“Christ, Mellie!” Addison nearly jumped out of his skin.
Smirking, she asked. “What in God’s name are you wearing?”
Addison turned his palms up at his sides and spun around, showing off his costume. “You don’t like it?”
“It’s a little effeminate.”
He blanched. “I am covered in animal hides, what could possibly be more masculine than this?”
“Animal hides that weren’t cut to fit a woman half your size.”
Mellie watched as Addison looked himself over. “Yes. Well.” Each garment of hers that he’d chosen to wear looked diminutive on his large frame. He looked like a giant wearing children’s clothing. It suddenly made her very aware of his stature compared to hers. He dwarfed her. If he’d wanted to, he could hurt her. He could easily hold her down. Force her to do anything he wanted. And she’d be powerless to stop him.
But he hadn’t. He wouldn’t. In fact, Mellie couldn’t imagine him ever lifting a finger to someone in malice. She felt safe with him, even with him in near full health. And that was something that no noblemen, no man, no person, except her mother, had ever made her feel.
“You’re not going to start laughing at me again, are you?”
Addison raised a puzzled eyebrow.
Oh, right. That first night. How could she have forgotten? “I think I can manage to reign it in this time around.”
“Damn. I was looking forward to it,” he jested. “I have never seen anyone laugh so hard in all my life.”
A laugh bubbled out of her now. “Truly?” Mellie thought for sure he was joking with her, but when he shrugged, she realized he’d meant it. “What an unfortunate life you’ve led, Addison,” she added, inadvertently coming across as snide and sarcastic.
His expression hardened. “What need have I of laughter when my boundless riches provide all the companionship I could want?” Addison veered away from her and began heading back in the direction she’d come from.
Mellie reached his side easily. “I didn’t mean it that way, Addison.” Years of bitter resentment didn’t disappear overnight. But Addison was undeserving of it, and she felt a stab of guilt for her thoughtless comment. “Maybe we can find a way to laugh together,” she suggested.
An olive branch. Mellie did not want to be at war with him. She wanted them to have their moment and they couldn’t have it if he believed that she’d reverted back to viewing him as an enemy.
Pausing, Addison turned back. He looked down at her, his brow creased in thought, eyes swirling like the sun streaked sky. They fell to her lips, which were cold and dry. Mellie licked them. Warming them. Wetting them. His wintry breath materialized between them and faded away.
Fingers, hard and masculine, tugged at the edge of her sleeve, urging her to take a step forward and nearly press her body against his.
He was going to kiss her.
Yes, she thought. Please.
Those same strong fingers gripped the fabric of her coat and pulled again. Mellie obeyed. Closer. Touching.
Her heart began to pound in anticipation as the back of his hand worked its way up her arm in a long caress, over her neck and chin, to brush over her lips, for barely a second.
“I am not sure I could ever make you laugh, Mellie,” he confessed in a sibilate whisper and backed away.
The moment was gone. There would be no kiss. Pressure grew in Mellie’s chest. “Well, your outfit is a good start,” she mused, a smile slanted across her face, hoping to lighten the mood.
Addison continued to walk away from her. “You said together, not at each other.”
“You could try laughing at yourself. Then we would be laughing together.” He grumbled and walked on, so Mellie maneuvered herself in front of him, grabbing handfuls of the fur covering his chest and forcing him to look at her. “You think I am having fun with you, but I mean it, Addison. We are trapped together for the winter.” Here was her chance. “I think we should make the best of it.”
“By laughing at my ineptitude. Sounds like a hoot. You’ve got the right of it.”
He tried to jerk away, but she held firm and gentled her voice. He was a proud man, she’d come to understand that, and she had bruised his pride more than once. “By learning something from each other.”
Addison eyed her with consideration, taking a long measured breath. “And you think we should start with me learning how to laugh at myself?”
“I think you could take yourself a little less seriously, yes.” This wasn’t exactly where she had intended to take this. She had wanted something more…personal, than a trade of services. But she supposed it was as good a place to start as any. “That’s how this conversation started, but it could be anything. What do you want to learn? Surely there is something you could learn from me.”
He continued to stare down at her, looking more serious than ever. “Oh, little dove, that is not even up for debate,” he said finally. “There are scores of things you could teach me. I’ve no doubt about that.”
“But?” Mellie sensed there was more he wanted to say. Something else that was difficult for him to admit out loud.
His nostrils flared with another heavy breath. “Mellie, what could you possibly learn from me?”
