On Tuesday, just outside of Amarillo, she made Edward stop the car on the shoulder of the highway, and then she dragged him across a huge field. In the distance, several cows lazily observed their progress.
Edward argued the whole way they were probably trespassing, but he too stood in awe when they finally reached their destination: ten upended Cadillacs half-buried nose-down in the rich ploughed-up earth.
Later, they would learn that the nose-down machines were millionaire Stanley Marsh III's pop-art homage to the fifties. But right then, to Bella, the magical absurdity of the half-submerged cars charmed her utterly. She wasn't sure exactly why. She supposed it was partly the twenty rear wheels hanging in the air, as if the row of old luxury cars had dived from the sky in tandem only to land nose-down in the mud. But mostly, the sight made her think of Esme, who had set her off on this grand adventure, and whose own Caddy had bit the dust in the desert between Palm Springs and Prescott.
"Oh, Edward, isn't it great?" Bella breathed reverently.
Edward shook his head. "Only in America," he said. And then he pulled her into his arms, told her she was crazy and kissed her right there for all the cows to see.
"Why Edward," she said with a sigh when he was finished. "What's happened to you?"
He gazed down at her ruefully. "Something wonderful," he said. "Something wild."
They spent that night in Amarillo. The next morning, Bella placed another of her mysterious phone calls and then informed Edward that they were detouring down into Texas.
Wednesday and Thursday, they rode through wide open spaces and wandered the streets of Lubbock and Abilene, cutting across the center of the state Dallas-Fort Worth and then back up through Wichita Falls. They spent the night there Thursday.
And it was as she lay against Edward in the wee hours, experiencing those nagging pangs of guilt, that it suddenly struck her: six days was a very short time. Though it seemed as if they'd barely begun, their time together was coming to an end.
After a leisurely brunch the next morning, they crossed the Red River and entered Oklahoma, reaching Oklahoma city late Friday afternoon.
"Let's just keep driving," Bella suggested her voice sounding too light, almost brittle to her ears. Since the night before, when she had at last admitted that the moment of truth was approaching, she'd had to make a concentrated effort to keep from bursting into tears every time she looked at the map and realized how close they were getting to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Edward cast her a quick sideways glance, and a warm smile. "Where to?" His window was down, his bronze hair blown slightly by the wind. He looked tan and relaxed. Fit as ever, but not one bit tense. If her goal had been to get him to lighten up, then she could give herself a big hand for a job well done.
For some reason, though, she didn't feel much like clapping.
"Bella?" Edward's glance this time was tinged with the beginnings of concern. "Something wrong?"
"No. No, nothing." She looked down rather blindly at the map, and forced her eyes to focus on their route, "Henryetta," she said.
"Oklahoma. Henryetta, Oklahoma. That's where we have to be tonight."
"I've learned never to ask why." Edward smiled at her again, an open, good-humored smile, the kind of smile he had for her all the time since their magic night in Albuquerque. The kind of smile she'd probably never see again after they met up with Esme and the full truth was revealed.
Our last night, she thought. Tonight.
Suddenly, this moment and every moment of the brief hours ahead seemed infinitely precious. Bella wanted to memorize every second, to imprint each fleeting heatbeat of time on her senses for all the years to come.
She turned to look out her open window. Oklahoma farmlands rolled by, great expanses of new corn and stillgreen wheat. The air that swirled in to tease her hair and caress her face held the moisture of a land crisscrossed with rivers, so much different than the thin, dry air of the south-western deserts that they'd left behind when they reached the Texas panhandle three days before.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Edward said, sensing her appreciation.
"I wish it would never end," she said,
Edward said nothing. Bella dared a sideways glance at him, but the glance told her nothing. He drove with easy concentration, one elbow resting in the open window.
"But it is going to end," she added, though she knew she shouldn't.
He glanced at her, and then took his gaze back to the road. "Did you imagine it wouldn't?"
"I didn't let myself think about it"
She felt irritated with him, though she knew it was unfair. "What's happened to you , anyway?" she heard herself demanding. "You're certainly taking this all in stride."
"Isn't that what you wanted?" His tone was infuriatingly mild.
"You could at least pretend that you're going to miss me when it's over," she said, sounding like a petulant child and hating herself for it
"Don't be a brat, Bella. And stop trying to pick a fight."
