.
"We're ready to start making pancakes," Bella announced as she passed her uncle a skillet. She also mouthed "thank you" to him, which he responded to with a wink. He might not always trust himself to be doing his best as their parent but he certainly knew how to get Alice to understand when something wasn't negotiable.
Alice's silent treatment only lasted until it was time to flip the pancakes; she turned into her usual ball of high energy as she counted down for her uncle and sister. "On three. One. Two. Three!"
Carlisle and Bella sent their pancakes up into the air. His flipped end over end and landed back into his skillet almost perfect-center. He looked over at Bella to find that hers was exactly perfect center.
"Bullseye again, Bug," he congratulated.
"Well, would you look at that? Not one, but two master pancake flippers in my kitchen."
Carlisle was smiling before he even set eyes on Esme. Her hair was a windblown mess and Edward's dog was in her arms with its paws covered in sand. He wondered why she hadn't invited him along on her walk and hoped it didn't mean she was upset about the kiss they'd shared last night. She had mentioned her worry that he wouldn't remember it but it had replayed in his dreams far too much for that to happen.
"Esme, I hope you don't mind that we've taken over your kitchen. Bella and I thought it would be nice to cook for you for a change since you and the team have been feeding us for days now."
"I'm just the helper," Bella piped up. "It was all Uncle Carl's idea."
"It's very sweet of you, Carlisle," Esme said. She was smiling but it wasn't the same as the ones he'd seen before. It wasn't happy enough. And it bothered him greatly.
Bella must have noticed something was off as well because she suddenly couldn't get out of the kitchen fast enough. "Esme, let me take Lizzy and clean her up. Alice, come help me." She didn't give either lady a chance to say anything; she scooped the dog from Esme's arms and tugged Alice along behind her by the wrist.
"That was …" Esme trailed off.
"A sign that her limp is much better?" Carlisle offered.
Esme laughed as she took hold of the handle of Bella's abandoned skillet. "I think that was revenge for some wingman help I gave my kid not too long ago."
"Esme, last night—"
"It was last night. It's over and done. Let's just move forward."
He took hold of her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I have to say this first because seeing you anything less than one hundred percent happy is unacceptable. Esme, I deeply apologize for being less than completely sober but I don't hold any regret about our kiss. I meant every compliment I paid you last night and I was thinking clearly when I kissed you. I hope the same holds true for you."
"Of course, but, Carlisle … Well, I'm afraid I won't be any good at stopping at just one."
"Then we need to have a talk, Esme, because I don't think I will either. After the girls are in bed, truly in bed, we'll talk tonight. Okay?"
They both stood there holding their breath until Esme finally released hers and said, "Okay, then. We'll make sure we aren't being watched from any doorways and then we'll talk."
"Hold on," he said, looking at her suspiciously. "Watching from doorways? Does that mean you spotted them last night and didn't tell me? That's not very fair, Esme."
"Consider it payback," she replied, her smile wide and genuine. "I was trying to behave and you, Sir, were making it damn near impossible. I figured leaving you open to a little ribbing from your girls was a fair trade."
"Oh, you did?" he replied while laughing.
"What's that burning smell?" Alice called out from the hallway.
Esme and Carlisle scrambled to get their skillets off the hot burners and then burst into laughter at the blackened pancakes, casualties of their conversation.
"You are so distracting that pancakes can't survive," Carlisle joked.
"For all I know, this is how you always prepare them," Esme replied, grinning and bumping his side with her elbow. "Outside of my boys, I haven't seen a man capable in the kitchen. And most of what my boys know, I taught them."
"Bella and I learned together, actually. When they first came to live with me, I knew I needed to bond with them on a new level so they each picked an activity for us to do together. Bella and I took cooking classes, while Alice joined a soccer team and I served as her team's backup coach."
"Don't ever think for a second that those girls don't see what you do for them or don't appreciate it. They do. Bella especially. And she wants nothing more than to make you proud of her."
Carlisle smiled as he pictured his niece earlier with her blush and her happy grin. "She always does. And with your son's continued support and encouragement, I really believe she's going to be proud of herself."
"They're good for each other. A good mix of similarities and opposite view points."
"Balance. I've heard that's the key to great relationships."
"Haven't found yourself in a great one yet, then?"
Carlisle and Esme's locked eyes as he answered, "I think I may have walked right into one."
After three hours and two false alarms, the team finally had their first breach. Not even Masen's eagle eyes could react fast enough to follow it from launch to return but that was why the team had special equipment. The still camera Masen was using could capture 4 frames per second, while both video cameras could capture 1,000 frames, allowing them to extend that one second of action into thirty seconds of video. He couldn't wait to sit down with the team and review the breach in slow motion, to note every movement of the shark's body and trajectory. And from the happy yells coming from above, the rest of the team was just as excited.
They were lucky to witness two more breaches before breaking for a late lunch. After peeling himself out of his wetsuit, Masen headed downstairs for a quick, cold shower while Gopher and Whit put together a lunch for the team. Standing under the icy spray, Masen thought of how easy that first hour in the water had been. He'd barely even realized any time had passed until he'd glanced at his watch. But as the minutes had ticked by without a breach and the heat of the sun had increased, it had become harder to remain still and wait.
It had also been harder to keep thoughts of Bella compartmentalized in one corner of his mind. He'd swear he was focused on the decoy seals and then he'd realize he was wondering what she was doing back in Gordon's Bay or what she'd think if she was above him on Galeos with the rest of the team. Toward the end of his time treading water in the cage, the heat must have started to get to him because he'd suddenly found himself wondering what it would be like to have her in the cage with him. Masen snorted at the idea now as he had earlier when he'd first had it. Bella was nowhere near ready for something like that—she would need to be in control of her anxiety and have complete trust in him before he could even suggest it.
Now that he was clean and feeling refreshed, he was ready to tackle the growling of his stomach and the urge to get his hands on his camera to review the photos he'd taken. But not before he found himself ducking into his bedroom to check his phone for messages. He didn't really expect one since he'd sent a text this morning telling Bella he wouldn't be checking his phone until around three and that was nearly an hour away.
