THE RECOVERY DAYS were unnecessarily long. Annalise hadn’t received anything more than a bit of a shake from her incident, and yet, the Bellegardes kept her on house rest for many days following her blackout. She had begun to figure out where Marius’s nurturing traits came from. Both his aunt and his uncle were far from the rich people Annalise had grown up around. They despised using formal titles and greetings when at home, and they loved to gossip. His uncle, Oncle Paul, they referred to him as, was the quietest one of the bunch, but he was sincere and treated everyone with equal amounts of love and respect. Their tante, whom they called Auntie Dione, was quite literally the opposite of Paul when it came to the noise level they carried; the woman was loud and bubbly, and Annalise was positive she’d speak for hours at a time if she had the chance to. Both were caring and open-minded, and Annalise hadn’t once felt like they were judging or somehow telepathically calling out her flaws the way her father seemed to do with her mother. They worked equally alongside one another, too, which really took Annie by surprise. Though they had one maid in their house to do the professional cleaning and tidying, Dione contentedly worked her way through the kitchen, and when Annalise asked if that was because Paul demanded she rested in that particular room, she’d responded in a nearly horrified tone, “No, ma belle, never! I love to cook.” And if that wasn’t surprising enough, Dione had followed up with a quiet, “Paul enjoys it, too.”
It turned out she was right, though Annalise was not sure why she had questioned it in the first place. Paul was a local fisherman, but he always snuck home a few bodies of fish to cook up for the evening. Annalise had been stunned the first time she set eyes on Paul, who’d been dressing up a meal. When she asked Marius about it, he seemed amazed that men didn’t do that. “It’s tradition,” he told her. “In the Bellegarde household, we all help each other out.”
Annie wished it was the same back home. Or with John Arten, for that matter.
John hadn’t said two words since the night he had slapped her. He hadn’t sent for anyone upon realizing she hadn’t returned that day, and he hadn’t written. She supposed he couldn’t write much if he didn’t know where she was staying, but if he was trying to court her, he’d find a way to seek her out. Marius had been right, there was much talk of the incident for the next day or two, and Annie believed that was plenty of time for anyone in the Arten cottage to understand what had happened. She could not fuss too much over it, though, because if she was being truthful, she did not wish to see John anytime soon. She adored Vinnie, but she knew that if that woman found out where she was, she would have announced it aloud, and surely John would have done something to hold her back. It was frightening to know just how much power John held in the tips of his fingers.
Annalise had decided not to think too much about anything more than the day she was experiencing. She was eager to get another letter from Esther with the wedding plans; that was enough for her to go about her day happily.
Today was about to reveal a new door for Annalise to step through. A door that she’d believed had had its knob rustled, its handle yanked free. The Bellegardes had offered her a canvas. She was going to paint again. This excited her upon first hearing it, and the young woman had tossed and turned all night. Painting, artwork, the only thing that truly made her feel at ease with herself. John had ripped that part of her away the moment he told her art was not from women to experience. Something had died inside of her that day; it had shriveled up and left a giant hole, but today she was given the opportunity to patch it back up. She was exhilarated.
She’d dressed in canary yellow today, for nothing could dim her mood, and the bright colour supported her joy. She hurried quickly down the off-white stairs, nearly tripping in the process. She caught herself before she had the chance to fly down the stairs on her bum, however, and drew back ever-so-slightly, enough to give herself the confidence that she’d make it to the main floor in one piece. The windows were all open today, and a calming breeze danced through the house, swooping under the arches and around their bodies, gleefully adventuring further into the building. The air smelt of spring; fresh, blooming flowers, salty seawater, and new beginnings lingered around her.
“Good morning, Dione!” Annalise chirped as the older woman came into view. She was settled at a small, round table, teacup in hand. Her grey eyes, once settled in the direction of the nearest window, flickered towards Annie, and a warm smile found its way onto her lips as she returned the greeting. “I wish to get a head start today, madame. I do hope breakfast can wait.”
Dione raised a brow. “At least take an apple,” she instructed, nodding towards the fruit basket on the table. “Something to boost your energy.”
Annalise nodded in agreement. Kissing the woman’s cheek, she plucked out an apple, then departed the room. Paul had told her the night before that the materials she needed to paint for left on the back porch, in a picnic basket, and when she stepped outside, he was indeed correct. Biting her lip to rid the goofy smile that was desperately trying to find its way onto her face, she grabbed the basket and descended down the porch stairs, strolling down the pathway with a skip in her step.
