"'I AM EVER so grateful to be back with you.' Those were his exact words!" Annalise exclaimed to Esther the following morning of her sister's wedding ceremony. "He hasn't ever spoken anything along those lines before. Surely he is trying to get at something?"
"Annalise," Esther sighed from the other side of the couch, fanning her face gently with the feathered fan she'd received as a gift. "Don't you believe you are being a bit dramatic? It's quite possible he really does just want to be in your presence! I do not doubt he missed you."
"Oh, but that is just the thing!" Annie returned, wagging her finger at Esther. "Until now, Mr. Arten has barely even treated me like a human being. If I am to be quite frank, it often felt like he spoke to himself whilst with me! But... But he complimented me yesterday. Well, my dress, but that was still a part of me. Esther, it has to be a trap. He does not give out kind comments to anyone other than himself."
Esther rolled her eyes lightly, setting her fan down so she could get a better glimpse of her anxious sister. "If he truly is acting different, don't you think now is the time to ask? Before he starts treating you like a shadow again," she pointed out. Based on the tone of her voice, Annie could tell her last few words were more mocking than anything else, because she was sure her older sister thought she was just being a bit too dramatic, but she didn't comment on it. She had a far more troublesome situation to unwrap.
"He had asked to see you again today, had he not?"
"Well, yes, but—"
"Well, then, his mood surely could not have changed too much, then."
"—But," Annie defended, "he'd made that request yesterday evening. For all I know, his personality could have had a comfortable rotation."
"Annalise, stop being ridiculous. Can't you just accept that a man as handsome and dashing as Mr. Arten wishes to see you?"
Handsome and dashing were not two words Annalise would use to describe John, unless "dashing" referred to all the times he ran off elsewhere because of a "business meeting," but she didn't say that aloud either. She'd tried far too many times to circle the positive traits that were bundled inside of him, but that was a challenge, because there were none. None ever visible when in the presence of Annalise, anyway. There seemed to always be a dark cloud looming over him... Or maybe it was over her when around him. Whatever the case may be, Annie simply could not find a sliver of happiness in any situation involving herself and John Arten, and didn't expect today to be any different. Still, though, she couldn't put off Esther's enthusiasm as easily as she wished. Clearly, her older sister saw something in John that Annie failed to see, and maybe for once, she could try to seek those positive traits out of John through the eyes of Esther.
As she pinned back the last of her hair, Annalise couldn't help but mull over Esther's words in more dept. There had to be more to John. Vinnie adored him, despite their here-and-there differences. Even Serena, the servant back in the cottage, appreciated being in his presence. She came to realize that really, she knew nothing about John. She knew he owned a bookstore and a library, but was there more to it? There had to be more, right? Nobody would have that many meetings to discuss books. That was something she'd considered for a while now, but had been too afraid to ask John. After all, she could guess what he was going to say already, and it would be something along the lines of, "As a woman, it is none of your concern." Typical, yes, but Annie felt she had a decent idea of how John acted nowadays, how he chose his words.
Maybe he spent too much time with his nose in those books he sold. Annalise was educated enough, but she did not often read due to how biased some of the topics in the old pages were. Authors were almost always men, and she did not wish to read just to have to go over the thirty reasons why men were better than women. Esther constantly had her nose in a book, and Annalise could never really understand why. Those prejudiced words were enough to knock a lady's self-esteem straight into the mud.
"Annalise, whatever is the matter now?" her sister asked before anything could leave Annie's mouth. She appeared to be a bit annoyed at Annalise's dramatics now.
"Enjoy your time, sister!"
Annalise did not verbally respond, only forced her small smile to linger until she was out of Esther's sight. It dropped immediately, and letting out one more sigh, she made her way to the front entrance. Though the door was closed, Annie could spot John's figure through the thick window. How long had he been waiting? It didn't matter, Annalise didn't need to feel guilty if he had been there for long. It was the look of glee that flashed across his features that stirred the insides of her stomach. Yes, he was undeniably acting odd, but maybe it was a change for the good? Maybe this was the side Esther saw in him.
