“I hope you are satisfied with yourself.” Every blister on his right hand was broken.
“Fuck,” he hissed as she separated a piece of linen that had adhered itself to the tip of his thumb.
Until this moment, feelings of sympathy for Earl had plagued her. The level of pain he’d been in must have been excruciating and she’d found herself thinking on it near constantly. Somehow, even as she slept. But his foul and ungracious attitude had all but obliterated that.
It was only for a small amount of lingering compassion that she kept herself from ripping the bandages off without care. Mellie patted her hand around behind her, searching for the pile of spectacles on the shelf beside the bed. Her fingers tangled around the arm of one pair and pulled. Several other pairs fell to the floor. Followed by another and another, until an avalanche of glass and metal tumbled rapidly after them. Most of them clanked. One of them cracked and Mellie prayed it wasn’t a good pair.
She shoved the pair she’d grabbed onto her face without looking up. It was clear that removing the bandage was going to be delicate work and Earl would struggle through it.
In truth, these blisters had been destined to pop. The linen must have become stuck before he recklessly abused all of his limbs. Mellie wasn’t feeling very charitable though, so she didn’t tell him that. Had he listened to her, she might have been able to soak his hands and removed the cloth that way. As it was now, it was going to hurt and there was nothing should could do to prevent it.
Perhaps, she reconsidered in light of that realization, offering him some semblance of comfort was in order. “I suppose you can’t be blamed for this.”
Earl scoffed, “The generosity of your words is astounding.”
Foul tempered as he might be, Mellie still worked gently on an injured finger. She would simply choose not speak, in hopes he would keep his own mouth shut. She successfully eased away some fabric and breathed a sigh of relief. But half an hour and several dozen swear words later, she realized it was no use. She was going to have to leave some of it behind and hope it fell off on its own, rather than imbed itself into his skin, causing an infection.
Mellie abandoned that hand for the other, which had thankfully passed the blistering stage. However, the momentary relief was short lived. As she was about to turn away, she noticed the discoloration on his two smallest fingers. The tips had turned a pale gray-green color. She squeezed them. They were no longer soft and fleshy. Gangrene.
Mellie looked absently at the door to the cottage, as if a doctor might appear if she willed one to. But no one was coming. She swallowed a lump of fear in her throat, knowing what this could lead to.
“What the devil is it?”
Earl startled her back into motion. She stood up and headed for the bottle of whiskey. “There is nothing more I can do, right now,” she said, not wanting to give him more to worry about. For now she would just wait and watch.
On the bed, Earl visibly sagged with relief. “Good. Now wrap up my hand and stop needling me.”
She thrust a cup full of whisky towards his lips, unable to fully meet his eyes. “Drink up. I still need to clean your hand, and you are not going to enjoy it.” He had her all balled up with contradictory emotions. Every word that came out of his mouth made her want to drag him back to the side of the road where she found him and leave him to fend for himself. While at the same time, she wanted to show him kindness in the face of such suffering.
Thankfully, he took the whiskey without argument, but gulped it down as if he needed it to calm him. Afterwards, she held his hand over a bowl and poured more of the whiskey over his open wounds.
He shouted again, “Christ. Fuck!” He tried to jerk his hand away, but she held his arm in place until she was done cleaning it. When she was finished dressing his hands, he started his horses arse of a mouth again. “My first impression was right. This is a torture chamber.”
“I beg your pardon?” Mellie was across the room already, but his comment stopped her in her tracks. From that far away he was hardly more than a fuzzy blob, but he had an air about him. He was lounging in her bed like a prince, as if the very notion of having an injury were somehow beneath him, and that her ministrations were nothing more than an insult.
Not that she should be surprised. She’d dealt with nobility before and they had always believed the world should bow at their feet. And this one…he hadn’t even deigned to offer her his name.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, this place…” Earl, as his name would forever be, because she refused to ask it of him now, waved his arm around, “Well, it is not at all comforting.”
“If you don’t like it, you are welcome to find another bed elsewhere,” she offered, a calmness in her voice that belied her growing agitation.
“As we have already been over, that is not possible.”
“I suppose you are in rather a pickle, then,” she bit out, this time her anger inadvertently coming through.
Earl quieted at that, seeming to ponder the situation. When he finally responded, the harshness of his words eased. “Indeed, it seems we are stuck together.”
Nodding, Mellie turned away from him and deposited her supplies on the table, then rinsed her hands off in a nearby bowl of water. “I have opened my home to you. So long as you are here, I would thank you not to disparage it, or me for that matter.”
