For helvede. Maybe I should go a little easier on her.
Not wanting to see my girls from afar when they’re like this, I head downstairs all the way to the French doors that lead out onto the lawn.
“Papa!” Clara yells with a mouthful of food as she waves at me frantically from the table. “Come join our party.”
I saunter on over, squinting into the sun. Autumn has settled on us over the last few days, the sun lower in the sky now and perpetually in your eyes, the air growing crisp at night. Right now it’s still sunny and warm—tea party perfect—but soon the sun will be traded in for rain.
I stop in front of them and look over the table. There are finger-sized sandwiches, cookies and scones on Helena’s good china, plus cups of tea and pots of jam and cream. Both the jam and cream are all over Clara and Freja’s smiling faces and all the way down their napkins tucked into the front of their dresses.
“I hope you don’t mind me wearing this,” Aurora says carefully, and I shift my attention over to her. For once she’s not in her blouse and that terrible mini-skirt but rather a long green satiny gown with billowy sleeves and a corset body, a matching hat set at an angle on her head. “I found it in a closet full of clothes in one of the empty bedrooms.”
“I told her she had to wear it,” Clara says before trying to serve a cookie to the teddy bear beside her.
I raise my brow at Aurora. “I’m fairly certain that gown is from the late 1800s. Belonging to my great-grandmother.”
Her face falls, that bright smile wiped off her face. “I’m so sorry. I can get changed and put it back.”
I raise my hand, remembering that she’s trying. And if she’s also making my children smile, then it’s worth it. “Don’t worry about it. I suppose it’s better on you than being kept in a closet. I was thinking of donating all of it to a museum or something but I just don’t have the time to go through it. Perhaps when you’re done playing dress up, that’s something you can tackle.”
Aurora nods, a hint of smile back, her eyes still wide and warm. “Absolutely.”
The truth is, I don’t even know what’s in half the rooms in this place. After my father died and Helena and I moved in here, we didn’t have the luxury of time to go through everything. This palace is just hoard of family history that I haven’t even begun to explore.
“Oh listen, now that you’re here,” Aurora says and she tries to get to her feet, only getting off the tiny chair is a challenge in itself. Soon she’s stepping on the end of the dress and falling forward.
I stick my arm out and catch her before she face-plants into the grass. She looks up at me, her hat now falling over the front of her face. “Thanks, I almost ate sh—” She glances over her shoulder at the girls who are staring at her. “Grass there. Almost ate grass.”
She adjusts her hat and then the front of her dress, which, to my dismay, is on the low-cut side, showing off the full, pale swells of her breasts. I avert my eyes and take in a deep breath through my nose. What is wrong with me? First Aurora wears a sweater that reminds me of my father, then she wears my great-grandmother’s dress, and yet somehow I’m still turned on.
No, I remind myself. You’re not turned on. Get your head on straight and listen to what she has to say.
I take a step back from her, which makes her frown, and then ask, “What is it you want to talk to me about?” I clear my throat, making sure my voice sounds distant.
“Oh, you see…” she says and then she quickly glances at the girls before taking a step toward me.
I take another step back.
She scoffs, making a face. “Do you think I bite or something?”
I suppose I am being rather ridiculous. “What is it?”
She takes another step and my shoulders stiffen, making a point not to move an inch. I can’t say why having her so close to me makes me uncomfortable but it might be both the fact that her breasts are nearly pressed up against me and that she smells like sunshine.
“I wanted to talk to you about the girls,” she says, lowering her voice and looking up at me through her long eyelashes. Dear lord, does she know how she both looks and sounds right now?
“What about them? Are they alright?” I look over her shoulder at them and they’re back to feeding treats to their teddy bears and giggling happily.
“They’re great,” she says. “But every night at dinner they’re upset that you aren’t there. Maja tells them you’re busy and they understand but I really think it would mean a lot to them if you started eating with us.”
I swallow, feeling like a dirty dishcloth. “I see. I didn’t realize that.”
“Maybe just a few times a week?” she suggests hopefully, gnawing on her full bottom lip for a moment. I’m just now noticing that she rarely wears any makeup, nor does she need to. The natural color of her lips is this rich, deep pink. “Your Highness?” she prompts.
