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Chapter 30 – Along Came Thumper
Saturday, June 28th
"Are you out of your mind?" Masen asked, staring at Bella in complete disbelief.
"What? You had bacon and I didn't." Not only did she smile at him, she took another bite from the bacon strip she'd pilfered from his plate.
He put his arm around his plate to protect it. "Kapu or not, bacon is sacred and you don't filch it."
She outright laughed at him this time. "It's no different than you snagging chocolates from Whit."
The nudger jumped right up on Bella's bandwagon. "She's got you there, Mase."
"Bro, chocolate and bacon are two distinctly different food groups. One is meant for sharing and the other is not." He turned to the biggest food lover in their group. "Gopher, help me out, man."
"Bacon is its own food group and therefore exists with its own set of bacon rules. Specifically, it is sacred and stealing it is an unholy act." Gopher waited until Masen was smiling triumphantly to add, "But girlfriend trumps bacon rules so shut up and share."
Bella's arm shot up in the air and a huge smile filled her face. "Victory!"
Lee, Whit and Gopher laughed while Masen admitted his defeat by holding up a bacon strip that Bella immediately snagged. He rolled his eyes and shook his head at her, all the while smiling to himself. She was not only still here, she was being herself just as she had been before Alice had arrived. He'd thought she might revert back to her more cautious form for a little while but Bella seemed to be moving forward just fine. And enjoying his bacon.
Esme and Carlisle had gotten up early to make breakfast for the team, and for Carlisle to say goodbye to his girls. He'd also pulled Masen aside, asking him to take care of them and to send him updates on their progress. Masen had been so damn tempted to ask Carlisle for updates on Esme, but he decided in the end it was too soon for jokes. Esme would skin his ass if he made Carlisle feel uncomfortable this early into things. Later, after he'd had time to get used to Masen, Esme would leave him to his fate.
Gopher interrupted Masen's thoughts. "So what's on the docket for today? Underwater shots, right? And I get another turn in the cage?"
"The morning weather report shows the winds have died back down," Whit announced. "Should be great conditions for filming."
Lee's eyes were wide with excitement. "I'm ready for more decoy filming."
Masen wanted to agree to both ideas. In fact, he could already picture himself in the cage. But it wasn't going to happen today. No, today was going to be about easing their newest addition into their world. If they went straight for shark sightings, then Alice would run straight to the airport to fly home. He couldn't let that happen, and not just because she was Bella's sister and Whit's dream girl. Alice needed someone to help her face her fears, and he was the someone who could do it. But first, he had to earn some of her trust.
"As much as I'd love to do both of those things, it's not going to happen today," he informed the team. "We're going to take Galeos back into False Bay and then we're going to take the skiff to Seal Island."
"Edward, if you're concerned about my leg—"
He cut Bella off with the shake of his head, and gave her a smile while taking hold of her hand on the table. "It's not your leg. Whit's cleared you and you barely have a limp."
"Then why the busy work?"
Masen met Lee's questioning gaze as he answered her, "It's not busy work. It's a way to ease Thumper into our world. We can't put her right in the middle of our studies on breaches. We have to earn at least a little of her trust before we do that or she won't be able to believe us when we assure her what we're doing is safe."
He could see in all their faces they understood his reasoning but weren't thrilled about it.
"If anyone has an idea they like more, let's hear it," he offered.
Whit and Lee looked at each other for a moment and once Whit shrugged, she looked to Gopher and got a nod from him. Turning her eyes to Masen she said, "Seal Island it is."
"I know it's not what you guys really want to do today, but when we put aside our own wants for the good of the entire team, we show why we're the best at what we do."
Whit and Gopher groaned at Masen's comment while Lee booed him and gave him two thumbs-down.
"Was that your impression of an Esme pep-talk?" Bella asked. Her face was beet red from trying not to laugh.
Masen looked around the table at his team—his family. "Haters!" And with that declaration made, he went back to focusing on his breakfast and the few bacon strips he had left after Bella's thieving.
A freshly showered Alice settled into the seat between Whit and Gopher. The team appeared to still be picking at their breakfast—at least when they weren't cracking up laughing. Even standing right under the running water, she'd been able to hear their commotion.
"Is Uncle Carl back yet?" she asked Bella.
Her sister shook her head. "Not yet. I'm sure he'll say it was Lizzy keeping him and Esme out all this time."
"Lizzy is my puppy, not everyone else's scapegoat," Masen grumped.
"Mase, if you're missing getting licked that much—" Whit's cry of pain cut off whatever else he was going to say.
"Nudger, watch it," Masen warned, pointing a bacon strip at Whit. "And stop whining. You deserve worse than the kick I gave you."
"Honestly, Whit," Bella said while shaking her head. She almost had Alice convinced she was upset but then she giggled. "I expected better of you."
"Why? You know me!" he replied while laughing. "Passing up a chance to screw with him is like leaving home without my chocolate. It ain't gonna happen."
"Poor Masey," Lee said, hugging his head and rubbing her fist against his wild hair. "I'll save you from that mean ol' Whit."
Masen didn't appreciate her attempt to console him. "Get off me!"
Alice had never heard anyone manage to yell and laugh at the same time before and it made her laugh. "Are you guys sure you're adults?"
Bella grinned. "Trust me, Sis, they're a whole other group on the boat."
"Speaking of the boat." Masen had stopped fixing his hair and was now looking directly at Alice. Or at least she thought that was what he'd been trying to do. It actually looked worse to her.
"What about it?" she asked, certain of what was coming next. He'd tell her all about his idea, bragging on his mentoring skills and talking about trust. As if he isn't itching to get back in the water. I bet if I said I was fine with it, he'd scrap the seal idea right away. Bella might be buying his nice guy routine but I see what he's really up to. He's sucking up so she'll keep defending him with me.
"The team discussed our options for today," Masen told her. "And we decided it would be best if we took you to Seal Island for your first day onboard with us."
Alice hadn't expected him to give the credit to the team—it confused her rather than convinced her. I'll prove he's faking, she thought to herself. "You don't have to do that. I'm not worried about seeing a shark from your boat. Go ahead and do the work you really want to."
He was doing that thing again where he was looking right at her and making her feel that he was being completely honest. "It's good you have confidence in yourself, Alice. And I appreciate your offer. But until we're sure of what you can and can't handle, we're going to take things slow. We're not just going to toss you in the middle of things to sink or swim. That's not how we work. We're a team so if one of us needs a minute, we all take a minute."
Her shock gave way to the realization that her mouth was hanging open and she closed it so quickly that her teeth clicked together.
"You'll like it, Alice," Whit assured her, mistaking her reaction for worry. "We'll study the area and the animals and get some more pictures. Lee's even going to take some water samples this time."
"You can still back out if you want," Masen said. "We would understand and no one would judge you for it. But we do hope you'll stay and be a part of our team."
Once again, he had completely shocked her. He really seemed to be doing this for her, not for Bella, or even for Whit. It didn't make any sense. He was supposed to be self-centered and conceded and only worried about what he wanted.
But he wasn't. Or at least he didn't seem to be right now.
"What's it gonna be, Thumper?" Gopher asked her. "Adventure with us? Or back to the same ol' stuff in Florida?"
"I think I'll try a little adventure for now," she answered, meeting Masen's gaze. He seemed so sincere and she even found herself wanting to trust him a little, but not enough to blindly accept his sudden bout of niceness.
He nodded at her and then he stood up. "We're not going to have any adventures if we don't get going." He pressed a kiss to Bella's cheek and then left the table with his empty dishes. Lee, Whit, and Gopher followed him, leaving the two sisters alone.
Bella smiled at Alice. "They're going to pack the rest of the gear while we go find Uncle Carl and say our goodbyes."
Convinced she must have missed hearing part of their earlier conversation, Alice asked, "How did you get Masen to agree to work with seals today? He has to be itching to get back in the water since he couldn't do it yesterday."
"I didn't do anything. It was his idea."
"Be serious. Tell me how you did it. Or did Whit do it?"
Bella shook her head. "Face it, Sis. You were wrong about him. Now let's go find Uncle Carl."
Alice got up to follow her sister, but not without getting the last word in—even if it was mumbled too low for her sister to hear. "We'll see."
"He looks like you on my first day of school." Edward's deep chuckle and accurate comment had Esme smiling.
They were standing at the back of the Bronco together, watching Carlisle hug on Bella and Alice and catching snippets of his goodbyes and pleadings for them to watch out for each other.
