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In the Tumultuous Privacy of Storm

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I.

“But mother!” Hal’s voice could be heard distantly across the telephone connection to London, “Not home for Christmas! What can you be thinking?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, dear,” Maud pinched the bridge of her nose and considered which palatable falsehood she ought to fall back upon. Then re-considered and chose the truth. “You know perfectly well that my presence will only make Agnes anxious to please and then resentful of the same. With me out of the way the two of you may entertain your young friends and play house without the long shadow of the grand-mère to make things awkward.”

“--not awkward, Mother,” Hal protested through another crackle in the line.

Maud snorted. “Of course it’s awkward. It’s been bloody two years worth of awkward and no one but you has the patience to pretend it isn’t any longer. Least of all your mother. Which is why I have decided to stay in Hastings through the first of the year.”

There was a brief commotion and the mutter of voices on the other end of the line. Maud waited, considering the profile of the postmistress who had (in the tradition of all village postmistresses) arranged her form in an attitude of unconcern while managing to position herself at the best possible angle to catch every word of Lady Holland’s long-distance telephone call from London.

The call which had been arranged with some haste following a flurry of telegrams the afternoon previous.

Lavender Lodge, Hastings to 165 Eaton Place, London: Have decided to stay in Hastings until third January stop assume Agnes will break out the ‘76 Coteaux du Layon.

165 Eaton Place to Lavender Lodge: Why the change of plans stop Agnes has already ordered Christmas dinner stop Your absence will require revision of seating.

LL to EP: Seaside doing wonders for my aches and pains stop Tell Agnes am confident she will resolve domestic crisis with aplomb.

EP to LL: Unacceptable for you to pass the holidays alone.

LL to EP: Am not alone as you know stop Rose here as my companion to ensure the bed is made and meals on time.

EP to LL: Will be putting in call at Post Office Hastings 10 o’clock tomorrow stop Must discuss arrangements.

“ 'Arrangements.' ” Maud had snorted upon opening the final envelope and tossing the thin yellow telegraph paper down on the table with all the rest. “ 'Arrangements'. What he means is that Agnes is driving him out of his mind with her Christmas preparations and he wants me on hand to distract her with regular opportunities for outrage.” She sniffed. “I imagine Agnes has also impressed upon him the impossibility of pulling of the Christmas fête without your assistance.”

“Mmm.” Rose hadn’t bothered to look up from where she was penning a shopping list for their walk into town the following day. “Mr. Pritchard and Mrs. Thackery will have everything under control.”

“I know that and you know that but Agnes never seems to realize the house would run smoothly with or without her benevolent presence.”

“Agnes enjoys having something to fuss about.”

Maud sighed. “I suppose you’re right. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve encountered the type, it’s just --” she pulled her Kashmir up against the chill and folded her arms across her chest.

“Different when it’s your own daughter-in-law?” Rose suggested dryly.

“Different when one finds oneself so obviously serving as the catalyst for someone else’s drama.”

“Mmm.” Now Rose did pause, raising an eyebrow at Maud over the rim of her spectacles. “You’ll have to argue right quick if you expect me to believe there isn’t a part of you that enjoys being the catalyst.”

At which point, Maud had smiled and crossed the room to give her lover a kiss. Mostly in order to avoid losing the argument, though as the kiss turned to other more complicated activities that original aim evaporated into the December night.

There was a voice back on the other end of the telephone line and Maud dragged herself back from pleasantly distracting reflections to the task at hand. It was Agnes this time, as she had suspected it would be: “Mother, darling,” she was saying in that brittle voice of hers -- the one she used when she was desperately trying to keep up appearances. In actual fact, Maud suspected, she was considering how soon it would be acceptable for her to withdraw to the privacy of her own quarters to “rest.” Or whatever it was her daughter-in-law did in private.

There were times when Maud felt an almost painful tug of sympathy for Agnes, threading through the more steady thrum of impatience and irritation.

“Mother, what is this Hal tells me about your deciding to stay on at the seaside -- in Hastings of all places! -- for the Christmas holidays? What can you possibly be thinking? I’ve already sent out the invitations for the 24th and --”

“Agnes.” Maud closed her eyes briefly, then trained her gaze out across the high street toward the tea shop across the way. Through the front window she could see the navy blue of Rose’s wool coat, the smudge of her faded hair pulled back in soft waves from her face.

