The warmth of sunlight on her feet was what awoke Katherine the next day. While asleep her toes had found their way out of the thick bedding. With a yawn, she pulled them back in. Even with the sunlight, the temperature in the room was still cold. After some hours outside, her toes were now prickling as they warmed up gradually.
Laying on her side in the middle of an ocean of white silk, Katherine slowly blinked her eyes. Though the foreign room was decorated nicely, she felt a bit disappointed when it entered her sight. She was missing the peach colored bedding of the earl's mansion, the warmer weather and a certain black furball by her side.
When she reluctantly lifted her hand to pull away the blanket, her gaze fell on the flowery ring on her left ring finger. The amethysts glittered brightly in the reflecting sun rays.
She stared at it for a while. How could this ring match her eyes so well? When she first saw it, this question didn't occur to her. There were other things occupying her mind.
Now, however... the ring didn't look like it was randomly selected. Was it her imagination or were those flowers tulips, one of the two flowers that reached the vase on their first date? Maybe this ring was even unique, made for her only. At least her initials, engraved on the inside, suggested as much. It could also be added later though.
How much thought had the earl really put into this? Or was it someone else who selected it? Sam? Quite possible. Still, she wanted to believe that it was Nathaniel who decided the design. Then again, even if he did, it could be only for the shake of a perfect disguise.
With a sigh, Katherine sat up and called for Hazel. As the earl was finally back with her, it was time to start her mission.
"Twenty-one, female. Said to have died during childbirth but the family doubts the body given by the hospital was hers... Thirteen, male, orphaned. Vanished under his uncle's care, his cousin reported it... Sixteen, female. Disappeared when she sneaked out to meet her lover at night. That lover also disappeared... They don't select their targets randomly. There might be a lot more disappearances unreported.", Nathaniel muttered to himself and turned over the page.
The pages had the details of every person that was reported missing in the capital in the last two years. At first glance, they didn't look like they were connected. The victims were quite young but had rarely anything else in common. There were plausible reasons for their disappearance, too. The first one could be dead, the body real. As for the second one, the officials responsible for the case suspected him to have run away from home. Since it was only a child and not the uncle himself pressing for an investigation, the matter was mishandled. The parents of the other girl disapproved of her lover, so she might have left the city together with him. However, counted together there were too many people that 'coincidentally' had reasons to run away or disappear in the last year. Most of the disappearances happened at night, too.
Slowly going through them, Nathaniel distributed them in two stacks. One for the suspected nightly runaways, one for those who resided in official buildings like hospitals and the prison before they vanished. In the end, out of twenty-nine cases, there was only one who didn't match one of the stacks. It was a woman in her thirties, who disappeared at daytime without any plausible explanation.
"You might be the only one unconnected.", Nathaniel concluded, and laid her information aside. "I need to contact Sam about the death-rate in prison. It is likely to have gone up for prisoners under twenty-five, especially female ones... there are a lot of females among the vanished."
With a frown, he again sorted the papers. "twenty-four females, five males. A clear preference. And the males are younger in comparison... Maybe there are different selection criteria for male and female. I doubt there are two different organizations fishing in the same waters, but it's not impossible."
With a red quill in his white, long-fingered hand, he dotted down some aspects, while continuing to think. "Though this is a city of the rich, there are only two nobles in the batch, the runaway lover and a young widow. Hospitals, prisons... As I thought, it might really be them. Their network is even bigger than I expected."
Suddenly, it knocked on the door. The quill stopped, then he laid it down. Who could it be? Surely Sam was still occupied with fishing for information, especially unreported disappearances. Could it be someone out of the palace visiting him in his new study in the outer ring? Whoever it was, the knocking was too respectful for it to be Aston and too soft for the king. However, everyone else that would come for a visit would be a nasty surprise.
While putting on his black gloves cautiously, he didn't shift the gaze from the door. His body was taut like a bow. "Enter."
