Wavy patterns decorated the wooden table beneath Mellie’s hands. Graceful curves of light and dark flowed alongside each other, following nearly identical paths. They progressively curved a little more here, a little less there, until the right side of the table was starkly different from the left.
Mellie had never noticed it before. But then, she’d never pressed her palms flat upon the aged surface, which time had polished to a glossy finish. Her damp palms felt slick against its smooth texture and failed to provide her the support she’d been seeking. Her knees were near to giving way beneath her, so she sat herself down on the chair tucked in the corner of her pantry.
Here, she was hidden away from His Grace who was sleeping in the other part of her cottage. By the time she’d finished dealing with her successful hunt the night before, she had returned to find him fast asleep. So, Mellie made herself a little nest of blankets before the fire, as she had been doing since she’d brought him here, and grabbed some rest while she could.
After rising early in the morning, Mellie discovered that he was a bit feverish to the touch. Nothing that would ordinarily concern her, but then she had examined his left hand and discovered that his pale gray fingers were now blackened all the way to their second knuckles. There was no more to be done, except remove them, and quickly, before it spread and his fever worsened.
What she fretted about now was how to explain that to him. Certainly, it was preferable to losing an entire limb, but the pain would still be extraordinary. That he was completely alone, and had already been dealing with so much, resonated within her. Mellie understood better than most what it meant to be on your own, and how that seclusion could cave in on you during times when everything was beyond your control.
And for a Duke, that loss of control would feel particularly overwhelming. Sympathy was not something she’d ever bothered to muster for any member of the aristocracy. They were largely spoiled and entitled, and accustomed to throwing coin at any problem just to make it go away. But she would not wish this on anyone, and for the first time in her life she found herself wishing riches were all that was needed to surmount this particular problem.
While losing a couple of fingers would hardly be a heavy burden for him, that didn’t change the terrifying reality of the task before him. To let someone he barely knew remove a part of his body. To trust someone, a stranger, with that responsibility. A stranger whom, according to him, operated a torture chamber.
“Well, you are about to be fully inducted into this house of horrors,” she muttered, pushing herself to her feet, then making her way back into the other room to give His Grace a nudge. He was already awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, urinating into a chamber pot.
He started and attempted to cover himself. “Good god, I thought you were outside!” Fumbling with the pot, he turned away from her, red faced and fuming once again. As Mellie reached for the pot to keep it from spilling, he shoved her hand away. “Leave!”
“Yes, of course,” she stuttered, realizing that she’d become so accustomed to caring for him, she hadn’t immediately thought to offer him privacy. Mellie waited for several long minutes back in her pantry, until she was certain he’d finished. Upon returning she noticed the chamber pot lidded and tucked beneath the bed. His Grace sat himself propped against the wall and gazed out the window, his jaw tight with embarrassment. “My apologies,” she offered and took the chamber pot to dispose of the contents outside, her primary intention to give him an additional moment to collect himself.
But as soon as she walked back in the door he made it clear that he wasn’t any less aggravated. “Have you no manners, Miss…Miss whatever your name is?”
Mellie refused to rise to his bait. “My name is Mellie.” She reminded him.
“I meant your surname.”
Mellie leaned over the hearth to pull out a small iron pot full of boiled meat and peas and spooned some into a bowl. Duke was suddenly at her feet, panting and shuffling back and forth expectantly. “I’ve already fed you.” Mellie scratched him behind the ears and tossed a chunk of meat on the floor, where he promptly inhaled it as if it were air.
“Loos,” she commanded, and opened the door to the outdoors to let him run wild outside. He bounded outside where he quite literally frolicked through the snow, digging his snout through it and tossing chunks into the air. She watched as he laid down and rolled over and over, similar to how she’d done as a child, down long grassy hills and tumbling into trees.
Closing the door, she turned back to her patient. “Where were we?”
“You were about to give me your surname.”
She disagreed. “You asked. Well, not asked, more like demanded. But I had not agreed to share it with you yet. Nevertheless, I shall be happy to tell you my surname after you tell me yours.”
“It is Kent. You may call me Your Grace, or My Lord, as I kindly offered you yesterday.”
He thought he’d been kind? She nearly threw the bowl down across the floor in exasperation. “We are not on that again, are we?”
“I will not yield.” As she approached him, he continued, “Before you dump that over my head, you owe me a name,” an astonishing note of levity in his words.