"Annalise," he greeted, offering her a hand. She hesitated for a comfortable second, then placed the tips of her fingers on his palm. He had gloves on, as did she, and it settled her; her skin on his made her unusually uncomfortable. There was nothing intimate about it, she supposed, but it made her squirm.
They didn't exchange any further words, but he turned towards the porch steps, and the two descended down them quietly. The sky was unusual today. Though the weather was warm and the backdrop was still a tranquil blue, clouds that consisted of various shades of creams and greys swirled around the sun. It didn't look as though it was going to rain, but things did not look promising, either. It was almost like Annalise's current situation— intriguing, but confusing all the same. John didn't say much for a while, but a soft hum that rolled off his bottom lip and a shadowy smile settled on his face.
Annalise did not feel as happy as he seemed to be in that situation, but she hoped her facial expressions weren't pinched and tense. She felt it was more appropriate to be on higher alert when John was in a mood like this than when he was feeling glum; he didn't bother being around her when he felt down. And yet, at the same time, the more they walked arm-in-arm, the more Annie began to question just how bad the man really was. It horrified her upon realizing she was actually somewhat enjoying this side to him.
"I heard there is a bridge nearby," he finally spoke, keeping a steady gaze up ahead. "Over a creek. I thought it may be a nice place to stroll by, as long as you've no objections."
"None," Annalise managed to squeak, and, pleased, John carried on with a bit more speed in his step. She didn't want to complain, but her legs did not receive the good chunk of height his had, and it was difficult to keep up with him. She had to be doing well, despite her slight hobbling, because he didn't seem to notice. His mind was occupied; his dark eyes were darting around, nervously, might Annie even add, and his pace was choppy. Annalise did not like the man, not by very much, but she was undeniably feeling a bit concerned. "Mr. Arten? Is everything alright?"
"John, please," he corrected, his voice cracking, just as hers had earlier. She wondered if her voice had startled him. "I am quite alright, just thinking." And she sighed when he fell quiet again.
She'd given up soon after that. If John wished to speak to her, he would. She assumed that would eventually come, for he had specifically requested to see her today. She tried to focus on something else, but even the line of bright tulips that seemed to open in joy as they strolled by didn't seem to light her spirits. The chirping of the birds, formally in sync to a lullaby, now sounded like unattractive squawks, as if they were warning her. Warning them. Eventually, the large arch of a bridge that John had mentioned came into view. It reminded Annalise quite a bit of the bridge Marius had taken to her to the day of the festival. Guilt puddled inside of her. Surely she had no right to be thinking of another man when in the presence of one, right? She couldn't help it. She'd yet to tell Esther and Maisie — especially Maisie, with her loud mouth and all — about her feelings, but it was becoming more and more difficult to ignore them. He'd appear in her dreams and he was always there when she felt down. The fresh scent of linen and lavender stuck with her at all times of the day, even when he wasn't around. His laughter, his good humour, they brightened her, even when she was having an awful day. Although John's behaviour had improved the past day or so, she couldn't quite say the same for him. He only seemed to approach her when he needed something. She did, however, appreciate today's gesture. A stroll down the blooming spring gardens was nice, and the crisp, fresh air opened her lungs a bit more. She felt calm, settle, even if John did unnerve her.
They came to a stop just before they crossed the bridge. Annalise, puzzled, glanced over at John, whose gaze was down at the wooden planks that made up the bridge. Was he anxious to cross the bridge? It looked perfectly sturdy, but perhaps he disliked the water? She realized then that she knew absolutely nothing about John, except for the fact that he liked having control. That seemed troublesome, since he seemingly had his heart set on marrying her someday. To be quite frank, though, Annalise did not really care to know too much about him. She knew she felt in a better place when he left her side, and knew he terrified her when his anger piled up inside of him. That was enough to determine if she truly liked him or not.
