Mellie had spent the previous two days sending Duke out on small hunts, directing him to investigate her traps, and hopefully return with food. In truth, it wasn’t the food she’d been praying for, but evidence that the snow had melted or compacted enough to allow passage for the giant dog. She needed help, and fast, and the only thing she could think of was to send Duke into Bern with a note and a prayer.
Duke had made it back from his jaunts several times, securing Mellie with a cache of squirrels, hares, and a small fox. It was enough, she thought, that she could let him attempt the journey. But it was a hail Mary. It would take days for him to reach the city and longer for anyone to return, if it were even possible, which she suspected it was not. And in the meantime, Addison was withering away before her eyes.
In the end, Mellie had to try, even is the result was failure. She would never forgive herself for not trying. So, she sat herself down to write a note to her mother’s childhood friend, Leona Farve, who resided in Bern.
You will find this difficult to believe, but near a fortnight ago, I quite literally stumbled upon an unconscious man in the snow. He has told me he is an English Duke. The Duke of Darlington, to be precise. He was headed to Bern with a fellow by the name of Mister Swan when he had an accident and suffered multiple injuries.
His Grace is in urgent need of a doctor, as he has taken to fever and I fear he may not survive much longer. I understand the remote nature of my cottage may prevent such help from arriving in time, but I beg of you to do whatever you can to aid him. If not a doctor, then please return Duke with remedies, laudanum, and a set of warm clothing. Mister Farve’s size should do. His Grace will, of course, recompense you for your efforts.
I cannot stress enough that it is imperative that you act as quickly as possible.
Once you have sent Duke back to me, I would also ask that you please look into the whereabouts of Mister Swan. His Grace has no memory of his accident and is worried for his safety. I will be in touch again to see what you may have discovered, as well as with direction to contact His Grace’s estate and appraise them of the situation.
Folding the note, Mellie stuffed it inside the pocket of Duke’s pack, feeling inexplicably nervous about sending him off. Leona and Mellie had an arrangement and this would not be the first time Duke had gone to her on his own. In fact, he’d been trained for just this sort of task, so Mellie knew he could make it there and back easily. But there had never been so much on the line and she couldn’t help but worry that all of this might still end in failure.
She tussled the soft fur on Duke’s head and kissed it, rubbing him behind the ears, then drew the beast in for a hug. “Zie brav, Duke. Zie brav.” She praised him. “You be careful now. Rest when you can, alright? Don’t forget to eat. And no side adventures this time. You hear me? It’s important that you reach Leona as quickly as possible.”
Duke whined an objection and wiggled away from her to pad at the door. Mellie grabbed his snout, turned his head back around to face her, and threatened in her most severe voice, “If you come back with a chicken again, you will be in big trouble, Mister. No bones for a month. Do you understand?”
He responded with a slow, menacing growl. A terrifying sound to anyone else, but Mellie knew he was all bark and no bite. He didn’t like having his bones taken away and all he was doing was making that clear. Mellie let go of his muzzle and repeated, enunciating each word, “Do you understand?” Duke barked and scratched at the door again, eager to run free. Giving him one last pat, Mellie opened the door with a command. “Such, Leona. Schnell!” He raced out the door and vanished into the woods.
Mellie watched after him, wanting to call him back. Because deep down she knew that Addison would either survive or he would die long before Duke would return.
Incoherent had been a terribly inadequate word to describe the decline of Addison’s mental state as he struggled through the fever. Incoherence had merely been where he’d started. And he quickly passed through the incoherent stage and lapsed into sheer confusion, followed by a most disconcerting level of lethargy, and ultimately slid into comatose. At least, he was as near to comatose as Mellie believed one could get without being considered dead.
It had been three days since she’d sent Duke for help, and Addison had been lingering in this state, which Mellie feared would be his final one, since dawn of the previous day. The only traces of life in his unmoving body were the faint breaths that miraculously kept him tethered to this side of existence.
During her time in the Great Saint Bernard Pass hospice, Mellie had nursed many people through fevers, and she’d never encountered one like this hadn’t ended in death. The fever remained trapped within him, working its way through his muscles and organs, unable to break free. His skin was hot and dry, reminding her of a stone warmed in the hearth, and how the heat clung to it long after it had been pulled away from the fire.
The only thing left to do for him was to try and make him comfortable. And pray that by some miracle, Duke would made it back with a doctor or a healing remedy sent by the gods.
The days passed slowly, in long interminable stretches of silence. During the daylight hours Mellie had read through her book on medicinals with the hope of discovering some cure that she’d missed before. And when she couldn’t stand the quiet any longer, she read to Addison as he’d requested, praying he would unleash one of his derogatory quips, presumably about the mundanity of endeavors such as cooking, which Mellie was absolutely certain he’d never once done for himself in his life.
“Oh, here is one you’ll like, Addison. It’s a recipe for haggis-pudding. It starts with the head of a sheep, boiled until the face meat shreds off. Of course, It doesn’t actually use the term ‘face meat’, but I thought you’d enjoy the visual. It also mentions removing the kernels. What do you suppose they mean by ‘kernels’?”
She spied him laying motionless over the edge of the book. He hadn’t stirred in ages.