To spend her Christmas like the year before -- the endless whirl of near-hysterical social engagements, near-disastrous social faux pas and snatched moments of privacy in her chambers -- or to spend Christmas here, with a Christmas pudding and a bottle of sherry ordered at the grocer’s, perhaps the midnight service at the church that stands in the town square.

She remembered Christmas in India, the house full of candles. Perhaps she and Rose could lay in some extra tapers.

“Agnes. You must listen to me. Give my regrets to the minister and his wife; you may tell them I’ve been unavoidably detained with an even more aged relative if you wish. I doubt they’ll actually miss my presence. Telephone Abigail Pettrigrew if you need another woman to fill out the guest list -- she’s a good friend of Lord and Lady Pond and will circulate with at least half the other guests. And as a widow there will be no eyebrows raised if she attends alone.”

“But mother--”

“No, Agnes. This is not up for discussion. Rose and I are staying in Hastings into the New Year. Perhaps beyond. You can tell Hallum that if he asks. Lavender Lodge is a wonderful location for his creaky old mother to retire in peace.”

Retire--!”

Suddenly, Maud found her patience for the conversation was at an end.

“What’s that Agnes? I can hardly hear you. The line is breaking up.”

“What can you possibly be thinking--to relocate there permanently?”

“I’m sorry, my dear, the line is failing. If you can still hear me tell Hallum I’ll telegraph when we know which train we’ll be arriving on. You and the children have a good Christmas!”

She ended the call and went to pay the post mistress for the time. At least I’ve already left presents for Rachel’s child, she thought, and the baby. Not that little Anna Sophia needed (or, indeed, was old enough to appreciate) trinkets of any kind.

She stepped out into the winter morning. A cold wind from the ocean swirled up the pavement, blowing what snow had fallen during the night across the cobblestones.

She crossed the high street and entered the tea shop. The bell on the door gave a jangle and, as she made her way over to the table where Rose was sitting in the window, the serving girl appeared with a fresh pot of tea and a tray of scones. Maud and Rose had become regulars at this particular establishment since their arrival two months previous and their preferred food and drink had a way of appearing on the table now without either of them having to order.

Rose looked up, raised an eyebrow.

“That’s done,” Maud said. “They’re neither of them happy about it -- but there’s nothing they can do about it short of claiming I’m not fit to manage my own affairs. And any doctor or lawyer sent down to assess such a claim would be disabused of such a notion within moments -- and they know it. So they’re just have to put up with my outrages.”

Underneath the tablecloth, her fingers found the soft, warm velvet of Rose’s hand and squeezed it.

Rose regarded her steadily, thoughtfully. “Thank you.” She said, finally. “For -- this.”

For demanding Rose travel with Maud in the first place, as her companion. For arranging the cottage -- leased through the friend of a friend. For, Maud realizes, sitting here in a teashop with Rose in the slate gray of this December morning, holding hands.

They’ve been lovers for nearly forty years, separated for decades, returned to each other again in this closing chapter of their lives. It’s a new age; neither of them feel bound by the rules of propriety as they had all those years ago. No one, really, cares what a widow of the Raj -- someone expected to return from the colonies a little odd, the sort of person others made excuses for in polite company -- does in the privacy of her own rooms, with the companions of her choosing. If she chooses to relieve her daughter-in-law of the burden of her presence by absconding with the housekeeper to a backwater seaside town, was anyone, really, going to make a fuss? Agnes made a show of it, certainly. But as Rose rightly pointed out, it was mostly show. There had been relief in her voice, even down the telephone line. It would make a story she could tell her friends when they called -- you’ll never believe what my queer mother-in-law decided to do the other week; most inconvenient -- but the story she told, of course, wouldn’t be the most sensational one.

She wouldn’t be telling her girlfriends my mother-in-law has taken the housekeeper as a lover.

