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Chapter 40 – Doubt vs Desire
Saturday, July 26th
"Would you tuck it in already?" Edward demanded.
"Where exactly do you expect it to fit?" Bella shot back.
"In the space between our bodies."
She blushed while giggling. "This conversation sounds a lot dirtier than it is."
He was grinning as he told her, "Get your mind out of the gutter and your elbow out of my arm."
She shrugged. "You were the one who insisted on a rhombus pancake."
"I didn't realize it would be this dangerous," he joked.
She smiled and scooted her spatula forward against the mix a little more. "By the way, this isn't looking anything like a rhombus."
"It's your fault it turned into a U-P-O."
"A what?" she asked with a laugh.
"Unidentified Pancake Object."
She groaned and laid her head against his shoulder. "That is the lamest joke."
"Yeah, it was pretty bad," he agreed. He pressed his lips to her forehead and she could feel his smile.
She helped him with the pancake for a bit before sharing what was on her mind. "You know we have a lot to talk about. You need to say a hell of a lot more than 'sorry' with this one."
"I know and I have a lot I want to say. Just let me make your snack first. It's my fault you're up and hungry at this hour so I owe you."
"You owe me big time," she agreed. She stood up straight and smiled at him as she said, "And since I'm practically making this snack myself, you owe me a meal."
"Done. How about dinner Monday night?"
She was a little taken aback by his quick agreement, and also a little bummed by his suggested timing. "We'll be on the boat. I was kind of hoping for it to be just us."
"It's a big boat," he pointed out. "There's plenty of places for us to find some privacy. Just leave it to me."
"Alright. Monday night," she said with a nod. A thought popped into her head then, and though she knew her smile was oversized for such a little thing, she didn't attempt to dampen it. She just went with the moment and shared her smile and her thought with Edward. "It's a date."
He looked confused by the idea for a second and then his smile grew to nearly match hers. "It'll definitely be a date, kapu."
While she maneuvered the pancake out of the pan and onto a plate, he fixed her a glass of ice water.
"I'm not completely sure where to start," he admitted once they were seated across from each other in the booth. "Is there one thing in particular you want to know?"
She chewed slowly while debating between the why behind his actions and knowing his intentions. She picked the latter. "Would you have gotten on the skiff if nothing had been said?"
He didn't answer immediately, seeming to really consider it rather than immediately give an answer. "I would like to believe I would have realized on my own once I saw the number of stitches. I know for sure Whit would have said all the things you did and would have kept me off the boat."
She tried not to feel hurt by his admission, reminding herself how long the two men had been friends. At the very same time, though, it was impossible not to be hurt that Edward wouldn't trust she had his best welfare in mind. He'd all but demanded her trust before she'd ever really known him yet the first time he'd had the chance to repay that, he'd been either unable or unwilling to put his trust in her.
She pushed her half-eaten snack aside and focused fully on him. "Why? Why would it have been different if Whit had said it to you?"
"He would have phrased it differently. He wouldn't have told me I couldn't work. He would have asked how I thought my injury would affect our plan and the rest of our day. That probably sounds ridiculous to you, huh?"
"It sadly makes a lot of sense if I look at things from the perspective of a guy waiting for his first ever girlfriend to get bossy. I just wish you could have based things on my behaviors and not the worries you've been carrying around with you."
"I wish that too, and I'm sorry I acted like such a jackass. I know I've hurt your trust in me and I hope you'll let me repair it."
"That's all going to depend on you, Edward. Do you feel you know me enough to put your whole trust in me the way I've been doing with you?"
"I do trust you."
She didn't doubt that he believed it—she just needed him to show it now. "You may think so but today proved that you don't. You don't trust me to understand how important the work is to you or to support you. If you did, you wouldn't have questioned my intentions. You wouldn't have had any trouble agreeing to me driving the skiff while you oversaw Gopher's retrieval of the decoy."
He brushed his hand over his face a couple times and then sunk it into his messy hair. "I really want to argue with your logic but it's pretty damn solid. For the record, though, I do think I trust you."
She reached across the table and retrieved his hand from his hair, giving it a tight squeeze as she smiled at him. "Then we'll take that as an encouraging sign that you want to trust me and we'll work on making sure you can follow through with it. You have to give just as much trust as you get. When you start to do that, you'll stop questioning my intentions."
"Why are you being so nice to me? Why aren't you yelling like Lee or pointing out every mistake like Whit?"
"Because I'm not them. And because what works for you guys isn't going to work for you and me. Your relationships with them blur into each other and that serves you guys really well. But for you and me, we have two very distinct relationships by your design. I think we have to talk through things to see which of the relationships has suffered a blow and needs repair. We also have to acknowledge and respect that there are worries you have, some logical and some preconceived, and there are expectations I have as your partner and co-worker. One major one being that I expect you to trust me.
"Don't for a second misjudge my calmness, Edward. I'm incredibly hurt by your reaction and more than a little pissed too. I know I don't have the experience or knowledge that you and the rest of the team have, but I do know how important safety is to all of you. It really hurt to see you doubt that my intention was anything other than putting safety first. My calm is only because I know it's the fastest path to seeing things fixed."
"Do you have any ideas on how I can start to fix things?"
"Yeah, actually, I do have one. Call this conversation done with a promise to continue it later. We both could use some sleep, especially if we want to enjoy our time with our families later today."
Edward grinned and brought her hand to his lips, giving her knuckles a kiss. "Kapu, will you sleep with me now and let me talk with you later?"
"I would love to."
Once they were standing, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her tightly. "I hated being locked out of your room."
"I hated it too but you didn't leave me a choice."
"Yeah, I was pretty damn stupid today. Especially closing my own door. But I want you to know, it was never closed to you, not really. I just wanted you to feel as confused as I did."
Bella snorted. "I was already feeling that way, thank you very much."
"Asshat?" he asked.
"Complete asshat," she agreed, looking up so he'd see her smile. "Let's go to bed."
"You can pile the pillows to your satisfaction but I need to keep one of them," he said as they headed downstairs together. "Whit will have my ass if I don't follow his instructions to keep my hand propped up."
"How's it feeling?"
Edward sighed. "Really fucking sore. It would be a lot easier to ignore if my head wasn't aching all over again."
