An eardrum-piercing noise split the air as jet engines revved up and passengers and staff prepared for takeoff. I looked around nervously to inspect the fellow passengers. Some people relaxed, their eyes closed and headphones in their ears, a long nap in their future. Others chatted in excited whispers about the things they would do and see on their trip abroad. My eyes danced erratically around the cabin of the large airplane, why didn’t anybody else look as terrified as I felt?
I didn’t see a single face that was even slightly apprehensive about the fact that we were about to be hurled through the air in little more than a giant tin can. I felt pain in my fingertips and looked down to see my fingernails were eating into the plastic of the armrest at my left arm. My heart raced a beat that I couldn’t count, and sweat popped out along my hairline.
One might wonder why I was on a plane if it frightens me so much. The answer is, the world is out there and I want to see it. If I stayed home because I was afraid my plane might not make it to the other side, I’d never get to see anything of the world. I’m not that kind of girl.
“It’ll be over soon, and then you’ll only notice you’re on a plane when we hit turbulence, my dear.” An elderly woman with steel gray hair and bright, blue eyes that twinkled in the soft light patted my clawed hand and gave me a smile that reassured me.
“Oh, thanks. This is my first flight. I guess you can tell I’m a little nervous.” I returned her smile with a weaker version of my own.
“A little yes. I’ve been flying since I was six years old and I’m seventy-three, dear. We should be fine. Now what is your final destination?”
“Oh, um, a place called Ikrosovnia. I’m going over to be an au pair.” I was so nervous I knew I wouldn’t shut up if I said too much so kept my words short and sweet.
“Ah, that’s a beautiful country. It didn’t even exist when I was born, like so many other places in Europe now. It’s between Austria and Serbia is it not?” The woman, her voice accented with a lilt that I thought might be French, was dressed in a light blue cardigan, a pair of dark blue rayon pants, and beige loafers. “I can never keep it all straight, what’s what now. The names seem to change so often.”
“I know; I have to check sometimes just to see if the name has changed of the place I’m thinking of. You’re right, though, it’s kind of sandwiched into that area around Croatia, Austria, and Hungary. A tiny little nation.”
“What in the world made you decide to go there of all places?” The lady looked at me with curiosity. Her face was turned to me, and I looked away from the now closed window to see that her face was deeply lined with age, but her skin still looked soft and silky despite the wear. Something about her soothed me.
“It’s kind of a long story, I suppose.” I said with a self-conscious smile.
“I won’t be going far for the next nine hours or so, why don’t you tell me?” She swiped a lock of hair from her eyes, an antique watch on her wrist flashing in the dim light from the overhead lights.
I knew she just wanted to distract me from the fact that the plane had just begun to move. I felt my muscles all tense, but kept my eyes on her. “I saw an advertisement for an au pair there, and decided to give it a try.”
“Yes, you’d said, but why decide on such a tiny little kingdom?” She encouraged me to go further.
“My mother was born there.” I looked away then. The pain of her death had long lost its ability to cripple me, but it could still sting.
“Ah. How long?” She was intuitive then, this lady beside me. “I’m Mildred, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks, I’m Cara.” I shook her hand. I’d expected something a lot more French, but Mildred suited her.
“How long since you lost your mother?”
“Around thirteen years. I was five when she and my father went off in an airplane and never came home.” That’s how it had ended up anyway. They didn’t come home.
“The plane or something else?” This was one more smart lady, I thought to myself.
“The plane went down. Dad wanted to take her to see the Rocky Mountains and they’d saved up for a year for that trip. I had to stay home with Mom’s best friend, I was in school and they were going to be away for two weeks so…” I let the words trail off.
“How terrible, and at such a young age.” Her eyes went dark and I saw tears form in her eyes. Intuitive and sensitive. I wondered if those tears were for my young parents or for me, but didn’t ask.
“Yes. Mom was an orphan, so was Dad, it was one of the things that brought them together, when they met. They both wanted a large family, to surround themselves with the family they didn’t have. They’d tried to have more, but I was all that came along. I guess that was for the best in the end. Poor Jane had her hands full with me.”
