Hearing the deep voice of the man so near caught her off-guard. She shrieked and jumped a step back, lowering her hands in the process. Still, she couldn't bring herself to look at his face. "N-no! I... I'm not! It was an... an accident!"
Thinking swiftly in her panic, she caught onto a straw of hope. "it's all because you didn't let me out, so I couldn't see the location beforehand!"
Accusing other people seemed to be the best solution, only that her voice was too high and as shaky as her knees.
He was so close, too close. And there was something different about him, making her out of breath. She couldn't tell if it was anger, but if it was, it was different from the cold one before. This one made her feel weak and totally helpless, her back already pressed against the nearest bush.
"Oh, really?", he replied, stretching his words. He tried to resist the urge to step forward again, to corner her in between the bush and himself. Don't go near, don't touch her. Just words. "So if I had evidence that you were outside yesterday, it would mean that you try to seduce me now?"
Katherine gaped, her eyes flying up to his in shock. "How did you know?"
A s.e.xy smirk spread on his face. The red irises were like a firestorm, hot and dangerous. Although he stayed a few steps away from her, she felt the heat dry her throat. "I didn't. But now I do. So, you want to entice me, little girl? Wait a few more years."
Using all his willpower, he turned his back to her and walked over to the table, which was set up near the fountain. It couldn't be that an inexperienced girl was shaking his determination. He wouldn't allow it. Never.
Grasping for air, Katherine had to hold on to the bush to stabilize herself. What was that? How did he make her feel so helpless, fearful, and hot at the same time? Her head was swirling, her throat was a desert, and her body trembling all over. These eyes... they were something else. Flames to burn all her thoughts to ashes.
Only after a minute or so did she realize that he criticized her age. However, she had no strength left to feel insulted. Everything was spent on resisting the weakness spreading through her whole being.
Whatever that was, she didn't want to feel it. She didn't want to be weak in front of him!
Tap. Tap. The chess pieces made noises as the earl placed them on the board. Yes, Katherine had the maids prepare a chess board for them. Her impression of the earl was that of a man who appreciated cleverness. Although she couldn't point out where exactly that inkling was coming from.
The tapping sound got her out of her daze. Lifting her still red head, she saw the earl sitting on the table next to the scandalous fountain. Some statures in the water had really compromising positions.
Although it was hard, Katherine tried to ignore the statures and focused on the earl. Her first attempts had gone bad and he ridiculed her inexperience, but she wouldn't give up! She would make this arrogant villain of an earl marry her! Everything to get her revenge! It had absolutely nothing to do with his handsome side profile... no, no, absolutely nothing.
Hopefully this weakness was just a mistake. Maybe she caught a flu? That would be better than the other reasoning.
Forcing her knees to stop trembling, she slowly let go of the bush she'd hugged like a lost relative and began to collect the flowers off the ground. She was delaying the time she needed to face him again. The embarrassment didn't wane yet, as his deep voice still rang in her ears. Was it less raspy than two days before? Maybe because he was so close now...
With fascination and egoism in hand, she strolled over to the table, and carefully put them into the delicate glass vase.
After sitting down opposite him, she slowly lifted her head... and met his eyes. A bush again crept on her cheeks. How could she have disliked this color? Sure, his gaze was frightening when it landed on her but also... fascinating to no end. Bad Kathrine. You can't think that way, she scolded herself. Too dangerous.
Feeling insecure, she lowered her eyes again. "Do you want to..." play with me, she wanted to ask but realized the double meaning just in time. The blush got deeper and she gestured to the chess board instead.
"Sure." The earl replied. He'd already prepared the board, leaving the advantage of playing the white figurines to Katherine, while he himself choose black.
It was a silent match. The earl had put his gloves back on, so his hand hovering over the board was as dark as his figurines. Nonetheless he was careful not to brush Katherine's skin accidentally. Although Katherine planned for exactly that to happen as she decided to have a match with him, her heart was pounding excessively now every time she thought of trying. In the end, she didn't do anything.
With time, the earl got the upper hand. Although Katherine knew there was a more important battle to win than this one, she still didn't like loosing, and began to pour all her focus into the game. She succeeded in killing his queen, only to be checkmate two turns later.