She glanced over her shoulder at her son. "I wasn't that nervous."
He snorted. "Sad part is you weren't even nervous for me. You were scared they'd think I was skinny because you didn't feed me."
"You were a beanpole," she defended. "All legs and arms."
He ignored her rebuttal. "So no flights out until late tonight, huh?" he asked, nudging Esme's shoulder with his own.
She looked back at him and gave him a taste of his own shitty grin. "Must be the busy season for the airport here."
"Something tells me the airport isn't the only thing that's been busy around here."
She turned to face him and set her hands on his shoulders, looking him right in his bright blue eyes. "Are you implying something, Kid?"
"Implying? About my sweet, innocent mom? Nope. Not me. Not ever." He whistled innocently for a moment, and then he smiled and pulled her into a hug. "If you're happy, I'm happy."
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"So do you need the 'no safety, no fun' speech? It's been a while but I'm pretty sure I remember it all."
"Edward!" she cried, slapping him on the chest and doing nothing more than stinging her hand and setting off his deep, rumbling laughter.
He was still laughing when he said, "It's only because I care, Mom."
"Kid, I love you dearly, but sometimes you can be a real ass."
He laughed once more and then tenderly kissed her temple. "I love you too."
She smiled up at him. "I know you do. You always make sure I know it. It's one of my favorite things about you."
"Right along with my good looks and superior intelligence."
She lifted her eyebrows and pursed her lips. "You mean your book smarts that have been getting you into trouble with Bella?"
He had the good sense to blush and look away.
"Did you talk to her about what happened yesterday?"
"A little," he answered with a nod. "I'll talk to her about it some more soon. I just want to understand it before trying to explain it to her."
"Edward, sweetheart, you've got to stop expecting that you're going to understand every tiny detail. You're not studying a creature that's been researched and mapped by scientist for centuries. You're in a relationship with a living, breathing, feeling woman whose reactions to you are going to change the more she gets to know you. And the same is true of you with her."
"So … It's true for you and Carlisle then?" he asked, grinning and clearly attempting to get the heat off of himself.
"Tell you what … Promise me that you'll talk to Bella over the next few days and I'll promise to tell you about Carlisle when you get back on Tuesday."
"That's the last of it, Mase," Gopher announced as he closed the Bronco's tailgate with a loud bang. Now that Alice had joined them, there wouldn't be enough room for Esme to drive the team to and from the marina so Edward had rented her a car to drive herself around the island.
Esme smiled as she patted Edward's chest. "Good luck. Be safe. Bring everyone home."
"Always," he promised, hugging her until she squealed.
Once he let go, Whit stepped in for his usual good luck hug. "Be good," he told her. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do. And if you do, be safe about it."
"Oh, my little Whit," she said, smiling and holding his face in her hands. "You keep an eye on my kid and bring him back safe to me."
"Safe from everything but me," Whit promised with a wink.
"Yeah, I bet she can say the same about Carlisle," Lee joked, slipping an arm around Esme's waist. "And I don't blame her one bit." She looked over her shoulder and then back at Esme. "For a man his age, he has one super sweet ass."
Esme shrugged, knowing the size of her smile was a direct contradiction to the gesture. "You know what they say about fine wines."
They shared a laugh and then exchanged goodbye hugs and good luck wishes.
Carlisle came over to stand beside Esme and wave with her as the truck left the driveway and climbed onto the main road.
"I can't believe I'm actually letting Alice go," Carlisle confided.
"I hope you aren't worried for her safety."
"Oh, I'm absolutely worried." He smiled and put his arm around Esme, tucking her into his side and immediately filling her with a sense of home.
"But only about her safety in relation to her sister," he continued. "Alice still doesn't realize that she can incur Bella's wrath, and she certainly doesn't understand that she will if she doesn't stop searching for a way to convince her to quit."
"Bella has a wrath?" asked Esme genuinely. Of all the things she's noticed about Bella, having a temper wasn't one of them.
"Oh, yes. It's very rare for her to lose her temper, but when she does … Let's just say that not even my brother's deeply rooted stubbornness was enough to stand against it."
"In that case, I think your worry should be for Edward. As much as she loves my kid, her patience for his mistakes will be thin."
Carlisle chuckled. "Mistakes she can handle. She seems to have infinite patience when she sees a person is trying to do better. It's when they repeatedly attempt to stand in her way that she loses her cool. And that is why I worry for Alice. She's eighteen in age but as far as her maturity goes, she still has a lot of growing up to do."
"She'll be fine. No matter how angry she makes her big sister, Bella will still watch out for her. And so will Edward and Whit."
"I am," she agreed, smiling up at him. "But it's also your right as a parent to worry."
"There will be time for that later. Right now, I want to spend my remaining hours with you focused only on you."
"Ooh, I do like the sound of that. What'd ya have in mind?"
"I thought we'd try things your way today … Go with the flow and see where the wind blows us rather than having a plan."
"Are you sure you're ready for that much abandon?"
He paused as if to consider her question, and then he smiled. "Okay. You twisted my arm. There's a little planning involved."
"Now that sounds like you. So what's the plan?"
"To surprise you, of course."
"A man should never need a reason to surprise his partner. But since you've asked for one, my reason is that you deserve a day off. You've spent every moment of the past week taking care of my girls and your misfits, along with getting me to fall madly in love with you. It's time you were pampered."
Esme appreciated his explanation but there was only one part that she was really interested in hearing. "You're in love with me?"
"Huh. Well now that's something to consider. The rules specifically state declarations of love are not to come any sooner than five weeks into a relationship, and yet here you are declaring yourself. You're breaking the rules."
"For you …" He pulled her closer, lowering his head and placing his lips at her ear as if he was about to share a secret he didn't want overheard. "I'll break them all."
"I want you to film the coastline, but do it in slow, steady movements," Edward instructed.
Gopher scratched his head. "Meaning?"
"Meaning think of it as trying to create one long video panorama. You want to keep the same height and angle and slowly pan from left to right." Edward took the video camera from Gopher and demonstrated exactly how he wanted the camera to be held and moved. "Think you can do that?"
"I'll be honest, I'm not completely sure, but I'd like to try."
Lee muttered under her breath, "Say yes, Mase. Give him the chance."
After almost a full minute of consideration, Edward nodded and said, "Then go for it, bro."
Lee breathed a sigh of relief and then grinned when she noticed Bella was watching her. "Mase promised the other day to start giving Gopher more of a role. I wasn't sure if he would still feel comfortable now that he's taken on a second intern."
"Looks to me like he's technically got three now," Bella responded with a grin that matched Lee's. She was happy to be back at work, and even happier that Edward was completely absorbed in his leadership role. He wasn't babying her or worrying about her leg at all. At least she didn't think so. He hadn't told her yet what her role would be today but she was sure he had one in mind.
"We'll get Sharkboy whipped into shape yet," Lee joked, holding her fist out for Bella to bump with hers.
"He's going to realize you're calling him that, ya know."
"Yep. And that's when I'll stop."
Alice let loose a squeal and Bella looked up just in time to see Edward gripping her sister's arm to steady her.
"Thumper, you okay there?" he asked, a look of genuine concern coloring his expression.
Her sister had both of her hands latched to the shoulder of his shirt. "Does it have to rock so much?"
"Yeah, but don't worry, you'll get your sea legs quickly."
"You sure about that?" she asked, her worry showing in the wrinkles creasing her forehead.
"If you honestly don't feel any steadier on your feet after fifteen minutes, I'll let you sit in the chair. How's that?"
Bella felt a flutter inside and for once it wasn't from panic—it was excitement. Things were going so much smoother than she'd dared to hope. Edward was treating Alice like just another member of the team, and for the most part her sister was being receptive to it.
"Gopher, keep an eye on her," Edward ordered before coming to the back of the skiff where Bella, Lee, and Whit were positioned. Lee was on her knees and leaning over the side to gather water samples with Whit keeping watch for any approaching animals. Bella was sitting cross-legged beside her, preparing labels for the sample tubes just to have something to do.
"Guppy, put that stuff down and stand up." As soon as she did, he ordered her to hold her hands out.
"So ... What am I doing?" she asked after he placed his camera bag into her waiting hands. "Please don't say I'm just watching with Alice. I really want to get back to work."
"Oh, don't worry, Guppy. I've got something special in mind for you."
She grimaced at his smirk. "Holding the camera bag for you wasn't the kind of work I had in mind."
