“ANNALISE, WE MUST get going!”
Annalise’s fair hands rushed up towards the pale blue bonnet that sat atop her head and gave it one heavy yank, forcing it back over her ears in an attempt to rid her younger sister’s wails. She was quite aware of the time, having noticed the sun was threatening to drop to the Earth’s surface any second now, but she was in no mood to head back home. Instead, she turned her back on Maisie, emerald green eyes focusing on the beautiful dark bay draft horse before her, her fingers crawling up and down its soft muzzle. She knew what night it was. Tonight, they were hosting their famous Winter’s Ball, the one their mother hoped her daughters would seek out some husbands at. Annalise had little desire to attend such an event. Usually, the young woman was all over those events, for dressing and glammering herself was her exact cup of tea, but tonight’s party was different. She did not wish to marry, nor did she want to settle down and change her ways to satisfy a man. Her mother had sighed countless times whenever Annie brought the argument up, claiming she had little choice. She had not dared to say a word about this to her father, for she feared the conversation would have gone over much, much worse. She had reluctantly agreed to attend the ball — not that she had much of a choice! — but now that the night had taken over the leading days, she was dreading it. She had been poorly informed about the names that had made the guest list, as were her sisters, to make it all the worst; what if someone she despised attended it? She hoped her parents would not make herself nor her dear sisters suffer through such a thing, but it was nearly impossible to tell.
A forceful tug at her elbow made Annalise jolt upright in surprise, the horse in front of her snapping its head up at the same time. Lips parted, gaze narrowed, Annie spun around on her heel. Dear sweet Maisie was staring expectedly at her, both hands still on Annalise’s mid-arm. She did not say anything, her dark chocolate eyes pleading. She did not have to say anything, truth be told. With a sigh, Annie silently gave in, the way she always did when her sister shot her the painfully innocent look. At her surrender, Maisie’s lips turned upwards into a large, giddy smile, and she slid her hands down to Annalise’s own, grasping it tightly. Annie glanced back longingly at the horse, whose attention was now elsewhere, before letting her body fall nearly limp, allowing Maisie to lead her back to Esther, whose arms were crossed across her chest, one perfect brow raised as she watched her sisters approach her.
“Annalise, you cannot hide from this ball forever,” she reminded her, her tone stern, though nowhere near close to the tone of her parents used on them. The older Purcell scooped her arm around her younger sister’s. Maisie did the same on the other side, creating a perfect chain of linked beauty. “Your body has not been sold to anyone!”
“It sure does feel that way,” Annie muttered glumly in return, forcing her gaze in the direction of the large snow pile, which was settled to their right. Esther gave a slight shake of her head and Maisie bit her lip, shrugging with her outside shoulder, but nothing more was said. Their reasoning behind their last-minute city visit revolved around Esther, for the woman was looking for a “busy mind,” a mind to steal her interest. Annie could not help but find that somewhat ironic, given the meaning of the ball they were attending that night, but had chosen to remain silent, saying nothing more than a simple, “Yes, of course,” when Esther asked her to accompany herself and her younger sister. Though Annalise had little intentions to look for said man, she did indeed tag along, only to realize that getting lost in the city would be her perfect way out of the party. Unfortunately, though, her sisters knew the city as well as she did, having strolled along the roads for years now, and her little mission did not last more than five minutes. As stubborn as a mule, Annalise attempted until the end, for her attention was drawn towards the horses pulling the beautiful wooden carriage, and now she was here, back with her sisters. It really was one complicated circle!
The walk home was dreadful, having taken longer than ever before, or so it seemed in Annalise’s mind. Her legs were tired by the time they got back, for Esther and Maisie walked so quickly that she had to quite literally power-walk her way along. Beads of sweat threatened to make an appearance on her forehead, and she did not hesitate to untie her bonnet the moment their home came into view. Esther had shot her an unimpressed yet amused look at her lightning-quick actions but said nothing. On her right, Maisie practically skipped along, paying little attention to her older sisters. This was her first official ball, Annie realized. Although she most likely was not going to marry as quickly as Esther, or even Annalise herself, she was old enough to search. Quite frankly, Annalise and Esther could have wedded two or three years ago, but they were determined to wait for Maisie, and their parents had little objections to such a request.
Oh, how long ago that felt! When Annie had agreed to waiting, she hadn’t really seemed to realize just how real the time she was currently living in would feel like. It had led her to various fleeting moments of panic, of distress and anxiousness, for it was a big change that she’d always managed to push out of the active part of her brain. She could no longer avoid it, for she was now living in that time, with a life-changing situation her family would refuse to let her skip over. It made her stomach churn, sending the unsettled butterflies fluttering. Esther had been so calm, so at peace with the idea when it was brought upon them. Though Annie supposed she had more time to think about it, it was still an utter surprise. Esther was a strong, independent woman, and although quiet and motherly, she would always strive to get what she wanted to make her and everyone else content. How could she drop that so soon? Becoming a wife would mean she would lose those determined traits, did it not? Whatever the case may be, Esther hadn’t once mentioned her worries about such an issue, leaving Annalise to assume she did not feel as stressed as Annie currently was. Then again, that was indeed Esther Purcell, the woman who always did what she could to please others before herself. Still, as her dear younger sister, I would hope she would come to me if she had such worries! When Annalise glanced over at her older sister once more, she could not help but notice just how plain her sister’s naturally pretty facial expressions were. As plain as a blank sheet of paper, they were, hinting at absolutely nothing. Annie truly did admire how she could do that so easily; she and Maisie struggled with that a bit more than perhaps they should have. It had not ever bothered Esther, or their mother, and even their father was okay with it for the most part, so the two hadn’t ever tried to change their dramatic ways.
Nevertheless, a dramatic act would get Annalise nowhere now, for not only did she have Esther tugging at her arm, but Margaret, the woman who would be dressing them, was rushing towards them. Her hands contained bundles of her skirt, her grip so tight that her knuckles had turned white, something Annie could see even from where she was standing. The Purcell’s mansion’s door was left open, and Annie could only pray her father wouldn’t find out about that. Margaret did not seem to mind, or maybe she just did not notice her mistake, for she was now quite literally running towards the three sisters.
“Girls! Oh, Miss Esther, Miss Annalise, and Miss Maisie, where have you been?” Her voice was frantic, eyes wide like a wild animal trapped in an unfamiliar space. Letting the old fabric of her dress slip from her right hand, the older woman tightly grasped Maisie’s wrist. “Come, come! Your mother will not be happy if you are late.”
“Ah, yes,” Esther murmured, her voice low, only for Annalise to hear. It touched on the edge of pure amusement, though, as pure usual, she spoke straight facts. “You know how those Albany women are. We will soon have a line of them hours before our doors are unlocked.”
Annalise smirked a laugh at that but did not object to disagreeing. She couldn’t, really, because her sister was right. She was always right.
Margaret’s energy was only going to stress her out more, Annie decided then, but at least she had Esther to balance the atmosphere out. Gripping her sister’s hand tighter, the two followed Maisie and Margaret back towards the house to prepare for their busy night.