And that’s when it happened.

The laughter turned to screams.

The peace was eradicated by flashbulbs.

Our privacy and space were intruded viciously, without care.

And April got knocked down.

An accident, I’m sure, but I will go to my grave making sure the laws change here, so that stuff like that never happens again.

But what good will changing the laws do if the person, the people, that I’m trying to protect leave me?

I know that’s what Maggie is thinking.

She won’t even look at me.

All day the distance I tried so hard to fight against last night increased until the line between us became a chasm.

I think I lost her in plain sight right outside that church.

I think I lost them all.

Now it’s after dinner and I’m sitting in the study, waiting for her. We hadn’t said a word to each other until I pulled her aside and told her to meet me in here, that we needed to talk.

She only nodded.

I hope she shows up.

April is okay, only a bump. The rest seem shaken up but hopefully not traumatized. Pike is a lot like me and wants to beat the shit out of everyone that was involved.

I look around the study and I remember the last time I was in here. We had sex on this very couch. I was just so happy she was here with me and I’d been missing her so much, craving her, that I cancelled my appointment and came back for her.

At that moment, everything between us was right.

Everything in the world was right.

I can’t honestly say that things will be right again.

Not for us.

Not for me.

The door opens slowly and I bring my eyes up to see Maggie step in.

She’s hesitant. Looks tired, listless, like she needs endless sleep. Still beautiful though. Always so damn beautiful.

But all that beauty doesn’t hide the truth I see. That there’s something in her eyes that makes my heart disintegrate.

I can tell that no matter what we talk about, she’s already left me.

She’s here, standing in front of me, and she’s already left me.

“Hi,” I say to her.

“Hi,” she says in a small voice.

“Please sit down,” I say and already it sounds like we’re strangers.

How the fuck did this happen?

“I’d rather stand,” she says, stopping in the middle of the room and folding her arms across her chest, hunching slightly over like she’s cold.

I shake my head and get up. The distance between us is now insurmountable.

“How are they?” I ask.

“Shaken up.”

“And you?”

She doesn’t say anything. She presses her lips together and I can tell she’s trying not to cry.

“Maggie,” I say softly, taking a step toward her, wanting to feel her warmth and not this endless cold. “I am so, so sorry about what happened.”

“Not your fault,” she says, words clipped.

“I didn’t expect it. We were at church for crying out loud.”

“It’s not your fault, Viktor.”

But she won’t look at me.

I walk up to her, taking her hand in mine and the warmth and pulse that once flowed from her body to mine, the electricity, the sparks, they’re all gone. I’m holding a stranger’s hand.

“I promise,” I tell her through a shaking voice. “That I will never let that happen to you or to them again.”

“How?” she asks, glancing at me. “By creating a law that will take years to come into effect? You can’t even create laws. You’re no king.”

Ouch. But maybe she didn’t mean it that way.

“I can work with my father –“

She lets out a sour laugh. “Your father hates me.”

“Please, we went over this. He doesn’t.”

She doesn’t believe me. She doesn’t want to.

“Look, it might take a while but it will happen. We just need to deal with it for now. These things take time.”

“But there is no more time left,” she says, blinking back tears. “Viktor. I’m leaving.”

I shake my head trying to ignore the crushing weight on my chest, like my heart and lungs are being poured with concrete. “No. Don’t leave. We have so much time before you need to go.”

“I need to go now,” she says, straightening up like she’s finding her resolve. “They need to go. What happened to April could happen again and to anyone of them and I am not going to do that to them. I’m taking the first plane home tomorrow with the kids. I don’t know if I’ll come back.”

I stare at Maggie for a moment, not sure if my ears are deceiving me or not.

It’s one thing to run.

It’s another thing to say you won’t come back.

“Won’t come back?” I repeat. “You have to come back. For me.”

“No, Viktor,” she cries out. “I can’t. Don’t you see how hard this is?”

She shakes her head, tears spilling down her cheeks in rivulets.