She dragged the nearby stool over to the bed and sat down. “Harlowe. Mellie Harlowe. But you may refer to me as ‘She who has washed the shite off my arse for the past five days instead of leaving me to wallow in my own filth’.” Predictably, his skin pinked right up, but this time, instead of looking away, he held her gaze. Mellie had the distinct feeling that if she could see his features clearly, his eyes would be blasting her to perdition. For once she thanked her lack of sight, for it kept her from succumbing to intimidation.
After a lengthy pause, he answered, “Quite right.” His voice was measured and thoughtful. It gave her the impression that he’d just figured something out about her. That he’d made some sort of calculation and decided to change his tactics. “How did you come to choose the name ‘Earl’ to refer to me by?”
Sir Oliver Farthingham the third, Earl of Fancytown, the full name she’d given him, seemed an ill-advised confession to make, so she kept that bit of it to herself, hoping to soften him. After all, she reminded herself, she needed him to trust her enough to let her cut off his fingers. A tall order.
“I thought you might die and I didn’t want you do so namelessly. So, I gave you a name that seemed fitting, as you were obviously nobility.” She lifted a portion of meat to his mouth and he surprised her by accepting it, which made her wonder if he was accustomed to being spoon-fed by servants.
“Surprisingly tender, Miss Harlowe.” His voice was low, gentle. Almost sultry. It made little licks of sensation cascade over her shoulders. “Surely you understand why I insist upon this.”
“I understand perfectly, Mister Kent. It makes you uncomfortable to acknowledge me as an equal, because I am not of noble blood.”
“Funny that,” he mused, a lilt of gratification woven through his words. “You understand exactly what it is that separates us, and yet, you refuse to acknowledge it by addressing me prop-.” Mellie shoved the spoon into his mouth, cutting off the last word.
“I am not the one who believes our blood separates us.” This was a conversation that Mellie did not want to have. Not here in her own home. Not here in the Suisse Alps where she’d come to escape exactly this sort of mindset. But on some level he’d started something that she did not want to push aside. She’d never before had the opportunity tell a Duke exactly what she’d thought of his supposed birthright. “We both bleed, Mister Kent. The only difference between us is that you were arbitrarily rewarded being born with a particular set of genitals, to a particular set of parents.”
Mellie expected him to stiffen, grind his teeth together, and argue back in that rigid, condescending voice he favored. Instead, he chuckled softly. “I see now where the problem lies. You have been misinformed. There is nothing arbitrary about it. I am the descendant of a long line of-,” Mellie cut him off again, forcing another spoonful past his lips.
“Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough for you. I will not refer to you as Your Grace, or My Lord, or Duke, or Darlington, or any variation of a name that eludes to your title, rather than who you are. You are a your own person, after all, are you not?”
He slowed his chewing, seemed to ruminate on the question, as if nobody had ever asked him to consider that before. As she waited for his reply, Mellie spooned around the remaining meat in the bowl, searching for the largest mouthful she could find, then scooped it up and waited for him to offer his next morsel of enlightenment. “My title is who I am.”
Something in his words grabbed her, stilled her. There was a note of melancholy in them. Perhaps even regret. And a hopelessness about them that formed a heavy weight in her chest. She carefully placed the bowl on the floor, and laid her hand on his arm.
Mellie had no response to give to that statement. No argument to what he’d just shared with her. It felt tragic in a way that she didn’t quite understand, and wasn’t sure she wanted to admit, unwilling as she was to garner empathy for man of his ilk. But she also wasn’t going to back down. Using his given name would lend a level of comfort to him in the aftermath of what was about to happen. It would provide the illusion of intimacy. Of having someone by his side that cares. It didn’t matter that they were strangers, she couldn’t help but care anyway.
“I would ask that you permit me to know your given name,” she pleaded softly. “I need to tell you something,” she added when he remained silent.
“What is it?”
“Your name first,” she insisted.
Even without her spectacles, Mellie could tell his eyes were latched to hers. She felt like he was measuring her up, deciding whether she was worth this breach of propriety. Or perhaps he was deciding whether he wanted to hear the sound of his name on her lips. That possibility sent a flurry of gooseflesh from her head to her toes. She had to admit that there was part of her that wanted to know his name simply to know it, and it had nothing to do with her refusal to acknowledge his title. She wanted to hear him say it in that silky baritone voice of his.
Perhaps he sensed the shift in her manner. Her sudden seriousness. Her inability to tear her gaze away from his. Or he’d simply become bored with the argument. Whatever the reason, he finally relented. “Addison.”
