LAST NIGHT’S WINTER Ball had felt like a nightmare, consisting of thick, angry, shadowy branches that were constantly plucking at Annalise, tugging her hair, pulling in her in all directions, leaving her dizzy and utterly miserable. The event had felt surreal, in the worst possible way. Annie did not want to retrace her footsteps and soak in the memories, but, despite her annoying tossing and turning, her cheeky mind was retreating to them, anyway. To him, more specifically, but much to her dismay, it was not the "he" she wished to dream of. No matter how much she squirmed, how desperate she was to escape the visuals, those chilling, near-black eyes met her from every direction. Annalise had no right to judge, for she barely even knew the man; John Arten, he was known as. But she couldn’t help it. The way his lingering eyes met hers, how close he strayed after discovering her coloured brooch, it was chilling, really. Perhaps she was being overdramatic. Annalise had come to the conclusion that she despised the idea of love after the incident in which she had little desire to pull up. Balls were to have fun, relax, and enjoy, not to stress over finding a husband, anyway. Annie hadn’t ever entered a ballroom with the intentions of finding a husband. Her mother, however, had always had a different mindset, and both Esther and Maisie had fallen into that trap with ease. Esther had fallen for James Trevor the moment Beth Purcell introduced the two, and Maisie eagerly scoped out every man her mother had suggested adding to her card. Annalise hadn’t ever pleased either of her parents when it came to the topic of marriage, she knew that well. She’d managed to “lose” her filled card several times to avoid a dance with a particular man, and always seemed to blurt out the wrong words whenever things between herself and a gentleman started to get a bit more intimate than she’d have liked. Of course, that hadn’t often occurred, for Annie usually found a way to wiggle herself free from the conversation, but she had to do what she had to do. She was a lady with big dreams, and unless a man was her next painting project, that sex did not make a single appearance in her plans.
So then, why was she so caught up in this John Arten?
When she had retired to the guest house that belonged to her family that night, she hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting up with her beloved sisters to ask more about him. Esther had undoubtedly spent the majority of her night dancing away with Mr. Trevor, and, well, Annalise preferred if there was a third in the conversation whilst interacting with Maisie. At that, she could practically hear Esther’s soft though firm scolded words; “You’re far too alike to hate one another! Come now, Annalise, Maisie is our sister, not some stranger who has broken into our house.” As often as the younger sister and Annie argued, come to think of it, perhaps it would have been good to settle down and chat with her. After all, Maisie Purcell knew of every bit of drama and gossip in practically all of New York. If anyone were to know of mysterious John Arten, it would be her.
“I shall ask her today,” Annalise mumbled definitively, her voice low and groggy. Sleep hadn’t yet dared to leave her body, even though the sun had begun to slither through the closed, floral curtains. Moaning quietly in protest, for Annie hadn’t ever appreciated the overbearingly large amount of joy every person seemed to hold close to their chests before mid-morning, she draped an arm over her squeezed-closed eyes, as if it would do her good.
It did not.
A louder groan, this one filled with pure irritation and on the verge of a dramatic sob, was released from within her throat. Despite her hatred for waking up, she could not feel the tiniest bit of amusement once her situation began to sink in. Goodness, Annalise Purcell, your moaning and groaning is enough to challenge the enthusiastic crowds of a circus. Now, this is why you will never wed. Nevertheless, the young golden-haired woman managed to prop herself upright, flapping her arms around unattractively in an annoyed manner as she attempted to rid the bedsheets that had managed to tangle around her like prickly thorns to a bush.
And then she heard what she could have sworn to be a snore.
Her blood turned cold and a chill that was so intense that it was almost painful rolled down her spine. Visible goosebumps appeared in the areas of her skin that she allowed to show, and her breath hitched in her throat. There couldn’t possibly be another being in the room with her, right? Surely her parents had enough decency to give her her own private room! Their guest house was smaller than the infamous Purcell mansion, that went without a doubt, but surely there were enough rooms to house... How many people were here? Oh, how she wished she paid more attention when her family was discussing something of mere importance!
