BREAKFAST HAD GONE far too slowly for Annalise’s comfort. She was forced to take a seat at the small round table with John and hadn’t had the opportunity to say anything more than something that agreed with his words. He hadn’t once taken a moment to address her, or praise her, not like the way Annalise had always envisioned future husbands would do. He’d acknowledged her father’s “impressive business routes,” and although Annie thought it was a bit odd, the way he talked of business given the fact that he ran nothing more than a family bookstore, she had clamped her mouth shut and done nothing more than nod her head. She was more uneasy over the fact that he had jumped on the opportunity to call her Annie so frequently. There were few people that called her that, and although she did like it over Annalise, she felt that was a name she should have been able to give out when she was ready. John had taken that from her, too. Was this how it was always going to be? There was surely the chance that John simply wanted to boast about all his doings since they did not know one another, and that could also be why he rambled on and on without pausing to ask her about anything in relation to herself, but she was still discouraged. He had complimented her on one thing, though, and that was that the biscuits were delicious. Annie hadn’t made them, but she didn’t tell him that. A simple ghostly smile would do.
The next thing that had caught her off guard was when she stood, only to be told to take a seat once again. According to John, she shouldn’t be dismissed until he was done, and it was then that she asked herself if she’d ever leave the uncomfortable chair she had pulled out. The worst part was, there wasn’t a single body around the two of them. The more she began to tune John’s deep voice out, the more Annie began to overthink. Had he instructed everyone to stay out of the kitchen so he could have his private space with her? And if that was the case, did that mean he thought the other men were a threat? The Purcells had made it very clear that the group of young adults who’d received a shimmery brooch or cufflink were to only spend some time together because they were of age to marry and her parents believed the particular selection would be suiting for one another. That being said, although the matching gems did have a bit of a connection, Philip and Beth Purcell had made it clear that a matching gem did not mean a definitive wedding. After all, the way they chose to hide how the pairs were selected hinted that they hadn’t specifically paired up everyone with someone who seemed suiting. Everyone was suiting in their eyes. Annie wondered how much they knew about this John Arten. Given the number of times John had verbally touched on her father, she had suspected that his own knew hers or vise versa, but she didn’t recall ever hearing the surname Arten leave her parents’ lips. It was evident they knew exactly what they were doing when pairing Esther with James, but she was questioning it when it came to herself and Maisie, whose match she didn’t even yet know. This odd conversation with John made one thing certain; as much as Annalise was against getting married, she was going to have to find someone more suiting before it was too late. Her parents were not going to be as easy on the three sisters as the rest of the guests; if they did not find a proper suitor whom they truly loved by the end of this “trip,” they were to marry their assigned pairs. Annalise Purcell was determined to find a way around John Arten. His ego was big enough to sculpt out a real human-being, whom he could marry so they could forever gossip over himself. Annalise liked to show off her victory here and there, but she was nowhere near as bad as Mr. Arten was. And it seemed though, yet his confidence was as high as the Purcell mansion itself, he was settle about it. Settle in the sense that, he seemed to prefer to gloat in a one-on-one conversation, as opposed to getting in front of a crowd the way many men would. Now that Annalise thought about it, and as much as she hated to admit it, it was smart. After all, one could feel the tension, the attention they were captivating from the other when participating in a one-on-one conversation. It was hard to get a glimpse of what was going through the minds of people when speaking to multiple.
Eventually, John let her go, though Annie was convinced that was strictly because Esther had come to the rescue with an exaggerated, “Annalise, why on earth are you not ready yet?” And Annalise was even more taken aback by the fact that John actually let her go on Esther’s terms. She did not waste a second, though; rushing up the stairs the way she did as a young child, Annie practically raced to her room, slamming the door behind her with far too much force. Her heart was pounding so much it hurt, as if it was aggressively pounding on the material of her corset, begging to be freed. Her hands were trembling, though she was unsure if it was because she hadn’t been offered anything to eat, or because she was genuinely beginning to regret everything she had done in her life. If she hadn’t been so stupid in her former years with Marius, it was entirely possible that she wouldn’t have landed herself in the position she was currently in. John was chilling to the bone, but she wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was his deep voice, maybe it was his cold gaze, or maybe it was just because of how quickly her body had surrendered. Annalise did not surrender to a man, with the evident exception of her own father. So why had she become so submissive so quickly? And to a man she barely knew? That itself was enough to send chills down her body.
