Outside, Addison found himself still feeling weak and shaky. He wanted to blame his illness, his injuries. But in truth, he wanted to swoon, ridiculous as he realized that was. Her eyes. The way she looked at him. The way she made him feel. She could bring him to his knees if she wanted to.
Mellie had followed him outside and he looked at her now, kneeling on the ground carefully arranging bundles of wood inside a circle of stones. He liked her. More than liked her. He’d started to feel a connection with her that went far beyond attraction. If they were in London and she were a debutante, he would court her and he would enjoy the challenge.
As it was, he stayed away from ballrooms because he couldn’t even look at a woman without the ton whispering about him. If he smiled at a girl, they said he was smitten. If he danced with her, they said he would soon be betrothed. And when neither of those things happened, they called him a rake and accused him of breaking hearts. Never mind that every piece of gossip was fabricated. Every love affair the misapprehension of a besotted maiden. No, that was not entirely fair. They were the delusions of their overbearing mothers.
It wasn’t that Addison wasn’t avoiding marriage. As a Duke, he couldn’t afford to do that, nor did he want to. But he would not marry out of obligation. Without affection. He would not marry without love.
The trouble was, nobody saw him as anything outside of his title. He knew that. He lived it. He even bought into it himself. He was his title. He was a Duke. There was nothing else, no other way it could be. Even Mellie, for all her preaching that he was more, was incapable of seeing beyond it.
Granted, he hadn’t helped that situation at the beginning of all of this. If only he’d understood then, what he’d come to understand now, after such a short time in her presence.
Addison carefully bent himself down to sit on the remnants of a tree stump that someone, Mellie he assumed, had carved into a chair. The crisp outdoor air was working wonders on his tired body and he felt the first strains of revival weaving its way through his muscles.
He leaned back, watching Mellie expertly set those neatly ordered bundles of wood afire. The sight made him feel exactly like that spoiled Duke she supposed him to be. A man sitting on his arse while his woman slaved away to light him a fire.
It didn’t matter that she wasn’t his woman. Or that his hands were still in no shape to actually assist her.
“Gloves,” Addison muttered under his breath, looking at his rough and beaten hands.
“A pair of gloves nearly killed me.” That was the truth of it, he realized now. It hadn’t been the mysterious injury to his thigh, the fall from his horse that he could only barely remember, or even getting stranded in the middle of a blizzard. It had been a pair of gloves. “I gave my gloves to Mister Swan. That’s why I wasn’t wearing any.”
“Why did you give them to him?” Mellie asked as she threw a heavy fur over his shoulders. The weight of it nearly made him double over, so he shrugged it off. “Please. You’re not well enough,” she chided. “I’m afraid you’ll catch a chill.” The last thing he needed was to be wrapped up in fur that kept more heat clinging to his body. It made him feel like he was stuffed into a balmy summer ballroom with a too tight cravat around his neck.
“Sod off, Mellie. I’ll put the damn fur on if I feel cold.” He hadn’t intended to sound unappreciative, but right then, he was craving the brisk weather after being trapped in that cramped cottage for what felt an eternity. That, and he needed the space between them.
“Very well,” she relented and returned to the task of roasting up a couple of squirrels. Addison’s stomach churned. He’d never been so hungry in his life, but the thought of sucking squirrel meat off a bone did little for his appetite. He looked away and absently toed around a rock with the tip of his boot.
Mellie glance at him over her shoulder. “So, Mister Swan…why did he need your gloves?”
Right, he hadn’t answered her. His mind was easily distractible, as he was still thinking about kissing her. “He hadn’t a pair of his own. Mister Swan is,” or was, he thought sadly, “young. Only seventeen years of age. He’s a stable boy from my estate. We were traveling together to Germany for an important meeting, but somewhere along the way I noticed he’d been hiding his hands beneath his cloak to keep them from freezing. When I realized he had no gloves, I gave him my own. Unfortunately, I had only the one pair.”
“I admit, it has been a while since I’ve been amongst the elite, but I don’t recall them regularly attending important meeting with stable boy’s.” Crouched down by the fire, Mellie was draped head to toe in thick gray and white garments made from wool and fur. She’d pulled a large hood over her face, the brim of which cast a shadow over most of it. She was back to wearing those strange emerald spectacles, which he’d noticed she only put on when spending time outdoors. With all those layers, he could barely make out her expression, but her furrowed eyebrows revealed a level of skepticism that her measured words would have hidden more effectively had she not been looking it him.
“They don’t,” Addison agreed. “I was providing the backing of my name to him. He’d been corresponding with a couple of gentlemen in Germany who were on the cusp of a scientific breakthrough. Mister Swan believed he could put the final pieces together for them. So, I made the introductions and agreed to journey with him for a meeting. I was afraid they would take advantage of his naiveté and pass off his ideas as their own.”
“What sort of scientific discovery?”
“The boy has quite an interest in the study of electricity, in particular, that of electrostatics. He believes he’s discovered a way to accumulate and preserve an electric charge, which, in large enough quantities, could be discharged at will.”