"Do you need to take something?"
He grinned. "Just you into my bed."
"Oh that's a good one. Really good, actually," she complimented.
Rather than move the pillows around for her comfort tonight, she left them just as he'd put them. Once he was settled in, she tucked herself beside him and laid her head on his chest.
Despite the strength of her urge to close her eyes and immediately fall asleep, she had one more thing to say, knowing she would forget if she waited until later. "You know, it's a shame you used it tonight. That line would have worked a hell of a lot better if you hadn't been such a jackass yesterday."
"You know I'm right."
"Slightly," he conceded through a huge yawn. "Sleep, kapu. Talk in the morning."
She smiled as she snuggled in closer to him. "I love you."
The hand he'd been resting on her upper arm squeezed down. "I love you so damn much, Bella."
Her smile was large and content as she whispered, "Sleep, Edward. Talk in the morning."
Masen came completely awake and stared at the ceiling, working to get his bearings straight and pinpoint what had disrupted his rest. Bella was still beside him, still using his chest as her pillow. His hand was sore and slightly throbbing but nothing that couldn't be ignored with a little effort. Other than feeling groggy, he was in pretty good shape. So why was he suddenly awake?
He let out a loud yawn and let his eyes close, planning to doze back off, but found himself staring at the ceiling all over again. He'd suddenly remembered what he'd been dreaming about … Tomorrow's assignment sheet.
His plan would need to be redone to account for his injury. That in itself wasn't that big of a deal. However, asking Bella to help with the task was huge and very much out of the ordinary. He'd never really had anyone help before. He'd toss ideas at Whit or Lee from time to time when he'd get stuck on a particular piece, but he'd never had them sit down and help him with the whole thing. He doubted he'd be considering sharing this duty with Bella if it wasn't for the major bruise he'd put on her trust in him. But he had and he viewed this as a good way to help the healing along. He only hoped Bella would see it as that and not as some ploy to quickly get her to forgive his stupidity.
He figured with his decision made he'd be able to fall back to sleep easily. Once again, he was wrong. The idea nagged at him much like the throb in his hand until he felt he had no choice but to get out of bed and grab his materials from his office. Slowly, and ridiculously awkwardly without the full use of his right hand, he slipped out from under Bella.
Damn good thing I'm left handed or I'd have to let her write the changes as well as help me come up with them, he thought as he padded down the hall toward his office.
He grabbed his assignment sheets, a couple extra pieces of paper, a couple pens just in case, and a clipboard to make it easier to write while sitting in bed. He wanted to surprise her with his idea as soon as she woke.
Masen set his supplies down on the edge of the nightstand and did his best to get back into bed without waking Bella. He was actually hoping to fall back to sleep for a change now that he'd gotten rid of the itch that had woken him in the first place.
The next time he woke it was from Bella calling his name and kissing his cheek. He opened his eyes just long enough to be sure of where she was so he could share a good morning kiss with her.
"You slept through the alarm clock. You must have been really exhausted," she said quietly, running her hand through his hair.
"It was a long day," he replied while carefully flexing his injured hand.
"How's your hand feel?"
"Tight and sore. It'll probably be a couple days before that changes."
"How will that affect the plan for tomorrow?"
"I don't know," he said as he met her gaze. "It all depends on what we decide while revising the assignment sheet."
She chuckled. "So tomorrow we'll have a team meeting to make a new plan and then another team meeting to make sure everyone understands it."
"Nope," he corrected, smiling wide. He was honestly excited to share this with her. "That 'we' is you and me, and we'll be doing it today." He pointed at his nightstand so she'd notice the supplies sitting there.
Bella bolted up in the bed, her eyes wide and disbelieving. "Are you insane? I barely said anything yesterday and you—"
"Yesterday is exactly why I want to involve you this morning."
"Edward, I don't know about this," she said, shaking her head slightly.
He took hold of her hand and tugged. "Come here."
She lay back down beside him, resting her head against his shoulder.
"What happened yesterday shouldn't have happened," he told her. "I know that now. I need you to know that it won't happen again. I also realize that's asking a lot right now since I'm the one who bruised your trust in me. But if you can find your way to trusting me, I'd really appreciate it."
"Why do you want me to help you revise the plan?"
"You said that my behavior made you feel that I don't trust you. I figured involving you with the revisions is a great way to prove to you that not only do I trust you, I value your opinion. Now don't think that means for one second that I'm going to agree with everything you say. It just means I'll consider it all."
Her fingers danced across his stubble as she shared, "I wouldn't want you to agree with everything. That would be fake. And pretty stupid since I'm still learning the ropes around here."
"So what do you say, Guppy? Will you work with me to revise today's plan?"
She agreed and then she sat up and grabbed the items from the nightstand while he scooted up to lean against the headboard. After handing him the items, she slipped her ponytail holder from her wrist and held it between her teeth while she used her hands to pull her hair back. She suddenly stopped, letting the long tendrils fall back over her shoulders.
"You do know you don't have to, right?" she questioned.
"I like watching you pull your hair back and get all serious," he answered, thinking she was referring to his staring.
She wasn't and she made that clear with her eye roll. "I'm talking about letting me help with the plan."
"Off the top of my head I can come up with six other ways to work on our mutual trust building. So then why this one, right? This is the building block of our entire day. It covers safety, trust, experience, knowledge—runs the whole gambit. Plus, as bad as I screwed up, you still have no doubts when it comes to my commitment to our plan."
"It's the task you give the most focus and importance."
"Which means if I'm asking for your help, I have no worries about being able to trust you to be unbiased and safety-minded."
She smiled and quickly put her hair up into a ponytail. She reached for the extra pen and clicked down on the end. "So what's up first?"
He chuckled at her eagerness. He also couldn't keep from teasing her. "Since I can't submerge my hand for a couple days, I thought you could take my spot in the shark cage."
Bella narrowed her eyes and shot forward, gripping the flesh of his arm in between her fingers and pinching hard.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," he said quickly while trying to pry her pincer-fingers off of him.
Her grip actually tightened. "Are you going to behave?"
"I will if you let go," he bargained.
She let go and then she smacked him for good measure. "I'm ready to work. Are you ready to work, Edward?"
"Yes, Bella," he said, his lips twitching from how badly he wanted to smile. "I'm ready to work."
