“Just do it.”

Elise obeyed. She almost wretched when Falk popped a spoonful of bitter liquid in her mouth. She swallowed the concoction, but held her stomach as she produced gagging noises. “What was that?”

“Medicine. It will strengthen and fortify you.”

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“I feel plenty fortified already, thank you. Couldn’t you have done anything about the taste? It’s like I swallowed mud a pig pooped and rolled in,” Elise said, wiping her mouth.

“Here,” Falk said, passing Elise a mug.

Elise eyed the contents and sniffed it.

“It’s water,” Falk said, his voice wry.

Elise cautiously took a sip to assure herself that it was indeed water before gulping it down, anxious to wash away the bitter medicine. “That was awful,” she said when she finished.

Falk expressively raised his eyebrows but said nothing as he arranged his clay pots and glass bottles.

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Elise raised a hand to inspect it. “I think my hands look better. They don’t hurt anymore, and the welts are mostly gone.”

“Yes, but they’re flushed and discolored, and you have quite a bit of scarring,” Falk said.

“Thank you for trying to make them look better,” Elise said.

“I think there is nothing wrong with them. They are beautiful,” Falk said, his words peppered with a frown.

Elise ruefully shook her head. “In no way are my hands beautiful.”

“They are. They are a visible symbol of your love and the sacrifice you made to free us,” Falk said.

“If they’re so symbolic, why do you plague me with your horrible medicines?”

“Because you are ashamed.”

Elise’s heart leaped into her throat. “What?”

Falk tossed a rag on a nearby workbench. “You hide your hands whenever possible, and you wore gloves at that atrocious celebration our family threw. You do not like showing people your wounds. Which is a shame. It’s no different than Nick or Rune’s battle scars. It is something you should be proud of.”

Elise stared at Falk.

“What?” the goldenrod haired prince said as he started rolling bandages.

“I was thinking it might make sense after all.”

“Of course it makes sense.”

“No, not my hands. Just—I’ve missed you. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why.”

“You certainly know how to give a compliment.”

“Yes, I missed your constant presence, but we would drive each other crazy if we were together all day long,” Elise blurted out, saying things she didn’t mean to say.

“How you warm my heart with your gentle sentiments.”

“But what I really missed was you, not your physical proximity, but you.”

Falk put the bandages aside. “What about me is there to miss? I scare your subordinates; I’m antisocial, and I accidentally say mean things if one goes by Rune’s hefty grasp of the subject.”

“You’re thoughtful,” Elise said, sliding off her stool. “You watch me, and you understand why I do things. You get why I keep our budgets tight, and why I am on a crusade to expand trade. You don’t let me run reckless, doing whatever I want. You lecture me if I’m in the wrong, and you see the best in me.”

“Elise,” Falk said, his tone worried.

“But it’s not just about me. You’re also clever and witty. And yes, I would be remiss if I did not mention you are handsome. But above all, you are thoughtful and gentle.”

“Elise. Please, don’t,” Falk said, his voice just above a whisper.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t give me hope.”

The words were like an open chasm between them. They startled Elise. “Why not? Why not, if what I say is the truth?”

“Because you don’t love me, not the way I love you,” Falk said.

Elise weighed his words. Did she really just see Falk as her foster brother? She didn’t think so.

She loved Steffen, but being with him didn’t make her speak carelessly. She knew Gerhart was quite handsome, but she was never struck by his looks. Rune was…Rune was her hero. But she didn’t miss him the way she missed Falk. Things had changed since the night Elise and Falk discussed their relationship in the freezing waters of Lake Sno.

No, Elise certainly didn’t see Falk as a foster brother, and she still loved him. So there was only one conclusion to make. “But I do.”

“You do what?” Falk said, his eyes scrunched shut as he rubbed his forehead.

“I love you,” Elise said, as if they were discussing line items in the Agriculture Department’s budget.

“I don’t believe you,” Falk said.

Elise winced. “After saying the same thing to you on numerous occasions I suppose I deserved that.”

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