Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. Stephenie Meyer owns anything and everything relating to Twilight. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended and in order to keep it that way, No reproduction, copying, reposting, downloading, or any kind of redistribution of this story is allowed. This is to cover my arse as much as yours! And finally, the Original characters, plot, names, nicknames, songs, poems—anything I created from my very own brain—are all the property of the author of this fanfic, My-Bella. Unauthorized use of the material is plagiarism so please be kind and don't steal my creations.

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Chapter 38 – Confession & Contrition

Saturday, July 19th

Masen hit pause on his laptop and leaned back in his chair, taking a moment to rub his tired eyes. He wasn't really in the mood for video splicing but it needed to be done and he needed to be in his project room.

He had screwed up. Everything had been going great for once but then his libido had taken charge and now things were—He didn't have an adjective or even a comparison for it since he'd never been in a situation like it. All he knew was that he'd taken things too far and there was no way to turn them back. He figured there had to be some kind of answer to this problem so he'd spent the past few nights in his project room trying to figure it out. All that he'd discovered so far was the more time he spent in here, the more he missed Bella.

Glancing at the clock, he saw it was only eleven-thirty at night. Too early to be tired. Then again, he suspected his tiredness had nothing to do with his day and everything to do with all that was weighing on his mind.

Trying to take a break from the endless loop of his problem, he slid his finger over the laptop's touchpad, rewinding the video back a little before pressing play. Bella's laugh filled his headphones and as frustrated as he was, the sound made him smile. She had quickly grown from that first apprehensive dive to free swimming with everyone around the boat and then joining in on a snorkeling expedition of the reefs. But this video footage captured his absolute favorite part of this week—Bella learning to surf with them today. She was unquestionably horrible at it and seemed to have no sense of balance, but he loved her delight in everything about it and her resolve to keep trying.

With a determined nod, he stopped the video and took his headphones off, laying them beside the laptop. No amount of reminding himself why he was down here could change his mind. He wanted to be upstairs with his kapu, holding her close and just having her next to him. Esme had been right—he was calmed by Bella's presence and he was miserable without it.

He was also done with going without it, at least for tonight. He'd be home tomorrow with Esme and he was certain she would know what he should do to fix things. He could control himself tonight, especially since the one thing he wanted most was to share his kapu's pillow and feel that calm from her.

But his room was empty and there was no sign that Bella had been in it since their last night together. He wondered if maybe she felt uncomfortable staying in his room by herself and quickly convinced himself that was exactly the case. He headed for her room but before he could knock on her door he was stopped by Whit.

"You and I need to talk, Mase."

Masen knew that look on his friend's face. He'd done something stupid and Whit was going to call him out for it. He had no idea what he'd done or how he'd had the time since he'd been keeping busy the past couple days but he was often oblivious to his social screw-ups at first. It was only after they were pointed out to him that he could see where he was wrong.

Whit stepped aside for Masen to come into his room and then shut the door. "You know, normally I get why you do whatever asinine thing it is. I see what you're not seeing and I can understand why that logical brain of yours decided on one course of action over another. But this time … Masen, what the hell is wrong with you, bro?"

Honestly stumped he asked, "What did I do this time?"

"I'm talking about you closing yourself off from Bella and hiding in your project room."

Masen winced, both from the truth in Whit's statement and the disappointment in his friend's face.

"Guess I should be thankful your dumb ass isn't trying to deny it. Masen, what the hell, bro?"

"I'm not closing myself off, not really. And I'm in my project room for a really good reason." He saw Whit's disappointment turn to anger and he quickly tried to explain himself. "I already screwed up once with her this week and I was trying to figure out how to fix it without messing things up further."

"What happened?" Whit still looked angry but he was also willing to listen.

Masen sat down on the bed and waited for Whit to sit on his since he knew this was going to take a while. "The other night, I went into my room and she was there on the bed and all I wanted was to kiss her. Just kiss her and hold her and relax with her until she fell asleep. And it was so good, like it always is with her.

"But then all of a sudden it wasn't enough." The frustration he'd been feeling bubbled up to the surface and caused him to rake his hands through his hair.

Gripping the strands and knowing full well his misery was written all over his face, he looked to his best friend for help. "I've always been able to stop, to walk away when I felt I needed to do that, but I couldn't with her. It just snowballed and then I'd seen and felt and touched too damn much and the worst part was how much we both enjoyed it. How do I tell her we can't share that again, at least not right now, without hurting her feelings? Even worse, how do I say it without knowing for sure that I can stick to it? I'm supposed to stick to it.

"Whit, you know me, bro. You know there's only been a handful of times in my life where I was ever scared of anything. Right now, I'm terrified. I can't protect her if I can't control myself around her. That's why I've been down in my project room trying to figure out how to fix this mess I caused. We can't go back, we can't stay here, and we can't go forward. The only reason I came up here is because I couldn't take not being around her any longer and I figured that would protect us, at least for tonight."

Whit scrubbed his face with his hands a few times before meeting Masen's gaze. "I can see where avoiding until you solve the puzzle seemed logical to your brain. But you need to understand it's the wrong choice. You are not the guy in charge. You're the man in a relationship, one half of a whole. You can't decide there's a problem and come up with a solution all on your own. You have to let your partner know something is wrong and you have to let her help solve it."

"I tried that but she blew me off. She thinks we just have to be careful and we'll be alright."

"Did you explain it to her the way you did to me?"

"I think I did. I told her it was too dangerous, too unpredictable. She thinks she can tell if it's me or my libido that wants to go further, but how can she when I don't even know?"

"Mase," Whit said with a sigh. "I highly doubt she blew off your concerns as nothing. If anything, I bet she read that as the newness freaking you out a little and let you off the hook for being so damn controlling, figuring you'd be fine once you calmed down."

"I'm not any calmer about this, Whit. If anything, I'm feeling more lost."

"I get it, Mase. This is different and you don't have any reference points to keep you in line with what your head is demanding of you. In your past, you wanted the act but it was no big deal if it didn't happen. There was nothing emotional about, nothing that made you feel like you were missing something. With Bella, you want the woman and every single thing she's willing to share with you.

"And it's because you want her that way that your head has no place in this, Masen. You're not scared you didn't stop, that you put her career at risk. You're scared she didn't make you stop, that she wants you as much as you want her. The more she shares with you, the more you want her. And there's no way, not even for you, to turn off that kind of want. It's all encompassing, it consumes you and takes over every molecule in your body, leaving you craving her. Smiles, laughs, tears, annoying habits—you want it because you need it."

And there it was. Framed more eloquently than Masen could have ever hoped to come up with on his own. His fear was his need, a constantly growing monster with more destructive power than all of Gopher's super-villains put together.

"I understand why you want to wait," Whit continued. "I know you're trying to protect her career and her reputation. Hell, I commend you for it, bro. It's honorable, and that's always been a core part of you. But in this case, it's not the best thing for you or Bella. As scared as you are to put a shadow over her or MMR, that's how scared I am that you're setting yourself up for a fall that'll leave you carrying needless regret for however long it takes us to convince you otherwise."

Masen didn't want to let anyone down but he had no idea how to prevent it this time; it was the first puzzle he couldn't solve. "What do you think I should do?"