Masen was happily surprised to find a photo message waiting for him. He clicked to open it and when it finally loaded it put a huge smile on his face. He thought about sending a text to thank Bella for the photo but figured he'd wait and say something during his phone call with her. He planned to call her after lunch since he knew he and the team would be swamped the rest of the night with reviewing their footage and writing up the daily.
Upstairs, Gopher and Whit were putting the finishing touches on lunch and Lee was sitting at the table with Masen's camera in her hands. He slid right up against her to get a look at the small display screen but she tilted the camera away from him. She even had the nerve to laugh at his pout.
"I'm gonna tell Esme you're being mean to me," he warned.
Lee laughed and tilted the camera even further away from him. "Go right ahead. She'll tell me 'good job'."
He nodded in agreement, knowing his mom absolutely would do something like that.
"Make you a deal." The glint in her eye and the curve of her lips left him positive he'd be making a deal with a devil. "A little honesty from you about missing Guppy gets you this camera in your hands."
"I could just take it from you," he threatened.
Her grin widened. "No. You couldn't."
He studied her for a moment to judge how serious she was about standing her ground. The fact that she didn't blink told him anything less than immediate concession would be a monumental failure and waste of time.
"I notice, okay? I absolutely notice she's not here. And I've had a time or two where I've kind of wished she was."
Lee snorted. "Kind of? Mase, I caught you passed out in her bed last night."
He felt equal parts shocked and embarrassed. "Fuck, woman! Is there nothing you miss?"
"Not really. And if I do, Esme catches it." Her triumphant grin disappeared and a demanding look hardened her features. He could have pretended not to know the meaning of it but she could also demand more information in response.
He sighed heavily and slouched in the booth, letting his head rest against the back of it. "I honestly don't know what to tell you. I just … I couldn't keep still last night and I ended up in there and then I was asleep. I don't understand it, and I'm not ready to deal with it. It is what it is for now because I need my mind to be on work. When I have time to figure out what's going on in my personal life, I'll deal with it then."
She clucked her tongue at him. "Still trying to turn a feeling into a logical expression. I hope you don't take as long as I did to stop. Actually, I just hope you don't take longer!"
"Take longer to what?" Whit asked, setting plates in front of them.
"Shower," Masen replied as he sat up straight.
Lee smacked him in the back of the head for lying. "To feel without trying to find the logic in it."
Whit snorted and then said, "Good luck with that."
"You two are never fucking happy. You wanted me with Bella and now I am and you still give me shit."
"We give you shit because we love your dumb ass and we want things to work out with you and Bella," Lee explained.
Whit nodded in agreement and added, "Which isn't going to happen if you don't calm down and stop worrying so much about what you do and don't understand."
"What's there to understand?" Gopher asked as he settled in beside Whit and put their plates on the table. "You two care about each other and want to be in a relationship. That's something to hold on to, not pick apart."
"Oh come on," Masen replied with a roll of his eyes. "You guys can't tell me you never have the urge to figure out why things happen. Whit, don't you want to understand Alice? And, Gopher, you want to know the how and why of Lee's reactions so you don't piss her off accidentally, right?"
"Mase, understanding the person you're with comes with time and talking. It's not something you can get upfront and all at once," Lee told him.
"Plus, you're focusing a lot more on why you care about her at all instead of just enjoying that you do care," Whit said.
Masen didn't answer right away, too busy scarfing down a huge bite of the club sandwich Gopher and Whit had made. He drank half his glass of tea in a couple gulps and then decided he'd rather change the topic completely. "After lunch, Gopher and I will pull in the decoys just to make sure they don't get wrecked. I figure we'll take an hour off to relax and then we'll all sit down to review the footage and work on the daily together. We've got a lot to go through so plan on working on it most of the night."
"You can stuff your face and you can bring up work all you want, but you aren't getting out of talking to us that easily," Whit promised.
"Yeah, we know where you live," Lee added while laughing.
Masen responded the only way he really could with two friends determined to get their say … "Fucking nudgers."
Whit ended up volunteering to pull the decoys with Gopher so as soon as Masen was done with his food and had put his dishes into the sink he headed down to his bedroom, wanting some privacy for his phone call with Bella. He wondered if he should have checked with her on the time rather than expecting her to be available. Was that something people did? Did they schedule phone calls when they were apart? Would she laugh at him if he asked her? Whit and Lee would sure as hell laugh but that was just how they were with each other—he would laugh at them just as much.
He picked his phone up from his dresser and sat on the end of his bed, thinking back to their talk last night. The way she'd known without a doubt that he'd been outside looking up at Gemini … It had been unexpected. And he'd really appreciated her not pushing him to admit it. Not that it was a big deal when he really thought about it, but in that moment it had just been more than he'd been ready to deal with.
Looking at the photo Bella had sent him earlier, he wondered if maybe Lee and Whit were right. Maybe he was trying too hard to make sense of his feelings instead of experiencing them with Bella. She wasn't a project to plan or a puzzle to solve, though he did want to know every single thing about her.
He waited for the call to start ringing and then laid back, relaxing into the mattress and letting his eyes close and his mind focus only on her.
Bella started their conversation with questions. "So how excited are you? Kid in the candy store? Fangirl at Comic Con? Guy who's baseball team just won the World Series?"
A few funny, smart ass answers quickly came to mind but he decided to go with one that was guaranteed to get her to smile. "Guy lucky to be with the girl who plays tag with fish."
"I think maybe it's the girl who's the lucky one." The softness of her voice couldn't hide the emotion and surprise in her voice—and what he hoped was sincerity.
He could tell she was choked up but he wasn't sure if it was a good thing or not. "That was supposed to make you smile, you know."
"It did. I just … I wasn't expecting it."
He felt the best way to fix the situation was to lighten the mood. "Should I warn you from now on? Sounds weird to me, but I'll give it a try. Hey, Bella, watch out because I'm gonna compliment you … You're pretty special."
"Just so we're clear, I don't play tag with fish because that's just silly. Fish can't tag back."
"Then what were you doing?"
"No you weren't."
Bella laughed and the happy sound made him grin. "You can't tell me what I was doing, Edward. I was the one doing it."
"Actually, I can. And I just did. You weren't playing chase because you'd already been caught."
"What if I'm the one who caught you?"
He grinned and slipped an arm under his head, having the perfect smart-ass answer to her goofy question. "Then I'd have to say 'what a haul' and 'don't toss me back'."