She did not cry. She was not about to shed a single tear.
Instead, Annalise yanked the heavy navy blue dress that had been prepared for the day’s events and wandered out to the singular ladies’ dressing room. Thankfully, the only person that was in there Marie. The face of the young woman was relieving, and Annalise let out a heavy breath. “Oh, Marie, I hadn’t known you were here.”
“Of course, Miss Annalise,” Marie responded, her tone brisk though quiet as she removed the fabric from Annie’s hands. “Come, let’s get you changed.”
Annalise was silent as she was helped into her dress. Marie informed her it was awfully cold outside, so she slipped on a fur-outlined coat and a pair of ivory gloves whose cuffs had the same type of fur sewn into them. Letting out a somewhat shaky breath, Annalise played with the bottom buttons on her coat. She was sure Marie could sense her reluctance, given the way her eyes flashed with concern, but Annalise did nothing more than shoot her a tiny smile. Dipping into a curtsy, she thanked Marie for her help, then stepped back out into the hall. The lights were a dull yellow colour, much like the same shade of the daffodils before they bloomed to their full extent. It turned her dress into an ugly, musky blue, though Annie didn’t fret, for she knew it only looked that way due to the poor lighting. When he returned down the stairs, John was waiting for her. Much to her delight, Esther, whose hand was resting daintily on James Trevor’s arm, was standing a strong three or four feet away from John. By the look on her face, Annie took she had little intentions of leaving Annie to her own devices anytime soon. The baby smile that had slid up onto Annalise’s face was enough for Esther to know how grateful she was.
They left fashionably late, if there was a schedule they were to follow. Not much was said as they made their way to the last carriage. The main city wasn’t more than a ten-minute walk from where they were staying, but Annalise believed she could speak for everyone when she said that it was far too cold to walk all the way there. A carriage was much warmer, and she was sure that even though Esther had often shot out the usual “You will warm quickly if you actively swing your arms and march your legs” in this sort of situation, even her sister was in agreement with the carriage. And though Annalise had decided that she was not going to be John’s number one fan, she still accepted the hand he offered her into the carriage.
The ride over was thankfully short, but the time was spent inside was incredibly awkward. Nobody said a word. Annie got a sense that James was a real gentleman, for his eyes never lingered too long on Esther’s figure, nor did he shift too close for his own good. Annalise hadn’t dared to look over at John; she could practically taste the smugness that was surely settled on his face. The city and its liveliness were often enough to settle Annie’s mind, but she wasn’t too sure that would be the case today, if she were to stick close to the peculiarly tense man to her right. She shot Esther yet another thankful look, despite the hammering of her heart. Esther had always known how to make a situation better, and she hadn’t even said a word. Annalise was envious of this talent she seemed to hold.
The carriage finally pulled to a halt, and they shuffled out single-file. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Maisie stood on the entrance pathway, looking pretty in a gentle shade of sunshine yellow. She offered them a wave as they drew near, then rushed forward and hooked her arm through Esther’s, shooting the men a cheeky look. “I believe it is time for us Purcells to travel on, now.”
Annalise felt a laugh bubble up in her stomach, which was odd, given the fact that what Maisie said was not even that amusing; she took she was extra sensitive to positive behaviour after that carriage ride. James had chuckled aloud, untangling his arm from Esther’s, but it seemed John had other plans. Annalise’s breath hitched in her throat as his warm hand touched the tiny spot on her forearm that wasn’t covered by fabric. “I’d much appreciate if I lingered close to my future bride.”
