Forging Forever

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Chapter 22

Major Andre returned four days after he left. The same day that he returned, Annie received an invitation for dinner at the Carter’s for that very night. Major Andre had received the same invitation. At their morning coffeehouse meeting John made arrangements to pick Annie up at seven and escort her to the dinner. Annie had mixed emotions about his return. She was glad in the sense that she could continue on with her mission. At least now she would have something to keep her occupied. At the same time it meant less time spent with Cameron. During John’s absence, she and Cameron had grown significantly closer. Before she had looked forward to seeing Cameron each day. Now she felt as if her day were not complete if she did not spend time with him. The past two nights they had watched Harry Potter movies until the wee hours of the morning. Cameron would always leave and go back to his room when he noticed Annie’s eyes begin to droop.

For the most part she had been sleeping peacefully. Just knowing Cameron was close by put her mind at ease. She had the nightmare about her sister only once more. Her arm was nearly back to its full strength and was not nearly as painful. Whenever she touched it, all that resulted was a mild soreness.

Annie was in the process of dressing when a knock sounded on her door. “Annie, it’s me, Mary. Something was just delivered for you.”

Annie walked to the door and allowed Mary in. In her hands she carried a large package wrapped in brown paper. Annie took it from her. “Thank you Mary. I wonder who this could be from,” she said as she pulled the paper from the package, revealing a large white box. Annie opened it and found herself gazing at a beautiful pale blue silk evening gown with matching shoes and purse. There was also a pair of diamond encrusted combs. On top of the clothing laid a neatly penned note.

My dearest Annie,

I had this made for you while I was gone. It would give me great pleasure if you would wear it for dinner tonight. Enjoy the enclosed items. They are nearly as beautiful as their recipient. I will see you soon.

All my affections,

John

“Oh my,” Mary gasped.

“Oh my indeed. Will you help me with them Mary? John will be here in less than an hour and my hair is not even done.”

“Of course. Sit down. I’ll air out the dress while I fix your hair.”

“Thank you Mary. You are a godsend.”

Annie sat down in the chair and let Mary arrange her hair into an elaborate style. Once her hair was done, she strategically placed the combs. After that she assisted Annie into her gown and shoes. They finished with ten minutes to spare. “You look lovely,” Mary complimented. “Here, come look at yourself.”

Annie stepped in front of the mirror. She could barely recognize the woman looking back at her. The blue of the dress was reflected in her eyes. The diamond combs made her usually plain brown hair shimmer with highlights. The dress fit her to perfection. Annie found herself wondering how John had managed to guess her exact size. “How in heaven’s name did he know my measurements?”

“I have no idea. He is a very perceptive man. I can only surmise that he took an educated guess.”

“Well it was a very accurate guess.” Annie heard the grandfather clock chime seven downstairs. “We better get going. He’ll be here any minute.” Annie and Mary walked out into the hall. Mary hurried down the stairs while Annie locked her door. She turned to see Cameron standing in his doorway.

“You look lovely,” he commented dryly. He was grasping a goblet of brandy.

“Thank you.” Annie could not help but notice that he was well on his way to being drunk. “I was going to say goodbye before I left.”

“It appears I beat you to it.”

“How much have you had to drink Cameron?”

“Not nearly enough.”

“Cameron, you knew he would be coming back and that our time together would decrease. Stop acting so sullen. It doesn’t suit you.”

Cameron stepped closer to her. “I hate sharing you,” he whispered into her ear.

“I know. I hate it as much as you do. But it has to be done. Now sober up. I’ll be home in a few hours. I want to continue our movie marathon, but we can’t do that if you’re drunk.” Annie gave Cameron’s hand a small squeeze then went down to the front door, where Major Andre was waiting.

Annie plastered on her most convincing smile. “John, it is wonderful to see you again.”

“The pleasure is all mine. The dress looks lovely on you. You will put every woman at this dinner to shame, if I may say so.” He kissed her hand then offered her his arm.

“Well, I have your impeccable taste to thank for that,” Annie smiled and accepted his arm. “Should we be on our way then?”

“Absolutely.” John opened the door and escorted her out of the boardinghouse into his waiting carriage. The ride to the Carter’s house was quiet. Annie was deep in thought over what tonight would bring. She feared that Catherine would try something while they were there; that she would find a way to separate her from the rest of the group. She would have to find a way to keep John at her side at all times.

“John, the dress truly is beautiful.”

