JOHN HAD BEEN waiting impatiently for the two to return. Based on the scowl on his face, evidently, even from afar, Annalise knew he was not pleased. But for what reason? She nor Vinnie had done anything wrong. They hadn’t seen him in quite some time, either. Perhaps he’d a bad meeting? Annalise felt her mood dim ever-so-slightly at the look of him, but the grin that stretched from ear-to-ear on Vinnie’s face eased her nerves a bit. Vinnie didn’t have to say anything, Annie knew she’d work her charm on the grim man.
“Hello, dearest brother!” the woman chirped the moment they’d stepped out of the carriage. “How was your trip? I’d not one letter from you, so I presume it was just that good?”
Annie bit her lip to hold back a smile at the sarcasm that dripped from Vinnie’s tongue. John, on the other hand, was far from amused. His icy black eyes bore into Annie’s own gaze, his lips pressed together so tightly, it looked as though he hadn’t any. “Vinnie, I thought I had instructed you to keep Miss Purcell inside the cottage.”
Vinnie’s lips pursed together and she quickly turned back towards Annalise. “Well, perhaps, but I hadn’t listened—"
”—No lady wishes to spend her time indoors,” Vinnie continued on, almost as if John hadn’t even cut her off. Annalise admired her attitude. “I’d taken her to the art festival. Needn’t fret, brother, we had a grand time.”
“Seems it,” came John’s grunt of a response. His eyes briefly flickered towards Vinnie, though the harsh expression didn’t die down, not even for a second. “I’d like a word with Miss Purcell, if you don’t mind, sister.”
Much to Annalise’s surprise, Vinnie quickly curtsied and left, leaving no signs of hesitation. She supposed even the chilling tone of Mr. Arten got to his sister now and then. She felt her heart sink as Vinnie’s figure disappeared inside the house. Gulping down what didn’t wish to trickle down her throat, Annie nervously clasped her hands together and stared down at John’s polished shoes. For a moment, he did not speak. Seconds felt like hours, as if the clock’s hands had been lathered in molasses, and she didn’t know what to do.
“You are a great disappointment.”
Those five words, as simple as they were, were even chillier than the tone John used. They sent shivers racing down her spine, turning the bones into an icicle. Her cheeks flushed, though her face turned a shade whiter. Suddenly, it seemed as though she was floating, and yet, at the same time, her head began to feel like it weighed a hundred more pounds. Her corset was tight, tighter than it had ever been, and she struggled to breathe. Those five words were something she’d never wished to hear, not from John, not from anyone else. Disappointment was her enemy, her nightmare. And now it was living inside of her. She’d become her worst fear.
“I have told you, you are to tend to the house duties,” John continued slowly, his words coming out slowly as he perfectly pronounced each and every one of them, as if they were difficult to send from his throat, despite how clear they were. “You do not listen to my fool-hearted sister. You are to become my wife soon enough, and you do as I say.” When Annie did not respond, her throat too tight to release anything more than a choked sob, he grabbed her wrist, then continued, “You listen to me, not her.” Still, nothing came from her mouth, and John took that as, she knew what she was doing going forward. With a curt nod, John rose to his full height, keeping a tight grip on her sore wrist. Tugging it once, he started up towards the cottage, and Annalise had no choice but to scramble behind him. She wanted to cry out to him, tell him how much he was hurting her, but nothing would emerge from within the pit of her stomach. Her emotions were sealed tight inside, bouncing around one another like particles, impatiently waiting to transfer elsewhere. She felt like the cricket her younger brother had once caught, trapped in that flipped-over bowl, unable to breathe, to escape. It had died within days. Annalise wondered how long it would take before a part of her died, too.
Stepping inside, John’s head swiveled towards the left, where the dining room was, and waved his hand. Almost instantly, a petite ginger-haired woman came dashing over to him, a frantic look on her face. She didn’t say anything to either of them, but curtsied quickly towards John then stilled, awaiting his further command.
“Serena,” he began slowly, nodding once to her, “this is Annalise Purcell. She is to shadow you from now on. Teach her your job and perfect her skills; she is to use them when we wed.”
Annalise wanted to gag. Weddings, marriage, and John in one picture? It was enough to make a grown man back down. He hadn’t even proposed, and he was already expecting the two to marry? Annie had enough say in the matter. Her parents had made it clear that as long as she returned home with a man by the time their time was up, it didn’t matter how many proposals she and her sisters refused. Her heart felt as if it had been squeezed the way one does with a moist rag as a new thought popped into her mind. Did that even matter anymore? With the illness back at home, had the plans been changed? She felt even more sorrow sweep over her upon realizing that the letter she’d written to her parents the other day still hadn’t a response. Had they become victims of the sickness?
Her head snapped up and her thoughts blurred at the sound of the sweet feminine voice, which had voiced a quick, “Yes, sir” before shooting a tight-lipped smile in Annie’s direction. Annie couldn’t seem to return it; her response held as much expression as the stones that were laid down near the flower beds outside.
“Good. You begin now.” John’s head turned back towards Annie. “Enjoy your time, my dear. You will make a great housewife by the time you are done here.” And with that, he cleared the room, leaving Annalise with quiet Serena.
“You are very lucky, miss,” Serena murmured, keeping her gaze down. “Mr. Arten does not often share his love.”
Annalise wanted to laugh a dry, humourless laugh at that, but the dull expression that was still lingering on her face gained more power. “I share no love with Mr. Arten,” she returned blandly, robotically. “I do not like him” was what she wished to say, but she knew that was dangerous to say in an Arten-owned household, to an Arten-owned maid. Instead, she forced out, “I am sure he is a good man.”
