ANNALISE WAS EXHAUSTED. If sleep was a thing that existed that night, it hadn’t dared come near her. She was awake almost all night, staring blindly at the dimmed ceiling, staring hopelessly out the large rectangular window in her room, staring with a fatigued-filled expression at the fluffy pillows that were ready to hug her head in all the right spots. She’d barely received a comfortable wink of sleep. Fearful that John would come to her, worried about what was happening back at home, her mind refused to settle down enough to get snug in her bed. Of course, she was to wake early, too, for it wasn’t her house and because she had chores to do.
Chores. Annalise never believed she’d have to do chores.
Serena had sent her out bright and early, claiming that the earlier the better when it came to picking out the best fruits and meats. Annie didn’t even know what was considered the “best” type; she’d just pick based on size. Her bonnet was tucked close to her eyes to protect her from the blinding rays of the sun and to avoid running into anyone she knew. The chances of that were slim, but never impossible. Thankfully, her tactics seemed to work, because she managed to swerve in and out of multiple crowds in the marketplace without once having someone call out her name.
Annalise headed over to the nearest fruit stand. One other woman was standing there, covered from head-to-toe; a servant. Quietly, Annie drifted up beside her. Neither said a word; Annie was far more concentrated on figuring out what melon it was she was to pick out for Serena. It was difficult to keep focused, though, with the blazing heat; why hadn’t she brought a fan? Sweat had already begun to unattractively form beads on her forehead, and she swiped them away before they turned frisky and drizzled down her face.
“Miss?” a voice called out. It appeared far away, though it hit her eardrums in a rather tough manner; how close was the speaker? Everything seemed fuzzy, as if all the surrounding noise had died down. Annalise jumped a bit, snapping back into the moment. Her vision, which had blurred as she zoned out, focused in again, and she found herself staring at an older man, the one who was running the stand. “Miss, are you alright?”
“I am,” came her response. Her tongue felt thick, swollen, and the words were difficult to get out. She felt exhausted, and it was so hot. Leaning forward ever-so-slightly to catch her breath, Annie messily slammed the woven basket on the market’s counter, unsure if it caused any destruction or not. Her head was swirling, thoughts like a whirlwind... Her eyes fluttered open and closed once before dots representing the little bodies of ants dashed in and ate up the enriching colours around her. She collapsed to the ground.
“Oh, you’ve awakened!”
A soft baby blue filled Annalise’s vision as her eyelids delicately opened like flower petals, ready to bloom and seek out the world’s beauty. Planks stretched above her, and she realized quickly that she was staring at a ceiling. Confused with a fuzzy mind, Annalise slowly wriggled herself upright. Her upper body swayed slightly; her head felt like it weighed the same as two heads together, though the inside felt completely empty. A sharp gasp left her lips as a pain emerged near the crook of her neck, and she felt added weight to her shoulders as she was carefully pushed back down.
“Do not move quickly, Annalise, you are ill.” There came the voice again. It was unfamiliar, and after another few seconds of trying to catch her breath, Annie craned her neck to get a view of the owner of the quiet voice. It belonged to a girl, most likely not much older than sixteen. She had big, round eyes the colour of the ocean, and wavy blonde hair. Her skin was fair, her face narrow. She seemed to hold the power of youth within her, despite being of young age already. Overall, Annalise knew she was not familiar with the stranger, and she must have worn a quizzing expression on her face, because the girl dipped her head and murmured, “I am Olivia Bellegarde.”
”Bellegarde,” Annie echoed, even before she’d fully processed the adolescent’s words. “Where is Marius?”
A tiny smile rested on Olivia’s features, barely enough for anyone to see. “I will fetch him for you. Would you like anything? Some tea and biscuits, perhaps?”
Annalise’s fingertips ran down her sore throat, and she swallowed. “Perhaps just a cup of water, please.”
“Certainly.” Annalise’s gaze remained on the petite girl as she stood, her bare feet carrying her with ease out the room. She swung the door behind her, though did not fully close it. Annie’s eyes travelled onward. The entire room she was in was a seashell blue, with lacy white curtains that swayed elegantly with nature’s breeze. A wardrobe was in the far left-hand corner, and a vanity set was placed right in front of the bed she was nestled in. The sheets were a cream colour, and thin, nearly see-through; Annalise could make out the shape of her legs with little problems. She was no longer in her cheery chick yellow dress, but in a silk nightdress. Whose dress was this? She’d come to the conclusion that she was in the Bellegarde’s house — Marius’s uncle’s house — but how did she get here? She remembered the collapse with ease, the way her legs gave out from under her; a poorly fought battle against the mischievous heatwaves around her. She felt alright, apart from the dry throat and slight pulse in her temples, but she was confused. Of course, Annalise was not complaining that she was not back at the Arten’s cottage, but why here? She couldn’t think too much more of it, for Olivia had re-entered. Marius was not far behind.