In the hour it took them to come up with a viable plan, they discussed, debated, argued, laughed, teased, and eventually agreed.
"Tomorrow morning's meeting is going to be pretty interesting," Bella said in a sing-song voice.
Masen grinned. "It will definitely be a change from our usual assignments."
"Safety first, Edward," she said with a teasing grin.
He smiled, feeling a mix of pride, relief, and love as he took in the bright caramel color of his kapu's eyes. He reached out and gripped the back of her neck, pulling her to him so he could kiss the hell out of her. He was immensely glad and relieved that he'd apologized and earned the right to spend his morning this way. He had no delusions that the one apology and the plan revision would fix everything; he was just glad he'd found a way out of the rip tide and into calmer waters.
Bella honestly couldn't help laughing. She had just never expected the reaction Esme was having to Edward's injury. "Pampering" really was too mild of a word for it but Bella couldn't quite put her finger on a better descriptive word for what was happening.
"Are you completely absolutely sure you don't want anything?" Esme asked, holding Edward's face in her hands.
"I'm good. We had breakfast on the boat."
"How about French toast? No, you need protein. Eggs and bacon?"
"Mom, I'm good."
"Something to drink then?"
"Mom, breathe." Edward chuckled as he pulled her in for a hug. "It's a scratch."
"Ten stitches is not a scratch."
"It's a scratch," Whit told her, passing behind on his way to the kitchen.
"Totally a scratch," Lee called out from her spot on the sofa.
"Bella?" Esme questioned, looking over her shoulder to see her.
Bella looked between Edward's pleading eyes and Gopher's ridiculously big smile. She could help out her boyfriend or give her friend more teasing material. "It's kind of a scratch, but really long. Ten stitches long." She finished it off by shifting her eyes toward Edward's hand and wincing.
Edward immediately groaned and Gopher's low, evil laugh followed right after. He unfolded his arms just long enough to bump fists with Bella.
"You need to sit down and rest," Esme instructed, leading Edward over to the sofa. "I'll get you a couple plums and some water."
"Don't forget a fresh diaper," Gopher murmured just loud enough for Bella to hear and crack up over.
"That's the word!" she said, snapping her fingers. "Babied."
Whit stopped beside Bella, rubbing his apple against his shirt. "I love you joining forces with Gopher, but I hate that it's going to end with Masen getting special treatment. That's the only reason I said it was just a scratch."
"Why can't we both get what we want?" Bella questioned. She left the guys and went into the kitchen where Esme was pulling things from the refrigerator. "Esme, are you sure Edward should have plums right now? I know he didn't get a chance to tell you all about his headaches yesterday and how painful they were for him. I'm just concerned the plums being such a sugary food would hurt his stomach after all that pain medicine. He should probably have dry toast and water just to make sure his stomach settles in time for lunch later."
Esme leaned on the open refrigerator door with a curious expression. "Toast and water, huh?"
"For the good of his stomach." Bella pushed her lips together, knowing she was giving herself away but determined not to laugh.
"You know what," Esme said as she closed the door. "I completely forgot I finished off the plums last night. Guess he'll just have to wait until next time he's home."
Bella's struggle with her laughter caused her to cough. "I'm sure he'll understand."
"I'm sure he will." Esme linked her arm with Bella's and whispered, "Do I want to know what he did?"
"Probably not. It's better if all you know is that he apologized to everyone during breakfast. Oh and he's planning a date night for me on Monday."
"He'll be cooking?"
"Yep. And he's promised to find a private spot for us to enjoy it."
"Well then, let's move on to the next topic. What shall we do with our day?"
"I don't have any preferences. And I absolutely am not opposed to anything that gives the opportunity to tease Edward."
Esme chuckled and playfully pinched Bella's cheek. "You are so cute when you're being devious."
They went into the living area and Bella sat down beside Lee while Esme pretended to have trouble fitting between Bella and Edward. "Sweetheart, be a dear and give us room to spread out," she told him.
"What about my plums?"
"Fresh out," she answered, even managing to look sad.
"Oh. Okay then," he said with a sigh of disappointment. "Maybe next time we dock."
"I'll make sure of it," she promised, patting his cheek. "Now get out of our way."
He looked at her oddly but he got up from the sofa and moved to the floor.
"Ladies, here's what I propose for today," Esme shared. "Lunch on the beach, get in some swimming, then in the afternoon we throw in something competitive, and tonight we pop in a movie and polish up our nails."
"Volleyball?" Lee suggested.
Esme sat up straighter. "Oh, it has been a while since we did that and we do all love it. Bella, what do you think?"
Alice suddenly leaned over the sofa between Bella and Lee. "Did someone say volleyball?"
Bella cracked up laughing while the others stared at Alice. "She loves volleyball," Bella informed them. "She was on her high school team for all four years."
"Masen can judge," Whit declared, having wandered over with Gopher.
"Masen can play," Edward argued.
Esme gave him a stern look. "You are not about to pop open those stitches and make Whit have to work today. And from what I hear, you don't need to chance causing yourself more pain. No ball for you."
Edward lifted his hands in surrender.
"Only problem with that is it makes the teams uneven," Gopher pointed out.
"Not at all," Carlisle assured him. "I'm in no shape for volleyball. I'm of much more use helping to keep score."
"I don't buy that for a second," Lee replied. Her grin turned wicked as she added, "Not after the juicy details Esme has shared about you."
Carlisle turned as red as Bella ever had and coughed a couple times before he finally regained his voice. "Yes, well, as complimentary as Esme may be, I'll sit this one out."
"Let's go put lunch together," Gopher said, smacking his fist against Whit's arm. He cut his eyes over to Masen and grinned. "You too, Mase. There's plenty you can do one-handed."
Whit snorted. "He'd really be up shit creek if not."
"Now who's the asshat?" Edward asked as he flicked Whit in the back of the head.
Whit and Gopher both turned to looked at Edward as they answered, "You."
Edward was most certainly still feeling guilty for yesterday's behavior because he only shrugged and followed the guys into the kitchen.
Bella's ears perked up at the sound of her uncle's voice. "A word, my love?"
Esme giggled. "Yes, dear?"
"Dare I ask about these 'juicy' details you've been sharing?"