“It’s just too hard,” she says, crying. “It’s just too hard.”

“What’s too hard, loving me?”

God, please don’t say it’s loving me.

“Being with you! They’re two different things.”

“No they aren’t! When you love someone you’ll be with someone, no matter the cost!”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this. After everything she’s gone through and this is the part that’s too hard for her? Being with me?

“After all I did for you,” I mutter and the moment the words fall out of my mouth, I know they’re a mistake.

Her face falls.

Crumbles.

“So I was charity all along.”

I hurt her. I didn’t mean to.

I grab her, holding her face in my hands. “Maggie, you were never charity. I’m sorry I said that, I’m just…I can’t let you go. I can’t let you leave. You were supposed to stay with me like the princess that you are.”

“No,” she says. “You know I’ll never be that. That’s not who I am. It’s not who I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be taking care of those kids and that’s my priority. I never wanted to be in this position, the one in which I pick them over you but I have to choose. I have to. You have a duty to your country, Viktor. I have a duty to my family. I just…I…”

She pulls away from me and puts her face in her hands, shaking her head. “I love you but I…I can’t let my love for you dictate what I do.”

“I guess I should have seen this coming.” I can hardly breathe, hardly speak, yet the words are flowing. “Maybe we really didn’t know each other well enough. All I know is that I love you and that’s always been true and if you leave me, you’ll take every part of me with you. I know loss and I know it well but I don’t think I’ll ever be whole again.”

She starts sobbing and looks up at me, her face ravaged by tears. “Don’t make this harder on me, please! Please! You know what I have to do. Have the grace of a prince and let me go. Let me do the right thing for everyone.”

She’s right. I know why she’s leaving and I understand it. I’m just so scared of the pain, scared of what’s to come, that I’m acting desperate to keep her. I’m making it harder on the both of us.

I’m tired of losing the ones that I love.

I try and swallow. “Okay. I’m sorry. If you want to go, I won’t stand in your way. I won’t hold anything against you. I won’t do anything but love you even though now it will be from afar.” I reach out and grab her hand and tears fall from my eyes as I kiss her palm. “Mitt liv, mitt allt. Always and forever. Please don’t ever forget that, my Maggie. You will always be my Maggie.”

She takes her hand away from mine and, crying, runs out of the room.

That night she sleeps in a separate bedroom.

The next morning, she’s gone.

All the rooms are empty.

The palace is cold and quiet again.

Like someone reached in and removed the heart.

Never to put it back.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Maggie

Home.

Funny how leaving changes your perspective on your home.

When I left Tehachapi, there was a part of me that couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but here. I mean, I wanted to live in New York but I was so not a New Yorker. I was a small-town girl through and through.

Then when I landed in Stockholm, I started to think that maybe that could change. I started looking at the place, the country, not as vacation spot, or a fun romp with Viktor. I started looking at it all through new eyes, trying to see if I could see myself creating a world there. When I went to little cafes and indulged in the fika of cakes and coffee, I tried to imagine making that part of my daily routine. I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk along the harbor in the summer, with a warm sun behind you, wooden sailboats bobbing in front of you. I tried to imagine shopping in all the cute little boutiques and even making friends with the locals, eventually working my way past their reserved facades and winning them over.

I imagined all of that and I liked it. I didn’t take into account that if I did move to Sweden, it would be because of a prince and there’s a chance I would be a princess and if I were a princess (I mean, how unreal does that still seem), I wouldn’t have all the freedoms I just mentioned.

But I would have had Viktor.

And he had my heart.

And I believed, foolishly perhaps, that you could build a home in someone’s heart.

Now I’ve learned that the heart is not enough to shield you from the world. The walls are soft, the pain is inevitable, and you bleed too easily.

Making the choice to leave Viktor ruined me and I’m still not sure if it was the right one because I haven’t been able to go one minute without feeling the deep stab of loss, one that reaches in so far deep into my soul that I don’t know how I’m still upright, how I’m still living.

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