"Be honest with Bella. Really explain yourself and make sure she understands why you're worried and why waiting is so important to you. Then you let her speak her mind and you make sure you understand her feelings and worries. Work it out with her, not for her."

After thanking Whit for his guidance, Masen crossed the hall to Bella's room and knocked on the door. When she didn't answer, he poked his head inside just to make sure she was sleeping peacefully. He found her bed still made and decided to check his room one more time. It was still empty.

He headed upstairs, thinking maybe she was spending some time with Lee since she had helm duty tonight. He stopped on the stairs, wondering if Bella had noticed his distance the way Whit had, and if she might be sharing that information with Lee right this very minute. He knew exactly what Lee would do with that info too—smack him in the back of the head and tell him to get his shit together. Where Whit was calm and offered advice, Lee demanded immediate action. He was lucky to have two friends with such different views because it always helped him find his way when he was lost—like right now.

Stopping at the top of the stairs, he listened for voices coming from the helm. But the only sound coming from the front of the boat was Lee's music.

He doubted Bella would have gone down to his project room so that left the outdoors. He headed up to the observation deck, knowing she liked to sit out there and enjoy the view, especially while writing in her journal. Maybe once they were done talking she would let him read her entries for the past couple of days.

He found Bella huddled under a throw on the loveseat with her eyes focused on the sky—on Gemini. He realized that for all of his thoughts on missing her, he'd never given life to the thought of her missing him. It wasn't logical; she knew where he was and what he was doing so what was there to miss. Only what they had wasn't logical. It was emotional and physical and if he felt it, it was highly likely she would feel it too, especially since she wasn't made stupid by logic like him.

Masen squished in beside her on the loveseat, managing to share the throw with her and not uncover her at the same time. She greeted him with a soft smile and sweet kiss and then turned her dark brown eyes back up to the sky.

"I need to apologize to you," he told her as he took hold of her hand. "I'm sorry I didn't think about you missing me. I'm still learning here but that's not an excuse."

"You don't have to apologize, Edward. You're working. That's going to happen from time to time. Besides, there's more than missing you that I'm feeling. I'm worried about what Alice will say tomorrow and annoyed that I have to be worried, that I don't already know. We lost that and I don't know that we can get it back."

"That first bit you said … I have been working the past couple nights but I have to admit it was work that could have waited. My main objective has been to figure out how to fix what I messed up the other night."

She turned on her side to face him, freeing her hand from his. The moonlight illuminated her skin as well as the mix of hurt and curiosity in her eyes. "You were hiding from me."

"No," he stated emphatically. "No, I was protecting you."

She remained quiet for so long that his hands started to shake from resisting the urge to grab his hair.

When she finally spoke, she did so with her hand pressed against his cheek, almost instantly calming his hands. "You were over-thinking and I'm partially to blame for that. You tried to talk to me about it and I just saw it as a repeat of your past behavior. Something new happens and you get anxious about it but then you calm down and you're fine with it. I shouldn't have just assumed."

"No, it was all me," he told her. "I've handled this wrong from the moment you reached for me the other night. I took control of the situation and I know now I didn't have that right. We are both in charge when it comes to our personal relationship and what we do or don't do together. My attempt to protect you turned into me being insensitive and a jerk, and I'm sorry for that. I just … I didn't know what else to do. I was scared. I am scared."

He licked his lips and hoped saying the exact words he'd used with Whit would work with her. "I can't protect you if I can't control myself around you. That's why I've been down in my project room trying to figure out how to fix this mess I caused. We can't go back, we can't stay here, and we can't go forward. When I write your letter of recommendation for Atlanta, I want it to be beyond reproach. I have to make sure no one can question your achievements because they are yours. You're earning them every single day. If we were to be intimate before the internship ends, then the letter won't hold its weight and I can't let that happen. You deserve for that letter to be the key that opens your future."

"Edward, that's so sweet and incredibly honorable at the same time. It's also completely confusing. We are in a romantic relationship. If we sleep together now or when the internship is over, who's to say your letter will be any more believable? The natural reaction for people is to speculate and jump to their own conclusions. You can't guarantee they'll believe we weren't sleeping together this whole time. I'm not saying for a moment that they should, just that it seems to be human nature."

"Maybe some small percentage might be that ridiculous, but not the majority. If we wait, then that's it. We can't be questioned. Our relationship can't be scrutinized. It's black and white. The truth is the truth."

"Logically, yes. But you should also take into account that people sleep their way into jobs, promotions, whatever these days and it's extremely common place. Probably more so than you can imagine. Then there's the fraction that flirts to get what they want or they know the right people to get it. I'm not saying any of that is the right thing to do, just that it does happen. So our being intimate, while it might not be technically appropriate, it's hardly the damning act of disrespect that it once was in the 1900's or similar times."

"But that's not us, Bella. We earn everything we have. We can't be proud of being handed something we don't deserve."

"And if everyone in the world knew us, you wouldn't need to write that letter. Edward, I respect your worries and I'm sorry that you're feeling so much anxiety over this. I do understand why you feel so strongly about our line. I also truly believe if we continue to respect what it means to you, then we won't cross it unless we're both sure it's what we want. However, I also believe you need to be more flexible about all this just in case we decide we can't keep waiting."

Hearing her say almost the same thing as Whit had done was unsettling; it also forced Masen accept the chance that he was being unrealistic about their line holding. Still, he had to make an effort for her sake. "Will you at least promise me you'll try to help keep the line? It's just six more weeks. That's all I'm asking for."

"Of course, Edward. Our line is important to me because I can see how very important it is to you."

"Why didn't you stop me?" He hadn't meant to ask it at all and he definitely would have phrased it better if he'd had a chance to think it through. But now that it was out there, he wasn't about to take it back—he needed to hear the answer too damn much.

She smiled and softly kissed his lips before answering. "Because I love you. Because I want more with you."

Her lips brushed against his cheek. "More than kisses."

Her thumb traced his lower lip. "More than words."

With her lips hovering over his, she shared, "More than a summer if I have my way."

She kissed him for real then, putting her heart and her weight into it, crushing herself against him and squeezing out that feeling of loneliness that had built up inside of him. He wanted to ask what that summer comment had meant but he needed her right now. He needed the calm and the love she was so freely offering him and he needed to make sure she felt the same from him. Once he was sure he'd patched things up properly, then he could focus on new issues.

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Sunday, July 20th

Alice's POV

Alice sat huddled on the beach, hugging her legs to her chest and crying into the sleeve of the borrowed hoodie she'd taken from Bella's closet. Her sister wasn't going to forgive her, she knew that now. Just like she knew she didn't deserve her forgiveness, not after all she'd done to Masen and the hurt her actions had caused Bella and Whit.

Alice had spent the past week comparing her own behavior to the team's dailies and photos, and it was now clear to her that the real danger here was her. Her sister had been granted the amazing opportunity to join this team for the summer and every day since she'd earned her spot and their loyalty to her. Bella was growing, changing, and becoming the woman she wanted to be.

Alice had done all she could to stand in the way of that. It didn't matter that she'd had the noble intention of keeping her sister safe. What mattered was that her actions had caused her to trample on her sister's dreams and relationships. She had held too tightly and now she had lost her. It was her own fault, this heartbreak she was currently feeling. She had driven away her sister.

