WEEKS WENT ON, and eventually, the threats went away. They died off slowly, jumping from five to six messages a week to about four, and in time, they stopped altogether. At first, Annalise had been convinced that they had stopped because the Purcells moved back home, but that wasn't the case. It seemed like John Arten's angry obsession died off. She'd never felt so relieved.
Going home was one of the best things that could ever happen to her. She'd ridden in a carriage with Maisie and Esther, and as per usual, Maisie had a lot to say. And for once, it didn't bother Annalise. In fact, she was engulfed in Maisie's excited chatter, hooking onto every little bit of juicy gossip her younger sister had to say. That girl knew everything, it was a bit extreme. Annie did not even know where she had the time to go out and gather such information; some of the things spoken aloud seemed a bit personal. Maisie had always had a way with words, though, and if anyone could get anything out of a person, no matter how reserved they were, it would be Maisie Purcell. The last conversation they'd had together (or, more like, the last bit of time Maisie had to splurge on her words) consisted of the youngest of the three complaining about how mister William Earlston hadn't yet proposed to her.
"Maisie," Esther had laughed. "You have all the time in the world."
Unfortunately for them all, they knew that was a bit of a stretch. Men, especially those of wealth, could take as much time as they wished to do as they pleased before finding a wife, but if a woman wasn't in a stable relationship by the time she was twenty-five, she was undesirable. Annie was slowly inching up to the deadline. The Purcells would grab the first available man and toss him her way before she reached those numbers, though. At that point, it wouldn't even matter who it was that was marrying her. That also meant she wouldn't have the ability to turn him down; her family would never in a million years let that slip. She was fearful they'd drag John back into the picture, if she was being honest. She felt like there had been a load taken off of her shoulders when he fled, and it lightened even more when he halted his messages.
Annalise hadn't said anything after that, not until that night at dinner, when they had their first meal together in over a month. It was a joy. Her father tried to bring up business talk, as per usual, but the women of the family managed to cut it out. The younger children, who Annalise soon learned had travelled with their parents when the sickness came around, did not sit at their direct table and therefore couldn't shut him down, but Beth and her three daughters were successful enough. Annalise at least was able to leave the main dining room before any bank-related talk brewed into the air.
Now, she lay in bed, silent, staring blindly up at the cream-coloured ceiling of her bedroom. She would never admit it aloud, but she was truly beginning to miss the Bellegardes. Annie adored her immediate family, that went without a doubt, but the atmosphere was different. Here, things were stricter, more business-like, formal. The Bellegardes were so laid-back; even their house was more open and homey than the Purcell's, which was surprising, since Annalise had lived in her home since birth. She supposed the colours, patterns, and layout had something to do with it, but she was beginning to feel homesick. She was homesick in her own home.
She did not long for the Arten cottage, not in the slightest. Though she was the slightest bit disappointed that Vinnie hadn't written back to her, that woman was about the only thing she missed from that family. The small, butterfly of hope that fluttered inside her stomach was doing its very best to persuade her that this was only because Annalise hadn't informed the woman that she'd transferred back home, she knew the reason for a lack of response on Vinnie's end was more than that. John Arten knew about their travels, after all. It was very, very unlikely that Vinnie hadn't been informed.
"Pay no mind to her," Esther had said. "She has Arten blood in her, Annalise. She cannot be perfectly different from the others."
And, reluctantly, Annie had agreed. Though still, two weeks later, she still thought about the woman. She'd made a friend, and it seemed that friendship had fallen through. It did not help that she hadn't heard from Evelyn, either; Annalise knew she was running their family business now, for her father had passed soon after they were forced to leave Manhattan, but that was as much information on Evelyn and her family as she knew. Was she struggling with the business? Had she married that man — what was his name again? — that had had the matching gem so many nights ago? All of this questioning made Annalise feel even more lonely than before.
"Annalise, you cannot retire to your room this early and lay here all day," came a sigh from the doorframe. Craning her neck to see who it was, Annalise noted that it was not Esther that was gently scolding her, but Maisie. "Esther and I want to have a picnic. Come join us, it will be loads of fun."
"What are you serving?" Annalise mumbled lazily, tossing her head back onto her pillow, body bouncing gently against the mattress.
"Annalise," came her name again, this time more firm. "Enough thinking with your stomach, you old slug. Get out of bed, let's go!"
