Almost Gone (The Au Pair—Book One)
Debut author Ophelia Night is author of the psychological suspense series THE AU PAIR, which includes ALMOST GONE (Book #1), ALMOST LOST (Book #2) and ALMOST DEAD (Book #3). Ophelia would love to hear from you, so please visit www.ophelianight.com to receive free ebooks, hear the latest news, and stay in touch.
Copyright © 2019 by Ophelia Night. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright cactus_camera, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
BOOKS BY OPHELIA NIGHT
THE AU PAIR
ALMOST GONE (Book#1)
ALMOST LOST (Book #2)
ALMOST DEAD (Book #3)
Twenty-three-year-old Cassie Vale sat perched on one of the two plastic chairs in the waiting room of the au pair agency, staring at the posters and maps on the opposite wall. Right above the tacky Maureen’s European Au Pairs logo was a poster of the Eiffel Tower, and another of the Brandenburg Gate. A coffee shop in a cobbled courtyard, a picturesque village overlooking an azure sea. Scenes to dream about, places she longed to be.
The agency office was cramped and suffocating. The air conditioner rattled uselessly, not a breath of air coming from the vents. Cassie reached up and discretely wiped a drop of sweat, running down her cheek. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand it.
The office door suddenly opened and she jumped, grabbing the file of documents on the other chair. But her heart fell to see that it was just another interviewee coming out, this one a tall, slender blonde, exuding all the confidence that Cassie wished she had. She was smiling in satisfaction, holding a sheaf of official-looking forms, and she barely glanced at Cassie as she passed.
Cassie’s stomach clenched. She looked down at her documents, wondering if she would also be successful, or if she’d leave disappointed and shamed. She knew her experience was pitifully inadequate, and she had no proper qualifications in childcare. She’d been turned down by the cruise ship agency she’d approached the previous week. They’d said that without experience they couldn’t even put her on their books. If it was the same here, she wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Cassandra Vale? I’m Maureen. Please come in.”
Cassie looked up. A dark-suited, gray-haired woman stood waiting in the doorway; clearly she was the owner.
Cassie scrambled to her feet, her carefully organized papers spilling out of the file. Scraping them together, her face ablaze, she hurried into the interview room.
As Maureen paged through them with a frown, Cassie started picking at her cuticles with her fingernails before lacing her hands together, the only way to stop herself from this nervous habit.
She tried deep breathing to calm herself. Told herself that this woman’s decision wouldn’t be her only ticket out of here. There were other ways to escape and make a fresh start. But right now, this felt like the only one left. The cruise ship company had given her a flat no. Teaching English, her other idea, was impossible without the correct qualifications, and obtaining them was too expensive. She’d need to save for another year to have a hope of getting started and right now, she didn’t have the luxury of time. Last week, that choice had been ripped away from her.
“So, Cassandra, you grew up in Millville, New Jersey? Does your family still live there?” Maureen finally asked.
“Please call me Cassie,” she replied, “and no, they moved away.” Cassie clasped her hands tighter, worried at the direction the interview was taking. She hadn’t expected to be questioned about her family in detail, but now she realized that of course they would need background on an applicant’s home life, since the au pairs would be living and working in clients’ homes. She would have to think fast, because while she didn’t want to lie, she feared that the truth would jeopardize her application.
“And your older sister? You say she is working abroad?”
To Cassie’s relief, Maureen had moved on to the next section. She’d thought what to say if asked, furthering her own cause in a way that wouldn’t require any confirmable details.
“My sister’s travels have definitely inspired me to take a job overseas. I’ve always wanted to live in another country and I love Europe. Particularly France, as I’m fairly fluent in the language.”
“You’ve studied it?”
“Yes, for two years, but I was familiar with the language before that. My mother grew up in France and did freelance translation work from time to time when I was younger, so my sister and I grew up with a good understanding of spoken French.”
Maureen asked a question in French: “What are you hoping to gain from working as an au pair?”
Cassie was pleased that she was able to reply, fluently, “To learn more about life in another country, and to improve my language skills.”
She hoped her answer would impress Maureen, but she remained stern as she finished perusing the paperwork.
“Do you still live at home, Cassie?”
