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Chapter 35 – Little Sister, Big Annoyance
Saturday, July 12th
Bella woke to the feel of Edward's lips on the side of her neck. "Morning," he whispered between kisses.
She hummed in agreement.
He chuckled and pulled her into a hug. "You sound like you'd stay sleeping if it was an option."
After a short silence, he said, "So last night."
"Last night." She said the words slowly while turning over to face him, trying to figure out his mood from his face and eyes. She was happy to see that he seemed relaxed and that his eyes were still green.
But when he didn't say anything it made her nervous and her practical side came out. "I think you should do our laundry."
His confusion looked and sounded authentic. "Uh … why?"
"These particular unclean clothes shouldn't be left for Gopher."
"Okay but wouldn't it be less conspicuous for you to do it since you normally help him?"
"That's exactly why it would be more conspicuous for me to be doing laundry without him. Plus, you're expected to be weird about your clothing ever since the lucky shirt incident."
He rolled his eyes. "There was no incident. But fine, I'll wash our clothes."
"Okay," he said, his face mirroring the insecurity she felt. "Anything else you'd like to say about last night?"
"Well … It's not something we should do often, but I don't mind it being an option either."
She laughed at how hard he'd tried to sound causal about it. "Glad to know you're not regretting it."
"Are you?" He sounded like he was seriously asking.
"Not at all," she promised. "Why would you think I would?"
"Yesterday was a pretty intense day."
"It was but it had nothing to do with us at that moment." She pressed her hand to his cheek, drawing his eyes to hers. "There was nothing on my mind then. Nothing but you."
He grinned and gently kissed her wrist.
"What you said about it being an option, that means you don't feel it crossed our line right?"
"If we'd felt it did, we would have stopped last night. I could feel it was a choice for you and I know damn sure it was for me. We're not letting our libidos lead us blindly around, even if we wouldn't mind doing just that."
She nodded in agreement with his assessment. "I just wanted to make sure you were as okay with it as I am."
"I think we should at least try to keep our expressions on a small scale so they're more manageable, but if it gets to where we need something a little more thorough, then it's an option."
Bella was trying to be serious about all of this but the way he was so carefully phrasing things, making it sound like they were being completely professional when last night had been entirely personal and deeply intimate … It was tickling the hell out of her funny bone for some reason and she started giggling.
"A guy could really get worried about you laughing right now."
"I'm sorry," she said while still laughing. "Hearing you refer to sexual acts as expressions is just cracking me up for some reason."
He rolled over onto his back and put his arms over his face. "This conversation is over."
She propped herself up on her arm, trying to work out if he was really embarrassed or just messing with her. She went through everything she'd learned about him through conversations and observations and came to the decision that this was real embarrassment.
"I'm sorry for embarrassing you," she said sincerely, laying her chin on his chest. "I should have thought about how new this is for you, wanting there to be a repeat with the same woman and actually having feelings for her."
"I'm not embarrassed," he grumbled. "I'm just trying to make sure things are okay but all I'm accomplishing is making you laugh."
She tugged at his arms until he finally let her pull them away and looked at her. "Edward, we're completely okay. And I appreciate you wanting to make sure of it. You don't have to phrase it any special way. Just ask and I'll always answer you honestly."
He moved so quickly that she had no chance to keep him from rolling her over and playfully squishing her into the mattress. "So did I prove I'm fully capable of relieving your frustration?"
She laughed and pushed his face away with both hands. "You're an ass."
"No, no," he said as he grabbed her hands. "You promised to answer honestly."
"I meant a real question."
"This is a real question. So how about it, kapu?"
"You were completely … absolutely … unequivocally … adequate."
He stared at her for a second, like he wasn't sure he'd really heard her say that. And then he grinned evilly and attacked. His fingers found every single ticklish spot she had, many she swore had only just become ticklish during his assault. He ignored all of her laughing requests to stop and only quit when she was breathless.
When she could manage to move again, she hugged him tightly. "I love you."
"Love you too." He sighed and relaxed his hold on her. "I hate to say it, but we have to get up and get moving. If I don't get in the bathroom in the next ten minutes, Lee will declare my spot forfeited and take it for herself."
"She so would," Bella agreed. They pulled themselves out of bed and Edward went for his dresser while Bella grabbed her journal from his nightstand. "Guess I'll see you upstairs at breakfast then."
He ran over to catch her at the door and grab one last kiss before they started their day. "See you upstairs. Oh and stick your clothes in my hamper after your bathroom slot and I'll take care of them at lunch."
"Make sure you use fabric softener. I hate stiff clothes."
He snorted. "You didn't seem to mind mine."
"Really?" she asked, her hand unconsciously going to her hip. "That's really the last thing you want to say to me before I leave this room."
His shitty grin came right out but quickly turned into a softer and sweeter smile. "I love you."
"You know that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card, right?"
"I do. And I still mean it." He kissed her softly and then headed off toward the bathroom.
