His eyes were boring into the back of her head. They had been ever since their argument the other day. To say things had been strained would be a massive understatement. They’d been at each others throats, with snippy comments here and snide ones there, if they even spoke at all.
Every time she looked at him, Addison was already staring at her, and it didn’t matter how uncomfortable it made things, he refused to divert his eyes. Mellie had the distinct feeling that his blood simmered at a low boil and he was perilously close to letting it bubble over. He wasn’t alone on that matter.
To make matters worse, Duke still hadn’t returned and Addison hadn’t even noticed that the dog was gone in the first place. Either that, or he simply didn’t care. If Duke was hurt, and she gave up her one companion in an effort to save him, she would kill the Duke of Darlington with her bare hands. She didn’t care how much effort she’d put into brining him back from he brink of death.
She had started to soften to him, but now she saw that his opinion of himself was even more elevated than she’d first predicted. And his opinion of her was exactly as low as she’d known it would be. Of course, he’d never hid that fact. But he had never been as clear about it as the other day.
We all have our place in this world.
His work in my stables doesn’t even begin to cover the expense.
There is something to be said for lifting oneself out of the gutter.
No doubt he viewed himself as a golden child with golden blood. Worthy of reverence, for nothing more than being born! As if that were some sort of triumph.
He thought he was better than Mister Swan. That the boy’s only hope in this life was to find his own way out of the gutter, all while remaining indebted to His Grace, who stood on his back in his polished boots.
With such appreciation for Mister Swan, Mellie couldn’t help but wonder what he must he think of her? Low-born. Female. With no man to guide her or to recommend her. She had no unfathomable dowry. She did not even have a desirable womb. No one would ever wish to marry her, let alone breed with her. Because her skin was too white, her eyes too strange and damaged. Who would ever want her child when nobody even wanted her?
Addison would never want her.
That single, unbidden thought prompted a current of bitter despair to circulate through her body and lodge itself in a lump at the base of her throat.
Mellie wasn’t even sure why that mattered. He was smug and pretentious. He’d been nothing but a burden and damn unappreciative, too. He reminded her of all the reason’s she’d left London.
Addison sulked moodily, in her throne chair, having refused to rest in bed or sit on the stool, which he claimed would collapse beneath him. Good, she thought. I hope it does. But then he’d dragged her throne in front of the fire with a mug of whiskey and hadn’t budged since. Although she grudgingly had to admit that he did offer to help with cooking and other chores, not that he had the faintest clue what he was doing.
“When do you think I can finally get the hell out of here?”
The question was unnecessarily antagonistic, and to Mellie, it felt unnaturally brutal. Every time he mentioned leaving, she lost another small piece of her soul. This place that he loathed so much, was her home. The only place she had ever felt at peace. And he tainted it with each insult. More than that, he’d awoken a part of her that would miss his presence here, and for that she hated him even more.
“You are free to leave whenever you wish, Your Grace.”
“You know what I mean,” he grumbled and knocked back the rest of his whiskey.
Mellie slid the stool that Addison refused to sit on up in front of the fire to warm her hands. The night held a stronger chill than normal and it was proving difficult to keep her cottage warm, even with a large fire burning. She thought of Duke and prayed he’d found some place warm to huddle up for the night. “When Duke comes back, I’ll have a better idea of whether the trails are passable to Bern or not.”
Addison looked around, as if he was only now noticing that the dog was not there. “You say that as if the dog can speak.”
“Don’t be a nitwit. I sent him to Bern with a note in hopes of bringing a doctor to help you through your fever.”
Mellie glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He was nothing more than a distorted arrangement of shapes that vaguely resembled a human being. That was an apt description of him, she thought. He was only a vague resemblance of person. Barely fit to be called one, with the minuscule amount of compassion he managed to muster for another.
At least he sounded somewhat contrite when he spoke again. “I hadn’t realized you’d done that.”
“He’s been gone for days. It didn’t occur to you that I’d sent him somewhere?”
Addison pushed himself up to sit rigidly in his chair. “How was I to know you sent him away? He’s a dog. I thought he came and went as he pleased.”
“Because dog’s are known for their excellent decision making abilities.”
He leaned into his hand and massaged his temples in frustration. “I would rather not fight with you, Mellie.”
Mellie knew she was being unfair, but she didn’t want to give him an inch. “Then perhaps you could stop being so self-absorbed, Your Grace.”
