THE WAIT WAS atrocious. Annalise hadn’t wanted to be one of those young women who eagerly rushed to a man’s side for the sake of gaining their never-ending affection. She did not want to be one of those ladies that simply slid by a man’s side just so that she could confirm that she spent the night with a handsome face. That screamed desperation, and that word wasn’t something that fit snug in Annie’s vocabulary. She was sure that standing rigidly against the cold wall most likely did not look any more attractive, but it was enough to calm her thoughts for a moment or two. Every time she connected eyes with an unfamiliar face, she glided closer to a table, for each one was accompanied by a servant. The conversations with her workers were more or less a polite smile before she carried on, but it was better than getting involved in something she didn’t want to experience. She was fine solo.
Across the room, Esther had found her partner James. The sturdy man was practically towering over her, even though Esther was on the taller side of things, standing at an exact height of five foot seven. She was leaning towards him, and even from afar, Annalise could practically scope out the diamonds that shone in the depts of her irises. The smile she wore on her face was both charming and goofy, and Annalise could tell her attention was solemnly on him. They made a handsome couple, Annalise would admit to that. His hair was a smidge darker than hers, tied back in a neat bun. Although he was at an awkward angle in the sense that Annie could not get a good glimpse of his eyes, she knew from previous interactions with him that he had deep green eyes, resembling the shade found in the darkest part of a forest. He was a kind man with fine manners. It was evident he had been head-over-heels for Esther from the time he first met her, given the way he addressed her in comparison to Annalise and Maisie, but he was still a true gentleman. Their parents had already approved him, too, so Esther had little to worry about. That lucky duckling. They had always seemed more focused on getting Annie’s head out of the clouds and shooing a crowd of men away from Maisie to truly focus on Esther’s love life. Esther had said time and time again that she did not mind it, and Annalise eventually came to believe it. Esther didn’t like the attention and preferred all things quiet. That being said, she had a good relationship with both their mother and their father, and they all knew that if Esther had something to discuss with them, she would have little issues bringing the topic up. Annie was genuinely happy for her. Unfortunately for her, in a selfish manner, that meant Esther was no longer reliable if Annalise needed to run to her. She didn’t even bother looking for Maisie, knowing all-too-well that the girl was off in a crowd of men.
Sighing a bit too loudly, Annalise reluctantly pushed herself off the wall and took tiny steps towards the middle of the ballroom. Her eyes grazed the visuals the ballroom had to offer- specifically the people. Dress skirts flowed elegantly at ladies’ ankles, and the tails on the men’s coats swished gracefully behind them. Annie rubbed her ankle with her opposite foot, averting her gaze to the floor. A tap on the shoulder surprised her so much that she nearly jumped out of her skin, and she shied away from the side she was touched. It was none other than Esther, ironically enough, staring expectedly at her with her pretty doe eyes.
“What happened?” Annalise asked quickly, her eyes automatically shooting over to where she had just previously spotted her sister. “Where is James?”
“Enough about James,” Esther hissed, grabbing her sister’s hand. Confused but having let her guard down, Annalise simply let her older sister lead her away. “I just spotted Maisie. She was heading out the door with a man and we cannot let her leave the party.”
It was difficult to hold back an eye-roll, but somehow, Annalise managed. She trailed behind her sister, her steps small and hurried, gaze strictly on the door that led them to the outdoors. She had only just managed to catch sight of one of the doormen closing one side and let out a somewhat irritated sigh. “Leave it to Maisie to bring the scandalous side of things into our party.”
If Esther heard her, she didn’t respond. Instead, her grip tightened around Annie’s wrist, and Annie had to yank her hand back a second later to relieve the pain that had begun to spread around the bone. They were silent as they stepped outside, although Annalise did suck in a sharp breath at the drastic change in temperature. Snow had begun to peacefully trickle down from the misty grey clouds above them, making it even more difficult to see. A few feet away stood Maisie, wrapped up in a coat that was most certainly not hers.
“Maisie.” Esther’s tone rang out into the dead air before Annalise had enough time to scramble up something. Her tone was soft, though it was evident that Esther was not too pleased with the situation. Their little sister’s head snapped up like a deer caught in headlights. Beside her, a sheepish and very awkward look had crossed over the young man’s features.
“Your hair is going to be drenched if you do not head in right this instant,” Annalise added a moment later, chin up in addition to her vocal confidence. Maisie shot her a glare, but Annie only returned it. She was cold, why did her sister have to pick the worst night to run off like a criminal who’d just broken out of their cell? If she thought she was going to successfully run off with her Knight in Shining Armour, she was poorly mistaken! Annie could practically taste the disappointment her parents would have revealed if they were present.
Maisie’s head was tipped up, but her gaze had lowered. She knew as well as everyone else that it wasn’t in the rules of the Purcells to cheekily run away from an event they were hosting to share a few flirty comments in secret. Annalise’s gaze flickered over to the jacket her sister had draped across her shoulders. The lights from the lanterns hung above found the cufflink’s gem with ease, and the fact that it was turquoise, not magenta, like Maisie’s own gem, was even more shocking. Both Maisie and this mysterious man clearly knew this, too, given the guilty looks on their faces. As annoyed as Annalise was, even despite the fact that in all honesty, she had little reason to be mad, she was intrigued. However, before she could throw in any more comments, Esther raised a hand.
“Come, Maisie, let us head back in.” She shot the man a disapproving glance, then leaned forward and grabbed hold of the blonde’s elbow, gently dragging her back. Annalise watched as Esther shook her head before running the palms of her hands over Maisie’s hair, “That will do for now, I suppose. You are lucky the bottom of your skirt isn’t wet.”