She stood in his doorway watching him and smiling for a moment and then went to her own room to put her journal away and pick out clothes for today. It was going to be another big one, starting with facing her sister and sending her home.
"Here. There's just enough for one bowl," Lee said as she offered the box of Lucky Charms to Masen.
"Nah, you take it. I'll just eat some of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
Lee whirled around and stared hard at him. "What's up?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, reaching over her head for the box of cereal.
"You only give up the last of the Lucky Charms when you're in a great mood. What happened to put you into a great mood, Mase?"
He didn't realize he was smiling until she grabbed his face.
She searched his eyes for a moment and then let out a quiet "wow". "You are seriously happy right now. How'd Guppy accomplish that?"
Before he could say anything, her eyes quickly widened and her voice went up a register. "You did, didn't you?"
"Did who!" Her squeaky voice made him laugh.
It also brought out his cocky smirk.
"Nope. I was wrong," she said with a disappointed expression. "You didn't make love to her. You did something with her, but not that."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Your face," she replied as she pushed the heel of her hand against his cheek. "If you had made love to her last night, the last thing you'd be feeling is cocky."
"What makes you such an expert?"
"Been there, done that, still doing that."
He curled his upper lip in disgust. "Really didn't need to hear that before breakfast."
"You can fake disgust all you want but you're not changing the topic."
"There is no topic. You made some random statements and I played along."
"No, you're not playing and you damn sure aren't fooling me. You were intimate with your kapu hours after telling me you were worried she wouldn't understand how much it meant to you to be with her."
He slammed the cereal box on the counter and huffed out of annoyance. "That's not even close to what I said!"
"But it's exactly what you meant." Whit's voice had Masen hanging his head low.
He had been so preoccupied with thoughts of Bella and breakfast that he hadn't noticed Whit sitting in the booth. He might have had a chance to avoid Lee but no way would he get away from both of them.
His friends at least let him fix his breakfast and take a seat before beginning their inquisition.
"So what changed?"
Masen replied to Lee with a question of his own. "Why do you think something changed?"
Whit was the one to answer. "Because yesterday was a cluster. We were all stressed out and you had the added frustration of deciding what to do with Alice. No way would you take a new step with Bella while feeling that way."
"Considering I've never been in this position before, you can't know what I would do," Masen argued.
"We know you," Lee insisted. "No way would you risk turning intimacy into a mistake with your kapu."
"Come on, Mase. You know we're only asking to make sure you're okay."
"Both of you," Lee added. "We love you and we care about Bella."
Masen scrubbed his face with his hands and then eyed his friends. "You two better not use anything I say to give me shit," he warned them.
Whit and Lee used their fingers to draw imaginary halos over their heads.
"Yeah, right," Masen grumbled, only barely containing his smile. No matter if they were being annoying or loving, he had a damn fine family.
He took a breath and then gave them the highlights of the conversation he'd had with Bella last night regarding her sister. He was careful of his phrasing, mindful of Whit's feelings for Alice. He knew his friend's position hadn't been any easier than his own and would probably be worse after this morning's meeting.
"I know I don't have to say it, but I'll do it anyway. I'm not agreeing with Bella just because Alice is a pain in my ass. I'm agreeing because she made yesterday all about her and that's not safe for any of us."
"I agree completely," Whit assured him.
Masen was taken aback by his friend's quick agreement. Not that he felt Whit would disagree, but just that he would avoid giving an opinion one way or the other to keep the peace in his personal relationship. If Whit felt just as strongly about Alice's behavior, then it was definitely time for her to get off the boat.
"Me three," Lee piped up. "Even when we were writing the daily last night, it felt like we were all still thinking about her and what happened in some way. I don't have anything against her as a person, but I don't trust her to have my back as my teammate either."
Masen and Whit nodded in understanding and agreement.
"I don't know …" Masen admitted. "Deciding to take her out of the equation … It just felt different once we didn't have that weight on us anymore. I know we'll still have to deal with Alice on a personal level, but maybe this will make it easier to do that."
"Does Alice know yet?" Lee asked.
"No," Masen replied with a shake of his head. "Bella felt it would be best to tell her during the morning meeting."
Lee shifted to face Whit. "What do you think? Good idea or iceberg ahead?"
"Good idea," Whit said confidently. "Alice feels bad about the way she acted yesterday so she'll want to show she can act differently this morning."
"I sure as hell hope so," Masen and Lee said together, cracking themselves and Whit up. It wasn't often they shared the exact same thought.
But we always have each other's backs, Masen thought.
"Back to you and Bella," Lee directed. "Everything good? No regrets on either side?"
"None," he assured them.
"You're sure for both you and her, right?"
Masen grinned, knowing Lee would never see this coming. "I'm sure because I asked."
She pretended to wipe away a tear while leaning her arm on Whit's shoulder. "Our little Mase is growing up."
