CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Addison pulled his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. The first peek of the sun was beginning to show itself from behind the mountains in the distance and he anxiously waited for it to chase the chilly night air away. The fire had been no match for the Suisse February air and his body was cold to the bone. He shivered from some place deep inside, but he would be lying to himself if he attributed it entirely to the weather.

Mellie was having a far greater affect on him than the temperature. Between handfuls of minutes where he drifted off out of sheer exhaustion, he’d spent the entire night watching her. She’d slept rolled into a little ball on the pine-needle bed he’d made her, nestled under their furs, so still and serene that several times Addison felt the need to make sure she was still breathing. The light of the fire gave her skin a golden hue, lending an inner warmth to her that he no longer believed she possessed.

Mellie Harlowe’s heart and soul were frozen, permanently closed off by layers of ice so impenetrable that he would need a fire large enough to consume the planet before she’d begin to melt.

And yet, he had wanted to love her.

He’d wanted to love her and yet, she was repelled by his touch.

Addison closed his eyes and turned away. He felt like something wicked had grabbed his heart and was slowly squeezing the life out of it. The terror that had gripped him when she was being ripped away during the avalanche refused to abandon him. The worry and guilt had followed him all day. He’d been so afraid to leave her alone for even a moment that he carried her from place to place as he’d gotten things done, only putting her down when absolutely necessary, and never straying far enough for her to be out of his sight. The fear of losing her was too much to bear.

And foolishly he’d thought she would wake up and feel the same. Now he understood that she would never let herself love him. She would never forgive him for being titled.

All this time, he had wanted to fall in love with her. He’d embraced it. Perhaps that was why it felt like it was happening so easily. Because he’d been willing it and not because he was meant to. Now, all he wanted was to get them the hell out of there, so he could leave all of this behind. Leave her behind.

Ignoring the pang of despair that lingered in his chest at the thought of leaving her, Addison pushed himself to his feet. It was bright enough that they could begin finding their way out of there. “Mellie, wake up!”

When she failed to stir, he nudged her foot with his boot. “The sun has risen. It is time to go.” She burrowed deeper beneath the fur and he whipped it off of her unmercifully. “Get up,” he ordered in a clipped tone. Finally, she rolled over on to her back, a nearly imperceptible mewl floated its way to his ears as her arms stretched above her head. She yawned into her shoulder. She was fucking adorable.

He grumbled and picked up a wad of branches he’d fashioned to make a torch, lighting it in the remnants of the fire, then began kicking snow to put it out.

Mellie patted the ground around her as she pulled herself into a sitting position. She was looking, he presumed, for her spectacles. “You lost them.” She dropped her head back, groaning in frustration, then, without a word, began tugging the boot off her injured leg. “I checked your ankle a couple of hours ago. It is swollen and bruised, but no worse than yesterday. Now get ready, we are leaving.”

Addison knew he was being brusque with her, but he could not seem to keep the harshness out of his voice. They needed to go. He needed to get to Bern and be done with this. Before she became even more a part of him than she already had. Parting from her was threatening to be as painful as it had been to part with his fingers. Possible more so.

She questioned him sleepily, “Why do you have such a flame under your arse this morning?”

“We best make haste if we are going to make it to Bern in due time.”

Eyeing him with a baffled expression, she asked, “Perhaps I hit my head harder than I thought, but hadn’t we decided to stay nearby for Duke to find us?”

“I am not relying on a dog to save us.”

Crossing her arms over her chest, she pointed out, “That dog saved you.”

“You saved me.” He wasn’t in the mood for semantics. “And now I am going to save you. Hop on.” Turning away from her, he went down on one knee.

“Hop on?”

“That is what I said. Don’t tell me you have gone hard of hearing, too.” He glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Mellie wince. That hadn’t come out the way he’d intended it. As if she was suddenly both blind and deaf. As if, if she were, he would ever love her any less than he was going to. He would fall in love with her if she were blind and deaf and mute and in any form she could ever take. His pulse thrummed at the thought of it.

Addison waited a couple of beats, in too foul and unfair a mood to apologize. When she made no attempt to move, he nearly shouted, “We haven’t all day, Mellie.”

She pulled the fur out from beneath her as she came to her knees and began shuffling towards him. “Would you like me to toss this over your back and ride you like a packhorse?”

His pulse thrummed for a different reason. A lazy smile spread over his face. “You can ride me any way you like, my sweet,” he teased, chuckling as her eyes went wide as saucers. He’d thought there wasn’t anything he could say that would shock Mellie, but somehow he managed. Though, he knew the surprise stemmed more from the fact that the comment had come from him than it was a reaction to its substance. Addison liked that look of innocence on her face. It wasn’t something he saw on her often, but it made him want to shield her from the world.

