Bernadine, flanked by two kitchen maids, emerged from the hallway leading to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a flour spattered apron. Burke and several menservants hesitated on the stairway at the far side of the room.
Normally Elle would have realized what their appearance meant, but she was fixated on the front door. She reached it and wrenched it open, opening the door to a sea of swirling white. Overnight it had snowed at least a foot, and more was coming down as the wind howled. It was a blizzard. An enraged, vengeful blizzard.
Although the wind pulled on Elle’s hair and her dress, Elle stared outside until her eyelashes froze. She finally closed the door and leaned against it, her forehead resting on the wooden surface.
Elle turned to face Severin, who stood with Burke on the stairs. “I cannot leave. We would never get out through all this snow, and more is piling up by the minute,” she said.
Severin nodded as he drew closer. “It would not be wise,” he agreed. “You are still worried the crown will abuse you for your absence?”
Elle briefly tightened her lips. “It makes me feel helpless,” she admitted.
“You will never trust me to secure your livelihood, will you? I am a prince, Elle. You are safe here. Think of it as an extended holiday.”
Elle laughed. “Where have I heard that before?”
Severin stared at her. “…Are you well?” he finally asked.
Elle sighed, and the exhale seemed to deflate her.
Severin turned to stand at her side. He offered her an arm. “Breakfast?”
“Breakfast,” Elle agreed, cracking a smile.
They left the main floor, heading for Severin’s study.
As they left Bernadine and Heloise clasped hands—their eyes hooked on Elle’s and Severin’s interlaced arms.
Emele brushed out the message she had written to Elle before writing anew. A miracle?
Bernadine nodded and Heloise crossed herself as Burke and his compatriots slapped each other on the back. Elle wasn’t happy about her extended stay, but the Chanceux Chateau household was thrilled.
Severin watched Elle in the dim firelight. She was covered in a blanket and slumped in an armchair, sleeping. Her mouth was not the tight line it had been all day, but a relaxed curve. Her mass of unruly hair fell down her shoulders, and she was dangerously close to sucking up a lock of it whenever she breathed in. The tension had finally left her around lunch, but she hung about Severin all day, even into the late evening.
Severin glanced at the window at the back of his study. It was ink black outside, and snow still gusted in the howling winds. Severin returned his gaze to Elle, who shivered, before he rose to stir up the red coals in the fireplace and add a log to it.
Elle yawned when Severin returned to his chair. “Did I wake you?” he asked.
“No. I was only dosing,” Elle said, pulling the blanket farther up and keeping her eyes closed. “Severin, why are you kind to me?”
“You thought I would be a brute just because I’m royal?” Severin asked, a hint of a tease in his voice.
“No one is kind to me, not without an ulterior motive,” Elle said, her words slurred with drowsiness.
Severin’s cat ears twitched. “What about your family?”
“Of course they’re kind to me,” Elle said, shifting in her chair. “But it’s not the same. They expect so much from me.”
“They see no limit to my strength. They think I can do anything.”
“Wouldn’t such confidence be considered a blessing?”
“Maybe, but I cannot show a shred of weakness around them. When I first was indentured I was proud that I alone could help my family. It’s not that they are ungrateful or unloving, but I’m so tired…,”
“And they expect you to keep going,” Severin said.
Elle briefly looked at Severin. “Yes,” she said before closing her eyes again.
Severin leaned back in his chair before he reached for his wine glass and considered his houseguest. Elle always seemed like a sharp minded thing. A fox came to mind when describing her, but the artless, open look her face took on in the muck of her lethargy spoke otherwise.
“I am kind to you because of your courage and compassion. Most people scream when they see my servants, much less me. I don’t recall you screaming over anything besides your broken leg,” Severin said. He sipped his wine—it was warm and flat.
“You’re gentle,” Elle murmured, drawing closer to sleep.
Severin snorted. “In what way? I have the personality of a savage, even Lucien says so. My temperament is sour and my humor is typically ill appreciated.”
The edges of Elle’s lips—which Severin was starting to think might not be too big for her face after all—curled in the hint of a smile. “Your humor is funny,” she insisted. “Most people just aren’t smart enough to understand it.”
“Thank you,” Severin said after a few moments.