"Still not completely convinced I'll be here Friday, huh?"
"I didn't say that." But now that she'd brought it up, he couldn't exactly say she wasn't right.
"You implied it."
"I think this phone connection is losing translation. Or you're just a reacher. Are you a reacher?"
"Absolutely. I reach for stuff all the time. Food. Clothes. Books. Lizzy."
"Speaking of Lizzy," he said while chuckling at her silliness. "Thanks for the photo of you two."
"Alice took it for you."
"Did she really?" he replied, wondering if Bella had bribed or threatened to get her sister's cooperation.
"She did. And she didn't even call you 'that Masen guy' when she did it. We're making progress."
He had to laugh at that. "Leaps and bounds, I tell you."
"More like hops and skips but I'll take it." There was a short lull in their conversation and then she asked, "So did you witness one yet?"
He was careful with his answer, appreciating her curiosity while understanding this was all still very difficult for her. "Yeah, we did. A couple of curious visitors came by to check out our fake seals."
"None. Everyone is safe and sound and everything went according to plan. All that's left is to go through every bit of footage and every still photo and then write up the daily. It's going to be a long night with a lot of coffee."
"Hmmm … Being around you after multiple cups of coffee, plus you'll be excited about your sharks … The team is in for a really long night."
"Nice, kapu. Real nice. Don't even miss me a little." Even as he made the joke he hoped there was no truth to it.
"Of course I miss you. I just also know a few things about you and I know you'll be hyper focused and hyper animated. That's a rough combo with anyone but especially with you because you don't have an off switch like the rest of us. Whit and Lee and Gopher will be falling asleep and you'll still be moving right along."
He had to concede her point—a little. "That can be me, sure, but I make an active effort to be aware of my team and not allow that kind of situation. As soon as I see they've gotten too tired to continue, I call it quits. If I want to work on it some more after that, then I just head down to my project room until I either finish or get tired myself."
"Be honest, now. How many times have you realized they were tired only after someone's head met the desk?"
He couldn't believe he was laughing rather than feeling annoyed at her insistence. He was even more surprised when he answered her. "Once or twice."
"That's what I thought." Her cocky response had him laughing again. "My poor friends are in for a long night."
"What about me? It's going to be long for me too."
She snorted into the phone. "You are going to love every minute of it."
He didn't bother trying to deny it. "So what do you have planned for tonight? Other than continuing your campaign to steal all my dog's love."
"I knew it!" she crowed. "I knew you were jealous of Lizzy's love for me."
"Can't tell you how much," he said, just barely holding back his laughter. "Seriously, though, what are you doing tonight?"
"Alice wants me to look at some photos she took with her sorority sisters. Oh and my friends Jake and Leah are expecting a call from me. They sent me an email wanting to know how the internship is going so I promised I'd call and update them. I think I'll leave out the bit about the ray for now so they don't worry."
"Probably a good idea."
After a moment's hesitation she asked, "Would it be okay to tell them about you? Or would you rather me wait until the internship is over?"
He expected his response to be a "no", for the idea of privacy as protection to fill his head as it had been doing. Instead he found himself excited at the thought of her wanting to tell her friends about him. It suggested a level of permanence in her life that he hadn't felt before—for the first time he was able to picture her waiting for him to show up on Friday. It wasn't a complete expectation but it was definitely more belief than he'd had before.
"Sure. If you want."
"What do you want?"
He knew it would probably sound flippant but he didn't know how else to phrase it. "You."
A knock on his door had him sitting up and pressing his phone against his shoulder. "Yeah?"
The door opened and Whit stuck his head inside. "Hate to do it to ya, but I gotta cut your call short. You said to let you know if the expected wind speed changed and we just got an alert that it's gonna pick up early tomorrow, right at dawn when we're supposed to be using the decoys again."
"Shit. Okay, I'll be right up. Just give me a minute."
"Say 'hi' to Bella for all of us."
"What makes you think I'm talking to Bella?"
Whit just grinned and left, shutting the door behind him.
"Fucking nudger," Masen muttered as he put his phone to his ear. "Bella, I—"
She interrupted him, giggling and saying, "Say 'hi' back for me."
"I'll try to call tonight if I can."
"Don't worry about it. You already had a full schedule and now you've got the weather report to deal with. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Positive. Go be amazing as the head of MMR."
For some reason, her being so understanding made him feel her absence more than he had up until now. He didn't know how to handle that and since he needed to get off the phone anyway, he decided now was as good of a time as any to end their call. "I better go. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day."
"Thanks." He put his finger over the button that would end the call, fully expecting that he would press it and be done. Instead he found himself saying one last thing to her. "I miss you, kapu."
He ended the call and then tapped the phone against his chin, wondering if he should take it with him in case he got a chance to call her later or if he should leave it in his room since the chance of getting free time was fairly improbable.
He had just decided to power off his phone and put it on his dresser when it chirped in his hand.
Stop running off so fast! Geez! LOL
Just as he finished reading the text, his phone chirped once more.
I miss you too. Be safe.
He turned his phone off and put it on his dresser, but he also promised himself he'd find time to call her later. Right now, he had to get upstairs and see how badly the new wind speeds would affect MMR's plans.
"More wine?" Bella asked, picking up a bottle from the counter and finding it empty. "Memento from last night then? I'm pretty sure you're not the liquid courage type."
Esme's smile was an exact duplicate of Edward's shitty grin. "Oh joy. Another smartass in my band of misfits."
The comment had Bella snorting, feeling equally amused and excited to be considered a misfit.
"That wine bottle and its twin were used to make …" Esme paused as she focused on pulling a large punch bowl from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, "… this very special refreshment."
"What's special about it?"
Esme winked at her and then answered, "Helps me win at poker." She waited until Bella's laughter subsided before continuing. "My friends back home in Hawaii own a bar and they not only let me taste test all of their new cocktails, they show me how to make them. So in celebration of my new friends, I'm sharing a treat from my old friends."
"You've already done so much, Esme. We should be spoiling you instead."
"And tarnish my reputation as a first rate spoiler? Nope. Can't let that happen, Guppy."
"We usually only celebrate special occasions back home."
