Snuggled. Mellie had to struggle for the word as her mind climbed out of its sleep clogged stupor. She felt snuggled. Warm and bundled, laying atop something cozy. Yielding. Not at all like the hard stone floor of the cottage.
The linens smelled of musk and sweat. Leather and a hint of whiskey. Beneath it all, a vague tinge of oranges. Herbs. Rosemary and lavender. Addison. How could he still smell like that after all this time?
Mellie burrowed into the blankets and let her thoughts linger on the night before. She was not sure how long they had stood there. It could have been seconds. It could have been hours. It didn’t matter. There was no amount of time that would have ever felt long enough. No amount of time that could have made up for the years of solitude, a lifetime of exclusion.
He just held her. Solid and steady at her back. Kept her weak knees from crumbling. His arms around her like a tourniquet for her lacerated emotions, staunching a flow that threatened to destroy her and all the hard work she’d done to balance her life and her needs and her fears and desires.
Addison had touched her and he had held her. And she had stood there and let him because she could not tear herself away. No matter that her facade was crumbling and he would eventually leave her in ruins. And he would leave. Even if nothing else about this made sense, she could rely on that.
And yet, she had still turned in his arms, slipped hers around his waist, and pressed the side of her face to his chest. Staying there, even as his heart beat fast and rhythmic in her ear. Even as he pulled her harder against his chest. Even as she knew he was feeling exactly what she felt. And that it was all utterly and stupidly pointless.
And her stupidity knew no bounds, because as she laid there in bed the following morning, she wanted to feel his heavy arm drape over her waist and pull her back against him all over again. A swarm of butterflies flapped away in the tiny cavity of her chest. What a feeling that had been.
Lord she was a silly girl, she thought. Sorely deprived. Deeply neglected. That a touch, a hug, could hold such sway over her. She rolled back, hoping her silly hope, to find the strong, hard expanse of his body stretched out beside her.
He wasn’t there. A moment of unexplainable panic shot her into a sitting position, only for her to breathe a sigh of relief when she spotted Addison crouched down in front of the fire, stirring a small, steaming pot. He gave her a smile over his shoulder. At least, she thought he did, unable to see him well enough to be certain.
Mellie dug the heels of her hands into her bleary eyes. First she had feared his death. Now she feared his absence. The longer he stayed, the more right he felt in this space, her space, and the harder it would be to watch him leave. Something tight and knotted seemed to wedge itself under her ribs.
She couldn’t help but notice that Addison was holding his body differently. Less stiff. Looser. He seemed…relaxed. “Good morning, Little Dove.”
Her eyebrows arched in utter confusion. “Pardon?”
Addison cast her a lazy grin and ladled something mushy into a bowl. “I said good morning.” He made his way over to her bed. “And I made you something to break your fast.” When she squinted at him, he immediately handed her a random pair of spectacles.
“Little dove?” She questioned.
Addison whirled around in a circle, looking for a place to sit, then ultimately settled on the edge of the bed, placing the bowl carefully in Mellie’s hands. He was wearing a grin. Actually wearing it. As if a smile was a usual part of him. His blurry eyes twinkled.
Light, unnaturally bright for this time of year, streamed into the cottage, diffusing hues of pinks and oranges across scattered objects. Particles of dust swirled around in the beams that crossed over Addison’s face, bathing half of it in a golden glow.
All of it together lent a dreamlike quality to her surroundings, leaving Mellie feeling as if she hadn’t yet woken from her deep slumber. Addison caught her chin with his hand, nudged it up a little, and swept his thumb over the corner of her lip. An echo of those butterflies fluttered from that spot on her chin to the center of her breast.
“It is a small, white bird.”
She snorted. “I know what a dove is.” Mellie looked down at the mystery breakfast he’d so proudly handed her, scooped up a spoonful and let it slop miserably back into the bowl. “Did you murder one?”
The side of his mouth kicked up. “It is my nickname for you.”
“Murder soup?” She asked, deliberately misunderstanding him.
