Freja spots me and then waves. “Come on Aurora, you’re part of the family now.”

I can’t help but beam at that.

Family.

My family.

I finally have one.

I get to my feet and join them.

The next morning, I wake up in Aksel’s bed for the first time.

Sun streaming in through the windows.

No more hiding.

No more sneaking.

Just two people together in the way they always should have been.

“Hey,” I say to him as he slowly wakes up, blinking his eyes at the light.

“Good morning,” he groans, frowns.

“Wow you’re grumpy when you wake up over here. What happened to Caribbean Aksel?”

“He was temporary.”

“Hey, lift up your arm and let me cuddle.”

Now he’s grinning. “Fine.”

He lifts up his arm and I curl up next to him, resting my head on his warm chest. “So, do I get a raise now?”

He jerks his chin back to stare at me. “You think you deserve a raise?”

“We did a lot of baby-making the other night. I think I was pretty good at it.”

He chuckles. “You did a lot of cock-sucking is what you did. Hardly good for making babies.”

“Cock-sucking deserves a raise, I think.”

He shakes his head. “What am I going to do with you?”

“I don’t know. Now that we’re together, I get to get on your nerves allllll day long.”

He squeezes me close to him and kisses the top of my head. “Well, let’s not get too relaxed yet. We have a press conference to go to today.”

I groan, pinching my eyes shut as if to shut out the world. “I forgot. I woke up and I thought yesterday was it.”

“You don’t have to go. You know this.”

“But I have to. It’s my life, my reputation.”

“You don’t owe anyone anything.”

I sigh. “Maybe not. But I owe it to myself.”

And that thought is what gets me out of bed and ready. I do owe it to myself to come clean to the world about who I was. And I owe it to Aksel, too.

The press conference isn’t far. In fact, it’s right in front of the palace, set up where the Constitution Day stuff was.

I eschew the miniskirt and blouse and decide to wear pants and a blazer. Aksel says it doesn’t look like me anymore, but I beg to differ. How would I know who I am if I haven’t tried it out?

Besides, the outfit gives me confidence, the kind of confidence I need to stand by Aksel’s side and face the press. I hold my head high as we leave the front doors and head out to the podium. He’s not holding my hand, but he is guiding me by the elbow, comforting and steady.

“I have gathered you all here today,” Aksel says, speaking into the microphone as the cameras click in our faces, “because my employee, Aurora James, has something she needs to confess. The truth. You see, what was reported in the papers was only the bare bones, both factual and taken from a stolen diary. Her thoughts, her feelings, were never meant to be shown, nor was her mug shot, her past. Aurora made some mistakes and she paid for them, but she was never charged of any crime, and therefore, isn’t a criminal. But before you insist on condemning her anyway, you need to hear it all from her own mouth. This is the only thing you should be reporting on.”

He looks at me and nods.

In his eyes, I know he believes in me.

In his eyes, I know this is the right thing to do.

I step up to the microphone.

“My name is Aurora James, born Rory Jameson, and this is our story.”

I launch into it. Bold, brave, ready to shut the door on everything that I ever tried to bury. I brought my truth to the surface like fresh bones and I showed the world what I was hiding. I told them the whole experience, everything I told Aksel, maybe a little more.

All in all, it was a good fifteen-minute expose on my life, all the little details, all the things I never even thought were important but now know are.

It was cathartic.

It was freeing.

It was my chance to move on.

The irony is, having this public role let all this light into my life. If I had stayed in France, with the same old families, I would have never had to face anything.

I would have never started to live again.

When I’m done, there are tears running down my face, but I’m still composed. I’m sure some will say it’s all put on, but screw them. This isn’t a court appearance. I’m not pleading for them to forgive me. I’m just telling the world a very true story, all the bad and ugly bits.

I step back from the microphone and wait for Aksel to say a few words to conclude the press conference, and then we’ll head back inside, and I’ll collapse dramatically.

“Thank you so much for coming here and taking the time to listen to her,” Aksel says into the mic. “But before you all go, I have an announcement myself.”

Oh my god.

I thought we had done this already.

I didn’t think he was serious when he said we’d announce our love to the world and yet, here we are, reporters and cameras in our faces and hanging on to his every word.

