I can’t ever forget that.

Even if I were to try, I couldn’t.

It’s a part of me now.

The guilt.

The yearning for mercy that I’m too proud to ask for.

I wear it like my crown.

Deep down, I know I don’t deserve to feel happiness. Perhaps I never did. Maybe that’s why it eluded me for so long. Maybe it’s why my own parents were so cold and cruel in their own challenging ways. Because they knew.

Helena knew too. That’s why she went for me, hounded me, pretended to throw herself at me. She knew what I lacked. She knew what I was eager to have, sucking it in like oxygen.

I was told to never believe it. And like a fool, I did.

Fate has made me the lost King, encased in cheap armor that only keeps up appearances, forever fighting a battle he will never win.

And yet, looking at Clara and Freja, sleeping soundly, I feel that happiness snake around me. I am both happy when I am with them and devastated in my guilt, and I don’t know how to live with both feelings at once. Yet I keep on doing it. Because my love for them can’t be contained, even if grief comes along for the ride.

But then there is Aurora and … I don’t know where she fits in all of this. The only guilt I feel when I look at her is knowing that I shouldn’t be looking at her to begin with. I’ve spent the last month managing to keep my distance from her and putting up barriers and walls, to keep things strictly professional. She’s an employee, I’m her boss. She’s not even a friend.

And yet, back when Ludwig worked for me, I lamented that he wasn’t a friend either. Just an indifferent staff member. I had wanted, needed, someone to turn to.

Yes, I have my aunt and my sister and I’m grateful for them. But I’ve never had someone that wasn’t obligated to me by blood. Someone who would choose to be by my side.

But to consider Aurora a friend would be ridiculous. I hardly know her. She’s a paid subordinate. Her loyalty, if there is any, is bought.

Yet, the more I’m around her and the more I see her like she was tonight with the girls, caring for them as she does with her big, persistent heart…

Is it fucked up to want that?

Is it even more fucked up to want that from her?

It is fucked up, I tell myself. You think you’re deserving?

There’s a light rap at the door.

I don’t know how long I’ve been standing there, mind spiraling into the abyss. I open the door and see Aurora on the other side, holding up a bottle of aquavit. She’s smiling at me like she’s fucking won the world and it makes me feel the same. She’s infectious with her joy and I’ve been resisting feeling it for so long.

“Where did you get that?” I manage to say.

“I have ways,” she says slyly, and I know I should tell her I’ve changed my mind, that I’m just going to bed, that she can keep the bottle, when she sashays her way into the room.

And I move out of the way to let her.

I close the door behind her, softly, and follow her.

She pops into the bathroom and comes out holding two glasses and then goes over to the bed with the princess pink covers on it and sits down. She takes off her boots until she’s in her grey tights and then sits with her legs together and tucked to the side.

For a moment I can’t breathe again and there’s a foreign heat building in my limbs.

I say foreign because I can’t remember the last time I felt it.

This.

Good old-fashioned lust.

I immediately sit down in the pink chair, needing to compose myself, needing to douse any feeling that isn’t indifference.

It’s another battle that I have to win.

“Here,” she says, having poured me a glass. She’s on her knees now on the bed and leans forward as she hands me the glass, and her blouse is dipping low enough that I can see her breasts and the lace of her bra and her hair is falling over her face and…

I train my eyes on hers, hoping she can’t read what’s burning inside me.

I put my hand around the glass, and her fingers brush against mine and she doesn’t let go.

“You’re not a mean drunk, are you?” she asks, scrunching up her nose warily as she pulls the drink slightly away from me.

“A mean drunk? No. I don’t think so.”

She releases her grip on the glass. “Good. Because I can handle your mean ass when you’re sober. I don’t think I could do it if you were drunk.” She raises her glass. “Here. Cheers. Or skål, right?”

“Skål,” I say absently as I clink my glass against hers. I take a sip of the liquor, letting the warmth swirl around my tongue with just a touch of guilt over her comment. “You know, I think I need to apologize to you.”

She swallows, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and trying not to wince. “God this stuff is bloody awful.”

“It’s an acquired taste.”