A groan escaped Annalise's lips as Maisie's hands grabbed hers, tugging her limp body upwards. Her head lolled forward, as if she'd lost all muscle in her neck. "I am rather comfortable under my sheets, Maisie."
"You'll be more comfortable outside," Maisie retorted, pushing Annie's back with both palms so that the blonde sat up in bed. "Get out of your nightgown, it is noon! You are lucky Mother has not dragged you out yet."
"She sent Marie in to deliver my breakfast," Annalise mumbled sleepily, a faint smile on her lips. "Isn't she the kindest?"
"Dear God, I hope you will act a bit better than this on our picnic," Maisie grumbled, yanking a dress out of Annalise's wardrobe. She tossed a corset and its hard fabric crumpled across Annalise's forehead, landing forcefully on her lap before slumping awkwardly to the floor.
That was enough to grab Annalise's attention, and she shot up to her feet, gaping at her younger sister. "Maisie Purcell, if that left a bruise, I will have you pleading for mercy!"
Maisie laughed wickedly, clasping her hands together in delight. "Grand!" she chirped. "Now let us get moving, old sister. The food will be cold."
Annalise watched her younger sister dash out of the room the way she did when she was seven after destroying something in Annie's room, then, reluctantly, slipped out of her nightgown to change into the baby pink dress Maisie had torn out for her. Its ribbons and bows were always so flattering, the way they swept across the large skirt and twirled down to her ankles. Annalise's parents were not too fond when it came to counting how many times Annie had worn it, but it did not matter much to her; it was pretty and she liked it, so that was good enough for her. She left her hair down, despite knowing there was going to be some comment about it. Where were they going, anyway? When they'd had picnics in the past, it hadn't ever been anywhere public. Truth be told, more often than not, they just hid out in their neighbours' garden. It was large and had enough trees and bushes to keep a good amount of privacy in. They were kind people and hadn't ever minded if the sisters took a walk through their endless rows of flowers. Now wasn't any different.
Annie made her way to the main room, where Esther and Maisie stood. Maisie wore her usual colour, a buttercup yellow, and Esther had settled into a gentle matcha green. The three colours they always wore when going on their little picnic adventures. She couldn't hide a smile even if she tried.
"Off we go!" Maisie called out, waving her hand towards the two, implying she was the self-proclaimed leader of the group. Annalise glanced at Esther, who gave her an amused smile, and the two followed their giddy sister.
The sunshine was warm and the sky was fairly clear, reminding Annalise an awful lot of the day John had tried for her hand in marriage. Her mood dulled at the thought of it, but it brightened right back up as Maisie's voice came into play, distracting her from anything else. "Annalise, Marius has returned here."
"Has he?" she hummed, doing her very best to remain neutral with her words. On the inside, though, her heart leaped, and now it was beating quicker than before. She hadn't gone a single day without having at least a momentary thought of him. Was Maisie just saying this to get a reaction? Annie kept her gaze down, watching as the tips of her shoes snaked out from under the hem of her skirt, to avoid eye contact altogether. Was he really here? Why hadn't he come to visit? Her mind traced back to the talk between Marius and her father. She hadn't a clue what had been said. Had her father warned him to stay back? He had told Esther and Annalise not to mention his name again. That made her antsy. Attempting to be as casual as possible, she added slowly, "Where has he been staying?"
"Oh, you know," Maisie returned in a sing-song voice, as if Annalise really did know. "Around. Here and there."
"Then why did you mention this to me, Maisie?" Esther seemed to note that Annie had caught on, based on the side-glance the older sister shot her when she spoke. "If you do not know where he is then surely it means little to us."
"Well..." Maisie fumbled for what to say next. Was she speechless? That was a first! "You and he are friends. I simply thought you would like to know."
"Thank you, Maisie, but I am quite alright." Annalise's words were quieter now, more gentle. The flutter of hope had vanished. For all she knew, her sister could be faking the entire situation. Maisie Purcell always revealed something with more details than what she had just said. It was entirely possible that she only said what she had said to get a reaction. Annie sensed that her two sisters had picked up on how close Annie and Marius had gotten after they'd all split up. Annalise didn't want to get too wrapped up in it in case it meant nothing to Marius. She'd never truly cleared him from her mind, that was true, and unfortunately, he was only building a bigger spot inside. It was a dangerous game to play, given her father's hatred for the Bellegarde family. She knew it was strictly forbidden.
