CHAPTER FOUR

Mellie leaned back against the cold stone walls of her cottage. The jagged, icy edges bit into her back, but she liked the feeling of it, so she remained there. It had taken a long while before she’d restored herself to some semblance of calm, before she’d felt comfortable enough to even attempt going back inside. But every time she approached the door, she was nearly overcome again. 

So, she’d planted herself along the wall to wait until she was reasonably sure she could return without laughing. The humor of it all had faded away some time ago and yet she still hesitated, feeling rather contrite over her behavior. Especially after she had admonished him for his. Of course, she would apologize. As soon as she could muster the courage to do so.

Earlier in the day, she had been out searching man-high drifts of snow for animal traps she set about the forest. Duke had plowed ahead of her, clearing snow where he could, but much of it was too high, even for him. They had, however, been able to reach one trap, which thankfully had yielded a single hare. 

She’d skinned it, put it aside to check in on her patient, then proceeded to forget about it in the chaos that followed. The stump at the side of her cottage where she’d left it, she realized now, was empty. Damn. An animal must have gotten it. At this rate, it wouldn’t matter if she saved the Duke’s life, for they were all about to starve to death anyway.

That was when she saw it. Just past the tree line at the edge of the clearing where her cottage sat. A lone wolf was gnawing away at the hare. Her pulse kicked up. It hadn’t seen her yet. She had a small window of opportunity, but if she were quick and quiet, she might be able to take it.

Mellie pushed herself away from the cottage wall and very carefully opened the door. Inside, His Grace was sitting stiffly in the bed, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Thankfully, her mind was focused now on something far more serious or she would have burst into fits of laughter all over again. His hands rested awkwardly on his biceps, wrapped in thick layers of bandages that gave them a bulbous shape. His feet protruded from the ends of his blanket in similar state. That he was attempting to appear intimidating only added to the hilarity of it. 

“I’ll thank you to apolo-”

“Shush.” She insisted as she closed the door gently behind her, grabbing up thick wool coat from a hook by the door and flung it over her shoulders to slip her arms into it.

His eyes flared with anger. “I will not be shu-”

“There is a wolf,” Mellie explained, cutting him off again.

“A wolf?!” He shouted and he clumsily clutched the blanket to his breast. Another piece of imagery that Mellie stored away to be amused by later. 

Mellie stalked over to him and clamped her hand over his mouth, then whispered with deadly calm. “Shut up, or I swear if you draw its attention, I will stand back and watch it eat you.” 

Under her palm, she felt his angular jaw shift as he ground his back teeth together in indignation. Though she didn’t know exactly what his lips looked like, they felt full and firm, and she could imagine them curled into a sneer. She held firm, waiting for him to nod in agreement, but when he didn’t she tightened her grasp. Just enough to make him question whether she was mad enough to do such a thing. “Do you understand?”

Wolves generally stayed far from her cottage and one so near could only mean one thing; it was hungry. Apparently Mellie hadn’t been the only one struggling to find food this winter. 

The odds were already stacked against her. Dusk has already fallen and combined with her terrible eyesight, she would need to get close. Far closer than she was comfortable with. Her best chance of success was to catch it by surprise and get off one round. Enough to wound it. Then get in closer for the kill shot. 

His Grace was risking that plan, and her very life, by continuing to chatter on like a startled miss. If the wolf noticed her, it would attack before she even had a chance to take it down. With her hunger gnawing at her gut and very little left to eat, it was a risk she was willing to take, especially since she had two Dukes to feed. But the last thing she needed was him making it more difficult and dangerous than necessary.

His Grace held her stare for a moment longer, then with an angry snort that she felt over the back of her hand, he nodded. 

Letting go, she quickly turned away from him and headed for the door. In the corner, behind layers of draped coats and furs, she unearthed a flintlock rifle and a pouch of balls and powder. She quickly loaded the weapon and then threw her bow and arrow over her shoulder as a backup plan.

The other Duke was waiting patiently at her side, ready to aid her. “Ruhig. Langsam.” She commanded him to be quiet and slow, then reached for the door.

His Grace sat up straight in the bed, what she was about to do finally sinking in. In a low but urgent voice he argued, “You are mad if you’re seriously thinking about going out there.”

“I’m not mad, Your Grace,” she flashed an eager smile at him, her blood already pumping with excitement. “I’m hungry.”