"It was only a little sharing between women. You know I can't say too much without making them insanely jealous that I was the one to scoop you up."
"Oh, I'm sure." He didn't sound or look even a little convinced.
"Come on, Bella," Lee said as she hauled herself up from the sofa. "Let's go pick out which cute bikinis we're gonna wear."
"Mind if I tag along?" Alice asked hopefully.
Bella smiled at her. "You can come but you can't pick for us."
"Deal." Alice quickly added, "Unless you pick something hideous."
Lee snorted. "She doesn't even have to pick. We all know she's gonna wear the red ruffled one. It's too easy to torture Mase with it to pass it up."
Bella smiled, not feeling any need to add to Lee's very accurate statement.
Shiverin' from head to toe,
Baby, I feel so low.
I wish it was a cold
But, Baby, it's your hold.
I never had a clue
What one night could do.
Just one night with you
Now I'm haunted, it's true.
It was only one night with you
But thinking 'bout it is all I do.
"I know this song," Lee declared while snagging a clump of green grapes. "How do I know this song?"
"Ask Masen," Whit told her, sporting a familiar dastardly smile as he turned up the volume. "He knows this song."
"How does Masen know this song?" Her confused look only lasted until she noticed Bella's blush. "Oh!" she yelled, getting up on her knees and pointing at Masen. "The bar! The band was playing this when we found you with Bella with your—" Her eyes flicked over to Carlisle, the only reason she'd stopped herself from teasing Masen.
Whit chuckled. "Ding, ding, ding! Gopher give your woman a prize."
Gopher leaned Lee over his arm and kissed the hell out of her, eliciting whistles and catcalls that easily drowned out Masen's "fucking nudger" comment.
Once the noise level decreased, Masen popped Whit in the shoulder and asked, "When did you sneak into my room to get this?"
"Sneak hell! This is my copy."
"It's a catchy tune," Alice commented while passing a water bottle to Whit.
Whit turned to fully face her, looking dead serious all of a sudden. "You owe me," he told her. "And I know what I want as payment."
Carlisle suddenly couldn't clear his throat quick enough or loud enough; Masen had a damn hard time not laughing.
Whit either didn't hear the noise or didn't care. "A foot. I want one foot fully submerged."
"So not happening," Alice cried. "A tip of a toe. Maybe."
"Half a foot."
"No!" Her indignant tone went well with her wide-eyed stare. "Just the pinky."
"All ten toes submerged."
She huffed and sighed and glared at the water before giving in. "Fine."
With a victorious smile, he dropped the time limit on her. "Ten seconds."
He must have decided to take pity on her because he agreed to the six seconds. Masen had witnessed enough of Whit's "negotiating" to know he didn't have to budge unless he wanted.
Alice looked as though she'd been sucking on the sourest lemon ever grown. "When does this water business have to occur?"
Whit hopped to his feet and offered his hand. "No time like the present."
"Give it a try, Alice," Carlisle encouraged. Masen noticed his voice sounded pretty darn clear now that he knew Whit's payment was something innocent.
"Give what a try?" Bella asked, looking up at her sister. She seemed to have missed the entire negotiation, distracted by whatever Gopher had been telling her.
"He's making me put my toes in the water!" Her ability to say that sentence and make it sound like it meant 'walk the plank over shark infested waters' actually impressed Masen.
"Oh boy!" Bella sounded upbeat but Masen could tell from the sly curve of her smile that she expected imminent entertainment by certain disaster.
"Backstage view or front row seat?" Lee questioned as they watched Alice's snail-like progression through the sand.
Gopher locked eyes with her and grinned. "Front row all the way, babe."
With them racing off after Whit and Alice, Esme's maternal instincts kicked in. "That's our cue, Carlisle. Time to head down to play cheerleader and referee. Unless of course, you'd like Alice to have two reasons to fear putting her feet in the water."
"Misfits?" he questioned, helping her up onto her feet.
"I'm afraid so."
"Then off we go, my love." He wrapped his arm around her waist and they headed down the beach with their hips touching.
Masen waited until he was sure they were out of hearing range. "Kapu, you know that I know that you own other bikinis. Therefore you wearing this particular one is extremely cruel."
Bella looked down at her red bikini; he was certain the innocence in her expression was fake. "This old thing? Really? What's bothering you about it? There aren't any fish on it. No Seuss to rile you up."
"Funny." His annoyed expression was visible in her sunglasses.
She snorted and then chanted, "Red fish, blue fish, Edward finds them all de-lish."
"What was that? Head over and support Alice? Why, yes, Edward, I think that's a lovely idea." She popped up off the blanket which immediately got Lizzy all jumpy and excited. "Want to come cheer on Alice, Lizzy?"
She took the puppy's bark as agreement and scooped her up into her arms.
Bella pushed her sunglasses up just enough to make her eyes visible. Masen was in the middle of trying to figure out why she was doing that when she asked a question. "Want to come along?"
So I can see she means the invite after all the teasing, he thought, already rising to his feet. "Think she'll really do it?"
She shrugged. "Did she say the word 'promise' at any point?"
"No, but she was talking to Whit so I think there's an implied promise there."
When they reached the others, they found that Alice's feet were still completely dry. Masen wasn't surprised by that knowing of her fears, but he was shocked that there was zero teasing going on—only encouraging.
After a half dozen false starts, Alice finally let the surf touch the tips of her toes.
It took another couple minutes of encouragement, and Whit and Bella each holding one of her hands, before Alice was able to submerge her toes as promised. Lee and Esme counted down for her and when she was done, Gopher scooped her out of the water and began to run around with her on his shoulder shouting "You're number one" while she laughed.
"You did it, bro," Masen said, resting his arm on Whit's shoulder. "You got her to set foot in open water."
"Only the toes," his friend corrected. "The foot will follow, though," he promised.
Gopher set Alice down in front of them and patted her on top of the head. "Good job today, Thumper."
She giggled. "Thanks."
"Hopefully next time will be more than your toes," Bella encouraged.
"I don't know," Alice replied, glancing up at Gopher. "I'm not sure I'd survive whatever celebration came with that."
"Watch it, Thumper," Gopher said as he gave her a tiny push forward. "I can hurl you into the water from here if I want."