“By now you all know Aurora James and her life story. But you don’t know our story.” Aksel smiles at them, then glances at me, softening before my eyes. “Aurora was hired to be the children’s nanny last year and she’s been wonderful. Truly. She’s kind and selfless and puts up with no shit, not even mine, if you can believe it.” He laughs, and the crowd laughs politely, on cue. “More than that, the girls have loved her so very much. But they aren’t the only ones to have fallen in love.”

More audible gasps. The last twenty-four hours have been just people gasping all around me.

I lick my lips, smiling shyly at him, trying to ignore everyone else. It is a little more embarrassing than romantic that he’s doing this but it’s important to him, so I guess I have to deal.

“I’m in love with Aurora and by some grace of god, she’s in love with me. We kept it private for as long as we could, and I’m sure we could have hidden it some more. But today is all about being truthful and while she shared her truth, I share mine. First, I share it with you, the public, the press, the people. And now, I share it with her.”

He reaches down and picks up my hand, cradling it between his as he pivots to face me.

“Aurora, I know I’m embarrassing you right now and I bet when you first met me, you had no idea that I would do something like this. But I like to keep you on your toes, just as you like to keep me on mine. And maybe love changes a person. I believe that. I believe that we need people in our lives and that it’s not a fault to need them. As long as that person is good, as long as that person makes you better, then it’s worth the need. We all want to be better than the person we were yesterday and there’s no more noble cause than that.”

Then he slowly, very slowly, drops to one knee.

Oh.

My.

God.

More audible gasping.

The press starts clamoring around the ropes and podium, trying to get a better view.

Of us.

Of Aksel, proposing to me.

Bloody hell, I know he mentioned it the other night, but I thought those were just fighting words.

Oh god, and I was the idiot who told him I wouldn’t have married him!

Shit. Shit. And he’s doing this now, not knowing what I’ll say?

I try to swallow, I want to cut him off and tell him YES, but I don’t want to interrupt him. I can’t get enough of his words and I think the public needs to hear them too. They need to know how he’s moving on.

“Aurora, we built our own world, you and I,” he says, gazing up at me with his haunting blue eyes. “A world where we helped each other, a world where we realized how damn good this life can be. The potential for mercy and grace, the potential to be reborn with love at your side. You, you, make me a better person. You healed the wounds. And I couldn’t have done any of it without you. I couldn’t have grown without you. I couldn’t be this king without you. Which makes me realize that I can’t continue being this king if I don’t have a queen.”

He reaches into his suit jacket pocket and pulls out a gleaming ring.

I’m stunned.

Stunned.

It’s beautiful, he’s beautiful, oh my god, this is happening.

“All I want on this earth is for you to share my life and my children and my throne,” he says, voice shaking now, hands trembling. He’s not so steady now. “All I want is for you to be my queen. And, I think you’d be really, really wonderful at it. Aurora, will you be my equal, my queen? Will you marry me?”

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Now there’s no more secrets.

Now there’s no more past to hold us down.

Now we’re both free.

Every doubt and fear I had has been erased by going straight through the fire.

And at the other end, I choose him.

Forever.

“Yes,” I cry out. “Ja! Ja!”

He grins at me, beautiful, perfect Aksel, and a tear slips from his eye.

He puts the ring on my finger where it sparkles and glows.

Then he gets up and pulls me close, kissing me in front of the cameras even though we’re both back into that world built for two.

This man is my king.

And, reader, I will marry him.

Chapter 24

Aksel

“With a snarf snarf here and a snarf snarf there, here a snarf, there a snarf, everywhere a snarf snarf!”

Normally that variation of “Old MacDonald” burrows into my brain like an earworm, but today it sounds like pure heaven to my ears.

Well, almost. I swear Clara’s singing has gotten even worse. It’s too bad you can’t auto-tune your own children.

“I’m surprised this isn’t bugging you,” Aurora comments, watching as Clara and Freja chase Snarf Snarf around the living room, singing at the top of their lungs. The pig has one of the few tennis balls he hasn’t actually eaten in his mouth in a game of fetch that escalated into a game of keep-away.

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