OVER THE NEXT few weeks, Annalise hadn’t ever believed to have lived in such misery. She felt lost, endlessly traveling through prodigious amounts of thick, misty fog, clouding her vision to such a degree that she had no choice but to fall back to where she had first emerged. Even at that, her sense of helplessness and despair was not resolved, for the copious amounts of opaque condensation only pushed her back towards the opened arms of John Arten. John, who’d instructed her to lay her troubles on him and not her sisters, for, in his eyes, they were far too weak and uneducated to know of any possible solution. Then, to make things worse, followed up by scoffing about how Annalise’s issues wouldn’t be worth a moment to sit and hear of them, for they would be constructed of nothing less than absolute nonsense.
She had no paintbrushes, no quills or wooden pencils, not even a dreadful book she could flip through. John supplied her with fabric to sew and a cloth in case she wished to polish up the items that were spread out around the house. Annie knew he couldn’t force anything on her, given she was inside a house that belonged to her own family, but he was going to try. It made her wonder with doubt just how strict he’d be if she did indeed have to marry him.
Annie had spent an awful lot of time alone with her wandering thoughts after giving into John on the porch some days ago, but she still had yet to find a way out of this potential marriage. John had made it astronomically clear that he had the intention of marrying her, and although Annalise felt she hid it rather well to the others around her, she knew without a doubt that she’d decline his offer; that went without a second thought. But how, was the question. This man was not shy when it came to letting others know that he did not like the word “no.” How much power could the man really hold, though? He ran a bookstore, after all, not a high-end economical factory. More than you could ever imagine, came that annoying little voice in response to her wonders. Who was she to judge when it came to power? She was only a lady, after all.
Sighing, Annalise brushed the thin strand of hair that was tickling her brow out of her face, then picked up another China plate. The worst part of the entire situation was, she was actually going along with what he was telling her. Like cleaning, for example, which was what she was currently doing. It was difficult to do anything against her will when his eyes were consistently on her; he found a way every time, even when he wasn’t visibly present. She’d made the mistake of underestimating that once, when she took off towards the small stables on the property over after he claimed he was going out on a business meeting. She’d managed three successful steps out the door before he had roared her name. She’d become terrified, not having expected it in the slightest, and rushed back in. The strangest part was, she never figured out where he had been when he demanded she returned back inside. Nobody found it unusual, either. Annalise supposed that was most likely due to the fact that the rakes in the house were too busy flirting up a storm with the ladies who’d proclaimed themselves to be free and single to notice John’s controlling behaviour. The ladies were too busy charming the free men to scope out anything odd about Mr. Arten. She’d even been told by one that John Arten was dashingly handsome, but twirled off with a flirtatious giggle before Annie had the chance to change the stranger’s mind.
It did not help her much that both Esther and Maisie were highly invested in the men in the house, too. Esther, of little surprise, had been spending more and more time with James Trevor, and Maisie flirted with so many of them that Annalise could not even begin to attempt to sort out all of their names. She couldn’t help but fret they were growing more distant, and although she knew they had every right to travel down their own separate path and make their own decisions, it made Annalise feel more lonely than ever. She didn’t have anyone to turn to, to spill her troubling thoughts if need be. I suppose the wall is my best option, she miserably thought to herself. It seems to be the only thing that has remained consistent this entire time. And with that, she let out a sob-like groan, slouching against the doorframe. Her sore hands tossed the old rag on the floor in front of her, and she tilted her head back with a deep sigh. Life felt wretched.
“Annalise, good heavens, why are you laying on the floor!?”
The sound of that voice, oh-so-familiar though strangely distant as well, snapped Annie’s head up. In front of her stood Evelyn, hands on her hips, an unimpressed frown that appeared to be almost permanent across her face.
“I feel I have become part of it,” Annie grumbled in return.
“Dear me, stop being so dramatic.” With an eye roll, Evelyn grabbed Annie’s hands and heaved her up to her feet. “Have you not heard? Your father sent for you and your sisters. You three are to make a trip out to the Purcell mansion this very morning.”
That had been the first Annie had heard of such a thing, and a new burst of energy surged through her. Eyes flying open, making her appear more awake than she’d felt in days, she stared intensely at her friend, waiting for the woman to clasp her hands together with a laugh and dismiss the whole thing. But instead, Evelyn stared back, a what are you doing? look plastered on her face. “Oh,” Annalise returned, surprise layered atop of her words, “you’re serious!”
“Yes, you silly girl,” Evelyn retorted with an exasperated sigh. “Now off you go, go get ready! You look like the rag you’ve tossed on the floor.”
Annalise ignored the comment, her mind buzzing too much over the news that was revealed to think of something quirky to say in response. She did, however, clasp her hands over Evelyn’s for a brief moment, a silent gesture to represent her thanks, then trotted up the creaking stairs. Marie, too, seemed to have known about the trip, for when Annie poked her head in the dressing room, a blue dusk dress was laid out across the wooden chair.