He glanced at her again, and that was all it took. She admitted to herself that she was indeed being a brat and subsided into silence in her seat.
After a time, she said, "We're going out tonight, Edward."
He chuckled. "For a wild night on the town in Henryetta, Oklahoma?"
"Exactly. I'm getting a major message in Henryetta's hottest night spot."
"I see." He sounded very tolerant. Very patient. And why shouldn't he? He'd waited almost a week, and now the truth he'd bargained for would finally be his. He could wait a little longer with ease and grace.
"It's going to be our last night together, Edward."
"Oh, is it?"
"Yes. And I'm going to do my very best to make sure that you never forget it."
The night spot that Bella chose was only a few miles from their motel. She'd found it by asking their waitress at Ken's Pizza about Henryetta nightlife when Edward had gone to the restroom.
"You mean like a club?" the waitress had quizzed in that soft friendly twang of the native Oklahoman.
When Bella had assured her that a club was exactly what she meant, the waitress had given her directions.
The Cubhouse, as the sign out front proclaimed, was surrounded by a parking lot bursting with cars. The building itself looked like nothing so much as a huge gray barn, complete with rounded roof and clapboard walls.
"This isn't bad at all," Edward murmured after paying the cover charge and leading her to one of the tables against the wall. Bella said nothing in response to that, but his implication didn't escape her. Since he'd known her mood was rash, he's probably expected some sort of honky-tonk dive.
He glanced approvingly at the two burly uniformed security guards near the door. Bella knew what he was thinking: if there was going to be trouble in Henryetta, Oklahoma tonight, it wasn't likely to happen at The Clubhouse.
A cocktail waitress came by and Edward looked at Bella. She shrugged. "A beer." He asked for one, too. The cool, long-necked bottles came and Bella and Edward sat just sipping for a while, listening to the fiddle player in the band at the end of the dance floor. Bella took in the layout of the place, thinking without much enthusiasm of how she was going to have to lose him for awhile receive her latest-and final "message."
The big room was arranged in a horseshoe shape, with the bar at the toe end, the dance floor in the center, and the band in the heal. She and Edward sat on one side of the "Shoe." Across the way were rows of pool tables.
Though she tried to concentrate on her surroundings, Bella's gaze kept returning to Edward. He was wearing the dressy Western clothes she'd made him buy when she'd dragged him through Luskey's Western Store in Fort Worth. His yoked dress shirt had mother-of-pearl-snaps. His smooth weave-cowboy hat bore a Mansfield cutter crease. A silly lump formed in her throat as she thought of the two of them, poring over the ats together, arguing over styles and colours. In the end, he'd bought the hat she liked.
He caught her looking at him.
"Love that hat," she got out over the noise from the hand.
He took it off and set it on her hair, winking at her when she had to tip her head up to see him.
The wink almost did her in. It took all the will she possessed not to burst into tears. She realized she had to escape him for a few minutes, to get her emotions back in line.
She slid out of her chair, setting his hat on the table as she went. "Be right back."
"Bella?" he asked, his voice tinged with apprehension. But she kept moving, leaving the elevated seating area behind and losing herself among the couples on the dance floor.
Not looking back, she ploughed through the dancers, murmuring "Excuse me's" right and left as she went.
Bella emerged from the dance floor and rushed up the few steps to the other side of the room, her eyes brimming with tears she was determined not to shed. The tears, unfortunately, blurred her vision. That was why she rammed right into two hundred and fifty pounds of pool player just bending over to drop his winning shot.
Unaware of the sudden deathly silence in the immediate vicinity, Bella tossed off another "excuse me" and tried to forge on. But the pool player grabbed her arm.
"Just a minute there, little lady," he said.
Bella furiously blinked back the tears and stared up into a narrowed pair of small brown eyes. "I-I'm sorry," she stammered. "I wasn't paying attention."
"You just blew my game." The big man's breath was ninety nine proof. Bella realized that though he spoke with deadly clarity, the man was far from sober. He pointed to the felt. "You see that ball there, little lady?"
"You mean the eight ball?"
"That's right." He chose each word carefully, as if he was talking to someone of minimal IQ. "I was just about to drop that ball, and now, see that man over there?" He pointed to a rangy character across the table, who was leaning against his cue stick grinning.
