Two days. It had been two days since Mellie bolted from her cottage and left him stranded on the side of a Suisse mountain. Two days to twist in the wind and think about how everything the other morning had gone absolutely wrong.
Over the past forty-eight hours, he’d examined every piece of “necessary” equipment adorning her walls at least twenty separate times, and had deemed precisely none of them to be necessary. He’d learned things about meat preservation that he’d never wanted to know. And he’d experimented with her meager ingredients, inspired by the bewildering recipes from one of her two books, and had successfully made paste at least eleven different times.
Between it all, he’d spent countless hours analyzing that last morning and he was now on to analyzing it some more.
He was going stir crazy. Rapidly descending into interminable boredom. The four walls of her cottage were closing in on him and if he didn’t get out of doors and find something to do, he was going to go absolutely mad.
On his first exploration around the small interior of Mellie’s cottage after she left, Addison had discovered a closet in the back corner that he hadn’t noticed before. It was hiding off to the side of the hearth, partially obscured by the pile of furs next to the door. So far, he’d been scrupulously avoiding it, not wanting to invade Mellie’s privacy. But if he was going outdoors, he needed warmer clothes, and perhaps, he could shrug into one of her jackets or find a hat.
And some gloves. Because if he went out without gloves, Mellie might just decide to cut both of his hands off as a preventative measure.
Shoving aside the garments blocking the door, Addison tugged it open and was surprised to find his own cloak and coat right in the front. He’d spent short periods outside since he’d started to feel better, but without going further than the nearby sitting area and fire pit, he had only bothered to throw a fur over his shoulders.
He took them out of the closet to look them over, but was immediately distracted by the sight of something incredible. A gown. He had no notion that Mellie would even own one. She seemed to rebel at the very idea of anything feminine, with the exception of whatever skin regimen she held, for her skin was quite possibly the most delectably feminine thing he’d ever had the pleasure to touch.
The gown was not a fancy one. The brown and starchy material reminded him of the style of dress that a maid at his estate would wear. Scratchy and abrasive. Entirely wrong for a woman with skin as soft as Mellie’s.
The sight of it made him wonder if she had been someone’s servant girl. After what she had told him, he couldn’t imagine her having a prominent place in anybody’s household. If anything, she’d probably been a chambermaid. His hand clutched around the fabric in anger. The thought of her being relegated to cleaning up another person’s piss and shit repulsed him. And the fact that she had done that very thing for him, was not lost on Addison either.
“Never again,” he vowed.
He wanted to vow that he’d never again make anyone clean up after him in that way, but he knew that once he went back to England, he would not be able to keep that promise. Mellie, though, he could keep a promise to her.
Addison shoved the dress into the recesses of the closet, wanting to get it out of his sight. The action caused several other garments to move out of the way, revealing more marvelous wonders. Stays. Two leather, and one, perhaps cotton, that was perfectly white and heavily boned. The image it conjured in his mind, of Mellie wearing nothing but those stays, made his blood surge. He reached for it, but yanked his fingers back before making contact, feeling like a lecher for wanting to know the texture of it. For wishing to bring the fabric to his nose and find out if it smelled like Mellie.
God. He was in trouble.
He’d never desired a woman the way that he desired her. And he’d already let that desire take control of him and frighten Mellie away.
After she had fled the other day, he’d stared at the closed door in disbelief for several long minutes, feeling like his heart had plummeted right out of the bottom of his stomach. Mellie had bolted out the door so quickly that he’d only barely begun to process what was happening while she was packing her things to go.
But he didn’t need time to understand that he had made a grave mistake. He could hear the anxiety in her voice. See the panic in her eyes. And worse, he could see the doubt. Her doubt in him. Her doubt that she should have trusted him with her secrets. With a part of herself that Addison was certain she had never shared with another soul.
Indeed, he had forced it out of her. But she gave it to him, opened up to him with a sincerity that shook him. Without guile. Without expectation. Just the bald, blatant truth.
That she felt alone. That men like him saw no value in her beyond what she could provide for their own pleasure. That she felt unwanted and unloved. And that she’d been literally counting the days until she didn’t feel that way anymore.
The very least that he could have done, what he should have done…what had planned to do, was to take those secrets and hold them close, and make sure that he, of all people, never made her feel any of those things again.
He had failed. Instantly.
Swallowing, Addison worked his jaw, trying to ease the tightness that he felt at the back of his throat. Behind his eyes. How he must have made her feel.
Addison had woken up that morning with a plan. To woo her. To win her. No part of that plan had included seduction.
Okay. Maybe some part of it had included seduction, he admitted. But in time, after she trusted him. After he’d proven to her that it was about more than just bedding her. That he wanted all of her, not just part of her. He had not intended to seduce her that day and certainly not that moment.
