THE BALLROOM FELT extremely hot, and it wasn’t long before the corset that was strapped around Annalise’s upper body began to make her sweat. A hand ran along the middle of her stomach and she grumbled quietly to herself. Still, the blonde kept her chin up proudly and her steps continued to lay out a trail of elegance every time she moved. Annalise was no stranger to attention, to the lingering eyes of her fellow town members and the murmurs that flowed as gently as a river’s current. She didn’t soak it up nearly as much as Maisie did, but she appreciated it once in a while. It was evident that their looks were filled with admiration and awe, for their lips parted to such an extent that the whites of their front teeth poked out and their eyes were so large that if it were at all possible, the eyeballs themselves could have possibly tumbled right out of the sockets. Annalise did not stop to look at a single person. If those who were in the ballroom kept up with the Purcells and their ways of living, they would know that Annalise wasn’t exactly the type to openly run into a stranger’s arms. Maisie gleefully slid into any outstretched arms and Esther was pretty settle with her interactions too, but Annalise had never been a fan of small talk. What was there to talk about, anyway? Frequently, she didn’t know the other person, so the conversation usually resulted in some endless praise or gush of words over the Purcells. Unless it was genuine (which really didn’t often happen, for they often spoke for the hopes of getting a bit of fame), it was pretty worthless. Annalise had goals, a headstrong mindset, and ongoing chatter of flattery about her family didn’t cut it. She did, however, come to a fleeting halt a second later when her bright eyes landed on someone familiar in the crowd.
A few feet away stood Vermont’s forest queen, Evelyn Crowell. The Crowells were considered to be the “outdoorsy” Purcells; they lived in a quaint bungalow with over fifty acres of land. They were the head of the lumber industry, and it would soon be time for Evelyn to take over the business. Annalise quite liked Evelyn. From a distance, and during first-impression introductions, she was rather cold, quite blunt, and visibly disinterested. However, she had turned into one of the most loyal and funny people Annie knew. The two clicked right off the bat. Childhood friends with something in common: their small hatred for people. Evelyn had shown Annalise how to saddle a horse, how to tack up their fielding cattle, and how to fly fish. Maisie had been too young to visit their property and Esther had little interest in the rural side of the Americas, which gave Annalise an automatic bonus. Evelyn Crowell was five years older than Annie was, settling at the comfortable age of twenty-six. Her appearance resembled the portraits of the beautiful European ladies shown in the local galleries. Tall, just missing the six-foot line, and a body so slim that Annalise wouldn’t have been surprised if Evelyn told her she’d never heard of a corset. She had sleek black hair that was always up, revealing her long neck and chiseled jawline. Her eyes were stormy grey, beautiful, but cold and daring. Annalise had to raise a brow at her choice of outfit. It was as slim as she was, with a tail that dragged along the floor. It was the colour of cream, which surprisingly worked well with her physical appearance. It lacked tradition and Annalise knew she would never be able to pull it off, but it was stunning on her leggy friend.
“Annie, darling, you look like a princess,” Evelyn cooed as she strutted up to the Purcell. “I cannot say the same for half of these people here. I even saw a young woman with her hair down. Who does that?”
A frown played at Annalise’s lips, and she let her gaze roam for a second. Her friend was right. Soon enough, she was able to scope out the wide variety of guests. And there was quite the variety. For the most part, the women wore suitably comfortable for their party; thick skirts and ruffles, with exquisite updos and gleaming jewelry.
Then there were the others.
Annie didn’t know what else to call them. One in particular had a visible tear in the bottom half of her dress, as if she had gotten it caught in the wheel of a carriage, and another indeed had her hair flowing around her shoulders. Her gaze flashed back over to Evelyn, and she shot her friend a visible look of pure unimpressed disgust. Annalise didn’t dislike the poor, per se, but she admittedly felt a bit uncomfortable seeing them in her house. She’d travelled through the less wealthy part of town quite often, handing out bread and water to those who were in desperate need, but she couldn’t ever live in such conditions. She wished she had a bigger heart when it came to that, she wished she could dive in with two hands as if it weren’t at all a bother, but she supposed she grew up in too much of a spoiled environment to enjoy otherwise. As kind-hearted and sincere as her two close sisters were, Annie doubted either would do any different. Evelyn, however, was possibly different, though the only reason she’d be doing the dirty work was for herself and nothing more.
Evelyn continued on, as if she had read Annie’s thoughts, “Have your parents done a background check on any of these people? It seems a bit unusual.” Those words confirmed Annalise’s suspicions; Evelyn wouldn’t dare give a helping hand to these people. If anything, she would scoff and snap, “Let me do it!” and do all the work the poorer people did herself. She was admirable that way.
Annalise only responded with a helpless shake of her head. She hadn’t a clue, truth be told. She had assumed they knew everyone that was attending, but upon the arrivals of their guests, she was beginning to suspect otherwise. She had remembered her parents informing her that their guests for this party would be coming from all over the world. She didn’t really realize that “all over the world” was also a way of saying, they were from several classes. Raising her brows ever-so-slightly, she forced her gaze to remain on Evelyn. “I’ll have a chat with them later,” she decided aloud. “However, surely, they wouldn’t have paired us with low classers, right?” Her eyes lingered on the amber gem Evelyn wore above her left breast. “I cannot imagine that would have happened.”
“Unless it was all random,” Evelyn pointed out in a matter-of-fact tone, as if she was confident that was indeed the case. Annalise did not have much time to dwell on her words, for her friend was speaking once again, though on a completely different matter. “Annie, please be a dear and have someone fetch me your strongest liquor? I’m not too sure I’ll have the energy to survive the night at this rate.”
At that, a smile crept up onto Annalise’s lips, and she felt like she could breathe. Clearly, dwelling on the poorer people in the room really did catch her off guard, even if subconsciously. She rose a hand, waving her fingers around until a servant scrambled up to their side. He wore a frantic look, but before he could properly address them, Annie beckoned to Evelyn. “Rory, please fetch Miss Crowell our strongest liquor.” She didn’t drink much and therefore didn’t know what exactly one would consider to be the strongest, but trusted young Rory would know best. The young man nodded rapidly, then rushed off. Clasping her hands by her front, Annie clicked her heels together. Silence lingered over them until Rory safely placed a drink in Evelyn’s hand. Her friend took a sip, then turned her pointed expression back onto Annalise. “I bet you are absolutely delighted about tonight’s event.”
Annalise let out an unladylike snort at her friend’s bitter sarcasm, crinkling her nose for a brief moment before returning with a similar tone, “Not in the slightest. I am sure you are, though. I mean, a man to ruin your business career! How charming!”
Evelyn returned Annie’s fake enthusiasm with a sarcastic grin, but the glint in her eye allowed Annalise to openly assume she had something else on her mind. “What is on that clever mind of yours, Evelyn?”
“I have little intentions on finding my match tonight,” her friend declared in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’s rather pointless. In fact—” she held her glass out for Annalise to grab, then removed her pin, fiddling with it momentarily before strapping it right by her shoulder. “—I think these men should truly have some fun with this find-your-match situation, don’t you?” She tugged her shawl over the brooch smugly, hiding the gem almost completely, then took back her half-empty glass. “It isn’t called a match event for nothing.”
Although a bit unsure about the idea her friend had brought up, a light smile still lingered on Annie’s lips. Evelyn saw right through it. She finished her glass, dropped it on the nearest table, then grabbed Annalise’s hand. “Let us get going, shall we? After all, we have a future husband to find you.”