“Why do I sense a ‘but’ coming on?”

“No, that is not it at all. I have never felt more beautiful. I know it is going to bring me a lot of attention. I hate all the attention. Please, do not leave me tonight. I will feel much more comfortable if you are with me.”

“Annie, you have nothing to fear. I will stay firmly by your side for the whole evening. There is no other place I would rather be,” he assured her as the carriage stopped. He gave her a quick kiss then stepped out of the carriage. He assisted Annie down then, arm in arm, they went to the front door.

When they entered the sitting room all chatter ceased. As she expected, all of the attention was turned to her. Compliments from every direction were tossed her way. Annie graciously accepted them, saying that she owed her appearance tonight to John. The whole time she scanned the room for Catherine. She found her standing near the patio doors. Her gaze was brooding, resentful. Instinctively Annie tightened her grip around John’s arm. He patted her hand in response. Quickly, she turned her gaze away from Catherine and towards Madison.

“Thank you so much for having us Madison.”

“Nonsense my dear. The party would not be the same without you. I am just so glad that you are feeling well enough to join us.”

“Madison, I would not have missed this for the world, even if I had to have poor John carry me in here and place me in a chair.” The group laughed at Annie’s joke.

“I highly doubt Major Andre would object to carrying you from one place to the other,” Madison replied, giving Annie a knowing look. Annie blushed. She was spared from any further embarrassment when they were called to dinner.

“You are enchanting when you blush,” John whispered to her as they walked towards the dining room.

“Thank you. It seems to be a common affliction when I am around you,” she whispered back.

“I am flattered. Now relax, we are going to have a wonderful time tonight.”

John assisted Annie to her seat. Once again dinner was an elegant and boisterous affair. The conversation was directed by Madison. On a few occasions Annie was obliged to speak to her sister. She was able to put on a convincing performance despite her nervousness. Catherine was seemingly polite. Only Annie noticed her subtle barbs and insults. But Annie had known her all her life, the people at this table had not. Annie ignored them, determined to enjoy the night.

“That was delicious as always Mrs. Carter,” John stated. “And as always I fear that I have over indulged myself.”

Madison laughed. “Well thank you for the lovely compliment Major Andre.” Madison turned to face Annie. “Did you enjoy dinner as well Annie?”

“Oh my yes. In fact I find myself in the same predicament as John.”

“I see. Well perhaps an after dinner stroll will ease your discomfort, after which Major Andre can delight us with his musical skills,” Madison declared.

“That sounds lovely,” John said. “Would you do me the honor of joining me for a stroll Annie?”

“I would be delighted.”

They left the table and walked out into the garden. The night was surprisingly cool for the end of August. The cool air felt good on her warm skin. They strolled around the garden in silence. John was the first to break the silence. “Annie.”

“Yes.”

“Have you put any thought as to what you might do when the war is over?”

“No. I’m afraid I haven’t allowed myself to hope that far ahead.”

“Do not lose hope. This war will be over before you know it.”

“Your optimism is refreshing and comforting. I truly do appreciate it John.”

“I am thankful for your appreciation. I only hope that is not the only emotion I inspire in you.”

Annie felt her insides clench. “John, you must know that you inspire far more than just appreciation.”

John smiled. “I am glad. Annie, I know we have known each other less than a month and even within that time span we have not spent as much time together as I would have hoped.”

“John.” Annie had no idea what she was supposed to say after that. Deep down she suspected the question he was about to ask.

“Annie, I was wondering if you would consider a future with me? I know you are not ready for the commitment and quite frankly now is not the right time. But you must know that I have feelings for you that I have never had for anyone.”

Annie felt her heart lighten. She would not have to contend with a marriage proposal, at least not tonight. “John, your declaration is a surprise to me, a pleasant one at that. I would be flattered to think about a future with you. Once the war is over we will have plenty of time to be together. Until then we can continue to enjoy each other’s company and get to know each other better.”

John smiled and gave Annie a deep kiss. Annie was surprised that the experience was not nearly as distasteful as she expected it to be; but the feelings it inspired paled in comparison to when Cameron kissed her. “Thank you Annie. You have made me the happiest man alive today.”

Annie did not have time to respond. The sound of a shot rang out. The bullet missed them by a mere foot. Instantly, John went into soldier mode. He grabbed Annie and pulled her towards the door. Once inside he slammed the doors shut and bolted them. He shoved Annie to the ground and out of sight. Another shot rang out. This one broke through the glass. By now the entire household had rushed into the sitting room.