And Whit. Her own chance at having a love story and she'd destroyed it by focusing all of her fear and anger on his best friend. How could she have been so blind, so stupid? The thing she'd feared most—being all alone—she'd brought it about instead of keeping it away.

An arm was placed around her shoulders and a head pressed against hers while a little warm body sat on her shoes. Alice lifted her head to find Lizzy stretched out across her feet and Esme sitting beside her with a kind smile on her face.

"These are far too many tears for someone so loved," Esme said, cupping Alice's chin gently.

Alice began to cry harder, feeling devastated that it wasn't true anymore. She wasn't loved, not by her sister or Whit and it was her own fault.

"Sweetheart, talk to me. Tell me what has you so worked up."

"I ruined everything," Alice sobbed. "They all hate me and they're right to feel that way."

"I don't know who this 'they' is but I can guarantee you it's not my misfits."

Alice stared at her, trying to decide if the woman had lost her mind or was setting her up for more heartbreak. "You don't like me."

"Oh, that's not true and somewhere underneath all of your hurt, you know that. I am not a fan of some of your behaviors and conclusions, but I do love you. And I certainly don't want to see you hurting this way."

"But it's my fault. I pushed Bella away by blaming Masen for everything. And I ruined things with Whit too." Saying it out loud had her lower lip trembling again and more tears threatening to pour from her reddened eyes.

Esme pulled Alice into her arms and gently rocked her. "Sweetheart, I promise it's not as bad as you think. Yes, you pushed your sister away some and you certainly did your best to make my son the bad guy. But, Alice, you've also figured out what you were doing wrong and that's often the hardest thing to do, to admit you've been wrong at all."

"What good does that do?"

"It depends on you. Now that you see your errors, do you feel regret? Are you sincerely remorseful for your behavior?"

"More than I know how to say."

"Then, sweetheart, all you have to do is apologize to each of them and explain your actions so they can see you really have taken the time to reflect on your behavior. If you do that, they'll forgive you and you can all begin moving forward."

"They won't, though," she argued as she pulled away to see Esme's face and judge her honesty. "They don't have any reason to forgive me. Not with how badly I hurt them. I can't even say I would forgive me. How can you sound so sure that they will?"

"I happen to know a thing or two about love. Loving someone—truly loving them—means accepting their apologies when they are sincerely sorry for the wrong they have done.

"Alice, your uncle and your sister hold so much love for you. They know your true heart and will forgive your mistakes and flaws for as long as you are truly sorry. Whit adores you and would like nothing more than to share his love with you. I love you, the real you that I've seen this week. Helpful, kind, and respectful. A young girl who loves her big sister. Someone not afraid to take a hard look at herself and admit her wrongs."

"None of that matters," Alice said as she wiped her face with the sleeve of the hoodie. "Masen hates me and they love him. More than me. And I know I did that. I know I have to live with that."

Esme cupped Alice's chin again, bringing her wet eyes up into view. "My son does not hold hate in his heart. He has lost far too much in his life to ever waste room on such a needless feeling. He doesn't love you—yet—but he does care about you because of how much you mean to Bella and Whit. As long as you are sincere and honest with him, he will accept your apology. And later, after the two of you have really gotten to know each other, you will have his love, and with that you'll have his loyalty, friendship, and protection."

Alice didn't want to come off as only paying attention to one part but she also couldn't contain her curiosity. "You said he's lost too much. What's that mean? I mean, I just figured you and his dad didn't work out or whatever. I didn't think he'd actually lost a parent."

Esme sighed. "You don't know then." She sighed again and looked out at the water where it met the beach, far enough away for Alice to feel safe sitting here in the sand.

Sensing Esme's reluctance, Alice told her, "If it's something he wouldn't want me to know, then don't tell me. After I fix things with everyone, with him, then I'll ask him to tell me."

Esme looked at her and smiled before leaning in and kissing her on the forehead. "You'll be fine. You'll fix this mess and you'll feel the warmth of their forgiveness. I have no doubt."

Alice nodded, wanting so badly to believe that was true. "Can I ask you something about Uncle Carl?"

"Certainly."

"Do you love him?"

The woman's smile was instant and beautiful. "When you reach my age, love isn't about butterflies in your stomach and kisses that make your toes curl. Those are amazing sensations and I still enjoy them. But love needs to be more than that. It needs to be the security of knowing you are not alone in any part of your life and being ready to give that right back. It's feeling at home no matter where you are in the world. So with that in mind, my answer is a resounding 'yes'. I very much love your uncle."

"Aren't you worried that it won't work with how different your lives are? You follow the team all around the world and then you live in Hawaii. He works and lives in Florida all the time."

"I'd be a fool not to be worried but I'm more optimistic than anything. We both have changes we'll need to make, and compromises too, but it's really up to us whether we work or not. It's all about what we're willing to overcome to share a life together. If you think about it, it's the same for your situation right now. You will overcome only what you work to get past. If Bella and Whit mean to you what your uncle means to me, then in a couple of months this moment in your life will seem like a bad dream."

"Thank you. You had no reason to stop to talk to me but I'm so glad you did."

"Nonsense," Esme said as she hugged Alice against her. "I had the perfect reason … I love you."

Alice smiled, realizing she believed Esme and that she was starting to feel the same. She leaned up and kissed her cheek in thanks. "I don't feel hopeless anymore. I feel like there's really a chance to make everything right."

"More than a chance. I know you will fix this." Esme stood and brushed sand from the back of her pants. "But first, you'll help fix breakfast."

"Oh, I'm not a cook like Bella. In fact, I'm pretty much a disaster in the kitchen."

Esme grinned while scooping up Lizzy. "Then it's a good thing it's going to be a simple breakfast with just a few ingredients. Pan toasted bread with cinnamon and sugar, topped off with maple syrup."

"That does sound good," Alice admitted, accepting Esme's offered hand. "Should we wake Uncle Carl to join us?"

"He's already up but he's on a business call."

"Then he'll definitely need a good breakfast when he's done. He forgets to eat sometimes when he's really swamped with work. Bella usually reminds him unless she's at work. Then our housekeeper Mrs. Cope makes him eat something."

"Then we better make sure you don't burn the bread."

"Alright, but just remember I did warn you."

Esme chuckled. "You can't possibly be any worse than Whit was the first time I taught him to make an omelet."

"That sounds like a good story! Will you tell me?"

"I'll tell you all about it while we enjoy the breakfast you're going to make."

Alice forced a sigh while fighting not to smile. "Parents. There's always a catch."

"Heck yeah," Esme agreed. "It's one of our perks."

Alice laughed while following her into the house, feeling incredibly lucky that Esme had cared enough to come out to talk to her and give her some badly needed confidence for later. She now had hope that Bella and Whit, and even Masen, would hear her sincere apology and allow her the opportunity to mend her mistakes and their hurts. This was going to be the first day of a whole new life for them all—a great day.

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Whit's POV

"Are you ready to head to the house?" Masen asked as he fitted his duffel bag in beside Whit's. "I can take the long route back if you want."

Whit grinned, never surprised by his best friend's kindness but always by the ways in which he showed it. "Thanks, bro, but I think this is one of those times when it's best to get it over quickly."