Then she had touched his face, had forced his gaze towards hers, as she stood there in nothing but a shirt with her long white, gorgeous legs right before his eyes. Lust, raw and unbridled, unintentional and thoughtless, had burst out of him in a moment of potent need that had shocked even himself. It was the wrong time, the wrong response, the anthesis of what she needed. It was selfish and entitled and all the things Mellie had accused him of being.
He had made her run from him. The knowledge of that churned his stomach.
Slamming the closet door, Addison grabbed his coat and cloak and shrugged his arms into them. He threw an extra fur wrap around his shoulders and secured it with a broach, then covered the rest of himself up with random garments from Mellie’s corner stash. He found a hat and some leather, furry things to strap around his claves and ankles. Finally he found a pair of gloves. Entirely too small gloves, but he jammed his fingers into them anyway, leaving his wrists exposed. The ring and pinky sleeves on his left hand flopped around, having nothing to fill them, so he tied them together into a knot to get them out of the way.
He felt ridiculous. He was sure he looked ridiculous. But he was beyond caring. He needed air and sky and snow and something other than the suffocating cottage he was dwindling in.
Out he went, shutting the door behind him, and trudging through knee high snow, unsure exactly where he was going.
Mellie picked up a broken branch and examined the twisted, fleshy end of it. Tree limbs just like this one jutted out of the surface of a forests worth of tumbled snow that blocked the trail to Bern. The tree limbs were edged with still fresh and supple breaks, not yet darkened with age. The avalanche had happened recently. Within the past week, if she had to guess.
Although it was unlikely that Duke had been in this exact spot at the exact time the avalanche occurred, it was possible that he’d been swept away in it, with nobody around to rescue him. Her eyes burned with tears to think of it.
She walked around the edge of the slide, as far as she could navigate, searching for any evidence of life. But she didn’t dare risk climbing through it. The snow would be full of air pockets and crevices that she could easily fall into and become trapped. Towards the bottom of the fall, disturbed and dirty snow heartened her. Hollows of footsteps and drag mark, and about fifty feet up the ridge, a chaotic mess of tossed snow, where someone -or something- had been digging.
Though it wasn’t definitive evidence of Duke, it gave her hope. He had been trained by the Marrionner’s at the Great Saint Bernard Pass Hospice for just this purpose: to locate and rescue those who may have become lost in the snow, either by misdirection or by injury. Just as he had done when they found Addison, he would have sniffed out anyone trapped on the avalanche and dug them out. Then he would have returned to Bern for help.
But it also could have been somebody else. Mellie was not the only person to live in these mountains. The population was sparse, but there were others who would used this same trail and whom she had encountered on occasion. Mostly, she kept her distance, because people who lived hard lives in harsh environments could sometimes become desperate and dangerous. That made her think of Addison, his mysterious injury, and wonder if something had befallen him that he’d as of yet been unwilling to speak of.
Mellie set up temporary camp for the night, using a curved section of bushes as part of her shelter. Then she spent hours calling for Duke, just in case he was nearby and could hear her voice. Maybe dig himself out if he’d been swallowed by the avalanche.
After two nights, it was to no avail, and Mellie decided that it was time to return to the cottage. She’d lingered long enough that Duke would easily pick up her scent and follow it back.
And she was eager to get back to Addison.
There. She’d admitted it. Eager.
True. She didn’t want to leave Addison alone for that long because he’d starve to death before figuring out how to make a proper porridge. But she also wanted to see him. Two days had already felt like too long, which only certified that she had come to an outrageously unwise decision.
She was going to get hurt. They both were, if his behavior was any indication. Something had changed in both of them the night that he’d held her. A shift in their relationship. One that was, perhaps, minuscule. Possibly undetectable under other circumstances. But out here, where their interactions with each other felt like the whole wide world, it was, at least to Mellie, unmistakable. They’d gone from adversaries, which admittedly, Addison hadn’t even known they were, to allies. From nursemaid and patient to partners. In a way, they had become equals.
So long as Addison remained on this mountain, they were in a world unto their own. Where his title and her lack of one, ceased to matter. They were not bound to their stations or beholden to society’s arbitrary rules. They were not beneath anyone’s watchful gaze, for him to be held accountable for his actions, or for her to be ridiculed for hers.
They could just be. Together.
She wanted him. He wanted her. Mellie might have doubted that before the other morning. But the way he had looked at her. The way he had grabbed her. Pressed his mouth to her waist. It had been the most genuine moment of desire she’d ever experienced or had ever even witnessed. It happened in such a flash that no part of her doubted it was real. No one had ever made her feel so wanted or so beautiful as Addison did.