Maud wondered, occasionally, in her most wicked moments, whether Agnes wouldn’t benefit from the knowledge that such a thing were possible. Perhaps she already knew -- the girl had been to boarding school, after all, where Maud expected such goings-on were as common these days as they had been in her own. But there was an air of disappointed confusion around Agnes, as if the poor thing was wandering through life desperately longing for something that she couldn’t quite name. Maud had doubted before the event that it was motherhood -- and doubted it even more now that the child had been born and lived. Agnes treated little Anna Sophia with an abstract fondness that seemed shot through with frustrated sadness that being a mother had failed to fill some part of herself with meaning which she had expected to come in the aftermath of labor and delivery.

Perhaps Maud was reading too much of her own history into her daughter-in-law’s situation.

“--ordered another pot of tea,” Rose was saying, when Maud shook her head and focused her attention back to the moment at hand. She squeezed Rose’s fingers once more and released the warm hand to reach for a crumpet and the spoon resting in the dish of clotted cream.

“Thank you Rose. I’m sorry. We’ll speak no more of them today.”

“Mrs. Potter says they expect more snow later this afternoon,” Rose rejoined, wrapping her released fingers around the china cup of Darjeeling and peering up into the slate gray sky. “We’d do well to stop at the shop for a few essentials before returning home.

II.

As Mrs. Potter had predicted, the snow begins falling as the clock in the church tower chimes half past two -- they hear it echoing distantly across the fields, carried by the wind that’s picked up speed and is now whipping the branches of the gorse bushes that ring the back garden and blowing in gusts down the chimney, fanning the flames and scattering ash across the hearth rug.

By the time darkness closes in around them, the window ledges are drifted high and in the pool of light cast by her oil lamp when she goes to the front door, Maud can see the front stoop disappearing beneath the white. The last cart to go by on the road had trundled passed as they were sharing soup and bread at the kitchen table shortly after noon. They are alone.

After a particularly vicious gust of wind, Rose gets up from the armchair where she’s been reading Crewe Train -- the cottage’s previous tenants had left a copy in the corner bookcase -- and adds another log to the fire, adjusting the screen to keep the gusting sparks contained. Candles are burning in the windows, their reflections in the glass giving off the illusion of doubled light, enfolding the cottage in honeyed warmth despite the fierce weather outside.

Maud remembers the first winter after her return to England, with its endless bone-chilling rain and a house full of strained silence; remembers the Christmas of 1937 with its bright lights and whirl of social activity masking the unhappiness of the younger generation while Maud and Rose -- still re-learning the contours of their resumed intimacy -- forged rare moments of calm and warmth around the edges of the chaos. So much anxiety in the young.

This year, there is only quiet, calm and warmth. The world, Maud knows -- with a weariness that seeps into her bones -- is grinding inexorably toward war. A war destined, through the stupidity of the human race, to be even more horrific than the previous “war to end all wars.” Politicians -- her own husband included, when he’d been alive -- had the memories of goldfinches. But in this privacy borne of snow, the world and war recedes into the distance, leaving simply peace in its wake.

Solomon, curled asleep on the hearth rug, stirs as Rose moves carefully around him. He turns in a circle twice, and drops back into a fold of the wool shawl they’ve given over as a nest. He is unused to the cold and on days such as this creeps into the warmth by the hearth with a resentful glare at the weather outside. The previous winter, Rose knit him a sweater of discarded bits of wool which Maud then wrestled onto him and buttoned up his back as an extra layer of insulation. He was suspicious of at first but has since come to accept; he’s wearing it now, a patchwork of color limned with golden light.

“Come here,” Maud says suddenly, gesturing to her companion.

“Mmm.” Rose moves across the worn floorboards, pulling her shawl around her thin shoulders. “It’s nearly time for tea.”

“I wasn’t thinking about tea,” Maud murmurs, sliding her palms up the front of Rose’s thighs, beneath the thick brushed wool of her winter skirts. She can feel the line just below Rose’s hips where the stockings end, clipped to her knickers yet leaving several inches of bare skin vulnerable to the touch.

They have two bedrooms in the Lodge -- a front room with a broad double bed and a back room for servants or children. With just the two of them in residence, the back room has remained unused, without even the pretense of a made-up bed to keep up appearances. For the first time since her return to England, Maud has been able to fall asleep each night with Rose’s slightly smaller form wrapped in her arms. They sleep twined together, core warmth spreading out from the point where belly presses hip, groin presses up against thigh, breast droops against ribcage. She can wake in the night and press kisses against Rose’s cool temple, slide a warm hand lazily down across Rose’s belly into the sparse grey hair scattered over the rise of her pubic bone.