Both men snorted at her. And then Masen did something else they weren't used to; he thanked his friends for caring enough to be nosey. Of course, he followed that up by threatening to throw them overboard if they ever teased him over their conversation.
Bella had hoped coming up to the viewing deck would calm her but the urge to pace was just as strong as it had been in her room. She absently rubbed her sweaty palms against the sides of her jean shorts as she circled the small table once again. In her head, she knew it was ridiculous to be nervous. The decision was already made and it was the right one—the only one that would ensure the safety of her team. But in her heart, the place where she had a difficult time not being a protective big sister, she worried how Alice would perceive things. Would she understand this was the only choice she'd left Bella with? Or would this be another insult she blamed Edward for?
"I came up here to offer you some coffee but I think you've had plenty already."
Bella turned and found Lee standing near the door holding two coffee cups. "I wish this was caffeine induced. It would be so much easier if it was a thing and not a who."
"I know you turned Masen down already, but if you'd like me to be the one to tell Alice it's time to disembark, I'll take that hit. Or maybe hate would be a better word."
"Thank you, but no," Bella said as she took one of the cups from Lee. "And Alice really doesn't hate any of you, despite the impression her actions have created. I don't know exactly what it is that's making her act like a fool, but it's not hate driving her."
"Here's a question I bet you haven't been asked yet," Lee said as she settled into the loveseat. "What's driving you?"
Bella sat on the edge of the chair beside her. "What do you mean?"
"Kicking Alice off the boat needs to happen. You know this just like I do, and all the guys. So why is it that you're stressing out about it?"
Bella considered the question carefully. "So much of what Alice has said and done, it's all come from a place of immaturity. If that's still where her head is at, she's not going to see my decision is coming from a professional stance. She's going to take it completely personally and I'm worried for what that will do to our personal relationship."
"That's just it, though, Bella. As much as you have seen her inclusion as a professional endeavor, she's only ever seen it as a series of personal choices. She chose to follow her big sister onto this boat and see what she's doing here. You are choosing to be here where there's danger instead of at home where she feels you're safe."
Bella sighed into her coffee cup. "I've drawn a clear line between professional and personal, but Alice has never been capable of that. She came to South Africa because her sister was hurt. She stayed because she was terrified for me." She shrugged and added, "I guess maybe I should have just let her go home and spend her summer with her sorority friends. It was selfish for me to want her to see how great I'm doing."
"Maybe it was selfish, but at least it was a genuine intent. You thought if she saw your progress that it would ease her fears. Alice's selfishness is a completely different monster. From what I've seen and heard, she doesn't want you to progress. She doesn't want you to lose your fear of the water. If either of those happens, then you change and that makes your relationship with her change. That scares her. Even if she doesn't want to admit it. But that still doesn't make what she's doing right. And I think somewhere deep down she recognizes how wrong that is and that's why she blames Masen for you being here. It's always easier to place blame on someone else, especially when the truth is painful."
"Is this a girls' only party or can this cool guy join the fun?" Gopher asked from behind them.
"Where's the cool guy?" Lee asked, pretending to look all around for someone else.
Gopher sighed while shaking his head and smiling. "Always equal parts love and torture with you, babe."
"It's my daily gift to you," she retorted.
"Seriously, though, Masen sent me to fetch you gals," Gopher told them. "He's itching to start the meeting so we can start the work."
"Is he in full-on 'ants in the pants' mode?" Lee asked as she stood.
He snorted. "Nearly there. Whit's told him to sit his ass down three times already."
"Is Alice with them?" Bella questioned as they started down the stairs.
"Not yet." Gopher looked at her over his shoulder. "Want me to let you get her?"
"No, it's best if you do it."
"Try not to be worried, Guppy," Gopher cautioned. "There are only two outcomes really. One is that she'll understand she pushed you to make this decision, which will open her mind to just how horrible she's really been. The other is that she'll blame Masen and prove she hasn't found her rock bottom yet. Either way, you can't control how she feels. You can only control how you allow it to affect you."
Once they reached the booth, Edward gave Bella a reassuring hug while reminding her that he'd give her the floor after he opened the meeting.
"Leave her alone before you make her nervous," Whit ordered.
Lee snorted. "That ship sailed long ago, bro."
"Alice will understand," Whit assured them all. "Trust me. I have inside knowledge on this one."
"Eww," Lee cried while pushing on his shoulder. "We don't want to hear about your kinky pillow talk."
"Ex-squeeze me," Whit replied just as loudly. "I'd like to remind you that you're the reason I always pick my room last. You've made it impossible to share a wall with you."
Lee giggled and then sang, "At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I can't live my life without you by my side."
Whit put her in a headlock and ordered her to shut up while Edward told them both to calm down and behave. Bella just stood to the side smiling and taking in their silliness. She knew this meeting was just as big of a deal to them and that this was how they let out their own nerves over it.
Much sooner than Bella felt ready for, Gopher returned with Alice. Once everyone was seated, Edward called the meeting to order.
