Annalise’s breath felt caught in her throat as she stared at the figure in front of her, a gloved hand softly running down the middle of her throat and to the top of her chest, as if the gesture would soothe the soreness that had suddenly emerged within her.
“Honey,” she croaked in return. Her cheeks turned red as she processed her words, and her bottom lip dangled open. “I mean—”
But the words had already left her mouth. A mellifluous laugh filled the air, easing the tension Annie had begun to feel. “If we were going with terms of endearment, Miss. Purcell, I do prefer dear.”
Annie’s whole face felt like it was on fire, and she didn’t doubt it looked like it, too. She tugged at her glove, cringing ever-so-slightly as the fabric between her fingers pressed firmly against the skin like a knife against a solid surface. Wiggling her fingers to rid the tingling feeling, she dropped her gaze to the slightly wet floor beneath her dainty boots. Catching onto the silence that had drifted above them since his last words, Annie took it was her turn to speak. So, in a muffled tone, she returned, “What are you doing here, Mr. Bellegarde?”
A loud gasp took her by surprise, and when Annalise cautiously moved her gaze upward, the young man, whose signature boyish grin had increased, had a hand placed across his chest, where his heart was located. Annalise was almost positive something along the lines of, “Since when had ‘Mr. Bellegarde’ become part of your vocabulary?” would break out, but Marius seemed to have moved past that opportunity, for his mouth offered, “How warm of you, Miss. Purcell,” instead. When Annie shot him a somewhat quizzing look, he added in a more serious tone, “I’ve never been one to enjoy a cold beer, ’specially not in the heart of the winter season. A tea sounded far more refreshing. I hadn’t expected to run into the famous Purcell sisters, though. What a sight it is, seeing all three of you here!”
At this point, it had sunk into Annalise’s mind that Esther and Maisie were still present, though Maisie had taken off towards the rows of baked goods the moment they entered the shop. She clearly had yet to see Marius. Esther had offered a polite curtsy, though that had shot right over Annalise’s head, for she continued to openly stare at him, watching him like he was some strange new animal who couldn’t yet be trusted. Or, better yet, a strange young man who was unreadable. Marius Bellegarde had always been an audacious, cheeky soul, but he could read people well, and Annie knew that hadn’t changed the moment his smile fell from his lips. His eyes flickered down towards the floor in a helpless manner, then he glanced back up at her. The look he gave her made her heart flutter, but Annalise refused to give in easily. She cast a glance over his shoulder instead.
“Annalise, may I have a quick word?” he asked. His words were soft, pleading, almost. He still knew what he was doing; he was good. That tone was different from his typical one, and she always caved. God, how he got to her with such little effort. Her eyes did flash in a certain direction this time, towards Maisie, but her sister’s back was towards them and she was in deep conversation with the head baker, Mrs. Bell. Slowly, wordlessly, as if her entire shelf of sassy, quick-witted words had been sucked right out of her, Annie gave a single nod of her head. Marius shot Esther a quick, polite look, then gently curled his fingers around Annalise’s elbow and carefully guided her outside. The chilly, fresh air of Mother Nature felt like a slap to her face, and Annie’s full attention returned to her current situation. She looked at Marius, though wasn’t exactly sure what she was expecting to leave his parted lips. In fact, it seemed as though not a single thought was running through her mind at that moment. Nothing more than a whiny complaint about how cold it was outside, but who was that to surprise?
“Annalise,” he began, and she cringed. Cringed because he was not referring to her as strictly Miss. Purcell, yet cringed because he wasn’t calling her Annie, either. He carried on, his words formal, though warm; the pleasing bit of sunshine that maneuvered around the gloomy grey clouds. “I do not wish to make things awkward. I swear, my matching gem with Maisie’s — Miss Purcell’s — had nothing to do with any decisions made on my end. I find it quite amusing, really, t-though not because of, um...” His words died off sheepishly and he bit his lip to resist a guilty grin. Annie did nothing more than blankly stare back. “I feel I should apologize, for, well...”