But before that, comes the undressing. Maud reaches up, now, grasping the back of Rose’s thighs and guiding her down to straddle Maud’s lap -- a move which pushes Rose's skirts up above her knees, knees that have come to rest either side of Maud’s hips, pressing Maud down into the cushions of the settee, pinning her in place.

“If not tea, what were you thinking of, exactly?” Rose’s mouth quirks up in a smile, and she bends carefully over to meet Maud’s dry, slightly-chapped lips with her own. Rose’s skin is still hot from leaning over the fire, the cheek Maud cups in her hand startling warmth to the touch.

“I was thinking I might spread you open right here on the cushions, and make love to you in the firelight. Long and slow.” It’s still breathtaking, this new freedom to kiss and caress without one eye on the clock. They’ve been in Hastings for a little over a month now, and it feels like the honeymoon they never had.

She’s thinking, now, about the pleasure she takes every night in unhooking those stockings from their garter clips and rolling the wool down Rose’s legs, pulling the fabric over her feet, sliding her hands back up the bare skin, the vulnerable inner thighs, the curve of hip, the solid swell of Rose’s buttocks.

She’s thinking, now, about the pleasure of waking in the morning and pressing her nose against the slack skin of Rose’s neck, the tiny wrinkles in which the sweat of sleep collects -- a scent all Rose to fill her nose.

She’s thinking, now, of all the things she didn’t -- couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- tell her son or daughter-in-law about why staying here in Hastings might be a more permanent arrangement than any of them suspected.

We’re making a home. She thinks to herself.

A home she never expected to have -- but being old, widowed and rich, it turns out, does have certain advantages.

Maud can feel Rose’s heart picking up speed underneath the hand she has pressed to Rose’s chest. She thinks about Rose’s hand in hers at the tea shop that morning. They’ve talked about what they are to each other, of course, talked about how little they have to lose. But Maud hasn’t asked Rose to stay here forever. Would she say yes? Leave her position at Eaton Place, retire to this seaside village with Maud? Maud has money enough for them both, but it’s still Maud’s money, and there’s a part of Rose that Maud knows is still wary of betrayal, that still feels the sting of losing Maud to India -- carries the pain inside her as if the ship left yesterday not years ago.

“Mrs. Potter’s daughter is marrying her young man on the third of January,” Rose says, settling herself into Maud’s lap.

Maud blinks, uncertain where precisely she’s lost hold of this conversation. “I--”

“They’re moving to Brighton -- he works at one of the resorts there, she tells me -- and Mrs. Potter'll be looking for someone to help were with the business side of things at the shop. ‘No head for numbers,’ she tells me -- it seems she’s always handled the kitchen while her daughter keeps the books.”

Again, Maud blinks, at a loss for words -– though she must understand, on some subconscious level, where this conversation is going because a bubble of pure elation is rising in her chest. “Rose --”

Rose leans down, curving over Maud in a protective comma, elbows coming to rest on her shoulders, wrists crossing behind Maud's neck, where the knot of her greying hair rests, thick and heavy. The tips of Rose's fingers graze the skin behind Maud's ear, and an involuntary shiver runs up Maud's back, skittering down across her chest and brushing Maud's nipples to wakefulness.

“Yes.” Rose whispers, warm and wet against the shell of Maud's ear. “I'm saying yes. To you. To us. To staying here.” There’s a pause as she draws in a breath, collects her words. “But you know I can't stay here without any income. This is an opportunity. I've made some inquiries; the shop is doing well –- and Mrs. Potter already sells her baked goods to several other businesses in town, including the Cliffside Hotel. It won't be a grand living, but it'll be enough.”

She presses her forehead into the hollow of Maud's shoulder and whispers into the skin of her collarbone: “I'm saying yes.”