Back to family life again… did Maureen suspect she was hiding something? She’d need to answer carefully. Moving out at sixteen, as she had done, would raise flags for an interviewer. Why so young? Were there problems at home? She needed to paint a prettier picture that hinted at a normal, happy family life.
“I’ve been living on my own since I was twenty,” she said, feeling her face flush with guilt.
“And working part time. I see you have a reference here from Primi? Is that a restaurant?”
“Yes, I’ve waitressed there for the past two years.” Which was, thankfully, true. Before that there had been various other jobs, and even a stint at a dive bar, as she struggled to afford her shared lodgings as well as her distance education. Primi, her most recent job, had been the most enjoyable. The restaurant team had felt like the family she’d never had, but there was no future there. Her salary was low and tips weren’t much better; business in that part of town was tough. She’d been planning to make a move when the time was right, but when her circumstances had changed for the worse, it had become urgent.
“Childcare experience?” Maureen looked over her glasses at Cassie, who felt her stomach twist.
“I—I assisted at a daycare center for three months, before I started with Primi. The reference is in the folder. They gave me basic training on safety and first aid, and I was background checked,” she stammered, hoping that it was enough. It had only been a temporary position, filling in for someone on maternity leave. She’d never thought it would be a steppingstone to a future opportunity.
“I’ve managed children’s parties at the restaurant, too. I’m a very friendly person. I mean, I get along with others, and I’m patient…”
Maureen’s lips tightened. “What a pity your experience is not more recent. Also you don’t have any formal certification in childcare. Most families require qualifications, or at the very least, more experience. It will be difficult to place you with so little.”
Cassie stared at her despairingly. She had to do this, no matter what it took. The choice was clear. Get away… or become trapped in a cycle of violence that she thought she’d escaped forever by leaving home.
The bruises on her upper arm had taken a few days to bloom, darkly defined, so she could see each knuckle mark where he’d hit her. Her boyfriend, Zane, who’d promised on their second date that he loved her, and would protect her no matter what.
When the ugly marks had started to appear, she’d remembered, with gooseflesh prickling her spine, that she’d had almost identical bruises in the same place ten years ago. First it had been her arm. Then her neck, and finally her face. Also inflicted by a supposed protector—her father.
He’d started hitting her when she was twelve, after Jacqui, her older sister, had run away. Before that, Jacqui had borne the brunt of his anger. Her presence had protected Cassie from the worst.
The bruises from Zane were still there; it would take a while for them to fade. She was wearing long sleeves to hide them during the interview, and was overly warm in the stuffy office.
“Is there anywhere else you could recommend?” she asked Maureen. “I know this is the best local agency, but would you be able to suggest an online site where I could possibly apply?”
“I can’t recommend a website,” Maureen said firmly. “Too many candidates have had bad experiences. Some have ended up in a situation where their working hours weren’t adhered to, or they were expected to do menial cleaning jobs as well as mind the children. That’s unfair on everyone concerned. I’ve also heard of au pairs being abused in other ways. So, no.”
“Please—is there anybody on your books who might consider me? I’m a hard worker and willing to learn, I can easily fit in. Please give me a chance.”
Maureen was silent for a moment, then tapped at her keyboard, frowning.
“Your family—how do they feel about you traveling for a year? Do you have a boyfriend, anyone you’re leaving behind?”
“I broke up with my boyfriend recently. And I’ve always been very independent, my family knows that.”
Zane had cried and apologized after he’d punched her arm, but she hadn’t relented, thinking instead of her sister’s warning, given long ago and proven true since then: “No man ever hits a woman once.”
She’d packed her bags and moved in with a friend. To avoid him, she’d blocked his calls and changed the timing of her work shifts. She had hoped he would accept her decision and leave her alone, while knowing deep down that he would not. Breaking up should have been his idea, not hers. His ego would not allow for rejection.
He’d already been to the restaurant looking for her. The manager had told him she had taken two weeks’ leave and gone to Florida. That had bought her some time… but she knew he’d be counting the days. A week to go, and he’d be hunting her again.
The US felt too small to escape him. She wanted an ocean—a big one—between them. Because worst of all was the fear that she would weaken, forgive him, and allow him another chance.