He dropped his hand, but managed to hold on to a shred of humor, a trace of laughter in his voice as he responded. “You are determined to make this difficult, aren’t you?”
This time, she didn’t need to deliberately misunderstand him. She knew not at all what he meant. “Make what difficult?”
He brushed her hand with the back of his fingers, making her belly twinge. “I wanted you to know that I’ve had a lovely nickname in my mind for you, that has nothing to do with ghosts or cockroaches.” He made her speechless. Words caught on her tongue, in her throat. “I have only ever thought you were beau-.” He trailed off.
Beautiful. He’d almost said it, but he wouldn’t again after what she’d told him. It made a deep pang of regret turn in her stomach. When Mellie launched into her tirade the night before, she’d have wagered everything she owned that Addison would become defensive. She’d assumed he would make excuses for his peers. Men who were likely his friends. She thought he would apologize for them and say they hadn’t meant it. Or that she took it the wrong way. At best, she thought he might say that she was not obligated to accept their offers to be bedded, or at worst, that she should consider herself lucky to be offered anything at all.
She had believed, without a shadow of a doubt, that he would tell her she had her place in this world, and that her place was in the beds of noblemen like him.
But he had been horrified.
Mellie had misjudged him.
“I first thought of it when you told me your name,” he continued shyly.
Mellie set the bowl of miscellaneous sludge on a nearby shelf. “You don’t like my name?”
Addison caught her hand, his fingers sweeping over hers to cradle them. With each caress she felt her body hum. “‘Little dove’ struck me as more suitable, but I like your name just fine.”
“What a compliment,” she rolled her eyes, teasing him. “Mellie is already a nickname, though.”
She nodded. “My full name is Melina and I’ll have you know,” she added haughtily, “that it does suit me. It means honey. My mother named me for a kind of Suisse honey she ate as a child. It turns bright white after it crystalizes and is borne from the nectar of an alpine rose.”
Addison gazed dreamily at her. “Sounds delicious.” His eyes lowered to her lips and darkened with something hot and unknown when she licked them involuntarily.
“You are a terrible flirt.” She lied, throwing the covers off. Then looked down at herself and promptly threw them back on. “Did you disrobe me?”
“Only your boots.” When he saw her glowering face he added, “And your breeches,” and then when her eyes went wide, he quickly exclaimed, “But only because you asked it of me.” She glared at him with such skepticism that he expelled an exasperated sigh. “Christ, Mellie. Do you think I learned nothing of you last night? I did not debauch you in your sleep.”
Of course, he didn’t. “It’s only that I do not remember.”
Addison’s shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. Then he turned a devastatingly charming smile on her. “You fell asleep in my arms,” he said sweetly, the memory apparently still on his mind. “Quite adorably, I might add.” Mellie felt a blush steal over her cheeks. Adorably. “I put you in bed, removed your boots and before I knew it you had taken off your jacket and you were mumbling for help your breeches. So, I assisted you with the bottoms and tucked you in tight, before you were-” he cleared his throat.
“I see.” He’d done a dishonorable thing in order to ensure that Mellie’s own honor remained in tact. In the recesses of her mind, she heard herself say, You pegged him all wrong, Mellie. Her heart raced for knowing it.
He stiffened uncomfortably, his manner doing an about face from the relaxed air he’d held only moments before. Picking up her discarded food, he took a bite, turned green, and announced, “Yes. Well, I failed at. Then muttered under his breath, “murder soup, indeed.”
Speaking of adorable, Mellie thought he looked adorably distressed. “What exactly were you attempting to make?”
“Uh, porridge, I suppose. I thought I remembered a recipe from when I was a child and played in the kitchen with our housekeeper, Mrs. Lamb. Flour and water.”
Mellie smirked, “I think you made paste.”
“Tasted a bit like that, to be honest.” Addison gave her a sheepish smile and moved away from her to kneel down and put the bowl by the hearth and poke at the fire. “I thought it was the least I could do, after all you have done for me. Especially after I discovered last night that all this time, you have had no place to sleep.”