"I'd pay to see that," Lee piped up.
Gopher rubbed his chin and asked, "How much we talkin'?"
All the color left Alice's face and her eyes grew comically wide. Masen sighed, knowing what he had to do but also really wanting to let her suffer a little first. He took hold of Alice's arm and pulled her over to stand between him and Whit, marking her as protected from further teasing.
"You two stop scaring Thumper," he ordered Lee and Gopher. "Whit's gonna get angry if you make her cry and no one wants to deal with Whit pissy."
"Language," Esme chastised, smacking Masen in the back of the head.
"My language is fine," he protested. "It's your filthy mind that's the problem. Get it out of the gutter."
Alice took two big steps forward and away from the water before turning to face the group. "This has been fun but I'm ready to get away from the water."
"You all heard, Thumper. Get up there and eat the lunch I lovingly prepared for you misfits," Esme ordered.
"Mom, you didn't make lunch," Masen reminded her.
"I purchased the food that you young men turned into lunch so by proxy, I made lunch."
Masen chuckled, knowing it would do no good to argue with her.
They headed up two by two with Esme and Carlisle in the lead, and Lizzy looking pretty happy to be curled up in his arms. Masen's puppy seemed to be getting awfully comfortable with the Cullen family.
Masen was trailing at the back of the line with Bella when she suddenly reached out and grabbed his hand. He was stunned by how much that little bit of contact did to reassure him she would forgive him one more time. She had said as much but then she'd also been a little distant today, which was completely her right with as much as his words had hurt her. He'd just missed her was all.
She smiled at him and said, "That was nice, what you did for Alice."
He rubbed at the bridge of his nose, needing to be truthful but a little afraid of what it might do. "I didn't do it for her. It was for you and Whit."
"I know, but it was nice regardless."
He lifted their joined hands and kissed the back of hers. "Is that what broke the 'look but don't touch' that was going on with us?"
She grinned coyly. "A little reward seemed appropriate."
"What would happen if I kissed you right now?"
"You know, I haven't the foggiest. Why don't you experiment and gather data so we can build a conclusion?"
He picked her up and cradled her butt in his arms, sending her laughter peeling through the air and causing her legs to wrap around him. She felt so damn good in his arms and the weight of her body oddly made him feel comfort more than arousal. He didn't give a damn if he popped every single stitch in his hand, holding her this way was absolutely worth it.
Her laughter stopped as soon as she looked down into his eyes. He knew there was only one color they could be with as much as she'd been on his mind the past couple of days.
"Come here," he whispered, craning his neck to put his lips closer to hers.
Her mouth gently settled on his and they both released a sigh of relief. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, not planning to stop kissing her once he got started.
What began somewhat innocently with just the soft press of lips quickly shifted into stroking tongues and shared breaths. The urge to touch more of her skin was damn near overpowering but he couldn't do that and hold her up at the same time. Her soft hands had no such problem and seemed to be everywhere; each fiery touch of her skin against his made him want to kiss her harder and longer.
Feeling her struggling with her breathing, he pulled back to give her air and took a moment to search her eyes for any sign that she'd felt the kiss had been a mistake. The caramel he saw assured him she was perfectly happy and he was so damn pleased that he had to kiss her again, but slowly and mindful of her struggle to calm her breathing.
He knew they couldn't stay like this all day so he reluctantly set her on her feet but he left his hands resting on her hips, not ready to stop touching her just yet. Her face and chest were flushed red and her hair was sticking to her face and neck from the heat that had built up between them. He laughed at her struggle to push the strands away but quickly started helping once she narrowed her eyes at him.
"So …" he said once he'd freed her from her hair. "I've collected a fair amount of data and it all suggests that my kapu is happy. Would you agree with that conclusion?"
Her coy smile teased her lips, making him want to kiss them all over again. "It's a good theory," she allowed. "But I think further experiments are absolutely required if we're to be certain."
He laughed and hugged her tightly, laying his cheek against her head. "Lucky me."
Whit clapped his hands together and immediately had Masen's attention. "Food's had plenty of time to settle so it's time to hit the water. If you're name's not Masen, that is."
Masen shifted to lean on his right elbow so he could toss an olive at his best friend's head. "You're enjoying reminding me I can't get my hand wet a little too much."
Whit feigned shock. "Me? Never."
"Paddleboards?" Lee suggested. "There's just enough wave motion for them."
"You and Gopher should definitely partake of it," Whit told her. "But Guppy and I have some work to do."
"Me?" Bella cried, twisting to look at him. "What work?"
"You, little fish, need to learn to balance on a surfboard or you will never be able to catch a wave."
"The boards are on the boat," she reminded him.
"Esme's is in the house," he relayed smugly.
Bella tilted her head side to side while she thought over his proposal. "It would be nice to be able to stand on the thing for more than two seconds."
"Bella, shouldn't you—"
Bella cut her sister off with a cross look. "Alice, if I want to learn to surf, then that's what I'm going to do."
Alice's own tone was calm and composed but her brown eyes reflected her hurt. "I was only going to say you should put your hair up. I'd be happy to do it up in a bun for you."
"Oh. Um … Sorry, Alice." She reached for her little sister's hand and gave it a squeeze.
"It's okay. It's my own fault you thought the worst."
"I'm trying to move past that, I really am."
"I know. It's just going to take us some time. It's fine."
"So would you mind giving me a bun? No one does it better than you."
Alice smiled proudly. "Low to your neck or up high?"
After pulling a couple hair items out of the little bag she'd brought along with her, Alice got up on her knees behind Bella and used her fingers to comb her sister's hair back.
"They're going to be fine," Whit murmured just loud enough for Masen to hear.
"I think so too. But what about you and Alice?"
"We're talking, really talking, and that's a good sign. Plus there's a feeling of desire coming off of her that wasn't there before. She wants to fight for me to be in her life and she finally understands that my presence automatically includes yours."
"I wish you luck, bro."
"You better wish your kapu luck," Whit said with a chuckle. "She's gonna need it if her balance is the same as it was in Buffel's Bay."
Masen grinned, remembering the way her drenched ponytail had kept sticking to her wet neck that day. He'd never seen anyone struggle so much, not even the pasty white tourists who took lessons at the beach back home.