The Bellegardes had been blessed with a field full of wildflowers. They’d created a small hangout set-up right in front of it; a small, wooden gazebo rested on the left side, a few boulders were sprawled out across the mowed-down area, and a fire pit and a few chairs were set up closer to the pathway Annalise was currently on. She placed the basket on one of the boulders, set up her canvas, and took a seat. This was perfect. The flowers flowed prettily, dancing around one another. Annalise was not experienced with her flower breeds, but she knew there was a good dozen types before her eyes. The colours popped and she could smell their calming perfume even from where she was sitting. Apart from the sloshing of waves against the rocky shoreline down the path and the chirping of the birds, it was practically silent.
However, it seemed that did not last for long enough.
“Annalise!” a voice called out, shattering the tranquil atmosphere Annie had settled herself in. The tone was not sharp, though, and she did not feel a single part of her body tense up upon hearing a new voice.
She did not turn around at first, much more focused on getting the shade of the lavender buds on her canvas right. The owner of the voice did not wait for her, though; warm hands covered her vision, and a sharp gasp left her lips as the sight of the flower field she was painting was overpowered by nothingness. “I was nearly done that bud!”
“Take a break,” the voice instructed. Marius. Nobody else knew she was here. Why had he come here? Annalise was undeniably curious, even though she was frustrated that he’d removed the paintbrush from her hand. She didn’t wish to leave her unfinished work to its own devices, but it seemed she didn’t have much of a choice. With a sigh, she removed her painting smock and set it on the boulder beside her, then turned towards Marius, who shot her a grin. “I have something for you.”
If Annie wasn’t intrigued before, she was now. She stared impatiently at him with little idea as to what he could possibly have to share with her. Something so important that he had to stop her painting. “Well?” she asked a moment later, gesturing to him to get him going. “What is it?”
Marius’s hands went behind his back, and he lifted his left hand a second later. Between his index finger and thumb was a letter. The letter.
Annie’s eyes lit up. “I want to see it!” She lunged forward until she was close enough to him to fall into him if she’d just so happened to, standing on the tips of her toes to grab the letter. Marius, however, did the same, waving the letter high in the air.
“So impatient,” he laughed, waving it around like it was a prized possession.
Annalise, however, was not at all impressed. Bringing her lips into a pout, she gave his chest a playful shove. It was enough for Marius to stumble back, his hand lowering just a bit, and she seized the opportunity, rushing closer to him to swipe the paper. Another gasp escaped from her mouth, this one out of pure shock, as she realized not only had she failed to grasp the letter, but she was now stumbling, too.
A second later, both of them had taken a tumble into the blooming spring fields.
Marius was laughing more than before, a hand on his stomach, chest rising and lowering rapidly with each breath taken. Annalise, for a brief moment, laid on her back in shock, attempting to catch her breath. The letter popped into her mind once again, though, and she rolled over, reaching across Marius to grab the letter, which was in the hand furthest away from her. “Give it here!”
Her hand went to his chest, the other desperately tugging at thin air. Marius’s laughter had died down enough for him to breathe. His gaze was now on her, steadily, lips parted.
It processed in Annie’s mind, too, and she fell back onto the grass, staring up at the bright blue sky. This reminded her immensely of the night they had been caught. Rolling around playfully on the grass, staring up at the twinkling stars... It was all coming back far too quickly. Oddly enough, Annalise did not feel uncomfortable. The memory made her chest tighten, but for what reason? Longing? Did she wish to retreat back to that moment? She turned her head to look at Marius, who did the same to her. Both were breathing hard from their playful fight for the letter.
“Annie...” he began softly, and she feared for what he was going to say next. She didn’t need to hear it. She didn’t want to hear it. The way he gazed at her, how his eyes drifted over her face. It reminded her of all those years ago, back when Annalise was foolish and young, and dipping her feet into the pool of love. She’d built a large fence around it since there and kept a good distance at all times. She wasn’t ready to tear it down.
“Can I just have the letter?” she asked quickly, beckoning to it.
Marius stared at her for an extra second or two, dark eyes flickering over her face, then rolled onto his side so she could grab hold of it. She tore it open excitedly, skimming over the swirly letters. The letter itself did not say much, not much more than further details on the wedding, but knowing this came from Esther made Annie happy, overjoyed with endless amounts of relief. This was the most communication she’d had from either sister in days, now. She could not see Esther’s pretty face, but the bubbly word “Esther” at the bottom of the page reminded Annalise that she was still there with her. Esther was all right.
