And just like that, all the energy is drained out of me, like rapidly thawing snow. I collapse back against Aksel and he scoops me up into his arms. I have just enough strength to bury my face into the crook of his neck, trying to hide from everything, trying to breathe.
I hear his heartbeat.
I feel his hot breath on my skin.
I feel the strength of his muscles as they hold me up, protecting me.
It’s the only time I’ve felt protected before. The only time I’ve ever felt safe.
I try and hang onto that feeling as the cold comes for me, again and again, tempered by numbness.
Then the snow stops hitting my cheek and there are bright lights and squeaking floors.
We go up the stairs and Aksel is barking at someone to move the chair to the fireplace.
He gently places me in the chair and I’m swaddled with blanket upon blanket, the fire roaring in front of me.
Then he leaves.
I see Karla’s face peering at me as she tucks the blanket in around my chin, my world slowly rocking back into place. I want to run after him, I want to help, I don’t want to be here, numb and useless. But I have no energy to move. I feel like everything I have is going toward keeping me alive, even though I’d give it all to run out the door and back into the snow.
“Go to your room,” Maja’s voice comes through, dancing with the flames. I manage to raise my head to see her standing behind Clara and Freja who are off to the side of me, looking stunned.
Karla says something about warm soup and disappears.
My eyes meet Clara’s and I wish I could tell her how sorry I am that I came back empty-handed. But she looks more concerned for me than anything else.
“You’re so cold,” she says, putting her hand on my hand, and from that alone I’m melting in my heart. I’ve been so deprived of touch, I’ve had to grow numb to finally feel it.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. She frowns, not understanding. Or perhaps my voice was too shaky, too low, to hear.
“Clara, lad os gå,” Maja says, holding out her hand for her.
I can tell Clara doesn’t want to leave my side. She’s staring at me, torn, filled with sorrow. She’s lost so much at her age.
Then her attention is stolen.
“Papa!” she cries out, and I manage to look over my shoulder to see Aksel enter the room, striding toward us. Snowflakes rest in his hair, on his shoulders, his coat held tight across his chest. His eyes still have that edge, that wildness, as they rake over me, assessing the damage. Then he opens his coat and a little pink snout pops out.
“Snarf Snarf!” Clara cries out as Freja rips out of Maja’s grasp and comes running over to him.
“Where did you find him?” I ask, immediately offering one of my blankets. The numbness is starting to fade, my nerves are prickling as they grow warmer and warmer. My heart is the warmest of all, seeing Aksel take the blanket and wrap the little pig up in it, placing him in front of the fire, crouching beside him. Snarf Snarf’s snout twitches, his eyes curious. He’s alive, he’s safe. We’re both safe.
“He was curled up inside one of the guard booths,” he says. “He was shivering but he didn’t seem as bad off as you were.” He glances at me sharply. “You shouldn’t have run off like that. What were you thinking?”
Oh god. Here comes the lecture.
Maja clears her throat loudly. “Clara, Freja, kom nu.”
Though they’re petting Snarf Snarf and loving on the bundled-up pig, I can tell they’re a bit uncomfortable with the way Aksel is speaking to me, so they immediately go over to Maja who takes them both by the hand.
“Godnat Snarf Snarf,” Freja says.
“Goodnight Papa and Aurora,” Clara says.
“Goodnight girls,” I tell them as Aksel says the same in Danish.
Then Karla appears, dropping off two mugs of fragrant bone broth for us before scurrying away, and then it’s just me and Aksel and the pig. His sharp words still hang in the air and his intense gaze has lifted off my face.
“Well?” he prods me. “You could have died out there.”
“It’s just a little snow.” My voice is weak but I’m stubborn.
He stares at me like I’m an idiot. “A little snow? How long would you have gone running for if I hadn’t found you?”
“I wasn’t running,” I tell him. Doesn’t he get it? “I was looking for Snarf Snarf.”
There’s a small shake of his head, the melted snow dripping off his hair and onto the floor. “I know what it looks like to run. You were running. From what? From me? From this?”
I don’t know what he’s talking about. “I just wanted him back. I couldn’t bear for the girls to lose him, for you to lose the girls’ happiness. Why would I run from this? I work here. I went out there so I could continue to work here.”
“You think I’d let you go otherwise?”
I press my lips together and look down at the pig. He seems to be sleeping now despite our conversation which is getting louder by the minute.
