Along Came a Spider 2/C7

A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx

Song inspiration for this chapter: “Witchy Woman,” Eagles

(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

Chapter 7

As I approach the waiting SUV, an older man with dark features and kind eyes that crinkle at the corners when he smiles, opens the rear passenger door for me. After offering a greeting and my thanks, I glance inside. Jess and Angela are sitting in the back, while Deedee is in one of the middle seats with the closest one empty and waiting for me.

“Hey, everyone. Sorry for the wait.” Apologizing for my delay, I climb inside and notice everyone has a bottle from the little cooler between our seats.

“Finally, Bella,” Jess says with a grin. “Any longer and we were going to end up with an all-new wardrobe from the resort boutique.”

After fastening my seatbelt, I smile and reach for a water bottle. “I’ve seen the clothes in there—that wouldn’t be a bad thing.” I don’t share that I wore some of them last night at the photo shoot.

“It will be for my bank account.” Jess chuckles.

“You should have joined us at the bar near the main pool,” I offer between sips. “I can’t walk past that place without a margarita calling my name. Sorry, not sorry.”

“That wasn’t the only thing calling your name,” Deedee adds, referring to Romeo.

I roll my eyes at her playful teasing, but before I can comment, Jess jumps in with another question.

“So, what did you do last night, Deedee?”

Deedee shifts in her seat. “Marcus and I had a romantic dinner, then we took a walk along the beach. It was amazing.”

Jess shifts her focus back to me. “Bella? What about you?”

“Edward had a photo shoot yesterday that turned into dinner and drinks with everyone involved until late. It was a mix of business and pleasure,” I explain without giving too many details since we could be sharing some of those photos with D Magazine in the future.

“What did you two do?” Deedee asks, looking between Jess and Angela.

“We went dancing at one of the resort bars,” Jess shares.

Deedee smiles. “Sounds like fun. I can’t remember the last time we did that.”

“It was fun until James started making trouble—saying things to Ben that aren’t true,” Jess discloses. “He got into a fight with Vladdy, and they threw us out of the bar after Vladdy punched him.”

Deedee gasps. “What did James say that would prompt such a reaction?”

“He claimed that Angela stole his shirt. How stupid is that? As if she can’t buy her own clothes or she would ever do something of that nature. Please,” Jess scoffs. “James is so full of shit.”

Turning my head, I glance at Angela for any reaction to Jess’s comments, but she remains silent, staring out the window and appearing lost in thought.

Deedee turns farther around in her seat. “Angela, is everything okay with you and Ben?”

Angela’s gaze meets mine briefly before she looks at Deedee, then shrugs her indifference. “Nothing that can’t be worked out.”

That’s an optimistic view of their situation. I’m not sure how much Deedee knows, but it sounds like Angela hasn’t been honest, if Jess is defending her so adamantly. I’m also thinking it isn’t James who “is so full of shit.”

I take Edward’s advice and steer the conversation away from any further discussion about that situation for the rest of our journey. Once our driver parks the SUV, he informs us that our adventure will continue on foot. We follow along passing brightly colored storefronts until he starts down the opening of a dark alley, causing Jess and Angela to stop in their tracks.

“Wait! Hold up.” Jess raises her hand. “Where is he taking us?”

“A little store off the beaten path I heard about not far from here,” Deedee reveals.

Jess shakes her head. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“Me either,” Angela agrees.

“What’s wrong with all the shops we’ve passed? Bella, look!” Jess points behind me. “There’s even a chocolate shop down the street. I can see it from here. We should check it out.”

Once my eyes land on the sign, I can feel the immediate draw in that direction and utter a low, “Damn.”

The universe isn’t playing fair this afternoon, first a pineapple margarita, then dropping Edward into my path, and now, chocolate. I feel my willpower evaporating quickly until I hear Deedee from beside me.

“We are shopping,” Deedee defends her plans. “He’s taking us to more of a specialty shop than these touristy ones. Don’t you want something a little . . . different?”

“Different? Sure. Creepy? It’s a no from me,” Jess says.

Unsurprisingly, Angela sides with her bestie. “Me too.”

“I’ll be shopping here—” Jess states, pointing toward the stores around us. “Not wherever he’s leading us. That doesn’t look safe.”

“It’s safe. I wouldn’t suggest we go there if it wasn’t,” Deedee assures, then turns to me with a hopeful expression. “Bella?”