"Stop being a smart ass and have some patience." He lifted his hat from her head and then put it on her backwards. "Don't want the bill getting in your way," he explained. Then he purposefully opened the camera bag just enough to reach inside and not let her see what he was doing.
"Before I give out your assignment, I'm gonna need your promise to be careful with it."
"Edward, I've been careful every time I've used your camera."
"I know." He pulled the white piece of plastic from the bag and held it up for her inspection. "But the last time you got near my lens hood, you shattered it. Please don't do that again."
She stood there in stunned silence while he fitted the hood onto his camera. She remembered all too clearly the look of pain and frustration that had been on his face when he'd been kneeling in front of the shattered remains of his prototype.
"This one's a little thicker than the last but it's still not going to survive a fall," he warned while slipping the camera's neck-strap over her head. After pulling a second camera from the bag, he took it from her hands and set it on the floor.
There was a slight shake in her hands as she wrapped them around the cool metal sides of the camera hanging from her neck. The lens hood looked a startling white in the sunshine streaming down on them. "Edward, I—"
He talked right over her. "Your assignment is to photograph the seals from as many angles as you can. I want crisp, clear pictures. And try to tell a story with them. Imagine that you have to explain what you're seeing with only the pictures."
His hands settled on her shoulders and his blue eyes filled her vision. "I trust you."
She relaxed and grinned, knowing how hard those words were for him and therefore how much he meant them. It didn't take away all of her nervousness over having his prototype in her hands, but it did infuse her with determination to succeed at her assignment.
"Make me proud, Guppy." He smiled and then headed back to the front of the skiff with his camera.
Letting out a slow breath to steady herself, she realized Whit was watching her from the corner of his eye. "Don't get me wrong," she said, keeping her voice low so Edward wouldn't hear. "I'm flattered he's trusting me but it should really be him testing this thing. Or at least you."
"If he felt it was supposed to be him or me testing it, we would be. Masen always has a reason for handing out an assignment. If I were you, I'd get busy taking the pictures so I could find out what that was."
Bella set her eyes on Edward, finding him pointing out something on the island to Alice that had her nodding in response. She couldn't really hear what was being said over the noises of the seals and birds, but from the look of concentration on his face she assumed he was sharing his knowledge of this place with her sister. It was the same look he always gave her when he was explaining things that were new to her.
Seeing the two of them together and getting along had her smiling; wanting to make Edward proud had her moving into position to start taking photos. He wanted a story and she had every intention of giving him a great one.
"How in the world did you find a vineyard in Africa?" Esme asked, spinning around again in a useless attempt to take it all in. There was just so much to see and it was all breathtaking.
Carlisle chuckled. "I googled it. It's amazing the information that site has to offer. When my analyst suggested buying stock in it a few years ago, I hadn't even heard of a google. Now it's becoming a commonplace term."
Esme could feel that her eyebrows were raised in disbelief. "You own shares of Google?"
"A couple. Yes."
"Carlisle, do you even have to work?" She bit her lip, hoping it hadn't sounded as awful to him as it did to her once she'd turned it from a thought to a blurted out bundle of words. "What I mean is … Well, I'm not asking about your finances. Absolutely not. I'm just trying to get a clear picture of what to expect as far as your workload."
He stood there smiling at her with his hands buried in the pockets of his crisp white dress pants and the bottom of his un-tucked pink polo fluttering in the breeze. Casual dress had never looked so good in her opinion.
As she waited for him to say anything at all about her ill-phrasing, she nervously picked at the nail polish on her pinky finger. It was always the first casualty of the awful anxious habit she'd had since she was a little girl. The more stress she felt, the more polish went missing from her nails.
Another flake of white polish was freed and she smiled, thinking of how Edward always teased her about this shade. It was officially called Alpine Snow but Edward always called it "that cold, white stuff you hate". Of course, he only did it because after all these years she still emphatically refused to go to the mountains with him on a snowboarding trip. He could say all day long that it was just like surfing only colder, but she was never going to buy it.
Carlisle cleared his throat and won her attention. "Esme, do you honestly think your question was out of line?"
"Honestly, I have no idea," she answered, tossing her hands up and letting them fall to smack her sides. "I guess it's been longer than I thought since I've done this."
"Are you sure it isn't that you're nervous to hope I might be in the same position as you?"
She scrunched her nose, having a pretty good idea of how he knew. She'd mentioned to him that her parents had passed away a few years after Elizabeth, and that they'd left her everything, but she hadn't given any details. The only way for him to know was for him to have witnessed her conversation with Bella yesterday.
Esme's father's great-great-grandfather had been a master carpenter and he'd used his skills to open his own business making custom cabinets for upscale clientele. The business had grown quickly and so had the family's fortune, passed down in each generation from father to son. Since Esme didn't have a brother, her father had held onto the business until his passing, which had been just a few days after her mother had succumbed to pneumonia. He'd suffered a massive stroke the year before and his weakened heart hadn't been able to take the stress from her illness and eventual death.
Esme had been completely shocked to find out the business had been left to her in her father's will, along with the rest of her parents' assets. She'd discussed with Edward moving back to Chicago to run it but they'd both agreed they had no passion for the business and that Hawaii was home. A competing company had made a very reasonable and sizeable offer so Esme had sold the business. Since her inheritance had already been more than enough to see her through her life, she'd put the money from the business' sale into a trust for Edward—the very trust that had helped him start MMR. Through financial planning and smart investments, they were free to live comfortably off the interests and dividends, and to follow through on all their dreams.
Esme blinked and brought herself back into the present with Carlisle sitting right across from her and waiting for her response. "You saw Bella pass me my card yesterday after her grocery trip, didn't you?" she questioned.
He nodded, his smile growing wider. "I have the same shade of black in my wallet."
She thought about this for a few seconds and then her lips turned up in a bright smile. "We're both working because we enjoy it too much to stop. We've found another commonality."
"Equal financial footing also means one less area prone to arguments," he pointed out.
"Carlisle, dating you is getting better by the second. I'm damn glad I thought of it," she teased.
He laughed as he put an arm around her waist and drew her against his side. "Let's get some lunch."
They walked across the estate to the Jonkershuis restaurant and were promptly seated—on a blanket in the grass beneath a centuries old oak tree. They were not only shaded from the heat of the sun, they also had a fantastic view of False Bay right in front of them. Esme looked out on the water, knowing she was too far from Seal Island to get a glimpse of it or Galeos. She was sure the team was having a great day with such beautiful weather and calm winds.
She focused her attention on Carlisle once more and found him smiling at her. "What do you think of our spontaneous lunch location?" he questioned.
"Wow." It was the best Esme could come up with so far to encompass her shock and elation over such a perfect lunch spot. It was fun and outdoors, two things that were at the top of her must have list—and hugely romantic. It was the romantic part that had pushed her over the edge and into monosyllabic speech.
"I'll take that as meaning I've earned a gold star," he joked, lifting his glass of wine to hers.
Over the soft sound of their glasses clinking together she told him, "It's beautiful, Carlisle. It feels like we've stepped out of Africa and into California." She left the comment about it feeling like something out of a romance movie inside her head.
"I wanted to do something you would find fun and relaxing. Like I said earlier, you've been taking care of all of us and I wanted to take the opportunity to give some of that back to you."
She tried hard not to but she just couldn't hold back her blush. She didn't want him to think no one ever did anything for her because that was so far from the truth. It was just that it had been a long time since it wasn't one of her misfits giving her the royal treatment.
"What's this wine?" she asked both as a way to change the topic and satisfy her curiosity.
"I'm not sure. I let the waiter select for us. We'll have to ask him when he returns. In the meantime, what sounds good on this menu?"
By the time their waiter returned, they knew exactly what they wanted to share. But first, they had to find out about the delectable wine they were enjoying.
"Our Gouverneurs Reserve," the waiter said in answer to Esme's question. His thick accent was a clear sign English was not his first language.
"Beautiful red," he continued. "Black cherries, plums, blackcurrant. Little chocolate and mint."
After taking another small sip and letting the flavors fill her senses for a moment, she looked up at the waiter and smiled. "It's wonderful," Esme assured him.
He nodded and then turned his attention to Carlisle. "You like?"
"It's excellent. Thank you for selecting this one for us."
"Lunch? Ready to order?"
"We'll start with the fried salt and pepper calamari, and then I'll have the lamb curry and she'll have the prawn curry."
"Very happy. You will enjoy these," the waiter assured him.
