The water was balmy, reminding Addison of a bath poured fresh off a fire. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine that he was home in his chamber, settling in for a long soak. He had to admit, the view here was vastly superior.
Mellie was still tending to the fire here and there, but she’d already removed her jacket and Addison’s heart thumped with anticipation for her to take the rest off. He wouldn’t watch her undress, of course, as badly as he wanted to, but the idea of sharing this small body of water with her naked one made his blood stir.
She was so God damned beautiful, he could barely take his eyes off her. He’d almost kissed her a thousand times. He would have to be dense not to notice her begging him with her eyes. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the way she’d run from him the other day. About the secrets she’d shared with him. About the way she’d been trying to ask him for something today, and that he had nothing to give.
He could buy her anything she asked for. Not ballgowns or jewels, which he knew she had no use for, or even a desire to wear them. But more simple things. More books. A library full of them. Spectacles to last a lifetime. A comfortable chair. Anything. An ocean if she asked for it.
Mellie wouldn’t want any of those things. Instead, she had asked him for something intangible. Something that even she couldn’t name and that Addison wasn’t even sure he was capable of. To embrace…this. Whatever this was. And then let her go. Walk away.
The very thought of it crushed him. Maybe if he left now. Maybe if they could keep whatever was growing between them at bay. Then he could possibly leave and never look back. But not if they headed somewhere else and Addison felt certain they were headed for disaster. Because he didn’t think he could keep a promise to go their separate ways, if that is what she asked of him.
Up on the edge of the pool, Mellie was beginning to undress. Giving her privacy, Addison diverted his attention to the scenery behind him. The sky was dark, but the endless rings of water still emitted an unearthly glow, lit perhaps from the moon. A hundred tints and shades of blue, edged with white where the water spilled down in an endless cascade of rippling tides. They nestled together in an unpredictable pattern of cerulean honeycombs, some with seemingly bottomless depths. An abyss that threatened to drown whatever unfortunate soul became trapped in it.
A splash behind him signified Mellie entering the pool. Addison closed his eyes to ward off the foreboding feeling that had begun to press down on him. He felt trapped in this hopeless situation, with a woman he wanted to love, but who he knew wasn’t going to let him.
He looked for Mellie over his shoulder. She was underwater and he suddenly became very self conscious that she would be able to see more clearly under there, as if the water might act as a lens. He was naked and hard. Had been since she’d flirtatiously removed his fur wrap.
From the other side of the pool, which was not particularly far across, Mellie came to the surface and slicked the water over her face, along with her hair. The steam rising off the water obscured her, reminding him of a swan emerging from the mist.
Addison could almost imagine she was born right here in one of these miniature lakes, where the white and blue, snow and ice, steam and water all left a permanent imprint on her form. He’d never seen anything more lovely than her.
“Are you married, Addison?”
Flustered at the question, he spurted out, “What?” Mellie eyed him suspiciously. “Of course not. Don’t you think I would have mentioned that by now?”
Mellie shrugged. No, he supposed, she wouldn’t necessarily assume that. She’d undoubtedly been propositioned by countless married men.
“I am not married. Nor am I betrothed or beholden to any sweethearts at home.”
Mellie began swimming around the outer curve of the pool towards him. He shoved off the bottom and moved in the other direction. He couldn’t be near her. If he got too close to her, there was no telling what he might do.
She stopped on the opposite side, where he’d been looking out at the distance, and propped her arms on the edge to rest her chin on her hands. Her shirt was still on, covering what he imagined would be a smooth and gorgeous back. Patches of it clung to her skin, but where on someone else it might appear see through, on Mellie, it still appeared white.
“Have you ever been in love?”
Oh God. Why did she have to ask him that? “I have,” he answered, mostly because he wanted to know where she was going with this conversation.
Turning her head to look at him, her damp face looked like glass, but her cheeks had taken on a pink hush and her lips were darker from the heat of the water. “What happened?”
“We didn’t suit.” He didn’t offer any other explanation. It wasn’t important. It didn’t matter. The only bearing it had on any of this was that it was how he knew what he was feeling for Mellie now. He could see where it was headed because he’d been there before.
God damn it, he was going to fall in love with her. For a moment the other night, as if he hadn’t learned from past experience, he’d told himself he could choose to do so. But now he saw that he had no choice in the matter. It was going to happen, whether he wanted it to or not. Just as it had last time, except back then he hadn’t wanted it.
This time he did. So badly that he felt like he didn’t know himself any longer. That he wanted it at all, only meant that he would fall harder. And hurt more.
Mellie turned around and pushed off the wall, floating right towards him. He couldn’t move without being completely obvious that he was trying to avoid contact with her, so he remained still. “How do two people who love each other not suit?” She floated up beside him and tossed her spectacles a good distance away, near their discarded clothes. “I’m assuming it was reciprocated.”
“We fell in love, we fell out of love. It happens from time to time.”
“And you didn’t marry her? While you were in love.”