"Today's schedule has changed greatly based on yesterday's impromptu adventure," he announced. "Before I get into specifics, I want to acknowledge Guppy's visible progress yesterday. Guppy, without your calmness and your full cooperation, we might very well have broken our no harm, no foul streak."
Bella blushed at the praise, especially with the others clapping and hooting for her.
"And Gopher," Masen said loud enough to calm them all down. "Although you made a mistake that flooded the engine, you more than made up for it by remaining calm and following new directions quickly and completely."
Gopher seemed adorably shocked and completely pleased by the praise, smiling so wide that everyone else smiled right along with him.
"Down to the specifics," Edward declared as he looked over his notes. "We're going to hold off on decoys until we have a revised plan of action that accounts for yesterday and makes everyone feel safe. We'll spend today grabbing what footage we can from natural breaches. Since we know the time periods when those should be occurring, we'll have more downtime than usual throughout the day. Whatever you choose to do, try to keep it work related. We've got a couple grant applications that could use some editing, there's the blog we're attempting this summer, and there are videos and books for brushing up on your shark and seal knowledge."
He looked to Bella and once she nodded, he addressed the group. "Before I give assignments out, Bella would like to address everyone."
She slid out of the booth and he immediately took her hand, caressing it softly and then giving it a comforting squeeze while smiling reassuringly. She tried to smile back but it felt more like a grimace to her and probably was with as nervous as she still felt.
Once he was seated in her spot, she turned her focus to her sister and found her nervousness quickly dissipating into annoyance. Alice appeared to be giving her attention to her nails rather than the meeting. Bella hoped maybe she just hadn't wanted to face Edward and was actually listening. She'd know soon enough …
"First, I'd like to apologize to the entire team for my part in the disturbance of yesterday's discussion on our shark encounter. It was highly unprofessional and I will do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Alice didn't look up or acknowledge Bella's words in any other way.
Speaking calmly, but certainly not feeling that way, Bella called her sister's name until she had her attention. "Alice, you were given a set of criteria to meet in order to continue your work with this team. It is my belief that you have not met them—"
"Please don't interrupt. You can have your say when I'm done," Bella told her. She took a steadying breath and then continued. "Because you haven't met the criteria, it is my decision to revoke your invitation. When we disembark tonight, it will be permanent for you. You are welcome to remain in Gordon's Bay at the house with Esme if you'd like to continue spending time with us throughout the remainder of the summer. You're also free to go home if you would prefer to be with your sorority sisters."
Alice looked to Whit and after he nodded, she turned her brown eyes on Bella. "I agree that my place is not on the boat at this time. I apologize to everyone for my behavior yesterday. It was never my intent to put any of you in danger. I realize now that I've been taking things personally instead of acting professionally. I'm looking forward to having the time to figure things out and decide on how to spend the rest of my summer."
Bella wanted to trust her sister but she had a hard time feeling comfortable when her sister's response had sounded so practiced. Then again, maybe it was a sign that Alice had actually thought about her behavior and was taking responsibility for her actions. That nod Whit had given her could mean that she'd discussed things with him and he'd been able to get her to understand she'd been acting extremely selfish.
Edward took back control of the meeting at that point, sharing some pretty exciting news with them. Since he needed time to revamp the decoy action plans, their next mission would take them to Buffel's Bay for six full days to investigate the area's cycles of being shark-free. There would be plenty of opportunities for her to take photographs while the others took water samples and gathered weather and climate data. Edward also mentioned scuba diving but she wasn't sure six days would be enough time to get comfortable with the area and trust the water to be safe. Still, the chance was there and that alone was pretty damn exciting. Worrying for her sister was finally exactly where it should be—the last thing on Bella's mind.
Sunday, July 13th
"My sunglasses!" Bella squealed, reaching for them but then immediately giving up in favor of not falling off Edward's back. His skin was warm from the sun, wet from splashing through the water, and scratchy from the few times they'd ended up in the sand with Lizzy jumping all over them.
The plan had originally been for Edward, Lee, and Whit to spend their morning off surfing while Gopher and Bella watched. But the waves had refused to cooperate so it had turned into Lizzy chasing Edward and Bella along the water's edge while Lee, Gopher, and Whit enjoyed a morning swim.
Bella had really wanted to be out there with her friends but she couldn't get her nerves to cooperate. It seemed they were still pretty shaky from the seal-shark incident the other day and for once Bella truly felt the reaction she was having was normal. It helped a lot to know that Edward—the entire team really—felt exactly the same.
Edward scooped Bella's sunglasses out of the water and handed them to her. He barely gave her enough time to put them back on before spinning around with her, twisting out of Lizzy's path once again.
"Oh, Lizzy! Almost got us that time," he said while laughing.
Bella was laughing too but she was mainly trying to free her face from the wet hairs plastered to it. She had put her long hair in a ponytail but all the running around had shaken enough pieces loose to be annoying whenever they stuck to her face.