I nod, giving her a confident smile. “I’m going with Deedee. We’ll be back and catch up with you in a little while—maybe in an hour? How about you save the chocolate shop until last and we’ll meet you there?”

Jess eyes our waiting guide suspiciously. “Are you sure, Bella?”

“Hey, we’ll be fine.” I reassure, hoping I’m not wrong.

“Okay.” Jess turns reluctantly, leading Angela toward a nearby shop before glancing at us once more.

When they’re out of earshot, Deedee turns to me. “I knew they would bail.”

“You were right.” I shrug, but my eyes narrow on Angela. “Maybe I’ll buy Ben a voodoo doll as a souvenir.”

“Bella! Listen to the spice on you—that margarita is coming through.” Deedee laughs, then lowers her voice. “You sound like you could have some insider information on Vladdy punching James. It’s never over something as simple as a shirt, is it?”

“No it isn’t, but I detest gossip,” I confide.

Me too.” Deedee sing-songs, then snorts. “That was my best Angela impersonation. Oh, wait, I can mix it up with a ‘me either.’ She is so far up Jess’s ass that she’s going to need a map to find her way out. Damn. And Jess? Does she ever stop talking? The entire way here, she barely took a breath. I took her to a yoga class on Monday and thought they were going to kick us out with her constant chattering.”

We dissolve into a fit of giggles.

“Jess isn’t that bad and they’re best friends. So, I get it. Plus they work together,” I explain. For a moment, I wonder if that’s the kind of relationship I’ll ever share with Victoria. Maybe. Maybe not. I have several close friendships, especially the special bond I share with Al, and of course, Rose. “We should get going. Now that I know there is chocolate waiting at the end of this rainbow, I’m excited to continue with your bewitching adventure.”

Deedee chuckles. “Okay. Thanks for sticking with me. I promise—this will be worth it.”

“Well, I’m not going to hold my breath if it isn’t. I don’t have any expectations, but chocolate has never let me down. So I’m positive we’ll finish our shopping trip on a sweet note.” I grin.

With a nod to our guide that we’re ready, Deedee and I follow him through the maze of alleyways where the relaxing lull of softly crashing ocean waves and endless sunshine doesn’t reach. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s lost, when he stops, then directs us toward a nondescript door at a dead end, but he refuses to go any farther. As our driver and guide, I thought he would also be our translator for this trip, if necessary.

“Does the shop owner speak English?” I ask. James’s Dora-the-Explorer Spanish is light years beyond mine, and I’m a little concerned we will be on our own from this point.

He nods and whispers, “Si.”

Deedee squeezes my arm gently. “It’s okay. I speak Spanish.”

“All right.” I nod, then turn toward our destination.

Taking the lead with Deedee following closely behind me, I can’t see inside any of the darkened windows as we approach. After pushing open the creaky door, announcing our arrival, it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the low light. Searching for anyone in the cluttered space, my eyes finally land on a woman sitting at a table with a lamp and an open book in front of her.

“Ah, I knew you would come.” She nods, then smiles.

I’m a little surprised by her greeting, but our guide undoubtedly gave her a heads up about Deedee’s interest in her shop. We offer polite hellos as I push the door shut behind us.

Closing the book, the dark-haired woman stands and introduces herself. “My name is Jacinta, if you have any questions.”

“I think we’re going to look around for a bit,” Deedee suggests.

“Of course. Take your time,” she encourages.

My eyes roam shelves of labeled clear glass jars, filled with every herb imaginable. After recognizing many of the items, my attention drifts toward an area overwhelmed with various-sized figurines and candles, all featuring a familiar-looking man.

“Who is this?” I wonder.

“San Judas Tadeo,” the woman shares. “He is known as the patron of difficult causes and solves the impossible—unemployment, financial crisis, homelessness, marital problems, but he is known throughout the world for his miracles in healing.”

“Hmm.” I nod, moving onto other areas.

The woman’s dark eyes follow us while we shuffle around the small space. When Deedee reaches out lightly touching an intricately carved wooden cross, Jacinta breaks the comfortable silence that settled between us.

“Ocote. That’s the wood. It is for good luck. You are drawn to it.” She smiles.

“It’s lovely. You practice . . . white magic?” Deedee asks.