"She picked them," Carlisle replied, smiling at Esme.
"Your wife has the good taste."
"She does," Carlisle agreed, winking at Esme. It amazed her how quickly things were progressing between them. In a little over a week, they'd gone from strangers to dating and he seemed to not only be thrilled by it, but pretty damn proud of it.
The waiter smiled brightly. "Many couples come here, but not many like you two. I can see right away the love you two have. Very beautiful."
The waiter headed off to put in their food order, leaving them speechless and staring at each other.
To break the silence, Esme asked, "So what did Google tell you about this place?"
"Let me think … I believe it was in the late 1600's that a commander in the Dutch East India Company happened upon the Cape and fell in love with the area. He bought a stretch of land for his home and in the coming years purchased neighboring lands and built up a vineyard. Then of course he had to build the winery to process his grapes. Over the centuries the land has seen numerous owners, natural disasters, and the erosion that comes with time. The estate has adapted, the vineyards have remained, and now the land boasts not only the vineyard and winery, but two distinguished restaurants."
"The commander guy definitely had an eye for detail and a palate for wine. This place is gorgeous and the wine is divine."
Carlisle slipped her glass from her hand and put in the grass beside his own. He smiled as he took her hands into his own. "You made a valiant effort at distraction, but you are not getting out of discussing the waiter's comment."
"Awkward, right?" she asked, trying to laugh it off. "Here we are barely dating and he mistakes us for happily married."
"Not awkward at all, especially since he was only slightly off. We're happily dating on our way to blissfully married."
"I don't know," she said, hiding her smile and shaking her head slowly. It seemed too soon to let him see just how appealing the idea of marriage was to her. "Blissful is a hefty word to be tossing around."
"We can handle it."
Looking into his earnest gray eyes, she knew he was taking this seriously. Even more, she sensed that he had figured out her jokes were meant to cover up how much she wanted their relationship to work. Despite the incredible newness of it, she was already completely, irrevocably attached to it and him.
It was late afternoon when they made it back to the house in Gordon's Bay. After a filling and great tasting lunch, they had strolled through the vineyards together and went on a short tour of the winery facility. Esme had wished she'd thought to bring along one of the MMR cameras so she'd have photos to show Edward. She would typically wait until she was one hundred percent sure her relationship was on steady ground before telling him about it, not wanting him to worry if things didn't work out. But as with all things about this summer, this relationship had happened fast and unexpectedly.
Lizzy greeted Esme and Carlisle at the door; she was ready for her daily romp across the beach. They kicked off their shoes, grabbed the puppy's leash, and then made their way along the sandy shoreline with their hands locked together. The effortlessness of it caused a little anxiety for Esme—she knew all too well that good things so rarely came without problems.
She tried her best not to fret; after all she was taking a romantic stroll on a beautiful beach with a guy who damn near possessed every quality on her dream guy wish list. Unfortunately, she wasn't having much luck. The worst part was that she couldn't even put her finger on exactly what was bothering her so much.
After giving Lizzy a quick bath, Esme joined Carlisle on the couch, planning to enjoy the rest of her time with him and ignore her strange feelings of anxiety. He had found an oldie but goodie playing on the satellite television and she settled in to watch the rest of Meet Me in St. Louis with him.
She ended up paying more attention to the nail she was chipping polish from than the movie playing.
"You're not going to have any polish left on that nail if you keep that up," Carlisle mentioned.
"I'm sorry," she replied, forcing a smile. "I seem to have taken a page from my kid and fallen into analyzing things."
"Are you worried about the distance?"
"More so the time. We've only just begun and already we're going to be hitting the pause button. I have no idea when I'll see you again, when we'll pick this up again."
"Let's set a tentative date then. I'll make every attempt to be back in a week to spend the Fourth of July with you. If for any reason that becomes an impossibility, I will absolutely be on your doorstep on the tenth. How's that sound?"
She answered honestly and this time her smile wasn't completely forced. "Having a date in mind makes it a little better."
"Esme, we're not truly putting us on hold. We have our phones and webcams to keep in contact."
"It's not the same."
"I agree, but it's what we have to work with for now."
She waved her hand and tried again to smile. "Don't mind me. I'm just being weird."
"You're not being weird at all," he promised. "To be honest, there are still a few hours before I leave but I'm already missing you."
She was already swooning from his words so when he threw a hot as hell kiss on top of them, Esme was a goner. Not that she hadn't already been before, but this made it feel more official in some way.
By the time she came up for air, he had her pinned to the couch with his body and she was practically wrapped completely around him with both of her hands buried in his silky soft hair. "You're giving me more reasons to miss you."
He gave the apple of her cheek a soft, tickling kiss. "You have no idea how badly I want to stay."
"For the sex?" she joked.
"Of course," he replied, smiling entirely too much for her to take him seriously. He kissed her lips gently and then with a serious tone said, "I am exceedingly lucky to have met you, Esme Masen."
Her stomach fluttered while her lips tingled from the soft pressure of his lips on hers. He kissed her as if he had all the time in the world rather than just a couple of hours before he needed to leave for the airport.
At some point they moved from the sofa to her bed but she had no recollection of it and only realized the difference when she noticed he suddenly had more room to move, more freedom to touch her. His hand caressed her ankle and slowly moved toward her knee, making her ridiculously grateful she'd thought to shave last night before bed. It's the little things in life, she thought with a smile.
His fingers tickled the back of her knee and she recoiled instinctively while laughing. "That's one ticklish spot," he whispered against her lips. "I wonder how many more there are."
"You've got a couple hours. Think you can find them all?" Even as she was challenging him, she was fighting hard not to laugh all over again—this time at his hair. His normally neatly brushed 'do was in utter disarray. The ridiculous part was that it made him look even more dazzling.
The distraction his hair had caused was ended by the feathery brush of his lips against her hipbone. She found herself moaning and arching up for more while also struggling to remember the last time foreplay had felt so good.
She never remembered. And even if she had, there wouldn't have been any comparison. She'd had guys find a ticklish spot or two by accident, but never one that had taken the time to find every single one—and she had quite a few that were in secret little spots unique to her. Carlisle had found them all and laughing had been the last thing she had felt like doing.
And now here they were, staring into each other's eyes with the foreplay done and the main event in front of them. The first encounter, no matter how many times a couple says those three words of love, very rarely has anything to do with that love. It's an adventure, an expression of affection, and a satisfying meal for the lust monster living inside every man and woman. Esme had always felt particularly sad for the cold ones, the ones that kept their sexual desires locked away as if they were something to be ashamed of rather than satisfied. She was exceedingly happy to note that Carlisle was definitely, absolutely not a cold one.
The initial push, pressure, and stretch gave way to such intense pleasure that they both worried for a moment they'd be done before they really began. So they stilled and breathed and searched each other's eyes for that little sign, that little light shining in their eyes that said this is the right time and place and person. They found it easily, and not only in their eyes but also in their smiles and the way they clung to each other with lips and fingers and arms and legs.
The tension that had built all week between them slowly dissipated with each cohesive movement of their bodies. But the last of it … Oh that last bit did not go softly into that good night. No, it went out with a roar and a bang, like a super-charged Roman candle lighting up a Fourth of July sky.
There was just enough time before his flight for a shared shower and a quick dinner of sandwiches and chips washed down with homemade sweet tea. And then he was gone and Esme was alone with Lizzy.
"I'm not doing it," she said to the puppy as she looked into her eyes and narrowly avoided a lick to the face.
"I'm not going to cry." She said it with the deep confidence and conviction all women have just before they admit they are lying to themselves and the tears break free.
She cried because she was happy, and because she already missed Carlisle, and because she felt she might finally have gotten lucky in the love department. Had anyone asked her to describe her day with only a single word, her choice would have unmistakably been "full". A little romance, a little lunch, a whole hell of a lotta love, and a little goodbye. A full day for sure.
Esme didn't cry for long, and she absolutely did not allow even a second of disappointment. She let her emotions out in water form for a bit, called it done, and then headed over to her computer to check for a daily report from the crew. She had a plan to end her full day perfectly—a little work, a good movie paired with a late night snack, and then a sound night of sleep in the bed she'd happily shared with Carlisle.
Masen let out a sigh as he settled in beside Bella in the booth. She smiled at him, looking just as tired as he felt, and then set her head on his shoulder since he was slouched down at just the right height for it. It had been a great day, but also long and tiring. For all of Alice's attempts to act disinterested, the girl had asked a shit load of questions. He'd also been keeping close watch of Bella and Gopher, having let them each try new tasks. Then came the review of their collected photographs and videos, and the creation of the daily report. A great day, but a tiring one too.
