Elle didn’t reply, having finally given into the siren song of sleep.

Severin watched her for a few moments before he stood and walked to her chair. He delicately captured the lock of hair she inhaled with her breathing and tucked it behind her ear. He froze in the middle of the motion, staring at his hand as if it had betrayed him.

“No,” he firmly said. “It’s too late. It can’t be broken. Even if I wanted her to, she wouldn’t. She knows better than to fall for an illegitimate prince,” Severin chastised himself before tugging Elle’s sliding blanket up and settling it on her shoulders. He returned to his work with renewed vigor, doing everything in his power to ignore the relaxed female sleeping nearby.

“Being that I am of a high intellect, I find cursing distasteful and ill mannered. If that were not the case, however, I would compose a creative, innovative ballad of cursing and recite it at this moment,” Elle announced, swaddled in enough fur lined clothing pieces to make it difficult to move.

Elle was once again on her wretched crutches, not because she had declined in health, but because none of the servants would allow her to take chances as she stood outside with them in the sunshine and two feet of snow.

Emele rolled her eyes as she used a broom to sweep snow off a series of four stairs. She paused long enough to write, It is beautiful. Be grateful you are outside. The sun will do you good.

“It is cold and I am angered that no method of transportation will be able to travel through this snow for some days. And do not pretend this is for my health, I know we are outside only because Marc is shoveling snow as well,” Elle said, briefly lifting a crutch to point out the stout gardener, who was clearing snow from a path that followed the perimeter of the chateau.

Emele burned with embarrassment and pushed Elle’s crutch down before she looked around to see if any of the other servants witnessed her mortification. No one had, mostly because the male servants weren’t very interested in gossip if it did not involve breaking their curse.

Elle and Emele were the only ladies present. All of the male servants—from Burke to the stable boys to the footmen—had assembled into a massive snow shoveling army to help Marc and his fellow groundskeepers to shovel stairs, walkways, balconies, and courtyards.

Must you trumpet it to all parts of the chateau? Emele wrote before she went back to sweeping the light dusting of snow the shovels left behind.

Elle waddled a few steps in her swaddling. “What do you expect? You have hobbled me with an over abundance of clothes and crutches.”

Emele shook her head before she froze. A smirk crawled across her lips as she wrote on her slate. You must be dreadfully bored. Let us talk then, so you are properly entertained.

Elle eyed her ladies maid. “Very well, what shall we discuss?”


Elle smiled. “I thought that’s what we were talking about.”

Emele hastily wrote, Not my romance! I meant yours.

Elle’s wicked smile fell flat. “You are a wolf in a sheep’s fleece. Emele, I have told you before, nothing will happen between your master and I. Push off and leave that topic alone.”

And why would you immediately assume I was thinking of a romance with Prince Severin?

“Because Oliver is about ten years too young for me,” Elle said, moving closer to the chateau wall to shelter herself from the wind.

You have been spending much of your time with him recently.

“With Oliver? No I haven’t,” Elle said.

Emele impatiently stamped a foot. No, with His Highness!

Elle shrugged—a motion that could barely be seen due to the amount of cloth piled on her. “I enjoy his company—not in the romantic sense,” Elle hastily added. “He knows when to be quiet, and when to say something. He has a delightful sense of humor, and as an added incentive when I am with him you are not hounding me to find him.”

It sounds like friendship.

“Of a sort, yes. In the beginning I think he mostly tolerated me, but I would like to think that Severin no longer finds me a nuisance and enjoys our time as well,” Elle said.

What is love but friendship set on fire?

“Oh get off it. You are twisting my words. Besides, everyone knows love requires a base, physical attraction,” Elle said. “And claws and fangs are hardly the things of romance.”


Elle stared at the slate and raised her eyes to Emele.

The ladies maid had abandoned her broom. The parts of her face that weren’t covered by her mask were flushed with color, and it took Elle a moment to realize it wasn’t with embarrassment or coldness, but with anger.

“What do you mean?” Elle carefully asked.

Beauty fades, Emele wrote. It weakens or it disappears, or something happens and it is ruined. Emele briefly reached up, grasping the edge of her permanent, black mask. She mouthed something before shaking her head.