“Who is Jane?” The woman patted at her eyes with a napkin and smiled at me.
“Oh, that’s my mom’s best friend. She took me in and took care of me after the crash.”
“How good of her, and no wonder planes make you nervous.” She shuddered as if the idea had only just occurred to her.
“Yes, I’ve avoided them my whole life. I wanted to go to so many places but it’s way too expensive to travel by ship now, and a plane was the only other option I could think of. I had to overcome that fear so that I could do this. I want to see the world. I can’t do that sitting at home where it’s safe.”
“Well, we could argue about how safe you’d be at home, but I’ll let that go. As I said, I’ve been doing this flight since I was a little girl. We should be alright.” She patted at my hand and it was only then I realized the plane had leveled out in the sky.
My ears popped just as the captain of the plane broke through the light chatter to announce we were well and truly on our way.
“Thank you, Mildred.” I smiled at her again and settled into the seat. “I think you just got me through that part!”
“I can be just as nervous sometimes. I knew you just needed to get through that first part. You’ll be alright now.”
“I hope so.” Then I remembered what she’d said. “Do you live in America now?”
“I do. And you’re perceptive if you heard my little bit of an accent.” She chuckled and that made me smile all over again. “My mother was French and my father was an American soldier. I was born towards the end of the second world war.”
I took a second to let that sink in. God, what a life she must have had.
“So your dad brought you both back to America?” I asked tentatively; I didn’t want to step on any toes.
“No, not for a long time,” she said after a deep breath. “Mom had tuberculosis, she couldn’t travel and then she passed away when I was five. She and Dad were so different anyway.”
She paused again, as if to sift through long buried memories to find the right ones.
“You don’t have to tell me anything, you know?” I tilted my head and smiled softly.
“Oh, I know. It’s easy on these flights though, to talk to strangers, it’s almost like therapy sometimes.” She patted my hand again and took another deep breath before she carried on. “Mom had a rough time once Dad was taken into Germany. They hadn’t married, and never did as it turned out. Dad was sent back to America and Mom was never well enough to see him again after the war. He came back a few times, but it wasn’t meant to be. He came back to get me and I go back every year now.”
She stopped once more. “All of my family died over the years, but I still go back every year to tend to the graves, to visit my homeland, and my memories.”
“What a life you must have had.” I wanted to know more about her, this lady with the bright blue eyes and beauty that shone through even the ravages of time. She was something else, that’s for sure.
“I wanted to go back to France so many times when I was young, and then I met my husband and we had children. We were lucky, we both had good jobs and we could afford the trips to France with the kids once they came along. I was lucky in so many ways, but I always feel like I’m drawn back.”
“It’s home. It always will be,” I said simply. “My mom longed for her homeland. She and my father were building a good future, but she still longed for the food she was familiar with, for the words she’d grown up listening to.”
“It never goes away really. That need for normal, even after so long and you’ve spent more of your life in the foreign place than you did your birthplace. I still have to go back every year.”
“No, that’s what Mom wrote about. How much she missed it all, even though her life in America was so much better.”
“Wrote? Was she a writer?” Mildred’s eyes quirked and her eyebrows met.
“No, but she did keep a diary. Obviously it stopped when she died, and she’d left it at home, otherwise I wouldn’t have it. Jane left it to me when she passed away last year.”
“Oh, you poor child. To lose two such wonderful women in your life.” Another hand pat, and I couldn’t help yet another smile. Mildred’s children must have been spoiled with affection.
“It’s hard, but you manage,” I whispered as pain made my throat tight for a moment. I took a deep breath of my own and pushed through it. “Jane was everything I could ask of her: a mother, a friend, and an aunt all in one. She had a long fight with cancer, and it finally won.”
“Cancer. I do so wish we could eradicate that disease. It’s just so dreadful. It took my William three years ago and left me a widow.”
“I’m so sorry, Mildred.” I patted her hand this time.
“It gets easier to breathe and to live, as you know. The memories don’t go away, nor does the pain, but it gets much easier.”
“You learn to carry on and before you know it, life isn’t normal, there’s always something that’s missing, but it’s bearable again. And you start to make plans for the future.”