But that was what made it even more exciting.
Her blood ran cold the more she thought about it. Was that love? Had she been stuck by Cupid's arrow yet again? Surely, that would be a way to explain the giddy feeling she felt when in his presence, the way she laughed at everything he said, but... Annalise did not want to love him. She couldn't do that to him.
There was a hand on her shoulder, and she leapt from her thoughts. Esther was staring kindly at her. "Are you alright?" she asked. It seemed Maisie hadn't even noticed, and was attending to settle the blanket onto the ground; a true battle against the pesky wind.
"Quite alright," Annie settled on, her tone faltering just enough to show that her mind truly was occupied. She didn't want Esther to say anything of it, though; she wanted to enjoy their little picnic together without thinking of men, or their family, or anything else. She just wanted to enjoy the moment.
Esther did not saying anything further, thankfully. Lunging forward, Annalise caught the flapping corner of the blanket, and, with Esther pushing the middle section down, the three of them managed to settle it on the grass. Maisie practically flew on it, flopped onto her back. Esther and Annalise followed more carefully, but like Maisie, Annie also rolled so that she was facing the bright sky.
"Do you remember when we used to make animals out of the clouds?" Maisie asked in a dreamy tone.
That made Annalise smile, and her heart hurt. Oh, how long ago that felt! She remembered it like it was yesterday; the three on their backs in the gardens, gazing up at the fluffy white clouds. Sheep always emerged first, then a dog, or a pig, or a fish. Esther had once claimed to even see a bird. Annalise hadn't ever been able to scope that one out, and as a young girl, she'd always gotten upset, not being able to see what her other two sisters could see. But none of that mattered now. She was older now, and knew there were worse problems than having the inability to see a Cloud Fish.
With a contented sigh, Annalise rotated onto her side, resting her head in Esther's lap. She closed her eyes to the sound of the occasional chirp of a bird and stroking of Esther's fingers.
"Your hair is tangled," she commented, running her fingers through the strands. "Annalise, did you brush it this morning?"
She peeked open an eye is if she was genuinely annoyed by the comment. "Of course I brushed it," she returned, though in reality, that hadn't really been much of a priority for her. When Esther yanked out a knot (Annalise was almost positive she was only being more rough to prove something), Annie slapped her hand away. "Esther, stop fussing."
"We just want you to look pretty," Maisie cooed, crawling over to her.
Groaning, Annalise pushed herself upright. "Why does it matter?" she asked, her eyes skimming over the picnic blanket. Her belly grumbled. "Where is the basket? I do hope you brought strawberries. I saw them at the market the other day and I knew they wouldn't get passed up, so—"
"Annalise," Maisie laughed. "Stop!"
Annie felt herself frown. Although it was not unusual for this sort of scenario, the type where she reached for the picnic basket whilst the other two gossiped, something about their tone was different. Her mind was buzzing, yet she couldn't think of a single thing that would cause them to act like this. Slowly, she uncurled her fingers from the picnic basket's handle and shifted her body so that she could face the two of them. "Esther, Maisie," she started slowly, "whatever is the matter?"
Esther opened her mouth to speak, and Maisie's gaze flitted up and over Annie's head. Feeling a shadow fall upon her, Annalise sent them both a quizzing look, then scooted around. Her jaw dropped, mouth falling in an unattractive manner. "Marius."
He chuckled at her breathy tone, offering her a hand to stand up. His skin was warm, even against her glove, and for a second, Annalise was really questioning if he was indeed right in front of her. Pushing herself upright, she tossed her arms around him, squeezing him close. He did not hesitate to wrap his own arms around her in return.
"Why are you here? Why are you back?" The words tumbled excitedly from her lips, and when she pulled back to place her palms against his cheeks, she noted she was trembling with joy. She hadn't realized how much she had missed him until he was here.
Marius took her hands in his own, lowering them back to their sides. "Do you mind if we go for a walk?" he asked her sisters. Annie whipped her head around to glance at them. She'd been so wrapped up in the idea of Marius returning that, truth be told, she momentarily forgot they were still seated there. Both nodded, Maisie grinning jocosely.
They knew. It all made sense now.
