THE TRIP TO Albany was long, and while Vinnie’s company was truly delightful, there was only so much chit-chat Annalise could take before she wished she could leap right out the carriage window. Thankfully, they arrived before she had a chance to figure out how to do that without getting her dress caught.
Albany reminded her quite a lot like Manhattan, though on a bit more of a reserved side. The streets were busy, filled with suits and dresses of all styles and colours, and there were small shops set up everywhere. It seemed evenly divided between the shopping aspect and the farming part; there had been nothing but empty fields for hours when they first entered the city, but as they drew closer to what seemed to be the other side, there was a major change in the way things had been developed. Carriages dotted the roads, and Annie could sense a large amount of liveliness, even from a distance. A large section was blocked off up ahead, and she knew instantly that that was where the festival was taking place. She glanced over at Vinnie, who was ecstatic. She had been surprised to discover just how much the woman seemed to appreciate the arts, for the feeling she had received from the Arten family was very old-school and traditional; she wouldn’t have been surprised if Vinnie and her sisters preferred the idea of motherhood over independent activities, such as pottery-making, for example. It was shocking, much comfortable Annalise felt around Vinnie, especially in comparison to her strict older brother. If it weren’t for their shockingly similar looks, Annie most likely would not have assumed they were related; the two were polar opposites.
“Annie, we’re here!” Vinnie exclaimed, grabbing her hand the second the carriage rolled to a stop. Annalise was quite literally yanked out of the cart, and she was extremely thankful she hadn’t taken a wrong step and landed on her face. She was quite a few inches shorter than Vinnie was, and it was difficult to keep up with the woman’s long strides, but she managed. Vinnie was confident, and Annalise admired the way she marched through the crowd of people; it almost seemed as though people were moving out of the way for her, creating a perfect path for her to walk down. Annalise was sure she looked ridiculous, practically running behind the woman, but nobody snickered or made a comment, which made her feel a bit better.
Streamers flapped in the wind and windchimes rang out musically. Laughter filled the air and everything felt warm, comforting. Though there was a lot happening motion-wise, at the same time, things felt as if they were moving in slow-motion. Art was everywhere. In the middle, there was a small band playing an unfamiliar song, and a couple was dancing to the melody. Vendors that had been set up left and right were filled with everything imaginable. Annie was not surprised when Vinnie pulled her towards a stand filled with pottery; there was everything from flower pots to teacups. They were beautiful, and evidently took quite a bit of time to make. It was even more shocking to see a petite woman standing behind them. Her eyes were sparkling and her smile was so large that Annalise could practically feel the pain in her cheeks.
“Are these yours?” Vinnie asked the brunette, who nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, this is marvelous!” Annalise smiled at the owner of the objects, then let her gaze roam as Vinnie fished out some coins for the woman.
There was a vendor that did not appear to have anyone standing at, but it was filled with artwork. The canvas placed were of all different sizes, and Annie was almost positive the art was based on nature. However, from where she was standing, it was difficult to tell. Turning back towards Vinnie, she tapped the woman lightly on her arm. “I will be back,” she promised, gesturing to the person-less vendor. “I would just like to take a look at the work over there.”
If Vinnie had heard her, she did not respond in a way for Annalise to know, but Annie wasn’t worried. There was much going on in the little festival, but it was not large enough to lose someone. Sending the owner of the pottery yet another polite smile, Annalise quickly made her exit. Being by herself gave her a moment to breathe, too. She hadn’t heard from her sisters yet, though she suspected the letters she wrote would have only just arrived at the guest house. Were they still there? With scarlet fever on the loose, they had to have gone elsewhere. Were they with their parents? Further? The concerned questions twisted a knot in Annalise’s stomach, and she focused hard on the closest painting to her person. It was of a beautiful bridge that arched over a river. The sky consisted of various greys and blues, suggesting a rainstorm was coming about. She drew a finger over the water. It looked so real. It made her long for her own brushes once again; she hadn’t touched them since before the Winter’s Ball. With a sigh, she slowly turned away, feeling remotely homesick once again.
“Annie? Annalise Purcell, is that really you?”
Annalise was no longer in the mood to chat, but the voice was most certainly not Vinnie’s, and it caught her attention, even despite the protests on her reserved side. She fixed the top half of her dress, then looked up, eyes skimming the parameters of the vendors to see who it was that had called her name.