Those amber eyes of his were burning a hole in the side of her face again. She knew it, even before he sighed her name. It came out on a nearly silent breath and Mellie had to swallow back an urge to dissolve into tears, which only made her feel more defensive. She was not the crying sort, but Addison had thrown her off her equilibrium.
“Tell me why you’ve stopped calling me Addison, after all the fuss you made about it.” For all the fuss he’d made about it, he sounded unjustifiably disappointed.
Mellie didn’t want to answer him. She didn’t want to acknowledge out loud how he’d made her feel. How much it affected her, or that there was a small part of her that agreed with him. They were not equal and they never would be.
“Why do you constantly stare at me? Perhaps we should talk about that.” Mellie asked the question with the intention of changing the subject. But she’d be lying to herself if she didn’t acknowledge that it was the very foundation of all her insecurities. It bothered her that he never mentioned her white skin. That he deftly avoided it as if it were something to be ashamed of. Better not to speak of that which is appalling.
His hands tightened their grip on the arm of the chair. Perfect. She wanted to make him uncomfortable. “I think you know why.”
“Just ask the question, then.”
She noticed him tilt his head to the side. “What question?” His voice was controlled, careful.
“Whether I was born this way or not.”
“I’d assumed you were,” he pointed out.
Mellie turned towards him, expecting a stricken expression to be plastered across his face. But he was sitting utterly still and he wasn’t distressed at all. On the contrary, he reminded her of the wolf she had hunted down the week before. A predator that understood he’d been mistaken for prey. The corner of his mouth turned up in a roguish smile, making her pulse quicken.
“Don’t you want to know why I was born like this?” She asked, coming to her feet, for she suddenly felt cornered.
Addison leisurely stretched his legs out before him, crossing one ankle over the other. “Do you even know the answer to that, Mellie?”
Of course she didn’t. But that had never stopped anyone from asking her that before.
“Besides, that is not the question I would ask you to answer,” he added.
Mellie felt his unyielding gaze on her like the warmth of the sun. She’d set something inside of him on fire and he was preparing to unleash it on her. She didn’t ask him what the question was. Instead, she let silence fill up the great void that had been forming between them.
Standing, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey off the mantle and pulled the cork out. An airy pop broke through the quiet, followed by the liquid sound of drink being slowly poured into his mug.
He swirled the cup around with his three-fingered hand and lifted it to his mouth to take a shallow sip, which he let linger on his tongue before swallowing.
Mellie had the urge scrambled for a pair of spectacles, because she wanted to fill her mind with exactly how he looked right then. Even a blur, he was all at once an entirely different Addison. Tall and broad, and possessed of a strength Mellie hadn’t even realized he’d had. His wavy black hair was brushed and gleaming, tied back in a queue and away from his face. And several days worth of stubble made him look rough and rugged.
This was how he always was, she realized. When he was uninjured and in command of a room. Surrounded by the opulence of his estates, dressed in his exquisitely embroidered, jewel toned coats, and an elegantly tied cravat framing his face, he would not appear to be a dandy, as Mellie had originally presumed. No. He was powerful and virile and…all male. Her mouth went dry.
Placing his cup on the mantle, Addison turned towards her. It only took a couple of steps for him to cross the distance of the cottage to stand before her.
In a low, dark voice that emanated from someplace deep inside him, he finally revealed his question. “I want to know why you hide here in the shadows of these mountains. I want to know what you’re so afraid of. What made you run so far away from the rest of the world, to this place where no one could ever touch you?”
Mellie’s breath caught in her chest. He couldn’t have hit his target more dead on if she’d been wearing a bullseye directly over her heart.
She was hiding.
She was scared.
She had made it impossible for anything, anyone, to touch her.
You could touch me, she thought. Please touch me, she prayed.
Only, she had never intended for it to become this literal. She had wanted to stop hurting. To stop being vulnerable. She came here because if she was going to feel alone, she wanted to be alone. And it had worked fine, until now.
Are you not afraid of anything?
Addison had asked her that once. And she realized that he’d gone from believing she was fearless to seeing her as a coward. She’d told him she conquered her fears by facing them. That she didn’t like to let anything beat her.
All this time she told herself that living as she did was a challenge, that by leaving England she was freeing herself, proving that she didn’t need anyone. And maybe much of that was true. But part of it had also been a lie.
She did need someone. And as each day crept by, it was becoming more and more clear, that the someone she needed was Addison.
There was not even a little part of him that thought Mellie would answer him. Although she had told him that she turned fears into challenges, he knew she’d meant the physical kind. Emotional fears were completely foreign to her and he didn’t believe she would be willing to admit to them.