Maureen finished checking the paperwork and went on to ask a few standard questions that Cassie found easier. Her hobbies, any chronic medications, dietary requirements or allergies.
“I have no dietary requirements or allergies. And no health problems.”
Cassie hoped her anxiety meds didn’t count as chronic medication. It would be better not to mention them, she decided, as she was sure they would be a huge red flag.
Maureen scribbled a note on the file.
Then she asked, “What would you do if the children in your care are naughty or disobedient? How would you handle it?”
Cassie drew a deep breath.
“Well, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. If a child is disobedient because she’s running toward a dangerous road, it would require a different approach than if she doesn’t want to eat her vegetables. In the first instance it would be safety first and getting the child out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. In the second I would reason and negotiate—why don’t you like them? Is it the look or the taste? Will you be willing to try a bite? After all, we all go through food phases and usually grow out of them.”
Maureen seemed satisfied with that, but the next questions were more difficult.
“What will you do if the children lie to you? For instance, if they tell you they’re allowed to do something that the parents have forbidden?”
“I’d say that it’s not allowed, and tell them the reason why if I knew it. I’d suggest we speak to the parents together and discuss the rule as a family, to help them understand why it’s important.” Cassie felt as if she were walking a tightrope, hoping that her answers were acceptable.
“How would you react, Cassie, if you witnessed a domestic fight? Living in a family’s home, there will be times when people don’t get along.”
Cassie closed her eyes for a moment, pushing away the memories triggered by Maureen’s words. Screaming, smashing glass, the neighbors shouting angrily. A chair wedged under the rattling handle of her bedroom door, the only flimsy protection she could find.
But just as she was about to say she’d lock herself and the kids in a secure room and call the police immediately, Cassie realized Maureen couldn’t be referring to that kind of a fight. Why would she? She was obviously thinking of a spoken argument, a few words snapped in annoyance or shouted in anger; temporary friction rather than terminal destruction.
“I would try to keep the children out of earshot,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “And I would respect the parents’ privacy and stay well away. After all, fights are part of life and an au pair has no right to take sides or become involved.”
Now, finally, she earned a small smile.
“A good answer,” Maureen said. She checked her computer again and nodded, as if confirming a decision she’d just made.
“There is only one possibility here that I could offer you. A position with a French family,” she said, and Cassie’s heart leaped, only to crash-land when Maureen added, “Their last au pair left unexpectedly after a month, and they’ve had difficulty finding a replacement.”
Cassie bit her lip. Whether the au pair had resigned or been fired, she didn’t know—but she couldn’t afford to have the same happen to her. With the agency fee and the airfare, she’d be plowing all her savings into this venture. Whatever it took, she would have to make it work.
Maureen added, “They are a wealthy family with a beautiful home. Not in town. It’s a mansion in the countryside, on a large estate. There’s an orchard and a small vineyard—not commercial—and also horses, although equestrian knowledge is not a job requirement. However, you’ll have the opportunity to learn to ride when you’re there if you like.”
“I’d love that,” Cassie said. The appeal of the French countryside, and the promise of horses, made the risk seem more worthwhile. And a wealthy family surely meant better job security. Perhaps the last au pair hadn’t been willing to try.
Maureen adjusted her glasses before jotting a note on Cassie’s form.
“Now, I must emphasize that not all families are easy to work for. Some are very challenging and some are downright difficult. The success of the job will rest on your shoulders.”
“I’ll do my best to succeed.”
“Quitting an assignment before your year is over is not acceptable. It will incur a substantial cancellation fee and you will never work for us again. The details are stipulated in the contract.” Maureen tapped her pen on the page.
“I can’t see that happening,” Cassie replied determinedly.
“Good. Then the final point we need to discuss is the timeframe.”
“Yes. How soon will I leave?” Cassie asked, her anxiety flooding back as she wondered how much longer she’d need to duck and dive.
“It usually takes about six weeks, but this family’s application is very urgent so we are going to fast-track it. If things move along as expected, you will fly out within a week. Is that acceptable?”
“It—it’s perfect,” she stammered. “Please, I accept the position. I’ll do whatever it takes to make it work, and I won’t let you down.”
The woman stared back at her long and hard, as if summing her up one last time.
“Don’t,” she said.