Jacinta shakes her head. “White magic. Black magic. The color doesn’t matter when we are all magical beings. It is about intention. Either a witch chooses to practice with the intent to harm none . . . or not. Magic, at its simplest or most complex, lives in the power of thought.”

I consider her words since Edward is guided constantly by the power of positive thinking, and I’m surprised to find a form of that notion hidden within these walls.

We listen as she waves toward a display of votive candles and continues. “There is something peaceful about watching a candle burn with its soft glow and flickering light. Candles are a transformative tool used in magic. They are in perfect elemental balance with the universe, harnessing the power to send a message from the physical plane into a spiritual one.”

“I love candles,” Deedee shares.

“Every color represents an intention. Red for love and passion—the color of blood, which flows through the heart. Many select green for wealth, as we associate it with growing seasons creating abundance, but also . . .” Jacinta pauses as her eyes shift between Deedee and me before her gaze remains on Deedee, softening slightly. “Fertility. That is what you seek, correct?’

While I know this is true, Deedee’s eyes widen with surprise, indicating she hadn’t shared this tidbit prior to our visit.

“Yes.”

Jacinta nods, disappears behind a deep purple velvet curtain, then returns moments later with a wax sealed envelope she offers to Deedee. “Your world undermines the most important aspect of having a baby: serenity. Your doctors have filled you with doubt and disillusionment. It’s time to embrace the spiritual realm. Upon your return home—with your husband—what you seek can be found inside.”

I have no idea what could be inside the envelope, and Deedee doesn’t question it. I wonder for a moment how she knows that Deedee has a husband until my eyes land on her wedding rings, concluding Jacinta must be exceptionally observant.

“How much?” Deedee asks.

Jacinta smiles. “For you, nothing.”

“Thank you.” Deedee returns her smile, holding the envelope against her chest, then lowers her voice. “Is it wrong to buy all the candles?”

“Yes. We have candles at home.” I grin.

“But not these candles,” Deedee defends, then teases. “You sound like my mom.”

I chuckle. “If you can’t resist the urge, then simply pick one.”

“You’re no fun. I’m buying more than one,” Deedee vows, filling her arms with a variety of colors.

Waving toward a nearby jar, I ask, “What are these?”

“Avocado leaves for inflammation or pain,” Jacinta explains. “I advise my customers to boil them as tea before bed and drink the liquid while hot.”

Slightly alarmed by the unusual items hanging overhead, I point to a gathered arrangement, hoping they aren’t what I suspect. “And those?”

Without looking to where I’m pointing, her eyes never stray from me. “Dried skunks—used to strengthen blood.”

That’s what I thought. Ick.

It’s a sharp turn from candles into a whole other world.

“And next to those?” I wonder.

“Dried rattlesnake skins. They are used as cancer medications.” Her emphasis on that particular word draws my attention. Before I can ask another question, Jacinta shares an unexpected observation. “You’re a healer.”

I tilt my head in question, wondering how she can make that observation when we only met moments ago. She shouldn’t know anything about me. “What leads you to believe that?”

“Intuition. Your energy is different from my typical customers. Am I wrong?”

“I’m a dentist,” I share.

“I’m not speaking of your profession. It is only a small extension of you, but that does confirm my assessment.” Her eyes pass over me once more. “You’re thoughtful, inquisitive, and nurturing. As a compassionate listener, it’s easy for you to assume the role of natural confidant. People are drawn to you because you’ve worked to heal yourself from within.”

I hate to admit it, but she’s right, especially about the last part. “How do you know that?”

“Because, I recognize myself in you. May I offer you a tarot card reading? Do you have a specific question or situation where you’re seeking guidance about your future?”

“No.” But even to my own ears it lacks any real surety.

“Then perhaps a general reading?” she suggests. “Sometimes it can be about gaining insight or confidence in decisions you’ve already made.”

“Intriguing.” I’m skeptical, but this is all in good fun, and I know Deedee wants me to connect with something here. “How much?”

Jacinta hesitates for a moment looking between Deedee and me.

“For you, thirty dollars.”

I chuckle because, for some reason, I miss out on Deedee’s discount. “Twenty,” I counter. With no interest in purchasing any of the items here, I conclude that if I can get out of here for only twenty dollars, then I’ll call this a win.

