The women surrounding them clutched her chests to keep their hearts from going crazy. Some of them sighed longingly. "So cute!"
With a frown, Nathaniel stared down on the girl as if asking her what she was planning by calling him daddy. Innocently, Roxie snuggled to his side, her eyes twinkling with delight.
"Let's find your real parents." Nathaniel emphasized the last two words. He didn't plan on having a child, no matter how cute it was. However, how Roxie acted in front of him reminded him a bit of Katherine. Was she this determined and crafty as a child?
When he started to move, the masses parted willingly for the uneven pair. Before long, he found her parents. Her mother even burst into tears when she saw her daughter. The woman shared the fine features of her daughter, but her face was thinner and less lively. If not for their resemblance, Nathaniel might have doubted the truth of their statement with the experience from before, because Roxie held onto him tightly with no intention of letting go.
"I wanna stay with daddy", she declared. "Daddy's cool. Roxie likes daddy."
The real father of the girl paled and awkwardly adjusted his glasses. He knew very well that he was only a banker that married into his wife's noble family. He couldn't compare to Nathaniel, neither in handsomeness, nor in aura or status. Now even his own daughter preferred to call someone else daddy.
The woman also had a sorrowful expression. "Roxie, please. We were so afraid something happened to you. Please come over here and let me hug you!"
"No! Roxie stays with daddy!", the little girl huffed, but Nathaniel noticed that her grip had loosened and she stole sidelong glances at her parents, filled with yearning. At the same time, however, she seemed to be afraid to let go. Her small hands trembled.
One hand supporting her body, Nathaniel used the other to ruffle her wild red hair. Quietly, he told her: "The bad guys won't come back. You can go to your parents now. I will catch all of them, so don't worry."
"Catch all?", she confirmed, and her eyes sparkled as she looked up at him. "Daddy really can? Will daddy come back?"
Solemnly like a promise, Nathaniel nodded. "I will. But you can't call me daddy anymore. A daddy is a special position. You already have a daddy, so he will feel bad if you call me that."
As if pondering a difficult question, Roxie knitted her nearly invisible brows and puffed up her cheeks. "But how call you?"
Well, that was a legitimate question. He deliberated that 'Nathaniel' might be too long a name for her to articulate properly. And he couldn't imagine a child calling him 'Earl of Hymirhall' or 'Lord'. That was just awkward. After a few seconds, he came up with a solution. "Nathan. You can call me Nathan. Now, go to your parents. My arm is starting to hurt."
When he sat her down, she hesitated shortly before letting go of his shirt. While doing the first steps, she always looked back at him. In the end, however, she turned and ran into her mother's arms.
"Thank you!", the mother exclaimed, and embraced Roxie tightly. "Thank you for bringing my baby back!"
"You're welcome", Nathaniel said absentmindedly. Per coincidence he had spotted Katherine on the far other end of the room. In the split second he saw her, she had already downed half a glass of what seemed to be wine. Why the heck was she thinking drinking so much? Maybe Sam had been right to send him after her.
"If we can do anything to show our - "
"Sorry", he interrupted Roxie's father when he saw Katherine reaching for another glass from the waiter. "I need to handle something over there."
Without looking back, he left in Katherine's direction. However, it wasn't easy to maneuver through the dancing floor without touching anyone. Just when he turned the other way, he found himself in a group of giggling young girls that - because they were too shy to go alone - banded together to ask him with which of them he would dance.
At first glance, he felt a headache coming. One thing was for sure though: his dances had already been reserved and he didn't plan to dance with anyone else, even if it was to get out of a circle of thugs in ribbon dresses.
Katherine gulped down another glass of wine. She was still furious, but also sad. How come she felt so much for this idiot while he seemed to be indifferent?
"Flat brain", she grumbled to herself. "What kind of insult is this even? Can't a flat brain be just as big as a round one if it's wide enough?"
"You should eat something before you start drinking so heavily", Lady Brandon advised and passed her a snack. Her lips twitched, but she refrained from commenting Katherine's monologue. "Try this."
Katherine though didn't feel like eating. She just wanted to drink and forget about her shameless action. "Thanks, but I prefer this. Don't worry, I can stomach quite a bit."
She lightly shook her glass of white wine only to notice with irritation that the last time she drank wine was with Ethan. He'd always preferred the red one, while she liked white wine better. Glumly, she looked down on the glass and finally put it on the table. "You're right, maybe I should eat something."
Lady Icefeather had told her that someone had found the missing girl when she came downstairs again. By then, Katherine had already started her drinking spree. She had been glad the girl was found, but it didn't alleviate her own sorrow.
When she now came back to the women's corner after getting a plate full of delicacies, most of them had left to dance. Even old Lady Finlay had found herself a grey-haired gentleman and their perfect dancing moves were the most enchanting ones in the ballroom. The last ones on the couches were Lady Trumpet ("No three horses are getting me on the dance floor again, I had enough broken toes from clumsy man"), the silent Lady Sherley with her son, and Lady Brandon.
"Don't you want to dance?", Katherine asked the latter as she sat down. She herself felt her feet itching. She didn't dance in a long while and after the disaster outside, she wasn't sure if Nathaniel would ask her for the promised dance. Or if she would accept it if he did.
No, actually she would accept it anyway. It was depressing how much she longed for his attention. She was so far that she would take anything she could get and still remain greedy.
"Not really", Lady Brandon replied. "I once liked dancing very much, but after my marriage I started hating it."
"You are married?", Katherine asked, shaken out of her thoughts. Since she never saw or heard about a man in Lady Brandon's life, she concluded that the latter was still single, even though she was a bit old for that.
Lady Brandon smiled in melancholy. "I was. He died on the battlefield, too eager to prove his worth. We were married for hardly three days. The call to arms occurred in the middle of our wedding dance, so every time I dance it feels like it will happen again."
"Oh." Katherine didn't know what to say about that. "It must be hard on you, losing him so soon. I mean, not that losing him later would be any better, but..."
"I know", Lady Brandon continued to smile, but sadness and a certain tranquility made her eyes look older. "It's okay, I'm used to it. It's already four years in the past now."
Though Katherine was certain that being used to it was far from it being okay, she didn't know how she could cheer up her friend besides giving her a big hug. Which was exactly what she did.
Lady Brandon laughed lightly and ruffled her hair. "Now, now, it's not that bad. Nothing a few glasses of wine couldn't fix."
"Then let's drink! On stupid men that leave us sitting here alone!", Katherine demanded and clinked her glass against Lady Brandon's.
"On stupid men", Lady Brandon repeated, followed by Lady Trumpet and finally Lady Sherley, the latter with an amused glitter in her eyes. All four tipped up their glasses.
Katherine only knew what this glitter meant when she suddenly heard a smooth voice next to her ear. "Are you that lonely without me, dear?"
Katherine turned tomato red. Nathaniel's breath warmed up the sensitive skin on her neck. After she forced the big gulp down her throat, she asked in her sweetest tone without turning around: "Are you seeking trouble, dear Earl?"