The question made her chest feel tight and restricted. She recognized the uncertainty in his voice. He’d already said it, but she hadn’t truly been listening. Hadn’t digested the words and understood what he meant. Laughing at my ineptitude.
Addison was not inept. So, he was not a great woodsmen. He didn’t need to be. He was a Duke, and as such, she was certain he had many, many other skills. But Addison didn’t need to hear that right now. The problem was that he felt he had nothing to offer her.
Mellie lifted her hand to his face, ran her fingers over his growing beard, which made him look a little like a gallant caveman, and grazed his cheek with her thumb. She could swear he leaned into it. He was craving her touch, just as she craved his.
This was about more than learning from each other. It was about giving to one another. About offering a piece of themselves and getting part of someone else in return. Mellie ached for that. For a piece of Addison. For him to want a piece of her.
Looking into those flame colored eyes of his, Mellie saw a man as lost as she felt. He waited expectantly for her to say something. Losing hope by the second as she let him dangle there, believing that he had nothing of himself to give her. He was so wrong, but Mellie had no idea how to explain what she wanted. Not without it sounding like she sought only lust or that she was hoping for love, when what she wanted was very much in between.
Addison pulled her hand away from his face, but didn’t let go. He looked down at it, seeming overly concerned by the appearance of it. Mellie could feel the heat of his grip through both of their gloves. She wanted to feel his heat all over her body. “It’s okay, Mellie. I understand. My title, my riches, my lands, my influence, none of that has any value here.”
Closing her eyes, she shook her head. He didn’t understand. She was a coward. All the determination she’d mustered over the past two days wasn’t enough to get her to ask for what she really wanted. Mellie tilted her head into his shoulder, hiding her face in the fluffy fur wrap. “Oh, Addison,” she whispered brokenly.
His arms encircled her and tightened into a supportive hug. So giving. So willing to comfort her, even when cut down, when feeling judged and ineffectual. But Mellie knew he could be so much more.
Raising her head again, she figured out what she needed to do. “Do you trust me Addison?” Trust. Such a simple word. Such a complicated emotion.
Laughing, he brushed a hair away from her face. “With my life.”
“Then will you please go along with me on this. Will you embrace this time we have together and find something worthwhile in it?”
There was a flash of recognition in his eyes, followed by reluctance, if not outright unwillingness. “And when this is all over, what then?”
The impossible question. “We go our separate ways.” Oh, God. That hurt her to say more than she’d anticipated. The thought of it ripped something cold and sharp through her. Made her feel anxious and short of breath. “Hopefully the better for it,” she added after clearing her throat.
Addison seemed just as affected by those words as she did. He’d stopped breathing. Stopped moving. Then he grabbed the sides of her coat at the waist and pulled her against him, resting his forehead against hers. He hissed a breath of hot air that fanned across her face.
Slinking her hands up under the fur around his shoulders, Mellie wound them into the folds of his cloak and settled them on his chest. His breath was labored, his muscles strained and tight. Mellie felt like the world was spinning away from her.
“What are you really asking me?” The question came out rushed and desperate, and yet felt like a command. Pointed. Insistent.
If only she knew. She’d rationalized this. It had all made sense. But standing in his arms, feeling his reaction to her, feeling her own blood pounding in her ears as the urge to kiss him grew stronger, she felt crazed. As if her mind had found reason and then drifted far, far beyond it.
“Come with me.” She said, taking a step backwards, without relinquishing her hold on his cloak. When he remained still, she forced him into action with a yank. “Quick, before the sun sets.”
Once he’d stumbled after her a few steps, she noticed that he was walking with a limp. “Are you okay?”
“My thigh has been bothering me.”
“Where we’re going should actually help that. It’s only over a couple of hills. Ten minutes or so. Can you make it?” He nodded and caught her hand to hold it as they walked. She loved the feel of it. Of them being hand in hand. Side by side. Oh, she was doomed.
At Addison’s pace, it took more like twenty minutes, but once they crested the final hill, they were rewarded with the brilliant horizon. They could not have reached it at a more perfect moment. Mellie looked at Addison to gauge his reaction.
A more true expression of wonder and merriment, she had never seen. His face was bathed in a glowing light. A mix of golds and reds and whites that reminded Mellie of the warm hue of fire. His hair was blown back from a gust of wind rolling in off the hills, whipping up tendrils, and waving tufts of the fur about his shoulders. And his parted lips expelled plumes of crystallized air, that swirled around his face and faded into the heat of the setting sun.