 

Addison watched through the window beside the bed in abject terror. He was not an inexperienced hunter, but to confront a wolf… Well, he would need a good bit more whiskey flowing through his veins than he had now before he was daring enough to try that.

In the short time since he’d awakened, his peculiar rescuer had argued with him, artfully set him down, and deservedly so, cared tenderly for his wounds, and finally, laughed so heartily at him that one might believe he was a professional fool. He almost believed it himself.

And now, she was on the verge of bringing down a wolf entirely on her own, without so much as a moments hesitation. Whomever this woman was, one thing was clear, she was absolutely dauntless.

Outside, she edged herself towards a cluster of trees in the distance, just beyond the downward slope of the hill where her cottage rested. Somewhere in there, he gathered, was the hunted wolf. The sun having set behind the horizon, a blue hue had cast itself over the world, making it only slightly less difficult to see than it had been earlier in the blinding white of the snow. 

Mellie’s fair skin and hair lent her the perfect camouflage in this environment. Addison could only make her out at all, because he hadn’t taken his eyes off her since she walked out the door. For some unknown reason, it hadn’t registered with him until that moment that she was wearing breeches. They were white and were tucked into a pair of leather boots that, instead of being folded at the knee, were tied about her thighs. 

There had been a handful of times in his life that he had encountered women in breeches, but he had averted his eyes, as one should do when they witness something inappropriate. Nothing could make him avert his eyes now. The way she looked in those boots stirred something inside him. Something similar to lust, but that word didn’t feel quite right. She was beautiful, without question, but it was her manner that piqued his interest more than anything. 

He hardly knew the woman, but everything he had seen of her so far indicated she was utterly and entirely singular. Somehow he knew that there was no one else on this Earth quite like her.

And it was for that reason that Addison was not even a little concerned that in a few short minutes he would be witnessing her be torn apart, limb by limb, by a ferocious predator. There was nothing about her that seemed reckless, and from what he could tell from her home, she was quite accustomed to surviving in this environment. It was unlikely she would attempt such a task if she didn’t believe she could accomplish it. 

Over the past several minutes, his terror had turned into fascination. He strained his eyes to see what was happening. Pressed his nose up against the glass and cupped his hands around his eyes to block out the light of the fire from inside the cottage. His rapid breathing fogged the glass and he frantically wiped it away so as to not lose track of them. The bandages proved to be an asset in that regard. 

Mellie was not too far off from the edge of the clearing. Standing tall, flintock held to her eye, and her mutt waiting patiently beside her. She was no longer wearing those emerald spectacles but he couldn’t tell from this distance what she was using for an eyepiece in its place. It was a wonder she could see anything at all, as it was clear her eyesight was rather damaged. Addison had perfect vision himself, and he could barely make out a single detail.

Scanning the woods repeatedly from one side to the other, Addison searched for sight of the wolf. Mellie and Duke remained frozen in their spots. Where ever it was, she had it in her sights and she was waiting for the right moment to fire. 

Suddenly, an eerie howl echoed through the night sky and, immediately following, two dots of light flashed across the dark field, drawing Addison’s attention to the wolf. Eyes. Glowing and pointed directly at Mellie. Addison felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. They couldn’t have appeared more ominous if they had been bright red. 

The howl had come from her dog. “Stupid beast!” Addison cursed, then quickly realized Mellie had likely commanded it of him. She was ready.

Despite the fact that he couldn’t tell which way was coming or going, he had the sense that the wolf was working its way towards Mellie. It had spotted her. Time seemed to suspend itself while it approached her. She was staring down the barrel of her gun, the wolf inching closer and closer. Haltingly. Sussing out his prey and deciding whether it could take her and her mongrel on.

Then everything stopped. Both the wolf and Mellie held their positions. And Addison held his breath. Waiting for it to happen. Knowing that in the next final minute, it would come down to either the wolf or Mellie. Or perhaps the dog would be able to hold its own long enough for her to get away if she failed.

She wouldn’t fail. Addison knew this as sure as he knew he was the Duke of Darlington. So, he watched with baited breath. Tearing his eyes away from this scene would take a physical effort. He was frozen there right along with her.

Then the wolf let out a ferocious growl, the sound carried across the distance to his ears, setting his pule in motion again just as it took one enormous leap through the air, right towards Mellie. A blaze of fire went off with the rifle, the beast yelped, and plummeted to the ground in a dead drop, sliding lifelessly all the way to her feet. 

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