Jacinta nods on our negotiated price and beckons me to follow her to the cloth-covered table where she was sitting when we entered the shop. Taking the seat on the opposite side, I’m not surprised when the cash I slide across the table disappears quickly. Jacinta opens an old weathered box containing a deck of cards and shuffles them multiple times before spreading the cards in a single line.

“Please select six cards and leave them face down on the table,” she instructs.

After pulling my selections from the deck, we watch as she gathers the remaining cards into a neat stack and sets them to the side. Deedee squeezes my shoulder in support, and we wait only a moment before the woman reveals my first selection, sharing her reading.

“The first card is how you feel about yourself. You selected The World, which means you’re about to reach or already enjoying a period of personal fulfillment, wholeness, and satisfaction—the arrival of your heart’s desires.”

I smile. “Well, that’s good news.”

Jacinta nods, flipping over my next selection. “Your second card, The Hermit, is what you want most right now. You want to know what to do, as well as enjoy the companionship of someone like a lover. Perhaps you have felt exhausted and in need of rest. Now is the time for rest and recuperation.”

“Perfect card for someone on vacation.” I shrug, then look up at Deedee. “See the cards are begging us to return to the resort where I was doing exactly that. Never underestimate the power of tacos and margaritas. They’re medicinal too.”

Jacinta chuckles before continuing with my reading. “The Moon is your third card, which represents your fears. Lies and insecurity are likely to be prominent in your life at the moment. You fear being deceived, but you should trust your instincts and allow them to guide you away from someone using you for their own gains.”

Her reading for this card is less vague than the previous two, which I believe could be generalized for anyone. This one feels as if it’s screaming about my situation with Sam, and there’s no way she could have known about that.

“I’ll give you that one,” I confirm. “My ex-boss is the king of deception. We have parted ways recently.”

Jacinta’s eyes lock with mine. “Your turbulent emotions are muddying the waters. You should take a step back to achieve clarity. It may seem difficult, but the moon will illuminate your way and it will all work out in the end.”

My emotions have been turbulent to say the least, but when I think about Sam, I only see red. Stepping back? I wonder if that’s about settling the cost for his damages or filing a lawsuit against him. Either way, I am making gains toward a new future without him in it, but I still need resolution where he’s concerned and I can safely put him behind me.

“Good to know.” I release a steady breath.

She smiles. “The High Priestess is the fourth card you selected and indicates what you have going for you, which is overwhelmingly your intuition. It’s important for you to listen and listen carefully because the secret you want revealed most will be shared with you soon.”

Secret?

“Bella, that’s exciting,” Deedee encourages.

I nod my agreement, pondering what it could be only briefly, as Jacinta continues, flipping over my next card.

“The fifth card you selected is Temperance. It signifies what is going against you. Your life may seem hectic and full of challenges. You may find it difficult to have the right perspective at times, and you may have a rival in love or at work. This is a time for you to consider whether the relationship or job is right for you. With calm and patience, your life will return to normal.”

Love rivals? I wouldn’t consider any of the women in Edward’s past to be threats, and I know if he truly wanted to be with any of them, we wouldn’t be together now. For me, it’s that simple. I’m not someone who fixates on past relationships. It took a while to get to where I am mentally, but I’ve learned to let that stuff go. Edward and I are taking the next steps toward building a future together, and neither of us would be doing that if we weren’t feeling confident in our connection.

As for work, I worry there is some underlying concern about Victoria I may have overlooked, but she’s such a straight shooter; I can’t imagine our new partnership being an issue. Maybe it’s about Sam again. He is a rival, and with time, our growing practice will become a threat to him.

“Okay. I’ll keep that in mind.” I nod, encouraging her to continue.

“Your sixth and final card is . . .” She pauses, watching me before turning it over. “Death, which indicates the likely outcome.”

I gasp and my heart sinks while my eyes search hers, considering the possibility of losing anyone around me. My thoughts shift instantly to my mother and her health. I blink rapidly, forcing away the tears forming there, and attempt to get a handle on my emotions. This is why I don’t do these sorts of things. They plant seeds of doubt, and for an overthinker like me, they can be detrimental.

Blowing out a shaky breath, I ask courageously, “Who?”

“No.” She shakes her head as if she can read my spiraling thoughts. “Not who. The card means that this is a transformational time for you. No matter how turbulent or distressing things are in your life, endings always leave room for brand new beginnings. You’re getting a fresh start. You should embrace it and live every day as though it were your last. Life is for the living and you’re emanating with life.”