On the other hand, with regards to the potential snoring, Annie couldn’t help but praise herself for waking earlier than this mysterious person, if it was indeed just that. Oh, but enough of that! Who was this person, and why were they in Annalise’s room? Her first thought immediately jumped to Mr. Arten, and Annie was sure her face paled then to such a degree that if a maid was around, she’d call for a nurse immediately. That couldn’t possibly be it, though. From her knowledge, a man and a lady only ever shared a room if they were wedded, and it was usually one bed, too, if she was correct. Unless he broke every law possible when it came to courting and snuck into her room — was there even another bed in here? — then it couldn’t possibly be him. Annalise’s hands were trickling towards the unlit candlestick when another unattractive snore brought the silence. It shifted into what sounded like a cough, as if the person had choked on the noise, and Annie wasted no time. Her hands swiftly grabbed the candle and she leaped out of her bed as if her life depended on it, silently sending the angels above her uttermost thanks for not getting caught on her bedsheets once more. She whipped open the curtains with far too much force, cringing as one half fell off the hooks, but did not spend any more time studying it. Instead, she turned on her bare heel, pointing the candlestick in the direction she believed the noise was coming in as if it was a pirate’s sword. “Who’s there?”
At first, nothing. Her shockingly sturdy voice rang out against the dead silence, as if she owned the entire world’s power in her vocal cords. Then, groggily, “Annie?”
Annalise recognized the voice immediately, and she let out an exasperated sigh, both her head and her shoulders drooping with visible relief. “For goodness sake, Maisie, I thought you were here to murder me.”
Her younger sister was now visible for the most part; her legs remained covered by the hungry shadows of the room. Visible dark circles were under her big brown eyes and her hair resembled the branches of the Christmas tree put up in the plaza in December. Annalise watched as she combed her fingers through it, her hands flopping down rather dramatically once they reached the ends of the amber strands, as if she had forgotten about the short length of her head. “Come now, no need to be so ridiculous. I’ve always known you to be a storyteller, Annalise, but I hadn’t expected your mind to believe those would really come true.”
At this rate, Annalise was practically shaking with fury, though she knew deep down that it was in spite of the whole situation and not towards Maisie in particular. “Why wouldn’t Mother and Father tell us we were to be paired whilst sleeping?”
Maisie took an extra thoughtful second to respond, which was quite a rare thing to experience. Finally, she settled with words that Annie believed were the far opposite of helpful; “Well, I do believe they had mentioned something about it...”
Annalise’s mind had moved elsewhere by this point, though. Her cheeks flushed as a new thought popped into her head, and she set her candle down with nearly the same amount of force she’d put into the curtains behind her. “Where is Esther?!”
“Annalise, have you bumped your head?” Maisie had risen from her own bed now and was walking with the usual skip in her step towards Annalise. “There is no need to be so worried. Are you alright?”
Though Annie often caved into Esther’s arms before Maisie, for Maisie lacked the natural sympathy Esther carried with her, she still allowed her head to fall back down and she reluctantly shuffled closer to her younger sister, burying her face into the crook of her neck. “I’ve too many thoughts on last night’s ball to look forward to today, I am afraid.”
Maisie did not say a word, and for that, Annie was grateful. She sighed quietly as her sister rubbed her back soothingly. Nothing truly was needed to be said. Annalise knew it was his own issue now, working out any potential kinks between herself and John Arten. Sniffing, though her eyes were as dry as the desert, Annalise stepped back, offering a lightning-quick tight-lipped smile, which Maisie offered in return. Grabbing her hand, Annie sighed yet again, then exited the room after slipping on their shoes. It was quiet as they reached the staircase that would bring them to the main rooms, with little more than the occasional creak of the old, wooden floor to remind them that they were awake and wandering. The floor was stained a lively, deep chestnut colour and had various, natural O-shaped figures in the middle; they resembled a look of horror, or pure shock. Perhaps that was what she was feeling right now, with a small bundle of a good variety of other emotions to follow. The creaking of the stairs did them no justice, and if they had ever had the intentions of remaining invisible for as long as possible, that opportunity had vanished completely. That certainly wouldn’t be Maisie’s intentions, though, so she supposed it didn’t matter. Annalise had one mission upon reaching the last step: she was to find Esther and Evelyn. The men were sleeping on the opposite side of the house, and Annalise wasn’t entirely sure if any of them were up yet. She also wasn’t confident she knew what exactly the ground rules were. Of course, the family had hired guards, or “safe-keepers,” to keep an eye out for the young adults, but it wasn’t like anything would happen. Everyone was aware of the consequences if something scandalous was performed and news got around. Annalise was lucky enough to have her name saved and her meetings with Marius tucked away for only the Purcells to know about; the Purcell family reputation surely would have gone down the drain, the way people gossip and twist stories around. They were relentless, really. And yet, when Annie or any of her loved ones were not apart of it, she soaked the news up like a sponge. It was so entertaining!