He reached for Lee's bag while Masen wrestled Gopher's into the back of the Bronco. "So, Mase, did you talk to Guppy like you promised you would?" He already knew the answer but it was good for Masen to say it out loud and improve his sharing skills.

His friend was now the one grinning. "Yeah, we talked. I made damn sure to start by apologizing for deciding for the both of us all on my own. I expected her to be pissed at me, and I still think I deserve it, but I'm damn glad she was understanding instead. She doesn't agree with how I see things, that us being together now would cast doubt on her accomplishments later. But she does respect my feelings so she promised to try to keep the line with me. In exchange, I promised her I'd work on being okay with things if we happen to decide together we don't want to wait any longer. I'm still worried about it, but I'm not fixated on it like before."

"Look at that!" Whit exclaimed while nudging him with his elbow. "Masen compromising and sharing control. Pigs will be fucking flying any day now."

Masen glared at him. "Fucking nudger."

"Damn straight."

"What about you?" Masen questioned. "When are you going to open up and talk about Alice?"

Whit shook his head. "I'm not. Not until there's something new to say. There's no point in circling the same thoughts and feelings I've had all week. She fucked up in a major way. She did something I won't be able to forgive unless I can see she's one hundred percent remorseful. Even then, it's going to be a last chance situation with us."

"What about not being able to just turn it off, huh? What did you call it? All encompassing?"

"You're right. I won't be able to turn off my feelings for her. They will be there for a very long time, maybe even always. But as much as I love her, I have to love myself too and I can't do that if I'm miserable from her behavior toward my friends. Too many people mistake self-worth for believing you're better than another. That's not what it is at all, though. It's realizing that you have the exact same right to happiness as the other person does, and that sometimes you just can't both be happy together. We can only take being unhappy for so long before it eats away at the love and we forget why we ever felt that way in the first place."

Masen blew out a breath and ran a hand through his hair. "It's unreal how quickly this became a huge thing. I'd rather go back to Alice's snotty comments to me rather than having you and Bella worried you might lose your relationships with her."

Whit smiled and hooked an arm around his friend's neck. "Long as I have you around, I know better days are ahead, bro. Besides, we've got the perfect remedy for sadness right in front of us."

"What's that?"

Whit lifted his chin to indicate Bella walking toward them with her bag. "We just take your kapu there and put her on a surfboard and let the entertainment begin."

Masen snorted loudly. "She's so damn awful. But she's so fucking cute sopping wet and getting back on to try again."

"Seriously, I need to check her for an ear infection. How the hell else can anyone's balance be that off?"

They were still laughing when Bella reached them. "You two seem hard at work," she commented.

"It's important to balance work and life," Whit replied, causing Masen to snort and begin laughing all over again.

Bella looked between them for a moment and then tossed her bag at Whit's feet. "I know I'm missing something here so I'll just leave my bag for you two to put away when you're done goofing off."

She turned and started to walk away but Masen was after her in a flash, hugging her from behind and saying something that had her giggling. Whit shook his head. As glad as he was to see Masen in love, he was equally amazed at how he could be both so good and so bad at it. Come to think of it, Alice was pretty much doing the same thing just in a different way.

Whit snorted and shook his head at the thought running through his mind. I'm basically dating the girl version of my best friend, the difference being that she's emotional where he's logical.

After popping a Hershey kiss into his mouth, Whit grabbed hold of Masen and pulled him away to finish packing the Bronco. He really did want to get to the house and get things over and done. Either Alice would be there and be ready to admit she'd been wrong, or she'd be gone. As much as he would have liked to count on the first, it was the second he had prepared himself to handle.

It wasn't too much later when they piled into the Bronco; Guppy and Whit sat up front with Masen while Lee and Gopher shared the backseat.

"So question," Lee said, sticking her head between Bella and Whit. "Is Akamai still in effect?"

"What's that?" Bella asked.

"It's a code word we came up with for when we want to keep each other from interfering with a particular part of our lives," Whit explained. He turned his head to lock eyes with Lee. "It's still very much in effect."

"Does this mean we can't have Lee put Alice in a headlock if she's still being stupid?" Bella questioned.

Whit, Lee, and Gopher stared at Bella in disbelieve.

Masen took his arm off the back of the seat and patted her on the head. "Down, iki mano."

Gopher snorted loudly. "From learner fish to small shark. We are damn sure going to be accused of corrupting her now."

"Maybe we'll get lucky and there won't be a need for a headlock," Bella ventured. "Alice has been alone all week with Esme and Uncle Carl. There's no way she's still convinced she did nothing wrong."

"There's always the chance," Whit cautioned. "There's nothing wrong with being hopeful, just make sure you also have a backup plan."

"Well the headlock obviously," she said with a grin that wasn't able to hide all of her misery. She was just as worried about a bad outcome as he was and that made him feel his own sadness stronger; it wasn't right for sisters to be this divided. Family mattered more than anything to him and he often had trouble understanding how it could be any other way for other folks. Even Masen's logical brain processed the value of family and made it a top priority.

"Who came up with Akamai?" he heard Bella ask.

Masen gave her the answer. "It's a Hawaiian word that basically means to be very smart and sharp. We consider it to mean no entry by unauthorized persons."

"I like that. I like that a lot," Bella said with a much more genuine smile. "And I can see where you guys are so close that you need it."

"And no one has broken it yet," Lee assured her.

"Not even Edward?" Bella asked, casting a glance his way.

"Hey!" Masen's yell had them all laughing. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She gave him one of those looks women were so damn good at, the kind that said he knew damn well what she meant. "You're quick to take control of situations."

It took everything Whit had not to crack up laughing. He adored Bella's strength and her ability to be understanding about Masen's logical brain while at the same time call him out on his shit and set him straight.

"That's just 'cause Masey loves us," Lee said while ruffling Masen's hair. "Makes him act like he's everyone's big brother. Even though I'm older."

"Only in age," Masen retorted, earning a smack to the back of his head. He and Lee bantered back and forth in their typical fashion for a bit and then she sat back to answer a question from Gopher.

Without the distraction of Lee, Masen noticed right away that Bella was twisting her bracelet. He took hold of her hand and brought it to his lips, kissing her wrist. "Still liking your bracelet I see."

"Loving it," she assured him as she laid her head on his shoulder.

"I wish I could promise you that your sister has figured herself out and is ready to do right by you."

"That's really nice of you to say after everything."

"I want whatever makes you happy."

"You make me happy."

"Lucky me," he murmured, quickly pressing his lips to the top of her head before refocusing his attention on the road.

Whit smiled, pleased with the fruit of his nudging labors. It was about damn time Masen had someone who could be his other half. And if the fates continued to be on their side, then Whit's someone would be at the house and ready to make amends.

He thought back on the phone call he'd shared with his parents last night and of the advice his father had given him. You can't always pick who you love but you can always decide how you love. Do you want to shower love with an open heart and a partner you trust? Or would you rather bleed it out with a protected one from fear? I'll leave it to you to decide which is the risk and which is the reward.