“Marie, who informed you of this?” Annalise asked, her tone nearly breathless from the overwhelming excitement she had experienced. “Evelyn only just spoke to me.”
“Miss Maisie told me,” Marie informed her quietly, helping Annalise out of what she was currently wearing. “She said she would be speaking to you, but it is clear that was not the case, given your reaction.”
A twitch of a smile played at Annie’s lips, but she did not comment on the subject. She was dressed quickly, and before she knew it, the three of them were whisked off towards their home. For the first time in a while, Annalise felt a calming sense of relief. They were going home.
The mansion seemed even bigger than Annalise had ever imagined, and she couldn’t help but gap at it as they were helped out of the carriage. Beside her, Maisie snorted. “It’s almost as though you’ve never been here before,” she teased, yanking Annie’s arm to drag her along. The three fell into step and were quickly greeted by an unfamiliar servant at the door, promising a second later to fetch their mother. Their father had been called away for a last-minute business meeting and was not around to greet them. Though this was a bit of disappointing news for the young women, they knew better than to show it. After all, their mother was still around, and Annalise felt the true sense of homesickness when she made an appearance.
“Mother!” all three squealed at once, rushing forward to enclose one big hug around the woman, who warmly returned it as best she could.
“Oh, I must seek out my room,” Maisie said, pulling back first. “I must ensure nothing has been changed!” She raised a brow at their mother, then took off down the hallway, her heavy dress flowing out behind her. Esther wished to check on the younger Purcells, and within seconds, Beth and Annie Purcell were left alone.
“Annie, dear,” Beth Purcell started with a small sigh, placing her warm palms on either side of Annie’s face, “you look distressed.”
“I am okay, Mother,” Annalise returned half-heartedly, unable to meet her mother’s warm gaze. “I have just missed out on many hours of sleep, that is all.”
Mothers knew everything, though, and Beth did not seem to believe her words for a second. “Is it about a man, Annie?”
Annalise hesitated, perhaps for a second too long, then gave a reluctant nod. “I do not know what to do.”
A hum sounded in Beth’s throat, and she placed a gentle hand under Annie’s chin, lifting her head so their eyes could meet. A thousand years of wisdom and purity sparkled in Beth’s gaze, and Annalise felt a new wave of comfort wash over her. “I cannot be there to help you, my dear, but let me tell you, you mustn’t ever change your ways for a man. Do not spend all of your time on someone who only makes you an option. You are to be a priority in their eyes, always. Marriage is about two people in love; let your heart play a part in this.”
Annie gave yet another small nod as she took in her mother’s soft words. She wanted to cry, to break down and let everything that was bundled up high inside of her out. Beth sensed that, too, and the second her arms wrapped around her daughter, Annalise burst out into tears.
Attending a wedding with John Arten was most certainly not something Annalise had wished to do anytime soon, but it ended up happening. She couldn’t say no to him, and so when he proposed taking two seats at his sister’s wedding, she had no choice but to accept the offer. She hadn’t quite known what to expect, walking into the church that would host the ceremony. The number of guests that had arrived was a bit overwhelming; Annalise knew the Arten family was large, but she hadn’t known about just how many connections they really had. The dress the sister wore was exquisite; the cream dress’s train was easily the length of the six-year-old Purcell son, Georgie. Her veil wrapped around her body, floating out to around her hipbones. The dress was slim, and if it weren’t a wedding dress, Annalise believed it was something Evelyn would wear. Flowers of a slightly darker shade were sewn on throughout the dress, which suited the church’s design, which was filled from top to bottom with flowers of every breed possible, to pure perfection. Annie hadn’t always been a fan of weddings, and she told herself to remain as neutral and even a bit stand-offish during her time spent with the Artens, but it was beginning to feel a bit more difficult than she’d originally believed. It became her mission to scope out something that was rightfully wrong about the occurring event.
The wedding ceremony itself had gone over quickly, and although Annie wasn’t nearly as engaged in the vows and promises made as Maisie would have been, she listened with enough politeness to get by. The afterparty was what really grabbed her attention, and she couldn’t help but wonder where exactly John had received all of his strictness from. Based on the way the invited people were shouting, laughing, and spinning so quickly that they could potentially take off into the sky if it was possible, she took these were either not part of the Arten family, or something severe had struck John to turn him into who he was now.
“Annalise Purcell, I am so pleased to finally meet your acquaintance!” a feminine voice gushed from behind her, and when Annie turned around, her eyes were met with a pair of startlingly electric blue ones. The look on Annalise’s face must have given away all of her confusion, for the young woman continued, “I am Vinnie Arten! Or, well, I suppose I am Vinnie Ryers now, but I am John’s sister!”