He wanted to see that same innocence light up her eyes when he made love to her for the first time.

Just like that his cock was hard and throbbing. Christ. She drove him wild. He hated it. Who was he kidding? He loved it. When he realized she still hadn’t moved, he lashed out with an irrational flash of anger. “You are injured and I cannot exactly carry you all the way to Bern without touching you, Mellie. Rest assured, this method is the most,” he bit out with emphasis, “hands off. Unless you’d prefer I drag you by your hair.”

That spurred her into action. She flung the fur around her shoulders and threw herself across his back so hard she nearly knocked him to the ground. “So sorry. I might be unexpectedly heavy, as I am so muscular.”

Had he not been so irritated, he would have laughed. She was light as a feather and Addison would have come to his feet easily if not for the tightness in his thigh and the fact that he was handling a torch.

“I need you to carry this,” he handed it to her, then, latching his hands under her thighs, he pulled her higher up his back as she wrapped her legs around his waist. Feeling her against him all day was going to be torture.

“We don’t need a torch. We can light another fire. And we shouldn’t go far. Duke will come back for us in a few days.” Addison thought about how long it had taken him to light that fire, decided to ignore her, and walked away from his miserable excuse for a shelter. “If we go more than a few miles he won’t be able to track us down.”

Good. Maybe he’d get lucky and never have to see the dog again.

“We’d be smarter to hunker down and scrounge up some food.”

What food? There was no food. All the more reason to get to Bern sooner than later.

“If we are where I think we are, there will be a cave a couple hours to the east.”

Too bad. They were headed west.

“No matter. It is on the way to Bern anyhow. You’ll want to rest by the time we get there.”

That gave him pause. Bern was west, not east. He was certain of it. Before his accident he’d been on his way from France to Germany. They’d already passed Bern, which meant it was west. He’d spent hours last night studying the stars. He’s found Orion in the east, Ursa Major in the north, and Hercules between due west and northwest. No, he was not wrong. He knew where he was going.

“You don’t even know where you are going!”

It rankled how little she believed in him. He sighed. “Is Bern east or west of your cottage?”

“West.”

“Then why in damnation would we head east to a cave that you think might be there?”

Mellie tightened her legs around his torso and hiked herself up a bit higher. “I don’t think anything. I know. We should head east because-,” she stopped abruptly, pondering quietly to herself. “Because-” Addison could almost feel the wheels turning in her brain. Considering she never had to think about anything, he found the moment disconcerting.

“Mellie?”

Behind him she shook her head as if trying to jog a memory loose. “No, you’re right. The cave is west.” And so is Bern. “I am turned around without my spectacles.”

It was at that moment that it hit him. She was confused. Losing her spectacles wouldn’t cause her to forget east from west. But a bad knock to the head would. Addison didn’t bother to continue arguing about the cave. There was no way in hell they were stopping at a cave only two hours away to wait for her damned mutt. She needed a doctor and he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he didn’t get her to one. It didn’t matter to him in that moment that he knew it would be days before they made it to Bern.

Addison picked up his pace. A few minutes later Mellie asked again, “Are you certain?”

He took hold of her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I am. If I can trust you not to light my hair on fire with that torch, you can trust me to know east from west.”

Mellie’s warm breath fanned over his neck as she leaned her head down to rest it lightly on his shoulder. She wove her fingers between his and whispered, “I trust you with my life, Addison.”

Just like that all the animosity he’d been feeling drained out of him as he recalled saying those exact words to her not two days before. It reminded him that Mellie was not frozen inside. She was hiding. She’d fled from England to the wilds of the Suisse Alps, barricading herself between legions of snowcapped mountains, all to escape the presumptuous hands of entitled noblemen. Men who had taken liberties with her that churned his stomach to think about.

And there he was, treating her with hostility for having the audacity to say no to him. He was no better than any of them. Worse, in fact. Because unlike any of them, she had trusted him with those secrets.

 

Mellie dozed as they walked. Addison repeatedly thought about waking her just to reassure himself that she was okay. But a steady rhythm of her breath on his neck, tickling his hair, and minuscule, unconscious wiggles, kept him from doing so.

Several hours had passed and Addison’s legs and arms ached with fatigue. Shooting pains ricocheted through his thigh with every step. The useless torch had gone out and been chucked aside, and now he was faced with the ordeal of getting another fire started. In truth, he’d watched the fire go out shortly after they set out, not bothering to add more branches and bark to keep it aflame, because Mellie’s arm had been sagging. She was feeling as fatigued as he, though she would never admit it, and he didn’t have the heart to make her keep carrying it.

