Authors: Nancy Straight
I didn’t believe the notion that anyone could possibly feel that much for another, choosing instead to believe he was a heartless bastard who didn’t deserve Mom. That was until I met Bianca. She wasn’t like all the other Centaurides I knew. I hated that part of our society: the Centaur always waiting, hoping against hope that a Centauride would choose him. Odds were stacked against us guys – one Centauride for every five Centaurs. There were no dates, no trips to the movies or school dances – courtship was similar to a job interview. Which original family do you belong to? Where did you go to school? What skills does your mother have? Choosing a mate was cold and calculated on the part of nearly every Centauride I had ever known.
When I was only sixteen, Bianca challenged me to a foot race. An absurd challenge – I could run like the wind and she knew it. I trotted along beside her at a decent clip as she made a sharp right turn and headed into the endless swampy pine forest just on the back side of our high school. After nearly ten minutes of running, she accused, “You’re not even trying to win.”
“Of course, I am. You run like a gazelle.”
Bianca’s face turned into a mischievous grin. “Let’s sweeten the pot. If I win, you’ll take me dancing on the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach this weekend.”
I laughed: if that were my price to pay for losing, I’d find a stump to trip on. “Do you have an escort in mind? I feel a cramp coming on.”
That’s when she lowered the boom, “Oh, yes, if I win I’ll choose the escort. If you win, we go without one.”
We both lied to our parents that weekend and nearly every weekend after. After we sneaked around for years and came close to being caught I don't know how many times, I began hinting around that she should choose me. Each time I brought up the mere idea of a betrothal, Bianca changed the subject as if it were the furthest thought from her mind. I loved her. I craved the feel of her skin, the warmth of her breath, the neediness of her lips. I wanted to give her my pledge, tying our souls together for all time, but I couldn’t give her the pledge until she chose me.
We had just graduated from college when word spread through town that she had selected my best friend Drake. He was the one Centaur I had confided in; Drake knew our secret. Bianca called sobbing after I had already heard of her proposal to Drake, “Mom won’t hear of a betrothal to you. She hates your grandfather. I can’t choose you, Gage. I thought time might wear her down; it’s been years, but she refused to hear of it. Mom told me I could choose, but if I didn’t choose a Centaur in the next month, she would select a Centaur for me. I’m so sorry – I thought if I chose Drake we could still at least be around each other.”
My heart felt as though she had inserted a serrated blade and was slowly removing it from my chest. “Be around each other? So I can watch my best friend and the woman I love make a life together?”
“If I chose anyone else, I would never see you again. I can’t have you, but with Drake as my husband, I can still be a part of your life. I’ll take you in whatever way I can get you – even if it’s from afar.”
It hurt like hell because I loved them both. I was angry – so angry that I sat on the phone with her – unable to speak. The hurt wouldn’t go away. I had been betrayed by the woman who held my heart, the only woman I would ever give it to. I cut ties to both of them. No phone, no texts, no email – I even enlisted Mom to tell me where Bianca was before I left the house each morning to make sure our paths didn’t cross. Not that I left the house often; I was heartbroken and grieving for a love never to be.
It was in those weeks of pain that I finally understood my father’s words. He hadn’t been a hypocrite. The love that coursed through my veins for Bianca was all-consuming and her loss was indescribable. To have her plucked from my life was akin to having the fiber of my being, my soul, stolen. For the first time in my life, I understood how Dad had felt for Angela. Angela took his heart with her when she made her escape.
The day Bianca called and pleaded with me to meet her at Andolini’s for lunch was to be my last dose of the drug my body craved. It had been over a month since I had seen her. I still couldn’t think straight. The hurt refused to subside, but I convinced myself that after one final meeting with her in public, it would be over. I told myself that the reason I hurt so bad was because I never got a chance to say good-bye in person. I swallowed what was left of my pride and agreed to meet her for pizza.
