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Thank you, James

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“I can’t remember when I’ve spent so pleasant a day.” Ann Walker smiles as she lets herself and Anne Lister into Crow Nest. Anne can’t remember one either; not recently – except perhaps for the day she turned up in Eskdale and saw Ann’s face light up with excitement and joy. They’ve walked back from the chaumière in the woods after whiling away the afternoon on the chaise in front of the fire.

All afternoon, Anne’s been conscious of the little tricks of love-play – tracing Ann’s lips delicately with her thumb, placing tender kisses on her wrist before leaning in to kiss her mouth, allowing her less experienced partner to set the pace; then holding back a little, letting her rest in her arms and talking about nothing in particular so as not to seem overly eager. But even the tricks carry less artifice now. With Ann, they’re exactly what she wants to do in any given moment. They even dozed off together for a time in the chaumière, Ann curled up comfortably against Anne’s shoulder. Still, as natural as it feels, it’s also a thrill to see the younger woman respond to her more skilled touch.

Yes, Anne thinks, this is all going very well indeed. She presses her advantage as they set their hats and gloves on a side table in the foyer.

“I wonder if—tomorrow—you might pay a call, a sort of formal call, on my aunt,” she says warmly. Ann looks pleased. “Of course, if you like.” There’s something in her smile that makes Anne’s heart skip a beat. She almost doesn’t notice James come in to fetch their things. “Thank you, James,” Ann says immediately but, Anne notices, not automatically, not thoughtlessly. With Anne’s coat and hat in hand, James slips quietly through a door off the foyer as Ann steps towards the library door. Anne goes to open it – a thing she doesn’t do thoughtlessly either. She never tires of the small acts of gallantry – of opening doors for pretty women, the opportunity to watch them as they walk past her outstretched arm, picking up the scent of perfume.

“Erm—and then—tomorrow evening,” Ann is saying, a small hesitation in her voice, “would you like to come for dinner...?” Anne smiles widely at the idea, ready to accept immediately. “And then…” Ann shuts the door and leans back against it swiftly with an entirely different look on her face, “… stay all night?”

The words send a thrill below the pit of Anne’s stomach. Her breath catches, then rushes out in a surprised, flattered chuckle as she looks away for a second or two, shifting her weight self-consciously. But when she looks back at Ann, she can see how serious the younger woman’s face is – looking only at her; undeniably, boldly wanting her. All of her. Even if she can’t possibly know for sure everything that entails. Anne can feel her heart begin to race, and she forces her response to come out calmly, “Are you sure?”

Ann’s bright blue eyes implore her, one eyebrow lifting slightly—a plea or an offer?–delicate tendons shifting in her neck as she takes a hopeful breath. Anne can practically hear Ann’s heart hammering in her chest.

In a split second, Anne sees flashes of tomorrow night: folding Ann into her arms with only nightshirts between them – or maybe less? – and pulling her close; backing her gently towards the finely made bed in the attractively-appointed bedroom upstairs. She sat in that room just three weeks ago, looking over Ann’s sketches before the trip to the Lake District, their faces a breath apart, aching to lean down and kiss her. Tomorrow night, though, there will be no Catherine Rawson to interrupt them, no trunk for James to pick up. Anne sees herself instead by candlelight, kneeling on that bed over this beautiful young woman, kissing every inch of the neck and shoulders she’s been admiring and caressing all this afternoon, pulling down the edge of Ann’s chemise to run the tip of her tongue across the tops of her breasts, flicking her eyes up for permission to inch lower, nudging her thigh between Ann’s.

That thought, combined with the inviting sight of Ann’s bare collarbones and full, parted lips, is suddenly too much to bear. With a quick glance out the large library windows, Anne closes the distance between them in a few long strides, reaching out for Ann’s waist, her mouth seeking the softness of her cheek. Ann is a vision, smiling unabashedly, eyes closed, meeting Anne’s lips with her own eagerly. Anne’s taken aback. Gone are the gentle, exploratory kisses of this afternoon. Ann seems determined to enjoy every second, to feel every brush of her lips and hands to the fullest, as though the four hours in the chaumière had merely whetted her appetite, not taken the edge off.