"You're up and walking around more, I'm pretty sure Alice is going to stay, and your uncle is no longer worried sick for his girls. That's special enough in my book."
"You really like him, don't you?" Bella asked, studying Esme closely.
"Oh gosh no! He's one of the cold ones! So pale he practically sparkles in the sun. He is absolutely, positively so not my type." Her eyes gave her away long before she finally cracked a smile—greyer than Edward's had been so far, but just as deep and telling. And those bright, happy eyes were shouting that Esme definitely found Carlisle to be her type.
Bella wondered if she should feel weird about her uncle dating her boyfriend's mother but all she felt was that they were two really great people and if they were happy together then they should be together.
"Okay, maybe he's a little my type," Esme amended, showing Bella her thumb and forefinger pinched together.
They were still laughing when Alice bounced into the kitchen. "Ooh! Pretty! What's in it? And where the heck did a punch bowl come from?"
Esme winked at her. "I always travel with the essentials, Alice."
"See! I'm not weird," Alice exclaimed, looking at Bella and pointing at Esme.
"Oh, you're weird alright," Bella assured her. "It's just that Esme's weird with you."
"Bella, that's really rude," Alice admonished. "You better hope Uncle Carl doesn't hear you talking like that."
"How is that rude? I call you weird all the time!"
Alice huffed at her. "I meant your reference to Esme."
"That wasn't rudeness. That was honesty," Esme proclaimed with a snort. "And I embrace my weirdness fully. It's how I keep things interesting around here."
Alice shrugged, deciding to accept Esme's explanation without further comment. "So what's in the punch? It smells yummy."
"It's got hibiscus tea, some white wine, a little grapefruit juice, and a bit of pisco. And floating at the bottom are slices of mango and orange with raspberries and blackberries," Esme explained.
"What in the world is pee-sko?" Alice asked, her nose scrunching and causing wrinkles to appear between her eyes.
It was Carlisle who answered her question. "It's a spicy, potent brandy with a hint of orange blossom, made from a Muscat-based wine that dates back in time to the Incas. It's produced primarily in Peru and Chile, and it's aged in clay jars."
"You know your brandy, Sir," Esme replied, looking as pleased as she sounded. "Edward bought me a bottle while we were in Peru studying the pygmy killer whale."
Bella's eyes widened. "You've seen one?"
Esme grinned and nodded. "We spent weeks researching a group, though they didn't make it easy. They are not interested in humans at all."
"How can a whale be a pygmy? Aren't they all huge?" Alice questioned.
"The name is actually a misnomer," Esme told her. "While it does have 'whale' in the name, it's considered part of the oceanic dolphin family. They're even mistaken for porpoises at times."
Bella added in some history she knew about the species. "Up until the 1950's, all the scientific world knew of the pygmy was from two skulls in the British Museum."
"Wait! That place has more than mummies in it?" Alice questioned. "Oh, so that's why you have it on your list of places to visit!"
Bella ignored her sister and continued on. "In 1952, a Japanese researcher started publishing stories of a rare porpoise. Turned out he was actually describing live examples of the skulls in the museum and he was the one to propose their name of pygmy killer whale." With a wistful tone she added, "I'd love to go to Peru to see them."
Esme looked up from stirring the punch bowl; she had a mischievous glint in her grey eyes and Edward's shitty grin on her face. "You really want to see a pygmy whale, huh?"
"I'd love it!" Bella answered enthusiastically. Her face fell a little as the reality of her chances of going to Peru caught back up with her. "But it's probably not going to happen."
"What do you mean?"
"When you talk to my kid tomorrow, tell him you want to see pygmy whales in the wild."
Bella snorted. "Sure. And he'll call off the rest of his shark research and pilot Galeos to Peru."
Esme set her hands on Bella's shoulders and looked her right in the eyes. "Trust me. Ask him."
"I do trust you," Bella replied as she gave Esme a hug.
"Might we go back to the bit about the pisco?" Carlisle asked. "Esme, you wouldn't happen to still have some of that wonderful drink, would you?"
"Possibly," Esme hedged. "What are you willing to barter for it?"
"A favor to be named at a later date?" he offered.
"Uh … Uncle Carl …" Bella began, imaging tons of ways an open-ended favor could cause him great embarrassment in Esme's hands.
Alice grabbed her arm and interrupted. "Let him," she said with a giggle. "It'll be fun to see what she asks for!"
"While I'm thinking of a worthy favor, how about we all try the tea?" Esme suggested as she scooped up some drink and fruit and poured it into a glass. She passed the first to Carlisle and waited for him to taste test.
His eyes widened and sparkled as he swallowed down his first sip. "That is amazing. It's citrusy and refreshing. And at the very end you feel warmth from the pisco." He took a second sip, swirling it around a couple times before swallowing. "Do I detect a little Sauvignon Blanc?"
"What a tongue," Esme replied with a fake sigh, getting Bella and Alice to laugh while Carlisle blushed.
Esme passed a glass to Alice and winked at her, pretending Carlisle wasn't standing right there while she told her not to tell her uncle where the drink came from. She then made drinks for Bella and herself and shooed everyone into the dining area where there were plates of fruits and veggies and a deck of cards.
"You were serious about the poker," Bella said as she took a seat next to Esme.
"I never joke about cards, Guppy," Esme replied with complete seriousness as she twisted the top of a glass mason jar full of pennies.
Bella bit at her lip for a second; she didn't want to be annoying but she was also losing what little control she had over her curiosity. "So … um … before you teach us to play, could we maybe check your email?"
Esme's eyebrows lifted and her eyes widened, nearly causing Bella to apologize until she realized her smile had also grown. "Didn't we just check my email less than twenty minutes ago?"
"I'm sure it's been way longer than twenty minutes," Bella replied, knowing full well she was failing to hide her excitement.
Esme side-eyed her. "Uh huh."
"I know!" Bella cried, her shoulders drooping as she slouched in her chair. "But I'm so bad at being patient when I'm curious and I want to know how their day went. I know they were all anticipating today and I just want to know if their plan panned out for them."
Esme chuckled and put a comforting hand on her knee. "It's wonderful that you're excited for them. And I promise we will check my email again. But we both know it's too early for the daily to be there. There are two video cameras worth of footage plus Edward's still camera. That's a lot of data to watch, interpret, and report on.