Lizzy trotted out of the surf and shook her little body, spraying water into the air. She then plopped down in the sand and set her head on her paws.
"Alright. She's done." Edward squatted down to let Bella off his back. Once she was clear, he scooped up his puppy and cradled her in his arms. "My poor girl. All tuckered out. Time for a bath and a treat, and then you can crash in your bed."
Bella grinned at how adorable Edward was being with Lizzy. "Speaking of her bed … Did you move it into my room?"
He snorted. "Nope. She did that herself and Esme got tired of moving it back to the living room so it's been in your room the past few days."
"Awe! She missed me!" Bella cooed as she scratched Lizzy behind the ear.
"Can't say I blame her."
His response, as much as the blasé way he'd said it, caused Bella to come to an immediate halt but it took Edward a couple steps to notice.
"What?" he asked as he came back to her. "Why are you looking at me that way?"
"Nothing. It's just … You always joke I'm trying to steal her is all."
"But that's all it is, Bella. It's a joke."
"I know but …" She blew out a breath and went all in, hoping her honesty wouldn't backfire and ruin the great morning they'd been having together. "But you mean it a little too. I know you've felt like I twisted everything in your world."
He smiled wide as he leaned in slowly and then softly kissed her. "I'm not minding the twisting so much after the other night."
Lizzy chose that moment to nip him on the chin.
"See," Bella said while laughing. "That's what you get for being a smart ass during a serious moment."
He shifted Lizzy into his right arm and wrapped his left around Bella. "Long as I also get you." He kissed her again, slow and sweet and probably mindful of the fact that Esme and Carlisle were sitting out on the patio.
"So is this more relaxed you going to be a permanent thing?" she asked as they started walking again. "Or is it just a short term effect of the other night?"
"As much as we both enjoyed the other night, I'm pretty sure it's relief from how well yesterday's meeting went. I fully expected Alice to throw a fit and say something stupid, and most likely hurtful. I never expected her to agree with you and apologize to the team."
"I didn't expect her to mean it and keep talking to me," Bella admitted. "I thought she was confused and somehow thinking I would be staying behind with her."
"I'm glad that wasn't the case."
They stepped into the house at what happened to be the same time that Alice stepped out of the kitchen. "Morning," she said with a smile Bella could tell was forced.
"I'm glad you're up." Bella meant it completely, despite the odd way Alice had acted last night. She had been just as excited as the team to get back to the house but as soon as they'd arrived, Alice had gone to her room and stayed there the rest of the night.
Bella pushed those thoughts aside and focused on sharing the day's plan with her sister. "It's a beautiful day outside and we're all going to Cape Town for lunch and then we're going to do some exploring."
"Thanks, but I'm not really up for walking all over."
"It won't be that much walking. And there will be shopping involved," Bella said, sure the shops would entice her sister.
It didn't work. "You guys have fun. I've got a book I really want to read."
"Don't be this way, Alice," Bella pleaded. "We're all going, even Carlisle and Esme."
"It's a family outing, Alice. That means the whole family comes along," Edward encouraged.
"I'll think about it." She turned and walked away, heading for her bedroom.
Bella turned to Edward, feeling frustrated by Alice's behavior, and a little pissed that her sister was affecting her mood. "She's never been this way before. She's had the occasional moments where she was pissy she didn't get her way, but not like this. And she agreed she doesn't need to be on the boat so why I am being treated like I've done something wrong?"
"This might sound like a weird idea, but it's what I'd do if this was me with Lee or Whit. Go talk to Carlisle. Even though you and Alice are adults, he's the parental figure. He's got a voice that carries more weight than either of yours. And he's the least emotionally involved in this thing."
"It can't possibly hurt. I mean, this has to be rock bottom, right? She's off the boat."
"Only Alice will know when she's hit her bottom and is ready to be honest with herself."
Bella sighed and turned her head, looking at the patio doors. "Alright. I'll give it a try." She looked back at Edward. "Do you want me to help you bathe Lizzy first?"
"Nah, she's easy. Go talk to your uncle. At the very least, it'll make you feel better."
He smiled and pressed his lips to hers for a whisper of a kiss. "You're welcome, kapu."
She pushed her lower lip out and gave her best sad face. "That wasn't a real kiss."
He chuckled at her behavior. "I know but I've got a puppy that needs a bath and a kapu in need of a conversation. I promise I'll make it up to you later." He kissed her cheek and then headed off toward the bathroom with Lizzy.
Bella took a deep breath and went out on the patio. "Morning," she greeted as she sat down at the table.
"Morning, sweetheart." Carlisle looked pretty happy and relaxed with his chair pushed up beside Esme's and his arm around her shoulders.
Esme looked at the doors and then to Bella. "Where's my kid?"
"Giving Lizzy a bath. That's if he doesn't cave and give her treats now instead of after the bath."
