THE AMOUNT OF relief that had washed over Annalise upon reuniting with her family was a feeling she hadn't ever expected herself to experience. It wasn't something she'd ever wished to feel. She hadn't realized just how lonely she was until she set eyes on her wise mother, her gentle sister. They seemed like ghosts at first, for she'd visualized them so much back at the cottage that it had almost felt like they really weren't real people. But they were, and when her mother laid a hand on Annalise's forearm, she nearly crumbled and burst into tears. She had managed to hold the sobs in, though, letting little more than one hot tear slip down her cheek, but it was tough. Her legs were shaking, and she was very glad she was still holding onto Marius's arm upon first reuniting with the lady Purcells.
Marius Bellegarde. He was too good to her, for her. Although her anger had taken control of the conversation they'd shared in the fields a few days ago, he had settled down by the time they took a seat in the carriage together. He even told her not to worry about an apology, when she first sputtered something up, claiming he knew her intentions and also knew how difficult it was to apologize with her stubbornness. Annie had taken offense to that until she caught his childish smile. He'd promised her kindness, and that he'd always be there if she needed. It was the nicest thing she'd heard anyone say to her in a long time, and she'd, embarrassingly enough, teared up. She blamed it on fatigue, and pretended to be asleep for almost the entire ride. An hour or so left, though, Annalise had gathered up the courage to have an actual conversation with him once again, and it felt nice. She hadn't once felt guilty, nor did he make her feel bad. He appreciated her for who she was, not because of her growing skills on house duties or her looks. Marius was a man who appreciated people for both their flaws and their perfections. His sincerity, kindness, and gentle energy made her long for love even more. She knew she'd never get it from John, and that frightened her. But being around Marius allowed her to avoid the topic of John; Annalise hadn't once thought about the man. She and Marius talked about family, dreams, and goals, and it felt wonderful. She arrived at the party with her hand around his arm, and not one eye was batted in their direction. It was only then that she wondered if the reactions would be similar if she came with John.
"I feel as though it has been years," Esther was blubbering them, her warm hands cupping Annalise's face. Tears were streaming down her face, and James, her husband, was brushing them away, an evidently amused look on his face. Whenever Esther glanced in his direction, however, the smile vanished instantly. "Oh, I cannot wait for Maisie to come back to see you. You two hadn't spoken during the ceremony, had you?"
Annalise gave a shake of her head, grasping Esther's trembling hand with her own. "I hadn't seen her," she told her sister honestly. "I suspect she was on the other side."
"Oh, yes," Esther nodded. "She was with William Earlston, perhaps they were sitting near his family." Her smile wavered then, and her eyes flickered over to Marius, who'd now taken a step back to give the Purcell sisters their space. Taking the corner of her lip between her teeth, Esther averted her gaze, which implied she had something she was guilty over to reveal to Annie. "Annalise, I, um... Well, I did not know you and Marius were coming as a pair. I'd suspected... Well..."
Annie's eyes narrowed ever-so-slightly at the fumbling, and she grasped back of Esther's hands. "Sister, what is it?"
"I'd invited John," she blurted out a moment later, her eyes wide, doe-like. "I had thought you two had worked things out! He seemed so happy when I asked him about you just hours earlier."
Annalise paled, and her hands tightened around Esther's, as if that would keep her from toppling over from the news. "You... Mr. Arten is here?" Her words came out slowly, as if they'd been covered in molasses, and her tone was soft.
"I am the most sorry, Annie!" Esther carried on quickly, tugging her hands from Annalise's to stroke back some of Annie's blonde hair. "In all of my letters I wrote to him, he and his maid had always replied with happy news. Annie, I hadn't known you had stayed at Marius's after your accident! Why did you not write to me, dear sister? I always addressed those letters to Marius."
Annalise's head shot over to Marius, whose own head was down, gaze sheepish. "I hadn't realized my words were not clear," he murmured. "I suppose I'd simply expected you to have believed Annie did not return to that man. He does not..."
"He is fine," Annalise returned hurriedly. "Just fine." Marius had managed to pull it out of her that John was indeed not fine, nor was he kind to her, but she did not need her sister to worry. Especially not on a day like this. "Where is he, do you know?"
"Well..." Esther removed her gaze from Annalise's face, casting a quick glance over her shoulder. "He'd mentioned an important business meeting, so perhaps he has gone now. Annalise—" her voice softened, "—are you sure everything is alright? You have paled."
Annie stared at the ground, hesitant. She could reveal her true troubles to Esther, whine about John's lack of sincerity and kindness, and beg to send her elsewhere so she'd never have to set eyes on him again. But she knew she couldn't do that. This was Esther's day, not Annie's; she wasn't going to take that away from her sister. So she pressed her lips into an uneasy smile and gave a simple nod of her head. "I simply wish to spend this time with my family, not with him," she settled on. That seemed appropriate enough.
She was oh-so-delighted to note that her father was approaching them now, Maisie practically skipping behind him. The second Annie's eyes connected with her younger sister's, Maisie's eyes brightened, and she took off in a run, barreling into Annalise's arms. "Annalise, oh, dear sister, you're alive!"
"I believe you're being a bit dramatic," Annie responded, but glee had washed over her, and she hugged Maisie back, nestling her face into the crook of her sister's neck. The scent of jasmine overpowered her, and she took in a deep breath. "I'm ever so delighted to see you, sister."