And then her heart felt like it had come to a complete stop.
Standing before her was nobody less than Marius Bellegarde himself. He stood with a somewhat sheepish smile across his handsome features, hands behind his back and torso turning ever-so-slightly side-to-side as he stared back at her. Chin tucked in slightly, eyes flitting to the ground and back to her, he was undoubtedly nervous to see her. Annalise couldn’t be more relieved, despite the tension that still lingered between them. She threw her arms around him, breathing in his typical cinnamon scent. It reminded her of home, and her sickness seemed to be temporarily cured. She clutched tighter, burying her head against his neck, until he tapped her back. “Annalise, I do need to breathe.”
Now the one to feel guilty, Annalise sprung back, her own gaze darting elsewhere out of pure embarrassment. “Apologies, that was uncalled for.”
“Nonsense,” he returned with his typical cheeky smile. “I’m relieved to see you are alright. I hadn’t known what John’s intentions were when news got ’round about the fever.” His eyes quickly flickered over her. “I take you did not catch it then? Did John? Is he not with you?”
“No,” she responded, to all of what he had asked. “John is out doing some business run, I was told. In fact, I am here with his sister, Vinnie, who has run off somewhere. She’s rather enthusiastic about this event.” A smile found its way onto her lips at that; she couldn’t help it, Vinnie’s energy was contagious. It died quickly, though, as Marius’s presence sunk into her mind. Eyes growing wider, heart rate picking up yet again, Annalise’s head quickly whipped around as she frantically searched for a particular face. “If you are here then Maisie is too, yes? Where is she? Where is my sister?”
“Annie—” Marius’s voice cracked, and when she didn’t stop looking, he grabbed her by the shoulders. “—she isn’t here.”
“What do you mean?” she asked quickly, her tone rising in panic. “She isn’t sick, is she? Did something happen to her?”
“She is fine, I promise,” Marius assured her, ducking down to meet her wild gave. “Annalise, I promise. She just... Well, we had come to the conclusion that things were not going to work out romantically between the two of us. She seemed quite hooked on another man, to be quite honest. I do not recall getting his name, though, but I suppose that does not matter too much now.” He glanced thoroughly at her, a frown playing at his own lips. “Annie, did she not tell you?”
“Nobody has told me anything!” Annalise wailed, tossing her hands up in frustration. “Marius, I feel so lonely. I believe John has been isolating me from everyone else and I-I just cannot take it. I haven’t seen my sisters in days. I want to see them.” Her hands were shaking, and she curled them up in frustration. Marius removed his own from her shoulders and placed them over her fists. She glanced back up at him, her bottom lip trembling. “I just want to know if everyone is all right.”
Marius let out a small breath, then forced a smile onto his face. “I will do some searching,” he promised her. “I will see where your family is located. Everyone fled from your house quickly after the news had gotten around, and for a good reason, too. Unfortunately, though, communication was not at its finest. But I will do my best, okay? I want you to relax, Annie. They are all right.”
Annie nodded numbly, sniffling, despite the fact that she did not feel any tears welling in her eyes. She quickly looked away, forcing her attention back onto Vinnie, who had gone missing. Thankfully, they had decided on a time to return to their carriage, and the more she thought about it, the more Annalise began to wonder if Vinnie had known all along that she would get carried away and the two would go their separate ways. It was always so hard to tell with that woman. “Who are you with? Surely you did not come here all by your lonesome.”
Marius chuckled at that. “No,” he agreed, “I did not. My uncle and aunt wished to come by, and I felt it was best for me to escort them. Though, it seems, much like yourself, that they had other intentions because...” He let out a loud sigh. “...They have vanished from my sight. Again.”
Annalise gave a small shake of her head. “Tragic.” Her words were sarcastic, and a small, lopsided smile came into view as she peaked back up at him. He was smiling down at her, and she quickly looked back away. “I suppose I will get going, then. I may spend the rest of my day in the carriage that is waiting for us so I do not get lost. Or lose Vinnie.”
“I have another idea,” he cut in before she had the chance to turn away. “Annie, I know how much you enjoy art. Would it be too much trouble if you joined me for even just a bit? I do not wish to leave you in your state.”
