Clara is so happy about it, she nearly starts crying. She drops the book and comes right over to me, enveloping me in a tight hug that lasts for several seconds.
I glance over her shoulder at Aksel who is watching us closely. Something deep and real dances in his blue eyes. You make them happy, I remind myself, therefore you make him happy.
But before I can give Aksel his present, Anya hands me his present to me.
“It’s from Uncle Aksel,” Anya says, and I can’t help but smile at his name.
It’s in a large box, professionally wrapped in shiny gold paper.
I smile curiously and lift it up to shake it but Aksel leans forward in his chair and says, “It’s fragile. Very fragile.”
Fragile? I’m not exactly the type of person who should receive, like, a crystal duck or something.
I slowly, carefully unwrap it, every now and then looking around the room to pick up on any clues of what it could be. As far as I can tell, they’re all as intrigued and clueless as I am. But Aksel seems … nervous? He’s tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair and there is this glittering intensity in his eyes as he looks from the box to me and then around the room.
The paper covers a plain brown box, and I carefully lift up the top lid to see a bunch of bubble wrap covering something.
“Careful,” Aksel says.
“You don’t say?” I tease him considering how well protected this thing is.
It’s large too, hence the size of the box. I stick both my hands inside and gently pull it out. I still can’t tell what it is.
“Can I play with the bubble stuff after?” Clara asks hopefully as I pull loose the stick of tape and start slowly unraveling the wrap.
“Typical,” Maja says. “You give them all the toys in the world and they still want to play with the packaging it came in.”
Finally, it’s nearly unwrapped and I’m starting to figure out it’s some sort of pottery or dish.
And then … my heart stops.
This can’t be what I think it is.
“What is that?” Clara asks, reaching for the bubble wrap. “It looks boring.”
But it’s not boring. It might be the most magical, priceless thing I’ve ever held in my hands.
It’s a black vase or pot with handles, with a gold painting that stretches all around it depicting a few scenes. Greek scenes. It’s ancient as all hell, and as far as I can tell, absolutely real.
Aksel clears his throat and gestures to it. “It’s a red-figure bell krater,” he says. “Made from terracotta. I’m sure you know what it was used for.”
I nod slowly, having trouble finding the words. “It was a vase used in ancient Greece, to mix water and wine in.”
“Like an ancient punchbowl,” Stella remarks in awe. “Aksel, where did you get this? Please don’t tell me you bribed a museum. Indiana Jones would be very upset.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says dismissively. “It was obtained legally at auction.”
Auction. He bought it. I can’t imagine what it would cost. This vase is older than I can wrap my head around.
“It’s from 430 B.C.,” he says to me. “And the painting is supposed to depict Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and some other Greek gods that I can’t remember. It’s an origins story, so they said.”
“430 B.C.,” Maja says, whistling. “That’s 2,400 years old.”
“Whoa,” Clara says. “No wonder it looks like that.”
Actually, the vase is in remarkably great condition. I just … I don’t understand why he gave this to me. This is history. This is something bigger, more expensive, more important than anything in my life. It doesn’t even belong in my life. I grew up in a shack in the outback.
My hands are actually starting to tremble so I put the vase on the floor and glance up at him. “Aksel. Thank you but … I can’t keep this. This belongs in a museum.”
He shakes his head. “It doesn’t. It belongs to you.”
“It’s too much.”
“It’s yours. I went to the auction house specifically to get it for you. I know your love of history and ancient Greece.”
“I can’t accept it.”
“But you will.”
Meanwhile, everyone else’s eyes are volleying back and forth between us like they’re watching a tennis match.
“It’s yours,” he says emphatically. “Just tell me that you like it.”
My eyes widen. “Like it? It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s … everything.”
He looks relieved, his brow smoothing, his mouth quirking up into a smile. “Good. Then you’re keeping it. That’s an order.”
“But nothing,” he says, waving his hand. “It’s a remarkable piece of history, but it’s a dime a dozen in the world of cultural artifacts. It belongs to Aurora James now and no one else. I know you’re the best person to keep it safe.”
“Yeah, you’re a goddess,” Clara says. “You get to keep it.”