The tap of Lee's fingers on the tabletop had him looking up at her. She used her hands to sign to him. How do you think the little sister did?
He looked over at the kitchen where Alice was currently helping Emmett and Whit put the final touches on dinner. Not bad. Seals are easy though.
And Bella? She seemed good. Not the least bit worried.
He looked down at his kapu and smiled when he saw she'd completely relaxed and closed her eyes. He wouldn't be surprised if she'd dozed off either. She had really taken her assignment seriously and had taken hundreds of photos from a variety of angles.
His eyes returned to Lee's as he answered her. She did amazing. I was ready for a little panic after everything. Focused all day instead. Proud of her.
Me too. Of you. Gopher is over the moon about the work he did today.
Masen grinned. He earned it. But you need to practice camera skills with him more.
Lee shook her head in disagreement. I've taught him all I can. Your turn to teach.
Alright, but he has to be serious with me. No comic book stuff while I'm teaching.
I'll talk to him about it. She grinned and signed one more word to him. Whiner.
"Did you just call him a wanker?" Alice asked, setting a tray of drinks down on the table.
"You know sign?" Lee questioned with wide eyes.
Alice shrugged. "A few words that Bella taught me. She's a pro. You should see how excited kids that sign get when she signs to them at Sea World. I'm not really that good at it. Bella says it's because I've always moved my hands around when I talk so when I'm signing I have a tendency to get lost in what I'm saying and move my hands around instead of forming the words."
Lee and Masen barely heard any of her rambling explanation. He was busy staring down at Bella while Lee was hoping for understanding yet preparing for an all mighty Masen tantrum.
He had to call Bella's name and nudge her leg twice before she woke. "Sorry," she mumbled, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "I think I'm going to skip dinner and just go to bed."
He imagined his temper was a teapot on a hot stove, about to start whistling and bowling over. And then he imagined his mom taking it off the burner and giving him a warning. Don't be accusatory, he warned himself. It could be a simple oversight. Let her explain first to see if there's anything to be pissed about.
"How about you tell me first why you kept it a secret you know sign language?" he questioned as calmly as he could manage.
Bella immediately sat up straighter, her pale cheeks quickly turning pink and then red. "I … uh … I know a little."
"According to Alice, you know more than a little."
Her expression went from guilty to shocked and she stared at her sister with wide eyes.
"What?" Alice cried. "I didn't know you hadn't told them you sign."
Bella shook her head in disgust and then turned her attention to Masen, giving him a pleading look. "I wasn't trying to be deceitful. I honestly thought I'd checked it off on my application. But when I realized I hadn't, I thought it was best to not say anything. And I never purposefully eavesdropped on any of your conversations."
"You thought it was best not to say anything?" he questioned, keeping his tone neutral while his mind raced, trying to make sense of her words. All he could think about was the numerous conversations he'd had with Lee about his confusion with Bella. He had been wondering how it was possible for Bella to know him so well already and now it seemed he had his answer.
"I only witnessed one conversation." Her sincerity was clear in her tone and eyes but he was unable to fully believe it. She somehow saw it or sensed it in him because she went into detail about what she'd heard. "It was the day I broke the lens hood. You were so upset and you had every right to be. Lee was trying to help you but you were even pushing her away at first. And then she started to sign and something about it helped you to calm down and hear her out. I'd already broken your prototype so the last thing I wanted to do was take anything else away from you. And I swear, I never watched another conversation. If it even looked like you might be signing with anyone, I turned away."
Masen could feel his temper trying to run wild and it took everything in him to keep it out of his voice. "You expect me to believe you only saw one conversation?"
"Yes. It's the truth."
Even as he acknowledged the honesty in her expression, he denied it with a shake of his head. "There had to have been more than one. There's no other way for you to have made all your assumptions and observations about me, getting me to trust that you cared about me."
Bella's jaw dropped. "You are being so stupid right now. You know I care about you," she accused. "Every single thing I've learned about you has come from listening to what you share with me and watching your body language as you share it. You think you're some unfathomable mountain range when what you really are is a stone fish spending his days pretending to be a rock, except the only person you're poisonous too is yourself."
Her continued denial of having listened in on his conversations deepened his frustration and sent both of his hands into his mess of hair to yank on the strands. He felt that same intense anger he'd felt that night in the bar—he was pissed at not being able to have her instead of with her lying.
"You know what, move and let me out of this booth," she ordered, giving his shoulder a push. From the look on her face, he wasn't the only one feeling pissed. "You're obviously determined for there to be a self-fulfilling prophecy where I break your trust and vindicate your need to only have work relationships. Let me save us both some time and trouble and do it right now."
She went to push against his shoulder again but he stopped her by grabbing hold of her wrists. Her reddened face managed to turn a shade darker and he could see her chest moving with her heavy breathing. He'd gone too far and she had every right to be angry.
He only said two words, but he said them clearly and honestly. "I'm sorry."
"For what? Assuming the worst about me again?" she seethed. "Or maybe you're sorry for practically calling me a liar? Oh, I know. It's for wanting to have anything to do with me outside of work."
He let go of her wrists to press his palms against hers and link their fingers together. "Don't say that. I know I've given you every reason to feel that way, but I swear that's not what I want. I just … It doesn't make any sense. The way you say stuff about me to me, the way you seem to know how I feel when I'm not sure of my feelings."
"Do you honestly think it makes perfect sense to me that I care for you? Edward, you're everything I never wanted. You practically live in the water. You surf. You study sharks. You are every danger and fear rolled up into attractive packaging and as much as I feel like I should be running as far and as I fast as I can, the only place I ever seem to run is toward you."
Her breathing hitched and a few tears fell from her eyes and splashed against their joined hands. "And there you are … to push me away."
He leaned in, needing to be closer to her, but said nothing as his forehead touched hers. He had no idea what to say. He couldn't really ask her to forgive him again. He didn't deserve it. And sure, he could say he was sorry but it would probably sound hollow so what would be the point of that? But he had to say something—her wet brown eyes were begging him to fix this.
It was a stupid idea, probably the stupidest idea he'd ever had. But it also felt like what Esme would tell him to do so he gave it a try. "I thought you'd left. When I got in yesterday morning and your bed was made and the lamp was off. I thought you'd packed up and left. And I wasn't mad. I could see all the reasons you'd have for going home. I'm not the guy you would pick if you had a choice. And I think that's where I went wrong because right up until you said you keeping running to me, I really thought you did have a choice.
"Maybe I just wanted to believe that because I never had one. From that first time I touched you, I could feel something was different. I couldn't let go. Even when I was so pissed at you for not telling me your name, I wanted to hold you again … to kiss you again … to feel that spark that's only there around you no matter how damn much it terrifies me. 'Cause the more I feel it, the less I can stand to be away from it. From you.
"I know that's not an excuse for my complete stupidity but I am sorry, Bella. Truly sorr—"
She shut him up with a kiss he damn sure didn't deserve but wouldn't have passed up for all the shark protection laws in the world. Her lips were soft and forgiving while her hand clutched his hair just this side of painful. His earlier stupidity seemed to have been replaced by utter clarity because he accepted without question that this was not his kiss and he would take whatever she was willing to give. He also understood this by no means fixed everything. He had first bruised their trust with thinking she had left and now he'd cracked it open with tonight's idiocy.
Her hand moved down to softly caress his neck while she pressed her face against his shirt; her warm, quick breaths tickled his chest. He tucked his head against hers and closed his eyes, breathing her in and giving them both time to sort through the jumble of emotions he'd stirred up with his stupidity.
After what felt like a few minutes had passed, he kissed the corner of her mouth and whispered, "I'm sorry."
"You make me hate that I love you."
"I don't want you to feel that way. I want to do right by you. I want to make you happy."
"I want us to be happy, Edward. I'm not expecting you to always say or do the right thing. All I'm asking for is for you to want this as much as I do, to fight for us as much as I am."
"I want to be with you," he promised. "And I know that means I have to stop trying to dissect everything that happens. Feeling that you love me is more important than understanding why you do."
"There's no trick to it, Edward. I love you because you're a good person. You adore your family and you'd do anything for them. You protect your team and you encourage their abilities. And when you're not being a complete ass, you're sweet and thoughtful and loving.