Letting out a breath, feeling the tension drip off of her shoulders, Annie fell back again, dropping the letter between the two of them so that Marius could read it next. Her gaze flickered back up to the bright blue sky, watching the cheery, fluffy white clouds bouncing by. As a child, she, Maisie, and Esther used to always point out the clouds that appeared to take the shape of a certain object and animal. They hadn’t done that in years, though once in a while, Annalise still liked to sit back and appreciate the pretty clouds that floated by. Their lazy speed relaxed her, and even if just for a few seconds, she was always able to concentrate on something other than her busy mind. Apart from painting, which, even still managed to frustrate her here and there, gazing at the sky was the way to soothe her, gather herself, and carry on with a new sort of collected energy in her next step forward. Laying in the flowing stems of wildflowers, doing what she loved... Annalise hadn’t felt at ease like this in quite some time. Being someone she wasn’t truly was exhausting. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep going.
“It will take a day or so to get to this location,” Marius’s voice cut in, luring in her attention once again. “I believe you must leave as soon as you can, Annalise, if you want to arrive on time. The wedding is less than a week away.”
Annie moved her head to get a glimpse of the curly-haired young man beside her, pursing her lips. Carriage rides hadn’t always been a joy to her, given their boxy shape and lack of comfort in the hardened cushions. There was only so much gazing she could do out the window before it became an ache in her chest; a lump of boredom the size of coal always fell into the pit of her stomach, and she always told herself every single time that she wouldn’t travel far distances again. And yet, here she was. Annalise couldn’t turn down Esther’s invite. This was her wedding, after all.
Sighing, Annie pushed herself upright, leaning back on her hands, which were out behind her. She tapped the tips of her shoes together, dwelling over his words a moment longer. “Marius,” she began, her tone quiet, shy, almost. She clucked her tongue as she pondered over what to say next. She knew exactly what she wanted to ask, but for whatever reason, saying it inside her head was much easier than saying it aloud. “Perhaps... Perhaps you could join me?” Her tone turned squeaky with the last two words, and her cheeks were hot as she looked away, desperate to say something further before he could assume anything differently. “Of course, I am most capable of attending this by myself, it is my sister, after all, and I’ve been by myself before, but—”
“Yes, I will come with you.” Marius’s response was quiet, though, unlike her weak tone, it was soft, comforting. “Annalise, you do not have to ask such things! I’d be happy to see Esther and James, too.”
“It just feels...” Annie paused once again, and she tilted her head, awaiting the proper word to emerge inside her mind. “...Unethical, I suppose. Because of, um...”
“You needn’t explain,” Marius assured her, flicking his wrist to dismiss her words. He stood up, stretching his arms towards the sky, then helped Annalise to her feet. Even with his gloves on, she could feel the warmth of his hands in her own. She tugged her hands away before she could get too comfortable with the feeling, sliding her hands up and down her forearms.
A flash of something crossed his features — disappointment, maybe? — as she stepped back, but he didn’t say anything on that matter. Instead, he turned away and slid over to the rock that held all of her equipment, gently folding up the rag that was on the edge, placing it into the basket she’d taken. The painting was only about a quarter finished, but Annalise knew she couldn’t spend more time on it. Marius was right, she was going to have to prepare her things and leave as soon as she could in order to make the wedding date.
The two tidied up the rest of the items she’d spread across the rock, then started back up towards the house. For a long moment, the two of them were silent. Annalise concentrated on her footsteps, making sure she walked in a relatively straight line to give Marius all the space he needed.
“Annalise,” Marius began again. He dragged out the word a bit, giving Annie the impression that he was still contemplating over what to say. “If John is hurting you, you would tell someone, wouldn’t you?”
Annie’s face flushed at the straight-forward question, and she kept her gaze down, as if the cobblestone pathway she was currently strolling down was fascinating. “John is not hurting me,” she mumbled after a few seconds.
“That wasn’t the question.”
“I’m fine.” The words came out more harshly than she’d expected, her tone more snappish than she’d planned, and based on the way Marius’s head flinched backward, she understood what she had done had offended him. Or upset him. Whatever the case may be, he picked up his pace, giving his head a shake before leaving her by herself. The sunshine suddenly seemed to dim, then, the flowers around them curled downward, sorrow-filled.
“Marius...” she uttered, but the wind blew out her voice, and it couldn’t have reached more than a foot in front of her. With a frustrated sigh, she hiked up her skirt and walked faster. This carriage ride suddenly seemed like it was going to be absolutely dreadful.