“That is…” Mellie’s mouth opened and closed several times.
“I think the word you are looking for is incredible. I certainly thought it was.”
“Indeed.” She lowered herself onto the ground and stretched her legs out in front of her. “I’m not sure whether I am more impressed by the discovery or that you are telling me a stable boy is educated enough to be the one to figure it out.”
Addison smiled, remembering when Mister Swan’s Mum had come to confess that the boy, who was only fourteen at the time, had been sneaking volumes out of Addison’s library without permission. Instead of being angry, as she’d expected Addison to be, he’d been impressed that the boy could read the book he’d borrowed. “He has a brilliant mind and a rare capacity for learning, he explained. “I made an arrangement with his mother. A trade of services. A tutor for his aid in my stables.”
An expression of total shock overtook Mellie’s face. The level of incredulity pricked Addison’s pride well and deep. “What?” He snapped. “You find it that difficult to believe that I can be a charitable man?”
She huffed, “I would hardly call a trade of services charitable.”
“The fee for a good tutor is far beyond the means of Mister Swan’s mother. His work in my stables doesn’t even begin cover the expense.” He didn’t bother mentioning that Mister Swan was still paid a fair wage for his time.
“Am I supposed to applaud you for that? It may be beyond their means, but for you that amount of money probably equates to less than you throw as scraps to beggars on the street. And I suspect that terribly generous.” Mellie pushed herself to her feet and walked around to the other side of the fire.
The audacity of her! Addison ground his teeth together. “That is not the point.”
“Of course it is!” Mellie hissed as she poked the fire with a stick, sending a flurry of sparks into the air. “You could provide that for him without asking for anything in return. But that would be too great of a risk, wouldn’t it? Better to ensure that those who are beneath you remain beneath you. Isn’t that right?” She flung the stick she’d been jabbing into the fire to the ground and stalked away from him.
Rage erupted inside of him, giving him strength where moments ago he had been struggling to find it. Addison went after her, tugging his loose trousers tight around his waist so they wouldn’t fall to his ankles. “No!” he bit out, reaching for her elbow to pull her around, then stopping himself for fear of grabbing her too hard in anger. “You are twisting this into something that it’s not because your opinion is colored by whatever happened to you back in England.”
It was a guess, a stab in the dark. But everything he knew about her, every jibe she’d made towards him about his title, the way she simultaneously refused to acknowledge it, yet refused to forget about it, the way she’d laughed at him…all of it told him that her animosity for for the aristocracy went deep. Far deeper than a silly notion of injustice over the circumstances of their births.
She spun around then and came back at him with astounding speed. “And what the hell would you know of it, Your Grace?” She sneered.
The fury in her eyes halted him. Shocked him. Addison could hardly have believed her capable of such anger. A storm had been brewing inside her for…he didn’t know how long. But he knew it had been so long that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him. Still, he’d completely missed the hostility roiling within her.
But as much as he wanted to diffuse the situation, he felt unfairly judged and he wasn’t about to let that slide. “You’ve made your contempt for my title perfectly clear. It is clear to me that it stems from your time in England.”
“You’re right. It was caused by people like you, who expect to be bowed to and exalted,” she exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air for dramatic effect, “for doing the bare minimum to help someone other than themselves.”
“I was not looking for a damn pat on the back, Mellie. But there is something to be said for lifting oneself out of the gutter.”
Addison recognized his error immediately. That had been the wrong choice of words. She was coming at him then, her face was fierce and furious, and he found himself backing away, practically stumbling over his own feet. “That is all we are to you, isn’t it? Gutter trash.”
“I did not say that,” he argued.
“You implied it.”
Mellie placed her palms flat on his chest and shoved him. Addison balled his fists to keep himself from thrashing her. He couldn’t help but notice that they were getting closer and closer to the fire burning behind him and the last thing he needed were more burns.
Addison tried to calm his voice and explain what he meant. “We all have our place in this world, Mellie. I help where I can but it is not my responsibility to fix every one else’s problems.”
“If you feel that way, then why help anyone it at all?”
“Because I am not the callous, unfeeling, blackguard you believe me to be!” He thundered, holding his ground, unwilling to retreat even one step further.
He heard his own voice echo through the vast sky. Mellie finally stopped pushing him, stopped moving entirely. But her chest heaved with heavy, heated breaths, and her eyes remained locked with his for several more beats before she wrenched them away.
Neither of them spoke again, both nearly shaking with anger, as endless minutes ticked by. Addison thought frantically for the right words, but he was unable to find them. Afraid that anything he said would only come out wrong. Worse, he was afraid that there was nothing he could say that would make any difference to her at all.
He found himself grappling with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as he came to terms with what she evidently thought of him. He knew her opinion of him wasn’t high, but the blatant truth of it hurt. Surely, he had been a bit of a toff. More than a bit, he admitted. But so much of what she’d said was unfounded, and, he knew, was based purely on the fact that he was titled.