“You’d said I’d blame you,” he goes on. “Do you really think that?”
I glance at him warily. For the first time ever, he actually looks hurt. I didn’t think it was possible to hurt him, especially from something like this.
I shrug. “I don’t know. I guess … I got afraid. I wasn’t sure what you’d do. And I realized how important this job is to me.”
He stares at me for a long, heavy moment. The fire roars, the pig is snoring lightly, the grandfather clock ticks on. The loudest sound of all is my heart.
“Is that the only thing that’s important to you?” he asks, his voice low and rough. “The job?”
“No. The girls are everything to me.” I take in a deep breath. “As are you.”
There. I said it. Part of my truth.
I’m scared to watch his expression but I can’t read it at all. He just stares at me. It’s like he didn’t even hear me.
Or that he doesn’t really care.
Probably the latter.
I look away and start to peel away the blankets, growing hotter now. My clothes underneath are soaked from the melted snow.
“You need to get out of those clothes,” Aksel says, straightening up and walking past me. “Stay there. Drink your broth.”
Yes sir, I think but don’t dare say it. Not now.
Still, I do as he told me, the broth reviving me a little. I’ve drunk half the mug when he returns with one of his flannel pajama sets. He places it on the arm of my chair and then crouches down in front of me and starts unbuttoning my wet cardigan.
I’m breathless. He’s so close to me and he’s taking off my damn clothes. He smells like snow and cardamom, his presence feels as warm as the fire. I can only swallow loudly, my heart beating against my ribcage, powerless to him, to this moment.
“You know my father wore cardigans just like this,” he says quietly as his fingers slowly unbutton just below my breasts.
Oh good. I remind him of his dad.
“Your father must have good taste,” I manage to say, and my voice comes out all squeaky.
“Mmm,” he grunts in reply and continues to work his way to the bottom, frowning as if in deep concentration.
“Do you ever stop frowning?” I ask him softly, and without thinking I reach up and slide my thumb between his brows, smoothing over the deep line. He closes his eyes to my touch, as if surrendering to me. It makes me think he might be as deprived of touch, of connection, as I am.
I should take my hand away, but I don’t. Instead I gently trail my fingers up and over his tense brow, feeling the cold of his skin beneath my fingertips. I bring them down over the dip of his temple, coasting the tips of his wet hair, dusting over his high cheekbones.
His inhales through his nose sharply, eyes pinched shut, letting go of the end of my cardigan. He places his hand over mine, holding it to his cheek, warm fingers wrapping over the edge of my palm.
For a moment it seems like he might move my hand to his mouth and kiss my palm.
For a moment, this is all I can hope for.
For a moment, this is all I’ve ever wanted.
But he doesn’t. His eyes open and they flash with something I can’t figure out, something raw and dangerous, and that frown returns. He removes my hand from his cheek and gets up to his feet.
“I think you can handle the rest,” he says, gesturing to the last two buttons. He clears his throat and bends down to scoop up Snarf Snarf. It would be the cutest thing in the world if I still wasn’t reeling over what happened. We were so close there, just for one moment, but a moment was all there really was.
“You must really love that pig,” I comment, trying to cover up how awkward I feel. “To go after him like that.”
He cocks his head. “I went after you, didn’t I?”
That’s true. And he obviously doesn’t love me. He’s just a good man, even if I get the feeling he doesn’t believe it himself.
He stares at me for another beat and then turns around. “I’m going to put him back in his room, make sure he’s okay,” he says over his shoulder. “Get dressed, stay warm. I’ll be right back.”
I watch as his tall figure disappears.
Then I get up.
I take his pajamas and head up to my room. I know he told me to stay where I was but honestly, I don’t trust myself. I’m at the point where I’m involuntarily touching him, feeling his damn face like he’s braille, not to mention that I ran out into the snow and nearly got hypothermia, which seemed to really piss him off.
No, this is an evening that needs to be put to bed.
But that doesn’t stop me from slipping into his pajamas anyway.
Just to fall asleep to the smell of him.
The rest of the weeks leading up to Christmas fly by. After the Snarf Snarf incident (and, believe me, there always seems to be a Snarf Snarf incident), Aksel and I went from one step forward to two steps back. Though he sometimes took part in the girls’ Christmas activities, such as candle lighting and wreath decorating, most of the time he’s been gone.