The breathy quality of his voice made his name sound like an invitation and her heart seemed to triple in beats. It suited him, she thought. It was both hard and soft. Bold. And just a little bit feminine.
“Now that you know it,” he added, “I suppose you might as well use it. Go ahead. Try it out.”
Oh, he had changed tactics. He’d decided to flirt with her. Mellie had the urge to rip her own skin off for how it was responding to him. He’d undoubtedly successfully seduced hundreds of women with that voice. They probably fell into his arms simply for his being a Duke. Add in velvety whispers, and the hint of unspoken promises, and they would be puddles.
“Addison,” she rewarded him. Let him linger on it for a moment. But Mellie was not the kind of woman who would fall under his spell, so she was not diverted from her goal. “Listen carefully…“
A maniacal shout of laughter rang through the room at a near deafening volume. Addison didn’t even recognize it as his own laugh, though he knew it was. Mellie sat stoically on her stool, unfazed by his reaction. Coolly waiting for him to calm himself. “Jolly good joke, Miss Harlowe. That is…,” he pointed a damaged finger at her and shook it. “That is… That is quite humorous.”
Mellie stood up and calmly walked around to the other side of the bed. Towards the hand in question. He jerked it away and tucked it under his other arm, reminding himself of a child hiding something he shouldn’t have. Rather than trying to grab it back like a disapproving mother might do, she stood there and waited, the only emotion registered on her face was one of sympathy.
A wave of sickening nausea washed over him. He swallowed the lump in his throat. “You are mad. A lunatic! If you think I will let you cut off my fingers…” There was a shrillness to his voice he’d never heard in himself before.
Over Mellie’s shoulder, he could see the wolf’s pelt stretched between a couple of trees. His first instinct had been right, he’d stumbled into the lair of a crazed woman. She probably wanted to keep him. Slowly remove body parts just to torture him. Perhaps eat them. And eventually she would skin him, too, and stretch an Addison shaped pelt amongst the trees to scare would be intruders away.
Surely, this was his punishment for all those times he’d snuck up into his sisters bedrooms at night just to jump out at them and make them scream.
Mellie stretched her hand towards him, palm up. “Allow me to remove the dressings and you will see for yourself.
Addison had to admit that his fingers did feel rather strange. Not painful, precisely. Almost as if they were already missing. Had she already removed them? Was this was her cruel way of showing him? Would she reveal the missing appendages and then laugh at him until she cried as she’d done the day before?
Oh. He suddenly understood why she’d insisted on his name before she raised this. The sound of it leveled him in a way that Your Grace wouldn’t have. It brought him back down to Earth. Comforted him.
Still, he hesitated. Mellie waited patiently.
“Give me your word that you won’t do anything without my express permission.”
Mellie sighed. “You do realize that if I were the sort of person who chopped off body parts for the fun of it, my word would mean nothing. You’d already be hacked to bits.”
“I understand it is nonsensical,” he hollered. “Give me your word anyhow!”
“I cannot believe I have to say this, but I give you my word that I will not remove them without your permission.”
With that affirmation, Addison slowly extended his hand towards her. He could feel himself shaking as she unwound the dressings. A tremor that emanated straight from his bones and outward. When she finally revealed his hand, he could do nothing but stare at it. His thumb, pointer and middle finger were slightly swollen and angry looking. Skin had peeled away in patches, leaving them raw and bloody, which accounted for the severe pain he’d been feeling.
The remaining fingers were black. Sooty. As if they’d been charred in a fire. The damaged area ended in a clear line at his knuckle. The devision was so stark that for a moment he almost believed he could simply snap the ends of his fingers off. Let them crumble away like ash.
His world tilted. Everything slid away, until there was nothing left but himself. And fear. And the sound of his own ragged breaths in his ears. His heart pounding in his chest. His mouth ran dry. The tremor had stopped, but only because he was paralyzed.
He was not brave enough to do this. He was a coward.
Mellie’s tender voice pulled him back from the void. Addison cleared his throat. “You must send for a doctor.”
She laid her hand on his bare shoulder. Bolts of lightning shot through him, reawakening his body when all he wanted was to stay numb. But her touch also soothed him. She was possessed of mythical powers that he could not understand, because when she explained that there were no doctors and that by the time they could summon one, it would be too late, he believed her. Trusted her, terrifying as it was.
“Must it be done straight away?”
Mellie kept her hand on his shoulder, her thumb brushing back and forth. Little ricochets of pleasure danced across his skin with each stroke. Addison decided to focus on that. Wished she’d be capable of performing the procedure on his fingers while continuing to caress him.