Maud can't put emotion into words for several long moments –- she can only tighten her arms up around Rose's back, pulling the smaller woman into her chest, feeling the bones of their bodies shift and fit together as they've been learning to do, hour by hour, in sleep. It's awkward –- the settee is too narrow and Rose's knees are stiff. She'll need to move soon, Maud knows.

But for the moment all she can think is: closer.

Then: “Yes.”

And: “Oh, my love.”

Rose nods against her shoulder: “I know.”

And then Maud realizes they've said all that needs to be said in words, for now. Later there will be arrangements to be made, difficult conversations to be had –- Hallum will no doubt lose his temper before retreating in confusion, while Agnes will stand by in resentful bewilderment.

But for now, more important things need to be said –- in the language of bodies rather than words. Maud slides her hands up between Rose's shoulder blades, begins undoing buttons. They're kissing now, though she can't remember exactly when or who started tasting, teasing, exploring. Rose's mouth is pliant under her own, wet and messy, eager and slightly pushy. Maud had forgotten this about Rose, in the intervening years –- how forceful she could be. Almost never wholly abandoned in the moment, Rose nevertheless pours herself into their lovemaking with an energy and grace that leaves her professional competence in the dust.

Maud whimpers, scrabbles at the fastenings, wanting Rose unclothed before her. She manages, between kisses, to unbutton the dress and pull it down off Rose's arms, then ruck up the underlying chemise and cotton camisole. Oh God Rose's nipples are already as hard as her own, which she's become aware are painfully stiff beneath her underclothes. She presses the heels of her hands up against Rose's breasts, almost desperate with need.

“Rose—I—please.”

“Yes—here--”

Rose is backing up, sliding off Maud's lap, pulling her forward. Stumbling slightly, unwilling to stop touching, they shift closer to the hearth, pulling shawls and couch cushions down with them, until they're arranged in a pool of firelight, pillowed against wool and chintz and the polished chill of the oak floorboards.

Maud pushes Rose gently back against a green floral pillow, “Here, let me--” and slides her hands up under Rose's twisted skirts, pushing the whole dress up and over her head. Rose is suddenly naked before her, breasts puckered from cold and arousal, half-laughing, half-serious as her eyes glint in the light of the flames.

Kneeling over her, Maud has to pause and press her forehead to Rose's breastbone for a moment to collect herself, hands clamped tight around Rose's hips. There will be bruises there, in the morning. But she knows, by now, that Rose never minds and so tightens her grip a little more, causing Rose to squirm slightly beneath her weight.

Maud is already kneeing between Rose's spread legs, and so it's a simple thing to settle her own weight down into her hips so that Rose is forced to spread her legs further. She does so with a moan –- the one that means about time and exactly so. Maud presses a kiss to the center of Rose's chest and then leans back against her heels, tracing her palms down Rose's flanks to her waist. When her fingers come in contact with the worn cotton panties Rose is wearing she drags them down, pressing forward with her own knees in the nonverbal signal for Rose to cant her hips up and allow Maud to pull clothing free.

The scent of arousal, salt and tang resting heavy at the back of Maud's throat, rises in the air, and she bends forward to inhale.

Rose is watching her in the flickering light, with that lost look of half-pride, half-amazement that sometimes steals over her face when they're together like this: look at this woman – she's mine – how on earth is it possible that now, after all these years, all the pain, I'm allowed to keep her? 

Neither of them are sure how, they only know it's true.

Maud rolls Rose's stockings down her thighs and calves and off her feet, pushing them aside. Then, still kneeling between Rose's legs -- splayed open so that her folds, mauve in the shadows, glinting already with seeping wetness, are exposed, visible, ready for tasting –- she reaches down and pulls off her own dress and chemise, strips down to her camisole, panties, and stockings. Eventually, she'll shed those too, but they have time –- all the time in the world, it feels –- and she's enjoying the shift and pull of the cloth across her breasts, the feel of her own damp seeping through fine cotton.

In earlier years, by this point in their lovemaking, she would have started to feel the warm smear of wetness against her inner thighs, but they've discovered that these days the lubrication is slower to accumulate. There are alternatives, of course, though the bottle of oil is, unfortunately, on the stand by the bed upstairs.

