One of Addison’s earliest memories was of himself sitting before a fire, playing with his sister’s dolly, when an errant spark had floated out of the fireplace on a placid breeze. The ember caught his attention and he watched it dart past the mantle in a graceful swirl, then drift leisurely across the room. No one else had noticed it. He remembered imagining that it was a fairy. Something magical. Special. Meant only for him.
It was a sweet little thing. It glowed and dimmed and glowed again, a smokey orange jewel that beheld a mystery. Addison was certain it came to tell him a secret. So, he watched as it meandered down through the air to the plush carpet below, no more sinister than a weightless feather, captured by a gust of wind.
Just before it hit the floor, it lingered for a breath. Suspended itself in a moment between enchantment and catastrophe, before it settled into the woven fibers of the rug and burst into a minuscule flame.
He remembered his eyes lighting up, a grin spread across his face, as if he’d been given a gift. A split second of pure childhood delight that rapidly dissolved into panic. Before he’d even understood what was happening, the room was engulfed. His fathers hands grabbed him from beneath his arms and Addison was drawn backwards from the scene. There was shouting. Screaming and crying. He felt his fathers body pressed against his back, his grip almost painful, as he hauled his children outside and across the lawn, where they stood with his mother and their servants to watch the three-story country home burn.
From the outside, Addison couldn’t see what was happening. Not at first. Oh, Addison knew that there was a fire, but he didn’t understand why everyone was so terrified. Why no one was doing anything about it. The windows remained dark, the smoke hidden against the night sky. But eventually there came the sounds of furniture toppling. Of popping glass. Of wood creaking and beams splitting. Of an entire floor giving way and plummeting down onto the one beneath it. And still, there was hardly an indication from the outside that anything was wrong on the inside.
“Look, there.” Miss Abernathy, their governess, cried out, pointing to a window on the second floor. The sage colored draperies had come alive, curling up and shrinking into black, wicked smiles with red teeth that dripped from its hellborn mouth. Molten fangs stretched, landed on the sill, and morphed into the flames that eventually consumed it all.
It was then that Addison realized the fire had already eviscerated the inner depths of the structure. It had eaten away at the interior, ravaging it. Destroying it. Until the fire had no place to go but outside, where it would finally bring the rest down.
And it had all been his fault. He’d watched that ember with joy and wonder, believing it a piece of magic, never once imagining that it could mean devastation. Thankfully, no one had been hurt, and when he confessed his sin to his father, he’d been assured it wasn’t his doing.
But that hadn’t stopped the nightmares. Years of nightmares that had only dissipated over time. Nightmares that Addison was now sucked back into. Only this time, he wasn’t watching from afar. He was in the fire. Or rather, it was in him. Burning its way through his gut and chest, into his head and hands and legs and feet.
It was the fever. He’d gone through the agony of severing his fingers, only to be hit with it anyhow. It had seized him in the middle of the night and quickly spread through his body the same way the fire had spread through the depths of his childhood home. It was trapped by his skin, by the cold night air, by the cool, damp cloth that Mellie swathed over his neck and face. It had no where to go and it would eviscerate him from the inside, long before it had a chance to escape.
“Put the bloody fire out. You’re killing me,” he groaned.
“It’s already quite low,” Mellie said gently as she pulled a blanket away from him. Hours before, he’d moved from the bed to lie on the hard, cold stone floor, it being preferable to the warmth that clung to the bed. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was aware that the blanket had been the last barrier shielding his naked body. But any trace of modesty quickly evaporated along with the frigid water that Mellie continued to pour over his hot skin. The winter air that greeted him was only a momentary relief.
“Drag me outside. Please.” He begged her. He was hot enough to melt the leagues of snow between them and the nearest city. Maybe that would even his temperature. Maybe it would be enough to get him home.
He missed his home. He missed his mother. His sisters. Even his meddlesome brother. He was going to die and this was his last chance to get word to them, or they would never know what happened to him.
“Do you have something to write with?”
More water dripped over his neck and chest. “To write with?”
Was she addlebrained? “Yes! That’s what I said,” he used all his strength to shout at her, but the words came out sounding weak and pathetic. “Never mind. I forgot you were illiterate.”
A rush of water splashed over his face as the little hellcat wrung out the rag in irritation. It didn’t have the effect she’d been hoping for, though. Addison relished the feeling of it as much as he did her agitation. Damn, he loved to provoke her. He’d come to that realization before she’d suggested he let her chop his fingers off. After that, he’d hardly had the opportunity to enjoy it.
Mellie was impudent, mouthy…and genuine. Nobody had ever been genuine with him before. As if to prove his point, she threw the wet cloth onto his chest with a slap, “You remain an arse, even on the edge of death.”
Addison laughed, “Yes.”
That was another thing he was coming to respect about her. She didn’t debase herself by arguing her own defenses. She’d rather let him remain an arse than prove to him that she wasn’t illiterate, which Addison knew perfectly well she was not.