"That's Lester. And now Lester is going to get a turn. Lester ain't as good as me, but he's good enough."
"Look, I am really sorry-"
"Let her go." Edward's calm quiet voice seemed to cut through the air behind her.
The big pool player was looking over her head. "This yours?" he asked, as if Bella were something that dropped out of Edward's pocket. "She's real nice to look at, but she needs to learn to pay attention to where she's going."
"I said, let her go."
Bella whipped her head around to see Edward moving in. His face was utterly, terrifyingly composed. Frantically, she scanned the room for the security guards. One was across the room near the door and looking in the wrong direction.. The other was nowhere in sight.
Edward had reached her side. She was sandwiched between the two men. Though the band played on and the dancers on the floor two-stepped merrily along, everyone in the immediate vicinity seemed to be watching with bated breath.
The pool player and Edward stared at each other. Bella glanced from one hard face to the other.
"Look," she said. "I was in the wrong. Isn't there some friendly way we could settle this?"
The pool player peered down at her. And then back up at Edward Then his broad face split in a challenging grin.
"Sure," he said. "Let's dance."
"Forget it," Edward said. "Let go of her arm."
"No," Bella cut in quickly. "Edward, its all right." She shook off the pool player, who released her since she'd agreed to his terms.
Placatingly, she laid her hand on the front pocket of Edward's shirt. "It's okay." She stared up into his expressionless face, willing him to let her handle this herself
After a moment, he backed away. she felt the collective exhale breath as everyone nearby realized a fight wasn't the offing after all.
"All right," she said to the pool player. "Let's dance." She walked ahead of him out to the floor, thinking it wouldn't be so bad to stand a foot away from him and gyrate to the music the way most of the dancers were doing.
Unfortunately, a slow number started up the minute they reached the floor. Bella was immediately hauled hauled against a barrel chest by a pair of beefy arms.
"By the way, I'm Del."
She craned her neck to look up at his heavy face-the action was also an attempt to keep a reasonable space between his body and hers.
"You mean Del as in Delbert?" she asked sweetly.
His wiry brows furrowed. "I'll let it pass this time, pretty lady, for you. But I'm warning you now. Nobody-but nobody calls this old boy Deber." He yanked her close again and exhaled the threat against her ear. She was once again reminded that he wasn't entirely sober. "What's a gorgeous thing like you doing with a weekend cowboy like that?"
Bella had the urge to stick her two fingers in Delbert's beady little eyes and stomp on his foot. Instead, she murmured sweetly, :He's not what you think at all. Actually, I'm his prisoner."
"His what?" Delbert blessedly pulled back for a moment, long enough to scowl down at her disbelievingly.
"I'm his prisoner. He's on the trail of Esme Mason. And I'm his only lead."
Bella scoffed. "You never heard of Esme Mason?"
"Sure, I heard of her," Delbert muttered defensively. "I got a tv, you know." He yanked Bella back against his chest. "But I don't believe you for a second, little lady. You're just havin' you some fun at this old boy's expense."
His huge hand was rubbing her back through her thin camisole top. Bella tried to bear with that, but when his hands slipped to the pocket stitching on her skin-tight black jeans, she drawled, "One inch lower, and you'll be shooting pool one-handed, Del."
Mercifully, his hand roamed back to where it belonged. "How 'bout you and me, we ditch that guy you came with and have us some fun?" he whispered suggestively in her ear.
The dance ended. "No, thanks," she said. She whirled neatly out of his arms-and into Edward's, who had been waiting on the edge of the floor.
They danced in silence for a while and Bella clung to him, aware from the stiffness of his body that he wasn't entirely happy with her, but grateful for his clean scent and the firm strength in his arms.
Once or twice she tipped her head to glance up at his face, appealingly, she hoped. But beneath the shadow of his hat brim his expression remained stoic. She was just about to suggest that they depart The Clubhouse and return to the motel when a beefy hand tapped Edward on the shoulder.
Del Dearborn had not surrendered. "Mind if I cut in?" he said, in a pushy mockery of courtliness.
"Yes," was all Edward said. He went on dancing.
"I asked real polite-like." Del's hand closed over Edward's shoulder.
