Authors: Nancy Straight
“I don’t know. Will was pretty adamant that we go straight to the airport.”
“Pshaw, we’re in the lead SUV. The others will follow us wherever we go.” The next thing I knew, Bianca was giving directions to the driver. We were off the main highway, down an alley that looked barely big enough for a donkey and cart, around a corner too tight for a Lotus, and on a dirt road with ruts large enough to hide small sports cars.
Drake's cell phone rang, then Gage's, then Brent's. Gretchen's voice echoed in my head, "
What's going on? This isn't the way to the airport.
I heard Drake, Gage and Brent answering similar questions to whomever had called them. "
Bianca decided to take a detour for lunch. It won't take long.
We were driving deep into the jungle. If it had been anyone other than Bianca, I would have been worried – but so far, each of her “ideas” had been amazing.
When our SUV came to a stop, we were in a market of sorts. I use that term loosely. All four vehicles wedged themselves into a secluded parking lot. There were men dressed in some sort of ceremonial bird costumes asking if we wanted to take our picture with them. A small train waited for a child who wanted to pay the few pesos for a ride that looked like Barnum and Bailey may have retired it half a century ago. Shops lined each side of us offering souvenir t-shirts at five dollars each, ugly statues of characters I couldn’t identify, and thousands of coffee mugs, glasses, key chains and every other trinket one might find in a tourist trap.
I tugged on Bianca’s shirt, “
is your favorite place?”
Her perfect smile shone back at me. “What? Not into the local culture?”
“Where are we? How is this your favorite place?”
“There are some Mayan ruins a couple miles down the road – Tulum. Gage and I found this place when we were here for our honeymoon. When cruise ships pull into port, this place is swamped with people, but today, we won’t have to fight the tourists for a decent burrito. Follow me.”
Bianca walked past all the vendors without so much as a second glance at them. She smiled and shook her head as she passed the bird men. She took us to a restaurant – sort of a restaurant. There was a huge grill, a counter, plastic tables and chairs sprinkled around a room. I could hear Will on his phone trailing behind us, “. . . Delay an hour. Make sure we’re fueled and ready to go.”
Will, Gretchen, Bruce, Hannah, Beau, Lacey, Ben, Bart, Brent, and Katherine hung back a little taking in the place. Bianca, Drake, Gage, and I were looking at the menu written in English on a chalk board on the back wall. The man greeting us was quick to offer suggestions. My stomach rumbled with delight at the smells emanating from the grill.
Having grown up in San Diego, I’d eaten at Erlbertos most of my life. My order there was always the same – Carne Asada Burrito and an ice cold Coke. The smell of this place made me homesick for the cuisine of San Diego. None of the Erlbertos were five star restaurants, but the memory of how much I loved their food came rushing into me as the aroma of this place assaulted me.
We ordered and what was delivered to our tables was nothing short of burrito heaven. I was on my second bite when Bianca slid her hand over my lunch. “Wait, you’ve got to try the hot sauce.”
Gage shook his head, “No, she doesn’t. Just because you’re trying to burn a hole in your stomach doesn’t mean you should try to inflict agony on your friends!”
Bianca shot back, “Oh stop. This sauce is pure flavor.”
Gage turned to me and warned, “Don’t listen to her. I put some of it on my burrito and burned my taste buds off. I couldn’t taste anything for a week!”
Bianca rolled her eyes and gave her best southern belle accent, “You, my love, are exaggerating.” She turned to me, “Cami, live a little.”
I didn’t even like spicy salsa. After Gage’s warning, there was no way I was trying any of her hot sauce. “Hmmm, I think I’ll pass this time.”
She grabbed a thin short bottle labeled, “Atomic Sauce.” She didn’t use it sparingly, and even the man behind the counter warned, “Es muy caliente, señorita.”
