And yet, that’s what I want, what I need, from her.

To look to me for everything.

Johan’s seen my moods before, when I’ve had enough and I snap, so it’s not surprising that he ends up taking us to Marielyst, a wide expanse of beach an hour and a half south of the city.

“Are we here?” Aurora yawns. “Wherever we are?”

She was asleep for most of the drive, and I didn’t dare wake her. At one point her head fell onto my shoulder and I was able to breathe in deep, the sweet smell of her shampoo.

“I hope this is okay,” Johan says as he twists around in his seat to look at us. “This is Marielyst. It’s a beach. Very popular in the summer. Deserted now.”

“Probably because it’s minus a million degrees and snowing,” Aurora says, peering out the window at the light flakes that are falling from a grey sky. She looks at me. “I’m not one to ask questions.” I cock my brow at that. “But why are we here?”

“Come on, I’ll show you,” I tell her.

I get out of the car and take her hand, helping her out beside me. There’s a chilled breeze but it’s not as cold as I thought it would be. Maybe just below zero. More than that, it’s fresh. It’s freeing.

I want to keep holding her hand but she lets go to start slipping her gloves back on. So instead I just nod past the empty parking lot and toward the sea. “It’s just over there.”

The beach is white and beautiful in its cold desolation. In the summer it would be, as Aurora sometimes says, choc a bloc, but now it’s empty. It’s just us and the dark grey waves that pound the shore. Snow covers the beach in places, blending in with the white sand while tufts of grass stick out from the dunes. Above us, seagulls wheel and dive in the falling flakes.

“It’s cold,” she says, rubbing her arms.

“Do you want my coat?” I ask her, ready to take mine off.

Her brows go to the heavens. “No. Keep it.”

“Don’t like gentlemen, do you?”

“Phhffft. I don’t like it when a bloody king catches hypothermia on account of me having Australian blood. Everything is cold.” Her expression turns sheepish. “Besides, you nearly caught hypothermia once because of me. I think that’s enough.” She clears her throat and kicks a patch of snow at her boot. “So, why are we here?”

I shrug and stick my hands in my coat pockets, rocking back on my heels. “Because in the winter, I can just come here with my thoughts, my grievances, and deal with it in private. You’re right about that palace. Even when you’re alone, it’s like you’re not alone.” I close my eyes and take in a deep breath through my nose, the smell of salt and the sea and the snow like a tonic. “Here, my head can clear. I feel free.”

I open my eyes and stare at her. She’s looking off into the distance at the faint shape of land beyond the sea. “What’s that?”

“Germany,” I tell her and then point to our far left. “And on a clear day you can see Sweden in that direction.” I lick my lips, tasting salt. “You were asleep in the car for almost the whole drive.”

She smiles shyly. “Sorry.” She gestures quickly to me. “I woke up and my head was on your shoulder. I hope I didn’t drool.”

I smile. “I didn’t mind.”

“Did I drool?” Now she looks mildly horrified.

I laugh. “No. But I didn’t mind your head on my shoulder.”

Our eyes lock and that tension and heat I’m always trying to ignore crackles between us.

She’s going to ruin me, I’m sure.

For once I might not mind.

“Anyway,” I say quickly, “it did make me realize that you haven’t had any time off since you’ve started work here. Not even for Christmas.”

She shrugs, raising her hands. “Where would I go? I have no family.”

“You could go anywhere. Somewhere warm and sunny. I don’t mind paying for it.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Never.”

“Yeah right. I’ll come back and I’ll have no job.”

“You’ve been working hard, Aurora. You need this break. I think it would be good for you.”

And maybe it does sound like I’m trying to get rid of her. I don’t want her to go, though I know Maja wouldn’t mind watching the girls. I just want to be a good boss, because in the end, that’s all I might be to her.

No, that ever-present voice pops up in my head. That’s all you can be.

I swear she looks a little hurt but she nods. “Okay. I’ll think about it.” She glances around her, at the beach. “As pretty as it is here, I’ve got a chill. Do you mind if we go back to the car?”

“Not at all.”

We head back to the car, and with Johan having the heat on full blast, it feels delightful.

“One more stop on the way home,” I tell Johan as we pull back onto the motorway. “To see my mother.”