"So! I'm going to explain poker, and then we're going to play and take your mind off the wait. How's that sound?"
Bella tried her best to smile and look positive. "Awesome!"
Esme snorted. "You are just like my kid. One track mind. And just like with him, I'm making it my personal mission to point your mind in another direction." She dumped a pile of pennies in front of Bella. "Wagers are an important aspect of poker and we are going to start out with fifty pennies each. Get to counting, Guppy."
While Bella counted pennies, and her lucky stars that she had Esme in her life, Esme explained the rules of poker to them. Pairs and three of a kind were easy to understand but then she started throwing in straights and flushes and Bella became more and more convinced she wouldn't need to be tipsy from the amazing hibiscus tea punch to lose at cards. Besides, it was clear to Bella that this card game—or any other Esme played—wasn't about winning or losing. It was about spending time together, sharing laughs, and making memories.
"Holy shit!" Gopher and Whit screeched.
"Play it back. Play it back," Lee demanded, shaking Masen's arm.
He was too stunned to say anything as he backed up the tape from Whit's video camera. He started the tape again but at a slower speed this time.
The room was so quiet he could hear the machine working to play the tape while he waited for the action to start up on the screen again. Finally, they saw the slight lift of the decoy near the head, followed by the reveal of the shark's snout, and then the rise of the decoy from the surface of the water. The slow-motion movement of the shark continued, with the teeth appearing and the jaw retracting, allowing the mouth to open wider for a larger bite. The teeth slowly drew closer together until they eventually clamped down on the head of the decoy. The video continued, showing the shark's body rising out of the water until the entire shark was up in the air with the front half twisted back toward the water and the tail rising toward the sky. Over the next few seconds, the shark's body straightened out and slammed down into the water, sending up a fierce spray, like the kind of aftermath from dynamite being ignited underwater.
Masen looked to Whit on his right and Lee and Gopher on his left, finding his own excited smile on each of their faces. They had done it. They had captured a breach from start to finish and the footage was beautiful.
"Again," Gopher urged.
"Look at the way the jaw slides back to give those teeth more room to work," Lee said as she tapped the screen with her fingernail.
"Too fast for a human eye to see it." Whit grinned and clamped a hand on Masen's shoulder. "Lucky for us we've got Masen and his camera guru abilities."
"It's beautiful." Masen's tone was soft and reverent, the low-key extremity of the excitement raging through him as his mind spun with ideas on how this footage would further MMR's goals.
They watched the footage captured by Whit's camera four more times and then popped in Lee's footage, doing the same with it. There were more whoops and yells and even a few awed curses flying around the room.
And then it was time to get down to business and turn their amazing footage into a cohesive report. They spent hours brainstorming, deciding on writing about one breach or all of the breaches, choosing a point of view, and even tossing around adjectives to fit the scene they were reviewing at that moment. They often found themselves re-watching a particular section over and over just to make sure they were getting important details right.
Masen leaned back in his chair and read aloud the newest description they'd come up with. "There is no warning, no discernible sign of movement beneath the surface. The first sign of the breach occurring is the lifting of the prey out of the water. With the prey now in the air, the shark begins to ready itself for the bite by pulling back its massive jaws, making more room to fit the prey between its razor sharp teeth."
"I don't like the 'begins to ready' bit," Lee commented. "To me, it doesn't relay how fast all this happens. How about we just jump straight to the jaws pulling back?"
"What if we say 'the shark pulls back its massive jaws to better fit the prey between its razor sharp teeth'?" Whit suggested.
"I still think that's too technical," Gopher said, shaking his head. "I'm a layperson and I'm so busy trying to figure out how a shark pulls on its jaw that I'm missing the rest of the sentence. Plus, it still kind of sounds like the prey is sitting around waiting for the shark to get ready to eat it."
"So what do you suggest?" Masen asked, seeing in Gopher's face that he had an idea but was hesitant to share.
"Well … If I were trying to catch someone's attention, then I guess … I guess I'd say something like 'While the shark and its prey soar up into the air, the shark uses its facial muscles to retract its jaws and widen its mouth to fit more of the prey's body between its razor sharp teeth'. Or you know, something like that, that gives an idea of the mouth getting bigger while other stuff is still going on."
Masen grinned, truly impressed with Gopher's restructuring of the sentence. "Anyone got a problem with Gopher's phrasing?" Once Lee and Whit had both agreed they liked it, he had Gopher repeat it while he wrote it down.
Lee, Whit, and Gopher continued to call out ideas, leaving it to Masen to pick the best parts and turn them into worthy reading material. Tonight he was making an active effort to infuse more personality and fewer technical terms into his writing, wanting the daily to sound more like one of Bella's impressive marine journal entries and less like a stuffy science paper.
The reentry of the shark's body into the water is beyond compare. We expected to witness the creation of a forceful wave, a cannonball in a pool effect. Instead, water was forced out of the impact zone and propelled through the air with a power similar to a stick of dynamite tossed into a lake. Had a boat been in the zone during reentry, the damage to it would most likely cripple it. A swimmer in the zone at that moment would have suffered severe blunt force trauma, if not death. The possibility of harm is a top consideration for MMR and it is for this reason that our footage was captured at a safe distance away, by a trained staff under a carefully mapped out plan.
The breach happens lightning fast and is for the most part imperceptible to the human eye. As stated before, there is no warning and there is also no direct sign after the breach has occurred. Instead, we are left with the loud rustling of wings and frightened squawking from birds startled out of their peaceful drifting on the water's surface. What we see with our own eyes is an instant of disruption in an otherwise calm morning. The agility, speed, and majesty of this silent killing method are only revealed through the slow motion footage captured by our cameras at a safe distance from the shark.
He spent another half hour writing down the few other observations he'd made from his perspective in the cage and then read the whole thing twice before passing it to Lee first, knowing she would be his harshest critic if it sucked and his truest supporter if it was good. He sat completely still, his fingers pressed into a steeple under his chin, and his eyes locked to her face. He noticed every change in her expression, the length of every breath she took or held, searching for some sign of what she was thinking.
She gave nothing away while reading so by the time she finally passed the report to Whit, Masen was ready to pull his hair out. Locking eyes with him, she said, "It's not your usual style."