“Forgive me, but you haven’t any books. How am I to assume anything else?” He goaded, then waited in anticipation for her next move.
The cottage remained silent and in the blind stupor of his fever Addison thought perhaps she gotten up and left without him noticing. He peeked out from under a single lid and spied her leather clad knees and her hands resting on her thighs.
She was holding back, but if he was going to die tonight, he wanted to go out on a thorough tongue lashing from Mellie Harlowe, while she bathed his hot body with freshly melted snow. “Don’t start coddling me now, Miss Harlowe.”
“I have two books.”
“Oh, two whole books,” he jeered, then add sarcastically, “a library fit to rival that of Alexandria.”
“Perhaps you might better appreciate my sparse collection if I threw them at you one by one.”
There she was. His lips tilted into a feeble smile. “Aim for my head while you’re at it.”
Addison heard her get up, but kept his eyes closed. Her disembodied voice came from behind him, from the miscellaneous room where she disappeared to at times. “If you make it until morning, I’ll read them to you. You can spend your last day on Earth on intellectual pursuits and maintain the pretense of noble superiority until the bitter end.”
“What are they about?”
“Preserving meats and wound care.”
That conjured a disturbing visual. “I pray you speak of not one book, but two, and that you do not use them in concert.”
Mellie returned to his side with a giggle. “You genuinely believe me to be cracked, don’t you.”
Yes. One had to be to live as she did. He ignored the comment. “Why those books, when it seems you are well possessed of the knowledge within their pages?”
“They are rather large volumes. One is truly more about medicinals than wound care, though that is the section I use the most. And the other includes direction on other food preservations techniques, as well as plant identification. I use them both extensively. I have no one else to rely on and they are my only resource.”
“Sounds like you need more books.”
“There is no space for luxuries here. I only keep what is necessary.”
Addison let out an unexpectedly loud bark of laughter. “You mean to tell me all this clutter is necessary?”
“I’ve nothing here that is not essential,” Mellie contested, a caustic edge to her voice, “but I wouldn’t expect you to understand my provincial ways.”
“If I make it through this, maybe you’ll have the opportunity to educate me.” Beside him, he heard the tinny sound of water splatter against the bottom of a metal bowl. “Do me a favor. Skip the bowl and just douse me with it, will you?”
“You are too trusting of a mad woman. For all you know, I’ve boiled it. This is a torture chamber, after all.”
The cloth on his chest had grown warm. Addison drew it away, letting it tumble off his side to the floor. “Go ahead, then. Put me out of my misery.”
“I’d rather wait until you’re delirious, then read you alternating sections of my two books. Eventually I’ll convince you that I’ve tended to you all this time only to reward Duke with a fine dinner once you’re gone.”
Sick sense of humor, she had. “Why wait? Read to me now.” The thought of passing away to the sound her serene voice calmed him. He didn’t care if it meant listening to her recite passages about salted meats and pus filled wounds.
“My eyes do not allow me to read in this low light,” she said matter of factly, as if it were of no consequence at all. But Addison had not even considered that possibility and he felt like a bastard for forcing her into that admission.
Christ, he was thick headed. “I didn’t realize.”
“I am not ashamed of it, Addison.”
As well she shouldn’t be, but he felt a right old fool anyway. “After I am dead, feel free to wedge my foot fully into my mouth before you bury me.”
Mellie chuckled and pressed her wrinkly fingers to his forehead. “Your fever is strong, but you are only at the beginning of it, I’m afraid.”
Addison groaned, “How do you know that?”
“You’re still too coherent.”
Prying his eyes open, he found her through the dim light of the cottage. He hadn’t looked on her in hours, unable to bring himself to try beyond the one small peek he took only minutes earlier. But if this was going to get worse, if he was indeed headed for incoherence, he wanted to go there with the memory of her angelic features fresh in his mind. She was kneeling beside him, silhouetted against the low light of the hearth. Her hair was twisted up into two tight peaks atop her head, forming a valley where she’d parted it in the middle. So perfect and severe.
He wanted to curl his hand around her head and pull out the pins. Feel its silkiness spill over him. Feel the length of satin unfurl itself across his flesh. He wanted to caress her cheek and know its lustrous quality against his fingers. And to pull her down to press his lips against hers, pink and full and damp from the brush of her tongue.
He wanted to drown in her icy blue eyes, even as her cold stare chilled him and warned him that there was something untouchable about her. Something forbidden. It kept him from reaching for her, even as his fingers twitched for the want of it.
She was aloof and withdrawn. And at times, unbearably tender. Like right then. Addison had insulted her. Been an utter arse. Again. Not entirely unintentionally either. And there she was, testing his fevered skin and preparing to nurse him through the worst of it.
“You are beautiful,” he breathed.
Mellie withdrew her hands instantly, making him regret the unplanned compliment. He needed her hands on him. “It appears you’re not coherent, after all.”