“Your mother?” Aurora asks. “The Queen?”

“Dowager Queen,” I correct her. “And yes. I haven’t been for a long time and … this is hard for me to admit but, I don’t want to go alone.”

“Oh,” she says softly. “I totally get it. I’d be happy to go with you. Moral support, right?”

Something like that.

But when we go to see her, the nurses almost don’t let me in. Visiting hours are over and she’s fast asleep. Of course they let me in because I’m the king, but they still tell us we shouldn’t stay long.

“What happened to her?” Aurora asks quietly. We’re standing side by side at the end of her bed. My mother has her own private ward at a hospital for the elderly but most of the time she doesn’t know where or who she is. Despite the way it’s decorated with rugs and woolen quilts and fresh flowers Maja brings in once a week, it’s a sad sickly place that only reminds me of my guilt, that I’m not here when I should be.

“She had a stroke, soon after my father died,” I tell her. “She hasn’t been the same since. She’s got dementia, fairly severe, but that didn’t come until later.”

“She must have loved your father very much,” she comments wistfully. “A stroke brought on by grief and loss.”

I glance at her. Aurora’s eyes are kind and beautiful and full of romantic notions about love. I don’t want to dismiss any of that, even though I know my parents didn’t love each other.

“I don’t think she knew how to be a queen without a king,” I explain.

“That sounds like love to me.”

I let out a dry huff of air, staring at her in awe. “How is it that you are the way you are?”

She fixes her big eyes on me and the rest of the air leaves my lungs. I’m breathless.

“What way am I?”

“You’re good,” I say, and the words come out rough and low. She’s unwaveringly good. And beautiful. And sexy and magnetic and enchanting and rare. So rare.

She winces and then shakes her head. “No. I’m not good. I’m just me. I’m just trying to be a better person every day, better than the person I was yesterday.”

“Your childhood was horrible, Aurora. The fact that you’re even trying to be better says a lot. Look at me. My parents were cold. Harsh. They didn’t love me, and if they did, they didn’t act like it. Ever. And I’ve taken that and I’ve worn it like a crown, the very crown they gave me to wear. I’ve let that experience mold me to every dark and desolate corner that I have. I barely see my own mother here, not because she doesn’t remember who I am, but on the off-chance that she does.”

My eloquence escapes me. I should have shut up a long time ago but the words kept coming and coming and now I’ve said too much. I don’t think I’ve even admitted any of that to myself.

I think Aurora knows it too, because her forehead is creased as she stares at me, speechless.

“Why did you tell me all of that?” she whispers after a beat.

I grab her hand and squeeze it, and I feel like I’m holding the universe. “Because I trust you more than I trust anyone.”

Because I need to know who I am to you.

Because I need to know how you feel.

But in the end, I’m a coward. And though I feel like I’ve said too much, I won’t say another word more. I feel like I’ve been flayed open for her to see, those very dark and desolate parts I mentioned in plain view. But to take that extra step is a line I don’t dare cross. Not yet. Not now.

Perhaps not ever.

I’ll slowly torture myself instead.

I start by letting go of her hand and heading toward the door. “Come on. Let’s go back home.”

She hesitates behind me, as if there was more to say.

Then she follows.

Chapter 14

Aurora

February

“Alors, tell me how the trip was,” Amelie says over the phone.

She’s one of those people who insist on actually talking over the phone instead of emails and text. I think it’s because she likes to read people and dig deeper.

I lean back against the bed and sigh, pulling the covers up to my chin to protect me from the chilled evening breeze. It turns out February in Copenhagen is the coldest month of all.

“Well, it would have been fine if I hadn’t gone by myself to Las Palmas on Valentine’s Day,” I tell her. “The whole hotel was filled with couples. Sex sounds everywhere. It was awful.”

“Ah, of course. But it was probably nice to have time off, no? You work so hard. Plus, the weather had to be warmer than in Denmark.”

“The weather was nice and I did get to read a couple of books,” I admit.

But the truth is, I didn’t even want to go. I did need a break so when Aksel suggested I go somewhere, I didn’t argue too much with him, even though I was hurt he even suggested it. I know I shouldn’t have been hurt, but I was. I can’t help how I feel anymore, just like I can’t stop my own heart from beating.

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