"Oh, I have so much to tell you," Maisie gushed, pulling back. "Do you remember Mr. Reginton, the old fisherman? Last week, his barrel full of fish fell and fish spilled all over Madame Sinclair, that cranky old French lady! Oh, she was so livid! And there was a robbery, too, but halfway through their flee, they—"
"Maisie, I think that's quite enough," Esther cut in in a low tone. She tipped her chin in towards her neck, then glanced back over at Annalise. "I can arrange a room farther away from John's if he wishes to stay."
Annie opened her mouth to respond — even though she hadn't thoroughly considered what she was going to say, yet — but a masculine voice cut in first. Her father. Her mother had fallen back to chat quietly with James and Marius, and it was now time for their father to speak. He was always so strict, so business-like. Annalise couldn't help but wonder if right now was going to be any different. "Annalise."
"Father," Annie responded with a small dip of her head. "It's lovely to see you again."
As per usual, though, her father's face was neutral, and there wasn't a single hint of a smile across his features. His eyes flitted over to where Marius and James were standing, then turned back to Annie. "Where is your suitor?"
Annie's jaw tightened, and her hand grabbed the lacy shawl around her elbows in a rather aggressive way. "John is not my suitor," she responded sharply. "And I cannot tell you, because I do not know."
"Did you come with him?" her father asked in an equally clipped tone, and it took Annalise a second to realize he was not talking about John, but Marius. Surely he was furious, the fire in the pit of his stomach the size of an inward wildfire. He did not like Marius; he despised the man, in fact. The "poverty-stricken boy who lured Annalise into nothing but danger," as he liked to put it. He didn't know. He never knew understood the full story, all the details. All he knew was, Marius was a new immigrant that lacked the wealth the Purcell family had. And that was enough for his distaste to grow to such a degree that he quite literally locked his daughters up in their house.
But Annalise wasn't a young girl anymore. She could handle her father's attitude. "Yes," she replied simply. "I did come with him, because he helped me when I was ill. Mr. Arten hadn't once visited me."
"Mr. Arten is a successful businessman who has duties to attend to, Annalise," her father snapped. "He is wealthy and will treat you well. I do not want you near that immigrant again; he is nothing but trouble. John is still here, and you will go home with him, do you hear me? You will marry well, and you will be successful with the Artens. This is not negotiable."
Tears welled in Annie's eyes, and she blinked rapidly, praying that they'd slip back in her eyes and not trickle down her cheeks. Esther and Maisie were silent, but Annalise couldn't bring herself to look at the two of them. Her father's body was taller, bigger, more intimidating, and Annie couldn't help but shrivel back. As if on cue, John drifted into view, his sharp, nearly black eyes on Annalise. "Annie, lovely to see you again. If I may cut in, I'd like to take her with me, now."
"Absolutely," her father agreed, stepping aside so John could step in. Helplessly, Annalise was unable to do anything more than swallow hard as John grabbed her glove. She finally met Esther's eye, and the apologetic look on her face was visible, but she couldn't do anything. Nobody could. It was always Philip Purcell's words against everyone else.
"You did not visit," John stated as they walked away from the small gathering. Annie wasn't even able to get a glimpse of Marius, or her mother. "I was disappointed."
"You didn't come," Annie returned. "The Bellegardes kept me healthy and cared for me lovingly while you were... absent."
"You could have come back," John carried on, as if he hadn't heard two words Annalise said. "There are always carriages around the city that will take people to their desired location."
He had a point, and they both knew it. Annalise looked at the ground. What could she say, anyway? That she appreciated Marius's warmth and support and would take it over John's company any day? That she still did have some lingering feelings for Marius and wanted to stay by his side? That was embarrassing enough to think about. Annie hadn't said a word to Marius about it, and she most certainly was not going to reveal this to John, out of all people.
"It doesn't matter anymore," John sighed, his grip loosening ever-so-slightly around her wrist. "You have come back to me, and everything will be alright now." He gazed at her with what almost looked like a touch of affection. It was a trap, though, Annalise was sure of it. It had to be a trap. "We have some lovely rooms in the house Esther's close guests are staying at, have you checked it out yet? Your family has some exquisite taste for landscape."
"Mm." Annalise's gaze continued to sweep across the ground, unwilling to meet his eye any longer. "Esther has always had a keen eye for fashion."
"As do you," John returned. Although Annie's eyes were looking elsewhere, she could feel his hot gaze on her body, watching her every move. "That dress you are wearing is lovely against your skin."
That seemed a bit suspicious, in Annalise's mind. Since when did men ever care about fabric colours against skin colour? He hadn't ever complimented her, so what had changed? She had a sickening feeling her father had said something to him, but she wasn't sure what. It could be anything; Annalise could only hope her father didn't sweeten the scenario between herself and John. She didn't need John doing anything he'd regret. But he wouldn't, though. He was so self-assured, so confident, that at the end of the day, it would be she that felt the guilt, the rue of the situation. It always managed to turn back around on her, which is exactly why she clamped her mouth shut and did nothing more than offer him a weak, tight-lipped smile. Silently, the two continued walking aimlessly. She hadn't a clue where John was taking her, but she supposed she didn't have much of a choice in terms of location. She never had a choice. And she feared it was going to be like that for the rest of her life.