“Life goes on, as the song goes. So your mother’s diary drew you to Ikrosovnia?”
“It did, yes. She’d left as a very young woman, younger than I am now. I quit my job as a substitute teacher at the local school at the end of the year, took my savings, and sold everything I couldn’t put in storage. I’d decided to go and explore it and then found the advertisement. I had planned to just work my way through the place in hostels or something, but now, I’ll get to live in a gated community, learn more about the language, and earn a living too.”
“I suppose you have nationality there too?”
“Yes, I don’t have a passport for there, but I’ll get that sorted when I settle in, I guess. I’m not sure. Either way, I’ll get to see my mother’s country and that’s all that matters, really.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity and I hope your dreams come true there.”
We were brought food and time slipped away as we chatted about where we were from. She had settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, all those years ago, and I was from Atlanta, Georgia. Fate had brought us together, and we kept each other company through the rest of the light.
I nodded off after a tiny glass of wine and had started to dream when the captain interrupted to say we would land soon.
“Wow, that went by so fast!”
“You’ve been dreading the flight, haven’t you?” she asked, her own eyes tired but awake now.
“I have. And getting there. There’s supposed to be a car to meet me at the airport in Austria.”
“It’s a little bit of a drive to get to your part of the world, but it will be worth it. I promise. Now, shall we get through this part together, before we have to part?”
The plane began to descend and we exchanged social media information to keep in touch. I wanted to know more about her and she felt the same. We hugged outside the gate and parted ways, promising we’d talk soon.
A silent man with dark hair and eyes holding a sign with my name on it caught my attention in the baggage area. He smiled a grim, quick smile, grabbed my bags like they weighed nothing and just uttered a single “come,” before he turned and marched at a military pace towards a sleek black town car parked outside.
Bags in the trunk, me feeling drowsy in the backseat, in what felt like minutes after I’d stepped off the plane, I was headed towards my future. I nodded off, but before I knew it, the somber, silent driver had stopped at a gate. The wrought iron doors opened, and I looked up out the window and just gasped. I couldn’t believe it, but it was a real life castle on top of a hill. I thought the gate would open to a much smaller house, but no, the road very clearly led up to a freaking castle. My jaw dropped.
The driver stopped in front of the castle doors, well over twenty feet tall, and after opening the passenger door for me, he started to take my bags out of the trunk. A tall woman with dark hair came out to greet me with a polite smile.
“Cara?” she asked, though she clearly knew who I was or I probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. “Please to follow me.”
I smiled, the woman tried to speak to me in English, at least. I could barely speak a word of Ikrosovnian, but I hoped I’d pick it back up quickly after a while. My mother had used it with me often until she passed away. I made my way up the steps and then looked behind me. A river ran below, a village sprawled out along its winding length.
“This way, please.” The woman, dressed in a fitted pantsuit, in her late twenties, and quite pretty, held her hand out to me. She walked quickly down a hall, low heels clacked on the tiled floors, and I followed but I gaped as I did. So much splendor and opulence. I’d never seen anything like it before!
“Prince Andrej, I beg your pardon.”
We stepped into a huge, elegantly decorated office, and there, behind the enormous gilded desk with his back turned, was my new boss.
“This is the Princess Livia’s new au pair, Cara Anderson. I hope she meets your approval, Your Highness.”
The man stood, his tall, broad-shouldered form rising before slowly, he turned. My mouth went dry and fell open, my eyes went wide, and my brain went blank. My left hand lifted like it had a mind of its own and waved. I tried to think of something to say. Anything at all.
My guide gave a deferential curtsy and then left. She just left me. With the most handsome man I had ever in my life laid eyes on. Piercing, emerald green eyes, thick blond hair cut fashionably – shaved on the sides and swept across the top. And then those lips – holy crap. Soft and yet masculine, set in that completely perfect, chiseled and regal jaw.
“Hi,” I squeaked out, finally. This was not the quiet, idyllic place in a gated community with middle-aged parents and a sweet, but spoiled child I’d planned on. Oh no, I’d landed a job with a prince.
A very real, very gorgeous, very captivating and powerful looking, and very sexy one.