Young Annalise watched the Ball from behind suffocating velvet curtains and felt pity for all those forced to attend. Her nurse had sent her to bed hours ago but she should have known her charge was never so easily contained.

"I thought the blonde head peaking out from behind the curtain looked familiar," A voice drawled from her left making Annalise flinch.

"Don't you dare bother me, Montgomery for I shall scream," Anna threatened, remembering yet another disagreement from the last time they met. She was never quick to forgive her neighbour for his transgressions.

"And reveal your nightclothes to the entire assembly, I think not!" The boy scoffed. Montgomery was dressed in a black tailcoat in contrast to Annalise's ankle length chemise.

"I'm only here to have a peek at the proceedings," Annalise worried her lip as she tried to catch sight of something.

"If you're looking for your cousin then she's at not here yet," Montgomery propped himself up on the marble windowsill, not caring about his fancy clothes.

"It's so late, what could she possibly be doing arriving so late. I'll be caught I stay any longer," The girl muttered to herself. Her curls loosened from under her night cap falling on her face.

"Hardly. The ball has barely begun. This isn't like the usual afternoon ball under our dance master's tutelage. It's the grown up version where everyone's fashionably late. I'm not surprised you weren't invited even though you were meant to," Montgomery barely paid her attention as he casually crossed his legs.

"What's that supposed to mean?" The girl exclaimed far too loudly. Her blue eyes shone daggers at her friend.

"What will you do at an adult ball? You barely tolerate the afternoon ones. Me and Marion have been invited because we won't cause mischief but no one guarantees that about you."

"Both of you are old farts, that's what," Annalise sniffed with indifference although she knew it was true, "I'm just grateful I get another year in the nursery. I'm bored out of my mind and I'm not even attending."

Annalise stood on her toes and her efforts paid off because she caught sight of Marion entering the great hall with her aunt as her chaperone.

The older girl was built much like her cousin but everything about her shone vividly making feel Anna feel dull and mousy in comparison. Marion's blonde hair was bright whereas Anna's was dirty. Marion's eyes were vivid blue orbs, shifting colour according to her moods, while Anna's were a sedate blue. Marion carried herself with poise unlike her hunched over younger cousin.

The new arrival was wearing a demure white outfit with a delicate strand of pearls around her covered neck. At her age this was the most she was allowed but her simplicity did not hide her future attractive looks.

"She's here," Annalise breathed and beckoned Montgomery forward.

"Give me space to look," The boy tried his best to look past over Anna's night cap.

"Find your own spot," Anna groused as Monty tried to use his physical strength to move her aside. She stood firm in her spot despite being in her slippers. They glared at each other briefly before letting their attention back to the ballroom.

"Why are you so vexing..." Montgomery growled but all his irritation died out as he stared at the ballroom.

"What? What?" Anna badgered as she caught the expression on his face. She was alarmed to notice his pale face changing colour.

"Don't be a nuisance," The boy scowled and exited their hideaway before his friend could ask any more questions. Anna watched the empty spot, perturbed by the sudden change of mood.

...

"My mother will be appalled at the bill once it reaches my father," Elizabeth delicately patted a handkerchief to her brow.

The three girls traversed the village path wearing fashionable morning dresses that all the village woman admired from afar. Rose would be greeted every so often by the tenants of her land. Behind them trailed Rose's footmen who were placed on her father's insistence.

"All will be forgiven once your costs are foisted upon on a husband," Annalise grinned, easily. She twirled the parasol in her hand as she thought of her own extensive bill her father would receive. She was glad she was not present to hear his reaction.

"I understand why mother is persistent about my marital chances but what about you? You are an heiress!" Elizabeth asked Rose with a lack of tact.

"Because my former fiancé's insignificant wife is rumoured to be in the family way and my mother cannot endure the humiliation," Rose sighed as if she had had the conversation a hundred times.

"Just your mother? Not you?" The blonde asked, archly.

"He has hurt me grievously," Rose's generous lips thinned out as she spoke, "He should be grateful I do not intend to cross paths with him. He will not like the consequences."

"Never say that if you do wish for the opposite to happen. I once vowed I wished to never set eyes on Montgomery again and look what my luck does to me," Annalise cautioned forgetting the viscount was still a much a teased about aspect of her life.

"Oh, you poor thing," Rose taunted, "You truly are unlucky for there he is inspecting the new horse flesh for sale."

Annalise felt her shoulders stiffen as much as her pea green morning dress would allow. Her eyes landed on the hem of her dress in an effort not to look up.

"No need to be shy," Elizabeth laughed at her expense knowing her friend was no such thing.

By instinct the blue eyes lifted towards the neighing of the horses in the village market and caught the pointed stare of her familiar foe. Blue eyes met black and for a moment the blonde could not look away from Montgomery. The roar of emotions suddenly overwhelmed her and she was forced to pull her gaze away lest she reveal her true feelings to the world at large.

"I need to get some air," Anna inhaled sharply despite being outside and turned around in a flurry of skirts.

"We shan't tease you any longer about if he aggravates you so," Rose said solemnly, noticing Annalise's state of mind.

