Elle wished the moment would last forever. She felt safe and secure with Severin’s arms wrapped around her, her chest warm with the knowledge that she was loved and treasured.

Severin briefly drew away from Elle, only to step in front of her. “Just to iron out the details so I can be sure we both understand—We are in love, and will be engaged and married. And while it is not likely we will be happy forever after—because I am a prince and we will be forced to occasionally cavort with ‘polite society,’ which will probably make us both very unhappy—we will experience joy and pain and sadness together and live life as husband and wife?”

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“You haven’t asked me to marry you,” Elle said.

“My darling Elle. When I ask you I will make it as romantic as possible, shower you with food, and do everything in my power to woo you. However, I find myself less than enthused by the prospect of any more surprises, so I would like to be sure. Is that what you see in our future?”

“We will fight.”

“And then we will forgive each other.”

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“I will still rub plant leaves.”

“And I will very likely make squirrel jokes until another woodland creature bites you.”

Elle laughed. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes!”

Severin smiled and pulled Elle into a kiss, one that was saturated with all the love, laughter, and affection Severin was capable of giving. It melted Elle’s bones and warmed her heart, making her lean into Severin. It was a perfect moment. Not even the knowledge that Bernadine was standing on the balcony outside, spying on the pair, could lessen it.

Severin and Elle were in love.

A journeying farmer and his two children were surprised when, in late summer, they discovered that the road from the village of Belvenes to Noyers was in excellent condition.

The woods that had previously intruded on the road were pushed back, potholes and washouts had been filled in with dirt and gravel, and in the middle of the forest was a chateau.

The farmer knew it was there; previously it had housed a cursed prince. But it seemed like a different place now.

Gardeners walked up and down the lane, laughing with each other as they trimmed bushes and cared for flowers. A veritable pack of dogs—led by a fat, fluffy Papillon—roamed the front lawn. There had to be at least forty horses in the stable. Two—a proud looking gelding and a chubby pony—were being led through the chateau gate as the farmer and his children watched.

The grounds were awash in flowers and laughter, and royal flags flapped in the wind.

“Pardon me,” the farmer asked, stopping at the gatehouse where several soldiers were stationed. “But what is this place?”

As if on cue, someone past the chateau walls roared. “ELLE! DID YOU PUT A STUFFED CAT IN MY STUDY?”

A pretty woman on the fat pony galloped out of the courtyard, calling over her shoulder. “I thought you might like the company of one of your own kind!”

A handsome man emerged from the courtyard, riding the large gelding. “Elle!”

“What’s wrong, cat got your tongue?” the woman laughed.

“I look nothing like a cat anymore, why do you still obsess over felines?” the man said, cueing his horse into a trot.

The woman pulled her pony to a halt a stone’s throw from the farmer and his children. “True, it’s my own fault I suppose. I shouldn’t have married a man who is prettier than I am.”

The man on the mouse colored gelding looked murderous.

The woman laughed airily before her pony leaped forward into a canter. “That will teach you to inquire after the mysterious workings of my mind. Come, Rosemerry. Let us find some flowers to rub.”

“ELLE!”

The farmer stared at the spectacle as his children chased each other.

The guard captain smiled. “This is Chanceux Chateau. Home to the formidable Prince Severin and his extraordinary wife, Princess Elle, and all that they hold dear.”

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