Heloise reached into an apron pocket and pulled out a tidbit of food, which she fed to Jock.

“That explains why he’s overweight.”

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“Yes,” Severin said before again pulling her deeper into the hallway. “Heloise has a soft spot for the mutt. Everyone pretends not to know. She thinks it would ruin her reputation.”

“She does not know you are aware of her affection?” Elle asked, watching the severe woman walk off, still cuddling Jock.

“Yes,” Severin said, waiting until Heloise disappeared down the kitchen corridor. “What?” he said when he realized Elle was staring at him.

“You are surprisingly thoughtful in some situations,” Elle said.

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Severin’s cat ears briefly went flat. “Some?”

Elle followed Severin when he started walking again. “You are a prince. I have seen enough royalty to know that they generally are not the thoughtful type.”

“I am a general, not a prince,” Severin said.

“You are a prince, Your Highness,” Elle firmly said. “May I speak plainly?”

Severin snorted. “I have never known you not to.”

“You are how a prince should be, mostly anyway, Your Highness.”

“I do not believe I have ever been given such a backhanded compliment before,” Severin dryly said.

“It shocks me that you personally know your servants—and not just their names. You are aware of their feelings.”

“Every good general knows his men.”

“Yes, but I know firsthand that not many nobles see the merit in knowing their servants,” Elle said.

Severin twitched his cat whiskers. “My staff supported me, and continue to support me, in a time where very few others did. They have made sacrifices to be part of my household. I owe them my respect.”

Elle halted when they reached the library door. “You are a befuddling man, Severin.”

Severin paused in the threshold of the doorway. “And you are intelligent, for a peasant,”

Elle made a sweeping bow with her crutch. “I am a rare strain of the breed,” she said. When she tipped upright there was no trace of amusement on her face.

Severin frowned. “What?”

Elle shook her head. “I don’t know what to make of you.”

“In what way?”

“You care for your servants and value them, but you are also ruthless.”

Severin shrugged. “A military leader must make informed decisions. He cannot be emotional.”

“I wasn’t talking about your service in the military,” Elle said, the words slipping out in a voice that was colder than she meant for it to be. She shook her head. “Forgive me, I spoke out of turn. I hope you find the book you are looking for,” she said, making her escape.

“Elle.”

Elle stopped and twisted so she could see Severin.

“You are correct. I am absolutely ruthless when it comes to protecting those I love. I will sacrifice whatever, or whoever, is necessary.”

“You say it proudly, like it’s something to be commended.”

“Isn’t it?”

Elle raised an eyebrow. “No, not when the price is not a sacrifice you pay. Not when morals are crossed because of it.”

Severin narrowed his eyes. “My ‘ruthlessness’ is a sign of my devotion. I am loyal without a fault—perhaps that is something you could learn,” Severin said before entering the library and shutting the door behind him with a bang.

Elle rearranged her crutches. “I could have handled that better.”

Elle picked at her food, pushing her buttered asparagus around her plate. She glanced at Severin, who was seated on the far end of the table. He was dividing his attention between eating and making notes. He hadn’t even acknowledged Elle when she arrived.

Elle shoved a forkful of asparagus in her mouth and thoughtfully chewed. She lost the hard earned camaraderie she had been carefully building by letting her emotions get the best of her and blurting out the words of her heart.

Severin was wrong because of the way he would callously use people for his own devices, but Elle had to admit he wasn’t the cruel, loveless man she thought him to be. And if Elle wanted to repair their friendship she would have to do the footwork. Severin was too proud to help her.

The servants posted at the walls hung their heads, as if personally saddened by Elle and Severin’s row. They perked up when Elle spoke.

“How are the gardens?”

Severin did not look up from his papers and grunted.

The servants smiled and nodded at Elle as she spoke. “Are they fully winterized yet?”

Severin pushed away a paper and reached for a book.

“Emele tells me it is likely to be an early winter. I hope she is wrong,” Elle said.

Severin ate his fish and did not respond.

Elle set her fork down. “Severin, stop pretending you cannot hear me and listen. I am sorry.”

Severin raised his glowing eyes. “For what?”

“For what I said this afternoon.”

“You admit you are wrong?”

“Wrong about what part?”

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