"I despise you both," Annie mouthed to them, eyes widening and brows raising to show she wasn't kidding, even though she evidently was. Maisie blew a kiss in return, and, giving the smallest head shake, Annalise turned and headed off alongside Marius. "I hadn't believed you were going to return here."
"I suppose you could say I do not have much reasoning to be in Manhattan," Marius agreed, which, oddly enough, felt like a slice to her heart. "But I do enjoy the comforts of it."
"Did sweet old Mrs. Reese let you in?" Annalise continued as her mind flashed back to their location. "I hadn't known her to let in strangers."
"She's a very kind woman," Marius hummed thoughtfully. "She hadn't any second thoughts when I told her why I had arrived. Maisie was not even sure you'd come out of the house."
"Is there something you need?"
Marius stopped suddenly, as if seriously considering what had been said. His deep brown irises flickered over to her, and she automatically felt guilty. Was her tone too forward, too harsh? What if something had actually happened? "Is everything alright at home, Mr. Bellegarde?"
His pink lips twitched upwards. "Do you know," he murmured, "that when you get nervous, you refer to me as that? Mr. Bellegarde?"
"I hadn't noticed." That was truthful, Annalise often had little control over what left her lips. It made it more flattering to note that he took these things in. Her stomach flip-flopped. "That's awfully kind of you for noticing."
"I notice many things about you, Annalise," he continued, picking up into a casual stroll once again. "You've always preferred tulips and sunflowers over roses; I'd made the mistake of fetching a batch of roses when I'd first met you. You do not like drawing portraits, but nature. In which, might I quickly add, I still have your half-finished painting of the fields back home. Your favourite colour is yellow, though you enjoy wearing blue the most. Periwinkle, or a sea blue, never anything darker than a peacock shade. You'd once been made a dark dress, nearly the shade of the evening sky after a rainstorm, and cried about it until you changed. Do you remember that?" He stopped walking once more. Annalise hadn't even noticed they'd travelled so far. She was flattered, truly captivated by his words. She couldn't peel her gaze away from him. "But there are smaller things, too. Your eyes light up when you see and do things you love. You always wear a small smile on your face when you paint, and sometimes, when you get even more concentrated, your tongue peaks out of your lips, and your forehead crinkles. And your cheeks redden, for that reason and when you get angered. You are most happy when alone." His tongue snaked out of his lips and he glanced down, suddenly unable to keep her gaze.
"Marius?" Annalise murmured. Had she done something wrong? Her cheeks were burning and her stomach was tying infinite knocks, but she hadn't said anything. Had her reaction startled him? Perhaps something on her face pushed him back. "Marius, had I done something wrong?"
His chin tilted back up, and he mustered a small smile. "You never do it wrong, Annalise," he promised her. His own cheeks were pink now, and it felt like the hedges and bushes around them were folding in on them. He took a deep breath. "Do not speak for a moment, I wish to get this off of my chest. I knew I wanted to marry you from the day we met. Officially, that is, not when the paint was spilled. I've just been drawn to you, Annie- your beautiful smile, your independence, the way you find joy in the smallest things. I've never been so happy. But—" he continued quickly, before Annalise even had a chance to properly register what he had just confessed, "—I respect your mind when it comes to marriage. I know you do not wish to marry, and for that reason—"
"Marius," Annie cut in quickly. She had yet to fully process what he had said or what she was about to say, but her mouth wouldn't shut. "Marius, if I were to marry anyone, it would be you. I love you." Her tone hushed, as if those words had shocked her, even despite saying them. Her hands were shaking, and she was glad she had gloves on to hide the sweat that had begun to emerge on the surface of her skin. Her heart was thrashing wildly against her ribcage, like a bird desperate to break free. Her breath swallowed. Though those words were spontaneous, and not at all planned, she realized it was the truth. She wanted to marry Marius Bellegarde.
Marius looked as surprised as Annie had felt upon saying those words. But he evidently processed them quicker, and was quick to close the space between them. His lips, however, did not touch hers. "Let's get married," he whispered in an excited tone, like a child who was doing their absolute best to keep a secret quiet. "I-I cannot give to you what John Arten could, but... We can make it work, Annie. We can go to France, and you can paint, and—"
Annie was nodding furiously. Happiness burst inside of her, and tears of joy were threatening to spill down her cheeks. "I want to marry you," she whispered again, her voice shaky, with words that haven't ever been more truthful. "I want to go to France and live with you."
And with that, he kissed her.