Annalise had a feeling she knew what was coming and held up a hand to stop him. “That’s quite alright, Mr. Bellegarde,” she returned. Her tone was hoarse, sharp, even. She barely recognized it. “I do not need to retreat back to the old days.”
The look on Marius’ face was almost enough to make one shed a tear. He looked absolutely devasted, as if he’d just received the most heartbreaking news. His shoulders evidently slumped and his smile had vanished completely. His head snapped back like a startled mustang as Annie opened her mouth again, as if timid of what was next to come. Nothing did. She had nothing more to say. Still, for whatever odd reason, she did not move. She could not leave him.
“I suppose I will leave you with one thing, then,” he mumbled after having drawn in a deep breath. I do not care if these gems are to draw two beings together for marriage. I will not marry your sister.”
Annalise’s eyes flickered back up and settled on his face as he spoke those words. Oddly enough, those words gave her chills. She was sure that wasn’t from the cold temperature outside. “Maisie adores you,” she found herself saying, well against her own will. Annalise was not possessive, but she also wasn’t the type to easily give in to either of her sisters. Could the same thing work with a man whom nobody had power over? Something about that did not seem right.
“And my adoration is elsewhere,” he returned steadily, drawing his big brown eyes up to meet her own. Her breath was stolen once more, and her heart skipped a beat. However, the tiniest shake of her head followed the movement, and her fingers reached for her necklace. “I do not understand.”
Marius’s lips twitched upward for a brief second. “You’ve never been good at taking hints, have you?” His tone touched on pure amusement, though there was something else that lingered within it. “It’s quite amazing, really, given how mysterious you are with your own words.”
Drawn out of whatever daze she had just been sucked into, Annalise turned sharply to her left. Her heart began to pound against her ribcage, and her legs felt weaker. Up ahead, John Arten was storming towards them. Even from afar, Annie could see his red, angered cheeks and ugly grimace. A fresh wave of pure panic surged through Annalise, and she quickly spun back towards Marius, whose head was tilted like a curious puppy, watching as the angered man quickened his pace to reach the two of them.
“Mr. Bellegarde,” she hissed, and when he failed to acknowledge her, she added in a sharper tone, “Marius. You must head back to the bakery before he does something awful to you.”
He turned his quizzing gaze onto her at that, his frown deepening, eyes flickering over her, attempting to find any sign of teasing. Annalise’s face revealed nothing more than sombreness. “Annie, what is the matter?”
Annalise wanted to grab his shoulders and give his body a good shake for not taking her advice, but she knew better. Besides, by the time she had even opened her mouth to respond, John was breathing down Marius’s neck. Annie averted her gaze. Marius jumped.
“Might I ask what you are doing out here with her?” John’s words were sickly sweet. Bone-chilling, with the level of discomfort Annalise used to experience as a child when her mother teasingly told her and her siblings scary stories.
Marius narrowed his eyes, and Annalise knew things were not going to go over well. She’d come to the conclusion extremely quickly that John liked having the final say in things, and he was not fond of arguments unless he was going to win them. Marius was intelligent, Annie knew that, but it took him an extra bit to figure that out. Unfortunately for him, John Arten did not give out those extra bits needed. In fact, he took that lost time to his advantage. “I was simply having a friendly conversation with her. It has been quite some time since we’ve last met, you know.”
“You are a man—”
“Delighted you’ve noticed.”
“—and you are to stay away from her.” John’s tone dipped lower and lower into the imaginary ice that chilled his words.
Marius, sweet but oh-so-oblivious at times, and usually the worst times, tapped a finger to his chin. “Is that so? Might I see the papers that give proof that you are to command what Annalise does and does not do?”
The scowl upon John’s pale lips deepened. “She is to be my wife, and I do not trust her around other men. It is Miss. Purcell to you, and I command you to step further back from her.”
“It’s difficult to refer to anyone as Miss. Purcell when there are several of them.”