"Okay. You're ready for the water," Alice announced. "How far out will you be?" she asked, not completely able to hide her worry.
"We'll only be chest-deep," Whit told her. "Just enough for the surfboard to float under her weight."
Gopher and Lee appeared at that moment, with him holding Esme's board and Lee hugging a few paddleboards in her arms. "I brought an extra in case anyone else decides to join us," she said as she put the extra board down next to Alice.
Esme laid a hand on Alice's shoulder, having seen the same look of fear pass across her face that Masen had seen. "I may join you guys later but first I have to take advantage of Alice's talents and get a bun like Bella's."
"Let's go, peeps. The water's not going to wait on us forever," Gopher declared, nearly hopping from foot to foot in his excitement.
Lee chuckled as she patted his bare chest. "Babe, I love you, but sometimes you make no sense at all."
Whit popped up and walked over to Bella, offering his hand to her. "Shall we?"
"We shall," she answered as she gripped his hand.
They got maybe three steps away before Lizzy barked at them and then looked to Masen with a whine.
"Seriously?" he asked his puppy, not at all used to her wanting to leave his side.
Lizzy whined again.
"Go on," he said, flicking his hand toward Bella and Whit.
Lizzy's happy bark filled the air and then she was up and off, her little legs pumping and pushing her across the sand and towards Bella.
"Huh." Esme's single word said a lot to her son and earned her a glare from him. "I didn't say anything," she defended. "I certainly didn't point out how that's the first time since you brought her home that she's willingly left your side."
"Mom, I say this with absolute love and affection … You suck."
She chuckled. "Love you too, Kid."
Before he could say anything else, he was distracted by Whit's voice. "Don't lean! Don't—I said don't lean."
By the time Masen turned his head, Whit was cracking up laughing while Bella was struggling to gain her footing in the water. Masen's relaxed mood instantly disappeared and he jerked up into a sitting position. By then Bella was already climbing back onto the surfboard.
"This time, don't lean," Whit instructed.
She sounded cross with him. "Then how am I supposed to not tip over?"
"Center yourself. Stay in the middle of the board."
"Easy for you to say."
"Guppy, shut up and stand up."
"You're on your way to being more demanding than Edward."
Whit guffawed laughter. "Not even in your wildest, funkiest dreams. Now stand up."
Bella stood—for about two seconds and then her feet went one way and her body the other, landing her in the water with a loud splash.
Masen was seriously contemplating getting up and going over there, his hand be damned. He'd deal with an infection to ensure her safety.
Carlisle's voice put a halt on his go-stay debate. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were worried she's going to drown. But that's just silly. An educated young man like yourself knows that chest deep water with your best friend standing right beside her is about as safe as it gets. Second only to you standing beside her, of course."
Masen rubbed at the bridge of his nose, wondering when the hell he'd become so easy to read. "More like I'm worried she'll knock herself out when she hits the board instead of the water."
Carlisle chuckled. "Bella mentioned your ability to find the potential for an accident in nearly any situation."
He could feel his ears heating up over the thought of Bella talking about him to her uncle. But he didn't get a chance to really feel the embarrassment because Bella's squeal and accompanying tumble off the surfboard replaced it with a mix of amusement and worry.
"You're killing me, Smalls," Whit told her, repeating a line from that baseball movie he liked so much.
"Stay," he said as soon as Bella was standing solidly.
He headed for the beach, walking straight towards Lizzy where she was sitting and wagging her tail excitedly. "Lizzy, surf?" he asked, getting an immediate reaction from the puppy. She jumped to her feet, lowering her head and raising her tail—the stance Masen had taught her to take on the front of his board.
Masen tapped his thumbs against his legs, hating that he was sitting while Whit had both his kapu and his puppy in the water without him. He knew in his heart Whit would never let anything happen to them but it still wasn't him right there with his girls.
"Watch her," Whit instructed Bella. He put the puppy down on the board and she immediately hunkered down on her stomach. "Lizzy, surf!"
Once again, the puppy jumped to her feet and lowered her head while raising her tail.
"She's leaning," Bella pointed out.
"She's centered," Whit corrected. "She's keeping the majority of her weight low to the board while keeping her body on the center line."
"Yeah, well, she's also got four legs."
Carlisle's chuckle broke Masen's intense focus on Bella; he was still watching her closely but he was also aware of his surroundings again.
"I think your friend may be in over his head with this surfing idea," Carlisle shared.
"She's got it in her head to learn now so he better figure out how to teach her."
"Her stubbornness comes from her father. And maybe a little from me."
Masen snorted. "How's that going to work with you and my mom? She's won awards for her stubbornness."
"Presented to her by you and the misfits I presume?"
"With cake," he confirmed.
"So far we haven't had any issues. Then again, we haven't tackled anything major yet."
He felt anxious all over again but this time it had nothing to do with Bella—it was his instinct to protect his mom kicking in. "What about working on merging your lives? I'd figure that would be major."
"It is, but we both agree there's not much we can decide right now. She needs to see this expedition through and then she needs some time to settle back into her home. As for myself, I've begun the search for a suitable replacement at my company but it's not going to be a quick process. And I won't be leaving completely, which your mother understands and supports. Of course, while I'm reluctant to leave my company in anyone else's hands, I'm also looking forward to focusing more on life than work, especially when that life includes your mother."
Masen smiled, glad to hear that Carlisle was just as serious as Esme about sharing a future together.
"Masen, have you given any thought to your own future?"
"Mom's right that a lot of what she does for us can be done from any computer. Her being with us has been a perk we've all enjoyed and we're going to miss her for sure. But not having her doesn't change anything immediately. The few places we've been eyeing for our spring expedition next year are all still on the table. We're mainly waiting to see what this next six months will bring in the form of conservation laws and penalties. That's really the issue that's going to drive our next few research expeditions."
"Esme explained a little of that to me. If there are more conservation laws in place, then you can diversify your research. If there are no new ones, then you have to continue doing all you can to protect the most endangered groups, such as the sharks."
"That's it in a nutshell."
"It's good to see a young man with his career path firmly mapped out." After a short pause, he added, "But as a father, I'm infinitely more concerned with your personal future. Have you given any thought to what happens when this expedition ends in four weeks?"
"Some," he answered, which was technically the truth. He had been thinking about the internship ending but only in reference to one particular event.