Annie turned her head towards Maisie as her mind retreated back to the men. Esther and herself had discovered that the man Maisie rushed out with was her apparent match, though Annie hadn’t been informed of what had happened after they returned to the ballroom and parted ways. Bluntly asking her younger sister why she had decided to abandon the ball for this stranger would get Maisie’s blood boiling, Annalise was sure of it, so she made the choice that if anything, she’d ask Esther. After all, Esther knew everything. She did, however, feel maybe it was best to at least ask how she felt about the man who had the same gem. Maisie hadn’t asked her, and although the odds of that being because it hadn’t even crossed Maisie’s mind was rather large, Annie decided to tell herself that the reason for it was due to her earlier actions. And, maybe if Maisie saw her last night, the evident amount of misery that had been plastered upon her features.
“Maisie, tell me—”
The rest of the sentence never left her mouth. In fact, her voice turned into a squeak after “me,” and her attention was gone. She could vaguely feel Maisie’s eyes on her face, but Annalise couldn’t take away from the sight before her. The person in front of her. Newspaper in hand, thin glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. John Arten. Annalise’s mouth flopped open, then snapped shut like a fish. Eventually, she snapped out of whatever daze she had fallen into and tugged on Maisie’s arm. “We must go,” she said hurriedly. However, it was too late. Whilst Annie’s bright green eyes were on Maisie, John’s nearly black one had skitted upward and found her figure. “Ah, Miss. Purcell!”
Maisie was so oblivious sometimes, and it showed in the way she stared blankly at Annalise. Her lips formed an O, then slowly turned into a soft smile. Her eyes were practically shining. “Annie, is this your man!” It wasn’t even posed as a question. Annie wanted to take an ear and drag her back upstairs. Alas, that was a mother’s job only, and she could do no more than clasp her hands at her front and offer a polite smile towards John. “Good morning, Mr. Arten.”
John waved his wrist, and Maisie took that as an opportunity to rush off. If John’s startling eyes weren’t so focused on her, Annalise would have shot Maisie another pleading look. But she was stuck. Her posture grew rigid and her feet slid together. She felt like one of the maids in their household, anxiously awaiting their next command. The man had a good six inches on her, even though she stood on the last step of the staircase. Annie felt powerless. “There is no need for formalities, Miss. Purcell. Annalise. We are to wed, after all.”
“Oh no, that’s not quite how this works!” was exactly what Annalise wanted to cry out, but his intense stare was returned with a simple squeak of a response. “My apologies, Mr... John.” The last word, or name, she supposed, felt like it was hurled up. It left a bitter taste in her mouth, and the words that followed horrified her, “Might I fetch you something?”
“Ah, some tea would be delightful,” he responded, once again unaware of her discomfort. She had no idea what was happening to her. Her body was hot, but at the temperature that made her squirm in an uncomfortable manner. The temperature that made her wish she had the option to peel off her skin to satisfy her organs. It was not a blush, nor was it searing anger. She felt trapped, and the way her body robotically stepped around him and towards the dim kitchen, as if she’d done this a thousand times before, warned her that things were not going to go well.
She wasn’t sure what was worse, the fact that she offered to make him tea, or the fact that she actually knew what she was doing. Annie and her family had the servants to tend to their commands, including fetching breakfast. Annalise knew as a child she’d spent some time in the kitchen, for she always loved to taste test, but she hadn’t ever realized she’d been paying enough attention to know how to do something as simple as turn the stove on. Her head was low as she reached for a mug, sucking back what would most likely have turned into a sob if it hadn’t been caught, as John Arten’s voice rang out once again: “Annalise, dear, I’d love some biscuits, too.”
She was in deep, deep trouble.