Russell “Russ” Tadzea stood on the tiny, makeshift runway beside his two-seater airplane and stared in disbelief at the woman before him. Woman is the wrong word. She's a girl. A young girl. She can't be the teacher. In his mind, Russ recalled the kindergarten teachers he'd seen on television. She'd be middle aged and plump, on the line between favorite aunt and kind, story-reading grandmother. She'd smell of cinnamon and peppermint paste. This… creature looked like a stiff breeze would blow her away. Hair the color of brown sugar swirled around her shoulders, tangling in the white faux fur lining the hood of her coat. Thin black gloves protected her fingers from the September cold. To Russ, it felt quite pleasant, with temperatures in the low 50s, so he knew she was not Alaskan. The girl met his eyes. Dark amber pools snared his attention, shining in the sun.
“Riley Jenkins?” he asked, and she flinched as she nodded. “You're the teacher?” he insisted.
She dipped her chin again, but not a single sound emerged.
“You need some sunglasses,” he snapped. “Just because it's cold doesn't mean it's always dark. And I hope you have better gloves than that.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied. “I know a bit about cold. They're in my suitcase. It's not that bad right now.” Her softly modulated voice, at least, sounded right. Children will gather around her for Goldilocks and Rumpelstiltskin. I wish I could hear it.
Shaking off foolish thoughts, Russ realized maybe he'd sounded a bit curt. Though the girl had responded without an overt show of emotion, her eyes had a suspicious glimmer and her lip seemed to want to tremble. She'll have to toughen up if she wants to survive this remote wasteland. But he still felt a twinge of guilt over his harshness. “Come on, girl,” he rumbled, indicating the airplane.
She eyed it doubtfully and then turned toward him, one eyebrow cocked.
“Yeah, it's safe,” he growled. “I've been a pilot since… since I was old enough to drive a car, and I know this little plane like the back of my hand. You'll be fine.”
She sighed and trudged toward the tiny, winged vehicle. He opened the door for her and handed her up into the passenger seat. Closing it behind her, he scanned Golden, Alaska, the town that would be her home until… well, she didn't seem likely to last long here. Houses and cabins clustered around a grocery store, a café and a small church. Further back, out of sight, a few shops, a small movie theater, and various other local businesses interspersed among more homes. The K-12 school complex stood off to the right in a clearing in the dense evergreen forest. To the left, trees crowded shoulder to shoulder in a dense green wall. Doesn't look like much to an outsider, I warrant, he thought, even though the small city made him a bit edgy all by itself. He circled the plane and hopped into the driver's seat, quickly firing the engine.
“Have you flown in a small plane before?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she replied. “One time my dad and I traveled in a plane so small it only had one flight attendant.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it again, but a quick glance her direction revealed a smug look on her face.
“Tease me, will you?” he said with a rumbling laugh. “I may just have to hit a few air pockets along the way.”
She giggled. “I hope you have good vomit cleaning tools… or a large barf bag. But seriously, no, I've never been in one this small. You sure it's safe? Wait, scratch that. Sorry. I didn't mean to doubt you.” Her strange, whiskey colored eyes dropped to her lap, where her hands twisted nervously, mangling the fingers of her gloves.
Damn, she stopped smiling. For a moment there… he didn't dare put a voice to the entrancing image of Riley's smile. Riley… such a modern name. It doesn't suit her at all. She should be called Grace or Elizabeth. Maybe Charlotte. Something with a lot of history and class. “Don't worry, Miss Jenkins,” he assured her. “A lot of people, even people who don't mind bigger planes, don't feel secure in a two-seater. I don't take it personally. And I won't lie, you can feel a lot more than in a commercial jet, but that doesn't mean you're in danger.”
“Okay,” she said. “I believe you.” She looked up at him and her eyes had regained their sparkle, though her lips remained still. No hint of a smile moved them. Usually when Russ growled at someone, he didn't think twice about the result. It was his nature after all, and besides, Alaskans were bred tough. It took more than a low-pitched voice to upset them. Riley, it appeared, was of a different sort altogether. Fragile, and by the look of her, quite sensitive. He wanted to be frustrated with that, to think of her going home – wherever that was – because she clearly didn't belong in Alaska, let alone in an area so remote that the kindergarten teacher had to work two days in one building and then be flown an hour away for her other two days. But you don't really want to think that, do you, Tadzea? He didn't, but he wasn't sure quite why. That is, until the scent of her washed over him, filling his senses with something undefinable. She smelled sweet and tangy and spicy, like every good thing in nature. That's not perfume. It's just her.
Russ sighed. Fragile, haunted-looking women were far from his norm, but Riley's scent touched a place in his heart he hadn't known existed. I want her to stay. There was no rational explanation for it, but the animal inside him trusted instinct more than reason. Instinct said Riley was special, and Russ accepted it without question. Only time would tell if his intuition had proven itself again, but since he'd be flying her from town to town twice a week, that time would be easy to find.
* * *
“Well, how did it go?” Russ asked as Riley emerged from the school building. She looked a bit shaken… Well, a bit more shaken, he amended silently. She looked shaken right from the start. She eyed him through the chain link fence that separated the playground of the Lakeville school building and the miniature airfield beside it. He indicated the open door of the plane.
Sighing, Riley tugged her bag up higher on her shoulder, zipped her jacket, and exited through the front gate, circling to him and scrambling into her seat.
“That well, eh?” he asked as he shut the passenger door.
Once he was situated in his own seat and had started up the miniature plane, she finally answered. “It was fine. How bad can half a day setting up a classroom be?”
“I'm sure I would be surprised,” he said.