She felt her heart do a somersault in her chest. This was what she wanted. To explore. To experience. To share a life, her life, with him. For as long as he was there.
“It’s like a painting,” he marveled.
“Describe it to me.”
He blinked in surprise, as if he’d forgotten. But then he remembered. “You can’t see it.”
She shook her head. “Not in the same way you can.”
Addison put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her into his warmth. He kissed the top of her head and whispered into her hair, “Tell me what you do see, so I know what to describe.”
“It’s bright. Dark at the top, almost purple, and fades like a rainbow into white towards the bottom.”
“Is that all?” Mellie nodded again, then relished the reassuring squeeze of his hand. “Most times the sky looks the way you described it. The colors gradually fade together. This sky is different. At least, for tonight.”
“What is different about it?”
“Have you ever seen a painting up close? The brush strokes, the long threads of color that only mix together at the very edges. That’s what this sky looks like. Swirls of pastel. Purple, as you said, but also blue and pink, orange and red, even a little green. And all of it is reflected on,” he paused, considering his words, “well, I have never seen anything like it. There are the most gorgeous collection of aquamarine colored pools down there. They are stunning.”
Taking a breath, Mellie closed her eyes and imagined it. “I wish I could see it.”
“I would describe the whole world to you, if I could.”
When Mellie opened her eyes again, he was staring at her with a warmth that matched the setting sun. Oh, he could turn her world upside down, she thought. If only the idiot fool would wrap his arms around her and make her melt into him with his lips and tongue and strong hands on her back.
Instead, he tucked her head into his neck and said, “I fail to see how this helps my leg, however.”
“The pools you mentioned are hot springs. Shall we check them out?”
“It is freezing out here.”
Nodding excitedly, Mellie grabbed his hand again and practically dragged him down a slope, towards another, more shallow one that led to the springs. “That is the best time to go in a hot spring. Sit.”
Although he seemed perplexed, he did as she said, remaining quiet until Mellie settled herself between his legs, grabbing his arms to wrap them around her waist.
“You are not…We are not!”
“Better not dig your feet into the ice, Addison, or you’ll risk breaking your leg.” With that, she gave the ground a shove and they began sliding down the hill. Addison gave a shout as their surroundings flew by them, trees and leaves and drifts of snow blurring into streaks as they whizzed past. Mellie felt Addison’s arms tighten around her and shockingly, he laughed, as they raced to the bottom of the valley and whirled around in a trio of circles, before coming to a halt.
“You are mad, my lady,” he bellowed into the nape of her neck. She felt his nose and his lips on her skin there, and they sent tingles down her spine. But she lunged out of his arms and pulled him into a standing position.
“Let’s make a fire.”
Addison watched her with great concentration as she went about preparing the area. He even helped as she stomped flat a large circle of snow near the edge of one of the pools, collected curling bark off trees and snapped off branches, until they had a large pile that Mellie knew would last many hours.
As she knelt down to light the fire, he squatted beside her, continuing to watch with great curiosity. “Won’t the snow melt and put the fire out?”
“It’ll melt, but the snow will absorb the melted water until it reaches the ground. That will take quite a while, but once it does, the bottom layer will become saturated while the top layer will continue to burn, so long as we’ve made the fire large enough by that time.”
Grabbing some of the pile they’d collected, Mellie began stacking up the fire. Addison, continuing to be helpful, assisted her, but she took the branches from his grasp and gestured towards the pool. “You get undressed.”
Mellie very nearly laughed at his alarmed expression. “You can’t very well go in with all your clothes on.”
“Mellie, it’s bloody ice cold out here,” he shivered.
Looking up at him, she enunciated, “That is why you are going into the hot spring.” He didn’t move. He only continued to stare at her like she’d grown four heads. “Would it make you more comfortable if I removed my spectacles?”
The corner of his mouth tilted into a sly smile. “That depends. Will you be joining me?”
Standing, Mellie tossed a final bundle of sticks onto the fire and walked over to him as she unhooked the button to her fur cloak and let it fall in her wake. Addison’s smile faltered a bit when she unclasped the broach holding his fur wrap together and threw it to the side. It wasn’t disappointment, but disbelief that made his lips draw into a thin line. She drew the fur over one of his shoulders into a bundle, then laid it out on the ground, at the edge of the water. “I wasn’t planning to let you have all the fun.”
With that comment, Addison tore off his clothes with an enthusiasm that Mellie didn’t know he possessed and jumped into the water. He swam to the other side of the pool and turned to face her. “I’m waiting.”