He hesitated, not because he didn't want to give Bella the credit but because he was worried he hadn't done a good job of imitating her style. "Some."
Lee's neutral façade finally broke and she smiled wide while reaching out to pat him on the head. "That'll do, Donkey. That'll do."
Masen groaned even as he smiled and pulled her off the corner of the desk and onto his lap. "Your serious professional opinion. Give it."
"It's absolutely a change for the better, Mase," Lee assured him. "The mix between technical aspects and down-to-earth comparisons gives it a more personal vibe. As the reader you don't feel like you're preached to about a shark. You feel like you're being drawn in to witness a stunning moment in the marine ecosystem.
"With that being said, I also see where it needs work and that you definitely are going to have to practice to get a good grip on this style. Maybe not be quite so brutally honest about some parts," she finished.
"I disagree," Whit said, taking up Lee's old spot on the desk. "We absolutely have a responsibility to make it clear our work is dangerous and that we are trained researchers."
"I'm not saying we shouldn't have a warning at all," Lee argued. "I'm just saying we don't need to beat them over the head with it."
Gopher surprised them all by voicing his own disagreement. "I think you do. We're at a point in man's history where people find it endlessly entertaining to try dangerous shit and film themselves doing it. If we make it sound like it's a walk in the park to get footage of a Great White, the apex predator, then we will damn sure be culpable when an adventure-seeker gets hurt. Or worse."
"Three against one means it stays," Whit declared.
"Finally," Gopher said with a sigh. "The daily is done! And I'm starving. I'm going to head up to see about a late dinner while you guys send the report to Esme."
"I second that." Masen typed up a quick email, attached the daily to it, and then sent it off to Esme's email account.
Now that he was no longer focused on the report, he realized he was just as hungry as Gopher had claimed to be. He tapped Lee on the leg and when she refused to move, he pressed his hands against her back and tried to force her up. He would have easily managed but Whit added his weight to hers, crushing Masen into his chair.
"Say it. Out loud!" Lee ordered.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Masen asked between grunts and fruitless attempts to push the both of them off.
"Admit who you were on the phone with," Whit told him.
"I told you two it was none of your business earlier and I still mean that," he retorted. "Now get the hell off of me."
His friends didn't move. They laughed instead and then Lee demanded again for him to admit who he'd been on the phone with.
"Bella, alright?" Masen yelled at them. "And she said to say 'hi' to you losers. Now get off!"
"Did you admit you miss her?" Lee questioned.
"'Cause we can tell you do," Whit added.
Masen rolled his eyes, not having the faintest clue why his friends were making a big deal out of nothing. "What does it matter if I did or not? Isn't the important bit that I called her? That I made time for her?"
"Did you really make time, though?" Lee questioned.
Whit followed up with a second question before Masen could answer the first. "Or did you just call to share the breaches with her?"
"You know, you two imagine you have way more access to my life than you actually do."
"Just like you imagine you can actually get out of this chair without telling us what we want to know," Lee retorted.
"We all have the same access to each other because we live and work together. And also that bit you don't always get about us loving your annoying ass," Whit added.
Masen let out a loud huff, finally admitting defeat. "I told her. There. You two happy?"
"Supremely," they said together while getting off of him.
"Fucking nudgers," he muttered between grunts as he rubbed at his sore thighs.
"Come on, ya big whiny baby," Lee said, tugging at his arm. "Let's go see what Gopher's found for dinner."
"I don't think I can walk."
"So sit there and starve," Whit said, taking zero pity on him.
Lee gave Whit a gentle push toward the door. "He won't starve. His stomach won't let him. I can hear that thing growling from here."
Masen's stomach picked that moment to growl again, making his friends laugh. He hopped up from the chair and the three of them headed upstairs to see what they could find for dinner.
Since they were all equally tired, they worked together to make a quick meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and ice cold glasses of milk. Their tiredness made for a rare silent dinner and Masen could already tell the boat was going to be completely silent from his friends sleeping during his helm duty tonight.
A meal, a hot shower, and an hour later, Masen settled into one of the helm chairs and set his laptop down on the other. He wanted to take another look at all the footage from today. But first he dug his phone out of his pocket. He turned it on and waited for it to load; the hope of finding another message from Bella made it feel like it was taking twice as long to boot up. He told himself he was only turning it on to make sure Esme didn't have any questions about the daily but he certainly wouldn't complain if there was a message from Bella.
As soon the phone finished booting, it vibrated in his hand and a number icon appeared over the messages button.
It was from his mother and it wasn't happy news … Edward, call Bella. Reading of the daily didn't go well. She's trying to be brave but she needs to hear your voice.
He checked the time-stamp, hoping it hadn't been left too long ago, and found that the message had come in while he'd been luxuriating in a hot shower and fantasizing about sharing it with Bella. It made him feel sick to know she'd been struggling while he'd been enjoying himself, which brought in his favorite feeling of confusion. Why should he feel anything about it when he had no way to know? It's not like he'd expected there to be anything about the daily that would upset her. Before turning it over to the team, he'd read it over twice just to make sure it sounded both professional and personal, and didn't paint sharks as killing machines.
What if Mom's wrong? What if Bella's mood has nothing to do with the daily? What if it's about Friday?
He shook his head, sending a drop of water falling from his still wet hair and into his eye. Relax and stop thinking the worst. Just pull your shit together and call Bella so she can pull her own together.
The call rang for so long that he was sure he would end up in her voicemail. He even had his finger on the end-call button when a croaking version of Bella's voice said "hello". He knew right away, just from that one word, that she was crying and a hiccup wouldn't be far behind.
He didn't want to make her feel worse than she already did so he tried to sound upbeat instead of worried. "Lee and Whit sat on me tonight. I think you should help me come up with a plan for revenge."
She didn't say anything.
Shit! Nothing. She always says something. I can't see her and she's not speaking so how the hell do I fix this? Just don't push, Masen. Not when you're here and she's there. Even you aren't that stupid.
He decided to try asking a question to get her to talk. "How's the leg?"
"A little stiff tonight."
He gave her a minute to see if she'd say anything more and then he gently prodded. "Talk to me, kapu. Tell me what's bothering you."
"Nothing. It's fine. I'm fine. I just—"
Her suddenly going quiet increased his worry for her. "Bella?"