As I stood in the parking lot staring at the doors, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. Would I be strong enough to let her go again? Would I make a fool of myself and break down in front of a restaurant full of people, begging her to run away with me? My head began to throb as my heart raced out of control and blood hammered through my body. She was just on the other side of those double doors. My feet shuffled forward of their own accord. She was pulling me to her. I glanced back at my car, considering a fast getaway in favor of the pain that awaited me inside. I took a breath to steady myself. Five minutes – I could do this, I could say my final good-bye and let her go for good.
When I stepped inside the restaurant, there had to have been music playing and people talking, clanging in the kitchen, but I neither heard a sound nor saw anything beyond Bianca’s beautiful face. She pulled me over to a small table. Her words were like music. “Camille Strayer is going to choose Drake. He’s going to break our betrothal. Do you know what this means? If he breaks our betrothal, I’m free. She’ll be embarrassed that her daughter has been jilted by her betrothed. Mom will let me choose you. Gage, we can be together.”
Her words sunk in slowly. Could it be true? Had she found a way for us? I knew all the Centaurides our age in the area – we all did. I’d never heard of Camille. “Who's Camille Strayer?”
“It doesn’t matter who she is. A psychic Centauride from the Barber herd told me it’s going to happen. I’ve seen the two together. They’re like electricity.” A giddiness resonated in her words, “Gage, we can be together.” She reached across the table and took my hand in hers. Tingles spread up my arms.
A pressure had set heavy on my chest for weeks, constricting my breathing. In that moment, I took in a lungful of air. A warm glow traveled from my heart throughout my body – all would soon be right with the world. I didn’t care what herd this Camille Strayer came from – if anyone asked me, she was my angel of mercy.
The joy I felt that day was short-lived. No sooner had Bianca begun her plotting than my angel of mercy was stolen out from under me. When Camille disappeared, she took any hope I still grasped onto that I would be with Bianca.
Drake was devastated. We’d been best friends since childhood, but this wasn’t something we could talk about. He was betrothed to the woman I loved and mourning the loss of a Centauride he hardly knew. A full month went by, and the ache that burned to my soul had returned with a vengeance. Drake and Bianca were going forward with their plans to marry.
In a strange twist of fate, Dad called me into his office and told me, “Against my better judgment, I have agreed to an arranged marriage between you and Camille Chiron. Although I have given my blessing, you have the final say. I would like for you to meet her and decide for yourself.”
“Camille Chiron?” I didn’t understand; the Chiron son always had twin sons. Angelo couldn’t have had a daughter, could he? “Angelo had a daughter?”
The pain that shone through Dad’s eyes was the same I had seen in my own mirror for the last month. “No, son. Camille is Angela’s daughter.”
I had only intended to humor my father and satisfy my own curiosity. It wasn’t until I arrived at Zandra Chiron’s estate and saw Camille for myself that I understood what had happened. Camille did not let on to the Chairman that she and I had met for pizza in Charleston. I excused myself, promising to return later that day. As soon as I was outside the estate walls, I called Bianca. She and Drake arrived that same evening. Because my father had told the Chairman the choice would be mine, she was very accommodating when I showed back up at her doorstep with Bianca and Drake in tow.
We all thought we were clever. The four of us were convinced we would find our happily-ever-after on our own terms. Youth and ignorance often lose against age and treachery – Zandra was not one to be underestimated, and all four of us had underestimated her.
Turning away from the window, I saw Bianca staring at me. She would never understand the utter emptiness I felt that day at Zandra’s estate. Gut-wrenching loneliness consumed me in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t take the chance with Bianca’s life a second time. I would not survive. “I’ve seen your blood smeared on her wall as a prop. If she is given a second chance, who’s to say she won’t dispense with the theatrics and murder you for real?”
Drake began to speak, but Camille cut him off. “Gage, I know exactly what you’re talking about and I agree. You and Bianca need to go home.” Her somber expression told me she did understand. The two of us had been tricked into believing they were both dead, murdered at Zandra’s hand.