“You wait here, love, I'll--”

“Yes.” Rose's voice is hazy and slightly distant with want –- with need –- Maud can feel the tension singing in her limbs. She doesn't want to leave the sanctity of firelight, but they'll want –- suddenly she wants –-

“I need to--” She pushes herself stiffly to her feet –- the yoga she practices near-daily doesn't do as much for her knees as it used to – and wraps a shawl around her shoulders before climbing the narrow stairs to the second floor and fumbling around in the dark of their bedroom for the supplies. The wind is howling even harder outside, and the windows are near-black with snow. They'll need to light a fire in the bedroom before long, or resign themselves to a make-shift night on the sitting room floor.

It's been … distant memory since she's done anything quite so Bohemian as fall asleep on the sitting room floor, but something about this night suggests it's a strong possibility.

She pads downstairs in her stocking feet and pauses for a moment in the sitting room doorway, slightly winded at the sight of Rose on her back in the jumble of textiles and discarded clothes, wholly naked, seemingly utterly absorbed in the moment. Her hair has come loose from its pins – or perhaps they pulled the pins loose, Maud can no longer remember – and is spread out across the green of the pillow under her head. She's running her fine, thin hands in slow circles across her torso, pausing to tease her nipples erect, then down across her belly to press into the flesh just above her clitoris which – Maud feels a whole-body shiver in erotic sympathy – must be heavily swollen by now, and yearning for hands, mouth, pressure, suction. As Maud watches, Rose – eyes closed – slips a hand between her legs, pushing up into her own fingers with a soft sound of satisfaction.

“Here. Let me.” Maud crosses the room and re-enters the warmth and light of their make-shift nest. She drops the shawl and sinks to the floor, sliding herself up the length of Rose's extended form, noting the way the slight scratch of her wool stockings causes Rose to squirm against her and push her fingers further inside.

Good, she's already begun the work of stretching herself open.

The thought makes Maud's hands tremble as she reaches across and sets down the bottle of flax seed oil and the burnished mahogany dildo she's retrieved from the drawer upstairs.

There are times when having connections in Paris have certain –- advantages.

“Maud--” Rose is rolling toward her, seeking her mouth blindly, and Maud scoops her mouth up again, greedily -- kissing, sucking, tasting, exploring. For a handful of minutes time telescopes outward and she loses track of whose hands are where –- hands seem to be everywhere –- and the only thing she can taste on her tongue is Rose.

We never have to leave, Maud thinks. She said yes. I'll die here. Right here. In her arms.

“Oh fuck!” It's out of her mouth as a gasp of want-need-desire as the impermanence of this permanence washes over her.

“Yes, please,” Rose responds, latching on to the operative word and interpreting it as a plea or suggestion. She bucks up against Maud's hips, making little effortful noises of impatience and lust.

Maud rolls them both over, hands all over Rose's skin in smooth, sure caresses: I'm here, I know what you need, I'll take care of you, be patient, I'm here, I know, I'm here. There are several ways, they've re-discovered, how to do this, but tonight she wants to watch as she slides the polished length in between Rose's legs, wants to watch it disappear inside her, feel the muscles contract in an effort to pull it in (or push it out), and judge when to flex her wrist and send it deep inside again.

She wriggles herself back between Rose's legs, careful never to completely lose contact. She's overheating in the warmth of the fire now, and pauses to shed the rest of her underclothes. Sweat is beading between her breasts and her legs; she may not be running down her own thighs, as she remembers from youth, but she's swollen and sodden and tender –- so tender that even pulling the cloth of her knickers away from her skin causes her to choke back a moan of her own.

“Yes, yes, yes – please” Rose is chanting, half-panting, beneath her, lost in sensation. Maud leans forward, deliberately stretching out to graze her breasts against Rose's belly, and pulls the bottle of oil and the dildo into reach. She pushes a hand between Rose's legs, runs her palm up the inner thigh, checks to see how slick Rose already is, how open.

“Oh, good girl, you're nice and open for me,” she croons softly, nearly under her breath.

Rose whimpers in response, reaching forward to run hot hands up Maud's legs, to dig her fingers into Maud's hips. There will be bruises there in the morning, as well.

