Elise shifted, listening to her foster-brothers tease Gerhart.

“Really, Gerhie, with all the proper ladies you can choose from, I’m surprised you are going for one of Falk’s underlings,” Nick said. “She’s not going to be filthy rich and able to support you, you know.”

“I am not enamored with Onella!”

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Mikk stared at the fire. “As she is Falk’s personal assistant, that means she has the degree of cunning that he prizes greatly in his direct subordinates.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. Do you enjoy being ruled, Gerhie?” Nick asked.

“Steffen, tell them to stop!” Gerhart said.

“Why? Isn’t it a great bonding experience to be open and enthusiastic with each other?”

“Men,” Elise said in disgust. “No decorum in them.”

“Perhaps,” Falk said, surprising Elise when he sat down on her other side. “But if you leave us alone long enough, we will get things done. Extend your hands, please. Thank you,” he said before he started smearing the green paste his ground up plants made on Elise’s hands.

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Brida watched the process for a moment. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe I should start cleaning the fish. Prince, Princess,” Brida said, standing and bowing before she left the pair.

As Falk spread the paste, the burning and itching feeling that plagued Elise’s hands cooled. It tamed the splotches and the constant heat, providing sweet relief.

Elise shut her eyes, reveling in the coolness. “This feels wonderful. What is it?”

“Dandelion.”

Elise could feel her tension ease as the pain slipped away. “Thank you, Falk. Thank you for caring about my hands.”

“I care about every part of you, Elise.”

Elise opened her eyes to stare at the dark-haired prince. He was bent over her hands, not the least embarrassed by his words.

“Why?” Elise finally asked.

Falk glanced up at her. He was quiet for several long moments before he spoke again. “Because I love you, and to see you in any kind of pain is intolerable. If you are hurt, I will always do my best to see that you are mended.”

Elise found that she was speechless.

Falk smeared the last of the past on Elise’s hands. “Keep it on until we turn back into swans. Then you can wash it off in the pond. It should provide relief through the night,” Falk said before he stood and retreated to his brothers—who were still teasing Gerhart.

Elise watched him go and shook her head. “Men.”

The last of the Verglas spring rains beat heavily the following week. During that time, Elise and Brida huddled in their slightly drafty but dry shelter. They left it only to check on the swans and the horses, so Elise was able to work faster than ever. She finished the second shirt and got a good start on the third before the rain ended.

“I’ve run out of nettles,” Elise said the last night of the rain—it was impossibly crowded in the shelter with the seven princes to cram inside as well, but at least it was warmer.

“Wait until the ground dries a little before you look for more,” Nick said. “Trying to find them in all this muck will do you no good.”

“But won’t they be easier to pull out of the ground right now?” Elise asked.

“It would be nothing but a great deal messier. You are better off waiting until the ground is soft but not moist,” Falk said.

“But that could be days,” Elise said.

“A few extra days as swans won’t harm us, although your loyalty warms me,” Rune said, kissing the top of Elise’s head.

It was a gesture Elise was familiar with, but the arm he slipped around her waist was new. Added to the claim that he loved her, Elise found herself blushing.

“Heel,” Steffen said, carelessly yanking Rune backwards by the collar of his sparkling white shirt. “Keep your paws to yourself, mutt.”

“Why do you continue to insert yourself where you are unwanted?” Rune asked Steffen.

“Mostly because I can,” Steffen said.

“Such a shock,” Falk said.

“Wait until it’s dry,” Mikk summarized for Elise’s benefit as the rest of their siblings entered the fray.

“If you say so,” Elise said.

It was another three days before Elise could walk without her bare feet sinking into mud and muck. During the three days of mud, Elise fell several times, so on the first day of warm weather and solid footing, Elise plunged into the pond.

She dove in with her dress on and her hair unbound. When she popped up for air a swan regally padded by, Steffen probably. Elise watched the swan before she tried scrubbing at the worst of her dress stains while standing in the water.

When her teeth started to chatter, Elise clambered back onto shore, ringing water out of her dress and hair.

“You should dry off before you get yourself sick,” Brida said, chopping a sturdy tree limb with her axe.

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