“The longer you wait, the greater you risk it spreading. Perhaps you can’t feel it, but you are already a developing a fever. I worry that your life will be in danger if we do not act soon.”
Addison thought that if he was feverish, it was merely because of his proximity to her. Every time she laid her hands on him heat spread over every part of his flesh. “You have done this before.”
“No.” That answer startled him. Her confidence in this course of action had reassured him that she knew what she was doing. But if she’d never… “I have seen the procedure done many times,” she explained.
Mellie sat herself down on the edge of the bed, taking his hand to cradle it in her lap. “Have you ever heard of Great Saint Bernard Pass?”
“The route through the Suisse Alps to Italy?”
She nodded. “There is a hospice there.” She flattened her hand and rubbed her palm over his forearm. Her skin was so soft. Addison made to turn his hand, wanting to touch her in return, but then he remembered the state of it and stopped himself. If there was one great tragedy about losing his fingers, it was that they would never know the feel of her skin. It looked like porcelain. Creamy white. Delicate. Thin enough to tear, if not for the gentlest touch.
“Travelers often go there to rest before and after crossing the pass,” she continued. “They often suffered the same fate as you. The way your hands and feet have been injured by the cold. I know it won’t bring you much peace, but I am quite confident that this is what must be done.”
Addison ignored that last part, needing to focus on something else. Anything else. “What brought you to Great Saint Bernard Pass?”
“My uncle. He is a marrionner.”
“A marrionner?” Addison asked, though he was hardly interested in the answer. Another time he would have been. But right then, all he wanted was for her to keep talking. Oh, she had a way about her, he thought. She’d thoroughly distracted him from his fears. With her dainty, capable hands grazing his arm and her reassuring voice. “He assists travelers across the pass, to Bourg Saint Pierre, on the Suisse side.”
“He is an accomplished mountaineer, then.”
“Yes. I learned everything I know from him. When I first arrived here from England, I lodged at the hospice. I assisted with the injured where I could.”
That she hailed from England was not a surprise to him. That much had been obvious from her accent. Hearing this small detail of her past explained much, yet elicited a thousand more question. And Addison wanted to know the answer to every one of them. “What brought you here from England?”
Mellie shifted her eyes away from his. “That is a story for another time.” She patted his arm, caught his eyes again, then asked the question he wasn’t sure he could answer. “Are you ready?”
Addison’s chest began to rise and fall rapidly as the situation sunk in. Closing his eyes, he whispered, “Fuck.” It was a broken sob, that sounded a like a plea. As if he could pray his way out of this. His fear was palpable. It twisted in her gut. Made her feel weak kneed and more isolated than she had in a long time. She wished there was someone else to do this. Another soul who could accomplish this task, so she could simply comfort him.
He remained there with his eyes closed for several minutes, but Mellie wouldn’t rush him. He needed to come to this decision on his own, and he was almost there. It was inevitable. Addison knew that, he just needed to overcome his fear. Granted, she recognized that this sort of fear was often insurmountable, but he would find the strength to do it. She knew he would.
Just as she’d thought, Addison opened his eyes and gave her a single, sharp and decisive nod.
Mellie did not hesitate. “Lay down,” she instructed as she rose to her feet. She nearly ran to the pantry to grab her spectacles and the tools that she’d set aside earlier, and set up, before he could change his mind.
“You don’t have to seem so gleeful about it.” He said with a nervous laugh.
“I am not gleeful.” His comment chaffed a little, but Mellie reminded herself that he was scared. “I am going to do this quickly so as not to draw it out for you. That is all.” She came back to the bed and held a cup of whiskey to his mouth. The fact that it was all she could offer him caused a pang of despair to course through her. Addison drank the entire contents down in only two quick gulps. “My aim is to have this over and done as fast as possible. If I seem unfeeling about it, that is the only reason why.”
She held his gaze for only a moment more. Then grabbed his arm and strapped it tightly to the side of the bed, so he could not jerk it free.
Addison tugged at the binding anyway, and let out a string of profanities that even Mellie hadn’t heard the likes of before.
Next, she wrapped a leather strap around his bicep, pulling it as tight as she could make it. Addison winced. His breathing became uneven then. Hyper. Ragged. He was gasping, gulping air like he would never have the chance again.