Bianca raised her chin as her posture went rigid, “We did not come all this way to leave you two alone. We go where you two go.”
Camille countered, “We aren’t alone. Look around, I’ve got five brothers, two sisters-in-law, a Lapith, and a set of parents who would dance with the devil before they permitted one of us to be hurt. I’d feel better if you took your hot sauce back to Charleston and gave a big heaping dose to anyone who talks crap about the Lost Herd.”
Bianca beamed as she reached to the floor and patted her handbag, “These bottles aren’t for me. One is for Zandra. The other is for the first Centaur or Centauride who sides with her.” Bianca turned in her seat facing me squarely. “Camille delivered me to your doorstep. Do you remember? If it weren’t for Cami’s strength of will, I would be married to Drake right now, and you to her.”
Bianca’s words sunk in. It was Cami who found Drake and Bianca. She rescued them when I was too overcome with grief to even realize they were both alive. Bianca’s voice softened, “She is the reason we have the possibility of a future. It would be easy to go home and build a blissful life together, but if anything were to happen to Cami – I would always wonder if it was something I could have prevented. I’m not willing to shoulder that guilt. Whatever I can do to help, I’m going to do it.” Bianca squeezed my hand, “I know it’s selfish, but I want your strength by my side.”
Like so many times before, her gaze melted me. For better or worse, the four of us were in this together. I wondered what Zandra would think when her eyes settled on the four of us together again.
(Camille Nash – South Africa)
His hand felt warm wrapped around mine. Drake gently squeezed my fingers in his big palm every few strides – it was a silent assurance that he wasn’t going anywhere. Private moments were something to be savored when traveling with twelve others. Everyone who had been with us at Cancun, except Jessica and Daniel, flew with us to South Africa. Although we were walking through a congested airport with thousands of others, Drake still had the ability to make me feel like it was just the two of us.
When Will and Gretchen insisted on accompanying us to South Africa, I had tried to talk them both out of it. Will harbored guilt over tricking Mom into getting pregnant. I didn’t know whether to forgive him for purposely seducing my mom or to be thankful that he was the reason I had been born. It was a fine line. I guess if given the choice of never having been born or having been born into this mixed up, crazy excuse for an existence, I’m thankful to be alive. Not here, not today, but soon I would need to tell him that even though his motives were abhorrent, I was thankful he brought me into the world.
That thought hung in my mind. Would “soon” be soon enough? The Centaur Council would meet tomorrow. In a day my life could be over. If things didn’t go our way, could I go to the pasture leaving him with this guilt? Will walked tall and proud, but as I looked at him, the pain was written for the world to see. He was pretty good about protecting his thoughts, but I’d caught glimpses of his worry the last few days. What if the Council sentenced him to death? Could I let him carry his guilt with him to eternity?
Drake brushed his shoulder against mine as his words echoed in my mind,
“It’s okay. We’re going to make the Council understand. We’re going to have a long life together, a family of our own, and there’ll be plenty of time for you to come to peace with your father.”
I was so tired I hadn’t walled up my thoughts. If Drake heard me, did anyone else? I looked to all the Centaurides around us. None seemed to be paying attention. If they were listening, they were at least pretending not to. Most Centaurides, women Centaurs, had the ability to read thoughts. Male Centaurs couldn’t read thoughts, but there was a way for them to protect their thoughts so that others couldn’t listen in. Drake was different: he was my Centaur. From the moment I accepted Drake’s betrothal pledge, he and I could speak telepathically.
When Drake and I agreed to let Will and Gretchen accompany us, it wasn’t possible to keep Bruce and Hannah, Beau and Lacey, or Gage and Bianca away. Katherine and Brent had coupled off, as well, and Katherine made it clear she was going everywhere I was. Katherine was a Lapith. Lapiths and Centaurs were natural enemies, but she was adamant that my life was her responsibility.