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As soon as Isabelle was gone, Graeme put both hands to his forehead and pressed hard. How the fuck was he going to get out of this in one piece? A fresh mug of coffee slid across the table to him. He glared at the cook from between his forearms, but the dark elixir called to him and he scorched his mouth on a big gulp of it.

It didn’t help. He could still taste last night’s kiss on his lips. Holding Isabelle in his arms again had condensed the last fourteen years of his life into a handful of watershed moments.

General Grayson catching him in Isabelle’s room.

Grayson ordering him to fire live rounds at a mob of citizens rushing the square in protest of Queen Zorana’s coronation.

Graeme’s bayonet sliding through the general’s button hole at his throat.

Alder Crane shoving Graeme against a dark tunnel wall, telling him the fate of Valefort now rested in the fragile life of King Edgar’s young daughter, and it was Graeme’s responsibility to keep her safe.

Standing on the dais with the newly crowned Queen Snow and staring straight ahead with Isabelle at the very edge of his peripheral vision, right next to her noble husband and forever out of his reach.

He may have helped Snow White win the war, but he’d lost everything that had ever mattered to him.

And he’d managed to cope with it pretty well, all things considered. As long as he’d kept his distance from anywhere Isabelle might find herself, including the castle and all social affairs. But what little self-control he’d managed to retain was now at serious risk of shattering. He couldn’t stand being this close to her, pretending they were a happy couple.

Because sooner or later, he would forget it was nothing but pretense. And then, sooner or later, LeRue would crawl out of the woodwork, Graeme would catch him and get a front row seat to his execution. But what would happen after that? Isabelle had built quite the elegant life for herself in this house, in society. There was no place in that idyllic setting for an unrefined animal like him, and Graeme refused to put on a bow and strut around like a trained poodle for other people’s entertainment.

He’d always known the two of them were meant for different things. For better or worse, life had done them a favor by shoving them face first into their respective corners. Graeme wouldn’t last a week in her world. And he sincerely doubted Isabelle would willingly give up her mansion for his little Northside apartment.

“Would you care for a little advice with that coffee?”

Graeme sighed. “Why the fuck not?” Wasn’t as if he knew what he was doing.

Cookie cleared away unfinished plate, then took his after he snatched one last piece of bacon from it. “You don’t strike me as they type to think overly much. More of a shoot first, sort out the rabble later kind of guy.”

Graeme raised an eyebrow at that.

Cookie winked. “Maybe you should stick with that strategy. Don’t overthink it.”

“Because that’s worked so well for me in the past.”

She put her fists on her ample hips. “Are you trying to sit there and tell me it hasn’t? The legendary Graeme Iskander who struck the first blow against the old queen’s tyranny? The hero of the people? The man who stood at the left hand of the queen at her coronation? You are one of seven people in the whole of Valefort who could literally have anything for the asking.”

“Not quite anything.”

She gave him an enigmatically mocking look. “Literally anything. And that’s all I’m going to say.” A woman of her word, she took up cleaning the kitchen and didn’t spare him another glance.

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