Esme chuckled. "To think I actually expected him to get bored of taking care of her. Well, I better go lend a hand before he does cave." She shared a quick kiss with Carlisle that had them both smiling ridiculously big and then she disappeared into the house.
"Is Alice awake yet?" Carlisle asked.
"Yeah, I just saw her. In fact, she's the reason I came out here. I've been nothing but fair to her and she's still acting like I'm the one being unreasonable. Now she's saying she probably won't come with us later."
"Bella, if Alice choses to miss out, then that's her choice. Just as the consequences of it are hers alone to deal with."
Bella sighed as she set her elbows on the table and her chin into her hands. "I feel like this is a punishment for asking her to leave the boat. Like if I won't let her be my teammate, she doesn't want to be my sister. Which is completely screwed up because she doesn't really want to be my teammate."
Carlisle stood up. "Come with me."
Bella immediately complied and followed him into the house and over to Alice's room.
He knocked on the door. "Sweetheart, are you dressed?"
"Yes. You can come in, Uncle Carl," Alice called through the door.
He opened it wide, ushered Bella into the room, and then came in and closed the door behind him. "It's time we three had a little chat."
"About what?" Alice asked.
"About a great many things." He grabbed the chair from the small desk by the window and set it at the end of the bed so he could face his nieces. "Bella, sit beside your sister," he instructed.
"Both of you are smart, independent, and willful young women," he began. "I've had the pleasure of watching you grow up and grow into your personalities. Bella, your greatest strength is your honesty. You admit when you're wrong, when you need help, and when you need to move on. Those are very hard things to realize and often just as hard to act on. This internship for you is both the result of seeing a need for help and your best hope of fulfilling that need. From what I've observed myself, what I've read in reports, and what I've heard from Esme, it certainly seems to be working for you. Your confidence has risen and you're finally controlling your anxiety rather than having it control you.
"And, Alice, your strength is your confidence. You make a decision and you stick with it, seeing it to the very end. Sometimes it's a wonderful choice and you reap a great many benefits from it, such as choosing to join a sorority. You've already made many lasting friendships through that decision.
"Other times, it's the wrong choice and the consequences can be worse than the original issue. Your initial worry was for Bella's safety so you chose to join her in her work with MMR. However, your concern for her safety quickly became a desire to force her to go home and it's landed you right here, feeling miserable and misunderstood. I'll also add confused as I'm quite certain your true motivations are a puzzle to you as much as they are to the rest of us."
"What's that mean?" Alice questioned.
He looked directly at her, giving her that stare that meant he knew she wasn't as oblivious as she was pretending to be. "It means your behavior stopped being about Bella's safety long ago."
Alice said nothing, but Bella caught the slump of her sister's shoulders. Uncle Carl had definitely guessed right—Alice just didn't want to admit it.
"You are not required to always understand each other, or to like the choices you each make," he told them. "But you are required to treat each other with respect. You are sisters. That is a gift not everyone is granted. It's also not a guarantee. You both know time and life are fleeting, and wasting it being frustrated and angry is a true loss.
"I want you both to know that I am not taking sides in this. I love you both with all my heart, and I want what's best for you. But what is best for Bella will rarely be best for you, Alice. The two of you have very different personalities, goals, and dreams. And that is perfectly okay. No matter how different you are as young women, you will always be sisters who love each other very much."
Alice nervously glanced up at Bella. "So I was thinking Cape Town sounded kind of cool. If I'm still invited."
Bella snorted and pulled her little sister into a tight hug. "Of course you're invited. Just be yourself and have fun with us instead of being a brat."
"You can't call me a brat because I don't agree with what you're doing."
"I'm calling you a brat for all the hurtful things you've said, and all the times you've been selfish and interrupted my time with Edward and my conversations with my friends."
Alice pushed Bella's arms away and sat up. "I haven't done that," she argued.
Bella crossed her arms and smiled, waiting to see how long Alice would sit there under a lie before cracking and apologizing.
It only took three seconds. "So maybe I did a little but it wasn't on purpose. At least I don't think so yet."
This time it was Uncle Carl who snorted. "I'm glad you've managed at least a little honesty today, Alice. Hopefully you will find a lot more in the coming days. Esme and I will both be here for you, ready to listen and to help you talk things through if you should need it."
"What is going on with Esme and you?" Alice questioned. "You two are acting awfully familiar with each other."
"The technical term is dating," he replied with a smile so wide that Bella just wanted to hug him and congratulate him all over again. "But I think a better way to put it is to say that we're seeing if we can find a way to sync up our lives."
"Sync up? Like marry her?" Alice's hadn't been this bug-eyed since Bella had told her what MMR really studied.
"Marriage is a possibility, yes. But for now, we're focusing on finding a middle-ground that works for both of us. I have a business in Florida and she has a life in Hawaii."
"You'll find it." Bella honestly believed that too. "You just … You fit. Like you've both just been waiting to meet."
