“Yes?” I look at her, blinking. The smile goes up on my face. I must have looked like a miserable Grinch sitting here with glittering Christmas ornaments at my feet.

“Can you pass me the reindeer?” She holds her hand out. “Please.”

I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room, sorting through the piles of ornaments that have been stored at this palace year after year. Clara is putting the ornaments up on what I think is the world’s largest Christmas tree while Freja is in charge of the tinsel. So far, they’ve done a pretty good job in decorating—but only the first four feet of it since that’s all they can reach.

I find an old gold reindeer with a chipped nose and hand it to her. She considers me for a second. “You look sad.”

I shrug. “We all get the blues sometimes.”

“But you have nothing to be sad about,” she says matter-of-factly.

Knowing that the girls do have plenty to be sad about, I have to tread carefully. “It can be a difficult, sad time of the year for a lot of people. Everything is so happy on the outside but…”

“Do you miss your family and Australia?” Freja asks.

“I do,” I tell her. And I’m lying.

Because there’s absolutely nothing about that place that I miss.

They’re both looking at me to go on so I scrounge for some truth.

“I miss my father. You would have liked him.” When he was sober.

“Is he … dead?” Clara asks.

I nod. “Yeah. He died when I was ten.”

“How?”

I rub my lips together. “Hmmm. He had a disease.”

“Like cancer?” Freja asks in a hush, as if she said a bad word.

“Yeah. Like that.” Like a cancer of the soul and a disease of the mind as you medicate yourself from your demons.

“Maybe your father and our mother know each other in heaven,” Clara says softly, turning the gold reindeer over in her hands.

“Maybe,” I say, giving them a soft smile.

“Varm kakao,” Karla announces cheerfully as she enters the room holding a tray of piping hot cocoa. “Oh, the tree looks so wonderful, girls,” she says, putting the tray down on the ornate coffee table behind us.

“Thank you, Karla,” Clara says. “This year it will be the best tree ever. Especially since Aurora is helping us.”

“Hey!” Freja yells excitedly from the window. “Det sne!”

I know enough Danish words by now to know that sne means snow, because they’ve warned of a lot of sner come February.

Clara gasps and immediately runs over to the window. I get up, and Karla and I join them.

The room faces out onto the square, which even at eight at night in the dark, has people still milling about. Faintly falling snow is illuminated by the lampposts.

“Oh, it’s so pretty,” Clara gushes. “Maybe we’ll have a white Christmas. Oh, maybe I won’t have to go to school tomorrow!”

Now, I don’t know this for a fact but I’m pretty sure that schools in Denmark don’t close because of a little bit of snow.

“Wishful thinking,” I tell her. “Actually, it’s getting late. Both of you need to go to bed.”

“But the tree isn’t finished,” Freja says.

“You can finish it tomorrow.”

“Can we say goodnight to Snarf Snarf?” Clara asks.

“Okay, but be quick about it.” They scamper off.

Snarf Snarf has taken up nightly residence in the palace’s “mud room” on the first floor. That was another one of Aksel’s conditions—that he not sleep with the girls—and frankly I couldn’t blame him. I thought for sure Snarf Snarf would have been history but the girls really went after their father with their guilt trip, totally tag-teaming him. I was impressed and it never fails to amuse me when they twist him around their pinkies.

The thing is, Aksel is learning. He’s learning his role all over again just as I’m learning mine. Whatever father he was when he was with Helena isn’t the father he needs to be now. He has to take on both roles and I can see he’s struggling. He’ll do anything for them, I know that much. But there’s still a steep learning curve as he figures out how to do it all.

We’ve grown closer over the last month, ever since our trip to Legoland. Something changed for us then. Changed in such a way that I’m thinking in terms of us. In terms of having a relationship with him.

Of course, we’re not in any kind of relationship, and on the surface everything is the same. I’m sure to him everything is the same. He’s the King. I’m the nanny. But sometimes I wonder if I am still just the nanny. While he’s still annoyed at half the shit that comes out of my mouth, I also know that he looks at me differently. That glacial gaze of his has started to melt, just a bit. From time to time I see warmth in his eyes. I’m starting to make him smile more. I haven’t really made him laugh yet, but there’s still time.

