It’s not his fault. It turns out that Christmas is the busiest time of the year for a king, with an endless stream of public duties, such as parties for Helena’s various charities, taking part in annual ceremonies and attending numerous galas and dinners around Denmark, and even abroad. We even had a dinner at the palace for the Crown Prince of Norway, but according to Maja, my job was to keep the girls out of sight.
When I did happen to see Aksel, he was back to keeping his distance from me, much like he did at the very beginning of this job. He’s not as grumpy or cantankerous. He’s not even that cold. It’s more like he’s wary of me and unsure. He treats me like I’m a wild deer, permanently ready to bolt. No sudden movements around the nanny.
I’m going to assume that he thinks I’m an unstable nutcase since he found me running around in the snow and doesn’t quite know how to handle me anymore. And that really sucks because December was already a tough month for me to begin with. I hate having this space between us, especially since I still feel this pull to him, like one magnet to another, that only increases with each and every day.
It’s foolish. So foolish. And it hurts my heart.
But hearts are made to hold you hostage and I’m captive against my will.
Now, it’s Christmas Eve, the main event, and he’s here, sitting across from me at the lavishly decorated dinner table, looking too handsome for his own good. There’s a half-eaten Christmas goose between us, surrounded by leftover plates of herring, dill and potatoes, dark breads, fried fish, shrimp, meatballs, cabbage, and shot glasses of aquavit and bitter Schnaps. The girls are still devout vegetarians (well, Clara is. I saw Freja sneak a bit of goose when her sister wasn’t looking) but at least they were satisfied with the ample amount of potatoes and root vegetables.
At the moment, everyone is eating a traditional Danish dessert called ris á l’amande (which is French but actually doesn’t exist in France), which is rice pudding, whipped cream, cherry sauce, and cut almonds. It’s delicious and we’re all stuffed but those aren’t the reasons why we’re eating it so slowly. It’s that one of the bowls has an uncut whole almond in it, and apparently whoever discovers the almond in their bowl wins a present.
I’m not sure if I’m fond of this tradition. I’ve devoured nearly the whole bowl, even though I’m bursting out of my seams at this point and I don’t have the damn almond.
“Okay, I’m out,” I say, leaning back in my chair and pushing my bowl away. “I got nothing. And now I’m so full I might die.”
Princess Anya, Aksel’s niece, giggles from across the table, looking awfully suspicious.
Her mother, Princess Stella, finishes the spoonful of dessert and looks over at her daughter’s bowl. “Din lille snydepels,” she admonishes her, pointing at it.
“What?” I ask.
Now Clara is laughing. “I think Anya has the almond.”
“That figures,” Aksel mutters.
“What?” I ask again.
He looks at me, and the bright clarity of his gaze makes me realize we haven’t really looked at each other in a long time. It’s arresting, to put it mildly. “Sometimes, if one has discovered the almond early on, they’ll hoard it until the very end.”
“Forcing everyone else to finish their bowls,” Stella says with a sigh, patting her stomach. “This child of mine. So devious.”
“At least it’s delicious,” Maja says pragmatically. “And I guess this means you get the prize, Anya.”
Her prize ends up being a marzipan pig, which apparently is also tradition. Anya calls her pig treat Snarf Snarf, of course, before she gleefully bites the pig’s head off, making Clara and Freja squeal with horror.
When dinner is over, we take everything into the kitchen and wash up. Because Karla and a few other cooks slaved over this food all day, Aksel made sure to give them the rest of the holiday off, which means we’re all on wash-up duty.
It’s actually kind of fun to watch Aksel wearing an apron at the sink, scrubbing the roasting pans and pots, his sister teasing him, the girls occasionally spraying him with water. This is probably the most relaxed I’ve seen him all month, maybe even since I first started working.
I know I’m watching a bit too much because at one point Stella gives me a curious look and I quickly avert my eyes, as if I’ve been staring at the sun. The last thing I need is for her to tell her brother she thinks the nanny has a full-blown crush on him.
Because that’s the only name I have for this … affliction. It’s a crush. And yet, that word doesn’t seem enough. God, if only I could just stop these feelings growing inside of me. I’m afraid of what might happen if they don’t go away. Will it just bubble up and rise until they’re bursting out, like water spilling from a boiling pot? Or can I just keep trying to bury it, deep, deep down, without being driven insane?