The only response he got was a few clicks in his ear. "Fuck!"
Heavy footsteps started his way and Gopher appeared a few seconds later. "What's up, Mase?"
"I don't know. I think maybe Bella's phone died. The call cut out in the middle of her talking." He didn't want to admit to his worry that she might have hung up on him on purpose to avoid talking about the report.
"I got this." Gopher disappeared only to return a minute later smiling wide and carrying an iPad.
"What's that for?"
"A little thing called Facetime, bro. You get to not only speak to your kapu, you get to see her."
Masen wanted to deck him for getting his hopes up just to crush them. "Bella doesn't have an iPad."
"Yeah, she does. She's got mine. This is Lee's." He flipped back the cover, tapped the screen a couple times and then handed the device to Masen.
"So what do I do?"
"Wait for her to pick up my iPad and then say 'hello'," Gopher called from the hallway, already leaving Masen alone.
Masen grinned, knowing he owed Gopher now and that the man would make sure he paid up. But that was for later. Right now, Bella was the priority.
Just as he looked down at the screen, Bella appeared on it. "Edward?"
"Hey, kapu. Did your phone die?"
"Stupid thing," she said, her eyes almost slits as she stared at something outside of the iPad's camera range. He figured it was the dead phone.
"Can you see me okay?"
Her eyes were instantly back on him and he could see the frustration in them. He was surprised she had been able to do such a good job of keeping it out of her voice. "Yeah, you're a little fuzzy for a second or two but then you're fine."
"Fuzzy … That is definitely not a word that has been used to describe me before."
She tried to smile but it didn't really work out.
Masen couldn't stand that fake smile and it caused him to be blunt. "Talk to me, kapu. What was it in the daily that freaked you out?"
Her brown eyes widened and her jaw dropped. "How did you know I read it?"
He grinned, hoping to get her to do the same. "I have sources."
"I didn't read it all," she admitted. "I had to stop. And now I feel like I'm letting everyone down. I did so great with the crew on the Submarine and even touched a shark, but tonight a report overwhelmed me." Her lower lip trembled as she forced herself to finish, "Edward, I failed." She looked so damn miserable and he wanted to be there giving her a hug instead of trying to pep talk her through a damn fuzzy video connection.
But this was all he had so he had to make it work. "Guppy, only I get to judge your work. You're going to start from the beginning, tell me everything you read and how it made you feel, and then I'll decide if you failed or not."
As much as he wanted to be soft with her, he truly felt the right way to help her was to be the firm boss she respected and responded to with fight and eagerness. "Interns don't dictate what they will and won't do, Guppy. The only words that should be coming out of your mouth right now are the ones that tell me everything you read on the daily."
Her voice was stronger and her expression thickly laced with the stubbornness he'd witnessed on multiple occasions. "You don't want to know everything. You want to know what freaked me out."
"So then cut to that part and save us both some time." Had she been able to see his hand under the iPad in that moment, she would have been doubled over in laughter at how he was crossing his fingers, hoping he had made the right call in how to handle this situation.
She shocked him by repeating a section of the report word for word. "Had a boat been in the zone during reentry, the damage to it would most likely cripple it. A swimmer in the zone at that moment would have suffered severe blunt force trauma, if not death."
It took him a moment to recover and respond; he'd put that in there to warn people that what MMR was doing wasn't for everyone. Never for a second had he expected it to frighten Bella. His lack of understanding left him struggling with what to say and in the end all he could come up with was a single truth. "I wasn't in the water."
"But you might be. You might decide to take photos out of the cage like you did with the other crew."
"I'm not getting out of the cage. No one on my team is getting out of that cage."
"What if you change your mind?"
"I won't. I won't allow anything that unsafe. These aren't semi-controlled sharks. These are sharks with their full power and weight at their disposal. That's not something anyone should be up close and personal with, not if they value their life. And, Guppy, you know I value all of our lives more than any footage."
"But you're still in the cage and if a landing shark can destroy a boat, then isn't a cage useless protection?"
"If it were in the impact zone, maybe so. But, Bella, that's not where we are. We're back at Galeos, a safe distance away from the landing zone."
"How safe? And how do you know for absolute sure it's safe? What if you misjudged the area covered from leap to landing? What if you change your mind and decide you need to get closer after all?"
He could hear she was getting more worked up instead of less and quickly searched his brain for a new tactic, some way to prove to her that it was truly safe. The videos Lee and Whit had filmed ended up being the best idea he could come up with on short notice.
"Bella, I'm going to show you a clip from one of today's videos. Let you see for yourself the distance between us and the decoys." Figuring she was probably thinking about it, he quickly added, "There won't be any sharks in this frame."
Masen set the iPad on the chair across from him at an angle where she could still see him while he had both hands free to turn on the laptop and queue up the part of the video he wanted her to see.
"Can you see the screen okay?"
"Angle it back just a little."
"Alright, Guppy." He reached around to point out certain things on the screen. "So here is the camera first turned on, before we've activated the zoom. And way out here, this is the skiff. This is where we left a decoy. That small black blob at the front, that's the seal. As soon as we set it down in the water, we took the skiff right back to Galeos."
"Where's the cage? Where are you?"
He pointed to the railing at the very bottom edge of the shot. "Here's the railing so the cage is a foot away and sitting only halfway in the water."
"Why only halfway?"
"Because we wanted shots right at the surface. We'll get the underwater ones tomorrow."
He traded the laptop for the iPad, hoping to see a calmer expression on Bella's face. Unfortunately he couldn't see her face at all because it was hiding behind Lizzy's ear. "Kapu, no hiding behind my puppy or I'll suspend your cuddling privileges."
She showed half her face, enough that he could see in her eyes how badly she wanted to trust and let go of her anxiety. "That black mark was really the decoy?"
"Have I lied to you yet?"
"Then it's time to put a little more faith in me. The absolute truth between us is the only way I can be an effective mentor and you a successful intern."
She finally came completely out from her hiding spot, releasing a heavy sigh at the same time. "I'm sorry I'm interrupting again."
"You really need to pay more attention here, Guppy. This is absolutely a win and not even a hint of an interruption."
"How?" she asked, cocking her head to the side as she studied him.
