TWO DAYS AFTER Vinnie’s wedding ceremony, Annalise began to suspect something unusual had changed around her. Her roommates, both male and female, had fallen unusually quiet. The house had become silent; the smallest creak in the floor could be heard throughout the entire building. Chaotic Carter Kriss, as Maisie had nicknamed him, was a man who had practically devoted his entire life to the dusty old piano that was placed in the backroom of the house. He hadn’t touched it in days. Even John had fallen quieter, and although he was quick to scold when he wished to, he wasn’t as easily annoyed as he used to be. Annalise hadn’t the slightest clue of what was happening. She’d fallen into a robotic-like routine that consisted of a lot of tidying and embroidery to keep herself busy, and hadn’t had the chance to get out to see what was bugging everyone. Whenever an abandoned newspaper was spotted on the table, she turned and headed in another direction. She didn’t dare risk getting on John’s nerves again, despite her hungry curiosity. Unfortunately, though, there were only so many days one could go on for before they starved.
This morning, it seemed as though not a single soul was around to accompany Annie. Annalise, to be quite honest, was not as well aware of what the other pairs were up to as she supposed she should be been. She understood Evelyn was not at all a good fan of Eden Scarlett, much due to their large indifferences. She had, however, begun to speak to a well-built man who, coincidentally enough, also had a good amount of experience in the lumber industry. Annalise was not sure if anything romantic had sparked between them, but she was truly happy for her friend. Esther, unsurprisingly, had spent the majority of her time in the presence of James Trevor, and Annie hadn’t a clue what Maisie was up to. The young woman changed her mind far too often for anyone to successfully keep up. Many seemed to have a similar mindset at the young Purcell, running around with a different person every day, but it wasn’t often the house was empty. She had no way to contact anyone, and although she kept telling herself that everything was okay, her mind continued to leap into panic mode. Was there a reason why she was alone? Usually, Annalise appreciated the silence, for it was soothing and gave her time to relax and focus on herself. However, not only had she forgotten what it felt to be at ease with her surroundings, but the deadness that floated around her provoked an anxious flip-flop motion in her stomach. Rubbing her hand gently over the spot that felt unsettled, Annie let out a heavy sigh through her nose, then cautiously approached the paper on the table. Her eyes darted back and forth but not one person was within sight. What could they have possibly been hiding from her? She feared John was behind this, as per usual, but to hear absolutely nothing from her two sisters seemed a bit worrisome. Her hands trembled ever-so-slightly as they inched forward, her fingertips brushing against the rough sheet. Back flipped upward towards the ceiling, the papers’ discoveries remained an absolute mystery to those who had yet to read it. Annie took the chance, grasping the top corner of it. She yanked it over, then jumped backward, as if afraid it would injure her.
In the middle of the first paper, big, bolded letters read: HAS SCARLET FEVER TRAVELLED TO AMERICA?
Annalise felt her heart drop right into the pit of her stomach, and she inhaled a sharp breath. Scarlet fever in America? She’d been informed that it was rapidly spreading across England over the past year, but her parents had been convinced it would strictly remain in Europe. Europe seemed to always develop these diseases, and they attacked everyone like it had been rained down on the citizens, but the Europeans always had a way to prevent it from traveling further than their borders. Was this reporter correct, or was this yet another faux statement that had been thrown into the papers to create further drama in the town? Was that why nobody was around? Her heart rate picked up as she pondered over that, increasingly gaining more strength until it felt like it was hammering up into her throat. Were people truly sick? If they were, why hadn’t anyone informed Annalise of this incident? Where was everyone?
Pushing the paper away so that it tumbled off the table’s surface, Annie turned on her heel and rushed out of the dining room, lifting the bottom of her dress so she wouldn’t take a tumble. The barn, she would go to the barn. If this illness truly existed, surely people would be seeking out the carriages.
The crisp morning air hit her face aggressively, but Annie showed no signs of slowing down. She rushed across the small stone pathway that led them from the house to the small stable, dress dramatically flapping out behind her. When she arrived, the only person she was able to set sight on was a stable hand. She approached him regardless, giving him a small curtsy. “G’day, sir, I was wondering if anyone from the house had stopped by here recently?”