"I know she hasn't mentioned it to you yet, but you need to be aware that Bella is thinking a lot about what comes next. You should also know that you're in all of those plans. She wants to prove a few things to herself first before she talks to you about her ideas. As her father figure, I feel I have to make sure she's not the only one wanting a shared future."
Masen focused on Bella while letting Carlisle's words sink in. She was laughing and using the back of her hand to brush water droplets from her face, having fallen off and gone under once again. She could be his future. She could share his work and his bed and every small and big piece of his life.
But she couldn't do that and be in Atlanta at the same time. He traveled six months out of the year and spent the other six at his home plotting out the next six. During his downtime he could spare some time here and there to be in Atlanta with her, but what kind of life would that be for either of them?
He could ask her to stay. There was technically an opening with Esme leaving. Even without that, everyone on the team had enjoyed having an extra set of hands around so he doubted anyone would care if they created a position for her. But how would that look for her career? What if she ever decided to do something else? Would that become a black mark for her? The whole point of this internship was to better her life, not complicate it. And yet that seemed to be all he'd done so far.
Whit's whooping yell yanked Masen out of his head and onto his feet before he had any idea what had caused the noise. He forced himself to stand still for a second and survey the situation.
Bella was standing on the surfboard. Standing and not falling. And even more amazing was that Lizzy was on the board with her.
"That's it, Guppy! Keep it centered!" Whit cheered.
"It appears Whit has worked a miracle," Carlisle said as he joined Masen.
Masen's focus was still mainly on Bella and he barely even registered that he was talking. "Look at her. She's so damn proud. She shines."
"She shines because she's happy. As long as she has that, where she works will never matter to her."
Masen said nothing, mostly because he had no idea how to respond to Carlisle. He knew the man meant well and had Bella's best interests at heart, but did he really know what she was thinking? How much had she really shared with him? And if she was really considering a different path all together, why wouldn't she have said something? It stood to reason that if she truly felt Atlanta was off the table, she'd say that and ask for the line to be off the table too.
Enjoying the summer could no longer be his only goal. It was time to start giving serious consideration to what happened after. He needed to be sure of what could and should happen, what was generous and what would be selfish. If there even was such a thing as 'after' for him with his trail of mistakes.
"This is odd."
Masen looked away from the sky and toward his mom's voice. "Since when is it odd for me to be up when everyone else is asleep?"
She grinned while relaxing into the seat beside him. "Since you started spending all of your wakeful hours in Bella's room."
He shrugged while looking down at his hands. He'd been out here searching for solace from the stars and the water but nothing was helping. On and off all afternoon and night he'd tried to think about the future, about building a life with Bella. He loved her and he felt absolutely certain she loved him so it should have been easy to picture a version of the future with them together. But every time he'd tried, there had been a question standing in the way and nagging at him … Should he have a future with her at all?
"Edward?" Esme called to gain his attention.
He tried to smile for her sake. "I just needed to hear the waves and see the stars."
"What's troubling you, Kid?"
He didn't answer right away, wondering if he should say anything at this late hour. The team wasn't leaving until noon tomorrow so he could put it off. Realistically, though, Esme would never go to bed without at least knowing what was bothering him.
He cleared his throat and tried to sound like it wasn't killing him to admit this. "I don't think I'm the man Bella should be dating."
Esme gasped and clutched his forearm. "Edward, what in this world would make you say such a thing?"
"I fucked up."
"That's not a valid reason. We all make mistakes."
"Not like me."
"You know, I just read the perfect response a few hours ago … Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear than to obtain what they desire."
"This isn't about fear. I fucked up. I fucked up again." He lifted his head, knowing it would reveal the misery he was feeling. "I hurt her. Yesterday when I was getting stitched up she recited the safety rules to me. Rules I wrote with all of you to protect our team."
His voice rose with his anger and his words sped up with his need to admit all his wrongdoing. "All she did was point them out to me and I went after her. I gutted her like a fish for it. Told her it was my call and it wasn't her concern. Stopped just short of telling her to shut the hell up. Had her thinking I was going to get right back on the skiff and probably had her imagining bigger injuries than the cut on my hand. But that's not the worst thing I did. The worst was not giving a shit if she was scared for me because I was so damn sure I was right.
"And the cherry—" A dark laugh full of disgust for his behavior came out of him. "The fucking cherry on it was it only occurred to me I could be wrong when I wanted to talk to her and she didn't want to talk to me." He shook his head slowly while admitting the hardest part, "I don't deserve her. I'm not good enough for her."
Esme gripped his chin just hard enough to keep him from looking away. "I want you to listen to me very closely and I want you to believe with your heart and forget what your head is saying. If you weren't good for her, you wouldn't have cared to fix whatever hurts you caused yesterday. If you weren't good for her, she wouldn't be learning and advancing. And this is the biggie ... If you weren't good for her, she would not have been the happy and carefree young woman I had such a wonderful day with today."
He shook his head, feeling like he was failing once again, this time to explain himself because if his mom really understood how badly he'd screwed up, she wouldn't be defending him.
"Don't you shake your head at me, Edward Anthony. I know the truth and it's vastly different from the thoughts living in the dark side of your head. Stop looking for the imperfections and look at the truth. Look at how far she's come in getting a handle on her fears. You did that. You gave her everything she needed to get to this point, and you'll keep doing that until she's accomplished all of her goals."
"One good deed doesn't make up for all the ways I've hurt her."
"You're talking silly. You're talking perfection and no man or woman alive can give that to their partner."
"She's kapu, Mom. She's my kapu and she …" He choked on the words as a tear slid down his face. "She deserves perfection. She deserves someone good, someone who can make her happy. Someone who sees what she needs instead of anticipating how she should think."
"Sorry to burst your little bubble but she can't have perfection. No man is perfect. You aren't perfect and never will be, just like I can't be or anyone else in this family. We can't give perfection or receive it because it doesn't exist. No matter how perfect you think Bella is, she's still going to make mistakes because that's what we all do every day in all kinds of big and small ways. That's the real truth and one you better come to terms with before that dark side of yours gets any louder."