Mellie leaned over him, cupping his whiskery cheek in her hand. “Look at me, Addison.” Closer to him than she’d been before, she was finally able to see the true color of his eyes. Amber. Almost gold, with strands of reddish brown that swirled around what seemed to be a molten core that reached out and pulled her into their depths. In them, Mellie found something she hadn’t expected. An emotion she’d run from her whole life. Yearning. That intense need to connect with someone. To know, with certainty that you were not a solitary figure destined to make your way through life all on your own. With no one beside you.
Her heart squeezed. This man, this Duke, who had said in his own words that he was nothing more than his title, was exactly as human as Mellie. It shook her in a way that she couldn’t explain beyond simply recognizing that right then and there, nothing separated them. Not blood. Nor his title. Not their sex or the color of her skin. They were the same. Both scared. Both alone. Brought together by some twist of fate had thrown them, two wholly different people, into each others paths.
Mellie brushed the back of her fingers over his brow, hoping he understood what she did. “We will get through this together.” She waited for her words to register in his eyes before she reached for a thick leather strap. “Move your tongue out of the way and bite this.”
Addison followed her direction and Mellie held his gaze for only a brief moment longer. She couldn’t bare to see the fear in his eyes. “I’m sorry.” She said, then picked up her knife and did what she had to do as fast as she could do it.
To her surprise, he didn’t scream. He just went wide eyed and rigid. Thick veins bulged at the side of his head, near his hairline, around his neck. His lis curled back in a snarl, baring his white teeth. The thick leather belt in his mouth, the only thing preventing him from biting off his own tongue.
His body trembled. Mellie didn’t think he was breathing. And she was fairly certain that his eyes glistened with unshed tears. But the only sound he’d made was to grunt when she’d broken the bones in his fingers. Her insides twisted tighter with each step. Her fingers shook at the thought of causing him so much pain. It didn’t matter that it was necessary, that he would die if she hadn’t done it. It gutted her.
She worked quickly to staunch the blood flow by stitching the skin up over the steps left behind. At that he finally closed his eyes, causing the pool of tears that had accumulated to trail down the side of his face.
Mellie wrapped his hand and put it gently on the bed. Then moved to the other side of him where she could sit down. She stroked the hair out of his face, brushing it back off his forehead, and repeated the motion until his muscles eventually relaxed enough to work the strap from his mouth. It came away coated in saliva, long strings snapped back against his mouth.
Mellie got up and grabbed a towel, dampening it in a bowl of cool water, then wiped his face. She rinsed it out and delicately presses the cloth to his neck and cheeks, hoping to soothe him a little.
“It is done.” She said. Her voice quivering. Addison swallowed but remained quiet, eyes riveted to the beams running across the roof of the cottage. “Would you like more whiskey?”
She lifted a cup to his mouth, helped him hold his head up, and let him guzzle the whole thing down.
Addison laid back and continued to stare at the ceiling. His breathing was still somewhat labored but Mellie could tell the drink was coursing through his body, helping the seconds to pass more easily.
She waited quietly. Lightly trailing her fingers over his cheek and neck. Eventually, his eyes shifted to hers and held them. Her chest welled with some unknown feeling that caught her own breath. Mellie wished she could take the pain for him. She knew she could bear it.
Finally, Addison opened his mouth to speak, but the only thing that came out was a soft breath.
“What is it?”
When he answered, his voice was rough and thick. “Are you not afraid of anything? Not even of…” he licked his lips, “of pain?”
The questions surprised her. “Of course, I’m afraid of pain.” She ran her hand over him, moving from his neck to his chest and smoothed the blanket over his racing heart. She felt the steady cadence through the middle of her palm. Part of him was still absorbing what had just happened. “And many other things.”
“Well, performing this procedure was rather up there.” Addisons eyes widened, only a shadow of the horror that he’d just experienced, but horror nonetheless. “I thought it better not to inform you of that fact beforehand.”
Incredibly, he laughed. “I suppose I should thank you for that.” He lapsed into silence again, only to continue the thought after a few minutes had passed. “How do you conquer it?”
Mellie had to ponder the question before she answered. It wasn’t something that she’d ever thought about before. Or at least, she’d never given it voice before now. “If I think I can’t do something, or something scares me, I make a challenge out of it in my mind. I don’t like to let anything beat me, you see. But I have never had to face the challenge of separating my fingers from my hand, so I cannot say for sure how I might react to that. I suspect I would be as afraid as you were.”
Addison stared at her, his expression unreadable. “Would you like me to cut one off, so you can find out for sure? You know, for the challenge of it all?” He gave her a weak, but charmingly slanted smile. “I have it on good authority that the experience is unparalleled.”
Mellie couldn’t help but laugh. `