Chapter 13

Annoyed at her own behavior, which had surfaced unconsciously, Ana tried not to let her expression falter as she brought the teacup to her lips. She might have hidden her face behind a fan if this were a social party.

 

Garcia watched her silently, then suggested kindly, “How about the blue dress you had tailored previously? It would match well with your hair.”

 

She was tempted. Now that he had noticed her discomfort, she felt embarrassed and reluctant but nodded. Garcia indeed had a talent for persuading others gently in most situations. “Alright, let’s go with that.”

 

He smiled broadly and resumed eating. After the quiet meal, they each headed to their respective rooms.

 

Ana decided to get ready early. Usually, she would go at a more leisurely time. Still, today, she didn’t feel like facing many people and somehow was convinced that she would meet him if she went early. Siasen used to like viewing art in the soft morning light, saying that under natural light, the appearance of the paintings changed over time.

 

With the help of her maids, Ana dressed and did her makeup. As she sat in front of the mirror, putting on her earrings, she paused to look at herself. She epitomized a young noblewoman, beautiful and elegant like a white dove. She realized how much time had passed since her girlhood, and noticed a faint excitement reflected in her face.

 

Lost in thoughts, Ana gave a bittersweet smile, then suddenly sighed. The back of her dress seemed loose; apparently, the new maid had tied it poorly. She could call for help, but she didn’t want to make a fuss over it.

 

“An! Come in for a mo…” As she was about to call An, the maid, someone’s hand reached out and gently held her shoulder. The familiar scent of perfume and large hands made Ana relax, and she called out to the reflection of the man in the mirror. “Garcia?”

 

“I thought you might need help.”

 

He looked like a perfect gentleman, fit for a social party. His pianist-like long fingers smoothly untied the ribbon at her back, making her instinctively flinch. Even though he was familiar with her body, having undressed her countless times, it felt strangely thrilling.

 

Garcia silently observed her bare back and shoulders, his fingers moving slowly and deliberately over her skin.  She shivered. Ana bit her lip as he securely tied the ribbon. Her exposed skin was neatly covered again.

 

Garcia murmured in satisfaction, “All done.”

 

“Thank you.” She realized her voice was softer than usual.

 

Watching the tiny hairs on her neck standing on end, Garcia kissed her cheek softly before leaving the room, wishing her a good day. The warmth left by his large hand on her collarbone and neck made Ana forget her complicated thoughts.

 

* * *

At seventeen, Ana was in love.

 

“Milady! Be careful. You might fall!”

 

Ignoring her nanny’s cries, Ana, annoyed by her long white skirt, held it with both hands and ran, causing her nanny to almost faint. Ana was worried someone might see her exposed ankles and calves, but she was in a hurry.

 

During Lady Lang’s tea party, she tried not to show it, but she tapped her foot under the table, eager to leave. She wanted to go home quickly to see Siasen, having promised to sneak into her father’s mansion to see the family’s old paintings.

 

With him, she discovered a brave and mischievous side she didn’t know she had. Every time he suggested something, she hesitated but inevitably gave in, ending up enjoying it more than he did. Despite her naturally quiet and calm nature, she was, after all, a seventeen-year-old girl. When her cheeks blushed, Siasen would teasingly kiss her, saying.

 

“You’re beautiful, my Ana.”

 

Ana blushed even more, whispering that he shouldn’t be like this, but she didn’t dislike it. She hoped he would pay more attention to her, looking into her eyes, calling her beautiful more often. Why does it make her heart race when he says the same words her brothers often say?

 

Siasen, who came with the hot summer, was like sweet chocolate or a cake dusted with white sugar to Ana or perhaps cotton candy that melts upon contact. Since her debut in society, she had to eat as little as a bird for weight management, longing for such sweet treats. He was like a dream or fantasy, or a free bird flying in the sky, unlike her, trapped in a cage. She envied and admired him.

 

How vast and beautiful was his world of boundless freedom? Siasen seemed like an inhabitant of a world she could not have or enter. The mature yet still innocent girl couldn’t help falling for him.

 

The painting Siasen wanted to show her was hung in a space only accessible to the family elders or during official gatherings. Naturally, as minors, they couldn’t enter. However, Siasen didn’t give up. Influenced by his enthusiasm, Ana also developed a curiosity. Wouldn’t it be okay to sneak a peek just once? The original Ana would have given up cleanly without a second thought, but now she found herself pondering.

 

“Actually, I have something to tell you in front of that painting.”

 

Above all, she was excited about what he would say. Ana blushed instinctively, feeling that he would make an important confession and perhaps repeat what Siasen had done on the day of the brilliant sunset. Her heart was restless all day long, longing to see Siasen. He had promised to leave a note in her room with the time and place. Ana ran up the mansion’s stairs and burst into her room.

 

“Ana.”

 

Her bright smile faded instantly. Her father stood solemnly in front of the fireplace, slowly turning with a letter in his hand. Her hand dropped from the doorknob. The shadowed expression on her father’s face was hard to read, but it unmistakably conveyed disappointment and anger.

 

They ended up not seeing that painting. Never.

 

* * *

Feeling the gentle vibrations of the carriage moving on the road, Ana slowly opened her eyes. Her maid, An, was dozing off in front of her. Ana’s gaze drifted past her and out the window, revealing the scenery outside.

 

The weather was truly beautiful. Like her dress chosen by Garcia, the blue sky was adorned with lace-like clouds. As they approached the gallery, she saw elegant ladies and gentlemen with parasols walking along the picturesque streets. Observing a girl selling flowers, a paperboy, and pigeons flying across the city skyline, Ana closed the curtain again.

 

As they neared their destination, her mind clouded with a misty feeling. She held onto her dress’s hem with her gloved hands. Suddenly, she longed for her husband, who couldn’t send her off with a kiss.

 

Finally, the carriage stopped. An quickly woke up and prepared to assist her mistress. Ana stepped out, helped by a polite hand from the footman. While Ann was fixing her dress, Ana gazed quietly at the white building.

 

The gallery, established under the legacy of the late Duchess Angli, had been under construction for two years. Ana was surprised when she heard the duchess had donated all her collected art pieces to this gallery.

 

The Duchess, a voracious collector with a keen aesthetic sense, was known for her strong possessiveness and materialism, especially after inheriting a massive fortune from her late husband. Ana wouldn’t have been surprised if the duchess had ordered her collections to be burned or buried with her in her will. Yet, she left her vast estate to this newly opened art museum. Society gossiped humorously about the old duchess having given up her greed before death.

 

***

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Notes

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