"'Cause if my writing was shitty we wouldn't be seeing each other right now."
"Edward!" She covered her face with one hand to hide her smile and giggle. "That's a horrible thing to say."
"That's self-pride, Guppy. And you need to work on yours. Fix your perspective in regards to your anxiety—"
"Because it's a natural reaction to a traumatic event," she finished for him.
"So you have been paying attention to your mentor. Good to know."
"I really appreciate your help." Her sincerity was clear both in expression and tone.
"Also good to know," he joked, giving her a big genuine smile. He figured it was best to keep the mood light rather than let her worry about showing appreciation right now. "Anything else new you want to share? Like maybe Alice has decided I'm amazing?"
Bella's lips finally turned up into a genuine smile. "Your mom beat us all at poker. She also got us all tipsy with a tea punch thing."
"That is ..." Masen laughed as he shook his head at his mom's antics. "Actually that is the least surprising thing I've heard all day."
"What's the most?"
He thought about it for a moment. "I guess I don't have a most. But I'm still not surprised at my mom. She's something else."
"Yeah, well, you don't have a lot of room to talk." There was a glint in her eye that had him feeling his mom was somehow involved with Bella's estimation of him. She proved him right by saying, "With your love for rhombus pancakes."
He scratched at the bridge of his nose while contemplating the odds of Esme ever not over-sharing with people.
"So are they really your favorite because you like to say 'rhombus'?"
He almost said "yes" but at the last second he decided to share the complete truth. "And also because it takes two people working together to make them."
Bella's brown eyes immediately softened and looked wetter; they seemed to do that nearly every time he told her something personal about one of his moms. For some reason he couldn't pinpoint, he liked knowing she was so affected.
"So Whit has suggested a little something that I'd like you to confirm."
"He seems to think my mom is falling for your uncle."
"I don't know if that's the right term for it. They are definitely 'in flirt' with each other," she confided, struggling to hold the iPad steady and not allow Lizzy to lick it. "Sweet girl, it will taste nasty, I promise you. That's not really Edward."
Lizzy whined at the back of her throat, immediately garnering a hug from Bella. "I miss him too but he'll be back on Friday."
Masen's smile was huge as he sat there, basking in the warmth of being missed by both his puppy and his girlfriend.
Holy shit! Girlfriend? Is that right? Fuck! When did that happen? When I started calling her kapu, I guess. Edward Masen with a girlfriend. Strange ass times.
He shook his head to clear it and put an end to his internal conversation, and when he focused on the iPad again he found that Alice was sitting next to Bella and petting his puppy. He knew he should be nice and he technically would be nice, but he was also going to use the nickname Esme had mentioned for the girl. "How's it hanging, Thumper?"
Bella snorted and looked at her sister. "Still tapping that foot, huh?"
Alice blushed as red as Bella ever had. "Not a lot."
"He wouldn't call you Thumper unless your foot has been getting a pretty good workout."
"Shut up," Alice whined, pushing on Bella's shoulder. "At least it's not Guppy."
"Hey, I'm proud of my name."
Masen couldn't control himself—he just had to rat her out. "Yeah, now. She practically begged for it to be changed at first."
"Edward!" Bella cried, her eyes wide as she stared at him through the camera.
"What?" he answered, wearing his shitty grin proudly. "You did tell me to be completely honest. No half-truths. Remember?"
Alice's expression was a cross between smug and confused. "You may be a genius when it comes to sharks, but you kind of suck at the boyfriend thing."
"You know what?" Bella exclaimed, her voice two octaves higher than its normal level. "The both of you need to not speak anymore. That's what needs to happen here."
Alice was completely undeterred and giggling happily. "And there's the fire engine red blush we all know so well."
"It's not a blush," Bella argued. "It's just warm in here."
Over the sound of his own laughter, Masen picked up on Esme's voice. "You girls okay? There's a lot of yelling coming from this room?"
Alice happily shared the reason for the shouting. "Bella's finding out she doesn't want me and Masen to talk as much as she thought."
"Is that my kid on that device?" Esme didn't even wait for an answer before getting on the bed and cuddling up next to Bella to see the screen. "Look at that handsome devil. Why if he wasn't a shark researcher, we could rent him out as a model and make millions off his perfect face."
"Mom," Masen groaned, feeling his own face heating up.
She laughed at him and then turned her eyes on Bella. "There. He's blushing too. That make it even?"
Bella nodded while giggling.
"Happy to help," Esme said while giving Masen a quick wink.
"Mom, what's this I hear about a poker game?"
Her eyes widened slightly. "Game? What game?" She grinned and waved a hand, stopping him before he even started. "Oh, that game. Well that was just a friendly little game between friends. Pennies. They don't even qualify as a real wager."
Esme very nearly got away with her attempt to make the game seem like a boring, meaningless event. Thanks to Alice, though, she was as busted as busted could get. "What about the dinner you and Uncle Carl wagered against each other on that last hand?"
"Mom, do tell," Masen encouraged, sticking his fist under his chin as if this was about to be the most riveting conversation he'd ever participated in.
"Oh look at the time! Lizzy needs a walk." No sooner than the words left her lips, Esme scooped up Lizzy and ran off with the puppy, leaving behind a laughing Bella and Alice and a snorting Masen.
The iPad in his hand beeped at him and showed a message about the battery being low. "As fun as this is, this thing needs a charge so I better go."
Alice and Bella exchanged a glance and then the younger sister slipped out of the camera's range. A few seconds later, Bella said, "I'm sure you've got a lot of work to do, getting everything ready for tomorrow. I hope it goes well."
"As long as the weather holds out it should be great."
"Always, kapu," he promised. And because he felt it and felt she wouldn't mind hearing it, he added, "I love you."
Her genuine smile graced her face as she said the words back to him. "Good luck and good night."
"Night." He quickly added, "Charge your phone please!"
She promised she would and then they ended the video chat.
Masen set the thing down and then rubbed both hands over his face and through his hair a couple times, simultaneously replaying the conversation in his head and trying not to focus on it. The main thing was that it had worked. Everything else … everything else was for later when he had time to allow himself to figure it all out. For now, he picked up his laptop and opened up the sheet with tomorrow's plan on it, ready to fine-tune it and get it as perfect and safe as possible.