If Annalise wasn’t so taken aback by John’s angered tone, she may have chuckled. But she was frozen to the spot, and it wasn’t until John’s tense hands gripped her wrist that she made movement. John was evidently unimpressed with Marius’s sly words, and Annalise had no power in the situation. She bit her lip at the stinging in her wrist as John tugged her in another direction, but did not say anything aloud. She did not doubt the skin would be red by the end of the day. Once far enough away, John dropped her hand and glared down at her. “I do not wish to see you speaking to that man.”
“That man is my friend,” Annie returned weakly. Her voice cracked on the word “friend” and her gaze did not leave the snowy ground, but she felt a small flurry of confidence sprinkle over her for standing up for herself. For Marius. “He was only greeting.”
“In private,” John pointed out. “I do not want to see that.” His teeth fumbled with the corner of his lip, and his dark eyes peered down at her. “I do not approve of it.”
Perhaps Annalise would have shut her lips and remained obedient if there wasn’t so much commotion around them. The soft chatter of those wandering in and out of shops seemed to remind her of where she was, and that really, he couldn’t do anything bad to her in a public place. “Mr. Arten, I was speaking to him because he listens to me.”
It seemed like a good thing to say at the moment. John’s physical response, however, was not on good terms. His chest puffed and he straightened his posture, making himself even taller than before. On the contrary, on Annalise’s end, she had fired herself up. She wasn’t ready to back down now. And, so, before he had a chance to say anything, she blurted, “I have dreams, Mr. Arten, and I wished to speak of them aloud. I cannot have that opportunity with you, sir.”
“You are a woman,” he seethed, bending down so that his face was uncomfortably close to her. “What dreams could you possibly have? If you do not wish to produce my children and work in my house, I do not want to hear of them. They are merely stupid fantasies and you will learn in the Artsen household to give those up immediately.” When Annie averted her gaze once more, he grabbed her chin and yanked her head up. Tears began to threaten to poke out of the corners of her eyes, and they would have spilled down her cheeks if her eyes weren’t so dry from the cold weather. “Do you understand?”
A rapid head nod was her only response. Annie’s throat closed, her chest tightened, and she knew a sob would emerge if she said anything more. Her bottom lip undoubtedly trembled, though, even if just a bit. She prayed to those above that John Arten did not catch it. And yet, that stubborn fire inside the pit of her stomach, although very dim, hadn’t yet died completely. Much to her horror, she found herself mumbling, “I want to go to France. I want to paint.”
John’s snake-like gaze slithered back to her and his eyes scoped out her face, visibly testing her, tauntingly encouraging her to say more. “The only place you will be going to will be the Arten manor,” he snapped. “And the only paintings you will ever see are the ones constructed by men I have hired; there are two in the house, and you will not see a single addition to our walls. Can you read?”
“Then you will be restricted from our family library,” he sighed. It shook ever-so-slightly, supporting his frustration. Annalise could not even begin to understand the rage he was feeling. His words, harsh and cold, felt like a slap to the face. She was sure her eyes had begun to water, but the only thing she felt was pure numbness. She didn’t know what to say, what to do. She couldn’t go anywhere, hide somewhere. “There is no need for a woman to know how to read. The only knowledge you will need is on how to properly tidy our household.” His eyes remained on her face, his lips pressed together so tightly that it surely had to be painful for him. Finally, after a stony gaze that felt like it had been on her for years, he stood back up straight and took a step away from her. Annalise still did not move a muscle. She looked as though she was barely breathing. Even the shaking had turned inside so he did not see it. “I believe I have said enough, Miss. Purcell. Come, we must head back to the house.”
And Annalise did not dare to protest against his words.
Back at the house, things had calmed down slightly, but not enough to put Annalise’s nerves to rest. She was more jumpy than usual after her odd encounter with John and felt her fuse had shortened immensely after they’d returned back from the city. The worst part of all, Annalise concluded, was that she did not end up receiving a freshly baked cookie, nor did she get a perfectly steeped cup of tea. When she had spilled that to Esther, her sister gave a hearty laugh and promised she’d return to the bakery to satisfy her cravings. Annalise had argued against that, claiming that her complaints were not genuine, but Esther was stubborn, and she and James took off once again. Annie soon concluded that although she did not know the details, Esther had a fair idea of what had happened between Annalise and John.