Then one wrong step had nearly tumbled them over and woken Mellie, and now she’d been chattering away for at least forty-five minutes, half mumbling into his cloak, making it nearly impossible to understand her. She was nattering something about winter foraging. Between mumbles he heard mentions of everything from winter berries and rose hips, to wild onions and pine needle tea, and of all things…eating the center of a pine cone. He had to admit, he was hungry enough to try it. Then she moved on to what felt like four hundred different kinds of mushrooms. His empty stomach wished she would stop.

“Are you feeling alright, Mellie?” Addison asked, though certain the subject was one of interest to her, clonk to the head notwithstanding.

“I’m alright,” she answered, then immediately continued. “My favorite are trompetenpfifferling’s. Have you ever tried those?”

“I cannot say that I have,” he answered dryly.

“A better question might be to ask if you can say it?”

“I am quite sure that I cannot.”

She giggled. “Give it a try.” When he didn’t answer, she nudged her heel into his side. “Come on. It’s fun.”

I think you could take yourself a little less seriously, she’d said to him the other day.

Maybe we can find a way to laugh together. She’d also said that. The memory made his belly flutter, until he recalled his response.

I am not sure I could ever make you laugh.

Addison still didn’t believe he could, but she had not been not wrong to suggest he try, so he made a rather poor attempt at it. “Trompe-fife-ler-fiffing, something or other. Did I get it right?” He felt ridiculous.

“No,” Mellie said flatly.

Unsurprising.

Mellie tapped her finger pensively on her chin. “Perhaps you could try saying pfifferlinge.”

“That is what I just said.”

She shook her head. “That one was trompetenpfifferling.”

“I hear absolutely no difference between those two words.”

On his back, Mellie shifted, her torso going stiff and straight. The sudden movement threw him off and he wobbled for a moment before regaining his balance. “You can’t be serious,” she said, sounding rather affronted. Then, hearing him laugh she added, “Was that a joke? Did you actually attempt to make a joke?” Pulling up on his shoulders, Mellie nearly climbed over him as she craned to see his face. “A failure, to be sure, but I’ll never believe it.”

She was amazing. Only Mellie could be thrown down the side of a mountain in an avalanche, nearly crack her head open, get lost on an alpine mountain, and find joy in the situation. This was why he was falling for her. For everything that was different about her. For her positivity in nearly every situation. For her lighthearted nature. And her ability to challenge and change him.

Addison had no idea how he would ever let her go. He was about to reply when suddenly she sobered and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, holding him tight as she nuzzled the back of his neck. The caress made his heart carelessly skip a beat, but when she spoke again, his heart began to race. “I do want you to touch me, Addison,” she whispered.

His footsteps faltered. The urge to lower her to the ground and run his hands over every inch of her body overtook him. He wanted to tear off their clothes and make love to her in the snow. To straddle her on top of him and see her porcelain skin, naked and set against the white mountain peaks and stark white sky.

But then her remembered she had said this before and changed her mind later. He wouldn’t touch her like that again unless he was sure she wanted it. Not unless she was sure she wanted it. “Mellie,” her name was almost silent. He cleared his throat. “It is okay if you don’t want that. You don’t owe me anything. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did and I am sorry for it.”

“That’s not why I said it. It’s,” she paused, searching for the right word, ultimately settling on, “complicated.”

“We don’t have to talk about it right now,” he said gently. God knew he didn’t want to talk about it while her body was draped across his. Even through his cloak and furs he was aware of her every shape, he every soft curve, every feminine, womanly part of her. It was all he could do not to devour her.

Sensing his reluctance she agreed. “What shall we talk about then?”

Anything but this. “Whatever you like.”

“Tell me about your family.”

Anything but that. He loved his family, but he feared she would ask about his brother, and he was always a difficult subject. Mellie would undoubtedly hone in on that. But he couldn’t deny her request. He preferred her talking to worrying about the reason for her silence. “What would you like to know?”

He felt her shrug. “Anything. Tell me about your mother.” 

“There is not much to tell. She passed when I was a boy and I don’t remember much of her.”

“How old were you?”

“Four.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” she rubbed her thumb over the back of his hand, then added, “My mother died when I was fifteen.”

It occurred to him then that neither of them had ever exchanged their ages. What a wonder. A woman’s age had always been such a concern in his world. The younger the woman, the better, which made him positively ill. The thought of marrying and bedding a seventeen year old disgusted him. “How old are you now?”