“You’ve only figured that out now?” She remarked in an incredulous tone. “You are less observant than I gave your credit for.”
He shrugged. “And I have behaved quite ungentlemanly as a result.”
Just then it occurred to Mellie that he was absolutely mortified. He’d never explored this little cottage. Never been behind the hearth where he’d seen her disappear many times. From his perspective, laying in her bed, he wouldn’t have known that the only thing beyond was a small pantry and cooking area.
“I don’t give one whit about gentleman. You should have figured that out about me by now, as well.”
“I give a whit, Mellie. I’ve rather exhausted you, haven’t I? So much so, that you fell asleep standing in my arms.”
Mellie pulled the blankets from her bare legs, forgetting about indecency, which she had never worried much for anyhow. As she approached him, he jabbed awkwardly at the burning logs, keeping his gaze averted. There was something about his mannerisms that tugged at her heart. He seemed smaller somehow. Cut down to size. Humbled. For the first time, she saw the gentleman that he truly was. Honorable and proud. Genuinely concerned over such a trifling thing.
A tendril of hair had fallen over his brow and Mellie brushed it away. He stilled.
“You were ill and I am used to sleeping on the floor.” He closed his eyes. She saw his jaw tighten. “I did not mind.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw as he worked out some inner battle, though Mellie wasn’t sure what it was, except she gathered that pushing aside a lifetime of propriety was rather difficult for him.
She tucked the black curl behind his ear, her fingertips drifting across the soft, cool edge of it. The contact made her senses perk and prickle. Those long, elegant fingers of his flexed around the fire poker, gripping it tight.
Mellie dragged her finger along the edge of his ear, felt the tender flesh of his lobe brush her knuckle, then she traced her way down over the sharp stubble on his jaw to hook under his chin, and tilt his head up towards her. His amber eyes held an intensity that burned right into her soul.
All of the sudden, the fire poker clanged against the floor, and Addison wrapped his hands around her calves, slid them up her bare thighs and over her hips to circle around her waist. He drew her harshly to him and rested his forehead on her belly.
Mellie gasped, “Addison.” Honor and pride had evaporated and she was surprised to discover that she had wanted him to let them go.
“Mellie,” he groaned in a hoarse whisper, and pressed an open mouthed kiss against her, through her shirt, next to her naval. She felt the heat from his breath. The moisture from his tongue penetrate the fabric. There was that fuzziness again, that had consumed her when he had wrapped his arms around her the night before. It buzzed all over her arms and shoulders. Made her feel light headed and short of breath. She felt it every time she touched him. Only now she realized how much that paled in comparison to when he touched her.
Another kiss. Another whisper. “I knew if I touched you, I would never want to stop.” The sound of his voice was gruff and filled with a desperation she understood, though it all felt too fast, too wrong. And at the same time so right and so perfect. She felt the muscles in that splendid, private place between her legs contract with need.
His fingers bit into her back and she had an insane urge to delve her hands into his hair, pull his head back and press her lips to his. To feel the heat of his tongue against hers. To sink down and let him cover her with scalding kisses until she lost her mind. To let him give her a reason to feel as unhinged as she did.
But instead, she grabbed his hands, which were twisted into the rough linen material of her shirt, and wrangled them free, shoving him away. They were just close enough for Mellie to notice the startled look on his face before he pushed himself off his knees, taking several steps back and running a hand through his hair.
She watched him take a long, steadying breath that matched her own, and drag his hand over his mouth. “Damn,” he ground the word out so harshly that Mellie flinched.
Her mind scrambled. She needed to get away from here. Away from him. Her insides felt like chaos. Brimming with anxiety and confusion and something unknown. Something that scared her and yelled at her. Escape. Escape. Escape.
“I am going to search for Duke today.” She interrupted, halting what she knew was about to be an apology, which she did not want to hear. Not his regrets. She was the one to push him away, but the thought of him saying he didn’t mean it, that he wouldn’t have done it, would tear her to pieces. And it only made her want to escape even more.
