I glance at him, lost in his eyes, in his words. He has no idea that he’s wrong. That there is more that he can give me.
His heart. He can give me his heart.
I’ve never wanted anything more.
But of course I can’t say that, so I don’t say anything. I press my lips together and keep all those secret wants and fears and desires locked in.
I think I’m in love with my boss.
And there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
“Are you alright?” he asks me.
I blink, trying to clear my head so I can deal with this realization, this blow, another time.
That I love him.
“I’m fine,” I say quietly, avoiding his probing eyes, ignoring the concern in his rich voice. “I’m just tired. I think I’ll go to bed.”
I get to my feet just as he gets to his feet and reaches out, grabbing my arm.
“I haven’t dismissed you,” he says, and though I know he’s joking, his eyes are dead serious. Maybe they’re more than serious. They’re wild again, searching my face with quiet desperation.
I err on the side of caution and take the playful route, very aware that he’s still grasping my arm, standing close. His cheeks are a little flushed, from the fire and the brandy. This could all go a million ways but it most likely won’t go the way I want it.
“Permission to be dismissed,” I say with a small smile. “Your Majesty.”
His grip on my arm tightens. “Permission denied.”
“Then you better start paying me overtime,” I say, and he takes a step toward me, until there’s barely any space between my chest and his. The energy radiating from him is overwhelming, enveloping me like a black hole until I’m sure there’s no escape.
He gazes down at me, lost in thought. His lower jaw is tense, as if he’s holding something back. He’s so restrained. What would he be like if he let loose? What would he say?
What does he want from me right now?
Is it possible that he wants the same thing that I do?
I want to stop hiding how I feel. I want it all to be allowed, to be okay.
I want him with a need so deep that I feel ravenous to the bottom of my core.
Just as I’m thinking he might kiss me, just as I’m thinking I might do something stupid like kiss him, or worse, blurt out that I love him, he takes his other hand and ever so gently tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, his eyes absently gliding over my face as he does so.
“Merry Christmas, Aurora,” he says softly, his fingers running down my neck, my shoulder, my arm. “Goddess.”
My heart flips.
I manage to swallow, even though my throat and mouth have dried up and every inch of my body feels like it’s coming alive.
“Merry Christmas, Aksel.” I pause. “King.”
His touch falls away from my skin, and I’m free to go.
But even as I turn and walk away from him, I’m not free at all.
My heart belongs to him now.
Even if he doesn’t know it.
“That was one hell of a present, Aksel,” Stella says to me as she sips her coffee.
Considering it’s been a week since Christmas, it takes me a moment to figure out what she’s alluding to.
But it’s Aurora. Of course, it’s Aurora. I knew the moment I bought that vase for her that everyone else would be giving me side-eye, making assumptions on why I would buy a 300,000 euro vase from a Christie’s auction and give it to a nanny. In some ways I wish I could have given it to her in private, but at the same time, I want everyone to know what she means to the family, what she means to me.
In a strictly professional way, of course.
“She deserves it,” I say simply, not wanting to make a big deal out of it.
“I know she does,” she says. “I’m just saying, that cost you a fortune.”
I shrug with one shoulder. “We have the money. I had the means to get it.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point?” I look at her mildly. “Hmm?”
“The point is … well, you better hang on to her for as long as you can.”
Her comment shouldn’t fill me with dread but it does.
In one way, I can’t imagine not having Aurora around. She’s part of this family now, beyond just being the help. Whether she knows it or not, she’s the thread that holds this palace together.
In another way, I can’t imagine how I’ll even fucking handle the future.
The truth is, I can’t. I’ve been barely hanging on this last month.
She’s started to become a full-blown obsession, one that I can’t shake, one that I can’t ignore, no matter how hard I try.
And I do try. I avoid her when I can, put up my walls again and again, keep my distance. I do everything I can to keep her in her place as the nanny. She isn’t supposed to be anything more than that, and I certainly am not supposed to think of her more than that.
