THE TELEGRAMS DID not stop. They came fluttering into Annalise's personal bubble the way fall leaves trickled through the air on a windy day. Not a single one held a chipper tone to it. In fact, almost all appeared threatening. Each one consisted of a main theme: regret. Regret on her end, on the Purcell's side. These telegrams seemed to have one purpose, and that was to rain guilt over their heads.
It hadn't taken long for Annalise and her family to get a good idea of who it was that was sending her these non-stop messages. The comments "I relied on you to grow my business" and, "My sister cared for you like one of our own" were enough to give it away. In fact, Annalise wasn't even sure John Arten was trying to hide his identity. She did know, however, that it wasn't he who was writing these letters. The harsh words seemed to come straight from his mouth, but the handwriting was not his, nor did it belong to Vinnie. The in-between messenger remained a complete mystery.
The telegrams had mortified Annie, and for the first day or two, she was genuinely afraid to leave the comfort of the house her family was staying at. For all she knew, John could have hired someone to follow her, track her every move. It was evident he wasn't going to let the Purcells slip from his fingers as easily as they'd all hoped, even if in the end, he couldn't do anything harmful to damage the family and their reputation. Five days had passed since the rejection of the proposal, and Annalise still found herself timidly glancing over her shoulder each time she heard an abnormal sound.
"Annalise, drink your tea."
From across the rounded table, Beth Purcell was regarding the middle child of the three most famous Purcell children with an intense gaze. The looks she gave her children were never as intimidating as what was shot by their father, of course. The looks she gave were genuine, motherly, though respectfully, protective and concerned. All of those emotions mingled into the expression on her face at that current moment. She didn't ever have to say anything; they always caved under her gaze eventually.
Annalise did as her mother instructed, sloppily sipping at the cup's surface, gathering up the slightest amount of warm fluids inside the teacup. Her mother crinkled her nose but did not scold her lack of lady-like manners. She seemed to have other things to attend to, given the way she was tapping her fingers against the tabletop. "I understand the circumstances have been frightening for you these past few days, but my dear, it is time you leave this house. You have cooped yourself up inside these walls for days now. Some fresh air will clear your head."
Annalise's eyes widened and she shook her head frantically. She couldn't even fathom what would happen if she stumbled across John's path. She knew he had left, she'd watched his carriage take off in a hurry, but that wasn't to say this location was forbidden. He could have returned if he so pleased. This unnerved her. He had been furious with her rejecting and she truly believed he was out for revenge. She did not wish to get caught up in his reckless behaviour yet again.
Her mother seemed to sense her nerves, for she sent Annie a small, unwavering smile. "Not alone," the older woman assured her daughter. "Esther is out with James today, but Mr. Bellegarde is around, and when I asked—"
"You've spoken to Marius today?"
"—He seemed more than pleased to take you out for the day," her mother finished in more of a curt tone than what she'd started off with. She flashed Annie a warning look, a look that instructed Annalise to remain quiet until she had the floor. "I am sure Maisie can come along, too."
"It is alright," Annalise finally said, giving another shake of her head, this one slower, more controlled. "Maisie had been talking about William Earlston the night before. I believe they are going for a ride this afternoon."
"As should you," Beth Purcell chimed in, dipping her head in Annie's direction. "Annalise, it has been quite some time since you've gotten on top of a horse. Perhaps it would do you some good."
Annie's shoulders sagged and she rested her chin in the palms of her hands. Getting on an equine wasn't as simple as her mother put it. Though she hadn't ever admitted it, her last fall off of a horse had shaken her quite a bit. Some could even say she was scared to get back in the saddle. "No ride for today," she declared. "I will meet with Mr. Bellegarde and we will go for a quick walk. Then I am returning here."
"Some time out is better than none," her mother sighed in agreement, rising to her feet. She sent Annie yet another smile. "Do not fret about Mr. Arten, my dear. News has spread and there were few cases of scarlet fever back home, which means we will be able to return there within the next week, after Esther's honeymoon is over. John and his family will not know until his messenger reports our absence."
Annalise knew her mother was only trying to help, but her selected words did not necessarily bring her relief. "Do you believe he will keep sending us hateful messages?"
If Beth Purcell had a proper response to Annie's question, she chose not to respond to it. Instead, she twirled a finger in Annalise's direction. "Wear the mauve pink dress today. It looks very pretty on you. I will call for Mr. Bellegarde now."
Without waiting for a response, the woman left the sunroom, leaving Annalise alone once again.
Admittedly, Annie had been anxious to set eyes on Marius again. She hadn't seen him since the day before John's proposal, due to the fact that she'd locked herself in her door and hadn't left for anything other than food. She wasn't sure what he was going to say to her. Torment her, make a snarky comment about her decision? That didn't seem like something he would do, but she could never be too sure. She'd learned that over the past few months, with anyone and everyone.
She found herself holding her breath as he approached her. He dressed handsomely; his choice of outfit was a stormy blue colour, reminding her of an unsettled sky before a storm. The uneasiness the colour brought along was what she was currently feeling in the pit of her stomach. But Marius wore a warm smile and his eyes visibly lit up when he saw her, and she knew she had nothing to worry about. Butterflies swished inside her stomach, replacing the unnerved waves, and she curled her hands together. For whatever reason, she didn't quite have the ability to look him in the eye for too long without feeling warmth in her cheeks. She didn't wish to embarrass herself; she figured she had made a big enough fool of herself after the incident between herself and John Arten.