Anne allows herself to kiss Ann harder, deeper than she did in the quiet of the moss hut. Ann’s slender fingers are at Anne’s collar, sliding over the slick fabric of her cravat. The feel of the younger woman’s hands moving up her arms and shoulders nearly drives every rational thought from Anne’s mind. With difficulty, she pulls her gaze aside to check the windows again but can’t bear to take her mouth away from the exquisite lips waiting for her open, warm kisses. Anne’s trained eye finds no curious gardener or maid passing by, and she brings her focus back to her young lover, pressing closer, bringing one hand to the side of her neck, relishing the little moan that escapes Ann’s lips. Anne turns their bodies slightly against the door, tilting her head for a different and delicious approach, and can’t help but shiver in delight when she feels Ann’s fingers drifting across the nape of her neck and into the smoothly-swept hair Eugénie had laboured over that morning.

Ann’s other hand wanders up to Anne’s shoulder again, squeezing it under the loose white shirt with a small groan of appreciation. Anne can’t help but smirk a little. There are definite benefits to her penchant for physical labour. A flush of pleasure courses through her at the thought of leaning on her elbows above Ann’s body, and feeling her smaller hands roaming over the muscles of her bare arms and back. It’s all she can do not to drive her hips against Ann’s and pin her against the door…

Until she feels Ann press herself into her, twine both arms behind her neck and relax her jaw into a deep kiss, drawing Anne’s tongue between her lips. This time, Anne can’t suppress a rushing voiced breath – not a moan; she has more control than that, surely. Ann giggles very softly as their lips part. “Do that again,” she whispers. Anne’s insides go molten at the request. “What, this?” she murmurs, sliding her strong hand along Ann’s neck and pulling her in for a long, gently probing kiss. Ann whimpers, and Anne feels a deep pull low in her groin.

“Ann, you can’t do that,” she gasps. There’s a pause as Ann opens her eyes and studies Anne’s face, then slowly smiles. “Do what?” Ann asks slyly. Anne exhales heavily. “Make… noises like that. And expect me to be able to walk out of this room.”

“Perhaps I don’t want you to walk out of this room,” Ann replies, her voice lower than Anne’s ever heard it. Anne smiles and leans in again, but stops when she hears Ann clear her throat very softly.

“Sorry, are you alright?” Anne asks.

“What do you mean?” Ann’s brow furrows. Then, the throat-clearing noise again – but not from Ann. They both step back hastily from the door.

“Miss Walker? … Miss Lister?” James’ voice calls hesitantly through the door, but somehow muffled. Then the jiggling of a doorknob.

“James? Just a moment –“ The two women glance over each other quickly; Anne tucks a golden curl back into place while Ann straightens the cravat. Ann opens the door, but there’s no James. Instead, the doorknob jiggles slightly in the door James had exited through.

“Miss Walker? … I’m... sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but –“ his muffled voice comes from behind the door. Ann purses her lips in amused realization as she turn the knob and opens the door for poor James, still holding Anne’s coat and hat as he emerges from the darkness.

“James, what in the world –“

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. I’d forgotten that the workmen were coming in to refit this entryway as a closet while we were in the Lake District – it was simply force of habit, and I realized just as I shut the door behind me and –“

“Locked yourself in,” Ann finishes, with remarkable composure. Behind her, Anne is biting her lip to keep from laughing. “Why didn’t you shout right away?”

James squares his shoulders against his ruffled dignity. “As I said, ma’am, I didn’t wish to disturb you – this door isn’t supposed to lock at all. They obviously made a mistake. I thought perhaps I could find something to pick the lock – a nail or…” his voice trails off. Anne wonders how busy he was looking for a tool, and how much could be heard through two sets of doors. Ann, however, is offering reassurances and smiling at James and directing him to take their things through to the drawing room instead. Anne strolls back into the library while Ann requests a simple dinner for herself and her guest.

Ann returns after a moment and shuts the door behind her again, but this time can’t contain her amusement. Anne is soon chuckling too. The moment might be spoiled, but it’s worth it to hear Ann’s laughter. When Ann gets control of herself, she takes a seat at a small table and motions Anne to the other chair. “Dinner will be served in twenty minutes,” she giggles, wiping a tear from her eye and picking up an ornate leather case. “Shall we have a hit of backgammon while we wait?”

“Excellent idea,” Anne says wolfishly. “It should take less time than that for me to win.”

Ann’s eyebrow is raised again, but her expression has settled into a confident smile.

“We’ll see, Miss Lister,” she says, opening the case.