“Oh!” Annie exclaimed, quickly connecting the dots. Vinnie was the bride, the woman whose ceremony she’d only just attended. Goodness, Annalise, you really can be so stupid. “It’s lovely to meet you.”
Vinnie leaned in and kissed Annalise’s cheeks, then stepped back, but her hands lingered on Annie’s upper arms. “You’re the mysterious woman who is to be married to my brother. I hadn’t believed that day would ever come around!”
Annie’s lips parted, then she shut her mouth. If it was possible, surely two question marks would have appeared in her emerald green irises. “I’m not quite sure you are aware of the full story, Miss. Ryers,” she said slowly after contemplating on whether or not she should find John and confront him that instant. “John and I are not engaged.”
Vinnie’s smile dropped and she stared back at Annalise, processing her words. A second or two later the action seemed to be complete, and this time, it was her mouth to drop. “Oh, goodness me, my sincerest apologies! I only know what John has told us...” Her voice faded and she lifted her head; Annie took she was searching for her brother. “I suppose if that’s the case, we should clear the air then, hm? In his latest letter to us, our family had gotten the impression you were to wed before the spring season was over. I surely would not like to have my future strictly determined by a man, no? Come, us ladies are to stick together here.”
Annalise could neither protest nor voice her agreement, for Vinnie’s hand had already secured around her own and was now strutting towards a small crowd of no more than seven people. John Arten was leading whatever conversation they were having. As they approached, Annalise’s stomach began to release the anxious butterflies that were living inside. Each and every one of them, including Vinny, had dark brown, nearly black hair, and either sharp blue eyes or dark, dark ones. These were, without a doubt, Artens. Suddenly, she wasn’t feeling very confident, but Vinnie clearly was, and the grip on Annie’s hand told her she wasn’t to go anywhere.
“Good evening, dearest family,” Vinnie greeted in a chirpy tone, a smile far too large for what was to happen on her face. Annalise had to admit, she was impressed. Based on the cool look Vinnie had shot her brother upon hearing Annie’s side of the story, it was evident she was not very happy about the lies — or maybe just stretched truth — that had been revealed. But here, in front of her family, she looked angelic, innocent. The way everyone’s voice died off and their eyes went to her told Annalise that Vinnie had a lot of respect in the family. “Pardon me for interrupting, I’m sure your conversation was far more important than celebrating your daughter’s wedding, but I have someone you would like to meet. This is Miss Annalise Purcell.”
Annie’s gaze quickly snapped over to John, who practically had daggers in his eyes. He marginally raised his hand enough for her to catch sight of the movement he performed with his hand; it appeared as though he was faking a slashed throat. Annalise got the interpretation; she wasn’t to say a word. He knew she already knew what this was about. Still, she managed the winning smile she gave all of their guests every time a Purcell had a ball, and dipped into a polite curtsey. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all.”
A large man about two inches taller than John stepped forward. He was, without a doubt, John’s father; John was the spitting image of him. He had a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth, and his dark, intense eyes skimmed over every inch of Annalise. She held her breath. “Ah,” rolled from the tip of his tongue, “you are the woman my son has chosen to marry.”
Vinnie held up a finger before anyone could say anything further. “No, papa, not exactly. I’ve been told that while that is indeed John’s intention, nothing has yet happened.”
John scowled. The father rose a brow. “Vinnie, when will you learn that you women enjoy twisting the situation to give yourselves the upper hand? Just accept the news, we are not taking your day away.”
Annie could tell it was taking a lot for Vinnie not to give an eye roll. “Father, weddings and marriage are about happiness. If Annalise was indeed engaged, why would she lie about such a situation? I truly believe John would have taken her home if they were to wed, too, not remain at a strange house filled with many other men and women.”
She had a good point, and that was a given, based on the looks on their faces. Nobody said anything for a good breath, and Annie was beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable. Then, John pushed forward with a muttered, “I must leave.” He grabbed Annie’s arm and yanked her out of the circle. Annalise wanted to look back at Vinnie, feeling much more comfortable around the confident woman, but couldn’t seem to take her gaze off of John. Once they were near the row of awaiting carriages, he spun around the face her. “What in God’s name did you tell that psychotic woman?”
Annie’s head struck back, and she twiddled her fingers to ease the anxiety that had begun to sprout like a bean stock inside of her. John snatched her hands to prevent the fiddling. Annie did not move. “I... I simply told her we were not engaged.” She did not dare comment on the fact that he had called his sister such an absurd name.
“Listen to me very carefully,” he seethed in her ear. “If I say something has happened, it has happened, do you understand? If I say we are getting married, we will be getting married. You do not have a say in the matter.”
“Shut up!” he snapped at her, shoulders striking upward. She flinched and leaped back, fearful of what he had planned to do to her. But nothing came. Nothing more than a heavy sigh. “We must leave now, before you make matters worse. Come.”
The carriage ride home was yet another dreaded step into the dragon’s den.