His smile was equal parts happy and thankful. "It's a little more complicated than you make it sound, but I do share your belief, Bella. Esme is a one-of-a-kind woman and I plan to do everything I can to make things work for us."
"So …" Alice began. "Our uncle is dating your boyfriend's mom. How weird is that? And doesn't that kind of make you and Masen like brother and sister in a way?"
"Wow!" Bella cried, staring at her sister in disbelief. "You have it in for Edward so bad that you'll say anything!"
"I don't!" Alice swore. "I really don't. I'm just trying to wrap my head around all the relationships here."
Bella wasn't about to share the truth of Esme's relationship with Edward with her sister, not so long as Alice was still being a first rate brat. Instead, she twisted things for a change, making it about her sister. "Alice, spend a little more time wrapping your head around your bad behaviors and a little less plotting against Edward. We'd all be much happier if you managed that."
"Bella, why don't you go shower and change for our outing?" Uncle Carlisle suggested. "It seems your sister and I have a few more things we need to discuss."
Bella was happy to leave the room, to take herself away from the temptation to be snarky to her sister. She had managed to control it up to this point and she really didn't want to end up stooping to her sister's level—even if Alice deserved it.
Bella found Lizzy sparkling clean and sound asleep in her little bed with no sign of Edward or Esme. She figured they were having their own parent-child conversation, and hoped theirs was going way better than her own had. And to think she'd actually believed Alice was coming around and had hugged her and told her she was welcome to come to Cape Town.
Digging through all of her outfits to find just the right one to wear had proved fruitless. She wanted to wear something different, something comfortable but also something she'd feel pretty in—something Edward would find pretty too.
She took a step back from the closet, surveying all the items hanging there again. Just because she couldn't put her hands on the right outfit didn't mean it wasn't there. She decided she'd get her shower out of the way first and then consult with Lee and Esme on her outfit.
Bella headed off to shower with a smile on her face. She was determined to have a great day exploring with Edward and her friends and family—Alice was not going to get in the way of that.
"So then what happened?" Esme questioned. She had convinced Masen to take a walk on the beach with her after Lizzy's bath and now he was filling her in on yesterday's team meeting.
"Alice said she agreed with Bella. Seemed genuine too. Said she realized she was taking things personally instead of acting professionally and that she needed some time to figure things out and decide on how to spend the rest of her summer."
"I sense a really big 'but', Kid."
"But then Alice skipped dinner last night and this morning she had an attitude with Bella." He smiled at his mom. "Sorry again for interrupting your time with Carlisle, but I'm hoping maybe he can make Bella feel better the way you always do for me."
Esme grinned and took hold of his arm. "What you and I have, it's pretty darn special. And I love that you want Bella to have this. But you need to be prepared for the possibility that Carlisle can't make things better. He can't force Alice to act differently any more than he can ask Bella to continue forgiving her sister. There comes a point where all he can do is watch and wait and hope they find a way to work things out."
"No parent card this time?" Masen asked, already knowing the answer and not liking it one bit.
"None," she confirmed. "So! Now that we've gotten that conversation out of the way, it's time we talk about the change in you and what's new with Bella that's causing it?"
"I'm not agreeing there is a change, but if there was, how do you know it's not work causing it?"
She snorted at him. "Seriously? Of all the questions you could ask me, that's the one you go with? How do I know it's not work?"
"That's the one," he confirmed, matching her grin.
"Because," she said, tapping him on the end of his nose. "Work ramps you up while Bella calms you down."
He chuckled at her response. "Bella makes me feel a lot of things but calm isn't one of them."
"You know I don't mean calm physically." She reached out and placed her hand over his heart. "I mean in here, where it counts most."
"Mom," he groaned, turning the word into two syllables.
She laughed at his reaction. "If you're expecting me to apologize for being right about my kid, you're out of your little genius mind."
"How is it so obvious to you, though? I get that you've known me forever, but I haven't been here before. I haven't been in this situation with Bella before."
"And that's exactly why I noticed right away when you weren't disappointed by the lack of waves this morning. I also noticed how you didn't get frustrated while sharing all of that information about Alice. Now that we've established there is a change, I want my original question answered. What's new with Bella?"
He took a moment to put his thoughts in order, wanting to share but not overshare at the same time. "I guess it's mostly that we're on the same page with everything. We're okay with where we are personally. And professionally, we agree that she's been making progress while Alice has been a hindrance."
"Where exactly are you personally?"
"Um … enjoying getting to know more about each other. I guess it's mostly that I'm including her more. She's been hanging out in my room and looking through my books. It's hard. Some things I know right away that it's no big deal to share with her, and others I kind of feel like … I don't know. Like I'm not ready for her to know yet."
"That's not as unusual as you're thinking, Edward. We all have little ways we protect ourselves, not wanting to rush in and risk being hurt."
"You don't seem like you have any worries about Carlisle."
She smiled and put her arm around his, pulling him close. "I'm older. I hide it better. Right up until my big mouth blurts it out."