Only marginally relieved at her explanation, I nod and utter a soft, “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She reaches across the table and cups her hand around mine, giving it a supportive squeeze. “Life is a web of interconnectedness with an exceptional balance between strength and fragility. Spiders have a special place in magic and witchcraft because they inspire us to examine our choices as we move forward weaving and creating our own destinies.”

At Jacinta’s mention of spiders, my breath catches at the thought of my spider. Looking up at Deedee, she gives me a knowing smile when she realizes where my thoughts have drifted.

“What did I say?” Jacinta asks, looking between us.

I shake my head. “It’s probably nothing, but my boyfriend’s nickname—it’s Spider.”

A smile tugs at the corners of her lips and she gives my hand another squeeze before releasing it. “Lucky you. Have patience—like a spider, your diligent work will pay off. And don’t fear your own vulnerability because changes are coming your way, including a life full of new beginnings . . . with your spider. You can learn a lot from him. There is no better teacher. He thrives through calm persistence and you will too.”

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

When Jess spies us walking toward the chocolate shop with bags in both hands, she grins. “Hey! There you are. What did you buy?”

“Don’t ask,” I warn. Shifting my shopping bags to one hand, I pull open the door of the store and the inviting scent fills me instantly. “This must be what heaven smells like. I think I’ve found my new home. Let’s do some damage. Come on, I’m starving.”

Jess lowers her voice. “What did she buy?”

Deedee snickers from behind me as they follow me inside. “Candles.”

“You went to a candle shop?” Jess’s brow furrows with confusion. “That’s where you were going?”

“No. The shop had a little of . . . everything, and I mean, everything. Bella also bought snake skin capsules, but we left the dried frogs and skunks.” Deedee makes an eek face.

Jess’s eyes widen with surprise. “Holy shit.”

“I warned you.” I raise my eyebrows at Jess. “We were simply helping out a female-owned, small business. I always support buying local.” Then my gaze shifts to Deedee. “And you don’t have to tell everything, you know.”

I don’t need any judgment about my purchases from Jess or Angela, regardless of how out there they could be. I may need them as a last resort.

“My lips are sealed about the rest, but I got you two something.” Deedee smiles, digs the two amulets from her shopping bag, and hands them to Jess and Angela.

Jess holds hers up in the light. “Oh, mine looks like a couple with a heart carved between them?”

Deedee nods. “That’s right. Yours is a couple amulet for finding love and harmony with your partner.”

“Aww, that is so sweet.” Jess admires the trinket before tucking it into one of her bags. “Thank you.”

I notice a woman working behind the counter waving me toward a display with a variety of samples. Glancing over the flavors offered, I select one I’m hoping is spicy, then drift back toward the others just as Deedee is explaining the amulet in Angela’s hand.

“Angela, yours is a sun amulet for finding happiness, harmony, and prosperity in your life,” she shares.

When Deedee asked for my opinion about purchasing a couple amulet for Angela too, I revealed there may not be enough luck in the world to fix her current situation. So, I steered Deedee toward a different selection.

Angela nods. “Thanks, Deedee.”

“What did you two buy?” Deedee asks, pointing toward their bags.

“Nothing as exciting as you two. Mostly clothes. A new purse.” Jess smiles, then notices me chewing. “Bella, what are you eating?”

Finishing my mouthful, I grin. “Pure bliss. They have samples. That one was guajillo chili and dark chocolate. It was as spicy as I hoped, but I’m trying the cinnamon and dark chocolate next. We should order hot chocolate for all of us.”

“Sounds great. Count me in. I think I’m going to find a restroom,” Angela says.

“I’ll go with you,” Deedee volunteers. “Jess? Bella?”

“I’m fine.” I wave off her concern. “Just hungry.”

Jess smiles. “Me too.”

Deedee nods. “We’ll be right back, but order me one too.”

“Sure,” I agree.

After I place our order, Jess makes a selection from the chocolate sample display, and we continue looking around the shop.

“I’m ready to buy one of everything here,” I confide with a chuckle. Reaching for another chocolate disc, I notice a chocolate shampoo with other products and point toward the bottle. “I’m definitely getting this. Can you imagine smelling like chocolate twenty-four-seven? I’m all over that.”