Again, he remained silent until she finished drying her hands and returned to the room to toss several logs onto the fire.
When she looked at him again, she realized he’d been waiting for her to face him before he spoke, so he could say what he needed to say directly to her. “Please accept my apologies.” Although he’d included the word please at the beginning of that sentence, he’d still managed to impart those words as a command.
Luckily for him, she wasn’t in the mood to argue. “Very well. I understand you are in a great deal of pain. So, I shall endeavor to look past your behavior.” She paused dramatically, looking at him pointedly from her position by the hearth, then added, “This time. Next time, I’ll throw you out on your arse.”
Mellie noticed his jaw tighten almost imperceptibly, before he muttered through clenched teeth, “How shall I ever thank you for your hospitality?”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “You are undoubtedly frightened by the situation you have found yourself in, so I will forgive your obvious contempt. But you are on thin ice.”
Very slowly, he said, “I am not frightened.”
“No? Then I invite you to explain yourself.”
“You had it right the first time, I am in a great deal of pain.”
That admission doused the rage that had been building inside her. The way he had ground out the words indicated he’d found it nearly as painful as his injuries to even acknowledge such a thing.
Taking a much needed breath, Mellie rubbed her hands over her thighs, attempting to steady herself. This man needed comfort, not confrontation. She needed to be more patient with him. More forgiving. For the time being, anyhow.
Removing her spectacles, she placed them on the hearth and rubbed her weary eyes. It had been days since she’d had a good night’s sleep. All because of this man, with whom she was doomed to suffer alongside for the foreseeable future. If they were going to get through this, she would need to maintain the peace.
Mellie reminded herself that this was not the first time she had cared for the sick or injured. She’d always had a flair for making someone feel at ease. Been able to understand where their minds were, even when they refused to peal them. She needed to use those skills now.
Moving to the bedside, sat down beside him and gently rested her hand on his forearm. He stiffened, but he did not pull away. A wonder, because the corded muscles in his arm twitched as if her touch had burned.
For the past four days he’d been laying lifeless in her bed. Mellie wasn’t so hard of sight that she couldn’t tell that he was a large man, but that fact became far more apparent now that he was sitting up. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a man as large as he before. His broad shoulders nearly spanned the entire width of her small bed. The size of him seemed incongruous with the delicate coat he’d been wearing when she’d found him.
And she couldn’t help but notice the inviting smattering of hair on his chest. She thought it might be soft, but couldn’t see well enough to be sure. Perhaps it was course and prickly.
Mellie returned her focus to his forearm, and began to draw soothing patterns on his skin, hoping the light touch would provide something to focus on other than the pain. He let her. In fact, he seemed mesmerized by the movements of her fingers.
“Go ahead and yell, then,” she said softly.
Earl shifted his gaze away from her fingers to look at her, but her attention was fixed on the pale skin of his inner arm. When he spoke, his voice was raspy. “What?”
Finally, she turned her eyes to his, finding the blurry darkness on his face that she knew were his lashes and eyebrows. “I give you leave berate me. Do your damndest to shock me with your most wicked insults and aspersions. If it will in someway take away your pain, then I will forgive it.”
Never in his life had anything stunned Addison into silence. But at that moment, two things at once had done exactly that.
The first was what she had said. It was cunningly compassionate. In fewer than a handful of sentences she had both empathized with him and asserted that his behavior was indefensible. He’d never before been so deftly cut down.
The second was her eyes. She’d avoided making eye contact with him so thoroughly that he couldn’t help but notice how purposeful her evasion was and wonder why. And the few times she had failed, her spectacles had obscured what was behind them. He’d just about begun to believe that her eyes must be as white as the rest of her.
They were the lightest shade of blue he had ever seen. So light he could almost see right through them. Like a colored pane of glass. Her irises floated like broken off patches of ice above a glossy lake of pale, pale pink. On anyone else, he might have been fooled into believing that they’d been crying. But he doubted she was a woman who ever succumbed to tears.
Her eyes were so simultaneously beautiful and strange that it left him feeling unsettled, as if he’d been seen by some mythical, etherial being.
Between those extraordinary eyes and the delightful figures she continued to draw on his arm, he was enraptured. Her touch sent tiny pleasures across his body and dulled his aches and pains.