“Get out of here,” John commanded. The party did as they were ordered.

Annie laid on the floor, her heart beating frantically. Even with John by her side she was not safe. Hysteria rose within her, threatening to boil over. She took deep breaths, trying to keep herself under control. Falling to pieces would accomplish nothing.

John looked down at Annie. He saw the panic in her eyes. He could only hope that she would keep her emotions under control. The last thing he needed right now was a hysterical woman. Fortunately, she did not lose control. He kneeled down next to her. “Do not worry Annie. Nothing will happen to you while I am around,” he whispered. “I’m going to take you to the other room with the others then I’m going to search the grounds with my soldiers. Once we are done I will take you home. All will be well.”

He assisted Annie to her feet then guided her back into the dining room. Her skin was pale and he could feel her hand trembling in his. “Just hold on a little longer sweetheart,” he whispered. He helped her to a chair then left the room. The time passed slowly. Annie managed to answer everyone’s questions. Nearly three hours after he left, John returned to the dining room.

“Did you find anyone,” Noah Carter asked.

“No. Whomever let out those shots is long gone now. I’m going to leave a few soldiers posted here just in case the culprit returns. It is just a precaution. I highly doubt you will be bothered further. Now, if you do not mind, I’m going to take Annie home.” John did not wait for a reply. He assisted Annie from her chair then led her out to his waiting carriage. Once there he pulled her close to him. “We are all alone now sweetheart. If you need to cry, cry. I will not think any less of you.”

Annie’s wall tumbled. She turned her face into his coat and sobbed. The shock wore off, and was replaced by a deep, gnawing sadness. John held her as she cried, whispering soothing words to her. Finally the tears subsided. She pulled away from him. He offered her his handkerchief which she gladly accepted. She dabbed the tears from her face. “Thank you.”

“You are more than welcome.” His voice was tender and reassuring. “You were very strong tonight. I am proud of your composure. Most women would have been crying in hysterics and swooning, but not you my dear Annie. You are absolutely extraordinary.”

“Thank you.”

They reached the boardinghouse without further incident. John walked her to the door, shielding her body with his while she unlocked the door. They stepped into the entryway together. John closed the door behind them. “Other than our uninvited guest, I had a wonderful time tonight Annie.”

“So did I,” Annie replied.

“May I see you tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“Splendid. I do not want you wandering the streets alone. I will come pick you up myself and take you to the coffee house. How does ten o’clock sound? That way you can get plenty of rest.”

“Ten o’clock would be perfect.”

“Get some rest Annie.” He kissed her once again. “Make sure you lock the door behind me.” With that statement he turned and left. Annie bolted the door then went up to her room.

Cameron stepped out into the hall just as she was opening her door. “That lasted longer than I thought it would.”

“You have no idea,” Annie whispered.

“Are you all right? Did he try something? I’ll kill him if he did.” Cameron’s voice was short, angry.

“No. If it weren’t for John I wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

“Oh. Then what happened?”

“Catherine happened.” Annie gave him a kiss on the cheek then went into her room, bolting the door behind her. She changed out of her dress into her nightgown. She removed the combs but did not bother to unpin her hair. Finally, she doused the light then crawled into her bed. She fell into a fitful sleep minutes after her head hit the pillow.

Catherine paced around her room. How could she have missed? Twice no less. Now getting to Annie would be more difficult than she had anticipated. By now Annie had no doubt figured out that she was the target of tonight’s attack. Her guard would be up. She would have an escort with her wherever she went. This plan of hers was backfiring. Killing Annie would take far more time than she had planned.

Catherine considered her options. She could follow Annie to the boardinghouse then wait outside to find out which room was hers. Getting to her there would be tricky. She had no doubt she could kill her sainted older sister. Escaping unnoticed would be the tricky part. She could not follow Annie during the day. The Carter’s were very considerate hosts, too considerate in fact for Catherine’s purpose. They would notice her absence during the day.

The only other option would be to obtain invitations to all the social functions that Annie would be at. She would no doubt be able to isolate Annie for a moment at a ball or dinner. That would be all the time she needed. That was the best course of action. Unfortunately, it was also the most timely. She would miss her first semester of school and her parents would eventually know of her disappearance as well. She acknowledged the she had gotten herself into a big mess. But it would be well worth it when she saw Annie’s lifeless body.

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