The stable hand, who was surely no older than nineteen, stopped his sweeping and stared at her, as if he’d never seen a lady before. In all fairness, Annie was sure they didn’t come out here as often as the men did. Eventually, he gave a quick nod, as if her words finally snapped him out of his daze. “Hello, madam, um...” His grey eyes flitted towards a dark bay, then back towards her. “I am not sure. There was one man who’d requested a carriage about half-past eight, but I have yet to see him again.”
Annalise nodded slowly, more focused on keeping her breath steady than responding instantly. She was worried about her sisters. Where had they gone? She saw them yesterday morning, but apart from a friendly wave from Maisie on her way out, neither had exchanged words between one another. The same went for Esther. Bringing her arms up to her chest, a small attempt to warm her from the brisk breeze that swished past them, she gave yet another nod. “Might I inquire the man’s name?”
The young man’s eyes lit up, as if this was something he had been looking forward to all day. “Mr. John Arten, miss!”
Annie’s shoulders slumped forward. Of course it was. While she was not fond of the man, she seemed to be even more upset over the fact that he was planning to flee from the town alone to avoid catching the sickness. What about the rest of them? Her, more specifically? He seemed so convinced that she was going to be with him for the rest of his life, yet he was going to take off without her? It seemed ironic, in the most unamusing way imaginable, that it was only now that he was listening to her words.
Annie’s eyes snapped upward and back to the stablehand, who was watching her intently. Though he appeared curious, Annalise also got the sense that he was impatiently waiting for her to leave so he could return to his chores. “Apologies,” she mumbled a moment later. “My presence surely is not doing you much good.”
The stranger wore a polite smile on his face but Annalise knew that was only because he wasn’t in a position that allowed him to openly agree to something like that. He didn’t say anything, but his gaze flickered over her shoulder, and she knew they were no longer alone. During, albeit reluctantly, her own eyes landed on the thing — or, person, really — and a small sigh escaped her lips. Perhaps he had been listening in on their conversation, as per usual, for Mr. Arten always seemed to find the perfect time to make an entrance.
“Annalise, I was looking for you,” he stated simply. The narrowed look he gave the stable hand was enough for the boy to rush off elsewhere. “There is a carriage prepared for us. We must leave now; I cannot explain to you why, but you must trust me.”
Annalise almost snorted at that. As if she would willingly place her trust in his hands! He had been far too rude to her for that. But then again, she had to remind herself that he hadn’t been around when she scoped out that newspaper. He didn’t know that she was aware of the rumour of scarlet fever. She contemplated on what to say, but settled for something simple; “Where are my sisters?”
This time it was John’s time to hesitant, for once in what felt like a lifetime. He inhaled slowly, evidently in deep consideration in terms of what he should say to her. “They have gone elsewhere,” he finally told her, and for once, Annie believed him. It made sense; if the illness had truly made its way into New York then they would have fled before it had a chance to reach them. Still, though, it seemed unusual. Wouldn’t they have written to her? Knocked on her door before they left and told her everything was going to be okay? She hadn’t an argument with either of them, so there was no reason for the silence she was given. Her lip quivered, and she pressed them together tightly to hold back a sob. She was alone. They really had left her. Her vision blurred, but she was still able to make out the figure of John, who hadn’t moved. “I haven’t a letter from them.”
John’s eyes flickered back towards the two front doors of the stables, then placed his hand on Annalise’s elbow. She flinched. He did not let go. “I have something from them for you in the carriage. Annalise, we must go, this is not to be messed with.”
Annie only found herself trailing behind him because she felt utterly helpless. Had her sisters truly abandoned her? Surely this was not a prank, right? It was written in the newspaper, after all. John could not have pulled this off on his own. That seemed a bit far-fetched, even for him.