Jess nods, and is unusually quiet as we look through the various products. I wonder if something is wrong, but before I can ask she breaks the silence growing between us.

“Bella . . .?”

“Yeah?”

“I . . . uh . . . we haven’t really had a chance to talk.” Her gaze locks with mine. “You know, just us.”

“Oh, we should make plans to do something together,” I suggest.

“That would be great.” She smiles, but it fades slightly. “I like you and hope that our friendship will . . . continue.”

I grin. “Of course it will. I like you too.”

“I don’t want to jeopardize that, but there’s something I need to share with you. And I’m not really sure the best way to say it,” Jess says hesitantly.

“You—at a loss for words?” I tease, but another glance in her direction reveals her seriousness. “Should we sit at one of the tables?”

She nods. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.”

Jess follows me to a small table with four chairs and we stow our bags at our feet.

“What’s on your mind?” I prompt.

“I haven’t even talked to Fin about this, and I’m not sure if I will. Maybe that depends on how I do with you. I guess I’m just going to dive in.” She blows out a deep breath. “You know that I’m close friends with Rose.”

I nod. “You were college roommates, right?”

Her eyes light up. “Right. Good. This is good. We were. And that’s the time I need to talk with you about. College.”

“Okay?”

“And . . . Edward.”

I shake my head slightly. “Edward didn’t go to college with Rose.”

“That’s right. He didn’t, but he did come to visit her in Texas several times. We had a group of friends who hung out together regularly. When Edward visited, he brought a buddy or two, and they joined us,” she explains, then pauses long enough for me to connect the dots.

“Are you saying that you . . . dated Edward? Is that what this is about?” I wonder.

“I wouldn’t say date,” Jess admits nervously.

“Oh.”

They hooked up.

For a moment, I wonder if this is the secret Jacinta spoke about earlier during the tarot card reading. Maybe I’m reading too much into that experience because if I remember her words correctly, this secret that Jess is sharing certainly isn’t something I want revealed most. I still have no idea what that could be, but since Edward hasn’t mentioned Jess previously in this context, then I can only conclude it wasn’t a significant relationship for him.

“Yeah oh. I was probably a little naïve back then—or a lot.” She chuckles. “And hung up on the idea of something that never was. It took me a little while to get over Edward, which I don’t believe was ever an issue for him. I never told Rose—I was too embarrassed—and still haven’t. I mean, what would I say when there wasn’t really anything to say? Has . . . has Edward mentioned it to you since we’ve all been hanging around each other? I didn’t know if maybe he had and you were keeping your distance because I don’t want that to be the case.”

“No. He hasn’t, but we’ve had discussions about relationships in our pasts,” I share.

“Oh, God. And of course, I never came up.” Jess slumps against the chair. “I feel like such an idiot for even saying anything now. I should have kept my mouth shut and taken it to my grave.”

“That’s not true. It was bothering you, and I completely understand wanting to get it off your chest,” I reassure. “My conversations with Edward were more about how we’ve grown, what we’ve learned, and how we aren’t who we were back then. We both have history, and there’s no point in denying it. The choices we made—sometimes those were good ones and sometimes they weren’t.”

“Have I made everything weird between us?” she asks, then shakes her head. “I didn’t want to do that, but I’m afraid I have.”

“Not at all.” I reach out and squeeze her hand. “If it makes you feel any better, and I was in your position when my roommate’s smokin’ hot brother showed up? I would have probably made the same choice. College is a time to date or whatever you want to call it—find the right relationships, or even the wrong ones. Those have an element of fun too.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Jess agrees. “I was an expert at finding the wrong ones.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You knew Edward when he was younger—a teenager, and I’m positive he attracted a lot of attention. He still does. It’s the nature of his profession and unrealistic to believe he wouldn’t date freely.” I shrug. “I know I did, but the difference is that my relationships weren’t given the spotlight he has experienced. That’s probably why he’s more comfortable with sharing our relationship publicly than I am.”

“Well, I don’t mind Dem sharing our stuff on his accounts. I do it too, and I keep hoping it will deter the women who send him messages constantly. Hell, I’ve considered posting a picture of me pissing on his leg and wondered if it would help.” She laughs.

“I never thought of handling the attention that way.” I snort. “But, please don’t ever do that.”

“Bella, it’s ridiculous the number of women out there with absolutely no shame. They’re relentless,” she confides. “Unfortunately, it feeds into my fear that Dem is going to dump me for someone younger since there is such a large age gap between us.”