“Huh?” I say, blinking, and then realize I must have been lost there. “Yes. No.”
“Yes no what?”
“I agree.” I raise my chin, clearing my throat. “I should be there. I’ve been busy with paperwork and some events, but I don’t have to attend every dinner I’m invited to and I can always do my work later.”
Aurora breaks into a smile. Jesus, why can’t I breathe?
I look away, focusing on the girls. “Hey girls, would you like that?”
I brush past Aurora, and the strange hold she has on me, and walk back over to the table.
“Like what, Papa?” Freja asks in her small voice.
“If I started having dinner with you more. I realize I should be there and I’m going to do what I can to make it happen more often.”
“Yay!” Clara exclaims while Freja gives me a deep, adorable smile.
“I’ll start tonight. Maybe it’s not too late to have Karla whip up your favorite dish.”
Clara frowns. “What’s our favorite dish? Macaroni and cheese?”
“No,” I tell her, and I can hear Helena’s voice in my head admonishing them for even knowing what mac and cheese is. “Roast chicken with cloudberries, bacon mashed potatoes and gravy.”
“No way,” says Clara while Freja wrinkles her nose.
“But you love that meal,” I tell them, confused.
“No. No chicken, no bacon.”
“No meat,” Freja says. “We’re veterinarians.”
“It’s vegetarians,” Clara corrects her sister and then lifts her chin at me defiantly. “We’re vegetarians now, Papa.”
“Since when?” I cry out. I glance over at Aurora hoping she’s got the same “they’re crazy” look on her face, but she’s looking down at the grass and biting her lip. The fuck?
“Since Aurora told us we could be,” Clara says. “And that is that.”
“That is that?” I repeat sharply. I grab Aurora by the arm and pull her away from the girl’s earshot. “What the hell is going on? My daughters are vegetarian now?”
She gives me a helpless look. “I’m sorry. It just came up.”
“It came up?”
“Well, it’s not like they’re vegans. Though there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that either.”
Fucking hell, what is wrong with this woman? I let go of her arm before I can grip it any tighter. “For helvede,” I swear. “You are not turning them vegan. They eat fish. We eat fish in this country and you aren’t taking that away from them!”
Aurora gives me a sympathetic smile, the kind of smile that makes me want to yell at her more. “It can’t do any harm.”
“Harm? Now Karla has to make two separate meals.”
“Or you could eat vegetarian,” she says.
“Are you even a vegetarian?” I cry out.
“No. But it doesn’t bother me that other people are.”
I shake my head, my jaw clenched. “Let me get one thing straight here, okay?” I growl, leaning into her so that the girls don’t hear. “You are their nanny. You are not their mother. Got that? You don’t get to make decisions like that. Those are my decisions to make.”
Anger sparks in her eyes, and I know she hates that I’m talking to her this way but frankly I don’t care. “You have to learn your place here in this palace,” I remind her. “You’re not part of the family. You’re just the help. You’re an employee of mine. And those girls there, those girls are not your sisters and they aren’t your friend. So, if you want to keep being paid to live in this house and do this job, you’re not to make any decisions like that without consulting me first. Got it?”
She presses her lips together and looks away.
“Do you want me to repeat that in Danish because I’m pretty sure you understand English,” I tell her.
“Yes,” she mumbles, and a bit of pink creeps up on her cheeks, her neck growing flushed as well. “I’m sorry I said it was okay. I should have deferred and then asked you to make the final decision.”
I watch her closely, trying to see if she’s lying, watching to see if she’s going to slip up and roll her eyes at me because I swear to god, if she does, she’s out of here. But she’s avoiding my gaze and she’s grown silent, which is a whole new thing for us. It’s scary, if anything.
“Look,” I say quickly, aware that the girls are still staring at us and picking up on our rigid, hostile body language. “I know you’re trying. I know you’re studying that handbook and highlighting important things. It’s just that—”
“How do you know that?” she says sharply, her eyes narrowing at me.
“I, uh, was in your room.”
“When?” she cries out.