So when she crossed her arms protectively over her chest and lifted her chin in defiance, Addison was prepared to push her further. “Come on, Mellie. You’ve been keen make me acknowledge every one of my inadequacies since we first exchanged words. Will you hold yourself to the same standard or will you turn out to be a hypocrite?”
She shifted her eyes and for a split second he would have sworn he saw a flash of red. She was ready to blow. Mellie pushed past him, away from where he’d cornered her, and went to stand in the middle of the cottage.
“Side pork,” she said, her voice more even than he would have expected.
“It’s the white fatty part of a pig.”
“I know what it is,” he responded slowly, unsure where she was going with it.
Mellie stared over her shoulder into the fire. He could see the reflection of the flames in her eyes. “Blafards. That was another one. Do you know what that is?”
Very carefully, he said, “I can’t say that I do.”
“It is the result of crossbreeding a human and an ape. At least, according to some people. The result is a child that does not resemble their parents. Evidence of their sexual disorder.”
Addison felt a chill run up his spine.
“Perhaps cockroach is more familiar to you. I’ve been called that, too. Because I scurry around in the dark, having to avoid the sun. You see, it burns me, which I have been told is a punishment for the sin of simply being born.”
Christ. This was not where he’d intended to push her. But how could he have known? “Mellie.”
She rounded on him. “You don’t get to unask the question.”
Addison didn’t want to take back the question. He’d asked it and the least he could do was let her answer. Difficult as it might be to hear, he understood that it paled in comparison to what these words had done to her. “I am listening, Mellie.”
She turned away from him again, as if it hurt her too much to look at him and say what she needed to say. As if she was afraid of what she might see in his eyes. “Dundus was another one. It means ghost person. A body without a soul. I suppose that must be what you think of me.”
“God! No, Mellie.” Addison reached for her, wanting to grab her and hold her and make her forget it all. But she yanked her arm away, his fingers only managing to skim a bit of her sleeve.
Mellie stared at his hand. Swallowing repeatedly. Chin trembling. Holding back pools of tears that were swallowing her bewitching eyes. The sight tore his heart apart. Addison had never regretted anything as much as he regretted forcing her to open this wound.
“I don’t want you to touch me,” she whispered brokenly.
She was killing him. He curled his fingers away from her, forcing his hand back to his side, even though his body rebelled that very action.
“Nobody has touched me for a very long time.”
Addison wanted to reply, to console her. To tell her he was dying to hold her and if she let him he would never stop. But his voice was trapped in his throat and all he could do was listen.
“Trust me when I say that you don’t want to know the whole story, Addison. All you need to understand as that there have only ever been two kinds of people in my life. One set of them make up the vast majority. They’re the ones who believed I was a soulless cockroach, deserving to be shunned and scorned. Do you want to know who the others were?”
No, he didn’t think he did want to know because he knew he was going to hate the answer.
“Noblemen.” Mellie spat the word out with such vehemence that he felt it like a punch to the gut. “They thought I was beautiful.”
Because she was. But somehow they had turned that into an ugly word. And because of that, Addison finally understood, that he had unwittingly been ugly to her, too.
“They thought they were above me and that their place in society meant they were free to touch me however they wanted.”
Addison felt bile rising up in the back of his throat. Along with fury for what had been done to her. By people he considered his peers. It made him sick.
“They tried to set me up in mansions and buy me with jewels. And because I was a commoner, they expected me to thank them for it. To lay down and spread my legs for them.” Her voice was shaking. Her body vibrated with indignation. “And if I said no-.”
Addison did not want to hear the rest. He was dreading it. It was tearing him apart. And he wanted to tear them apart! To cut off their hands and their bloody cocks and make them regret ever laying a finger on Mellie Harlowe.
He had the terrible urge to turn away then. But he would not turn away from her. Not now, not ever.
“I was condemned. Blackballed. Forced out of work and branded a whore. Tell me, Your Grace, is that a good enough reason to run away and hide in the mountains?”
Your Grace. For the first time, he heard it exactly how Mellie did. Privileged. Autocratic. Repressive. Tyrannical. He understood why she hated it and suddenly, he hated it too.
He opened his mouth to say something and felt his lips move without forming words. It took effort to get his voice to work, but eventually he uttered, “Forgive me, Mellie. I had no idea.”