While her fear isn’t unfounded, I’m privy to Demir’s engagement plans and do my best to ease her concerns without giving anything away. “Has he ever said or done anything to indicate he isn’t happy?”

“No. At least I don’t believe he’s talking with other women, but it would be fairly easy to conceal when they’re on the road traveling for their games constantly. Am I still being as naïve as I was with Edward?” she asks. “It’s driving me insane. I love Dem so much and I don’t want to lose him. How do you deal with the unwanted attention?”

I nod, realizing our common issue of outside influences, but I hadn’t considered random women sending Edward messages constantly. “I trust Edward and our communication is key. We commit to being present with one another every single day. I can’t imagine going a day without talking to him in some way, even if it’s simply a text. So, what does Demir do with the messages he receives?”

“He says he doesn’t respond and deletes them.” Jess shrugs.

“That should tell you everything you need to know.” I smile reassuringly. “You have to trust him or your relationship isn’t going to last. Focus on what matters most in this situation—Demir’s reaction to that sort of attention—he’s shutting it down because he’s found what he needs with you.”

Our conversation halts when Angela and Deedee return just as the sweet woman from behind the counter delivers our hot chocolate to our table. With the first sip, we moan our appreciation since it’s as delicious as I anticipated, with lingering notes of cinnamon and cayenne. Once our mugs are empty, we purchase a variety of items from the store, but my favorite souvenir is an authentic hot chocolate set. It includes a traditional Molinillo whisk, handcrafted glazed mugs, and a clay jug to replicate our experience when we return home.

During our trip back to the resort, Jess receives a text from Demir, letting us know about their delayed arrival. I check my phone to find I also have a message from Edward.

Please don’t be upset with me.
We won’t be back until later tonight.
Past our dinner reservation.

He sends the sad face and praying hands emojis.

Is everything okay?

Yeah, we’re doing an unplanned team building activity. 😉
I’ll share more once we’re back. Marcus is a handful.
Reassure Deedee that he’s okay and with me.
Plus, we can’t find his phone anywhere.

Will do.
Did you cancel our dinner reservation?

Not yet.

Then maybe I can keep it, and add the ladies?
We’ve had chocolate, but we’re still hungry. LOL

Why am I not surprised?
Enjoy your dinner.
I’ll see you tonight.
I love you! X

I love you too! xx

Tucking my phone back inside my purse, I relay Edward’s message to Deedee who only rolls her eyes, and everyone agrees dinner together is a great idea. Jess adds the dinner invitation to the wives and girlfriends group chat, increasing our number for dinner to include almost everyone by the time we arrive back at the resort.

After a brief call to the restaurant, they’re able to accommodate our large group easily, but we all take a moment to change and freshen up before our dinner reservation. Dressed in one of the brightly colored sundresses from last night’s photo shoot, I meet Deedee near the main pool, and we arrive for dinner together.

With breathtaking sunset views of the Pacific Ocean, our table fills with fellow significant others, excited to share their day’s adventures. We feast on mouth-watering Mexican cuisine and bottomless margaritas. Deedee and I are finishing the cinnamon sugar dusted churros with chocolate sauce when we notice our guys entering the restaurant. Once Edward spots me, they make a beeline for our table.

“Hello, beautiful.”

“Hey, handsome. You’re back.”

After kissing my lips, he nods. “We’re back.”

I notice a bandage on Edward’s arm and look between him and Vladdy who seems to be helping to steady Marcus. “Oh, no. You lost zipline racing?”

Edward shakes his head. “No, Vladdy claims it was a tie, and I’m letting him believe that.”

“Spider. Not cool. We agreed it was a tie,” Vladdy defends.

Edward grins. “Afterward, we all decided to get team tattoos.”

Deedee starts laughing. “Oh my dear husband. I can only imagine.”

Edward nods. “It was Marcus’s first. We didn’t realize his fear of needles, but with a little help, he has one too.”

“Help?” I wonder.

“The league tests us regularly, but there’s more leniency with things like CBD oil or cannabis. So we went with that to help him with the anxiety and pain. We may have given him a little too much, but I coached him through the process, explaining that it would be different from what he feared, feeling more like a cat scratch.”