She softened her voice some as she continued. "But there's another truth and it's that you love her and want to be better for her. As long as that stays true you will always be good for her. What makes us good people is not our lack of mistakes. It's our owning up to them and working hard to not repeat them, to do better. To be better. You love her enough to fight for her happiness and that makes you deserving of her love in return."
When he didn't respond, she asked, "Why is it that you can forgive all of us for our mistakes but the very idea of forgiving yourself is ludicrous to you?"
"Because it's different."
"When you guys make a mistake, it's a lack of knowledge or an innocent error. When I screw up, it's because I missed something. It's my job to look at the situation and find the issues before the mistakes ever happen. When I fail at my job, other people get hurt."
"Edward, you're trying to apply work logic to your personal life and that's never ever going to work. You don't love Bella because it's logical. You aren't attracted to her because it's rational. You feel an undeniable pull to her. You feel the light of her soul calling to your own. Love is … Love is this beautiful, intangible, incomprehensible passion that amplifies every emotion a person is capable of feeling. You smile when she smiles because you feel her happiness and the same goes for her when she sees you smile.
"The only thing you will ever accomplish by trying to force perfection from yourself is to disappoint yourself and all those who love and care about you. When you hurt, we hurt. End of story."
"It's hard to switch," he admitted. "When I'm dealing with work, which used to be all the time, I have to take emotion out of it so I can make the absolute best decision for everyone. I'm not sure how to let it in for the personal stuff."
"It's going to take time and practice before it feels natural, but I have every confidence that you can do it. When you're with your kapu, give your head a break and let your heart take the lead. You didn't give her that special name on a whim and you didn't do it because your head thought it was a good idea."
"No, I didn't," he agreed, thinking of the first time he'd called Bella kapu.
Esme must have seen her words were working because she suddenly teased him. "Edward, after all you went through to keep Alice from interfering with your relationship, are you really going to let your head get in the way?"
"It would be a waste of a lot of hard work," he mused, unsure of what else to say.
"It would," she agreed with a nod. "Especially since your head doesn't have all the answers. There are a great many that reside solely in that big, beautiful heart of yours."
"I'm sorry if I worried you," he said while covering her hand with his. "I just feel so damn awful about what I did and nothing I'm doing to make up for it is easing that."
She grinned at him. "Maybe you'll feel better after your date night."
"How did you know?" he asked with a groan.
"Bella's my girl. We talk." Esme's response had them both laughing.
"I was thinking since she likes the viewing deck so much that we'd have dinner up there."
"You'll need a few decorations. Oh, I know just what to pack for you to take on board."
"That would be great. Thanks, Mom."
"Damn, Kid, you are feeling bad. You didn't argue or even attempt an eye-roll."
"I told you."
Esme leaned over to put an arm around his shoulders and press her head against his. "I'm going to ask you this and I want you to really think about it before you answer me. Deep in your heart, do you really think anyone can love Bella more than you?"
His mind immediately went to the wounded look on Bella's face in the kitchen yesterday, making him wince. But then all he could see was Bella's smiles. The ones from today, from their walk through Cape Town, their playtime on the beach with Lizzy, and that huge one after her first dive. Looking back on all of their time together, he had definitely brought her more smiles and laughs than tears.
He met Esme's eyes as he answered her. "I know I love her and I want to be with her."
"That voice, that one in your heart you can't tune out when every other part of you is saying to listen to your head, that voice is Elizabeth's. She's guiding you, helping you to grow from her special boy into a wonderful man. Trust that voice, Edward, because it's yours too."
He sniffled quietly, forcing his wet eyes to hold in their moisture.
Esme smiled and ruffled his hair, giving him a break by pretending she didn't see the tears standing in his eyes. "Come on, Kid. It's late and we've got cuddling to do with our significant others."
He stood and helped her to her feet and then he gave a kiss to her left cheek in thanks to her, and a kiss to her right in thanks to Elizabeth.
Once they were inside, he asked, "Is this one of those times when I need to share with Bella?"
"You can if you'd like to get her opinion, but you don't have to share every moment of self-doubt you experience. Just don't ever keep it to yourself. Always come find me or find Whit and talk it out with us. Promise?"
He nodded. "Promise."
She nudged him in the side with her elbow and spoke in a sing-song voice, "Someone's got a big date coming up."
Masen smiled for the first time in hours. He also gave his mom a huge appreciative hug. "Thank you."
Her smile filled her face. "Always, sweetheart." She gripped his shoulders and gave him a small push toward Bella's room. "Go be with your kapu. I'm gonna go snuggle my man."
He looked back at her while saying, "I wish him luck putting up with you."
She winked at him. "He's already gotten lucky once tonight."
"Mom," Masen cried with a groan. "Why?"
"Because I love teasing you, Kid." She grabbed his arm to keep him from walking away. "You know, maybe if you get lucky yourself, you might finally get out of your head. And for good."
"Mom." He'd said it as a warning.
"I know, I know," she said, putting her hands up. "But you know, that line of yours is just another way you're trying to force yourself to conform to perfection. And the most unnecessary. There is no reason you can't feel that deeper connection with your kapu and still be an amazing and successful mentor to your intern."
He expected a rebuttal to pop right into mind but it didn't happen.
"Think about it," Esme said as she kissed his cheek. "Goodnight, Edward."
After grabbing a glass of water and making sure the house was locked, he slipped into Bella's room and climbed into bed beside her. She immediately reached for him, draping her arm across his chest while curling against his side. He admitted to himself that if he wasn't doing a good job of apologizing, she wouldn't want him in her bed. The fact that she'd locked her door on the boat was proof that she would let him know when she was unhappy.
Esme's words came to him … Men go to far greater lengths to avoid what they fear … He didn't want to fear Bella. He wanted to be open to a life with her and even to all the changes that would bring.
He couldn't give her perfection; he accepted that now and could see where he'd been a fool for thinking it was possible. But maybe what he could give her was better. He was sure it was stronger at the very least.
He would give her his desire.
A/N: Masen is a lucky man. He has supportive friends, an understanding girlfriend, and a loving mom to pull him off the ledge of overthinking. We're excited to see how his talk with Esme affects his tomorrow.
So proud of Bella for finally finding balance on that board! Now she just has to work with Masen to find balance with him in both of their relationships.
Have a great weekend and thank you all so much for sharing this journey with us!