“Seven and twenty.”

“A spinster then,” he teased and she kneed him in the ribs. “Ouch! I am kidding, Mellie. You are as fresh as a spring daisy.”

“Fresh as a spring daisy?” She exclaimed in a bubbly voice. “What does that even mean?”

“That you are young and lovely.”

Mellie quieted and leaned her head against the back of his. He adored those small gestures, each making him feel more and more like he was hers and she was his. Eventually she she spoke again. “How old are you?”

“I am five and thirty. No.” That wasn’t right. “Six and thirty, by now.”

She gasped, flabbergasted by his answer. “How do you not know your own age?”

He laughed. “My birthday passed at some point while you were bringing me back from the brink of death. I’d merely forgotten.”

“Lord, Addison. You might have mentioned it.”

“I don’t much care for birthdays,” he shrugged.

“Too bad! That cat is out of the bag. I am going to get you a birthday present when we get to Bern.”

A sweet gesture, but there was nothing he needed from her, except her. And that was not something she was going to gift him, so he didn’t bother to argue.

“Your sisters, are they much younger than you? I know they remain unmarried. But if your mother died when you were four-”

“That would make them spinsters, too.”

“Two sisters to a duke, both unwed? How is that possible?”

“Kidding again,” he said as they crested a hill. Addison sighed in relief to see a long downward slope, a fallen tree off to the left of them. “Let’s take a rest.” He set Mellie down gently and brushed the snow from the trunk before helping her sit without putting weight on her ankle, then sat down beside her. “My sisters are twins. They are eighteen. My father married again after my mother passed.”

She nodded in understanding. “What are there names?”

“Lenora and Sabina,” Addison said.

“What are they like?”

“Why, they are diamonds of the first water, of course,” Addison said jokingly. “They love balls and shiny baubles, they sing and play the pianoforte. They draw and paint with watercolors by the lake. And I can’t forget the needlepoint. There is always needlepoint. What else would you expect from a duke’s sisters?”

Mellie could have chosen to take the comment badly, but somehow he knew she wouldn’t. She gave him a knowing smile and asked smartly, “And how much of that is actually false?”

Nudging her elbow with his, Addison smiled. “None of it. They are but in their element living in high society, to be honest. Sabina more so than Lenora. She loves being the center of attention, but will only accept the most sought after invitations. Lenora, on the other hand, simply loves to dance and she will attend any of them.”

“It sounds like they’ve both taken well advantage of their place amongst the elite.”

“I supposed you think they should deny the benefits of their rank and live a more humble existence.” There was no animosity in either of their comments. Only a wish to understand each other better.

Mellie shook her head. “No.” Addison raised an eyebrow, looking at her skeptically. “I know that I have given you no reason to believe I would think otherwise. But the truth is that while I do wish there wasn’t such a great disparity between our classes, I can’t claim that I would have done anything different if I were in their positions.” She lifted her shoulders and dropped them, as if giving in to a long rejected fact. “Who wouldn’t?”

He studied her, certain for an instant that with her confession, Mellie had revealed herself to be an altogether different woman than he had come to expect. But it was more like another unexpected layer of her had unfolded before his eyes. “Up until this very moment, I was quite sure that you wouldn’t.”

She glanced at him, a contrite look on her face. “Might I tell you something silly?”

“Please do.”

She looked away from him, studying her fingers as she thought about how to phrase whatever it was she was about to reveal. “I have,” an airy laugh bubbled from her, “I have dreamed of having that life.”

Another layer, only this one made his breath catch in his chest. “That is not silly.”

Mellie shook her head again, swallowing before she continued. “It is a silly dream that came to me when I was a silly girl. When I foolishly thought it might be possible.”

The longing in her voice filled his chest, thick and heavy. For one fleeting second he thought that this could be his chance to tell her how he felt. That he could give her that dream. But he thought better of it, realizing that this confession was not about him or them. Nor was it about ballgowns or baubles, or any of the other fineries he could bestow upon her.

It was about the emptiness inside of her. A loneliness that Addison was only now coming to understand hadn’t just been there for the past four years alone, but that had been there since she was a girl. There was nothing he could say that would make it better. No reassurances he could offer that would make it all go away. It was the sort of thing that needed time. And trust. All he could do right now was keep loving her. So that was what he planned to do.

He turned over his palm to offer her his hand, praying, as she eyed it, that she would take it. When Mellie finally slipped her hand into his, their fingers folded between each others and he gripped her tight enough for her to know that he never intended to let her go.

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