He glances at it, and I swear I see a smile flash for a second. It’s like trying to photograph lightning. “Yes, we’re cool,” he says, grabbing my hand. But he doesn’t shake it. He just gives it a long squeeze, the kind that makes that same lightning carry up through my veins, setting my heart on fire.
Then he lets go of my hand and turns toward the door.
“Aksel?” I call after him, thinking I might get flack for not addressing him as a king.
He stops and looks at me curiously.
“About the girls,” I say cautiously. “The reason why Clara was having problems. It’s because the last time they were at Tivoli, you were there as a family. It was awkward with just the three of us, with rides and everything. Anyway … I know it’s my habit to step on your toes and everything, but if I can make a suggestion?” He looks at me expectantly, to keep going. “I think they want to feel like a family again. Maybe there’s an outing we can do, the four of us. Maja too, if you want. And before you say anything, I know I’m not Helena, I’m the nanny. I am so very aware of that. I just think it would be good for them.”
He seems to consider that. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
I can’t help the grin on my face, knowing how happy the girls are going to be.
It fades quickly when a very loud squeal sounds out from the hallway, followed by shouts and a stampede of both human and pig feet.
“What the hell was that?” Aksel cries out wildly.
Oh right. Snarf Snarf.
I give him a sheepish smile. “Okay, promise me you won’t get mad…”
“Her Royal Highness, Princess Stella, is here,” Agnes announces from the doorway to my office.
I glance up at her from my desk, putting my paperwork aside. “You can just call her my sister, you know.”
Agnes does not look amused. “Regardless, she’s here.” Then she turns and leaves.
I sigh. Seems like Aurora’s no respect for authority attitude is infectious among the staff.
I get up and start to head down the stairs to the first floor where the greeting room is when I run into Aurora herself on the staircase, who seems to be in a hurry, taking the steps two at a time.
Is it sad that I’ve really taken a shine to that uniform of hers? Lord help me if she ever finds out.
“Where are you going?” I ask her, grabbing her lightly by the arm.
“Aren’t we leaving now?” she says with those big eyes of hers. “I think your sister is here, I need to get the girls’ things.”
“Let Agnes or Johan do that,” I tell her, pulling her back down. “Come with me, you need to meet Stella and Anya.”
Aurora seems to hesitate, and then lets me lead her down the stairs. I don’t let go of her arm until I’m confident she won’t run away. Plus, her skin is horribly soft and silky. Distracting.
“I hope you warned your sister about Snarf Snarf,” she says.
“I didn’t. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?”
The corner of her mouth quirks up. “You know how to have fun? Wow.”
I’m still in disbelief that this Snarf Snarf has been part of our family for three weeks now. When I first discovered that the girls had a goddamn pig in the house, it came right on the heels of the tabloid article of them at Tivoli. I think I about had a heart attack and lost my temper at Aurora, again.
For once, though, she was on my side and wanted the pig gone, back to the farm it was unscrupulously taken from. I just didn’t plan for the tears and guilt trip from Clara and Freja, who seemed to have a whole performance and speech planned out for that very instant. In fact, I’m starting to think their whole idea to go to the farm after Tivoli was part of some elaborate pig heist.
They talked about how they never had a pet even though they’d always asked for dogs and kittens and ponies (it was actually Helena that was adamant there be no animals in the house), that they had a void they needed filled, that they had all this love to give, that it would teach them responsibility and be a learning experience for them. They went full out. Then it was topped off with, “And we’re princesses. A princess should be able to have a pig if she wants.”
Maybe it was because of Clara’s public meltdown and the realization that the girls aren’t as strong as I thought, maybe it was because Aurora looked at me differently when I started to cave in. Either way, I said they could keep the pig on two conditions. One, that I never smell it. Two, that I never see it. If either of those conditions were to be broken, that pig would end up on the plate at Christmas dinner and, yes, I would force the girls to eat him.
Naturally, both those conditions have already been broken because, have you ever had a pig in your house? Damn impossible to ignore.
Aurora has been walking by my side as she usually does but just before I go through the doors into the greeting room, she hangs back, as if remembering proper protocol. I glance at her over my shoulder in surprise and she just gives me a meek smile, keeping her head down.