He sighed in exasperation. “Why are you asking me this, Mellie?” Beneath the water, her fingers grasped for his thigh, making him jump back as if he been burned. Lord knew he was going to go up in flames if she touched him.
She grabbed at him again, “I’m going to rub your thigh.”
“Mellie.” It was all he could say as she wedged his knee between her legs and wrapped hers around it. Her hands felt around for the damaged flesh in the back. He could feel himself tensing.
“Would you relax.”
She began to work the knotted muscles, her fingers digging in with surprising strength. Moving up and down his thigh, sometimes lower, sometimes higher. Nearer. Unbearably close to the other hard and sensitive part of him. Agony. Ecstasy.
“I was just trying to get to know you,” she said at length.
“If you must know, we fell in love at the beginning of her first season and she fell out of love by the end of it.”
Mellie’s hands stilled for a moment, then continued. “So, you were still in love with her when it ended?”
“I know what you are thinking. I’m a Duke and I could have married her if I wanted to. That is true enough, but I do not want to be married to someone who does not love me.”
An astonished expression overtook her face. He knew it was a rare quality among the aristocracy who married for money, power, or prestige. The women who typically threw themselves at Addison were looking for all three. None of them were looking for love.
Neither was Mellie.
“What about you?” Addison had enough of the inquisition, so he decided to turn it around on her. “Have you ever been in love?”
Stopping her massage, she floated a little bit away. He shouldn’t have asked the question since he didn’t want to know the answer. Neither felt acceptable. So close to him, yet she still appeared mysterious and unreadable when she shook her head and said quietly, “No.”
Just as he’d thought. Unacceptable. And then she gutted him.
“I don’t think I ever want to fall in love.”
The water suddenly felt cold. Goosebumps spread over his flesh. It felt hard to breathe. His fists clenched and he looked away from her. Addison had already known it was hopeless. She’d only verified it. But still it hurt an unreasonable amount.
“I’m afraid it would hurt.”
Her words, the way they sounded like a confession, the hesitation of them, drew him back to her. He brushed a lock of wet hair behind her ear. “Only if it’s unreciprocated, little dove.”
Fingers whisked by his chest. Flutters of water from her wading feet danced around his legs. She caught his eyes with her as she drifted closer, sliding her hands over his shoulders.
Addison pressed his palms flat against the natural wall behind him. Afraid to touch her. Afraid to lose control the way he was losing the reins of his breathing. And of the blood coursing through his body. Pounding in his ears.
The desire to kiss her was overwhelming. He knew she wanted him to. And God, he would. He would kiss her and cherish her and never let her go. That was precisely the problem. If he kissed her, he could never let her go. He could not do what she was asking him to do. To embrace this. Her. To learn with her. To teach her. To give her something he knew she desperately needed.
And then let it all go.
The thought of it paralyzed him. Made him breathless. Made his heart get stuck in his throat.
Her fingers trailed over the back of his neck to tickle the hair at his nape. “Mellie.” Her name was a breath.
Don’t do this. Don’t make me do this.
Suddenly her legs were parting and her thighs brushed against his as she wrapped them around his waist and pulled herself against him. Ah. God.
“I can’t kiss you, Mellie,” he burst out, almost frantically.
She froze. “Why not?”
Taking a long, difficult breath, he explained, “Because I cannot pretend that it wouldn’t mean something to me.”
“What makes you think it can’t mean something?”
“It would have to mean very little, if we’re to go our separate ways. I don’t know if I can promise you that.”
“You are a Duke, Addison.”
Somewhere along the way that had become a foul word. He imagined it made him feel similar to how Mellie felt when he’d told her she was beautiful. He ground his teeth together, felt a muscle ticking in his jaw.
“I don’t want to be!” He spat the words in anger. They came unbidden. Unexpected. He’d never thought them before, but they were the truth.
Mellie leaned closer, framing his face with her hands. Their desperate breaths mingled together in frosty, white clouds. They were so close when she whispered, “Then don’t be. Not with me.”
That was when he understood what she’d been asking. What she wanted. What he could give her. She wanted him to be just a man. Just himself. Addison Kent. Duke of nowhere. Duke of nothing. Not a Duke at all.
She wanted to feel this connection with him as badly as he did. With no expectations. No risks. Without losing her hard won freedom. To feel like there was something more than loneliness, beyond coercion, without ramifications.
It would probably tear him apart. But, yes. He could give her that. He wanted to give her that, more than he wanted to protect his own heart.
Addison closed his eyes and let the inevitability of it take over. He let his hands drift away from the wall, to spread over the velvety skin of her thighs, over her hips where he palmed her and brought her closer to him. A slow, wispy breath passed her lips. The sound of satisfaction.
Addison worked his hands over her elegant back. Threaded one into her snow white hair, frozen into winding tendrils from the icy air. The other to her lips, tracing them, silky and supple.
“Mellie,” he exhaled, leaned his head back and angled hers over his, shifting again to wrap his arms around her tighter. Closer. To feel her breasts against his chest.
