THE NERVES THAT had created a seemingly endless pit in Annalise’s stomach had begun to slowly fade as she entered the ballroom with her two sisters. Maisie had left her room after the two had departed, and the three soon grouped together once again. Although she wasn’t going to admit it, having her two sisters by her side calmed her a bit. She was rarely nervous about parties, especially those that were hosted inside the walls of her own home, but tonight was different. She was not ready for marriage. Her parents had not confirmed anything out loud, but Annie knew as well as her sisters that the expectations were high tonight: find a wealthy man and fall in love. If only it was that easy. For starters, Annalise had no idea if the man that held the matching gem colour was rich or not. Of course, she had a keen eye for it and would therefore be able to tell almost instantly how much money he held when he approached her, but that was yet to be discovered. Secondly, she did not want to be loved, to be wedded. Annie was not ready to retire to the duties of a housewife, a kitchen maid. She wanted to explore, to travel overseas to Paris to work on her art. What if this man did not have the money to send her off? Worse, what if he didn’t wish to support her?
She could tell that her two dear sisters were much more eager for tonight’s event. Maisie, who practically fell in love with every man she set her pretty brown eyes on, was gazing around the room with an awe-stuck look in her eye, as if she had never seen the ballroom before. To her right, Esther looked much more confident, and Annalise knew why. Esther had their parents wrapped around her finger. She had most certainly managed to snag James Trevor as her match, and Annie knew James would fall for her, and the two would soon wed. Annie didn’t know anything about her match, and unfortunately, neither did Esther. Her parents refused to speak about it, leaving it a complete mystery that Annalise had been fretting over for the past few hours. She needed to end the suspense, and yet, few people were here to settle her fears.
A man soon approached them. Bold he was, and it was then that Annie, who was subconsciously eyeballing him rather suspiciously, realized she was a hopeless cause for this event. He had sharp blue eyes and hair as dark as a raven’s feather. Annalise’s “people side” kicked in, and she found herself beaming at him. She could tell Esther had tight-lipped a smile towards him, but her eyes were elsewhere. Maisie seemed to be in heaven, which was not at all a surprise, given the circumstances.
“Warren Sears of Baltimore,” he introduced himself as, dipping down to a low bow. “It is an honour to be here.”
Her younger sister jumped on introductions immediately, voicing in a sing-song tone, “I’m Maisie Purcell.” At the same time, Annalise, in a less enthusiastic, though still very polite tone, said, “Pleasure, Mr. Sears. How was your ride over, sir?”
An automatic frown played at the corners of her lips as the man stepped closer to Maisie, visibly intrigued by her. He took her hand, and the smile across Annalise’s face slipped instantly. She was not too surprised that he hadn’t properly introduced himself to Esther, for her eyes were clearly wandering elsewhere, but he hadn’t even blinked an eye towards Annie, as if she were the following shadow of her younger sister. Had he simply not heard? She supposed that could have been an option, given the wave of excited chatter that washed over them every second, but it seemed unlikely. She had been, after all, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Maisie. He was not even a full foot away. Annie opened her mouth, but her jaw quickly clamped shut, and the only thing that came out was pure silence.
“I say we go grab a drink instead,” Esther murmured into Annie’s ear, as if she had read Annalise’s disfigured mind. Annie simply stared at her, her actions robotic-like, as if she hadn’t fully processed her older sister’s words. Then she gave the tiniest of nods and allowed her sister to pull her away. She did not look back at Warren Sears.
Esther was silent as she wandered over to one of the cream-clothed tables in the corner, grabbing a glass of wine for Annalise before taking one for herself. Her warm almond eyes skimmed over her sister, her expression giving little away. Annie personally still felt her cold blood pumping through her in a somewhat passive-aggressive manner, her lips thin, but she didn’t say anything. Esther eventually broke the silence, “I understand you are upset, little sister, but since when has an interaction like that gotten to your head?”
At first, Annie was quiet, focusing on her drink as she swirled it around in her glass, careful not to spill any on her crystal blue dress. She supposed Esther had a point, though she was far too stubborn to give in easily and admit to it. “Some manners that man has,” she spat instead. “I was simply greeting.”
“And Maisie will soon realize that,” Esther returned, tone neither raising nor lowering. When Annalise glanced back up, she realized Esther’s gaze was now on their younger sister. Annie did not bother checking, too. “Mother and Father wouldn’t approve of a man like that anyway. Let it go.”
But Annalise was shaking her head slowly, her own eyes locked on the strange man. Panic surged through her, and her crystal flute suddenly felt as though it weighed a thousand pounds. The room had begun to feel hotter, and the dancing couples felt far too close to her person for Annalise to feel at ease. She pressed her lips together but was unable to stop herself from blurting, “Esther, what if my match is someone like that?! I could not possibly live with him.”
This time Esther quirked a brow and turned her head back towards Annalise. “As if you are going to settle with the man you are matched with, anyway.”
She had a point, even if she was merely teasing. Annie was more focused on her dreams and desires, and finding a husband was not on that list. She gave nothing more than a small shrug of her shoulders, then straightened her posture, her chin tipping up. Setting her glass down on a smoky gray platter that was perfectly balanced on the palm of a servant who was whisking around the various bunches of people, Annalise smoothed her large hoop skirt out, then took a step forward. A new wave of confidence washed over her, a determined glint in her eye as she gazed out into the ballroom, which had filled quite quickly. She was not sure what came over her, nor did know if she was actually going to go along with her following words, but regardless, she spoke. “I must go. I have a match to find.” Then, without waiting for a response from her older sister, she took off into the large crowd.