Being a Duke had never presented as a disadvantage before and no one had ever looked down on him for it. Or had they? He had to acknowledge that he could no longer depend on that notion.
Addison turned back to the fire. Another minute or so and the squirrels would be overcooked so he removed them and set them down on a nearby plate.
Mellie knelt down beside him and began tearing meat off the bones of one of the Squirrels. Following her lead, her grabbed the other to do the same. “Go sit down. You still need your rest,” her voice was soft, but still tinged with animosity.
“I assure you, I’m in no danger of popping off from this.” Butchering a squirrel would hardly be the end of him. It was simply holding on to the critter that presented the biggest challenge. His left hand was still swollen, and the loss of his fingers made everything he was accustomed to doing feel awkward and clumsy. Never before had he noticed how much he’d used his ring and pinky fingers.
“Addison, don’t pretend to be something you’re not. It is not as if you will be here forever.” Mellie said, twisting the knife even deeper.
His hands stilled. He clenched his jaw to keep from saying something that would only exacerbate the situation. Addison didn’t understand why, but her opinion of him mattered. It mattered far more than it should. With each barb or her tongue he felt lowered. And with every jab, he realized that he would never live up to her standards. He shouldn’t care. It shouldn’t matter.
But it did matter.
When he looked at her, all he wanted was to see approval in her eyes. Instead he saw recrimination. Antipathy. At times, he saw pity. And behind it all, he saw what he thought might be loneliness, and that, more than anything else, absolutely killed him. It caused a raw and tender feeling to set itself up right over his heart. It made him want to free her from this distant, hidden realm that she’d relegated herself to for some unexplainable reason. It made him want to save her. And it made him feel irrational and idiotic and foolish, because the last person in this world who would ever need saving was Mellie Harlowe.
Addison put his dinner back down on the plate. He cleared his throat, preparing to use a morsel of his past as a peace offering. “When I was a boy I had a pet squirrel,” he explained, hoping to impart the reason his stomach revolted at the idea of eating one for dinner.
He could tell she was pretending not to listen or not to care, but he noticed a quick dart of her eyes towards him and then away again, so he continued. “His name was Sir.” Addison chuckled at the memory. “I saved up my allowance and paid a silversmith to fashion a silly jeweled collar and chain so I could bring him around with me on a leash and not have to worry about him escaping.”
Addison thought he’d started off somewhere positive, but as he told the story, he began see that childhood memory in a different light. Through Mellie’s perspective, which he thought might be one of empathy for the captive animal. Too late he realized that he’d likely gone in the wrong direction.
If he was in for a penny, he was in for a pound. “I used to let him loose in my sisters rooms and scare the bejesus out of them.”
“What a little tosser you were,” Mellie snickered.
“I was a bit of a mischief maker, I suppose,” he agreed. “I’d like to think I’ve more than made up for it as their elder brother. I rather adore them now.”
“No doubt you spoil them with shiny baubles and ballgowns.” She argued, as if that would make him a terrible person.
“Do I seem like the spoiling type to you?” He didn’t consider it spoiling, when society would judge them harshly if he’d failed to do exactly that.
Mellie finally lifted her dubious eyes to his. “If you tell me you don’t shower them with jewels and dresses, you will only prove to me that you are a liar.”
Addison felt that comment like a physical blow and he reared back away from her. “I was not aware you thought me a liar to begin with,” he said bitterly. “What I don’t understand is how outfitting them as expected by society is a bad thing in your eyes.”
“It fails to teach them how to be self-reliant.”
“They don’t need to be self-reliant, Mellie.” They are sister’s to a Duke, for God’s sake! Thankfully, he’d wised up enough not to say that last bit out loud.
“Maybe they want to be. Has that ever occurred to you?”
This was pointless. He was trying to mend things but all he’d succeeded in doing was making the division between them wider and more indisputable than ever.
He leaned towards her, so close she had to crane her neck to look up at him. He was done with this. Done with her judgements. Done with her assumptions and accusations. Done with feeling sorry for her and for stupidly aching to touch her and kiss her and…and so much more.
“I am not going to apologize for the advantages I have had. I am not going to apologize for wanting to see my sisters’ faces light up with joy. Or for setting them up with dowries worth unfathomable amounts of money.
“I wouldn’t apologize to you or any one, Mellie, for anything I have done for my family. And I sure as hell am not going to apologize for giving a young boy like Mister Swan an opportunity to receive an education he otherwise never would have had.”
Addison struggled to his feet and backed away from her, fuming. Wishing he was anywhere but there. Wishing he had never fallen into Mellie Harlowe’s path, with her gorgeous white hair, and glacial eyes and frozen heart. With her hypocritical condescension, and her ability run him through with her words and make him question everything he thought he knew about himself.
“If those things make me a vile human being in your eyes, then you’ll be pleased to know that I plan to leave you and this God forsaken place as soon I bloody well can.”