"Annalise, I'm so happy to see you."
His long strides reached her within seconds, and he stopped a safe distance away, that usual boyish smile on his lips. Annie believed his words, too; it wasn't difficult to note when Marius was lying. She offered him a smile in return, though hers wasn't nearly as enthusiastic as his was. "I hate to admit it aloud, but seeing you is an awful lot of relief to me."
Marius chuckled softly, offering her his elbow, which she took. "I'm sorry to hear about John, I truly am. What an absolute monster."
Annie's head whipped around towards Marius, her eyes wide in surprise at his choice of words. "You certainly do not smooth out your words, do you?"
"Not when it comes to a man like himself hurting someone like you," Marius responded with a tipped-up chin. "He is lucky he is no longer in the area. I would have loved to have had a conversation with him."
"Marius," Annie gasped at his harshness, shaking her head. "You mustn't be so cruel to the man. Everything is settled now." Almost everything. "I have not seen him since." And then she sighed. "Who had told you, anyway?"
Of course. Her younger sister could not keep her mouth shut for more than five seconds. Annalise did not doubt the young woman exaggerated the entire situation, too. "It isn't something to fret about," she said, surprising herself by how sturdy her tone was. "It has passed, and I have carried on."
A hum sounded from Marius's throat, the type that could either be because he didn't believe her or because he did believe her. Whatever the case may be, Annalise did not pay too much attention to it. They stepped outside, the warmth of the springtime sun hitting her face instantly. It was perfect- not too hot, but not too cold.
"Olivia had attended her first season's ball," Marius spoke a few moments later, cutting the silence that simmered above her. "She went three days, I believe, after we left town for Esther's wedding. And, Aunt writes that she already has a dozen suitors."
"Unsurprisingly," Annalise mused. "She's quite beautiful, inside and out. Does she have any intentions of marrying soon?"
"I've yet to figure that out," Marius chuckled. "One day she complains about how dreadfully lonely her life is and the next she states she does not ever want a man by her side. I suppose it all depends on her mood."
"And the gifts," Annalise chimed in. "It always depends on the gifts."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Well," Annalise began in a matter-of-fact tone, despite the slight teasing behind her words, "flowers are always a way to win a lady's heart. Large bouquets, that is; the type that will give poor Maisie the sneezes and sniffles for days to follow, but are too beautiful to get upset over. Every woman loves them."
Marius, from beside her, raised a brow and bobbed his head lightly, a lopsided smile on his face. "Flowers," he echoed. "Flowers are what ladies base their suitors on? If he does not give a well-plucked bouquet, is he not eligible for your love?"
The blond's tone was equivalent to what Annalise was using. Joking, audibly, yet not in the sense where the words were completely pointless. Annie was indeed listing off her likes, her desires, which was odd, because it was Marius she was talking to, not someone like Esther or her mother, per se. She could tell Marius was truly listening, too. "Why, of course," she responded with a dip of her head. "It is almost like we are to marry the flowers and not the men."
"Of course," he repeated, tossing his head back as he laughed. "Well, if that is how you are going to play, I do hope your family enjoys the perfume of flowers."
"Oh, of course," Annalise said yet again. "As a child, Maisie used to pluck them from the field. She would find a way to bring home the—"
"The ones with the dirtiest petals and the ones that the bugs liked best," Marius cut in, flashing her a grin. "I've heard this before, don't you know."
"Oh, have you?" Annalise returned curiously, tilting her head as she studied his expression, half expecting him to spin around and proclaim this to all be a joke. "By whom?"
"You," Marius responded, as if it was the most obvious answer. "Do you not remember, Annalise? When we were younger, and in that field of sunflowers. You had told me that right after I told you how pretty you looked in blue, because you became flustered every time you received a compliment."
Annie's mouth parted, and she glanced down at the ground. "Do you really remember that?"
"Why wouldn't I?" Marius inquired gently. He stopped as she did, turning to look at her. "Your words are important, Annalise. I listen to them all." His tone was gentle, so gentle, and promising. He meant what he said, she knew that well.
She could feel a faint blush sprawling out across her cheeks, and she hated it. His gaze was hot and intense as he watched her, but he didn't come closer. Unlike John, Annalise did not fear for the worst with the lack of distance between them. Marius had dignity and held a lot of respect inside of him. Annalise didn't have to ever worry when in his presence.
"I had a chat with your father today," Marius continued a moment later when Annie didn't respond. He had cleared his throat, something he often did when feeling a bit awkward. Those words were troublesome to Annalise, and panic flashed in her bright green eyes. He smiled at her, though. "Not to worry, he was not upset with me. In fact, he'd even given his thanks for looking after you whilst we had all separated. Of course, it did not at all feel anything like a chore, but I was pleasantly surprised."
"As am I," Annalise mumbled earnestly. "I thought Father did not like you."
"I didn't either," Marius shrugged. "But I suppose something opened his eyes. He did not say much, but what was said was very much appreciated. He may be stern, but he is a good father, Annalise."
Annie merely nodded at that, unsure of what else to say. Humming a laugh at her slight awkwardness, Marius nudged her playfully. "Come," he told her, starting up in a slow walk once again. "I know the perfect café nearby."
A cup of tea and a freshly-made biscuit sounded right up her alley just about now. With no objections, she allowed him to lead the way back into the heart of the city.