"I get that your mind works differently," she continued. "I get that logic overrules your emotions and I understand you're a practical person at your core. But none of that makes you a bad partner. It's your lack of trust that does that. If you're not willing to believe I'm being completely honest with you, then we can't be together."
"It's not that I didn't believe you, but that it didn't make any sense. I have to accept that not everything will."
"You might also want to try asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions. I didn't find out you get bored easily by listening in to a private conversation you were having. I learned it by watching you, seeing how when everyone else takes downtime to relax, you search out a project. And I know you love me because when you screw up you try to fix it when you could just as easily give up and consider it not worth the trouble."
"I'm truly, incredibly sorry."
She sat up and looked at him, rubbing her palm along the stubble on his jaw and smiling softly. "I believe you. And I believe in you. So please do the same for me."
"I will. And I'll fix this. Because I really do love you and I don't want you to doubt that. I want us to be together."
"Okay." Her smile widened and then she took her hand away, turning forward and relaxing into her spot in the booth. "Your first fix needs to be getting everyone back in here so we can finally have dinner."
Masen looked around, shocked to find that they were alone. He'd have thought for sure Lee and Whit would stick around to witness his idiocy. Or at the very least Alice would be watching and waiting for his downfall.
"You owe, Lee," Bella told him. "She shooed them out of here to let you have your meltdown in private."
"I think this is one of those times when I owe everyone an apology."
He turned to look at her and for her to see how much he meant what he was about to say. "I love you. And I'm really sorry I'm making it hard to love me back."
Her thumb lightly brushed against his cheek bone. "Trust me and it won't be hard. As long as you're trying, I'm not going to give up on you."
"I never said you would."
"Not with your words."
He closed his eyes, covering up the blue she had been looking at. "I'm sorry."
She brought his head down, putting her cheek against his. "I love you. Trust that and love me back. I promise you it really is that simple."
He kissed her then and she let him—soft and slow and full of his contrition. He knew it was only the start of his fixing things but it was also the one thing he could do to really show his determination to do right by her. He kissed her with all the deeply overwhelming love he felt for her, and with the promise of a better tomorrow with him.
"I call bullshit!" Whit cried while pointing an accusing finger at Gopher. "There's no way Batman can be just one guy. Even with body armor, he gets torn muscles and broken bones. There comes a point where too many of those kinds of injuries slows you down permanently. It's human anatomy one oh one."
Gopher shrugged. "He's the Batman. He defies all known anatomy research."
It was the banter between these two that had kept dinner from feeling awkward, and that had the guys cracking up laughing right now. Lee was only half-listening to them, her main focus was on the weather report she was reading over. Bella could see Alice was clearly bored but her sister didn't show any signs of wanting to leave. She wasn't sure if it was due to a desire to be near Whit or to make sure Bella didn't start arguing with Edward again.
Edward had really pissed her off with his assumption that she'd used her knowledge of sign language to eavesdrop on his personal conversations. And when he'd sunk his hands into his hair just like that night in the bar, a physical sign of how he was emotionally pushing her away, he'd pressed one too many of her buttons. In the middle of their argument it had made perfect sense to make him think she was going to call it quits. She'd figured by offering him what he seemed to be most afraid of that it would make him face it and thereby stop moving towards it. She'd wanted him to trust her but now she worried she'd gone too far. What if she had only made it harder for him to believe in her? Because rather than being distracted by her hand rubbing his back, he kept stealing glances at her—with blue eyes.
He looked at her again and smiled. "Are you as bored with their arguing as I am?"
"Have you checked your email lately?" she asked, latching on an idea of how to show him he was forgiven. If she was angry with him, she wouldn't give him something fun to enjoy.
"Not really. I sent the daily to Esme earlier but I didn't check my inbox."
"I sent you something."
"You did?" he asked, looking adorably pleased. "When?"
"Yesterday. I sent it from Esme's account when I printed the daily on the seals for Alice to read on our trip to town."
He looked over at Gopher. "Is your iPad up here? I want to check my email."
"No, sorry, bro. It's down in my room. You can go grab it if you want. It's on my dresser."
"Just use my phone," Whit said, offering the device to him.
It took him a minute to figure how to get into his account on the phone; he found the email quickly and clicked the video embedded in it. For the first twenty seconds of it, he had a confused look on his face. But as soon as he heard the words "ask your doctor about tacos" he burst into loud laughter.
"Wait, wait," Gopher yelled. "Back that up," he said to Masen. To everyone else he said, "Be quiet. It's about tacos."
Edward restarted the video and they all spent the next minute and a half snorting and giggling.
"Where did you find that?" Whit asked. "It's freakin epic!"
Bella had a huge smile on her face as she shrugged. "I saw it while playing around on Gopher's iPad. It made me think of Edward and the love of his life." She waited for him to look at her and then said, "Tacos."
His smile was huge as he leaned in to kiss her. "Smart ass. And just so we're clear, I love you more than tacos."
Gopher started quoting the video. "Unlike other anti-depressants, tacos are formulated to be frickin delicious … and give you a warm feeling of satisfaction deep down in your tum-tum region."
Whit joined in with him. "Having tacos makes you feel better about not having tacos." He laughed again and then exclaimed, "That shit's epic!"
"The video wasn't nearly as funny as watching you guys," Alice announced. "It's mindboggling how professional you guys were all day and how completely silly you're being now."
"Work hard, play hard," Lee replied with a shrug. "That's how we've always been."
Edward nudged Whit and got him to slide out of the booth. "As fun as this is, we've got an early start planned tomorrow. Time to call it a night."
"Are we really getting up at four in the morning?" Alice asked as she stood up.
Lee had her snarky smile going. "You will if you plan to participate tomorrow."
"Coming?" Edward asked, holding his hand out to Bella.
"I'll be down in a minute," she answered with a genuine smile. If he was upset in any way with her, he would be going to his project room, not asking her to go with him. "I just want to ask Lee something real quick," she explained.
He let out a groan. "Don't plot revenge with her, please."
She couldn't help laughing at him. "I'm not. I promise."
She was ready for a skeptical look from him but what she received was a genuine smile and soft kiss. "See you in a bit." And he actually sounded like he believed it.
As soon as Edward was out of sight, Lee asked, "How mad is he with me?"
Her question confused Bella. "Why would he be mad at you? I'm the one he was arguing with."
"Yeah, but I knew about the sign language and didn't tell him."
She shook her head. "He doesn't know that. And he doesn't need to know it."
"Then what did you want to talk to me about?"
"The way I handled things with him. I think I might have made things worse instead of better."
"What makes you think that? He seemed fine to me. A little embarrassed that he'd made a spectacle of himself, but otherwise calm."
"His eyes are still blue."
"Ah," Lee replied with a knowing smile. "That's not an indication that you made things worse. That's a sign that he's still kicking himself for starting the argument in the first place."
"What if it's not?"
"You're going to find out pretty quick which of us is right. If it's me, when you get downstairs he's going to be ready to talk about it more. If you're right, he'll talk about anything but the argument."
Bella nodded, wanting to be convinced but not feeling that way.
"Listen, if you're this concerned, then tell me exactly what you did that you're regretting."
With a sigh, Bella launched into her explanation. "He mentioned yesterday about having trouble trusting things would work with us. So when he started in with his accusations, I felt like that was what was driving him. I tried to be understanding and to reassure him that I care about him. But then he shoved his hands into his hair just like that first night at the bar and I just knew he was trying to find a reason not to believe me. So I kind of told him since he seemed to want things to be over, I was calling them done. At the time, I thought it was a way to get him to go all in and stop worrying so much. But now that I look back on it … What if I made it harder for him to trust me?"
"What were his first words to you when you did that?"
Lee's look of worry turned into a confident smile. "He's fine. If he was having a harder time trusting you, he would have been accusatory, not apologetic. And here's the real sign for me that he's okay—he wants to spend more time with you rather than head down to his project room."
Bella smiled, happy to hear Lee had thought the same about his asking her to go downstairs. "Thanks, Lee."
"Anytime, Guppy." She stood and stretched for a second. "Going to feel like a long shift at the helm tonight. You better go down and enjoy your time with Mase before he has to come back up and relieve me."
Bella took her up on her advice, right after she gave her a quick hug of thanks.
When she reached the sleeping quarters, she found her bedroom door open and the light from her lamp spilling out into the hall.