They reached the carriage soon enough. The doors were already open and two sleek black horses were tacked and prepared, ready to head out on the trails. Annie didn’t recognize the carriage — it certainly wasn’t a Purcell’s — but did not have much energy to question it. She reluctantly slid into the cart, mind spinning far too much to even acknowledge the hand that had been pressed against her back. Plopping down on the cushioned bench, Annalise stared out the window with a fatigued expression. Her heart felt heavy and her mind was beginning to get a pulse. A hand rested against her stomach; she felt sick. Though things felt fuzzy, as if they had begun to travel in slow-motion, she must have mumbled something along the lines of inquiring their destined location, for John’s low voice spilled out, “An old cottage of my family’s about four hours north from here,” against the chilled air they were sharing. Annie gave a faint nod and rested her head against her hand. She was grateful to note that sleep was on her side, and she fell back into a soft sheet of gentle tranquility within moments after they took off from their house.
“Annalise, dear, it’s time to wake up.”
A soft feminine voice, pleasing to the ear though fairly unfamiliar, tickled her senses, and Annalise slowly backed out of the calming state she had settled herself in the past few hours. Eyes fluttering open and shut a few times, she let a large yawn escape from her jaws, drawing her back into the present moment. Confused as to where she was, her head sharply turned, and her gaze was met by a pair of startlingly blue eyes. “Vinnie.”
A gleeful laugh sounded from the woman, and she carefully helped Annalise out of the carriage, “Welcome to our second home.”
Annie took her by the hand, taking a second to rid the slight sway she was experiencing, then looked up. For a moment, it seemed as though her breath had been swiped away. The house was beautiful. It was undoubtedly a cottage, given the size in comparison to her own, but it looked like something she’d find in a painting. The roof was charcoal grey, the main body was a deep cherry red, and the rest of it, from the trim to the stairs and more, was a perfect coat of white. It looked like it had just been painted; Annalise couldn’t imagine it being very old. A small, cream birdbath was placed to their right, and bloomed flowers created a perfectly vertical path up to the house. She couldn’t imagine how beautiful their colours looked when the sun was out. “Is this your cottage?”
Vinnie, once again, laughed heartedly at the way Annie was gaping at it, grasping her hand a bit tighter as if afraid she’d lose her along the way. The two headed up the path; Annalise was more confused as to why Vinnie had been there to escort her, not John. She didn’t have time to question, though, for the door swung open and Annie was pushed inside.
The inside of the cottage felt much homier. The walls were a matcha green colour and every piece of furniture was from oak. Floral carpets were found under each table set up, no matter the size. Apart from the grand chandelier that was hung up right by the front entrance, simple bulbs were placed around the house to light it up. The windows were large, though their placings were particular. It was quaint, though; Annalise found it charming.
“My husband and I have been staying here until our house is finished; it is almost done on the inside now, too. He is out, and John, too,” Vinnie told Annie, as if the woman had read her mind. “He had some business to attend to with our father. Though,” she added in a somewhat hushed tone, “I suspect you are happier without him.”
“He’s strange, I know, but I promise he has a reason.” Vinnie’s voice grew quiet, soft, as in she was truly sorry for whatever it was she was about to say. Though curious by the change in her voice, Annalise did not pester. She got a feeling that whatever it was Vinnie was about to say, it was something more personal. Something that hit closer to home. And so she remained quiet as they trudged up the large staircase, eyes settled on Vinnie the entire time. For a good few minutes, Vinnie did not say anything more, and Annalise began to suspect the woman had forgotten where she was going with her words. But the second the Arten — or, Ryers — lady opened the door to her bedroom and patted the bed, Annalise knew there was a story about to be told.
Annie’s gaze roamed as Vinnie walked towards her vanity, pulling out an old, black-handled brush. Her fingers delicately brushed the bristles like they were strings off of a guitar. The room itself screamed Vinnie Ryers. The wall colour was a perfect shade of daffodil yellow, with large windows that lit up the entire room and lacy white curtains. Her bedsheets were a similar shade of that on the wall downstairs, giving off a very urban, nature-based look; oddly enough, the first thing that seemed to come to Annalise’s mind was a garden. Pottery and other charming art pieces were spread out across the room. It all seemed very suiting, despite knowing very little about the dark-haired woman.