Annalise stared at him. For a moment, her mind reflected back to the day they had met. It had been art that had brought the two together, though with a bit of a struggle at first. Things had changed now, though. She was forced to be with John, and he had moved on. So what was wrong with spending a bit of time with an old friend? She responded with a silent nod of her head, and he grinned largely in response.
His intentions seemed to slide off of the original plan, though, for they barely spent five minutes inside the little festival. She found he was drifting towards the outskirts, and they were soon away from the fiery flapping flags and whooping, cheering crowds. “It’s a bit much, even for me,” was his explanation. She was very unfamiliar with the area and therefore allowed him to lead her elsewhere with little protest. She trusted him; Marius burned for jokes and teasing, but he was trustworthy. She didn’t believe he would take her anywhere dangerous.
And he didn’t. They walked quietly through a bundle of different shops until it turned into nothing more than a stone pathway and a thin line of trees. Though Annalise was rightfully hesitant about it, she let him lead her through, anyway. They looked as though someone had planted them there, anyway, so she was not as worried as perhaps she should have been. After about four or five minutes of walking down the path, noting that the number of trees was increasing, she finally let the frown slip up onto her lips. “Mr. Bellegarde, where are you taking me?”
He shot her a devilish grin but did not answer right away. When he did, he responded with little more than, “We are almost there,” and Annalise sighed. Thankfully, though, he was right, though it took her a second to realize what it was he was showing her.
To her right, there was a large pond with glistening water. Trees of all sorts were covering it, creating a near-perfect circle. A stone bridge curved over the water, connecting the path on the other side to the one the two were currently strolling along. Her eyes lit up. “This is beautiful,” she breathed, letting go of Marius’s arm to get a closer look at the water. “I saw something just like this in a painting.”
“I figured you may like it,” Marius hummed happily, stepping up beside her once again. “It reminded me of you the first time I saw it. I can’t quite say I’d ever expected to bring you here in person, but um...” His cheeks tinted pink and he shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers. “Well, I’d maybe dreamt of it once or twice, but...”
Now Annalise’s cheeks felt warm, and she wasn’t quite able to meet his gaze. “You’ve dreamt of me?”
Though her gaze was not directly on Marius, she could tell he was shifting awkwardly, doing his best to look everywhere but at her. Something seemed to hit him, for a sharp gasp escaped his lips, and he quickly swiveled towards her, eyes as wide as a puppy’s. “N-not in a weird way!” he stammered, nearly stumbling over his words. “Just like a... happy fantasy. Or something. Nothing unusual, I swear by it.”
While Annie was extremely flattered, she still managed to raise her eyebrows in a sarcastic “uh-huh” sort of way. On the inside, she felt warm, but not uncomfortable. She’d never felt uncomfortable around him, no matter how awkward he became with his words. Many men would frown on it, for men were told to act strong and speak with purpose and power, and any sort of stutter would become a sign of weakness. Marius’s quietness was what made him more approachable, though. He came off as someone more real, more trusting, as opposed to a man like John, who seemed to shake Annie right to the bone. She hadn’t told Vinnie that, for although the two had their differences, she could tell the woman did admire her brother immensely. Annalise had a feeling there was a friendship growing between herself and Vinnie, and she didn’t want to ruin that anytime soon. She must have grown oddly quiet, because Marius brought her back by asking if she was alright. She mustered up a tight-lipped smile and gave him a nod of her head. “I believe I should head back, now,” she told him. “I worry about Vinnie.”
“Okay,” he responded simply, understandingly, and the two headed back in comfortable silence.
As expected, Vinnie was near the carriage by the time the two had returned. Annie waved to her, then turned back towards Marius. “I enjoyed your company today,” she admitted. “Thank you for making me feel like I was back at home.”
A soft smile crept up onto Marius’s face, though he did not take a step closer, and it took him a bit to respond. But he did, with a quiet, “I promise I will find your sisters, Annalise. I will be in touch.”
Annalise gave a quick nod, but before she could say anything more, Vinnie was calling her name. She let her eyes linger on Marius once more, soaking up his appearance, bundling up as much of that warm happiness as she possibly could, then, with one last, fleeting smile, she turned and headed back to the carriage.