The door creaked open, and a familiar face entered his view. "Good morning~"
Nathaniel's body relaxed. "What are you doing here?"
As Katherine slipped inside, a silver tray entered his view. She smiled brightly. "I heard you didn't have breakfast yet. My betrothed should be more considerate of his body!"
Though she was beaming, she was actually very nervous. If someone felt her pulse just now, they would feel it pound hurriedly, as if there was a horse race taking place inside her veins. He was the one who suggested the betrothal, but it was still very difficult to call him 'my betrothed'.
Nathaniel felt his heart skip a beat. He didn't know how lethal the attack he performed last time was, not until he felt something similar himself. And it was even a duller version. His mouth opened slightly, than he closed it again. Finally, he motioned her to bring the tray over. "You can leave it on the side table."
Katherine pouted. She'd hoped for them to eat together, but a glance at the paper stacks on the earl's table told her that he had much to do. She thought his work-load would lessen when he wasn't in his territory but the opposite seemed to be the case.
Seeing how he continued to work, her gaze wandered to his hands curiously. It looked a bit ridiculous that he even wore gloves when sorting paper. When he gave her the ring, there had been a second box on the table. It had to be a betrothal ring for himself. She wondered what it looked like, since she didn't even get the opportunity to select it. She wouldn't have minded selecting it for him.
When she saw that none of his fingers bore a ring, her impulsiveness got the better of her. Leaning over his table, she pulled away the paper he was holding. Finally, his red eyes met hers, clear annoyance written in them. However, she was even more annoyed than him. With an overly sweet smile, she asked: "Shouldn't you wear your ring at least? If someone else entered, they would question the sincerity of your affection."
With her position, his head was at the same level as her decollete. Though it wasn't bigger than usual, it was emphasized by the ornaments on both sides. Letting his gaze wander over the mass of smooth white skin unreserved, Nathaniel's face remained expressionless. "It seems my betrothed can more than make up for my lack of enthusiasm."
For a second, Katherine was speechless. Then her whole face got red as she slammed her hands on the table. "You beast! Where are you looking!"
Even her b.r.e.a.s.ts are turning red, Nathaniel confirmed. They were jiggling and he couldn't keep his eyes from staring. Inside he fought a challenging battle: his cold rational front was undermined by greedy desires. "Where you want me to look, assuming your position."
"I - you - hmpf!" Katherine stomped her feet and pulled back, hiding her bosom behind her arms. What a shame, Nathaniel thought, only to correct himself: what a relieve! He didn't know how much longer he could've stopped himself from touching them.
Rubbing his face with one hand as if erasing the inappropriate thoughts, he said: "Look, I'm wearing the ring. It's under my gloves. If there's nothing else would you mind letting me continue with my work?"
"Oh!" Now Katherine felt a little guilty. I've accused him wrongly, no wonder he got annoyed! He was always wearing the ring! A little pacified, she let her hands fall down, making Nathaniel's eyes follow them for a second before slowly wandering back up.
Katherine swallowed her saliva, thinking that the movement might have been a mistake. Something had changed in the earl's expression. In their encounters up till now, there were times she felt like a prey in front of a feral beast. A fast movement could agitate it and make her die without a full body. Right now the beast seemed to cower down, ready for the pounce. A very, very intense gaze was locked on her.
Unconsciously, a blush rose in her cheeks. Her lashes fluttered as she lowered her eyes, not meeting his stare any longer. "Maybe you could... wear it over the gloves? I mean you are... are always wearing them, so..."
A dangerous pause, followed by a slightly hoarse voice. "I'll think about it."
"Hm-hm." Keeping herself from moving too hastily, Katherine stepped back. On the one hand she was vary of the beast watching her, on the other hand she didn't want him to think she was afraid. Cause she wasn't. Absolutely not.
In a moderate pace, she walked to the door. It would have looked quite normal if she didn't keep her head turned in his direction all the time. Finally, her hand found the handle.
"Till later!", she squeezed out and fled the room in a rush.