She must have struck her head badly, indeed, Mellie reasoned several minutes after she awakened. Her mind was only beginning to calm and the world was swirling around her, making her queasy. The skin at the side of her forehead felt tight and sore. It pulsed in time to the beat of her heart, a throbbing that echoed through her skull and made her wish to block out the sunlight and the smells and the sounds that rushed her senses.
Yet, it wasn’t those things that bore the evidence of her injury. It was the blurry, naked arse in her line of sight. For there was no other explanation for Addison to be standing pantless before a fire large enough to engulf at least four nearby bushes. Without her spectacles she couldn’t be entirely certain, but she thought the fire might in fact be a bush gone up in flames.
Mellie watched as he flapped his pants around in the billowing heat, her lips tilted into a lopsided smile. The man was absurd. And with every passing day he burrowed himself deeper into her heart, absurdities and all. The more she thought about him, the more her heart soared, and the harder it plummeted through her gut when she remembered that his time with her was temporary. Closing her eyes, Mellie turned away from him, hoping to ward off the crushing sensation in her chest.
It seemed like only moments later that she felt gentle fingers sifting through the hair at her temple. “Mellie, sweetheart,” he whispered, the sounds of the crackling fire muffling his quiet words.
Yes, I want to be your sweetheart.
As his fingers trailed down her cheek, she turned into his hand and nuzzled his palm. Light laughter floated by her ears.
He was a dream.
She’d made him up.
He smelled like pine and ash. Wood and flames. And somewhere…oranges and herbs. He wasn’t real. Nobody real could smell so good.
“I have a sip of water for you.”
Licking her parched lips, Mellie finally let her eyes flutter open. The sky was dark now, and Addison hovered over her with a warmth in his eyes that spread heat through her belly like a dram of whiskey.
He was real. Tangible. Touchable. And not at all imaginary.
For one long, terrible moment, she wished he were a dream. She wished him gone. That she’d never found him or that he’d never existed in the first place. Because if he weren’t real, he couldn’t leave her. He couldn’t break her heart. Mellie didn’t know exactly when her heart had gotten involved, but she was certain now that it was, and the truth of it frightened her.
Addison removed his hand, the absence of his fingers against her cheek chased those horrible wishes away and made her long to feel his touch again. Oh, her heart was fickle.
He lifted something small and metal to her lips. It held at most a mouthful of water. After she’d quickly polished it off, he flipped it over to show her what it was. “The brooch I used to fasten my fur,” he explained, sounding rather proud of his ingenuity, then added with a shrug, “It was all I could find that would hold water.” He packed it with another tiny mound of snow and placed it beside the fire to melt before carrying on. “You’ve been in and out for hours now. How are you feeling?”
“My head-” Mellie’s voice was but a dry rasp. Gravel on sand, scraping the back of her throat. “I cracked it open, I think”
“No,” he offered soothingly. “You’ve a nasty lump on your noggin, and a small wound. It bled quite a bit at first, but once it stopped and I cleaned it, I saw it was not too bad.”
He’d nursed her while she slept. Mellie wondered if her body had recognized his touch. Had flutters and sparks marked her insides with each caress, as they did when she was awake? “Thank you,” she said, almost inaudibly.
Their fingers curled around each other unconsciously, tangling together the way tree branches sometimes caught each other and refused to let go. It reminded Mellie that neither of them wanted this to end. He’d said so himself. The words he’d said before he kissed her played in her mind over and over again.
I cannot kiss you, Mellie.
I cannot pretend that it wouldn’t mean something to me.
It would have to mean very little, if we’re to go our separate ways.
I don’t know if I can promise you that.
And the he’d kissed her. And it had meant something.
At least, she’d thought it had. Until he turned her away. She wasn’t enough to be more to him. And she was too much to be less. So she’d found herself caught in a middle ground; somewhere between lover and beloved. There was no other place for her and there never would be with him.
In that way, Addison was a dream. There was no chance for a future with him. She’d known that. But what she hadn’t known, was that there was no chance for a now with him either. He was a dream that would never come true. A fruitless tree. A thunderless storm.
If only he had never touched her. Had never awoken these buried desires. Never made her…want. Him.
Mellie wrangled her hand away from his and shoved herself into a sitting position. She hissed as pain shot straight through her ankle to the wound on her forehead. She’d have keeled over if Addison hadn’t been there to steady her shoulders, but she pushed him away and snapped “Don’t touch me!”
Addison leaned suddenly away from her in shock and confusion. Even as she’d said the words, she regretted them. It didn’t matter that her tumultuous emotions were screaming at her to reverse direction and pull away. What she wanted was the opposite. She wanted his hands all over her. His body inside hers. But her mind was reeling and her chest felt hollow. And the expression on his face made her feel treacherous and cowardly.
“Addison,” Mellie sighed.
Cold shuttered over his eyes, distancing him, as he rolled to his feet and began recounting the minutes that had ticked by since…whatever it was that had happened the night before. “In addition to the blow to your head, you injured your ankle in the avalanche. The rest of you seems to be intact.”