He’d given her no reason to offer him comfort, and yet here she was, soothing his frayed nerves with the silken pads of her fingers. He wondered how they could possibly be so soft when they were clearly so well used.
Eventually she dragged her eyes away from his, back to where her hand was working some sort of magic on his body and mind. “Does this feel better?”
Christ, do not ask me that, he thought. There was not a chance he would be able to answer without groaning. Instead, he offered something else. “I am afraid I have given you the wrong impression of me.”
“Is that so?” She slowed the pace of her trailing fingers.
Please don’t stop.
His silent prayer didn’t work. She stilled and glanced back up at him.
“I am not at all the kind of man who berates others,” he continued. “Though I would not blame you if you found that difficult to believe.”
“As you said, you are in pain.”
Shaking his head, Addison sighed. While he’d spoken the truth, he was not one to berate others, he also was not one to readily admit his weaknesses. Nevertheless, he decided to approach this as a peace offering, because even though he barely knew this woman, he was certain that Mellie deserved better than he’d been giving her.
So, he confessed the truth, loath as he was to do it. “No, that was a lie.” Nearly invisible eyebrows arched skeptically above those incredible eyes. “I am in pain, yes. However, that is not the reason for my behavior.”
On his arm, he felt her featherlight fingers resume their tracery. Addison wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and focus on the sensation, but he forced himself to keep speaking. “I am,” he paused, not entirely ready to confess such a thing out loud, then quickly took the plunge. “I am frightened.”
To his surprise, Mellie did not smirk or appear to be even a little bit smug about his proclamation. “That was not easy for you, was it?” She asked in a voice so gentle he had the urge to unburden himself of all his sins.
Why stop there? “I do not understand how it is that I am here, as I cannot entirely recall what happened.” Addison thought she would explain some of it to him then, but she remained silent. “I was traveling with someone, a young man from my estate, and I have no idea whether he is dead or alive.”
It had taken him longer to get his bearings than he would like to admit, and even once he’d remembered that he was supposed to be on his way to Germany, he’d still not immediately worried about his friend, Mister Emmet Swan. And once he had, guilt, raw and deep, began to eat away at his insides. How could he forget that they had been traveling together? As the number of days that had passed settled in, fear came along with it.
Understanding eventually dawned. Emmet was likely dead. Buried somewhere in a snowy grave. He swallowed back a wave of emotion. He’d been afraid to ask, so he’d lashed out at her instead. Mellie was a miscellaneous target, for he did not know her. He’d momentarily allowed himself to ignore that she was still a person, only so he could be angry at someone other than himself. He supposed he should be thankful that she set him to rights so quickly. Otherwise he might have continued.
Again, Mellie failed to offer him any insights and Addison wondered if it was purposeful, because her silence made him want to fill the void. It pulled things from him that he wouldn’t otherwise say. Somehow, she knew this.
He asked, “You know nothing of his whereabouts?”
She gave him a wistful smile. “I do not. If it eases your mind, you might like to know that you were alone. If your companion had been anywhere within smelling distance, we would have found him.”
We. On the other side of the hearth, in another part of the small cottage, he saw a fluffy white and brown tail curled around the corner. “The dog?” He tried to remember its name. Had she told him?
Mellie nodded. “He found you. Tracked you down instead of a stag we’d been hunting all day.”
Addison cinched his brows together. “You mean to tell me I was rescued by a dog?”
He pondered that for a moment, unsure whether that made him feel better or worse. If Emmet wasn’t there, perhaps he’d made it to Bern. But that opened up a world of other questions that he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the answers to. One thing he was sure about though, was that Emmet would not leave him for dead, unless he’d had a very good reason.
Earl. The dog’s name suddenly came to him. He remembered her calling it while he was lost in his nightmares.
“What is his name?”
“His name?” At first he thought she was asking about the dog. “Oh,” he stammered, “My friend’s name is Mister Swan.”
“You call your friend Mister Swan?” She asked incredulously.
“That is his name.”
Her fingers paused while she considered what to say next. Whatever it was, he had the distinct impression she didn’t want to ask it, but she eventually did. “And what is your name?”
The question surprised him. He’d assumed she already knew his name, but now that he thought on it, how could she? “I am the Duke of Darlington. You may call me Your Grace.”
Mellie froze. Her eyes widened and she withdrew her hand. The place where it had rested, where her fingers had so expertly calmed him, suddenly felt cold. He noticed that her hands curled into small fists as she stood and walked a few paces away from him.