The sun glinting off the windshield distracted Whit and he realized they were already turning into the driveway. This was it; his life was about to change and the only control he had over it was how he reacted to it. This would not break him. Bend him for sure, but never break. Not so long as he had his family behind him—the squeeze to his shoulder from Masen was proof he had all the support he'd need no matter what came next.

They weren't even out of the truck yet when Lizzy's barking filled the air. Whit looked up just in time to see her leap at Masen. He caught her and hugged her and started that cooing-talking thing he did with her. As formidable as Masen could be at work, he was that much of a pushover when it came to his puppy.

Whit came around the front of the truck to stand next to Bella. "Please tell me the man spoils you as well as he does that dog."

Bella grinned. "I like to think so but I suspect she may have it just a tiny bit better than all of us."

"Alright, Kid, share some of that love with me," Esme said as she put an arm around Masen's shoulders. He laughed and hugged her tight before kissing her cheek.

Whit took a step toward them to get his hug next but stopped at the sight of Alice standing near the front door. He hoped her being here meant good news for them all.

Alice finally moved and it was toward her sister, giving her a small smile and a long, tight hug. "I'm sorry."

"Don't say it if you don't mean it," Bella warned, her arms still at her sides.

"I do, I swear. I'm sorry and I missed you so much. I hated not talking to you all week. And knowing that it could be longer because I've been so stupid … Bella, I'm so sorry. I'm going to prove it to you and show you I can be different. I am different."

Bella lifted her arms and returned her sister's hug. "You better really mean it."

"I do. I swear. Please just give me a chance to show you."

Bella pulled back and looked her sister in the eyes. "Give me one reason why I should after the way you hurt us."

"I sincerely regret my behavior and I love you with all my heart. I want to support you, not stand in your way. I want to make things right, make them a-okay between us like before I got here. Bella, I love you and I want to support whatever makes you happy."

"If I give you this chance and you blow it—"

"Then I deserve whatever happens next. But, Bella, I swear it won't come to that."

The sisters stared at each other for a moment and then Bella smiled and pulled Alice into another hug. "It better not, you brat," Bella warned her.

Alice smiled in return but then her face turned red and her smile faltered as her eyes locked with Masen's.

She stepped back from Bella and moved her hand as if she was going to lift it but then just as quickly let it drop back by her side. "Masen, I'm really sorry for all I've said about you and I hope you'll give me a chance to make things right between us. And if you don't want to now, then maybe later on once you see I'm making things right with my sister."

Masen looked to Bella first; she kept her face neutral, letting him know it was up to him. Whit admired that about her, especially with how hard it must be for her to be pulled between the two of them.

Whit wasn't the least bit surprised that Masen looked to him next. Whit shrugged, another indication for his friend that it was entirely up to him what path he took with Alice. He already knew Mase would give her a chance for Whit's sake so why not let the man feel like it was a choice and not a given?

Finally focused on Alice again, Masen told her, "Couldn't hurt to get to know each other after you're done fixing things with Bella and Whit."

"Bella, why don't you come and help me get your uncle off the phone," Esme suggested. "We can all unload the Bronco later." She quickly ushered them all inside, practically dragging Masen away and finally leaving Whit and Alice alone—by design of course. After all, Esme had been the one to teach him all he knew about nudging.

"Hi," Alice said, not quite meeting Whit's eyes.

"Getting to know Masen, does that mean you're staying?"

"Yes, but here at the house. I don't think the boat's a good idea. At least not until I've proven myself."

"Probably right about that."

"I um …" She finally looked at him and he could swear there was true remorse in her brown eyes. But he wasn't about to be swayed by a look, not after all the hurt she'd caused.

"I read your letter," she shared. "A bunch of times, actually. It seemed like each time I read it, I got something new out of it. The one thing that was there every time was how much I hurt you." She reached for his hand and he let her take it. "Whit, I wish I had the words to let you know how incredibly sorry I am for hurting you. I never meant to upset anyone and I know that's not how it looks at all. I also know my intent doesn't change the fact that you were hurt."

"Why the change of heart now? What's so different?"

"Nothing except for how I perceive things. Whit, when I first got here Bella was so sick and that scared me. Then to see a photo of her with a huge shark and hear she wanted to stay here with them … It made me feel like everything was wrong, like I was suddenly trapped in an upside down world that didn't make any sense. It seemed like the harder I tried to understand, the more it felt like she was pulling away and picking sharks over me. I got so caught up in trying to stop that, to keep her from leaving me all alone, that I couldn't see what I was doing to her or to Masen or to you. I just wanted to make the fear go away, to bring back the happiness we had back home.

"But I know now that Bella can't be happy without finishing what she's been doing here. She needs this and all of you and I am so ashamed of how I behaved, all the ways I could have ruined this for her. I will understand completely if any of you find it impossible to trust me with another chance. Honestly, I can't say I deserve it. But I promise you that if you do, I will never make you regret it. I will spend every single day making it one of your best decisions."

"Not the best?"

"No," she answered with a genuine smile. "Choosing to be a part of all this with Masen and Esme and everyone else, I think that's your best decision. They're your family and they make you happy. Plus, they get your love of being on the water in ways I never will."

"As much as I want to believe everything you're saying right now, Alice, it's going to take time for me to trust it."

"I know. And I know I made you question whether or not I really mean it when I say I love you. I don't want you questioning that and I never ever want to lose you, Jasper Whitlock. I love you. I love you and I'll tell you a thousand times a day if you want."

He finally let go of his guarded expression and allowed himself to smile as he opened his arms in invitation. "Let's start with once more and a hug."

"I love you and I'm so, so sorry," she said into his neck, squeezing her entire body against him as much as she could.

"This is going to be a process, especially with Masen."

"I know and I know I have to go at whatever pace works for you guys, not my own. I know it won't be easy but I so want to fix things. Esme says as long as I keep working at it, it'll eventually happen. I have to believe that because a life without my sister and you in it isn't going to be much of a life at all."

"If only you could have stopped yourself before you took it to this level, before you caused so much damage," he said as he stroked her hair.

"I've been wishing that myself for days now. But wishing isn't going to change things. I have to change them by proving my remorse and my desire for things to be better."

Whit smiled, knowing where her words had come from. "Glad to see you took advantage of Esme's guidance."

"She's so great, Whit. My uncle is really lucky to have her."

"We all are."

"Is it presumptuous to say I'm lucky to have you too?"

Whit thought about it for a moment, thought about what he really wanted and what would be the best way to encourage her without letting her think all was instantly forgiven. "Not if you mean it and keep your promise to not make me regret it."

"I mean it with all my heart."

He let her go and nodded toward the house. "Let's go in. I'm sure you've got a lot you want to say to Bella in private."

"Not in private. With Masen at her side, the way he's supposed to be."

Whit didn't react outwardly, again not wanting to give Alice the impression that things would be better just because she'd said she was sorry. On the inside though, he was beaming over her comment. Not only had she included Masen as a part of Bella's life, but she'd meant every word. He'd clearly heard the conviction in her voice and had seen her acceptance in her expression. A true acceptance and not a forced one. The chances of this being a real change in her seemed pretty high and that made him one very happy guy.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

Bella was so wrapped up in describing the past week that she was completely unaware of her hand waving around the spoon it was holding. "And then our last dive, which was yesterday, which you already know, but the last one was the best because we all went together and it was so beautiful and there were so many fish of all types and colors."