“I’ve been scratched,” Marcus slurs with his arm wrapped around Vladdy’s shoulders. “But nicely. They were nice needles. Not the bad ones.”

“It should wear off by morning. Vladdy and James got cool looking spiders and webs added to their team tattoos. Mine includes everyone’s jersey numbers. I’ll show you later,” Edward promises.

Clinking her glass with a knife repeatedly, Jess gets everyone’s attention, then stands, holding her refilled margarita glass in the air. “With the arrival of my sweet boyfriend, it’s time for another toast, but Dem, this one won’t be about hockey. Nobody here gives a fuck about Lord Stanley’s Cup. Where’s the equality? What about Jessica Stanley’s pussy?”

“Oh, hell.” Demir moves around the table.

“The Stanleys have a cat?” Marcus asks. His brow furrows while his confused eyes search our faces for the answer.

Deedee chuckles. “I think that’s our cue to call it a night.”

Demir sets the drink from Jess’s hand on the table and lifts her over his shoulder to the sound of her delighted squeals.

“We’ll see everyone tomorrow,” he says.

From her upside down position, Jess holds out two fingers. “We’ll be back in two minutes. Demmie’s dickie needs a quickie. Don’t let them take my margarita. I’m not finished yet.”

Demir shakes his head. “You’re finished. Say goodnight, Jess.”

“Goodnight, Jess.” She giggles as they depart the restaurant.

Deedee gives me a hug before she leads the way back to their suite with Vladdy agreeing to tag along until they get Marcus settled. At their departure, Edward pulls me from my chair and into his arms for another kiss.

“Did you get a chance to eat?” I ask.

“Yeah, we did, but I may eat something else later.” He glances briefly at those still drinking at our table. “Are you ready to go? Or do I need to handle the bill?”

“I’m ready, and no, I gave everyone a last call not long ago, then signed off on our bill. Was that okay—putting it on our account?”

His grin widens at the thought. “Absolutely. Let’s get out of here then. I’m ready for some alone time.”

With his arm wrapped around his shoulder, I slide mine around his waist as he kisses my forehead before we exit the restaurant.

We’re walking along the path when Edward asks, “Want to know a secret?”

My ears perk up at the word, and I tilt my head back, looking up at him. “Sure.”

“While everyone’s D on their tattoo stands for Dallas, mine stands for Doc.” Edward winks, pecking my lips.

“Not your smoothest line,” I tease.

He raises a challenging eyebrow. “You want smooth?”

I release a dreamy sigh, squeezing him around his waist. “I just want you.”

His grin widens. “I was hoping you would say that.”

“Uh-oh, what are you up to?” I wonder.

“You’ll see.” Edward detours, leading us toward the empty courtyard and into the pick-up area of the resort where a car is waiting. “We’re taking a little trip.”

I chuckle. “A vacation from our vacation?”

“Yes. So, . . . James is at our villa . . .”

It takes me a moment to figure out what he isn’t saying or why he’s waiting for me to fill in the blank, then it suddenly clicks. “Oh—with someone.”

“Yeah. One of our zipline guides,” Edward shares. “They were into each other all-day, and she showed up at the tattoo shop before we left. He offered to fix her dinner, and I told him it was fine since I made other plans for us.”

“Wow.” I shake my head. “Let’s hope she’s single.”

Edward backs me against the side of the car. “I was serious when I said I need alone time—just us. We’ve been with everyone since arriving at the airport Sunday morning, and I’m not going to apologize for being a little selfish now. We’ll be back on Friday for the final team dinner before we fly to Dallas on Saturday.”

I nod. “I guess I’m realizing this week is flying by too quickly. So, we’re missing the day with everyone on the boat tomorrow?”

“Yeah, we’re missing the boat.” He smirks. “They’ll be fine without us. James and Vladdy know where we’ll be.”

“Don’t I need to pack . . . something?” I wonder. “I don’t even have my phone or purse with me.”

“You won’t need your phone, but I have mine just in case,” Edward reassures. “I packed everything we’ll need in a bag. It’s waiting inside.”

“And there’s something in the bag?” I ask skeptically.

“Yes. Don’t you think I know what you need by now?” he defends.

“There’s a difference between what I need, and what you think I need,” I point out.

“You’ll soon find out I have been exceptionally observant.”

I’m not convinced. “We’ll see about that.”

He reaches for the door handle, opening it for me. “Let’s go, Doc.”