His head snapped up, “What?” He asked, befuddled by the sudden change of topic.
Mellie rifled through a small pile of clothes and pulled on a fresh pair of wool breeches. “He’s been gone too long. I’m worried.” She’d been intending to search for him anyway, and now the perfect opportunity presented itself.
“I will go with you.”
“No!” She replied too quickly, then explained, “You will only slow me down.” Addison grumbled under his breath, but didn’t argue. It was the truth, he would slow her down, but what she wanted was to put some space between them. “The mountain trails are difficult to travel for men even in the best of health.” She offered the explanation in hopes of soothing a bit of that tattered pride.
“What about the sun? Shouldn’t you wait until dark.” He was seizing scraps of knowledge about her now.
“You are only asking that because I mentioned it last night.”
Addison shrugged helplessly. “What does that matter? I know it now.”
“I go out in the sun all the time. You’ve seen me do it. I shall remain covered up.”
“How will you see? Don’t you need Duke?” He argued, counter intuitively. “What if you cannot find your way back?”
He was only concerned. She understood that, even if she wasn’t sure whether the concern was for her or for himself. Perhaps a little of both. She had to acknowledge that it was probably daunting to a Duke to be left alone on the edge of the Suisse Alps in the dead of winter. “Addison, I have been living here for a very long time. I will be fine.”
His shoulders slumped and Mellie noticed his eyebrows draw together. His eyes were searching hers as if hunting for a truth, a shred of understanding. Perhaps some evidence that whatever was nagging inside of him had merit. In the end, Mellie didn’t believe that he was concerned for her safety. He knew her better than that, even in the short weeks they had known each other.
But he didn’t like how she was leaving, and she couldn’t blame him. Because she didn’t like this reaction in herself either. This need to run. To hide. Just as he’d accused her last night.
“You are well enough to fend for yourself for a couple of days.”
Addison nearly shouted when he heard that. “Days!”
Mellie stuffed supplies into a pack, grabbed her bow and quiver of arrows, and slung them over her shoulder. She pulled the door open, barely looking back at him, feeling like the cottage was smaller than ever. Dwarfed by his presence in it. “Maybe a week or so, if I have to go all the way to Bern.”
His hand shot out and grabbed her elbow. “Wait just a damn minute, Mellie!”
“Duke could be hurt,” she explained urgently.
Mellie tugged her arm away and he let her go, but as he did so, he plead with her, “Please don’t run away from me, Mellie.”
She froze. He read her like a book.
He implored her with his eyes to stay, and when it became clear that she wouldn’t, not now, not ever, he made a promise that made her feel like a retched and hopeless coward. “I will not ever touch you again, if you don’t want me to. On my word.” The quality of his voice made the words sound dragged out of him by sheer will. Like he had relinquished them only with great pain and effort.
She felt like she had twisted his motives and played with his emotions, forced him to offer her something and then forced him to take it away.
God, she wanted him to touch her, to hold her, to kiss her. She wanted his weight on top of her and him driving into her. It was a wild, reckless thought. She felt it somersaulting out of control. It had come out of nowhere. A dam had been broken somewhere inside her and now feelings -confusing, foreign, overwhelming feelings- were flooding out of her and threatening to drown them both.
She felt lost and found all at once. And if she didn’t separate herself from him, it would only lead to terrible mistakes. Because she and Addison were like oil and water. Their lives as separate as the Earth and the ocean. There was no point. No hope. Only hurt and anger and resentment could come of it. She knew it. And on some level, he knew it, too.
She needed to get out of there. Away from him. Away from hopes and dreams that were changing before her very eyes. She needed to let things between them fizzle and to forget how he made her feel.
Still, Mellie did not want to leave him with the hurt in his eyes. And as if to prove to herself exactly what she was worried about in the first place, she went up on her toes and pressed a soft kiss to Addison’s chin. “I need to find Duke. I will be back soon.”