"Annalise." Her name rolled off his tongue gently, and he turned to face her, placing her hand by her side. His tone was unusually soft, and the way he glanced at her made her wish to look away. But, at the same time, she couldn't. His dark eyes were captivating, and she couldn't look away. He did not step closer, but swept one hand out to grasp hers. She stood as stiff as a board, peering at him with distrust in her gaze. What was happening? He cleared his throat, and she knew there was more to come. "Annalise, do know that I have been hurtful to you in the past, and I apologize. My actions were wrong, and I let my frustration get to the best of me. You are too kind, too sweet to put up with that, and I am truly sorry." Still, she did not move. "You've opened my eyes to a new world. Your class, your family, I've never felt so at home, and seeing you with your family, I know they'd never slip away from us. Your father told me he'd accept me with open arms, and I am grateful. Annalise, look at me."
Her hands were trembling slightly now, but she forced herself to peak back up at him. Her heart was hammering against her ribcage. What was he doing? Was this his way of hinting at moving into their house? She knew he'd liked money and knew they had more wealth than his family had. What exactly had her father said to him while she was away?
Her breath hitched in her throat as he lowered himself to the ground. One hand remained wrapped around her own fingers, the other dug out a ring. It glimmered against the sunlight and Annalise was admittedly drawn to it. But she couldn't quite wrap her head around everything. Was he proposing? Was that why he was being so nice to her?
"Annalise Purcell, I want to have your hand in marriage," he told her earnestly. "I wish for you to become my wife."
Annie felt sick. Her stomach churned, bile rose in her throat, and she placed a hand against her stomach. Her legs were shaking and she feared they'd give out from under her. His words became an inaudible hum, like the buzzing of a honey bee. Her mother had always told her proposal day was one of the best days a woman could experience. She'd said it was the moment a lady could finally grow closer with her best friend, find true love, and live life happily. She couldn't quite place those words in this scenario. John Arten was not her friend. John Arten was someone Annalise had learned to fear, to respect out of distress. "Mr. Arten, I..." She nearly gagged, as if her words were sour, distasteful. Tears started to prick out of the corners of her eyes, and his figure soon became blurry. Despite having the inability to seek out anything official in her brain, she found herself shaking her head. "I... I cannot. I am so very sorry, I just..."
There was a rustling of fabric, and John was back on his feet. His hand forcefully tossed hers aside. His face was grim, lips pressed together so tightly it was almost as if he did not have any. "You are a disgrace," he hissed to her, his cheeks burning red. "You will regret your decision, and I will make sure of that." He glared at her with such intensity that it felt like she'd been slapped. He brushed past her, forcefully pushing his side into her body, nearly knocking her to the ground. The second he was gone, she burst into tears.
"You cannot win over everyone, my dear," Esther's soothing tone washed over Annie later that day. Annalise couldn't shake the day's earlier events. Her gaze had turned hollow, lifeless, and she stared aimlessly out into the open. Her body slumped, chin tucked, mouth pouted. Had she done the right thing? At the time, she was focused on herself and her own emotions, but now she had bigger things to worry about. Her father. John had been approved by her parents and had gotten permission from her father if he had properly proposed. What was her father going to say to her? He was going to be furious; Annalise was surprised he hadn't yet stormed up into her room.
Annalise hesitated, taking down a bit too much of her tea. She coughed, stroking her throat with her hand to soothe the soreness, then placed her cup back down. "I do not," she returned weakly, ashamed of her words.
"Then no, it was not the wrong thing to do." Esther stood, brushing her hand across Annie's shoulder. "Annalise, if you do not love him then it was the right thing to do. Father will understand."
A knock at the door sounded, cutting off Annie's train of thought. She jumped at the sound, peering anxiously over her shoulder as her sister went over to greet whomever it was on the other side of the wood. She took hold of something, and Annalise continued the conversation; "But you'd said only just today that he was a charming man."
"Charming does not mean suitable," Esther returned, placing a small letter on her lap. "You've a telegram."
Annalise's face paled. Who could possibly be reaching out to her at this time of day? She supposed it could be from Evelyn, who disliked writing long letters, but she couldn't be sure. Slowly, Annie peeled it open, eyes skimming over the few letters written on the paper.