He couldn’t help but draw out the moment before he kissed her. Never wanting this feeling to end. The anticipation. The yearning. The flutters and fireworks in his chest. The buzzing of his skin.
He searched for the perfect angle with little tilts of his head from side to side. The tips of their noses brushed past each other, circled. A nudge of tender affection. His lips parted. So did hers. Whispering against each other, their hot breath inside each others mouths.
His breath was no longer his own and his chest, as if seized by some other force, dragged in an urgent gulp of air. She hovered open mouthed over him, lips only just barely touching his. Her fingers gently pressing and caressing his neck.
Addison felt suspended in a moment of anticipation. It likely only lasted a second, but it felt like an eternity. Like he had been waiting his whole life for this kiss. He dangled on the edge of a precipice that he knew, instinctively, would become a division in his life: before he’d kissed Mellie Harlowe, and after.
He felt a little mad. It made him a little afraid. But it also caused a rush of satisfaction, and what he would later only be able to describe as the sweetest sense of relief he’d ever felt, to spread over him. Warmth and tenderness burst from his chest and flowed over his shoulders and down his arms, and made his entire body feel like it was brimming with emotion.
And then he fell right over that perilous edge. There was nothing he could do to stop it. Nothing he wanted to do, except let himself fall. Finally, he sighed into Mellie’s open mouth, sealed their lips together, and delved his tongue into her, in a deep, crushing kiss. He felt Mellie’s shoulder draw together and her grip tighten. A panting breath as she turned her mouth into his kiss. The silky touch of her tongue against his making him moan.
His chest felt like it opened wide. A gaping hole where his heart had been only seconds before. Waiting to receive something. To take something in and fill him back up. Her. Mellie. He wanted to pull her in. Devour her. To pour her into his soul.
He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her harder against him. They both gasped as their aroused bodies met again. Her softness burned across his skin like a wave of heat from the fire. And her fingers knotted into his hair, urging him closer.
Addison splayed his hands across her back, smoothed across the tight linen fabric of her shirt, then up again into her white, tangled mane to cup her head as he moved away from the edge of the pool, only to turn and shove Mellie up against it. He angled her mouth, kissed her harder, his tongue exploring her, learning her taste. Sweet and salty.
Dropping her head back, Mellie arched her neck towards him and he trailed his lips over her jaw, her ear, her collarbone. Licking, sucking, tasting.
Oh, he wanted more. So much more. He tightened his arms around her and lifted up, placed his knee over the edge of the pool, and hauled them both out of the water. Sheets of it poured off of them as he laid her down on the fur she’d spread nearby and came down on top of her, covering her with his full length. She felt small and delicate beneath him. Feminine. Wonderful.
He felt her hands digging into his back, the dip of his spine. Fingers biting, pressing, pulling him down. Harder against her. He ground his hips against her in response and deepened the kiss. Sliding his tongue across hers. Her lips. Her mouth.
Mellie wrapped her legs around his waist as he twisted a fistful of her hair with one hand. The other roaming down her back and waist, then to her neck and down again, grabbing and gripping through her wet shirt, caressing and reveling in the discovery of her incredible body.
He groaned. A guttural and fierce sound, tinged with a desperation he’d never felt before. He needed her closer. Pressed harder against him. He slipped his hand lower and under her bottom and lifted her, felt her softness cradle his hard cock. Only a thin scrap of linen between them.
“Ahh,” he moaned. Mellie.
Rocking against her, Addison soothed them both. Again and again, until they were writhing. Desperate. Aching. He wanted her. He needed her. He searched for the edge of her shirt, found it and wrapped it around his fingers, hiking it up over her hips, leaving nothing in the way.
Mellie slid against him, hot and wet, and God, he prayed. Prayed for her to slide onto his thick, throbbing cock. She was moaning and panting against him, rubbing her slick center over him and driving him absolutely wild. He was about to bury himself inside her, where he knew she’d be even hotter. Even wetter. Ready for him. Dying for him as he was dying for her. He was on the verge of making her his!
Oh, yes! Yes, little dove. Let me make love to you.
The thought startled him into awareness and he wrenched his mouth from hers and shoved himself into a kneeling position before he did something so dishonorable that he would never be able to live with himself. He could barely breathe. His chest heaved in ragged, sharp breaths of cold air that stung his lungs.
For a moment he shut his eyes against the view of her breathtaking body. But then forced them open them again, because he needed to see her. To know she was okay.
She matched this environment so perfectly. White skin. Blue eyes. A surface of ice and snow, and underneath, steaming, hot blooded passion. She was as breathless as he and her eyes were shimmering pools blue that beckoned him to return.
Grabbing the edge of her shirt, he tugged it back over her hips. Then he moved to her side, laid beside her, and pulled her against his chest. Behind him, Mellie grabbed her fur cloak and used it to cover them.
Neither of them spoke. They just breathed. And Addison felt like he was drowning. Falling into the bottomless depths of an underwater world where he knew would never be able to find his way out.