Normally the pig isn’t allowed in this room, which I consider one of my last true domains, but because we’re all celebrating the engagement, and I’m feeling on top of the world, I’m allowing it.
As if on cue, Snarf Snarf barrels into the side of an end table, knocking over a vase. We all watch in slow motion as the vase rolls off and tumbles onto the rug below.
It doesn’t break.
“Okay,” I say under my breath, about to get up from the couch. “That’s enough.”
“Aksel,” Aurora says to me, putting her arm across my chest to hold me back. “Let the girls have their fun.”
I narrow my eyes at her playfully. “Are you on Team Aksel or Team Snarf Snarf?”
“Team Snarf Snarf, obviously.”
“Team Snarf Snarf!” the girls yell in unison, running past us after the pig.
“Okay, here we are,” Stella says, coming into the room holding a tray with four glasses and a bottle of Dom on it. “Time for a toast. Maja, get in here!” she yells as she puts the tray down on the coffee table.
It’s only been a few hours since I proposed to Aurora, and we’ve escaped from the media circus that’s still outside the palace, to relative peace and quiet inside. Or, it would be, if not for that damned swine.
Stella was set to leave back to England yesterday right after we got back but since I knew what I was planning to do—proposing to Aurora in front of my nation—I asked her to hang around. I know she wants to get back home to Anya, but the fact is, I don’t have any other family but her and Maja, and I wanted everyone close to me to be here.
“You could have Karla do that,” I point out as Stella tries to undo the cork.
“I’m fine,” she says, wrestling with the bottle. “Believe me, after a week in your shoes and acting as Regent, I’d like to go back to the simple life.”
The champagne cork goes pop, making everyone jump, and the cork goes flying across the room, almost smacking Maja in the head as she enters. She manages to duck in the nick of time. Our aunt is awfully spry.
“Trying to take me out?” Maja says to Stella, her brow raised. “I’ll remember that in my will.”
“Sorry,” Stella apologizes, though she looks a little happy about it. She pours the champagne into the four glasses, and hands them to us as Aurora and I get to our feet.
“Can I have some?” Clara asks, running over.
“You can have chocolate instead,” Aurora says. “If and only if, you and Freja take Snarf Snarf out of the room. Us adults need to talk.”
“Okay!” Clara yells happily. “I hope it’s Belgium chocolate,” she adds under her breath as she and Freja run out of the room, the pig following.
“What’s wrong with our chocolate?” I swear she’s getting pickier by the day.
“Okay. Well. Here’s to my dear brother, Aksel,” Stella says, raising her glass to me. “Even though you were always my big, big brother, I never felt any distance between us growing up. My fondest memories, my earliest memories, were always of you. I knew from the start you were meant to be a king and I knew that you would do the job better than anyone else. You have heart and morals, even if you hid all that by being cold and insufferable most of the time.” I give her the get on with it look.
She continues with a laugh, though now her eyes are watering. “It’s the truth. But I saw a side of you that no one ever saw…until you met Aurora. I knew, from the moment I met her, from the moment I saw you look at her, that she had gotten under your skin. That she had seen the real you and you recognized it. It was apparent from the very start that there was something brewing, and I could only hope and pray that one of you would come to your senses. Because you, brother, are a king who has needed the right queen by his side. And she is the right queen.”
“She is,” Maja says, raising her glass.
“Well thank you,” I tell Stella, trying to keep my emotions in check and ignore the hot knot forming in my throat. I appreciate the praise, but it does make me uncomfortable. “Only a fool wouldn’t fall in love with her.” I give Aurora a squeeze.
Aurora blushes and tries to shake off the compliment. “Or perhaps only a fool would.”
“Normally I wouldn’t argue with you but I’m afraid I’ll have to make a stand.”
To be fair, when I decided I was going to pop the question during the press conference, I was wondering if I’d look like quite the fool in the end. The press conference itself was out of character for me since I’ve had such a distant relationship with the press and public and I know that not only announcing our relationship, let alone proposing to her like that, was bound to ruffle some feathers.
But, fuck it. What’s the point of sitting on a throne if you can’t ruffle some feathers every now and then? They didn’t expect it from me but maybe now in the future they will. I’m not sure what kind of king I’m turning into but perhaps Stella was right, and this is the king I’m meant to be.