Rumour has it you've ruined your engagement by flirting with more men. How good is this to the perfect Purcell reputation?
There was no name signed. Annalise did not recognize the handwriting. She did not care to know about the handwriting; the words were mortifying. Flirting? Breaking off an engagement? Annalise wasn't even engaged! Who had she been flirting with? Who was writing this? "Esther!" she cried out, flinging the telegram at her older sister. "Dear God, what is this? I've done nothing wrong!"
Esther's dark eyes skimmed over the paper in a second. She quietly placed the paper down on a table far from Annalise. "Annalise, ignore this," she told her sister. "This is false information, and you know it. Someone must be getting back at Father; I'm sure he destroyed someone in his past business meeting, as per usual."
But Annie's head was shaking frantically. "Esther, this is directed to me," she pointed out shakily. "Not you nor Maisie nor Father or Mother. Me. What am I to do?!"
"Ignore. It." Esther spoke each word firmly as she leaned close to Annalise. "Ignore it. We will burn it and carry on."
It was difficult to do such a thing when yet another knock burst against the wooden door. This time Annalise leaped to her feet, cowering near the window's curtain. "Esther, answer it," she pleaded, as if her sister wouldn't have already. Her face visibly paled as Esther opened the door, revealing an angry face of her father.
"Annalise Purcell," he roared, shoving past Esther. "Have you lost your mind? John has left empty-handed. Why on Earth would you turn down his request?"
Annie's bottom lip trembled, and she flinched as her teeth bit down hard on the skin. "I..." She didn't know what to say. She hadn't had time to prepare for what to say to her infuriated father. "Father, please—"
"John Arten was not the one with her when we separated," Esther quickly cut in. Annie was unable to take her fear-glazed eyes away from her father. She couldn't dare look away. "Father, Marius was the one with Annalise when she collapsed. Marius Bellegarde was the one that kept her company."
Philip Purcell's stone-grey eyes shifted to Esther, then back to Annalise. "Annalise, is this the truth?"
"Yes," she squeaked out, and, upon realizing it didn't sound much like a word at all, she tried again. "Yes, sir."
Their father's hand curled into a fist. "In his letters, he proclaimed you to be with him at all times."
"I was with his sister," Annie managed to get out in a more sturdy voice. It was nowhere near as confident as her father's, as reassuring as Esther's, but it was an improvement. "And then with the Bellegardes. John... Mr. Arten hadn't paid me a visit once, sir."
"Marius loves Annalise, Father," Esther butted in once again. This time Annalise did turn her head to look at Esther, shock written across her face. Where was this coming from? "He spoke to me about it just the other day. He cares for her. John Arten just wanted our money, he made that very clear." Her gaze softened, and she glanced over at Annalise apologetically. "Our poor Annalise had to go through that the hard way."
Silence filled the air, the type that made Annalise want to crumble up into the ground and vanish elsewhere. The tension was thick, so thick that it seemed impossible to maneuver around it. Philip Purcell scratched the stubble on his face in thought. He was still angered, that was clear, but his gaze had softened just enough for it to seem like Esther and Annalise's words could actually process in his mind. "I am not proud of your decision, Annalise," he finally said. "But I will be having a chat with Mr. Arten to seek out the truth in this situation. As for Mr. Bellegarde—" his eyes flashed towards Esther, "—he needn't come into this conversation again."
Annalise wasn't able to breathe until he left. She seemed to break then, out of pure relief, and threw her arms around Esther. "Thank you," she murmured into Esther's shoulder. She did not even need to elaborate on what it was she was thankful for. Esther surely understood.
"You need sleep," Esther told her a moment later, peeling back from Annalise's strong grip. "You've had a rough day."
A small, ghostly smile played at Esther's lips, half out of genuine amusement. "Father cannot get knocked down," she reminded Annalise. "He has nothing to worry about. Come, let's go."
Arm-in-arm, they left Esther's room to seek out Annalise's. That night, when Annalise went to bed, she felt more relaxed, at ease with herself. She'd yet to see the next telegram at her doorframe.
You will regret this.