"Breathe, Bug," Carlisle said with a laugh. "We have all night. You don't need to fit an entire week into five minutes."

"Sorry." Her face was flushed with a mix of excitement and embarrassment.

"If your father could see you now."

"What—" Bella swallowed down her nervousness and pushed out her question. "What would he think if he could?"

Carlisle's palm tenderly cupped her cheek. "He would be so proud, Bug. So proud." He grinned and added, "We'd simply have to argue over who was more proud of you. Of course I'd win."

Bella laughed, and for a moment she swore she could hear her father laughing too, a deep belly laugh that had always been clearly heard over her uncle's outlandish reasons for why he was right and her dad was wrong.

"What you're doing, it's nothing short of amazing."

"Don't get too excited just yet," she said more to herself than him. "This was shark-free waters. Day after tomorrow, we're back in False Bay and anything could happen."

"Once again, you are not giving yourself enough credit, Bella. The sharks are only a small part of what it means to be in the water. You trusted yourself and your reactions. You trusted your team. That took no small amount of intestinal fortitude, young lady, so do not lesson your achievement now by doubting whatever may come next. Agreed?"

"Agreed," she answered with a nod and a smile.

"Excellent. Now about your personal relationship with Masen, how is that going?"

Alice's cry distracted Bella from answering. "No way," she cried again. "That can't really happen."

Whit, Gopher, and Lee were cracking up over whatever had Alice's feathers ruffled. After apologizing to everyone as a group and then individually, Alice had spent the day trying to get to know everyone. Lee was stand-offish still, as was Edward, but that was to be expected after all Alice had done.

"Tell me!" Alice demanded, her eyes focused on Whit.

He was oblivious to her stare, clutching his stomach and laughing wildly.

Alice turned to Edward next. "Don't you have to tell the truth? Isn't there some kind of oath you took as leader?"

Gopher was the one to answer her. "Yeah, the shark-topus oath. We have to free the misinformed from the tentacles of untruth!" His response had Whit and Lee laughing even harder while Alice giggled. It gave Bella hope that her sister truly meant her apologies and her attempts to really get to know everyone.

As for Edward, he had remained unaware of the four of them and their racket. He had his legs stretched in front of him with his torso leaned back and supported by his hands. A gorgeous, happy smile filled his face for whatever Esme was sharing with him. To make it an even sweeter sight, Lizzy was lying across his thighs and sound asleep. Every so often, he'd lean to the side so he could free a hand to stroke her back.

"Esme and Masen share something very special."

Bella smiled as she lifted her eyes to her uncle's face. "They do. It's really sweet."

"I hope you feel I'm here for you just as much."

She was shocked that her uncle would ever question his presence in her life this way. "I don't even know where to begin to tell you just how grateful I am for you and all you do for us, Uncle Carl. You could have made so many other choices, other arrangements, but you made your home our home like it was no big deal, like we weren't actually a burden dumped on you."

"You and your sister could never be a burden. Not to me or anyone."

"You say that because you love us, but I know it doesn't turn out this way for every kid who loses their parents. We were lucky. We are lucky. While we may not share the way that Esme and Edward do, Uncle Carl, you and I are no less close. We cook, that's our thing. We cook and we talk. And I'm pretty sure it's your turn to share."

"Oh, I'm a boring adult. Nothing new here." His smile was too big for his words to be believed.

"To borrow a phrase from Whit—and clean it up some—your butt must be jealous of all the crap coming out of your mouth."

Her uncle laughed. "I don't think you've ever looked and sounded more like Charles than you did just now."

Bella scrunched her nose, feeling unsure. "Is that a good thing?"

"Adorably so." He kissed her on the forehead and then handed her a scallion to chop. "I believe I was inquiring about a certain young man before we were distracted by your sister."

She smiled as her eyes landed on Edward, her mind racing with all the good and confusing that had happened this week. "He's a challenge in so many ways. His view of how things work, he's so black and white and that gets him lost in his head so incredibly fast. But he also listens. He lets me give him a different view point to consider and while he doesn't always decide mine is the right one, he still keeps what I've said in mind. It can be really frustrating at times. There's that initial moment where I want to wring his neck but then I think of how all this must look to him and all I want to do is help him through it because I know when we get to the other side of it, everything will be better for both of us.

"And this thing with Alice, he's been supportive and he's listened to me rant and rave and not once has he said a bad word about her, and believe me, Uncle Carl, he had every reason to want to. But even on the ride over this morning he was saying he hoped things would be better with her. He really has such a beautiful heart."

"Holding your tongue when you've been hurt, that's a hard thing to do and an admirable one."

"Now that Alice seems to be seeing clearly, hopefully his hurts and Whit's will heal quickly. I don't know what you did, but thank you so much for helping Alice to see the truth about her behavior."

"I am happy to report that I am unable to take credit for your sister's change of heart. It's all Alice's hard work. She didn't even approach me until last night when she'd had most everything figured out for herself. Honestly, that conversation is the only one we've had, though I do think she'll need a friendly ear tonight to help her digest all the reactions she's receiving. Especially yours. She understands in her head that her apology is not an instant fix, and yet she's still surprised by the remaining distance between you two."

"Alice never has been patient when she wants something."

"Do you remember our first Christmas together in Florida?"

Bella giggled. "It was the worst."

"A complete disaster," he agreed. "One of the few bright spots about it was watching Alice turn an unsuspecting mall Santa into a flustered, stammering, and very un-jolly elf."

"I can still hear her," Bella said with a giggle. "But why can't you give me my necklace now?"

"I believe she said something along the lines of 'You agree that I've been a good girl and that there's no firm rule about early gifting, so what's the hold up?'"

"Which she followed up with a promise not to tell the other children."

"I was left with no choice but to explain the truth, that we are all Santa in our hearts."

"An explanation that made her cry because she was terrified she would grow a beard and have a belly too big for all of her favorite dresses."

"Yes, one of many inadvertent mistakes made in our early days together. Fortunately for me, you were always there to help me quiet the tears and calm the worries. I only wish you'd have allowed me to do more for you."

"I wasn't ready. I don't even know for sure that I am now." Bella noticed her uncle's concerned gaze. "I'm starting to remember more."

"How much more?"

She wiped her hands on the dishtowel and then turned to lean against the counter. "I'm not sure how much is real and how much is my mind making it scarier. I remember helping you out of the water. And Dad's watch. I had my hands on it, I'm sure of that. But I … I think there was a moment where the shark was coming right at me."

Carlisle gently rubbed her shoulder. "Those are all true memories."

"What about—" She licked her lips and tried again, fighting to control her suddenly tight throat and her shaky limbs. "What about the part where my dad chose to make sure I lived rather than risk us getting hurt trying to free him?"

Her uncle wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly. "We were in an impossible situation, Bug. I think what your father did in that moment was to choose the surest course. He chose to live on through you, your future and your dreams and the memories in your heart."

"I miss him so much."

"So do I. Every day."

"Everything okay?" Edward asked, standing in the entryway with a concerned look on his face.

"Onions," Carlisle replied as he released Bella. "We just can't resist a good family cry around them." His excuse had Bella giggling.