“Then it calls for eggs, sugar, and some other spices. Nutmeg and rose water. I never cared for rose water. I don’t understand why anyone would want to eat perfume.” Mellie flipped the page.
“It says here that the spices and rose water help to cover up the slight fecal aroma. And there’s some cream mixed in, too. Mmmm. Boiled sheep’s head and cream and the delightful scent of feces. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”
No response. Mellie closed the book and put it aside with a forlorn sigh. It was hard to laugh when bile was rising into her throat. And not because of the recipe, but because keeping him alive had, at some point, moved past being a matter of human decency and become a matter of personal necessity. Because for some incomprehensible reason, Mellie had found herself feeling quite attached to him. To his presence in her home. By her side.
It had been ten days since she’d rescued him and she was quite aware that he’d been lucid for only a few of them. But somehow, in that short window of time, he’d left his impression on this place and somewhere inside her heart. Arrogant, belligerent arse that he was, Mellie thought that maybe, through all of this, Addison had become her friend, and she hadn’t had a friend in a very long time.
In fact, when she thought on it more closely, she wasn’t sure she’d ever had a true friend in all her life.
She did not want to see him die, and that he was alarmingly close to doing just that, weighed on her. A deep feeling of despair pressed down on her, rooting her to the ground with a heaviness that drained her strength and her hope. It prevented her from moving away from his side for fear that she would look away and miss that final moment with him, and risk abandoning him to die alone, without having her there to hold his hand, and help him into the dark.
She’d made herself busy by repeatedly tending to his wounds, which were hardly wounds anymore. His remaining fingers and toes had mostly returned to normal. And the injury to his thigh was healing nicely, having proven to be the least of his problems. The irony was not lost on her. Mellie had gotten him through the worst, only fail at the very end, after there was nothing left to heal.
His hands were finally free of their dressings and as she sat there in her throne chair, which had permanently taken up residence directly beside the bed, Mellie kept finding herself absently staring at the one closest to her. She kept thinking about those final moments before his fever had tossed him into oblivion. When he’d called her beautiful and his eyes had fixated on her as if he were lost in a joyous fantasy. She hadn’t needed her spectacles to feel the intensity of his gaze.
Nobody had ever looked at her like that. It had made her feel like she was floating away on a cloud. And as those brief seconds ticked by, she’d ached for him to touch her. She’d wanted to feel his caress so badly that she could have sworn she’d seen his hand move, almost imperceptibly, towards her. Heat had spilled over her neck and shoulders in anticipation. But she understood now that it had all been in her imagination. A delusion, no doubt borne from years of solitude.
Knowing that did not stop her from continuing to stare at his hand, waiting for it to move again. Hoping for it to move towards her, for real. To burn a trail of sensation across her skin wherever he chose to touch it. Nobody had touched her in so, so long.
Guilt twisted around inside chest, making her lungs feel strangled. Half the reason she wanted him to live was just to see if maybe, just maybe he would break the spell. Release her from whatever curse had been put upon her. She wanted to know if he would be willing to put his hands on her. And if he would do it all on his own, simply because he wanted to.
And if not, perhaps she could ask it of him as a favor to her. As payment for all she had done for him. Just a caress. A brush of his fingers. On her hand. On her cheek. Her lips. Wherever he wanted.
That was not too much to ask, Mellie thought. For it wasn’t as if it would be foreign to him. She’d touched him plenty of times now and he would be used to it. Yet, she knew it wasn’t at all the same. Because it would feel different if he touched her, she was sure of it.
But Addison was likely going to die and she would never know what it would be like to feel his hands on her. And after he was gone, more years would pass. Decades would whisk away. Possibly her whole life. Gone. Without ever feeling the comfort of another souls’ body next to hers.
And so Mellie could not take her eyes off of his hand. She felt the beginnings of a tightness form in her chest, in her neck, in the back of her throat. Behind her eyes. As understanding dawned. That up until this point in her life she’d been bloody fine. Content to live out the rest of her days exactly the way she had been doing for years. Independent. Self-reliant. Free.
But now everything was different. She was no longer so sure of her path. Part of her had begun to feel reclusive and isolated. Lost. And desperate for a connection. This connection. With this man. With Addison. Who would leave her, either through death or life, she wasn’t sure which, but one way or another he would leave. He would leave Mellie behind, and she’d have no choice but to face her future with an entirely new understanding of what it meant to be alone.
Tentatively, Mellie slipped her hand into his and brought it to her cheek. She closed her eyes and turned her face into his palm, pressing it against her. He smelled of leather and linen. And a little bit of sweat. She recalled the scent of herbs and citrus from the day she’d found him. A fragrance that her mind would forever associate with Addison.
Perhaps it was the longing, or the exhaustion, or the overwhelming emotions stirred up over the past ten days that caused it. Maybe it was the despair, the failure. Or it could have been the man himself. Whatever it was, it forced a shattered breath to abruptly rip through her and a sudden torrent of hot tears to spill down her cheeks.
Perhaps it was all of it culminating into this one heart wrenching moment. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. She just let the tears come, all the while gripping Addison’s hand to her face, wishing he would wake up and pull her against him, and whisper soft, reassuring words in her ear.