Neither Maisie nor Annalise said anything further. Instead, the three of them turned silently and headed back inside. Annie let out an audible sigh of relief at the welcoming feeling of the ballroom’s warmth, which was returned with a disapproving look from Maisie. Annalise returned it was a sarcastically sweet smile. Internally, though, she was grateful for that small experience, for that meant less time would be spent with her assigned partner, whom she had yet to meet. She stood in the entrance hall as Esther walked Maisie down the hall, most likely to dry her off.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Sucking back a sigh, for she had only just gotten her breath back, Annalise turned around to greet the face of the deep voice. Standing before her was a man that easily challenged the height of her father. He was built firm, neither too leggy nor too plump. Hair as dark as the night’s sky was gelled back neatly against his scalp, and intelligent yet cold ebony eyes stared intensely at her person. “Oh,” she voiced back, a true replica of Evelyn, then quickly curtsied. “Hello, sir.”
He held out his hand, and she reluctantly placed the tips of her fingers against his palm, watching him cautiously as he lifted her hand up to brush his lips across her knuckles. When he released her hand, her breath caught in her throat.
He wore a lilac gem. He was her match.
The stranger seemed to catch onto her realization, for the right half of his lips curled upward into a half-smile. “I caught sight of your brooch as you were rushing out the door,” he explained. “I did not want to let such a beautiful woman slip from my grasp so soon.”
Annalise offered a polite smile, though she was still hesitant. Something about him seemed odd, although she assumed that was most likely due to the fact that he was her assigned partner. This was her match, the man her parents had chosen to court her. That made her heart skip a beat, although it wasn’t in a pleasant way. She could feel the temperature increasing rapidly, and she patted the back of her neck with her cold hands. The man remained silent, his eyes lingering on her, awaiting a response. She cleared her throat, gaze flickering towards the ballroom, then back onto the stranger. “Annalise Purcell, sir. I am happy to make your acquaintance.”
The upward curve of the lips appeared again. “No need for formal introductions, Miss Purcell. I know exactly who you are.” He raised his brows, then dipped his head. “I am John Arten, and I believe fate has led me to you this fine evening.”
The smile on Annalise’s face vanished for a second, but she quickly remembered where she was and who she was talking to, and she forced it upon her features once again. She was either an incredibly good actress, or he simply didn’t care to comment on her fake enthusiasm, because he had yet to say anything on that matter. She did, however, cock a brow at his introduced name. Arten did indeed sound familiar, but only vaguely. “Do you have immediate connections with my family, sir?”
“My father owns a library out east. It is about an hour-long carriage ride from your place,” the man responded. His tone held pride, and although Annalise wasn’t nearly as in love with the idea of books as Esther was, she still found it a bit interesting. Books were an interesting subject, though. The majority of the writers were of the male sex, and their opinions were oh-so biased more often than not. Annalise could only read for so long before her cheeks began to heat up in anger. Still, she gave a simple nod at his response, unsure of what else to say. Thankfully, before she had the chance to, a wave of freshly introduced music rang out, indicating it was time for the partner dance. Annie had been beyond excited for the event earlier that day, but now she had begun to dread it. John Arten, however, had a different mindset. Glee lit up his features and he wiggled his hand closer to Annie’s. “Come, dear Annalise, I believe this calls for a celebration.”
Reluctantly, Annalise trailed behind John, her gaze locked on the backs of his shoes as he led her to the sleek dance floor. She visibly stiffened once again as he twirled her towards his person, one hand sliding up to her waist. The last time she had received any sort of touch from a man- with disregard to a polite greeting- was from Marius, and it wasn’t something she wished to remember. Her hesitation must have drawn her backward an inch or so, because it wasn’t long before John pulled her closer again. Forcing her gaze on his chest, she rose a hand- which had suddenly begun to feel like it was much heavier than usual- to his shoulder and grasped his own with her other. The live music was sweet and welcoming, and Annalise allowed muscle memory to take over as they began gliding across the dance floor. Despite the light tone of the music, it still felt like a heavyweight that had been strapped to Annalise’s back. It wasn’t noticeable, though, given the whisper John shared with her, “You’re very light on your feet.”
“I’ve received professional classes from a young age,” she answered earnestly. “My sisters and I were taught the proper ways of being a lady, and dancing was one thing on the list.”
John hummed approvingly. “ ' Tis quite nice to hear that.”
Annalise didn’t answer. She did not know how. She swallowed hard and gave a small bob of her head, and the two carried on in silence until the music came to an end. By this time, it seemed everyone had found their match. Esther was resting the back of her head against James’ chest, and Maisie was side-by-side with a young man with platinum blond hair. Both wore smiles that lit up their faces, and they were visibly drawn into their partners. It was completely two-sided, too; Annalise thought otherwise with her current situation. Still, she curtsied politely when John stepped back.
“I am intrigued by you, Miss Purcell,” he voiced, his eyes never once straying from her person. “I am eager to learn more about you.”
Annalise’s hand went to her necklace, and she fiddled awkwardly with the gems. “Um, yes, I return those feelings to you.” Her eyes shot back over to her sisters, who had begun to drift closer to one another, and quickly motioned in their direction. “If you do not mind, I would like to take a carriage with my two sisters back to the house we will be sharing.”
For a second, John did not respond. His gaze had followed her outstretched hand, settling firmly on her two sisters. Finally, he nodded. “Very well. I wish you a good night, Annalise.”
“Thank you,” she breathed quickly, then, without a word more, spun on her heel and took off towards the direction of the exiting doors. She did not once glance back over her shoulder.