There was also the huge risk that Aurora would turn me down, especially since she practically told me that in St. Croix. I know that was during a fight and things were so up in the air at that moment and emotions were flying very, very high, but it still hurt fairly deeply, it still planted a tiny seed of doubt. It was a gamble that luckily paid off.
Everything has been a gamble so far since the day I met her.
It was a gamble to pursue her, to act on my feelings.
It was a gamble to profess how I felt about her, to admit my truth.
It was an even greater gamble to open my heart the way I did and let myself free fall without a parachute, even after we came together.
I know I came on strong. I know that after months of testing her, testing myself, and then finally giving in, I went all in, to the hilt. I know that we went from zero to sixty after so much denial, making up for lost time, but that was the only way I knew how.
It was the only way I wanted, needed to love her.
With Aurora, she made forty years of loneliness disappear with the drop of a hat.
Why wouldn’t I embrace the sunshine after all that darkness?
Why wouldn’t I spend all my days with her, holding onto forever?
And now I can.
She said yes.
I’d never felt happier, more at peace, more excited about our world and the future, than I did in that moment.
The gamble paid off.
I have my queen.
“Here’s to you, Aksel,” Maja says, clearing her throat. “You’ve found your second chance, you’ve found your peace. May you always hold onto it, onto her, forever.” She then looks at Aurora with a twinkle in her eyes. “And you, Aurora. I knew right away that you needed to be in this house. I knew that you were meant for the job because I knew that you had just the right amount of spunk and beauty that could get to Aksel’s heart. I knew you wouldn’t just be a wonderful nanny to the girls, but you would shake things up, shake this king here loose, help him find his way. And that’s just what you did.”
I raise my brow, both charmed and surprised. “You were trying to play matchmaker?”
“I didn’t try, dear nephew. It worked.” She raises her chin, ever an aristocrat. “And I would like all the credit for it.”
Aurora rolls her eyes, but she’s blushing. “Since you’re going to be my aunt-in-law, you can have all the credit you want. I know whose good side I have to stay on.”
“You’re a very wise girl,” Maja says. “Welcome to the family.”
We all clink our glasses together and I hold Aurora’s deep brown eyes as she has a sip.
Welcome to the family, I think. Welcome to our brand-new life.
“So, now that this has happened,” I tell them, “now that Aurora will be permanently part of our lives, I think perhaps tomorrow we should visit mother. All of us.”
Stella nods. “I have a flight out in the afternoon, I could do the morning.” She looks to Maja. “What do you think? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“It’s a nice idea, above anything,” Maja says. “I’ll call up the nurses in the morning and see how she is. But if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll try again.” She puts her hand on my arm. “I know you think your mother doesn’t know you’re there or doesn’t care, but I promise you, the more you visit, the better it will get. For you. She can feel love, even if she doesn’t know who you are, but for you, it’s never too late to start rebuilding a relationship. And if you can start with Aurora by your side, I think that will make all the difference.”
I nod, finishing the rest of my glass, letting it go to my heart. In this world of second chances, I owe it to my mother and myself to give our relationship another one.
Suddenly, the squeal of a pig interrupts us, and Maja lets out a scoff as Stella jumps, nearly spilling her champagne.
“I’m going to go check on the girls,” Maja says and when Aurora moves to do it, Maja puts her hand out to stop her. “You and Aksel need some alone time to process everything.” She jerks her head to the door. “Come on Stella, help me round up these monsters.”
They leave the room and I turn to Aurora, wrapping my hands around her waist. “You hear that? We need some alone time.”
Aurora grins, that smile still trying to bring me to my knees. “I could always use some alone time with you.”
I lean in and kiss her softly, gently at first, then as her mouth opens to mine, warm and lush, I feel an overpowering urge come over me, my hands tightening around her back and pulling her against me. “Come on,” I whisper against her lips. “Let’s go consummate this engagement.”
She nibbles on my lower lip, gently tugging. “I’m not sure that’s how it works.”
“It works when you’re trying to make a baby,” I remind her. “Tick tock.”
She pulls back and smacks me against the chest. “Speak for yourself, old man!” she sneers. “I’m the young and fertile one here.”