Turning away from him again, she rubbed her hands over her face. She grabbed his discarded whiskey from the mantle and tossed it back like it was water. “I know.” Mellie said the words so quietly, that he wasn’t certain she had spoken at all. Then she looked at him over her shoulder with a watery smile. Even with her emotions ravaging her, she took his breath away. “You have never treated me like that, Addison.”
He exhaled a heavy breath. Relief flooded through him. He didn’t think he could handle it, if he had inadvertently hurt her that way. “Mellie, I never would.”
Again, she turned her back to him. She walked over to the shelf beside the bed and toyed with a pair of spectacles. If she hadn’t asked him not to touch her, he’d have already gathered her into his arms.
“Believe it or not, before I left London I had become even more reclusive than I am now. Coming here freed me. But you are right to accuse me of hiding. Though, perhaps not for the reasons you’d think.”
Addison couldn’t help himself. He stepped closer to her, wanting so badly to comfort her. She could see him in the reflection of a miscellaneous contraption on a shelf and she didn’t ask him to stop, so he kept moving closer as she continued to talk.
“I remember the last time someone touched me. The occasion is quite clear in my memory.”
“Tell me, Mellie,” he urged when she paused. He took another step towards her while he waited for her go on.
“I was at the market. A little girl had dropped something near my feet, so I crouched down to pick it up for her. At first, she didn’t want to take it back because she was afraid of me. I can’t tell you how much that hurt. To know that a small child saw me as something to fear.”
Addison’s heart twisted.
“But her mother nudged her forward, telling her it was OK. And when she took her toy back, I purposely nudged my hand into hers. Just so I could feel something. Someone. Another persons skin on mine.
“Then she reached out and touched my cheek.” Mellie absently lifter her hand to touch her cheek in the same place. The gesture, so innocent, so wistful, nearly made Addison sob out loud. “I cannot forget that moment, Addison. I don’t even know how long it had been before that or who had been the last person to dare lay a hand on me. But ever since that little girl touched my cheek, I have counted the days, wondering when the next time will be and what the final total will amount to.”
Addison took a final step towards her, closing the space between them to scant inches.
“That was why I left,” she explained. “Because out here I can pretend that the only reason it has been so long is because there is nobody else around.”
He leaned closer and whispered in her ear, “How long has it been?”
“Four years, two months, and twenty-six days.”
Addisons heart squeezed so hard it made his chest burn. He stared at her profile, at her dainty ear, at the graceful slope of her long white neck, and found the idea of it to be incomprehensible. How anyone could not want to touch her, when it was all he’d wanted to do since the first moment he’d seen her.
He stretched his fingers towards that smooth expanse of white skin and hesitated. Not because he was afraid of her. But because he was afraid that if he touched her now, he would never be able to stop.
But four years, two months, and twenty-six days was far too long for anyone to go without another persons touch. And it was four year, two months, and twenty-six days longer than Mellie Harlowe deserved.
He would not make her wait one more day, not one more second, to feel like a person again. And his gut told him, that even though she’d said otherwise, in truth, it was what she wanted him to do.
So, he trailed his fingers down the side of her long, elegant neck and felt his heart nearly shatter when she gasped in surprise.
Her whole body trembled as he flattened his palm and ran his hand over her shoulder, down her arm, and all the way to her hand, where he threaded his fingers between hers.
She did not resist when he moved their clasped hands around her waist and pulled her body against his. She melted into him, leaned her head back against his shoulder with a sigh so full he could only label it as relief.
He wrapped his other arm around her, closed his eyes, and held her tightly to him. He could not speak. He could only breathe, and he could barely do that. Because every inch of his skin had come alive with sensation. A fuzziness that crashed over him in waves. A strange mixture of hot and cold. And a burning desire that lit him up from the inside like lightening in a storm.
He tightened his grip on her hand, afraid he was crushing her, but she did not complain, and he didn’t think he could let go of her anyhow. He nuzzled his nose in the hair at the crown of her head. She smelled like winter. Like ice and snow. The way the outdoors clung to a person and permeated the air when they came in from the cold.
Addison wanted so much in that moment. He wanted to press his lips to her temple, her face, her neck, her shoulder. He wanted to turn her around and take her mouth in a long, tender kiss. He wanted to run his hands all over her flesh and make her forget time and space and everyone who had ever made her feel alone. But most of all, he wanted to warm her blood with passion and acceptance and kindness, and all the things she’s never known.
And maybe, if she would let him, maybe with so much more. Because in that moment, alone together in her tiny cottage, days from civilization, Addison realized he’d found the only woman with whom he’d ever wanted to fall in love. And lord help him, because he was going to let himself fall.