Something about those little hands all balled up tugged at his heart. Ordinarily he took great pride in announcing his title, but her reaction made him regret it immediately. He’d taken for granted that she knew this about him, no matter that they were far from England and he should hardly have expected that. Perhaps her own English accent had fooled him.
He’d also presumed that her manner towards him would be unaffected. On the contrary, he’d made her uncomfortable and probably embarrassed her, too. It was unseemly for her to behave with such familiarity towards him and now she must be realizing her mistake.
Of all the unexpected things to happen that day, what happened next was the greatest. Mellie pressed a hand to her abdomen and doubled over in fit of laughter, as if he’d said the most absurd thing she’d ever heard.
She had tried so hard not to laugh. Sincerely, she had. She had gotten up and turned away from him in an effort to hide her face, which she knew was about to contort and give away her thoughts.
What a ridiculous man!
Clamping her hand over her mouth, she tilted her head toward the far side of the cottage, and tried desperately to stifle her giggles. But the more she tried the more she failed and they were coming now from deep in her belly. Great chortles wracked her shoulders and her sides convulsed until they hurt.
One of her hands flailed around, looking for something to steady herself with and it eventually latched on the back of her throne chair, just as she sighed, “Oh.” The single word was all she could manage as she tried to reign in her hysterics.
The poor man had opened up to her and now she was laughing so hard that he must think she was mad. And if not that, then he was most definitely offended.
The thought sobered her a little. She hadn’t meant to humiliate him.
Mellie pressed her lips together, fighting back another bubble of laughter. She knew her face would be bright red and there was no way she could look at him yet, so she stood stock still, waiting for the little hiccups to subside.
From behind her, His Grace finally spoke. “Would you care to explain what it is you find so humorous?” His question was justified, but his voice was so stern that her guffaws returned with full force all over again.
It was hopeless. Mellie stopped hiding her face, sat down in her chair, and just let the laughs roll right through her until tears trailed down her face.
Her arm hung haphazardly over the arm of her chair, attracting the attention of the other Duke in the room. Her pup nuzzled her fingers and licked the back of her hand. “Oh, Duke.” She patted his head. “I knew he was a nobleman, but a Duke? And he wants to be called Your Grace. Can you believe that?”
Mellie waved her hand around in a grand gesture. “Here. Of all places,” she said, her voice thick with amusement.
She didn’t need her spectacles to feel His Grace glaring at her across the room. Mellie knew she was being rude and she felt bad about it. Sort of bad, anyway. But of all the preposterous things to suggest!
“While I appreciate what you have done for me,” he interjected between another round of her chortles, “it is not a reason to forgo the proper formalities.”
“You cannot be serious.”
“On the contrary, I am quite serious.” He struggled to push himself up in the bed, adjusting is back into a ramrod position. “Only my dearest friends call me Duke and seeing as how we do not know each other at all, referring to me that way is entirely inappropriate.”
Mellie gaped at him and then she burst out laughing yet again. “For heaven’s sake, I have seen your twiddle-diddles.” If she had been right about her face turning red before, his undoubtedly out did hers now. The blush swept over him, fast and furious, from his collar bones all the way up to the very edge of his hairline. She couldn’t make out his features, but that color was unmistakable.
“Even more reason for you to address me properly,” he snapped.
Pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, Mellie made a final attempt to collect herself.
He waited her out, only speaking again after several long minutes. “I suppose given the…situation, I might be willing to let you refer to me as My Lord.” Mellie snorted, but managed to remain quiet as he quickly added, “But it will not do for you to keep calling me Duke, or anything else for that matter.”
“I have not been calling you Duke,” she squeaked out.
He was becoming agitated again. “Indeed you have. Do not attempt to deny it.”
“I have not been calling you ‘Duke’,” Mellie gestured at the dog. “I have been calling him ‘Duke’.”
“Why would you call the dog ‘Duke’?”
Christ, he didn’t get it. But the truth of it had just hit Mellie and she was back to laughing. “Because that is his name!” She clutched her side as a muscle spasm seized her. “Ah, I cannot take it. What are the odds?”
His Grace did not find any of it humorous at all. “I thought your dog’s name was Earl.”
That did it. She got up and stumbled towards the door of the cottage. “No, that is what I have been calling you.” Mellie fled outside into the frigid cold. As soon as the heavy door closed behind her she dissolved into even more hysterics. He’d still be able to hear her inside, but she didn’t care. She needed to remove herself from the situation or she would never be able to stop laughing.