“I will not stay here,” Olivia told Annie, settling the cup of water down on the table adjacent to the bed, “but my brother is rather helpless when it comes to medicine, so do give a shout if you need me.”
“Thank you,” Annalise mumbled, her somewhat shaky hands reaching for the cup. Marius dashed forward, grabbing the cup for her. At first, Annie’s lips formed a pouty frown, and she was taken aback by his actions, but after a second, she realized he wasn’t taking it away, but trying to help.
“Sit up,” he instructed gently, and she did, a bit awkwardly. He lowered onto his knees and settled the cup into the palms of her hands. “Drink slowly.”
The cold water felt refreshing to Annie, and she tilted her head back, closing her eyes at the delightful feeling of it. It had no taste, of course, but it was perfect. She took another careful sip, then leaned over and placed the cup back down, thankful she’d drank enough to avoid any sloshing liquid. “How did you find me, Marius?”
“Olivia always goes to the market on Sundays,” he explained with a fleeting smile. “She’d convinced me to come along today, just as she had last weekend. It was not difficult to find you; you’d attracted quite the crowd.” When she groaned, he shook his head. “Annalise, worry not, it will be alright. You fainted, my dear. Resting is more important than worrying about what talk has gone around.” He grew more serious, and his chocolate eyes met her emerald ones. “You wished to stay away from John whilst you were out, we heard you mumbling it. Is everything alright?”
Annalise’s cheeks flushed and she quickly avoided her gaze. “Yes, it is alright,” she lied, forcing herself to sound as cheery and relaxed as possible. “I suppose my unconscious self knew Mr. Arten’s servants would fuss far too much over me if I’d returned there in that state.”
That was enough to convince Marius, for he gave a simple nod of his head and stood back up, taking a seat on the chair Olivia had formerly perched herself upon. “Annalise, I have some news.” His tone was neither excited nor grim, which grabbed Annie’s attention even more. He continued before she had a chance to question anything, “I received a letter from your sister. Do you remember, I promised you I would find them?”
Yes, she did remember that. Her heart skipped a bit, and her eyes lit up. At that moment, her headache disintegrated and she felt like a new person again. “Well?” she asked, a bit impatiently. “Where is the letter? What did it say? Who had written it?”
A gleeful laugh escaped Marius’s lips, and he put up two hands to slow her down. She stopped talking, though her heart rate had picked up and she had regained a new burst of energy. If he didn’t say another word soon enough, she’d rush out of bed and find the letter herself. Thankfully, he spoke before she had a chance to do such a thing, “It was from Esther. She wrote that she is well and that Maisie has returned back to live with your family. And...” There was a pause, and his face lit up into a smile. “...And she is to wed, Annalise. James Trevor asked for her hand, and they are getting married.”
“Oh. Oh!” the exclaimed word left her lips as she processed what he had said. Esther was getting married? Esther Purcell was about to become Esther Trevor? It wasn’t exactly something that came out of the blue, every Purcell — everyone in Manhattan, really — knew it was about to happen sooner than later. But what a surprise! Her smile dimmed slightly, though more so because she’d always envisioned the three of them telling one another in person when news like that arrived. She knew that couldn’t be the case now, and James Trevor did not propose now because he knew their plan had been ruined, but it took her by surprise. Still, she felt warm inside. She was truly happy for Esther. “Well, that is great news! Do you know when the wedding is? I presume sooner than later, no? Mother and Father are always on that.”
“Soon enough,” Marius agreed. “She hadn’t written a date. Annalise—” his tone thickened with sincerity, seriousness, and she knew he meant business, “—I did not hand out your address to her. I will not ever question what you say about John, but I do have a feeling that man would tear up any letter from Esther before you had a chance to even receive the news that she had written to you. It’s best her letters continue to come here.”
Perhaps what hurt the most was knowing that Marius was right. He did not even come close to touching on a lie. Her gaze dipped to her hands, which had now begun to ball up the sheets, and she gave a small nod. “I understand.”
“Good. Now, cheer up, dear Annalise. We will soon have a wedding to attend!”