He continued, “I searched for your pack and spectacles as best I could in the slide, but I was unable to find them.”
“I lost them when we were…” Fighting. Kissing. Touching. When my heart felt like it was being wrenched out of my chest. She cleared her throat. “Before the avalanche.”
Nodding, Addison grumbled, “Your lousy dog dug us out and then left us for dead.”
“You saw Duke?” The news perked her up, the relief so potent it threatened tears. He wasn’t missing after all. Most likely he’d been nearby all this time, lingering in the distance, chasing imaginary chickens.
“As I said, he dug us out and trotted off. What is the point in possessing such a useless creature?”
There was a hard edge to his voice, the anthesis of the sweetness with which he’d woken her. Her gut instinct was to fire back at him. Blast him for his obtuseness. But she understood that he was reacting to her outburst. So she curbed a retort and responded gently. “I know you don’t think that digging us out of an avalanche was useless.”
Addison carelessly tossed a pile of sticks into the fire causing the flames to shoot out, sending him staggering backwards. He had no idea what he was doing, but Mellie was touched by his efforts. How long had it taken him to collect the legion of tree limbs and bark he had piled near her feet? When had he made her a bed of pine needles and lined it with his fur to protect her from the cold? How many times had he sat and melted broochfuls of snow for her to sip from? Clearly Addison was capable of more than either of them believed.
“The mongrel saved us only to leave us for dead. How useful is that?” Addison argued, but she couldn’t help but notice that some of the harshness in his voice had diminished. They’d known each other long enough now for her to understand that he didn’t want to be an unyielding, arrogant Duke. What they both wanted was actually the same: to be equals. Addison, well, he had only just begun to realize that about himself.
Mellie chuckled. “That is what he is supposed to do.” That comment wrested a great guffaw from him, as if it were the most preposterous thing in the world. “I told you about my time at the Great Saint Bernard Hospice with my uncle,” she continued. “Duke was his dog, actually. Mountain dogs are used there to find travelers lost in the snow, often trapped in avalanches. The dogs usually travel in packs of three and if a person is wounded or unconscious, one of the pack will stay behind to lay nearby and keep them warm until the others come back with help.”
“That is,” he paused, “exactly what he was doing when I came to this morning.” Addison glanced quickly over his shoulder at her then back to the fire, sounding rather chagrined, and Mellie couldn’t help but smile inwardly. He was nothing if not honest. She admired that in him, especially since she had not been entirely honest with him about her own feelings or about what she wanted from him. All the while she lambasted him as if he should be able to read her mind.
Everything about this situation, everything about Addison, was turning her upside down and inside out.
While Addison poked around the fire, making himself look busy, Mellie questioned him about where they were and whether he thought they could make it back to the cottage. Based on his observations, Mellie reasoned that they should stay where they were for a few days while her ankle healed. If Duke had gone for help, he’d return to this area. So long as they didn’t wander too far, he’d be able to track them down. But if they were to survive several nights in the wild, Suisse weather, they would need better shelter.
As well as food. Mellie had thought her chest felt hollow before, but her stomach felt like an immense, desolate cavern. It rumbled painfully and she longed for her pack, which had a meager stash of supplies left from her trek to search for Duke. Undoubtedly an animal had run away with it by now.
As if reading her mind, Addison mentioned he’d set traps earlier in the day and that he was planning to check them tomorrow. Mellie was not able to shield her surprised expression, but thankfully he merely smirked as he settled himself against a rock near the fire. “I admit, I had to wrack my brain for how to do it, but eventually I recalled setting squirrel traps as a boy.”
“Is that how you got your pet squirrel, Sir?”
If not for the brilliance of his white teeth in the dark, Mellie would have had no idea that he’d smiled at her. Those smiles didn’t come often, but when they did, they made her insides twirl around. “I didn’t think you were listening when I told you that.”
“How could I not be curious about the story of a boy and his squirrel on a diamond studded leash?” Damn, her mouth always seemed to get the best of her. Though she’d been partially teasing him, the jibe had come out curt and snide. In truth, she thought the story about the squirrel named Sir was sweet. But it was too late. He’d already turned away from her to stare absently into the fire, the words dangling between them, a reminder of his status and her low opinion of it.
His dejected appearance, even obscured by her strained eyesight, gnawed at her conscience. But Addison, being Addison, tried to brush the whole thing off. “Tell me about your uncle.”
“My uncle?” The question was such a departure from anything they’d ever talked about that it nearly confounded her.
Nodding, his gaze remained locked on the blazing fire, not wanting to look at her. “I know was a marrionner at the hospice. Tell me about him. What is his name? Are you alike?”
“Are you asking if he has the same defect as me?”
His eyes slid to her and she didn’t need her spectacles to understand the reproach in them. Mellie had finally succeeded in offending him, for he appeared ready to launch himself out of his seat and thrash her. Even sitting utterly and completely still, he seethed with anger. His muscles were rigid, as if he were holding himself back. “I am not even going to dignify that with a response,” he eventually bit out.
