When she wiped away the laughing tears, she suddenly noticed something red on his arm. The last joyful tingle vanished. "You are injured! Why didn't you say anything!"
Setting away the tray, she rushed forward, only to see the Earl step back simultaneously.
"Stop, Katherine", he warned her, the tone serious enough to make her halt shortly, before she decided to ignore it and strode towards him nonetheless. She was determined to heal his wound right now before talking some sense into this self-destructive idiot!
"I said STOP!" His voice was thunderous. Murderous aura exploded out of him as if he came straight from the battlefield. The light that shone into the study suddenly lost all warmth and his burning red eyes turned into the only color in the room. "Katherine, I won't repeat this. Don't come any closer. You will die if you do."
Katherine shuddered. The Earl seemed to have turned into a completely different person, an ice-cold devil like at their first encounter. All reasons why he wouldn't hurt her were blown out of her mind in a instant.
Trembling, she already felt death breathing down her neck. But the stubbornness inside her just couldn't give up. Her hands curled into fists.
"Nathaniel", she brought out through clattering teeth. Opposite to the time when he waited for her in the nightly mansion, calling his name didn't decrease the pressure. "Why do you say this?"
Why wouldn't he let her help? Why did he have to suffer through everything by himself? Every time she thought she'd gotten closer to him, he would threaten her again. After the first shock, she slowly understood that it might be a protective reflex. But it couldn't go on like this. He couldn't always threaten her with death, that was too much.
"You can't get near me now", the Earl said with the same cold tone. He cursed himself for not bringing another shirt into the study. Wearing the old one was out of the question; the cut with all the blood would only frighten Katherine more, making her argument more vehemently. Though her worry was kind of sweet, the consequences were unacceptable. And it would be too strange to ask her to wear gloves all of a sudden, wouldn't it? His voice softened by a small degree. "Don't worry. It's nothing serious."
She furrowed her brows, her irritation over-trumping the fear. "If it's nothing serious, why won't you let me heal it? Honestly, I feel so useless since the patient is gone. You wouldn't even let me help with such simple things. Why? What is my purpose if not this?"
Nathaniel was stumped. He didn't think about it from her perspective. It must be strange for her that he brought her with him and now didn't let her do her duty. He understood that Katherine wasn't a woman to take alms, she was too proud for that. But healing him now was too dangerous. He sighed deeply. He hated lying.
"It's not that I don't want your help, but I won't waste your energy. You need to be fully charged in case someone tries to kill me. This is a scratch. It will heal by itself."
If Katherine hadn't seen him back away in a rush, she might have believed his words. Now, it was too obvious. Crossing her arms, she demanded: "Stop telling lies! This 'scratch' will hardly cost me energy. If it gets infected, it's way more troublesome. You don't want me to treat you. Just tell me why already!"
Feeling tired, Nathaniel rubbed his temple. Today was not his day it seemed. First the attack, then the Princess, and now Katherine just had to burst into his chambers at the wrong time. Why didn't she knock before? "Don't you have better things to do then to fight me in everything? It's not like I'm hindering your plans. We're not even real betrothed, so you shouldn't feel so bothered about a small injury. Isn't it enough that I'm alright?"
Maybe Katherine would have argued further if she didn't see the look in his eyes. Normally when they fought, they would be either burning or cold, in both cases showing his strong willpower. This willpower was nearly diminished now, leaving a strange emptiness. Katherine didn't know why her heart felt heavy at the sight, even though she should be angry.
"Sit down.", she said instead of further questions. "If you won't let me heal you, let me take care of you differently. Regardless of what you think, you aren't a fake betrothed to me, so let me be a busybody for once, alright?"
Staring down at his desk, Nathaniel knew that he should stop her feelings at the core. But it was too late for this anyway, right? She wanted to take care of him. Him, a cold-blooded murderer, labeled as monster. When was the last time someone other than Sam worried about him?
Since his body ached from the overexertion in the fight, he slowly sank into his chair. "Can you get me a new shirt?"
The woman in front of him smiled. "Alright, my dear."
The tight grip that caged his heart loosened a bit when he saw her smile. For a second, he stared after her and wondered if it was the right choice to continue hiding his secret even if she was so deeply involved already. Surely it wasn't right for her. But in the end, he was a selfish man, more selfish than even he knew.
If she knew about his curse, she would shy away from him. Maybe not because she was afraid like the others, but because she would realize that he couldn't be the man she wanted. Loving him could only end in two ways: being killed accidentally or leaving all longing unfulfilled. Having next to no skin-contact to other people for twenty years, he couldn't tell what was worse anymore. Why was he doing this to her? It really wasn't commendable.
Skillfully, Nathaniel rinsed and bandaged the wound before putting on the new shirt. Since returning from his bedroom, Katherine watched him like a hawk, as if he would start hurting himself as soon as she turned away. Though he would prefer to say she marveled at his body, the warning gaze was obvious. However, at least she didn't argue with him anymore.
Besides the shirt, Katherine had also brought a new pair of gloves. He was thankful for that.
"Now", he said and fixed his cufflinks. "Shall we eat?"
Surprisingly, they had a pleasant lunch together, chatted about their day and the up-coming banquet. Katherine didn't mention the wound again, but she had her own thoughts. Actually, she suspected him to have a phobia. The reaction of the Earl had reminded her that he reacted very sensitive to touch at first - especially her hand kiss - and she never got to touch even a bit of skin, not even accidentally. Well, the time when he was asleep didn't count. But even then, it was just his hair.
So, as mismatched as it might seem, she believed Nathaniel was afraid of touch. She had to slowly approach him then and help him overcome it. It wasn't an impossible hurdle to take. They would master it together as long as he was willing. Furthermore, with how he teased her sometimes, she was pretty sure he wasn't unaffected by her. No, Anni was right. The Earl liked her. He was just not an easy target to shoot, if it was love or war.
Nonetheless, if he said he'd kill her one more time, she couldn't promise to let him go unscratched. Defensive reflex or not, this line was unacceptable.