I have to say, for the first time, it feels wrong to see her like that.
She’s just being a nanny, I remind myself. The role you always remind her of.
“Stella,” I say to my sister as I step into the room, and as I expected she comes straight over to me and pulls me into a tight hug.
“Good to see you, Brother,” she says to me, kissing me on the cheek. “It’s been too long.”
“It has,” I tell her, smiling at her warmly. My sister is about eight years younger than me and went through a bitter divorce earlier this year which had her and her young daughter, Anya, moving from Denmark to England. When Aurora brought up the idea of us all having an outing as a family, I thought I should invite Stella as well. Anya is a year older than Clara and they all get along really well, so it would be nice for them to have that family connection again.
“And Anya,” I say to her as she shyly plays with her pigtails. “You must be excited for our trip to Legoland.”
Anya nods. She’s slow to warm up to me sometimes but she’ll come around.
“Oh,” I say, switching to English and putting my arm out in a gesture for Aurora to come forward. “This is Clara and Freja’s new nanny, Aurora.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Aurora says, doing a modest curtsey.
“If you’re working for my brother then no formalities are needed,” Stella says, coming over to shake her hand. “Besides, I’m barely a royal. I’m the black sheep of the family. Getting a divorce and all that.”
Aurora smiles at her. “I’ve only heard great things about you from Aksel.”
I stare at Aurora for a moment since I’ve barely ever mentioned Stella to her before. But here she is, trying to talk me up for some reason.
Stella playfully nudges me. “Great things? That surprises me.”
I murmur in agreement, wondering what Aurora’s game is. Surely she wouldn’t be nice to me for the sake of being nice, would she?
A horrendous high-pitched squeal interrupts us, which makes Stella gasp.
I glare at Aurora. “Remember condition number one?”
“That was that you didn’t smell him.”
“For helvede,” Stella says, eyes bugging out of her head. “What was that?”
“That was Snarf Snarf,” Aurora explains.
“Yes, because apparently that’s what a pig sounds like in Danish,” she says. “I always thought it was a Thundercats reference, but no.”
“Aksel?” Stella looks at me in disbelief.
“A pig!?” Anya exclaims.
“The girls have a pet now,” I say dryly, refusing to find any humor in the situation. I glance at Aurora. “Perhaps you should go check on them. We need to go soon anyway.”
Aurora nods and quickly leaves the room.
“She’s pretty,” Stella remarks as she watches her go, seemingly impressed. “I can see why you hired her.”
I try not to roll my eyes. “No. That’s exactly why I didn’t want to hire her.”
“Because she’s pretty?”
“Because people like you would make assumptions like you just did, thinking I’m some lecherous old man.”
She laughs. “Oh, Aksel. You can hardly be called lecherous, or old, for that matter.”
“Can I go play with the pig?” Anya asks politely. I glance at her and she’s obviously been dying to go out there and join her cousins.
I shrug and look at Stella. “If your mother says it’s alright. But we need to leave in five minutes.”
Anya runs off and Stella smirks, shaking her head.
“What?” I ask. Stella always has some opinion about something.
“I just never thought you’d have a pet pig running around the palace, that’s all. If our parents could see you now...”
I clear my throat, feeling guilt and unease creep up again. Always happens at the strangest times, just little jabs to knock me off balance.
“I’m sorry,” she says quickly, putting her hand on my arm. “I know it’s hard without Helena.”
“Yes, well. It is hard without her. It’s hard without Father and Mother, too.”
She nods slowly, looking around her. The greeting room is one of the more opulent rooms in the palace, with chandeliers and oil paintings and gilded furnishings, meant for impressing guests. “You know, it sure looks different when you’re older. Coming back here like this … it’s like I never grew up here at all and my childhood belonged to someone else.”
“Because it did,” I tell her.
I gnaw on my lip for a moment, wondering if Stella would understand things the way that I do. We had almost the same childhood, except I was groomed to be a future king and she wasn’t.
“I just feel like … childhood is where our true selves lie. Because we were given freedom to think and explore and be what we wanted, no matter what restrictions were placed on us. And as we got older, we lost that freedom. We had to become other people.”