There’s no way that Aurora and I can sneak into each other’s rooms, we’d be walking past the girls each time and I know for a fact that they don’t sleep well on the boat because one of them always has nightmares about mermen, for some reason.
But that doesn’t stop me from going up to the cockpit after dessert is done, and the bottle of wine is gone, and the girls have been put to bed. I bundle up in my Helly Hansen jacket with a highball glass of scotch and a cigar and sit beside the wheel, taking in the night.
The skies have cleared above, and the stars are out like a shimmering velvet blanket. I take in a deep breath and try to light my cigar.
“Mind if I join you?” Aurora asks softly as she climbs up. She’s wearing one of my fleece jackets from one of the races I did, which is completely oversized on her. Looks like the sexiest damn thing I have ever seen.
I pat the space next to me and go back to lighting the cigar until I’m satisfied it’s lit.
She sits down beside me, her hips pressed against mine, maybe a little too close for some but still nothing people could get upset about.
Not that there’s anyone around to see us. The motorboat of royal attendants is dark and silent, and though I know that there is someone on the deck all night, they aren’t focused on me.
Still, I remind myself to not get carried away, not with wine and scotch and the bracing sea air running through my veins.
“The girls fall asleep with no problems?” I ask her.
She tilts her head back and forth, considering. “Maybe. You were right, Clara really is afraid of mermen for some reason.”
“Well, it would be a hell of a thing to see one.” I puff on the cigar and let the smoke fall out of my mouth before offering it to her. “Cigar?”
I didn’t expect her to take it, but she does, sticking it between her lips with ease.
Fuck, that’s sexy.
Then again, what about her isn’t?
“It’s nice out here,” she says, tilting her head back to look at the endless starry sky as the smoke leaves her mouth. “It reminds me of home.” She pauses and then says quietly, “Huh. I so rarely refer to it as home.”
“I suppose you must have a completely different sky.”
“It was a completely different world. I was a completely different person.” She hands the cigar back to me.
I want to know more. She’s so guarded about her past, even now. I know it’s because she had a terrible childhood of neglect and it’s hard to talk about it. But I want her to share everything with me, the good and the bad. I want to know what her dreams are, as well as her nightmares.
“So you dropped out of school when you were a teenager,” I mention.
She sighs. “Yeah. When I was sixteen. I was dumb. I mean, I made some really dumb mistakes.”
“Why did you drop out?”
She looks off into the distance. The water has calmed quite a bit in this bay, enough to reflect some of the stars back. “Because I met a man and I fell in love.”
This is a surprise. “At sixteen?”
“Puppy love,” she says with a shrug. “Puppy love that morphed into something beastly.” Her voice is more acidic now.
“What happened? Who was he?”
“He was a criminal,” she says.
I stare at her. “Are you serious? I mean, I know there is a running joke among Australians but…”
“No, he really was. He came to town with a lot of cash and needed a safe place to put it. He bought an ailing pub and opened it. But it was a front. And then he saw me walking past the pub one day on my way back from school and that was that. My bike was broken, and the walk was hours and he offered me a free drink and I went in. His name was Dan. He promised me the world. They always do, don’t they. Only I had nothing and nobody and I stuck with him like a joey to his mother.”
“Where is he now?”
“Jail,” she says, brushing her hair off her face, which looks even more fair and pale in the starlight. “At least, I hope he is. He killed someone during a drug deal gone wrong…” she trails off.
“I’m so sorry you had to be with a man like that,” I tell her softly. When I wanted her to open up, I didn’t think it would be this. But at the same time, I’m glad I’m no longer in the dark.
“Sometimes I think about how he’s a villain and I’m a victim. Other times I think I’m the villain and he’s the victim. Then it turns out that everyone has both of those roles in a story.” She lets out a long sigh. “We’re just people doing stupid things because that’s what people do.”
It’s so silent now. I can hear Johan snoring downstairs. I glance over at the RA boat and see a guy at the back with his iPhone out, lighting up his face. There’s freedom out here, a place where confessions can set you free.
I need to be set free.
Especially with her.