When was she going to learn? Addison wasn’t what she kept making him out to be. But her mind and her heart were at war. Part of her, the logical part, was determined to push him away and it latched on to memories that made her feel rejected. Abandoned. It made her want to reject him first. To protect herself. And then there was another part of her, a much deeper and more desperate part, that wanted to pull him close. Keep him near. No matter the risk to her heart.
“I am sorry, Addison. I am just so accustomed to that being all anyone sees.” That was the truth.
His eyes still ensnared her, unwilling to let her off the hook so easily. Even without seeing him, Mellie felt trapped in it, unable to turn away. But after a few intense moments, some of the tension drifted from his limbs as he inhaled a steady breath.
She waited for him to say something, but he eventually looked away without another word.
“His name is Johannes. He’s young. Only a little older than me. He was not expected, but loved nonetheless, as my mother used to say.” Mellie paused, thinking about how to describe him. She noticed Addison had diverted his attention back to her now, listening attentively. “My mother and father brought me here to visit Johannes when I was small. It was springtime and I remembered not much more than a bounty of wild flowers when I came back here four years ago. But those memories were sweet and I longed for a place where I had family.
“I hadn’t spoken with Johannes in many years, except for the exchange of a few letters after my mother died. So, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived at the hospice unannounced.”
“And how did he react?” Addison asked the question in such a way that Mellie thought he would her answer to measure him up.
“He was so happy. Didn’t even ask me to explain. He just accepted me. I didn’t remember until I saw him again, but it turned out he does…” Mellie halted herself before the thoughts spilled out of her mouth. She’d been lost in the memories, but she hadn’t intended to say that part and she wasn’t sure whether she should.
Seconds ticked by and when he sensed that she might not finish the sentence, Addison filled them in for her. “It turned out he does look like you?” He waited for her to nod before adding, “It must have been a great relief to finally have someone who could understand.”
The comment was meant for her, but it felt pulled from some place deep inside him. And all Mellie could think about was how alone Addison must feel. How many other Dukes were there? He almost certainly knew them all, but were they his friends? Did the people he spent every one of his days with understand the enormous responsibilities resting on his shoulders? Who did he turn to when he needed comfort or support? Did anyone ever touch him in the same manner that Mellie longed for? Did he feel loved? Wanted?
It suddenly occurred to her that maybe he didn’t.
It was becoming so clear to her how similar they were to one another. Somehow their lives were worlds apart. On the surface they were as different as ice and fire. But what lay underneath was the same. They were both isolated. On their own. And against all odds, they’d found each other here, in a dark corner of an alpine mountain. Mellie had been too busy criticizing him and pushing him away to notice.
All of the sudden she understood that she’d done something terrible. She’d spent weeks cutting him down. That haughty, overbearing man she’d found in the snow was gone now. And in the process she’d destroyed pieces of him that she’d never intended to destroy.
How often had she seen his confidence abandon him lately? That was perhaps the greatest loss of all. Not because she’d found the quality in him alluring or because it stirred something in her blood and made her heart beat just a little faster, though she’d been loath to admit that at first.
No, it wasn’t for those things that she regretted it, but because there was no reason for him to lack confidence. Addison was thoughtful and logical. He valued tradition and cherished his family. He was intelligent, educated, and powerful, overseeing a Dukedom without the slightest concern about his ability to do so.
Despite all of this, Mellie had made him believe he had nothing to teach her. Nothing to offer. That he had no value. That his title meant nothing at all. And if he didn’t have that, if he felt as alone in this world as she, what would he be left with when it was all over and he returned home?
How unfair she had been to him. Not only in how she’d ridiculed him, but how she’d misled him. How she’d told him not to touch her when that was all she had wanted him to do. How she’d let him hold her and then had run from him afterwards. How she’d let him believe that his promise never to touch her again wasn’t good enough, or that she’d even wanted that promise in the first place. And how she’d come back and asked for his touches and kisses, only to push him away and do it all over again.
She was yanking him back and forth, caught between the desire she had for him and the fear of letting him inside. She was holding him accountable for sins he had not committed, even as she acknowledged that he was different. She urged him to be something more than his title, all the while punishing him for it, even as he seemed willing to relinquish it.
Addison didn’t deserve that any more than she deserved to be shunned for her unusual skin and eyes. They were very much the same, she realized now. Both alternately reviled and revered for the circumstances of their births. Neither ever seen for who they truly were. Except by each other.
At the beginning of all of this, Mellie could hardly look at him without seeing his title. His wealth. Now she only saw Addison. A man who felt lost and empty inside, in the same way as she. A man who not only wanted, but needed to be seen as exactly that…a man. As someone worthwhile.
He was worth more to her than a kingdom and she’d made him believe he was worth nothing at all. The realization made her eyes burn with tears. She had to fix this. Or he would return to London a broken Duke.