Bianca was beautiful and had the poise of a beauty queen. Her complexion after a week here was a golden-bronze, and her perfect blonde hair was never out of place. If Barbie were a real person instead of a toy, she would be Bianca. This near-supermodel leaned over her plate inhaling a fat burrito; even more unexpected were the tears streaming freely down her cheeks and the snot running like a faucet from her nose. My image of Bianca as a beauty queen was officially blown forever after seeing her like this.
I handed her a handful of napkins as Gage shook his head at her and asked, “More water?”
Without waiting for her to answer, the man behind the counter ran over to our table and put two cold bottles of water in front of her. She uncapped the first and sucked down half the bottle before she could answer, “Gracias.”
When she sat up and leaned back in her chair, her eyes were as red as the peppers on the hot sauce bottle’s label. Her tear ducts were working overtime as tears continued zipping down her cheeks. I grabbed Gage’s arm and asked, “Is she going to be okay?”
“I’m convinced that little lady could substitute plutonium for orange juice at breakfast and never miss a beat. She’ll be fine.”
Hardly able to believe her reaction to the sauce, “Is it really that hot?”
Gage smiled, “Here, try this.” He took a toothpick and dipped the tip into the offensive bottle. “Put just the tip on your tongue and you tell me.”
I did as Gage instructed. The width of a toothpick is less than a millimeter, yet touching it to my tongue felt like I had just gargled with battery acid. “Holy crap, Bianca! Do you have a superpower or something?”
Tears still rolled freely from her eyes, but her enormous smile shone through. “I like it hot.”
Gage wrapped his hand over hers, “Okay, Super Girl. Finish your lunch. We’ve got a plane to catch.”
Bianca bought two bottles of the Atomic Sauce and slid them into her purse. We climbed back into the awaiting SUVs and were at the airport thirty minutes later. The jet was waiting for us. Beau was the first one up the steps into the jet with Lacey right on his heels.
We were all settling in for the long flight when I looked around for a quick headcount. I only saw twelve counting Drake and me. Will and Gretchen were sitting in two seats facing Ben and Bart. Gage and Bianca were sitting across from Drake and me. Bruce and Hannah were snuggled up on a sofa with a portable DVD player between them. Katherine was sitting on a chair watching Brent stuff something large into a closet. Twelve. Who was missing?
The captain’s voice came on the speaker, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you aboard Strayer Air. In the event of a water landing, your chair serves as a floatation device, but I recommend latching onto Ben because he’s wearing enough cologne to repel even the hungriest shark.”
In disbelief I turned to Drake, “Is Beau flying the plane?”
I could hear the laughter in Lacey’s voice over the intercom, “This is the co-pilot. We’ll be cruising at thirty thousand feet, so in the event of a water landing, sharks should be the least of your concerns.”
Drake touched my knee, “Relax, Cami. All your brothers have their pilot's licenses. I’ve flown with Brent and Ben lots of times.”
“Brent and Ben? But not Beau?”
His hand cupped my knee in a reassuring way, “He’s just goofing around.”
Will stood up from his seat and closed the exterior door. He leaned into the cockpit to say something to Beau then returned to his seat. Everyone looked at ease, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to be talking about water landings on a private jet. The engines throttled up, and we taxied away from the terminal. In a matter of minutes, we were airborne.
I couldn’t be sure, but guessed that Gretchen sensed my apprehension. Her words calmed me, “We will be there in about nine hours. Don’t let Beau frighten you; you couldn’t be safer.”
“Seeing the future, or wishful thinking?”
“Both, I think,” she offered.
A question had been eating at me, so I asked, “Will Zandra know when we arrive?”
“The message you sent with her enforcer left little ambiguity. She will be expecting us.”
I hesitated, already knowing the answer, “That was a dumb move, right?”
“Not necessarily. Rumors have been rampant since you and Drake escaped in South Dakota. The enforcer’s account of Cancun will only increase the Council’s curiosity.”
Katherine had been listening because she offered, “You have nothing to fear. If you don’t want any Centaurs to know your whereabouts, I’ll disguise you.” Katherine had hidden Jessica in plain sight from a highway patrolman who knew she was in the car. She could do the same if we needed it.