But Aurora is a force of nature. She’s sunshine and fresh air and the northern lights. She’s a goddess, through and through with playful eyes and a smile that will knock you flat on your back. She came into our lives like the first rays of the morning and she won’t be shuttered out or dimmed.
Even when I do my best to ignore her, she has this way of pulling me back into her orbit, wrapped up in her very being.
I always thought I was stronger than most people because I had lost so much. I thought that my upbringing, being groomed for the throne, would have made me hard and impenetrable. And it did. I prided myself for being the sort of man that nothing would get to. Even when Helena managed to penetrate my defenses, I was quick to put them up again. Stronger. Better.
But the truth is, Aurora, this living goddess in my home, is making me weak, and for the first time ever, I have something to lose.
I can’t lose her.
And I can’t keep her.
I don’t know what to do.
“Aksel,” Stella says gently, putting her hand over mine. “You know it’s okay for you to move on.”
I eye her sharply. “What do you mean?”
She levels me with a disbelieving look over her coffee. “Come on. You know what I’m talking about. It’s been two years since Helena and…”
I shake my head. “I’m not talking to you about this.”
“I’m your sister.”
“I know you are. But there’s nothing to even say.”
She frowns, and in that moment looks so much like my mother that I feel yet another pang of guilt for not going to see her recently. “I have a hard time believing that. Look, I know what you and Helena had in the public eye was not what you had in private.”
My heart lurches. Our loveless marriage was something I’ve strived to cover up, no matter the cost.
You’re so good at covering things up, I tell myself.
I’ve been silent for a few seconds so I finally manage to say, “What makes you say that?”
“You think I don’t know what a loveless marriage looks like?” she says. “Come on, Aksel. My divorce was just finalized. I know that Egil was only interested in my money and status, just as I know Helena was only interested in yours. She wanted that throne and she got it.”
I have trouble swallowing, my heart wrapped in layers and layers of hardened guilt. “She did a lot of good.”
“I know. Everyone knows. You can still do a lot of good for the world and generally be a good person all while doing the wrong things. People aren’t just black and white. We’re not even grey. We’re all the colors, mixed into one muddy mess. Maybe Helena just wanted to be a queen so she could make a difference in the world with her charities. That’s a noble cause but it doesn’t erase the fact that she was cheating on you.”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. “How did you know that?” My words come out ragged.
Her eyes grow soft. “Because I saw her and Nicklas once when they thought I wasn’t there. If they were that sloppy around me, they’d be that way around you. I wouldn’t have told you if I didn’t assume you already knew.”
She’s right. They were sloppy. It’s like Helena wanted me to know, knowing full well that I’d never divorce her. The thing is, she was right. I wouldn’t have divorced her—that’s not why I confronted them in Madeira. I just wanted the charade to be over. I needed to say my piece.
And I said it. It was the last thing Helena heard.
“Why on earth did you keep Nicklas working for you?” she whispers. We’re in the dining room. Everyone else is outside taking part in a snowball fight that Aurora orchestrated.
“It’s complicated,” I tell her.
“It wasn’t your fault that Helena died.”
I give her a wry smile. “As much as I love it when you visit, I don’t like talk of death with my morning coffee.”
“Fine.” She sighs, annoyed with how obtuse I’m being. “Shut me out. I’m used to it. But don’t do the same with her.”
“Yes. The nanny you bought a priceless heirloom for. Stop pretending she’s just your nanny. I’ve seen the way you look at her. I’ve never seen you look at anyone like that before.”
I get up abruptly, the scrape of my chair echoing in the room. “You’re seeing things that aren’t there, Stella. You’ve always done that, since you were little. Your imagination gets the best of you. She’s just a nanny. End of story.”
“She isn’t,” she says, staring up at me, pressing her fingers into the table. “And if you don’t figure out your shit, you’re going to lose her one way or another.”
The thought of that, hearing those words, is another punch to the gut, this one more subtle, like the cool slip of a sharpened knife right into the spine. “There’s nothing there,” I tell her gruffly. “We have a professional relationship, that’s it, and we both know she’s only here for a year contract.”