A look of admiration gleamed in Serena’s eye, and she gave a quick nod before shifting her weight, indicating she was ready to start walking. “I will show you the kitchen. Surely you do not know much about it.”
“I know how to work what is in the kitchen.” Annalise’s response was unusually snappy, aggravated, which took her by surprise as much as it did Serena. Her eyes quickly widened, already having realized her mistake, and she averted her gaze. “Apologies. It has been a rough day.”
The hurt that had puddled on Serena’s face dimmed a bit, though Annie could tell she was still taken aback by her actions. Annalise didn’t say anything more, allowing Serena to take charge once more. After a fleeting moment, the young woman did, and Annie drifted silently behind her, looking at nothing more than the worn-down heels of Serena’s shoes. She continued to look down as the floor pattern changed, indicating they’d now entered a new room. The sound of clanging pots and pans perked her ears, but still, Annalise did not take a peek. Not until Serena requested her attention.
“Mr. Arten and Miss Ryers always enjoy a glass of warm milk before they retire to bed,” Serena said, settling a large pot on the stovetop. “Might you grab the bottle for us, please? It’s on the counter over there.”
Annalise did as she said, feeling as though she was a puppet, and someone was controlling her every action. It didn’t even feel like she was the one lifting her arms or moving her legs. Still, she managed to get a good hold of the glass bottle of milk and brought it back to Serena with no trouble. Though she knew how to work a stove, she still watched with a dull expression in her eyes as the young woman heated up the stove and warmed the milk. She grabbed some glasses to prepare, and Serena poured the milk in a few minutes after she’d lit the stove.
“I will show you the breakfast routine soon enough,” Serena promised Annalise, her gaze fixated on the cups she was pouring into. “Tomorrow morning, you can fetch some fruits and eggs for us at the local market; it’s only a few minutes away, stroll-wise. Tonight, we just wished to show you how to turn on the stove, but it seems you’ve already gained the experience of that.”
A sheepish look crossed over Annie now, guilty about her earlier snap, but still, she said nothing. Serena seemed to take that as a sign that Annalise didn’t wish to be around anyone anymore. “You should get some rest, Miss Purcell. Mr. Arten is in his office upstairs, and I believe Miss Ryers went for a night stroll with her husband. Care to take this milk up to Mr. Arten?”
Annalise cared not, but she still took the cup regardless. Pressing her lips into an attempted smile, she wished Serena a brief good-night, then carefully made her way up the stairs, determined not to spill the warm milk across the carpeted steps. The door to John’s study room was cracked open a bit, but Annie still knocked gently. A grunt of a response suggested she was welcomed in. Sucking in her breath, Annalise nudged the door open with her hip and entered the room. John imprudently tossed his papers aside, and the quick action almost seemed as though he was hiding something. She didn’t make mention of it, though. Instead, she gently set the milk down. “Serena informed me that you and Vinnie enjoy a warm cup of milk before bed. I brought it up because I am going to sleep now.”
John’s eyes lingered on hers, the tip of his pen dragging along his dried lips as he stared at her. She squirmed uncomfortably, feeling awfully hot, as if she was danging above a raging fire. The scraping of chair legs implied he’d stood, and Annalise stood rigidly as he glided over to her. His cold hands touched her chin, tilting her head up. “Look at me.” Reluctantly, she did. His eyes obtained a new look in them, something she hadn’t seen before. He stared intensely at her, a predator watching its prey. One wrong move and he’d pounce. She didn’t know what to do. His fingers cupped her chin in a way where she couldn’t tilt her head away, and he was close enough to her that he could grab her if she tried to step back. And he did, though she hadn’t moved a muscle. His free hand snaked towards her, sliding down her torso and to the small of her back. Annalise couldn’t breathe. She nearly choked and her palms had begun to sweat, but still, she did not move. She could not move. Feeling his large hand gently squeeze her hip made her want to vomit. She did not move.
“We mustn’t do this,” he breathed, chilling the blood inside of her. His voice was husky, deep, as if he was not quite in the present moment. It sounded as though he was speaking to someone else, not to Annalise. “But we are to be married...” His voice died off and he dipped his head towards her in one quick, fluid motion, hand tightening around her jaw, unwilling to let her break free. But before his lips could brush against hers, though, she managed to obtain enough strength to give his chest a good push. He stumbled backward, though the force wasn’t nearly enough to knock him off balance. The lusty look in his eyes had vanished, having been replaced with rage, disgust. The enraged expression on his face was enough for Annalise to know what she had done was wrong. Gritting his teeth together, John stormed back up to her, and everything happened far too quickly for Annalise to get a good sense of what had just happened.
Pain. She felt pain. It was cold against her heated cheeks, and it stung. The pain slithered around towards her cheekbones, and the left side of her jaw began to pulse. Horror clung to her face as she realized what he had done. He had slapped her. He had realized it too, and although shock flashed across his expressions, it didn’t last more than two seconds. A harsh look fell upon him yet again, and he stood straight. “Leave.”
Choking back a sob, Annalise turned sharply, nearly stumbling on shaky legs. Her heart was racing, its drumming pulse pounding in her ears. The world around her turned blurry with each step taken. By the time she lurched into her room, hot tears were streaming down her face. She could not cry, she could not make a sound. Unable to change into a nightgown, or close the door even, the young woman collapsed into her bed, letting her sobs dissolve into her pillow. Her throat felt scratchy with each wail released, her belly sore, and eventually, she faded away.