Edward sat cross-legged in her bed with a pile of pictures spread out in front of him. Most were ones he'd taken today but she could also see quite a few that she'd captured. He'd printed out a bunch of low quality proofs for use while the team was working together to write today's daily.
She shut her bedroom door and crawled in beside him. "What are you doing?"
"Comparing the quality of the lighting in my pictures against yours. It's part of how I judge the quality of the lens hood."
"Your perfectly intact lens hood," she reminded him while freeing her hair from its ponytail.
He grinned and scooped all the pictures up into a single pile. "Yeah, it survived your touch this time." After setting the photos on her nightstand, he turned to face her. "Guess that means I have to permanently lift the ban on you entering my project room."
She found that one spot on her pillow that felt super comfortable to her head and neck and then replied to his comment. "You don't have to but it would be nice."
He filled her personal space as much as he could without being right on top of her. "What would really be nice is if I could erase that stupid argument I started earlier."
"Too bad time travel is still theoretical."
He smiled at her smart aleck response. "I'm happy to settle for my girlfriend forgiving me."
Bella was too shocked to control her reaction and her wide eyes and open mouth had him laughing.
"I'm gonna guess it was the 'girlfriend' that did that," he said, laughing a little and pulling her closer. "I was thinking that kapu holds special meaning to me but you're not used to that word. You're used to girlfriend as a commitment label."
"I'd never heard kapu before you said it," she admitted.
"I'm so used to my world, my routine, that it never crossed my mind you wouldn't be familiar with it. And telling you it means sacred and then not doing a great job of backing that up with my actions … Would you rather be referred to as my girlfriend?"
She pressed her hand to his cheek, smiling when she noticed there was finally some green seeping into the blue of his eyes. "Silly Edward. Why would I ever want to be called a word as simple as 'girlfriend' when you put your heart into calling me 'kapu'?"
His kiss started off soft and loving but with a little encouragement from her, he turned it into the deep, consuming kiss she was already thoroughly addicted to sharing with him.
Now that he'd ravaged her mouth and left her lips swollen, he focused on other parts of her. Shoulder … neck … the shell of her ear … Warm, wet kisses with a touch of tongue caressed her skin and inflamed her body. Toying. Teasing. Taunting. She could feel individual beads of sweat sliding down her back and along her sides and she vaguely wondered how much more she could take before spontaneously combusting in his arms.
He must have been asking himself the same question because he suddenly rolled onto his back and put a little distance between them.
When she was sure she could control herself being closer to him, she pressed against his side and set her chin on his chest. He had wrinkles across his forehead and his eyes were shut tight.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, trying to smooth away his wrinkles with her thumb.
He looked at her with eyes so vividly green that she was sure there was no named color in the world to match it. "I didn't understand before how kapu could mean both sacred and dangerous, but that was just because I hadn't met you yet."
She groaned and dropped her forehead to his chest so hard and fast that it caused him to grunt in pain. She mumbled "sorry" against his shirt.
"Want to tell me why you attacked me with your head?" he questioned, running his fingers through her hair.
"What you said … it was perfect and special and it made me want to kiss your stupid face."
He laughed. "What? Why is my face stupid?"
"Because the longer you kiss me, the harder it is to remember where our line is at."
"Hey," he called, tapping her shoulder. When he didn't get a response, he forced her to roll onto her back and climbed above her to keep her from hiding from him. "No matter how many things I get wrong, there will always be one thing I get right. I will always protect you. I'll never let you do anything you don't seem completely ready for. That goes as much for work as it does for us when we're alone. No matter how lost we get in kissing each other, I won't let it go any further if you aren't ready."
"How can you say that with so much confidence?"
"Kapu," he whispered against her lips before kissing them once, so softly she hardly felt it. "There's nothing I won't do to protect your happiness."
The flood of relief and security his words gave her put a beaming smile on her face. "In that case, let's find out just how long it takes for me to be done kissing you."
"I accept that challenge."
She grinned as she decided to tease him. "You sure? You want a minute to think it over? Check the logic in it?"
He answered with his lips and tongue and gentle hands, kissing her thoroughly but never taking it beyond that. And even when she was exhausted and falling asleep in his arms, he continued to kiss her, spreading tiny whispers along her temple and cheek, ensuring she drifted into sleep wearing a smile.
When she woke a few hours later, it wasn't to his kisses or even to the feel of his forehead against her shoulder, a position he often curled into and always woke her with. What had woken her this time was a hard head pushing up against her chin and fingernails digging into her forearm.
"Alice, why are you in my bed?" she slurred sleepily.
"I can't sleep."
"Your bed is two feet away from Whit's. Why not wake him?"
A heavy sigh left her tired body. "Because why?"
Alice's sniffle was followed by a full-on sob. "Because I'm a horrible sister."
Bella immediately became more alert. "What's wrong? What happened?" she asked, pushing away Alice's hair to see her face.
"It's my fault. He loves you but I've been so awful that he got scared and said really stupid things and you can't break up with him, Bella. You have to forgive him and let him make things up to you because it won't be the same for you without him. It'll never be the same and I don't want to see any part of my dream for real." Her sister's reply had been uttered too fast and had been far too confusing for her tired mind to follow.
She sat up to help wake herself completely. "Alice, you need to start over and slow down. I didn't catch half of that and I definitely didn't understand it."
Rather than explaining herself, her sister started crying harder and turned her face into the bed. It was so unlike her that Bella was really starting to worry about her.
"Hey," she cooed as she leaned over and rubbed Alice's back. "Calm down. Whatever's wrong, I'll help you fix it."
Her sister mumbled something into the bed.
Bella wanted to feel compassionate, especially since she was worried about her sister, but it had been a long day and she was too exhausted to be subtle. "Alice, I love you but I'm also very tired. Either sit up and talk to me or go back to your own bed."
Her sister sat up, sniffling and using the collar of her shirt to dry her eyes and cheeks. "It's my fault."
"The argument you had with Edward. If I hadn't kept talking about taking you home, if I hadn't been so judgmental of him, but I'm really sorry, Bella. I'll do anything to help fix it. You can't break up with him."
"Alice, we're not breaking up," she assured her, once again rubbing her back. "It'll take a lot more than an argument to get either of us to give up."
"So I didn't ruin things for you?"
"No," Bella promised, smiling in hopes of calming her sister. "Now, how about you tell me what caused this sudden and extreme change of heart about Edward?"
"I saw it. I saw today how wrong I was about him. About how he feels for you and why he's letting me join his team."
She gave her sister a moment to collect herself before pressing for more info. "Go on."
"He didn't invite me to impress you. I'm not saying I agree I have a problem that needs fixing, but he really did invite me to try to help me. He was so nice all day. And he answered every question I asked politely and professionally, even when I could see he was starting to get tired of all my questions.
"And then there's you. I didn't see it before. I know I wasn't really looking but I still should have seen it. The way he looks at you and how he's so aware of you. I noticed it first on the boat. He doesn't hover over you and boss you around. He just gives you an assignment and then steps back and watches kind of covertly. Like he has no doubts at all that you can do it on your own but he keeps an eye on you just in case he's wrong. But he doesn't think he is—he's already proud of you before you even start.
"And then tonight when the work was done and you two were sitting together at the table … I'd thought he was impossible to read but when I really looked at him, I couldn't believe I'd ever missed it. It was right there. It is there. Even after that huge meltdown he had, he still looked at you like you mean the world to him. And I can't tell you how very sorry I am for getting in the way of that, for not seeing how I was ruining it by wanting you to come home with me. And I mean it, Bella. I'll do anything to fix it."
"Come on," Bella coaxed, getting Alice to lie down beside her. Looking into her sister's wet eyes, she could see genuine remorse. "I'm glad you're finally seeing the real Edward and not the version you created in your head."
Alice nodded, a sniffle escaping along with a couple more tears.
"And I appreciate your desire to fix things between he and I. But relationships don't work like that. If we want to be together, then we have to put in the work and the effort ourselves. With that said, I am really happy to hear I won't have to worry about outside interference from you." She smiled wide to show she was teasing and then said, "You were starting to be a real pain in my ass, little sister."
Alice snorted at Bella's teasing.
"There's my favorite smile." She took hold of her sister's hand, knowing the physical contact would help calm her more.
"Do you think he'll put in the effort? I know you will."