"I wish I could laugh it off but I cannot. He takes such great pains to humiliate me and I will not give him the satisfaction of knowing he still effects me," Annalise sighed knowing Elizabeth was now privy to the information she kept so dear to her heart.

"You haven't forgiven him for falling in love with Marion," Rose asked delicately as they went past a loud fruit stall, "And not you."

"No, yes, no," Anna sighed heavily unable to convey her thoughts and emotions, "He makes me feel like the most insignificant creature on this side of the English channel. I hate him and yet..."

"And yet?" Elizabeth caught on to the gravity of the situation fast.

"And yet I wished he looked at me the way he did Marion but I cannot compare. I never will."

"That's not true," Elizabeth cried out, hotly, "Marion was practically the wallflower compared to you. You were the life and light of every party, not her. People noticed you first despite her looks."

"Well, it doesn't matter does it? Marion isn't even here and I'm still in her shadow. Honestly, I don't even mind being second best. Being the diamond of finest water is rather overrated in any case. Got her in more trouble then she'd like," Annalise clenched her jaw to calm her lashing tongue. She had no wish to create a spectacle in the middle of the village.

"Let's take you to get more canvases," Rose placed a reassuring hand on her friend's shoulder.

"And we'll keep that beastly viscount away from you," Elizabeth uttered, showcasing her solidarity.

"Thank you, my darling friend," Anna giggled at the thought of Elizabeth shooing Montgomery off with her parasol.

Rose rushed them through to the modest village art shop where a varied art supply was available. It was full to the brim with items and looked like a heavy breeze would topple everything over. Near the storefront stood a familiar figure.

"Mr. Merkle!" Annalise was genuinely pleased to see the man though both Rose and Elizabeth looked distinctly less so. Rose had her own grouses with the man while Elizabeth must have remembered his shop in cheapside.

"What a pleasure it is to be reacquainted with a fellow art enthusiast," Mr. Merkle's light blue eyes twinkled at the sight of the blonde.

Elizabeth and Rose both gave stiff greetings and disappeared into the confines of the dusty shelves.

Mr. Merkle did not remark on Annalise's companions and instead began to show off his new purchases with great enthusiasm.

"I only just found these local squirrel hair brushes. They do not shed as much as my own," Mr. Merkle held up the brushes in question.

"Father gets mine from the continent but if these are more long lasting then it might be worth the purchase. I shall implore father to send me more funds," Annalise said.

"And that is why being fatherless like I is sometimes a boon," Mr. Merkle declared, "I make my own coin and do with it as I wish."

"I may seem ungrateful but your words do have merit," The blonde handed the brush back with a wry smile.

"Paint for me then. If I like one of your canvases I might just display it in my shop," The man announced with a broad grin.

Annalise could barely express her delight at the statement when the sounds of screams filled the shop. Both Merkle and Anna stared at each other wide eyed before hurrying towards the interior of the shop.

Between dusty shelves stood Anna's two friends. They looked at wane and shaken and it soon became apparent what was the cause of their fear. At their feet lay a fresh corpse of a bird. It was covered in blood.

"It's only recently been killed," Merkle stated, redundantly. He crouched down to have a better look while minding his starched outfit.

"All this blood," Elizabeth choked out, trying to control heaving sobs.

"I found it in my purse. Someone hid it in there," Rose revealed, flatly. All her previous emotions had been wiped clean like chalk on slate.

"Who could do such a horrible thing?" Annalise asked as she took a step back from the mutilated bird. The bright blood was now beginning to stain the floorboards.

"Who do you think it could be?" Rose asked with anger lacing her tone, "It's him, of course, my secret admirer. He's sent me a lovely letter along with his gift."

Annalise caught sight of the vivid letters written on the gild edged paper. They were harshly slashed into the material despite the richness the parchment.

Just as she read the end of the meaningless, angry words Montgomery walked in with their two footmen hurrying behind him. They had all but forgotten the protective protocol around then.

"I was assured my safety would be ensured," Rose asked with a raised brow.

"It would have been an easier task if you had stayed in your rooms like you had been asked," The man retorted.

"Confining her to the room is hardly fair," The blonde suddenly spoke and regretted every moment the attention was upon her.

"Is it?" Montgomery asked with contempt.

"Let's go. I shall certainly volunteer to stay boarded up in my room if needs be," Elizabeth whispered in Anna's ear who obliged with a quick curtsey at the company present.

"And where are you going?" Montgomery stopped them in their tracks.

"Our delicate feelings have been overwrought by the commotion today. Surely you do not begrudge us our rest," Annalise bit out without turning around.

"You're certainly not going away without a guard," The man announced, imperiously.

"We are not the target," Anna scoffed, finding his protocol unnecessary.

"For my peace of mind for once in your life do as I say, please," Montgomery's harsh words were soft and low. His fingers grazed over Anna's elbow as if suddenly remembering where they stood and stopped himself from touching her.

"Alright," Anna conceeded with a subtle nod and followed the footman back to their carriage. The girl suddenly realised she had not looked at Montgomery once.

She wasn't certain if that was a victory or a loss.

...

Sorry, got covid last month.