At first, Mellie had no idea what to do with that or how to feel about it. Because her mind told her one thing and her gut told her another. Her mind screamed beware! Run! Far and fast. But her instincts, that voice deep inside of her that had never guided her wrong, at least when she’d been smart enough to listen to it, said something else. That Addison did not want to use her. He did not wish to hurt her. He simply felt how he felt, which she knew was similar to how she felt herself.
They had a physical connection, Mellie was sure of that. And she thought maybe it could also be more than that, too. That they could develop something real together. Something neither of them had ever had or imagined. In truth, that was the part that scared her. Because there was no future for them. They might feel something more, but they would never have the chance to be something more. Not outside of this mountain, and certainly not in England, or any where else for that matter.
But here. Now. They could have that.
It was a crazy and stunningly stupid move, but Mellie decided that she would not run from this singular moment. From the opportunity to be everything, to feel everything, just this once. Temporary as it may be, she wanted to seize it. And treasure it. And feel something she might never have the chance to feel again. Cherished.
She had never asked anyone for anything. But she was going to ask Addison for that. It was likely going to lead them both to nothing but heartbreak and devastation. Mellie didn’t care, because more than wanting it, she needed it.
He’d gone and gotten himself lost. What a bloody fool he was. Lost, after nary a few hours outdoors. He hadn’t left without a plan: double back over his own tracks and find his way back to the cottage that way. Easy. Genius, he thought.
Idiotic. That’s what it had been.
Addison realized that when his own tracks crossed over each other, not once, not twice, but three times. And he would swear before God, that he had never crossed his own path in the first place.
He threw his hands in the air in exasperation. “Oh, Mellie is going to murder me when she finds my dead frozen body.”
Addison swung around in circles, looking for something familiar. Anything. But the trees all looked the same. Each craggy rock had the same jagged edges. The same stag had run from him multiple times, with the same trot and the same tale flip, in the same direction. Trapped in a loop, he was. He slumped back against a tree and slid down to the ground in defeat. “Why did you leave me alone, Mellie? You know what an inept buffoon I am.”
He’d never felt so inadequate in his life. Never failed at so many things, so many times over. He couldn’t wait to get out of there, leave that place behind, and never look back. The thought came without hesitation, and then he immediately wanted to take it back. This place would forever be etched in his memories, because Mellie would be impossible to forget.
Addison buried his face in his hands. “What are you doing to me, Mellie?” Two days between them, and he only wanted her more.
He was in trouble. Because by the end of all this, he could love her. He would love her. He could feel it in his bones. Whether or not Mellie could love him was another thing altogether. Addison wasn’t sure she could. Or even that she should. For he was not the man that Mellie needed, not the one she wanted, nor was he the one she deserved.
Addison closed his eyes against the pang of anxiety that gripped him. For the first time in his life, he wanted something more. To be something more. More than a title. More than a Duke.
He wanted to be a man.
And though he had absolutely no idea what kind of man he wanted to be, Addison had figured out one thing: he wanted to discover who he was with her.
If she would have him. If she would be willing.
If he didn’t manage to freeze himself to death first.
Pushing himself away from the tree, Addison struggled to his feet. His thigh was aching straight through to the bone. Having not done much moving about lately, it hadn’t even occurred to him how weak his leg was going to feel after a long walk. The muscles were knotted, the skin stretched and tight. And every step felt like a spike was tearing it apart. God, it hurt.
The daylight was beginning to wan, and Addison knew he needed to make some decisions fast. Get back to the cottage or shelter. He worried he wouldn’t find the cottage in time, but the idea of sleeping outside in this frigid cold, was daunting to say the least. Never mind that he knew Mellie was doing exactly that. Addison wished he’d been more inquisitive with her. How did she find food? How did she fend off animals? How did she light a God damn fire when every piece of wood for miles was covered in snow?
Addison huffed. Fuck. He was useless.
Back to the cottage. He would have to find his way.
After following his own footsteps for another hour, Addison was beginning to panic. He just knew he would not make it back before dark. Destined to die in the Suisse Alps. Mellie had only been a temporary deterrent. It was fate.
Something howled in the distance. No. Not howled. Hollered. Addison looked around wildly, trying to locate the sound.
“Addison!” He heard his name over a hill to the East.
“Mellie. You blessed, beautiful, capable creature,” he rejoiced. Framing his mouth with his hands, he shouted, “Mellie!” He hobbled his way over the hill, searching for her. Where the hell had she gone? “Mellie!”
Then she scared the daylights out of him when she yelled from directly behind, “You truly are daft, aren’t you?”