ANNALISE FELT AS if the saliva that was surging down her throat had turned to molasses. Thick and bitter, it seemed to contemplate on whether or not it should roll down her throat and into the pit of her unsettled stomach. Her head hurt, her hands were clammy, and her face was pale, something very noticeable, even though her face was indeed powdered. The arms on the grandfather clock swung with leisure, as if they had little care in the world. Resting a hand on her stomach, Annie let out a heavy, unattractive sigh.
“Is something the matter, Miss Purcell?” naïve Marie asked. Annalise quite liked Marie. She was young, barely passing nineteen, with a heart of gold. An orphan, she had been, a young woman her parents had taken in a little less than a year ago to give her a home, as long as she was willing to return the favour by working for them. There had been no objections towards such an offer, and Marie had drifted over to the Purcells within days of their first meeting. She was a hard worker, always managing to keep her mind occupied and her hands moving. She often stayed away from the head of the house, her shy attitude frequently making it difficult for the young woman to open up, but she’d grown comfortable around the three oldest daughters. Annie was convinced she liked Esther the most, for her quiet nature went with Esther’s motherly figure, but she spoke fairly equally to the three of them. Annalise was relieved when she found out it was Marie that would be helping her prepare for the ball; her soft-spoken voice almost always found a way to relax the middle child.
“Not in the slightest,” Annalise mumbled in response, the lie slithering right through her teeth, which acted as a helplessly useless border. A raise of the brow from Marie resulted in a sheepish smirk, and she silently gave in with a helpless shrug. “I’m not as excited as I had wished to be, that is all.”
Marie was quiet for a moment, fluffing the ends of Annalise’s large iceberg blue skirt. The young woman had lived with the Purcells long enough for Annalise and her two sisters to know which silence Marie was using. She was pondering over something, the squint of her hazel green eyes and furrow in her brow having given that away. Did she know about Annie’s tragic, hopeless attempt to find love? Her experience with it? She was confident Marie had come about later, but she did not know for sure. Luckily for her, however, Marie did not bring up a name, nor did she touch on Annalise’s failed attempt of finding ever-lasting love, for she said instead, “Are you worried about the commitment that comes with marriage, miss?”
That question, as simple as the supporting words were, made the middle child pause. Her teeth fiddled with her bottom lip as Marie started working with her golden locks once more, her vision blurring as she zoned out. Then, in a softer voice, Annalise spoke one single word: “Yes.” It rested on the edge of a powerless, pride-less tone, forcing Annalise’s stubborn pride to cave in, only if for a moment or two. Marie gave a singular nod but said no more as she twisted another strand up into Annie’s updo, silently offering the woman the floor if she wished to continue. But Annie did not. She trusted Marie almost as much as she did her closest sisters, but now was not the time to touch on her worries of the future. She was not willing to yet debate on her rights and duties. The Winter’s Ball was a party to remember, a party to celebrate joy and love, and Annalise did not want to remember such an event in a miserable manner. Tonight, she was going to dance around with glee with her beloved sisters, catch up with old friends and acquaintances, meet and celebrate the arrivals of the new. She was to be the pretty host dressed in pale blue, a third to dazzle the room and win the hearts of the others. There would be no miserable Annalise Purcell that evening.
The following hour was practically silent, for Marie had decided not to push Annalise, and Annalise had decided not to speak. It was an uttermost joy when Esther’s dainty hands pushed open the large wooden door, her pale face peeking through the slit of the doorway. “Are you almost ready, Annie? Is she, Miss Marie?”
Annalise glanced at Marie, who replied with little more than a silent head-nod in Esther's direction. In one fluid motion, the young woman stepped back and Annie, up, then they both drifted over towards Esther. The woman was looking absolutely beautiful, as per usual. Ruffles laid across her chest, the top half a perfect shade of carnation pink. Her ivory dress fit well with her skin tone, the shade one to drain Annie out completely. On the bottom, two simple stripes the colour of raspberry chased themselves around, flower and vine designs dancing within the lines of the dark strips of fabric. Goodness, she really could make the simplest dress look absolutely stunning. Annalise allowed her emerald eyes to shamelessly take in the outfit for another fleeting moment, then turned her attention back towards Marie, who was timidly holding out her jewel. With a quick “thank you,” Annalise accepted the lilac brooch, fiddling around with it momentarily before Marie walked back over, quickly pinning it to her chest. It was odd to depart from the dressing room without a card slung around her wrist, but Annie wasn’t to protest. Without glancing down at the shimmery jewel any further, Annie turned back towards Esther, who silently offered her elbow to grasp onto. An effortless smile played at Annie’s lips as she hooked her arm through her sister’s, and the two took off down the dark hall. Neither spoke, the sound of their kitten heels having been the only thing to break the comfortable silence. Annalise could feel the confidence thriving in each step her sister took and envied the level of serenity Esther had gathered. Her own steps were choppy, uncomfortable, and she could only pray her talent for ballroom dance would take over on its own once the music began. Esther seemed to sense this, for her hand gently patted Annie’s elbow, despite keeping her steady gaze forward.
“Chin up, Annalise,” Esther murmured, her words so quiet that her plump raspberry lips barely moved. “Posture steady. Tonight will be in the history books!”
Annalise offered a single nod of her head at that, and without a word further, the two headed out to the ballroom.