Brent now sitting beside Katherine echoed, “Plus there isn’t an enforcer breathing who hasn’t heard what happened in Cancun by now. Not one of them is going to come after us without thinking twice. Sending your messenger was a brilliant idea.”
I looked around to nods and smiles in all directions. Ben stood up, “Yeah, Bart and I are expecting multiple proposals as soon as we touch down. Centaurides are going to be scooping us up like Coach bags on clearance.”
“Coach bags? Don’t you mean avoiding you like the bird flu?”
Ben’s easy smile answered, “Think about it. For thousands of years our herd was supposedly extinct. We pop up out of the blue, kick enforcer ass all the way back to Africa, and have the new Chairman of the Council in tow. We’ll have to shoo all the Centaurides away.”
“Or they’ll shoot us out of the sky before we touch down,” Bart added. All eyes turned toward him and he defended, “What? None of you have ever read Sun Zsu’s
Art of War
? That’s what I’d do.”
Beau was standing, leaning up against the wall just outside the cockpit, “Nice Bart. No one, not even the Chairman herself would fire on a family plane, and you know it.”
Bart shook his head, “This has chaff and flares right?”
Beau’s brow furrowed, “We aren’t flying into a war zone.”
Shutting down the argument in favor of a more pressing question, I asked, “Hey, Beau, who the heck is flying the plane?”
“Autopilot. This thing could take off and land by itself, too.”
Surprised by his cavalier response, I asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be watching gauges or something?”
“Watch them do what? If something goes wrong, an alarm will go off. That’s when everyone can bend over, pucker up, and. . . ”
“That’s enough, Beau!” Gretchen interrupted. “I think we would all feel a little more at ease if you were at least pretending to fly the plane.”
Beau reluctantly turned around and went back to his assigned seat. Gage hadn’t been paying attention to us, instead preferring to look out his window into the clouds.
Only loud enough for the four of us to hear, I asked, “Gage, are you okay?”
He nodded, squeezing Bianca’s leg beside him. “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for either of you.”
Drake leaned in closely, “Neither of us wants you or Bianca caught up in this mess. When we land, you two should take the plane back to Charleston.”
Gage frowned, “That’s not what I meant.”
“I know it’s not, but it’s time you start thinking about your own future.”
Bianca’s words to Drake were quiet, but sharp, “Don’t you get it? We wouldn’t have a future if it weren’t for Cami.”
Gage didn’t look as sure, “Hear him out, Bianca. There’s no reason for you to be there. I could accompany the Strayers and you could head back home.”
Bianca glared, “You run that idea past your daddy? After he spent his whole life protecting Cami’s mom, how do you think he’d feel if at the first sign of trouble, we tucked tail and headed home?”
Drake held up his palms, “Easy, Bianca, that’s not what Gage is saying.”
“We are not leaving you. End of discussion.”
Gage turned his attention back to the window. “I don't want to let Zandra have a second bite at the apple.” He squeezed Bianca's leg a second time, without looking at her, "She could kill you for real this time."
(Gage Richardson – Over the Atlantic Ocean)
The scene was all too real, again. It was bad enough when I woke up in a cold sweat, but my nightmares had now invaded my conscious thought. In a matter of hours I would be face to face with the woman who tore my world apart. She was deceitful and treacherous; she had stolen Bianca from me before, and I couldn’t stand the thought that if given the chance, she might really send Bianca to the pasture this time.
I had always thought Dad a hypocrite, giving his betrothal vow to Angela, then allowing her to slip away in the night. He married my mother to keep our blood line going, but there was no love between them. From the moment I could understand his words, he told me never to settle for anything less than love. He said it was in our blood: Aphrodite had put magic inside us, and we would never find happiness if we didn’t find our true love. Dad was kind to Mom, but he never loved her, and no matter how hard she tried, she was never Angela.