"He already is. He understands where he went wrong and he's apologized for it. We've also talked about ways we can both make him feel more at ease with all the changes our relationship is bringing into his life. Unlike you and me, he's never had a boyfriend-girlfriend type of relationship. And he's definitely never attempted to have one while working. It's stressful for him, especially with the way his mind works. He's methodical and logical and he looks for everything to make perfect sense. But you and I know that's not possible with people—they often do things we can't understand or explain."
Alice's voice was soft and timid, much more like the voice of a young girl than a young woman. "Like Mom."
"Yeah," Bella agreed with a nod. She took a deep breath, smiled for her sister's sake, and then continued on with her train of thought. "The best way to help me is to stay out of my personal relationship with Edward. Let us make our mistakes and our fixes on our own. Think of yourself as my silent, background cheerleader. Even though I won't see you or hear you, I'll know you're there cheering me on, and that's all I need."
"I can do that. Well, the cheering part. I'm going to have to work on the silent and out of sight bit a little."
Bella grinned, knowing her sister was only being honest. "As for your own relationship with him, you're going to have to do something you don't have a lot of practice with. You're going to have to let the past be in the past and move forward. You can't apologize to him and expect instant forgiveness like you get with me. You have to give him time to digest everything that's happened, and time to get to know you enough to see that you're being genuine."
Alice's nose crinkled. "I was afraid you would say that. When you explained how his mind works. It's not going to make any sense to him that I'm suddenly okay with him."
"None at all," she replied with a short laugh, imaging him firing one question after another at her. "He's going to be full of questions about your change of heart. But he'll also be really happy about it, Alice. He really does want to know you and like you."
"And when he can like me, it'll be easier to get Lee to like me."
Bella laughed, thinking of the evolution of her own relationship with Lee. "Caught on to that, have ya?"
"Yes. And Whit explained too. He said Lee is slow to warm to new people, especially when they go after Edward because he's basically her brother."
"You're just lucky Whit understood why you were acting out. You think Lee is bad because she's so vocal. But if someone was really doing something to hurt Edward, that person would have much more to fear from Whit."
"How do you know?"
She shrugged, not exactly sure how to explain her feeling. "It's something in the set of his eyes, the way his lips curl when he sees Edward relaxed and happy. Lee would go to war for Edward but Whit would lay down his life for him." After a loud yawn, she said, "Not that I don't love talking with you, but we only have a few hours left that we can even sleep. I say we call it a night and save any other questions or comments from you for tomorrow."
"I agree. But only so long as I can sleep in your bed."
"You can stay the night, but don't think for a second this is going to be a habit."
Alice snorted. "Don't worry. I know I'm only borrowing his side of the bed."
"Shut up and go to sleep."
Her sister chuckled and then sang, "Bella loves Edward."
She groaned into her pillow. "Sleep."
Alice let a few seconds of silence pass and then whispered, "I love you."
Bella lifted her face from her pillow just long enough to kiss her sister on the forehead. "Love you too."
Between her tiredness and the relief she felt from her sister's change of heart, Bella immediately felt into a deep, restful sleep.
Masen reached out to move the photo of the seal popping out of the water; the overhead light was casting a shadow on it and annoying him. Since he'd already gone over everything for tomorrow, he'd decided to do a pencil drawing of the photo as a way to kill time while the crew slept. Had anyone asked why he'd chosen this particular one out of the many they'd taken today, he might have answered honestly and said it was because it was his favorite of all the photos Bella had taken. Then again, he might not have. He'd already opened his mouth one too many times today in his opinion.
Technically yesterday, he thought as he glanced at the clock on the dashboard.
Turning his attention back to his sketchpad, he started to shade in part of the seal. His multitasking mind wondered what he'd do with the drawing. Would he put it up in his office downstairs with a few of the other drawings he'd liked enough to put up? Would he give it to Bella? Or would he feel he'd put too much of himself in it and lock it away in his project room?
"I've known you can be an asshole for a long time but I never figured you for self-destructive."
Masen looked at Whit with his eyebrows raised, knowing full well what his best friend was alluding to but not yet ready to admit it.
"Don't give me that confused shit. You know what I'm talking about."
He knew he wasn't getting out of this conversation so he took his feet off the chair to give his friend the seat, and tossed his sketchpad to the floor. "Shouldn't you be in bed cuddling with your dream girl?"
Whit grunted. "I would be if it wasn't for your earlier stellar display of stupidity. But thanks to you, she's in your kapu's room worried sick that she's partly responsible for your actions."
This time, Masen's look of confusion was real.
Whit shook his head and sighed heavily. "You were doing so well until you opened your big fucking mouth at the dinner table. Alice had finally seen a glimpse of what we all see, what we all know about you. That you truly care and want what's best for everyone. But then you just had to go and shit on the ground you'd earned."
"It's not like I did it on purpose," Masen defended. "I didn't purposefully set out to wreck anything. I just … Everything's been so different since Bella arrived and hardly any of it has made sense. Especially the way I feel and act around her."
"Bro, I know the girl has her finger on your eruption button, but—"
"My what?" he asked, laughing and staring at his friend in disbelief.
"But," Whit continued with a glare that dared there to be further interruption. "That's no excuse for what you did tonight. Do you even realize how close you came to losing the one thing that should matter to you most? Even more than us and sharks?"
"Nothing matters more than my family."
"Mase, your family is your family no matter what. A woman that loves you as you are and sees the good in you …" He gripped Masen's arm and squeezed as he said, "That's the rare beauty that must be held onto no matter the sacrifice."
Masen sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "Honestly, it got out of hand so fast. I was sitting there thinking that I needed to stay calm and not jump to conclusions and then they were popping out of my mouth."
"Be honest. Did you really think she was listening in on your conversations?"
"I entertained it but only because it was the best answer I could come up with."
"If that was your best, I'm almost afraid to ask what the worst was."
"Mind-reader," Masen admitted with a grin born of both embarrassment and guilt. It was a ridiculous idea and he had been wrong to expect there to be trickery involved with Bella becoming such a huge part of his life so quickly.
Whit nearly fell off the chair from laughing so hard. "Seriously, bro? You thought mind reading was a viable option?"
He shrugged and even laughed a little at himself. "It made about as much sense as a woman like her coming into my life right now."
"What is it with you? Seriously? You make a blessing sound like a burden."
"I can't tell the difference sometimes," he answered honestly. Bella's words from earlier came to him … "You are every danger and fear rolled up into attractive packaging and as much as I feel like I should be running as far and as I fast as I can, the only place I ever seem to run is toward you. Bella said that to me earlier."
Whit's reply chilled him to the bone with its accuracy. "She represents the danger of attachment and the fear of permanent loss."
"It's just a single summer. That's what I thought at first. But the more I'm with her, the harder it is to be away. I don't know what to do with that."
"Look, bro, I know it's damn near impossible for you to sit still and not pick things apart until you understand every little piece, but you can't do that with this. The best thing you can do for yourself and your kapu is this … Realize that you're never gonna beat this summer with her and throw yourself into enjoying every last second of it."
Thinking again of his earlier talk with Bella, Masen said, "Feeling that I love her is more important than understanding why I do."
"Now you're making sense," Whit said, leaning over to clamp a hand on his shoulder. "And now you can take your sorry ass into the kitchen and make me some coffee."
"I've got helm duty."
"I'll watch the gauges, you make the coffee. It's the least you can do to make up for the loss of my cuddling."
"How do you know it wasn't your loud ass snoring that sent her into Bella's room?"
Whit looked him directly in the eyes. "The words 'my fault' and 'I've been awful to him' don't have a damn thing to do with me or my snoring."
Masen nodded, finding nothing worthwhile to say in response. However, he did find that he was worried Bella would be angry with him for upsetting Alice.
As usual, Whit knew exactly what he was thinking. "You're not any worse off than you were before. Bella wants to be with you, Mase. All you have to do is show her you want to be with her just as much."
"I will," Masen promised.
Whit made a promise of his own. "I'll kick your ass if you don't." And then he smiled, putting an end to their conversation and making a demand while pointing toward the hall and the kitchen beyond. "Pay me for my wisdom. Coffee. Now."
A/N: How about that Carlisle? Handsome, nice ass, and super slick in the romance department!
And then there's Masen … Screwing up and making up the Masen way is pretty damn interesting. LOL
We hope you are all as happy as we are to see Alice's change of heart—and it is completely genuine.
And Whit! He is such a genuine friend, and at the same time takes no shit. Gopher would say Whit is the friend Masen needs but not the one he deserves ;)
And finally, the taco video that Guppy sends to Masen is up on the Sharkward Blog for your enjoyment!