Addison thought to argue with her, but she’d reminded him where he’d originally intended this conversation to go. “You must write a letter for me. Post it to my estate if I-,” he trailed off.
Mellie remained kneeling at his side and resumed her efforts to cool him. “What message do you wish to send?”
Water trickled over his shoulders and pooled beneath his neck. “You haven’t anything to write with.”
“I’ll remember. Where shall I send it?”
Either she believed he was in no danger of dying or she was possessed of a flawless memory. Addison didn’t know which. He preferred to believe the former, but in reality, it didn’t matter. A message could find its way to his estate well enough and he’d made preparations for the eventuality of his death with his solicitor long ago. “Darlington. London,” he explained simply.
“What do you want to say?”
His throat was tight and dry. “I don’t want my family to wonder what happened to me. Tell them it was quick and that I was at peace.” An image of his stepmother appeared in his mind, sitting beside his fathers lifeless body, not more than two years previous. His father had passed in his sleep and she’d told Addison that it had been a blessing that he hadn’t ended his life in pain. It was bad enough she and his siblings wouldn’t know what became of him until long after winter was over. If nothing else, he could at least give them that peace of mind.
Mellie squeezed another drizzle of water across his forehead. Droplets rolled soothingly into his hair and over his scalp. She soaked the rag in the bowl again, pulling it out sopping wet and carelessly flinging water across the floor before sloshing it over his chest. The room felt infinitely hotter than it had only a few moments before. “Your fever is worsening. I’ll do my best to keep you cool, but you won’t feel better until you sweat it out.”
“Then let me sweat,” he groaned in desperation, wishing the heat caged inside him would finally pour out of his skin. He prayed for that sticky sheen of perspiration. For the dampness that matted his hair against his body to be borne from within, instead of from Mellie’s outer ministrations.
“It will come regardless.”
She drenched him again, this time letting the cold water rush over his abdomen and stream past his cock and bollocks, down between his thighs. “Uhh,” Addison moaned. Not from any kind of sexual satisfaction. Merely from relief. Every part of his body burned from within. “Do it again,” he urged, his voice gruff and impatient. He was so far past embarrassment at this point, he would let her do anything to him, so long as it relieved his boiling blood.
Obeying, Mellie lifted the pitcher of frosty water and tilted it slightly, until it showered upon him, hitting the center of his chest and trailing down over his stomach, where his muscles spasmed in response. The liquid pooled into his naval, before following the path of dark curly hair to that thatch between his legs.
It was as erotic a sight as Addison had ever seen. His white lady pouring an endless flow of ice cold water from a battered and glistening pitcher over his cock, which jumped from the sensation of the unsettling temperature. At any other time, he’d be thick and hard, and burning for an entirely different reason. But there was no chance of that happening with ice water drowning his bollocks, the pool at the juncture of his thighs threatening to steam away from the intense heat of his skin. Amazing, he thought, that the water didn’t sizzle when it hit his flesh.
Addison stared at her. She was luminous in the dark, as if the whiteness of her skin soaked up every bit of light and reflected it back out to the world. He was dreaming, he was sure of it now. She glowed like that errant ember from the fire, and once again, like that child in him long ago, he watched her with wonder, and a measure of joy that astonished him. She was a gift to him at the end of his days. A final memory to match his first.
“How do you not understand?” The nonsensical question spilled from his lips in time with another splash of water.
“There’s the incoherence,” she mused.
A silent laugh racked his body. “Beautiful.” The single word was all he could muster, but it was enough. Pausing, Mellie settled the near empty pitcher on the floor.
She sifted her fingers through the hair at his temples and took a long breath, her breasts swelling beneath her tight linen shirt. Her glacial eyes ensnared his. “You mock me even as you die.” Her voice was chilly, hard and scathing.
No. Addison tried to shake his head but he felt so frail. Powerless to translate his thoughts into movement. His throat ached as he attempted to swallow the lump that had formed in the back of it.
Then he reached for her. At least that was what he wanted to do. He yearned to touch her, but he couldn’t get himself to move. All he could do was picture his thumb grazing that soft, plump bottom lip of hers. Quelling it’s trembling and making those frozen eyes melt into shimmering, liquid pools of blue.
Even as he watched her distance herself, she stroked his hair. Tangled her fingers in the black locks and rubbed his scalp until Addison felt his lids begin to drift closed. He fought it. Not wanting to give her up just yet. Clinging to the next moment. And the next after that. Fearing that his time in this world would be over and he’d leave her with the belief that he’d only meant to toy with her emotions.
She didn’t understand. He needed her to understand. That was suddenly more important than anything. More important than life. A smattering of something raw and tender flared in his breast. She was beautiful. She thought he meant her features. Her hair and eyes. Her high cheekbones and delicate chin…and he did. She was. But it was not her features that he’d been speaking of. It was more than that. More than he could put into words.
She was beautiful.
He reached for her. He couldn’t move. He drifted away, regretting that she would never know what he truly meant.