A pleading look sparkled in Annie’s eyes, and she glanced helplessly at her sisters. Her heart felt as if it had gained two pounds and was now settled at the bottom of her ribcage. Her stomach twisted, resembling the flowing curtains in the midst of the summer when the windows were open and the breeze was alive. She forced her gaze on the shimmery snow beneath her feet. Maisie did not hesitate to respond, though; “Well, sir, if that is how you will behave then I s’pose we shall make it into a triple date. I shall go fetch my pair.” She was gone before anyone had a chance to respond. Annalise was not thrilled by the spontaneous idea that had popped into her sister’s mind, but she supposed it was far better than being alone. Alone with odd John Arten, that was.
The four waited silently as Maisie gleefully bounded off elsewhere. The wind was brisk, sharply whisking past their shivering bodies as if it was late and in an absolute hurry to be at its destined location. Annie snuggled her chin into the warm fur by her collarbone, clasping her hands together so tightly that her knuckles were surely the same shade as the snow around them. The clomping of feet made her look up, knowing without a second glance that it was Maisie. For someone so elegant, she really was hard on her feet. A man was trailing behind her, a smile on his face, though evidently not nearly as ecstatic as Maisie was.
Annalise’s smile dropped. Her mouth opened, and she stared as if she hadn’t ever heard of the word “manners” before. Esther caught on within seconds, and the two shared a worrisome look.
When Annie was sneaking off with Marius, nobody knew who the man really was. Nobody knew the name, nor did they know who he looked like. Annie had accidentally given that away about a week or so after she was caught; when she and Esther were roaming the market downtown, Marius, coincidentally, had been there, undoubtedly stocking up before he returned to France. Though it was more subconscious than not, Annalise had glanced in a rather supplicate manner in his direction, and Esther, who never missed anything, caught on quickly. Needless to say, Marius Bellegarde became a known man in her mind. Maisie, on the other hand, hadn’t ever been informed of anything more than, “Annalise was seeing a man.” What really caught Annalise off guard was the fact that this man trailing behind her younger sister was not at all the man Esther and herself had seen outside the ballroom yesterday.
Was this some kind of joke?
She’d tensed and her shoulders were now sore, but Annie didn’t fix her posture. She stared straight ahead, as if fixated on the small wooden sign of Mrs. Castons’ sewing shop that was swishing in the wind; she acted as though nobody else was around her. It seemed John was oblivious to the situation, for he grasped Annalise’s hand, jerking her back into the present moment. “Delightful, let us go now.”
Annie’s body was thrown forward at John’s rough tug, and she stumbled a few steps until she caught up to him. Pace hurried and uncomfortable, she felt as though she was practically jogging to keep up with his long strides. Her mind was stuck on the honey-blond behind Maisie. It was obvious Esther hadn’t much more knowledge on the situation than Annie, given her baffled expression, but Maisie didn’t even blink. Something was very off, and although Annalise felt rather uncomfortable being in Mr. Arten’s presence, she was beginning to feel a bit more thankful that he wasn’t up to hanging out with the rest of the group.
“Tell me, Annalise, what is it that you like about this place?” he asked, his gaze firm and lingering on the gentle movement of walking people up ahead. “It’s rather bland, don’t you agree?”
Annie’s brows twitched downward momentarily, and her lips parted slightly. She’d always adored the quaint little town; how extravagant was his hometown if he considered this vapid? Swallowing hard, and attempting to settle her breath, which had quickened from the quick pace they were traveling at, she gave the tiniest shakes of her head. “Well, Mr. Arten, I feel as though I’ve grown up here. It reminds me of home.”
A sharp breath was inhaled on his end, and John’s dark eyes shot over to her. Annoyance sprawled across his face, and Annie felt as though she’d forgotten how to breathe. “I told you, dear, you’re to refer to me as John. Who’s to believe we are courting if you use formalities in my presence?”
“We’ve not decided to court,” is what Annalise wanted to hurl back at him, but she did nothing more than give a settle head nod.
“Alas,” he continued, oblivious to her discomfort, “I shall buy you something marvelous. Although I do not believe a man should ever have to buy a gift to please his lass, you do not appear to be the type to prefer intimate actions—” Annalise nearly choked on her saliva— “and I will therefore please you otherwise.”