"I suggest you remove your hand," Edward said. He'd stopped dancing, and so had most of the couples nearby.
"Where you from?" sneered the pool player. "Yale? And where'd you get this fancy hat?" He whipped the hat that Bella loved off of Edward's bronze head.
"Delbert!" Bella cried, unable to contain herself. "You give that back!"
"What'd you call me?" Delbert turned to Bella.
"Stay out of it, Bella," Edward ordered.
"I will not. He's an ass. And he's not going to get away with it!"
"I warned you not to call me that, little lady." The music played on, but most of the dancers were still.
Bella planted her hands on her hips. "Delbert," she said. "Give that hat back this minute!"
"Better do it, Del," one of the unmoving dancers advised. "That lady sounds serious."
Delbert dropped the hat on the floor and stomped on it..
Bella saw red. With an exclamation of total frustration, she leaped at the big pool player. She never made it, though, because Edward stepped in front of her and neatly decked the giant with a hook to the jaw.
The rest was total confusion. When Delbert dropped among the dancers, he didn't go down alone. He was like a massive tree falling in a forest, taking everything in his way down with him. Suddenly, in the tight press, everybody had a punch to throw. All the men jumped to the defense of their ladies and everyone thought the next guy was out to get him.
It was a brawl, pure and simple. A free for-all that two security guards could no more quell immediately than Noah could stop the flood. As fists flew and bodies reeled around her, Bella had only one thought: the hat that they'd chosen together. That precious hat that he'd bought to please her. Edward wasn't going to lose his hat!
She kept her eyes on it, through the milling press of bodies, as boot and high heels unheedingly kicked and pummeled it toward the edge of the dance floor.
Edward had a hold of her arm. "Damn it, Bella. Let's get out of here..." He was trying to pull her in the wrong direction.
She shrugged him off and dived for the hat. Her hand closed around the brim as Edward caught her again, yanked her up just before an alligator boot came down on her arm, and hauled her backward through the throng.
Ducking flying chairs and dodging wild punches, he dragged her behind him up to the raised level by the bar and into the hall beneath the sign that said 'Restrooms.' She dared one last glance at the room as they left it. Delbert Dearborn, sporting a bloody nose and the beginnings of a black eye, was being held firmly between the two burly guards. Gratifyingly, he looked as if he'd had enough of picking fights for the night
Edward tugged her right past the restrooms to the end of the hall and the emergency exit there. He shoved at the red bar, cursing under his breath when the alarm went off.
Together, they ran into the cool, moist night air, pounding through the rows of cars of the waiting chrysler. Edward unlocked her door, shoved her inside and leaped the hood to his side.
She reached across and had his door open for him before he got there. He started up the engine and backed out.
Miraculously, Edward got them out of the parking lot without incident. Bella held her breath for the whole time, because the other drivers who'd somehow also managed to escape the fracas were zipping out of spaced with no awareness of what might be behind them. To Bella, for that heart-stopping few minutes, the parking lot seemed like a giant game of bumper cars played for real.
But soon they were back on the short strip of highway that led to their motel, and shortly after that, the chrysler was sliding into the parking space near their room.
The car seemed eerily silent when Edward turn off the engine.
"We're lucky we weren't invited to spend the night in the local jail," Edward said after a moment.
"I know." Bella looked down at the cowboy hat, still clutched in her hands. It was smashed flat and covered with dirty boot prints. the unwelcome tears rose to her throat again, pushing for release.
"I suppose you're going to tell me you received your next set of instructions during the scuffle," Edward suggested blandly.
She forced herself to look at him, feeling the tears pooling in her eyes, and willing them not to well over the disgrace completely.
"No, Edward. I'm not going to tell you that."
"So you've got to make a phone call?"
For a moment, he just looked at her. Then he asked, "Are you trying to tell me something, at last?"
Bella kept her chin defiantly high. "Yes. There are no instructions to get in the first place."
There was another silence, an awful one. Then he asked carefully, "What do you mean?"
Bella dragged in a painful breath and told the truth."I made them up. All of them. Since Esme's phone call at the Boca Grande Cafe in Winslow last Sunday morning."
A/n: I'm so sorry for very late update. I got writers block halfway through this, but i worked my way through it and actually got a decent chapter out :)