“John says you have a burning passion for the visual arts,” Vinnie stated suddenly, jolting Annie from her thoughts. She gave nothing more than a nod in return, unsure of where exactly things were going. It wasn’t as if anything good could come from it, based on how much John despised her dreams. To be quite honest, Annie was surprised he’d mentioned it to anyone at all. “He may be skeptical, but I swear to you, he means well. You see...” Her words died off for a second, and she inhaled slowly, as if heavily debating on what to say next. “I suppose you could say our family has had a bad history with women and their successes. My mother aspired to be an actress, did you know, but her parents heavily scolded her and told her it was a disgrace if she became one. Not that women were often accommodated for, especially during the time she wished to join the stage, but that is besides that point. I suppose she never bore us all the details, but the scoldings had to have been harsh, for she was rather strict when we — I, in particular — showed some interest in the arts. Men had always been more dominating in that field, and my mother heavily believed that it would be a waste of our time and our money if we pursued anything in the arts.
“Things got more complicated, but I will break it down into two parts. Firstly, John. John has adored the arts of all sorts. He was to marry a woman who was a sculptor when he was just shy of nineteen years. They were madly in love, and I hadn’t ever seen him with such a large amount of joy.” A faint smile played at her lips, and Annalise knew that she was far away. “Fiona was her name, though I cannot remember a last. But anyway, they were to wed, you know. He proposed and they were prepared for a grand wedding. But life does not always take us the way we wish, and Fiona lost her life.” Her eyes flickered towards Annie’s. Annie felt as though she was barely breathing, hooked on each and every word Vinnie was saying. Did John truly have a different side to him, a side he was too stubborn to show her? “There was a riot and an accident, and, well, I suppose I do not have to go into all of the details. Though I suppose we never received the full details on what this riot was about, we suspected it had something to do with the rights of women, and Fiona was simply protesting for what she loved. I believe John has much he tends to blame when he thinks back on that incident, despite not being there. Annalise, I hope you do know that John is not cold because of you, dear. He has nightmares, I am sure of it. It’s difficult to love again.”
The haunting words “I know” stained Annie’s mind as she nodded along with Vinnie’s words. She did not dare to speak at first. Guilt overpowered her, and even the tips of her ears felt warm with shame. Had she been too quick to judge, or was she right in believing that John was far too much for her to handle? She felt uncomfortable around him, most certainly not at all at ease, but was that an issue for her to fix? Running a hand along the pattern of her skirt, she kept her gaze down, but her attention, for the most part, was still on Vinnie. “And what is it of the second half?”
“Ah!” This time it was Vinnie’s turn to nod. “Well, I can consider myself to be an artist, too. Pottery; I love working with it. Though I am no expert, and I am sure a lady like yourself is far more talented than I am, I have a few pots sculpted to near-perfection.” Her eyes lit up then, and she turned to Annie, excitement visible in her expression. “Oh, Annalise, do come with me on my next trip! It is set in two days, and we will travel to Albany for an art festival! You will surely love it, I promise.”
Annalise hesitated then. While an art trip sounded like an absolute joy, she was afraid her worries for her lost siblings — and now her guilt towards John — would put a halt to feeling anything more than grief. Her parents, too, for the last she knew, they were still in Manhattan, where the sickness was spreading. “I am afraid I may be a bit too glum to attend a trip like so.”
“Nonsense,” Vinnie cut in quickly, waving her excuse off. “In fact, I believe this event may take your worried mind off of...” She paused, unsure of whether or not she should list off the reasons. She didn’t, which Annalise was thankful for. “Please think about it, at least. I believe it will be much fun for the both of us.”
Annalise gave yet another slow nod to that. A sliver of a smile played at her lips, and although it did not last more than a blink or two, it was enough to show that in the end, she would cave in. She always caved in.
And within an hour, it was decided. Annalise would be going to Albany.