Now he seeks me out to talk to me, and I’m no longer afraid to talk to him. Not that I ever was afraid, per se. I still spoke my mind, I just always expected him to bite my head off (which he usually did). But now it’s like I can approach him and he’s not going to recoil at my presence. He actually looks happy to see me, even if his disparaging remarks say otherwise.

It’s a little bit dangerous. It’s dangerous for me because I see that in him and it does something to me in return. It makes me hopeful. It makes me love the fact that I mean something to him. Even if he just looks at me with fondness, the way you would a pet, it doesn’t matter. Here’s a man made of ice and he’s choosing to thaw for me.

But I’m overthinking it, obviously. He’s not choosing anything for me, he’s just hating me less. I need to keep myself in check otherwise these thoughts might start to build and build upon themselves, like the foundation of a house, until I’m standing on something that may not exist. For now, maybe the idea of him makes me smile. Maybe I catch my gaze falling on his face, memorizing his features, all of his quirks. Maybe it’s just a crush. I’ve had crushes before. I survived them.

I’ll survive Aksel. I’ve survived him this long.

And as if on cue, though my absent gaze is at the window and my back is to the doorway, I feel his presence enter the room. It’s like the molecules in the air change, the skin at the back of my neck prickles.

“It’s snowing,” he says, his voice low, adding to the electricity in the air, swirling with the falling flakes.

I glance at him over my shoulder and I’m already smiling before I see him. The man just gets more and more handsome every bloody day. It’s hardly fair.

And now, as he strolls toward me and Karla, he’s wearing one of my favorite outfits on him—pajamas. Well, essentially just red flannel drawstring pants and a white t-shirt. I only catch him wearing it late at night and usually he’s wearing this silk robe over it that I always want to reach out and touch.

I let my gaze linger on his body longer than I should. I know it’s as inappropriate for me to check him out as it would be for him to check me out (though, good lord, I wouldn’t mind him being inappropriate for once), but I can’t help it. I drink him in like water. I love Aksel in his usual sharp, dark suits but to see him dressed down like this is, well, a treat. I’m sure his t-shirt is made of some fancy material and costs a million bucks because it clings to his muscles perfectly.

Have I mentioned that the King of Denmark is ripped? Because, yeah. He very much is. I know he goes to the gym inside the palace every morning and whatever he’s doing there, it shows. He’s the perfect mix of lean and muscular. Especially in his upper body. His shoulders are like works of art, broad, rounded and perfectly sculpted, leading to large biceps and strong, sinewy forearms. Sometimes I think his hands are my favorite part of him. Maybe because I see them so often. Maybe because they’re massive and commanding and they look like they’d leave perfect handprints on my ass.

These thoughts aren’t new to me. The problem is that I’ve been having them more and more often, and it doesn’t help that I’m fantasizing about him spanking me while he’s standing right beside me.

Thankfully Aksel is eyeing the Christmas tree instead of me and therefore can’t see the flush on my cheeks. “It looks…” he says, trying to find the right word. “Festive.”

“I think I’ll decorate the top half tonight,” I tell him. “If you want to join me?”

Karla comes away from the window, and her gaze flits from him to me and back to him again. Aksel cocks a brow at me. “You want me to decorate the tree?”

I roll my eyes and scoff. “Oh, I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I forgot that Christmas tree decorating is beneath you.”

He doesn’t look amused.

Karla clears her throat and asks him in Danish if he wants his port. Now that the weather is getting colder, Aksel tends to sit by the fire every night with a glass or two, going over some paperwork. Occasionally I’ll see him reading some Danish hardback.

“Please,” he says to her and juts his chin out at me. “You want a glass?”

“Am I allowed?” I ask, glancing at the grandfather clock across the room. “I’m still on the clock for another hour.”

“I’ll allow it,” he says, and I swear I see a hint of a smile. “In fact, I insist.”

“I’ll bring two glasses,” Karla says cheerfully as she leaves the room.

“Generous mood tonight?” I ask him.

He nods at the tree. “I must be feeling the spirit of the season. So are the girls. I haven’t seen them this excited about Christmas in, well…” He trails off, clearing his throat.

“It’s hard not to be excited when you have presents every single morning. You know, I think you might be spoiling them.”

He gives me a withering look. “They’re princesses, Aurora. Literal princesses. I hardly think they can be spoiled. Besides, that’s Danish tradition.”

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