As if on cue, James had swooped into the scene, tapping John’s upper arm with his knuckle. “Pardon my interrupting,” he began, though the subtle look he offered Annie gave her the impression that this was planned, “but Mr. Arten, I believe us men were going to go for a beer and let the sisters have some time together before we all return back. Come join us.”
Annalise hadn’t the slightest idea how James managed it, but with only a few words of protest, John had left her side. His presence was delightfully replaced by her two sisters. Jumping on the opportunity right away, Annie whipped her head around to face Maisie. “Maisie,” she hissed, as if there was still the slightest possibility that the men could hear, despite not being around, “do tell me why you have brought that man along with you?”
“His name is Marius Bellegarde!” she chirped in response. Her smile was so wide and her eyes shone so brightly that it physically hurt Annie. She forced her gaze on the snowy cobblestones. “There’s quite a story behind it, actually. The man who’d taken me outside last night was not my true match; both he and Mr. Bellegarde had the same coat and he had taken Mr. Bellegarde’s instead of his own. Mr. Bellegarde had pinned his gem to his coat, but Mr. Earlston — the man I was with — hadn’t noticed until after he’d returned inside. Isn’t it so romantic! I must admit, Mr. Earlston was so flattering, but Mr. Bellegarde is truly something else.” She sighed dreamily, and Annie reached up to rid the tickling in her nose. “Mr. Earlston had taken me away because his pair was wrecked, he had said. Snobby and ignorant, and outwardly told him she disliked him because he was poor. Isn’t that horrid?”
Esther had murmured a soft, “Yes” at the same time Annalise shrugged. Was this one big coincidence? Her younger sister, the one who’d managed to get away with everything at all times, had been given a coloured gem the exact same shade as Marius Bellegarde’s. Annalise still had little idea how Marius had even been given an invitation; her parents despised him. She was convinced that these pairings had been selected by a draw, for there was no possible way the Purcells would allow their daughters to fall for Marius. It was an awful thing for Annie to come to the conclusion over, but it was the harsh truth. A Bellegarde would never be accepted into the family.
So then it made her think. If, miraculously, Marius and Maisie fell in love, would her parents be more accepting? Maisie, though not the youngest, was by far the favourite of the family. Annie didn’t want to figure that out.
Esther seemed to have sensed Annalise’s discomfort, for she had placed a hand gently on Maisie’s arm to temporarily halt her rambling. “You may tell me all about Mr. Bellegarde later,” she told her quietly. “I believe we should put the topic of men to rest for now. Instead, how about we get some tea? Mrs. Bell’s bakery has reopened after the fire and I’ve been informed that she is dealing drinks now, too.”
“Tea and cookies sound splendid,” Annalise cut in in a rushed tone before Maisie could protest. She wouldn’t, though. No Purcell would ever pass up the opportunity to devour a soft, warm baked treat. Annie still felt off about the whole situation, and her stomach was turning, as if an ocean battling the rage of a storm had been placed within her, but she did her best not to think too much about it. After all, what good was pondering over something that wouldn’t ever happen? Annalise knew she’d never be able to avoid John’s company, and it was evident Maisie had fallen head over heels for her former lover. Times had changed, and she was going to have to accept it. It hurt, though. It felt like an entire forest fire had begun to burn inside of her body, snaking up and over each bone, muscle, and organ within her, lapping at it until it crumbled, retreating so that the fire could claim victory.
It seemed as though that was exactly what was happening to her and John, who played the forcefulness fire. Her throat tightened as her mind began to ask just how long it would take before he would win the battle they had commenced only last night. And how long it would take for them both to acknowledge that a storm had broken free.
A musical jingle of a bell brought her back into the present situation, and Annie offered Esther a smile upon realizing her sister was holding the flimsy wooden door for her. Removing her warm hood, Annie drifted past her sister, taking in the comforting scent of warm cinnamon and freshly baked cookies. A snowstorm chill replaced the tender feeling the second her name was called out.