Burke opened the castle doors and drew Severin’s cloak off his hulking shoulders.

Dinner? Burke wrote after passing the cloak off to a maid.

Severin rubbed his eyes. “Not tonight. I am not terribly hungry. I will have tea in my study instead.”

Burke smiled so big his cheeks made his mask bend oddly.

Severin eyed his personal valet before he stalked down the hallway. He rubbed his shoulders, which were stiff with immobility and the cold, and made his way to his study—Burke fluttering behind him like a showy bird.

When he reached his private study he opened it. A steaming cup of cider was arranged next to a bowl of soup. There was a crusty roll slathered in butter, a small bowl of turnips, and a cooked apple. There was a fire in the fireplace, and the room was warm and cozy.

Most surprising, though, was the girl. When Severin entered his study Elle—who stood in front of the window—turned to face him and nodded in greeting. “I thought you might like something warm to eat after your journey,” she said.

She smiled slyly when Severin suspiciously eyed her.

Burke bowed with a fancy flourish—Severin wasn’t sure exactly whom the valet was bowing to—and left.

Elle thumped her way across the room, and Severin was forced to grudgingly admit that she did move a great deal easier in her simple dresses than in Emele’s frills and layers.

The peasant girl sat down in an armchair and started paging through a book.

Severin walked to his desk and sat. He stirred his soup and sniffed the spiced cider before glancing at Elle.

She turned a page in her book and didn’t look up.

Severin took a sip of the warm cider and swallowed. His shoulders loosened and he relaxed in his chair as he took another sip before picking up the roll.

The room was quiet, except for the clinks of Severin’s silverware and the occasionally swish of Elle turning a page.

The following day Elle stood in front of a set of marble stairs, glaring at them. Emele was gone—she said she had work to do and couldn’t entertain Elle. Rather than giving Elle free rein of the floor Elle’s bedroom was on, Emele browbeat the footmen into carrying Elle to the main floor.

This was rather uncharitable, for the only room—besides the kitchen, and Elle was going to stay far away from Bernadine’s kingdom—on the main floor was the dining room. Elle could not go outside—for there were steps directly outside the doors, nor could she reach the upper floors because of the stairs. She was boxed in, thwarted by several dozen slabs of marble.

“Are you hoping to accomplish something by glaring at the stairs?”

Elle turned around at the sound of the familiar voice—the only voice in the castle besides her own. “I cannot climb or descend stairs, Your Highness,” Elle said, dipping her head to Prince Severin.

“And you hope to change that situation by glaring.”

“No. I was mentally stewing. Emele had me brought here and as a result has corralled me in with the experience of a shepherd.”

“I see,” Severin said, moving to go around Elle.

Elle flattened her lips in displeasure as Severin climbed the first step. She was going to be trapped on the first floor all day if she didn’t do something. It was that desperation that made Elle call out, “Your Highness?”

Severin stopped climbing the stairs.

“Your servants are unwilling to carry me to another part of the chateau lest they encounter Emele’s wrath,” Elle started.

Severin turned around and tilted his head. He looked past Elle as his cat ears flicked.

“Could you ask them to carry me upstairs? Please,” Elle said, swinging herself to the base of the staircase.

Severin narrowed his eyes and his nose twitched.

“…Your Highness?” Elle said, wondering if he had come down with another case of selective hearing.

“Quiet,” Severin said, his voice barely above a growl.

Elle turned around to see what the cursed prince was staring at, but no one was there. She could hear the faint tap of footsteps, but that was all.

Severin exhaled a hiss of air and his ears went flat. He dropped his golden gaze to Elle before glancing past her again. He descended the stairs and spoke in a guttural voice. “Hold on.”

“Pardon, wha—,” Elle almost shrieked when the prince abruptly picked her up.

“Quiet,” he hissed, glancing over his shoulder as he tossed Elle across his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Elle grimaced. “My leg.”

Severin growled but shifted Elle on his back. They scuffled until Elle was arranged in a position devoid of pain. Her arms were thrown around his massive shoulders, and her uninjured leg was pressed into his side. He held her good foot in one paw that was twisted behind his back, letting Elle stand up in a fashion. Her crutches were wedged under the arm that held her foot.