"What are you worried about? He seems crazy about you."
"I don't want a guy who's just crazy about me. I want a guy ready to settle down with me and embrace my family. Carlisle isn't opposed to the idea, but he's also not sure how it will work with me living in Hawaii and his business based in Florida. He doesn't want to move his corporate office and leave all those people unemployed. He also doesn't want to live apart for most of the year either."
"Can't he find someone he trusts to run the office for him?"
"That's one solution he's looking into. But he can't rush into a decision like that and potentially put his company at risk. He built it with his brother and it means a great deal to him."
"What choices does that leave you guys with?"
"Alternating homes. I spend a few months in Florida at his home and he spends a few in Hawaii at ours."
"You won't be able to travel with us and do that." He was surprised by how disappointed that realization made him feel. He'd always known she wouldn't travel with them forever but it seemed liked the end was coming too quickly.
"I promise you that I will be home with you when you leave and then again when you come home. And I can still help with grant research and applications, and keep up the books for you. Honestly, Kid, you'll miss my cooking more than you'll miss me."
He narrowed his blue eyes at her. "Mom, you know that's not true."
"Of course, it's not. I'll miss you and you'll miss me and we'll lean more on Carlisle and Bella to fill that void until we're together again. It's going to be a huge adjustment for us both but it's necessary. We've shared the same road for a long time and now it's time to each take a different fork. Our paths are going to run right alongside each other but be different at the same time. And I really believe both paths will lead us to loving relationships that make us incredibly happy."
"I don't know how to say this to you," he said, dropping his eyes and slumping his shoulders, really trying to sell the idea that he had a huge secret to dump on her.
"You can tell me anything, Edward," she assured him with a squeeze of his hand. "I'm here for you no matter what."
He fought the urge to grin while he peeked at her through his lashes. "I'm … I'm a …"
She grabbed his face and turned it fully toward her, truly concerned for him. "What is it?"
He let his grin lose and threw in a wink too. "I'm a momma's boy."
"Oh, Edward!" she cried, slapping him on the shoulder. "That was a horrible thing to do to me!"
He laughed at her struggles to get out of his hug. "I love you."
"Yeah, yeah." She huffed and then she relaxed and hugged him back. "What in the hell am I gonna do with you, Kid?"
"Have a shit load of patience with me until I get used to missing you."
"I'll do that if you promise not to pretend you're too busy to miss me. That's only going to put you in a foul mood."
"Mom, I don't think I could pretend even if I was stupid enough to try it."
"But you won't be that stupid, right?"
"I'm going to do all I can not to be," he promised.
She smiled and leaned up to plant a kiss on his cheek. "I'll take that."
"And I'll take you back to the house. We need to get everyone together and get going so we can get some lunch."
"And I have to give Bella the gift I picked up for her."
"Mom, what did you do?"
"Nothing much. Just got her a little something to show her how proud I am of her. That incident with the seal and shark was no small feat for her. She deserves to have her progress celebrated."
Masen grinned, remembering the look of shock on Bella's face this morning when they'd all accepted her reluctance to get in the water without question. "She has more work to do on not confusing her remaining anxiety with a lack of progress, but overall she's doing remarkably well."
"And so are you, Kid. This family outing is a great idea, and I'm really proud of you for suggesting it when you so easily could have made plans to spend the day far away from Alice."
He shrugged, not wanting to make too big of a deal out it—mostly because he was worried about it backfiring after Alice's behavior this morning.
"A little lunch. A little shopping. I think it's going to be an amazing day with my son, my misfits, and my man."
Masen snorted. "Your man, huh? Does he know that?"
"Oh, he knows. Don't you worry." Her smile made it clear whatever thoughts were in her head were not G-rated.
"I won't. In fact, let's forget I said anything."
"Yes, Edward. Your mom has sex. Glorious, amazing, scream-worthy sex."
"I am not hearing this," he groaned.
"Fine, fine. I'll stop."
He looked down at her and smiled. "Mom, I really am happy for you."
"Have I told you lately how lucky I am to have you as my son?"
"It's been a few days," he teased. "You can tell me over lunch so everyone hears how awesome I am."
She snorted, knowing he was joking. "I'll say it loud and proud, Kid."
"Can't wait." He rested his arm along her shoulders and kissed the top of her head, feeling the way he always did when spending time with her—he was the lucky one.
A/N: Hello, Readers! We are happy to be back with another chapter for you all! We've got a little more forward motion with this chapter. Bella is taking charge with her sister and putting her own needs first. We know it's a little hard to see what Whit sees in Alice and why Bella loves her so much but we promise that's by design and we'll make it all make sense in the end :)
Also, how cute is Masen admitting he's a momma's boy? LOL We were also very happy to see him giving Gopher a shout out. Their relationship has grown a lot since Bella boarded their boat, which makes Lee pretty darn giddy.
Have a great weekend and we'll back in a few weeks with a new chapter!