We can’t move forward in this relationship, however you want to define us, until we’re completely honest and open with each other.
I clear my throat and steady myself.
This is just the last step in my salvation and she’s been my crutch each time.
Every dirty thing I do to her makes me feel clean inside.
Each time I come deep inside of her, I’m reborn a new man.
She is mercy incarnate, my absolution.
“I killed my wife,” I say. My words are quiet and soft and meant for her, but they still have the impact of a thousand storms.
Aurora slowly turns to look at me, her big eyes even more oversized, her face paling before me. She can’t even speak.
“It was an accident,” I go on, carefully choosing my words, hoping to make her understand. “I was driving that night in the car. It wasn’t Nicklas. I was angry, and the roads were wet and there was a fight in the car and I…I lost control. I so rarely lose control, but I lost control then. We went over the shoulder and plunged down. Flipping. I never thought the car would stop flipping. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt and she went through the windshield. I saw her die.”
The air between us is so still, stretched thin with tension. Aurora is trying to breathe, I’m trying to calm my fevered heartbeat. I don’t know what I was expecting, I just know it needed to be said. And if she should leave me now…I can’t blame her.
“Where was Nicklas?” she finally asks.
“He was in the car. I picked up both him and Helena from the airstrip. I wanted the two of them together alone. It was the only way I could confront them in private.”
“Because Helena and Nicklas were having an affair. Probably since we got married, maybe even before. I knew, and I wanted them to know. It was stupid. I should have kept my mouth shut, that’s what was expected of me. To turn a blind eye to affairs. But I couldn’t. I was so hurt and more than that, my pride was hurt. Precious, precious pride.”
“So Nicklas wasn’t driving?”
“No. He took the fall because I’m a coward. I knew admitting what happened would destroy my family and the girls. And he took it because I promised him a job and I promised him the world would never know about him and Helena.”
“Jesus,” she swears, shaking her head. “Aksel…I don’t know what to say.”
It’s getting hard to swallow. Suddenly the fear is so real, that I will lose her. That she’s finally seeing who I am, the man beneath the crown and behind the mask.
Then she shifts and puts her hand on my thigh, squeezing it. “Thank you for telling me that. It must have been weighing on you so much. I wish I had that kind of courage.”
“Courage,” I scoff bitterly. “It’s not courage. It’s just that I can’t stand to keep anything from you. If you’re going to be with me, you need to know exactly who I am. A coward.”
“A good, brilliant man,” she says. “That’s what you are. Smart and funny and sexy and such a good father. You’re so many things, Aksel, and you’ve been through so much and being a coward isn’t one of them.”
“I feel terrible. All the time. Living this lie.”
“But it wasn’t your fault, you said so yourself.”
“It wasn’t, but it was me who picked them up, angry, me who drove them. I should have just…found another way.”
“But you didn’t mean to kill her. You almost died yourself.”
“I know. But facts don’t absolve guilt. Truth feels like a lie sometimes.”
“It’s because of Nicklas,” she says. “He constantly reminds you of what happened. God, how can you work with him? He was fucking your wife!”
I put a finger to my mouth to remind her to keep it quiet. Thankfully I don’t think anyone can hear us. “He was, and I hate him for it. I hate him for a million reasons. But if I fire him, he’ll tell the world the truth. And even if I am thrown under the bus, which I do deserve, my children do not. More than that, the truth about his affair with Helena will come out and that’s the one thing I swore I would do, protect her reputation until the very end. No one must ever know about her and Nicklas. She must remain an angel in their eyes.”
“So what are you going to do? He has something over your head every day. What is stopping him from writing a book or doing an interview?”
“The fact that people won’t believe him.”
“That hasn’t stopped other people before.”
I shrug. “Maybe he feels guilty.” Maybe he’s biding his time. “He is the one who hit me while I was driving, his actions made me lose control of the car. So, there’s that. And he knows it. That’s the only reason he accepted taking the fall for it, so as long as it was always known as an accident. And it was an accident, it’s just the roles were switched.”
She lets out a long breath of air, shaking her head slightly. “What a complicated mess.”
“No wonder you’re such a grumpy pain in the ass.”