Edward didn't look the least bit convinced and that just made her laugh harder for some reason.

Whit popped up beside Edward and pulled his one eyebrow trick. "Should we be worried?"

"Apparently crying over onions is one of their family traditions," Edward shared.

"Hey, none of that," Whit said, flourishing his hand in Bella's direction. "We have the corner market on being a weird family. You can't just come in here with your onions and tears and think you're going to take it from us."

Her uncle grinned and tried his best to trip Whit up. "Young man, you don't know what weird is until you've danced naked under a full solstice moon, baying at its indescribable beauty with your brother at your side."

But Whit continued to appear just as unflappable as always. "Every full moon since I was thirteen and twice on a blood moon night."

"Just so we're clear, I am not that brother," Edward said as he sidled up to Bella and slipped an arm around her back.

She smiled up at him while scratching his scruff the way he liked. "You are so that brother."

Whit cracked up laughing at her response and she was pretty sure she heard her uncle chuckling too under the sound of Edward's groaning.

"You'll pay for that later, kapu," Edward promised, purposefully scratching the side of her neck with his scruff.

"For a kitchen, there doesn't seem to be very much cooking happening in it," Esme mused, leaning in through the opening over the sink.

"It's Edward's fault," Whit said, pointing a finger from each hand at him.

"Bro!" Edward cried, staring wide-eyed at his friend. His response only made Whit laugh—and Esme and Bella too.

"Alright, back to business," Carlisle declared. "If your last name is not Cullen, get out of this kitchen."

Whit complied immediately but Edward lingered, his arm still locked around Bella's back. He searched her eyes as he asked, "You sure you're okay?"

She smiled to reassure him. "Better than okay. I'm lovely."

"Yes, you are." He kissed her lips softly and then left her to finish cooking with her uncle.

It was as they were getting ready to plate the meal they'd prepared that her uncle leaned in and quietly shared his thought with her. "If I were to pick one adjective to describe that young man in relation to you, I would have to choose 'smitten'."

"Why smitten?"

"Because there's no better word for a man that in-tune with your feelings. From what I've seen so far, I like him. More importantly, I like him with you, Bug."

"I like him with me too. Very much. In fact …" Bella took a deep breath and shared her thought with her uncle. "Maybe Atlanta's not where I'm supposed to be after all."

"Have you spoken with Masen about this?"

"Not yet," she admitted with a shake of her head. "I want to make sure of a few things first."

"Like what will happen when you return to False Bay?"

"Exactly that."

"I can see the wisdom in that. I hope you will see the wisdom in this … Following your heart should never mean ignoring your head. Now don't for a second take that to mean that I won't support you if your dream truly has changed. I only want for you to be happy and to be sure of your choices."

"Thanks, Uncle Carlisle," Bella said as she gave him a quick hug. She also promised to keep his advice in mind. It wasn't like she was going to make a decision tonight or even tomorrow. She wanted to see the internship through first and fully prove herself capable. Once she'd done that, then she'd weigh her choices and have a long talk with Edward. No matter what kind of future lay ahead of her, she wanted to make absolute sure he felt included in it—she wasn't letting go.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

On the outside, Edward seemed perfectly at ease. He was smiling, enjoying a beer with friends, and receiving plenty of affection from his puppy. But he wasn't really joining in. He was being quiet and Bella had quickly learned that quiet with him meant he was troubled.

She excused herself from the conversation she'd been having with Esme, Alice, and Lee to walk to the other end of the patio table where he was seated. After scooping Lizzy into her arms, she sat down sideways on his lap, dangling her feet over the arm of his chair.

"Hello," he greeted with an amused grin. For the first time tonight, his eyes were focused and seeing her, not whatever thoughts were troubling him in his head. "Something I can help you with?"

"Actually, I'm here to help you," she told him, pulling his arm around her back and setting his hand on her hip. "So," she said as her eyes focused on his. "What's bugging you?"

"What makes you think something's bugging me?"

"You're being quiet."

"I could just be enjoying the night and being home."

"You'd talk more, not less."

His eyebrows lifted up. "Are you an expert on my habits now?"

"Not yet, but I know enough to tell when you're not yourself."

He smiled and leaned forward just enough to press his lips to her forehead. "I'm just thinking."

"About?"

He sighed and scratched at the bridge of his nose. "It's nothing. It can wait."

"Edward." She lifted Lizzy and turned her face toward Edward. "You're making your puppy sad. Don't make her sad. Talk to me and make her happy."

He chuckled at Bella's silliness. "You're not going to leave me alone, are you?"

She rested her head against Lizzy's and gave her best sad face. "Talk to us."

Smiling and rolling his eyes, he put both arms around her and hugged her tight. "You're kind of annoying, kapu."

"So are you." She pinched the fabric of his dark blue t-shirt between her fingers and tugged. "Talk please."

He ran a hand through his hair while sighing. "I'm agitated and I don't completely know why."

"Your least favorite state of being—confused." She slid her own hand through his disheveled hair. "What can I do to help?"

His cocky smile came out. "You could kiss me until I stop thinking."

She tried her best to look stern but she could feel her lips twitching. "Long term solutions here, mister."

"Like I said, I don't know."

"Do you know what's aggravating you?"

His eyes flicked to something behind her for a second. "It's more of a who."

"Alice."

"Alice," he confirmed. "I can see she's trying …"

"But?"

"But I don't think she fully understands what she did so how can she fix it? Maybe she gets it for you and Whit, but me? I don't think she does."

"Ask her."

"What? No. No, I don't want to start another fight. We've had a peaceful day and I want to keep it that way."

"Edward, she started all of this. You're just trying to make peace with it. You've been so focused on Whit and me this past week that you haven't really let yourself deal with how her actions made you feel. It's your turn now. Talk to her, explain to her how she made you feel and what you need from her to be able to trust her. Better to talk calmly to her now than to keep this bottled up and have something insignificant make your temper explode."

"What temper?" he asked, smiling too big for it not to be a joke.

"Want me to call her over? Or would you rather us talk inside?"

"Bella, I don't know about this."

"I know so trust me," she assured him. "Now, where do you want us to talk with her?"

"Actually … If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to her alone. I just … If you're not there—"

She smiled to assure him she understood. "If Alice doesn't have an audience, then she's more likely to be completely honest. I get that."

"So how should I approach her?"

"Just ask her to talk, Edward. If she sincerely wants to make things right, she'll agree."

He didn't look as though he believed that but he nodded all the same. He also tapped her leg to get her up from his lap. She watched him walk over to her sister and she heard him very politely ask Alice to speak with her in private. As Bella had hoped, Alice agreed without hesitation and the two of them went into the house.

Bella hoped Edward would be able to express his feelings and that Alice would hear how she'd hurt him. Most of all, she hoped this would be the first step toward a meaningful relationship between them. Even if they never became friends, she needed them to be able to be cordial to each other—she loved them both and she never wanted to feel again like she had to choose between them.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

"So!" Alice chirped, bouncing down onto the end of Bella's bed. "What's up?"

Masen stayed near the door, wanting to be ready for a hasty exit just in case his temper did start to rise. He really didn't want to fight with this girl any more, he just also wanted to put an end to this agitation he was feeling.