She was only just returning back now, barely beating the sleepy sun. “Annie, I have your cookies!”
Her soft voice rang out into the kitchen, where Annalise had settled herself. Leaping to her feet so quickly she almost knocked the chair over, Annie departed the room and hurried towards the front entrance. Esther had a small, chestnut-brown woven basket hanging from her forearm. The red cloth within it confirmed that there was indeed something delicious inside, but Annalise was more curious over the newspaper that was folded in her sister’s hand. “Sister, when did you start reading the newspaper?”
Esther had a smile plastered on her face, but it was clear that it was fake. Annie’s own dropped, and when her sister didn’t answer her question, she marched closer and snatched the paper out of her hands. One of the larger subtitles read, “Have the daughters of the Purcell family taken things too far?” When her gaze dragged on, Annie was mortified to realize that the only Purcell name mentioned was her own. And the only other name noted was John Arten. Annie’s head slowly tilted up to meet Esther’s eye. “Do enlighten me, what is this all about?”
Esther slowly handed the basket off to James, who hurriedly left the foyer to give them their privacy. Stepping closer, she placed a reassuring hand on Annie’s shoulder. Annie shrugged it off. “I am afraid the latest writer had caught a glimpse of your heated argument with Mr. Arten. You know how these men are, they twist everything; in his words, you provoked Mr. Arten’s temper. Worry not, sister, you know it’s false.”
“But Mother and Father do not,” Annie wailed. The tips of her ears were beginning to heat up, though not out of humiliation. “They will think I am a disgrace, an utter disappointment to the family! Surely they like Mr. Arten.”
“Don’t read this, Annalise, it will only upset you further,” Esther told her firmly, swiping the paper back. “We will burn it in our fire tonight. It’s only gossip, you know how much our town adores it. Those who truly care for you know you and know Mr. Arten, and know which story is real and which is not. Besides,” she added in a matter-of-fact tone, “there was a loose horse that had turned the corner of one of the market aisles as we were loading our goods into our carriage. Surely that will make the front cover of every page tomorrow, and this incident will have been long forgotten.”
If Annie was listening, she showed no signs. Her cheeks flared red and her cold palms rested on them. “Oh, John mustn’t know! He will be furious with me!” Snapping into action mode, she turned and walked briskly down the narrow hallway, skidding to a halt right outside the back door. John was on the porch, cigar in hand. His back was facing the door, but Annie knew he’d know she was there the second she opened the door. So she did, and, as expected, he was quick to speak. “Ah, Annalise.”
For a moment, Annie stood there, as rigid as the stone structures sprawled out across New York. She did not like this man. She was afraid of this man and the power he possessed, it was true. But whomever the writer had been lucky, scoping out Annie and John, and she knew it wouldn’t be the last time. If people knew how close the Purcell’s contestants were to the hotspot area of New York, they’d be spying on the perimeters of the enclosed house whenever they could. In other words, those living within the house were going to have to act angelic to avoid getting their name spilled in the papers. Annalise couldn’t afford to risk her family name; they’d been nothing unless admirable from the beginning of time, that couldn’t change. Annie knew if she was the cause of that change, she’d be in an awful lot of trouble. Swallowing hard, she took the tiniest of steps forward. “I best believe we keep an eye out for what we do and what we say from now on. There are—”
“Yes,” John interrupted. He turned, giving his cigar a leisurely tap with his index finger. “Yes, I do believe you are right, Annalise. Though I must correct you, for you should know as well as I do that it was you that spoke out of line, my dear, not myself. You must learn to remember your place.”
Annie’s eyes skitted to her left, where a perfect row of trees had been planted so many years ago. Though once fantasized to be a brilliant bundle to obscure her person, she now couldn’t help but notice how far apart they were. How many people could hide in there and watch their every move. Breathing in deeply through her nose, wincing as it caught in her chest, she gave a robotic nod of her head in response to his comment. “Yes,” she echoed, tone obedient though utterly helpless. “Yes, from now on, I will do exactly as you say.”