The funny thing is, I don’t even know what I’m feeling most of the time, just that it’s there and it’s deep and raw and persistent and centered around him. It’s like everything now is centering around him. He’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep. He haunts my dreams, my thoughts, and the more I deny it, the more it hurts like salt in a wound. Being obsessed with a man you share a house with is a recipe for disaster.
I’m in the living room, setting out hot cocoa for the girls while they play downstairs with Snarf Snarf, when Stella comes out with a glass of wine for me.
“Aksel tells me you decorated the tree,” she says, nodding at the tree in front of us, mounds of presents piled underneath it. “You did a good job.”
“Well, technically the girls did the first four feet and I did the other ten,” I admit, taking the glass from her. “Tak.”
“And he also says your Danish is coming along nicely.”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration.” I wonder how much Aksel has told her about me—and when. So, of course, I ask, “What else did he say?”
She smiles, and her smile matches Aksel’s on the rare occasions he uses it. “Only good things.”
I take a sip of my wine. “I have a hard time believing that. Has he always been so …?”
“Serious?” she provides. “Moody? Brooding?”
“Yeah, all those.”
She nods and sighs. “When we were little he was a lot … looser. He smiled and laughed more. He was certainly more adventurous.”
“He used to race cars in his twenties.”
“As a rally driver, yes. Then he raced boats. I’m sure he’ll take you out on his yacht come summertime. But to answer your question, that’s just the way he is.” She looks furtively toward the doorway as if to check if anyone is listening but we’re alone in the room.
“Our parents weren’t the best,” she admits in a low voice. “I know it’s terrible to speak of them this way, especially with how our mother is, but it’s the truth. For some reason, they were kinder to me. At least our mother was more loving. They were both cold with Aksel. Harsh. They were like teachers rather than parents. I think they were just trying to prepare him to be King one day. They knew I’d never take over the throne so they treated me more like a daughter than an heir, if that makes any sense.”
It makes perfect sense. Definitely explains why Aksel is so closed-off.
“Then of course he became King before he was ready, he lost our father, our mother, there was the accident and Helena and … he got worse.” I nod, my heart pinching every time I think of him suffering. “But then he got better.”
I glance at her, swallowing my wine. “Got better?”
A knowing smile stretches across her lips, and she nods. “Mm-hmm. He’s so much better now. Ever since you showed up.”
“Me?” I almost laugh. “I don’t think so. I think I’ve probably only made things worse. He treats me like I have the plague.”
She studies me for a moment. “Listen, I know my brother. Maybe it looks that way to you. But you’ve brought light into this house. You make him happy.”
Don’t let it go to your head, it means nothing, it means nothing.
“I’m sure he’s just happy that the girls are doing better.”
“Yes. That’s true.” But still, she has this impish look on her face, like she knows something I don’t.
Naturally I want to take this feeling and run. Create a world of possibilities in my head. I make him happy. Me. But what good would that do me?
Suddenly the girls come barreling into the room yelling about it being present time, followed by Aksel and Maja who are in a conversation about something, glasses of brandy in their hands.
In Denmark the presents are opened on Christmas Eve, and I was told by Maja the other day that it’s quite an event. There is no frantic tearing like the kids do in America. Instead it’s done one by one, slow and thoughtful. Knowing this, I went out of my way to buy everyone something special, or I at least hope they’ll think it’s special.
We all gather in spots around the tree, Stella and I on the velvet couch, Maja and Aksel in the armchairs, the kids on big pillows on the floor. Each girl is in charge of being a Christmas “elf” and handing out the presents, which is great because it means I can just sit back and drink.
Luckily the presents I picked out for everyone are well-received, which isn’t an easy feat when you’re dealing with a royal family, AKA the family that already has everything. So I went for more unusual gifts instead.
I got a couple jars of Vegemite that I ordered from Australia for Maja since she recently discovered she loves it on her rye bread in the mornings. Though I don’t know Stella well, she seemed to like the leather planner I got for her with her initials on it. Anya, I got her a book about horses. Freja is going through a “big girl” phase right now which means an obsession with jewelry, so I got her a silver necklace with her Norse goddess namesake on it. And for Clara with her love of reading and everything Snarf Snarf, I compiled all the photos I’ve taken so far into one of those photobooks you can make online, only this one also has one of the many versions of The Magical Tale of Snarf Snarf that I tell the girls at bedtime.