She makes a face, her eyes pinched closed, her tongue out. “Blah! Jeez.” Then she has another sip. “Hmmm. It’s getting better. Kind of.” She looks at me, wincing. “Sorry, what are you trying to apologize for?”

“For making you cry.”

“When? A few weeks ago?”

“Have I made you cry since then?”

“I may have shed a tear or two since then but that’s because of my period, not you.”

I cock my brow at her lack of filter.

“Sorry,” she says, cheeks flushing. “But you should probably know that about me. I become an emotional beast when it’s that time of the month.”

Her frankness makes me smile. “I suppose I should be ready for that with two daughters.”

“Oh yes.” She laughs. Soft and yet somehow wicked. “You’re in for a hell of a ride.”

“Not if you’re here to help me,” I say, and the moment the words leave my mouth I realize how foolish that was to say.

“You’d have to extend my contract by about, oh six years or so.” She smiles into her drink. “Honestly, I’ll be surprised to last past New Year’s.”

I feel like she’s punched me in the gut. “Why would you say that?” I can barely hide the panic from my voice. She can’t leave me. She especially can’t leave the girls.

She rolls her eyes and leans away from me, back onto her elbows. “You have met you, right? If you really want to bring up the past, well then let’s say three weeks ago I was certain you were going to fire me. The tabloids, then the pig...”

“I know. That’s why I’m apologizing.”

The truth is, I keep replaying that scene over and over. I know it sorted itself out after but it felt like there was no closure. The moment I saw those tears fall from her normally cheerful face, I felt like a villain. And when she said she thought I hated her, I swear it put a crack right through my heart. A stark reminder that I still have one.

“Sometimes I lose my temper,” I add. I don’t know why it’s so painful to admit.

“You don’t say? You know, on that first day, Maja described you as merely disagreeable.”

“She’s known for her diplomacy.”

“You and I haven’t been on the same page since the start. That’s disagreeable. But you’re just outright hostile to me sometimes. I’ve only now figured out how to deal with it, but still, I never really know what you’re going to do or say next. Hell, I’m still in shock that we’re here right now.”

She certainly has a way of making me feel bad.

Which you deserve.

“But,” she goes on, “I know that you’re trying to make an effort to be nicer to me. And I appreciate it.” She finishes the rest of her drink like she’s a pro and then pours herself another glass.

“And yet I’m still driving you to drink,” I remark. I finish my glass and stick it out for her as she pours it to the rim.

She shrugs. “No. I just feel like letting my hair down, you know? I deal with your daughters all day long, it’s a nice change to talk to an adult. Even if it’s you.”

“Hey,” I say, giving her a mocking glare. “I’ll have you know I’m excellent company.”

A wide grin breaks across her face, showing off her perfect white teeth. If she could bottle that smile and sell it, she’d make a million dollars.

“You haven’t proved anything yet,” she teases. Then her expression grows wistful. “It’s just nice to get out of the palace for once. Doesn’t it feel … lonely, sometimes? It’s so big and drafty and cold and … haunted.”

“Haunted?” I wonder if she’s talking about Johan and his sleepwalking. The man can look like a ghost sometimes.

“Not in the literal sense,” she says, licking her lips in thought. “Just … Helena.”

I stiffen.

“I feel the memories of her, or something,” she goes on. She sighs, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I know I must sound daft. I swear I’m not normally this kooky.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“I think the walls just hold so much sadness, you know? And everyone inside is doing their best to pretend it’s not there.”

Fucking hell. She may even be right about that.

And I’m the biggest liar of them all.

“Since we’re getting all personal,” she says, coming to the edge of the bed and swinging her legs around. She leans on her thighs, her face closer to me now, her eyes searching my face. “There’s something I’ve been wondering.”

I hear her words but they don’t sink in. There’s something about the warmth and depth of her eyes that makes it impossible to think. It’s like slipping into a warm bath until you’re so enthralled you wouldn’t even notice if you drowned.

“What?” I finally ask, and the word comes out in a rough whisper.

“Nicklas,” she says, and it’s like she’s thrown ice water in my face. “Your secretary. He was…” She lowers her voice, looking briefly toward the girls’ room. “He was Helena’s butler.”

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