Knitting her brows adorably, she searched for a way out, but finally needed to admit her defeat, albeit unwillingly.
"You win. But", she couldn't help herself from adding, "only this time."
"We'll see.", the earl answered lazily and slipped his long fingers in his pocket to take out a golden pocket watch. It looked expensive. Slightly curious, Katherine searched for the signature, but couldn't find it. Nonetheless she suspected this watch to be even more expensive than the one her father had owned. How come the earl always had the best stuff?
Flipping the pocket watch open, the earl stood up elegantly. Again Katherine realized their high-difference. While she herself was a tad taller than the average women, her head would only reach to his chin. That was while standing. Now, in her sitting position...
The watch snapped close again. "Your hour is over now. I'll take my leave."
Katherine scrambled to her feet hastily. "Let's go together."
Every second with the earl was one more second to convince him. She felt bad for not reaching anything today. At least it felt like it. She was too fearful to touch his hand even.
Without acknowledging her, the earl strolled away, one hand in his pocket, looking cool and aloof.
Walking next to him, Katherine wrecked her brain for a thing to say or to do, but all she could muster in the end was: "Uum, I'd like to go outside more often. To explore the mansion and gardens. Can I please?"
The earl knitted his brows shortly, but gave a curt nod. His understanding of her had improved over the one hour. He didn't think she'd run away anymore and even if she tried it, there were still the guards to stop her. But maybe he should punish them first, as they let her go outside without his consent, and the message that she can see the mansion obviously got missing somehow.
Not knowing his thoughts, Katherine got overjoyed. A bright happy grin shined on her face and her steps even had little hops of elation in it. Yes! She finally had her freedom back! At least a big part of it. That was a very good beginning.
They reached the entrance hall, where the guards waited anxiously. Because it was a date, they were excluded, but Jack was so curious all the time, it took Pete nearly all of his patience to stop him from following them.
"He wouldn't do anything to our little angel, would he?", Jack asked time and time again, totally disregarding the image of a strong man his appearance suggested. "How could he be so cold to her?"
As they finally saw the lovebirds come back together, Pete heaved a sigh of relieve. "Here they are! Doesn't she look happy? I told you, you were overthinking things."
Inspecting the earl and Katherine closely, Jack sighed, too. "Help me, Pete! I feel like I'm too young to give my daughter away already!"
Pete nearly spat out blood. "Whose daughter?!", he roared. "She is the daughter of the late duke of Sleipnir, idiot! Who would want you as a father anyway?!"
Their bickering reached Katherine's ears as a blur. She knitted her brows. Who was so noisy?
Jack slapped Pete's neck harshly. "Shut up! Don't you see you're disrupting their date?"
Embarrassed over his outbreak, Pete rubbed his hurting neck and grumbled: "I thought you didn't want to give your daughter away."
Jack rolled his eyes. "If the guy makes the daughter happy, what can a father do? But if he treats her badly I'll..."
Pete snorted. "You'll what? It's the earl we're talking about. Do you really want to test his patience?"
Now embarrassed himself, the one-eyed guard scratched the back of his head. He was in many dangerous fights already, but maybe this was really a bit too big for him. "... I'll think about it."
Reaching the entrance hall, the earl wanted to go straight to his study at first, but when he set the foot on the staircase, he hesitated. The hour together wasn't a bad one. Less boring than he thought it would be. She earned a farewell at least. He didn't turn around though. "I'll inform you of our next meeting when I know my schedule for the week. You will need to work hard in the future."
That was enough, he thought, and started to climb the steps in a leisurely pace. He hated how he felt a little tired even though they sat most of the time. It would take some time until he could live like a normal person. But there was a glimmer of hope now, so he would work hard to reach it.
Behind him, Katherine bit her lip. On their way back she had an inspiration, something she didn't try yet. Only, she didn't know if the move was too bold. Come on, she cheered for herself. You can do it!
"I'm looking forward to see you again" Uncertain, she took a deep breath and released it with the next word flowing out of her mouth: "Nathaniel."