I look at everyone with my chin up, trying to keep tears from rushing to my eyes. I breathe in deep through my nose, feeling it burn, then manage a smile. I can’t believe he did this for me.
Why would he have done this?
Of course, now my present to Aksel looks lame as fuck compared to a vase that was made before Jesus was around. I mean, he’s a bloody king, he has everything he could ever want or buy. So I made Maja dig through old photos and find the picture of him posing beside his wrecked Datsun rally car, the last rally car he ever drove. Then I superimposed “Why I Took Up Sailing” on top of it, had it blown up, printed out, and professionally framed. I figured he could hang it up in his office.
But even though it’s not an ancient heirloom, I at least made him laugh when he saw the photo. And honestly, making Aksel laugh, seeing his wide smile, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, is just as meaningful as the vase and just as rare.
After the presents are all done, we ignore the mess of discarded wrapping papers and play another tradition, which is to each light a candle and stick it on the tree in a special holder. This game should be called “Fire Hazard” but the point of the game is to stay up and see whose candle burns out last.
Maja is the first to call it quits, heading up to her room. Then the girls fall asleep, curled up with their new plush toys at the foot of the tree.
“I’ll take them up to bed,” I say, about to get to my feet and rouse them.
“You will not,” Aksel commands. “You’re off duty right now.”
“I’m going to go to bed anyway,” Stella says tiredly as she gets up. “You both stay. Just make sure the palace doesn’t burn down.”
She gets Anya and Clara up, who give us a bleary-eyed goodbye, then she scoops up a sleeping Freja into her arms as they leave the room.
All at once I’m aware that it’s Aksel and I, alone. Even the copious amounts of sweet cider and wine I’ve been drinking all night aren’t enough to temper the nerves that are beginning to dance inside me, like a live wire on the ground. I’m painfully aware that the last time I was alone with him was in this very room and things got weird.
“How did you enjoy your first Danish Christmas?” he asks idly. He’s sitting back in his chair, a glass of brandy dangling from his fingers. Half his face is lit by the fire, the flames dancing in his eyes, highlighting his high cheekbones and the hollows underneath. I’ve felt those cheekbones under my fingertips once.
“Better than Australian ones,” I tell him, giving him a quick smile.
“Ah yes. I’m sure eating shrimp on the barbie and going to the beach makes for a rotten Christmas.”
I roll my eyes at him. “No one says shrimp on the barbie.”
“I’ve heard you say a few odd things,” he muses. “Once you said that the square out front was choc a bloc when it was crowded. You called Clara a bludger, was it? When she wouldn’t get out of bed one morning? And another time you said I was wearing daks when I was going to the gym in my sweatpants. I had to Google everything to figure it out.”
“Welcome to my world,” I say with a laugh. “I’m still trying to figure out every second word spoken here. Lord knows what I’ve been agreeing to half the time.”
“Hmmm,” he says thoughtfully between sips of his drink. “Had I known that, I would have spoken Danish more. See what you’d agree to.”
Butterflies burn in my stomach from that comment. There’s something teasing and light about him right now. Dare I say it’s sexual innuendo.
I raise a brow at him. “You’re in an awfully good mood.”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Because Christmas can be depressing sometimes and, well, you’re never in a good mood.”
“You think so highly of me, even after that gift.”
I chew on my lip for a moment, trying to conjure up the right words. “You really shouldn’t have given that to me.”
“I don’t … I’m not deserving of it.”
His brows knit together and he leans forward in his chair to look at me closer. “Why would you ever believe that?”
I shrug. Because it’s true. I try not to dwell on it, but it’s true.
“Aurora,” he says, his voice so low and velvety that I feel it under my skin, “you deserve that vase and more. You have no idea what you’ve done for this family. No idea at all.”
Another shrug. “I do what any nanny would do.”
“Not even close. You don’t even do what some mothers would do. You are always going above and beyond for them. More than that, you let them be who they need to be without trying to contain them, without putting them in a box. They’ve never had that before, and it’s what I’ve always wanted for them. It’s what I never had growing up. You have such a big, beating heart and you love them and they feel that. You have no idea how invaluable that is. It’s worth more than a vase. It’s worth more than I can ever give you.”