When Elise was silent, Rune persisted, “Do you still doubt me? Can’t you see my love in my actions for you?”

“I do,” Elise said. Even when on the run from a black witch, Rune had proven that his first concern was Elise in a million different ways. Furthermore, it wasn’t just her physical wellbeing that concerned him, but her emotional state as well. Rune could tell when she was upset, like tonight, and he knew exactly what to say. But… “But you never treated me like a lady. You flirt and charm women everywhere you go. You have never flirted with me.”

“Yes,” Rune agreed. “Because I wanted to make it clear to you that I was not playing with you. I’m not blind. I do not lead women on—why do you think I call Brida Captain Meier?”

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“She liked you?” Elise squawked.

“I picked up on it fairly quickly after it became apparent she had few feelings of kindness for you. Did you ever wonder why that was?”

“No. I assumed it was because my status as a fosterling.”

“Brida is a fair girl. She wouldn’t dislike you because of that. No, she disliked you because of the way I treat you.”

“And how do you treat me?”

“The way a hero treats his lady love.”

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Elise whipped her head off Rune’s chest to stare at him. His face was smooth with its seriousness.

“Who else do I offer to rescue and help at any time of the day? What other woman will I go charging across Arcainia for? What female besides you do I kiss—not even on the lips but on the hand and head? I escort no one to parties or dinners because I will not partner myself with anyone who is not you.”

Elise stared at the fire. If she looked at Rune, she would bolt. The passion of his feelings both thrilled and frightened her. “Who am I to evoke such emotions in you? You are a hero. I’m nothing but an orphan—,”

Before she could say more, Rune pressed a finger against her lips. “No, you are Fürstin Elise, financial genius, savior of Arcainia, brave, loyal, and true. I chose you because of who you are, not your pedigree.

“You are so beautiful, and you don’t know it—or at least you don’t believe it. And for the life of me, I will never understand why you continuously bind your glorious hair back,” Rune said, burying his hand in her wild hair.

Elise closed her eyes and allowed herself to see the future she kept locked in the deepest part of her heart. More than marrying someone for the country, more than marrying someone who was a good person and kind, Elise wanted to marry someone who was passionate for her, and who would spend every day the rest of their lives proving that passion.

Elise wanted to marry a hero.

Elise would be happy with Rune if she could let go of her fears and doubts and allow herself to love him. But, could she do that?”

“Elise,” Rune whispered. “I love you.”

Before Elise could open her eyes, Rune kissed her. The kiss was very much like the heroic prince: true, controlled passion, and warm. This close to him, Elise could smell the outdoors and open road on him. Every part of her tingled, and Elise almost laughed.

Oh, yes. She could easily give in and let herself love Rune.

When Rune finally released her, Elise blinked to try and clear her head. “Well. I don’t think nightmares will be a problem for me tonight.”

Rune chuckled until he processed what she said and broke it off. “Wait, does that…?”

Elise avoided her eyes and felt her cheeks burn. “I love you, too, Rune.”

“Really?”

“Truly.”

Rune bolted to his feet and scooped Elise up, laughing as he twirled her in the air.

“Keep it down. Our family is sleeping,” Elise chided, or tried to. Rune’s laughter was infectious, and soon, she was laughing as well.

“I don’t care. Let them wake up. You have made me the happiest of men,” Rune said, still holding Elise aloft.

The salon door swung open, revealing Steffen in his robe. His hair stuck up at odd angles, and his face was squished like a troll’s. “Rune, what are you doing to Elise?” Steffen said, his voice calm.

“Elise said she loves me,” Rune said as he set Elise on her feet.

“How wonderful for you. If that is the case, what are you two doing in a room together, this late at night, unchaperoned?” Steffen said.

Elise and Rune exchanged guilty glances.

Steffen shuffled into the room and grabbed Rune by the collar of his shirt. “I am going to leash you. You will not be unchained until after you two are married—which won’t be for many years—as I cannot trust you not to paw my baby sister. Say goodnight, Rune,” Steffen said, dragging Rune out of the room.

“Steffen,” Rune said, tripping along behind their older brother. He gave Elise, who followed in their wake, a wry smile.

Elise giggled and, unseen by Steffen, took Rune’s hand and squeezed it. “I’ll see you in the morning,” she said.

“Good night, Elise,” Rune said, his eyes soft with the promise of love and happiness.

“Good night, Rune,” Elise said, scarcely less happy and full of love.

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