“One finger enough? Two? Shall I try three?” Maud tests the ease with which she can slide inside, twisting her hand to flick her fingertips up against the roughness just inside Rose's opening. Rose groans, grits her teeth, and slides down the floor to settle the back of her thighs against Maud's knees. She takes three of Maud's fingers in up to the last knuckle.

Maud's exhalation comes out in a soft laugh. Not that she's surprised exactly – they've done this dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. Yet the sheer force of wanting always takes her breath away.

“Easy, easy,” she gentles, slipping her fingers out and reaching for the necessaries. Rose whines in the back of her throat, twisting her neck so she can press her face into the pillow. Her chest is straining, a free hand pressing so hard into her right breast that her skin is blotching white and pink.

The dildo is well-oiled from previous use, but she unscrews the bottle and tips the oil across the palm of her hand, slicking it liberally onto the curve of the wood. They have several of varying shapes and sizes, acquired by Maud the previous summer on what had felt like a startlingly reckless shopping spree on the Left Bank. She'd brought them back to Eaton Place feeling fairly chagrined, and they'd stayed tucked away in a disused drawer of her wardrobe until Rose had found them one day while helping her search for a particular summer frock. One thing had led to another and the dildos had been moved from the back of the wardrobe to a locked chest beneath her bed (to which only she and Rose carried a key), and from there to the drawer of the bedside stand in Lavender Lodge. Where there was no longer a need for locks and keys of any kind.

She shifts slightly, between Rose's legs, to make sure her leverage is strong and her knees comfortably placed. Then she reaches between Rose's thighs –- spread wide to accommodate her presence –- and uses the tips of her fingers to spread the wet folds, seek out the opening. She presses the muscle open with two digits, slightly apart, and follows this with the bulbous head of the mahogany shaft. It's fat and curved, with a round head over an inch-and-a-half in diameter, tapering back along the six-inch length to a squat, flat base comfortable against the palm. Once the head is inside, she can rest the flat of her hand against the base and push it in and up, in and up in a rhythmic motion – working with and against Rose's contracting muscles as her lover squirms, needy, legs wrapped, trembling, around Maud's waist.

Sometimes she thinks they could stay like this for time eternal, endless hours.

In and out. In and out. Twist, press. Thrust, withdraw.

She turns her wrist, presses the pad of her thumb against Rose's clitoris. Rose gasps and arches up under the touch, “Oh! Too much – too much.”

“This?” Maud pulls back slightly, allowing Rose to push the dildo out an inch or two, then leans in with a leg to steady the base. It frees her hands to move upward to Rose's sorely-neglected breasts, and gives Rose the freedom to ride the length of hardwood as much or as little as she wants.

God, please – Maud – please – God--” she's chanting again, eyes unfocused, and Maud can feel the muscles in Rose's legs trembling with fatigue. Her belly is a sheen of sweat, even though the fire could use another log. Maud presses the heel of her hand once more, hard, into Rose's breast, and then swipes her hand long and sure down Rose's torso to her groin.

“Come for me.” She whispers, resting her fingers against the slick nub of Rose's clit, rubbing the oil and wetness teasingly, gently, almost grazingly, under her fingers.

“Please,” Rose pants.

“Harder?”

Please,” she's grinding down against Maud's leg, the shaft of the dildo swallowed deep inside, where Maud knows she's hollowing out, making room, pulling the toy deeper with each contraction.

She increases the pressure, feels Rose's frantic pulse beneath her fingers, and then it's all over –- Rose is crying out, curling up, her thighs scissoring around Maud's hipbones like a vise as her hands fly up to grip Maud's arms –- more bruises –- her face screwed tight in ecstasy. They freeze, immobile, for the space of a breathe (except Rose isn't breathing) and a heartbeat (or half a dozen). And then the tableau collapses in on itself, and they're a tangle of limbs on the floor, awkwardly wrapped together amidst the ruin of upholstery.

Panting. Hot, but rapidly cooling, with the molten-hot embers of the fire casting eerie shadows on the ceiling in concert with the flickering candles guttering against the leaded glass windows.

Outside, the snow is still blowing.

Inside, Solomon hasn't stirred. Over the past two year's he’s grown used to the shenanigans of his mistress and her friend. Which, Maud thinks in shallow panting thoughts, is all for the best.

Rose is here to stay, after all.