"I'm getting the sense this isn't a conversation you really want to have," Alice stated. "Did Bella decide we needed to talk more?"

He shook his head. "No, she just encouraged me to get a few things off my chest. Alice, I hope the way you've been today is going to be a permanent thing. I hope you can support your sister and love my best friend the way they deserve. I want to see that happen for all of you. But I also have to be honest and right now I have serious doubts about it because I don't think you really understand what you did."

"Of course I do," she assured him. "I was rude to you because I blamed you for Bella wanting to be here and for my feeling all alone. In trying to keep Bella close to me, I said some mean things about you that hurt her feelings—and Whit's too."

Masen kept from speaking out in anger by taking a moment to cross his arms and breathe. "It's that simple? That cut and dry?"

"Well yeah, it's not like I hurt your feelings. You'd already written me off. You had me kicked off the boat."

"No, not me. You. You got yourself kicked off by acting like an asshat. And even then I was hoping you would come around. I didn't want to see you hurt Bella and Whit any more than you already had."

"Right. It's always been about Bella and Whit for you."

"No, I made concessions for them, but I felt the pain of your accusations too. Especially when you accused me of going off to cheat on your sister."

Alice actually looked upset. "I didn't know. I mean, of course I knew you were angry about it, but I … Masen, I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize when you don't really know," he replied, struggling to keep his voice even and his temper in check. "I've never done this. I've never done the girlfriend thing, putting myself in the position to be tied to someone. To be perfectly honest, I didn't get a choice with your sister. As illogical as it is, I can't not love her.

"I don't know what's going to happen between us, what we'll do when the summer ends. I'm not letting myself think that far ahead because she needs me to be focused on now, on her progress. At the same time, I'm doing all I can to be in the moment because I'll never beat this summer with her. I'm struggling to show her how I feel and balance that with keeping her safe during work. On top of that, I'm worrying what your behavior is doing to her. And just when I think you've reached the bottom, the lowest you can get without admitting to yourself that you're wrong, you just drop the words that could end everything as if they weigh nothing, have no consequences attached.

"If she'd chosen to believe you over me … Alice, that thought has been gnawing at me for a week now and I've had zero time to deal with it because I've spent all my free time comforting Bella and Whit, hoping for their sakes that you'd wake up. All day I've watched you and you've seemed sincere with them and everyone else, but you can't be with me. Not until I know you understand what you did. Those few seconds between Whit telling me what you'd accused me of doing and hearing that Bella didn't believe it, it felt like a lifetime. More than long enough for me to feel anger, hurt, loss—pretty much every dark emotion possible. And then she told me that she didn't believe you, that she knew I wouldn't do that to her.

"As much as I was relieved to hear it, I was equally pissed that you would use me to hurt her. She's kapu, Alice. She's sacred. She's one of those rare people so beautiful inside and out that you can't help wanting to be better for her. I know I can't.

"You need to know that I didn't seek out this relationship with her and I didn't jump right into it either. I fought it. I did all I could to keep it strictly professional, knowing how important her career is to her. But in the end there was just no resisting her because …" He paused to run a hand through his hair, struggling to find the words to say this in a way Alice would be hard pressed to misinterpret.

"My work means everything to me. Anything at all, no matter how small it might be, anything that has ever threatened to get in the way of it, I have avoided. I look at distractions as my enemy, potential ways to ruin what I'm trying to build for my company, what I'm trying to do for sharks and other marine life. My energy and my focus belong to my work. It's that black and white for me. That simple. If it has the potential to pull me away from my work, then I don't want or need it. That especially includes having a relationship with a woman.

"They want attention and they want you to spend time with them and watch their movies and talk. They don't understand the incessant pull I feel when there's a project to plot, to start, to work on, or to complete. They don't get why when I finish one item, I'm immediately ready for the next and not interested in taking a break. They want to come before my work. I'm not saying any of that as a knock against women. I firmly believe they should have that attention and that their partners should give it to them freely without resentment. If any guy mistreated Lee or Esme, I'd be the first one putting an end to it.

"But for me, I can't do that, give up that much time from my work. Or rather, I haven't felt the need to be that kind of partner. Not until your sister came into my life. I didn't like it, her being an interruption to my focus, and sometimes I still struggle to accept it. I wouldn't change it, though. Not for anything. I'll struggle to balance being there for her personally and professionally, and giving my all to my work every damn day, just so I can call her my kapu every night. For you to nearly destroy so casually what I've been struggling to build with her, with such hateful words … That's what caused me pain."

He finally looked up at Alice and he was shocked to find her wiping away tears. "Alice, I wasn't trying to be mean. I was trying to be honest."

"You were honest. And you're right. I didn't know what I'd done to you. Now that I do, I don't see how you can ever forgive me."

"The same way that Whit and Lee always do with me. We're family. You're Bella's family and that makes you my family. I can't say that we're friends or that we'll be friends any time soon, but you're still family."

Alice sniffled and wiped away the last of her tears. "Your mom, she said you wouldn't hate me and I was so afraid to believe her."

He had to smile at that. "She's usually right when it comes to me."

"You love her a lot."

It wasn't really a question but Masen answered her anyway. "I'm lucky to have her. And I'm lucky to have your sister too." Feeling the need for levity, he added, "So if you could stop doing shit that threatens our relationship, that would be great."

"I promise those days are behind us, Masen. From here on out, I'm going to be supportive of my sister and all of her relationships. And just maybe at some point I'll get to count you as one of my friends."

"Tell you what, you get Lee to be your friend and then we'll talk."

Alice blew out a heavy breath. "Nothing like facing one impossible task in order to start on another."

Masen didn't have anything to say so he kept his mouth shut.

Alice lifted her eyes to his. "Masen, I'm really, deeply sorry for hurting you. All I had was a stupid dream that someone had come between Whit and me and it hurt so bad. I can't imagine how it felt for you that night. I know it's going to take a while for you to believe me, just know that I'm going to make sure you do believe me one day."

"I'd like that, Alice. I'd like to believe you some day and trust that you won't hurt any of us ever again."

"Can I say one more thing?" she asked, stopping him from opening the door.

He turned to face her and gave a nod for her to go ahead.

"Thank you. Thank you for believing in my sister and for helping her to get back into the water. And … And for not letting me ruin what you two are building. You could have very easily decided it was too much of a hassle. But you didn't. She's happier than she's been in a very long time and I know it's because of you, because you didn't let go of your kapu."

"I'll never let go," he promised. "Not as long as I have a choice."

Feeling there was nothing more to say, he left the room and went out onto the patio. Bella was once again talking with his mother and Lee but she noticed him immediately and smiled at him. That relief he'd felt at hearing she didn't believe Alice's lie hit him all over again for some reason and he found himself needing to be next to her, to touch her and feel close to her. He had to settle for sitting on the arm of her chair and rubbing his hand along her shoulder for now, but just as soon as Esme called the night to an end, he'd get to have his kapu all to himself and in his arms. The only thing that could make it a more perfect summer night was if they got word that all the nations had passed shark protection laws.

"~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^~~~^~~~~^"

A/N: Hope everyone is having a great weekend and enjoyed this latest chapter! Thank you all so much for reading and sharing in this with us. We appreciate it greatly.