For perhaps the first time since she’d known her, Ann Walker silently willed Anne Lister to stop talking.
Ann felt miserable. Her gut churned with hunger and travel-sickness and her entire body ached from the exertions of their wanderings on the passes around Mont Blanc. She was tired and thirsty. She’d been so looking forward to a proper bed, even a simple one, in a quiet room, and that fantasy was slipping away by the second. She sat down heavily on a small boulder next to Thomas Beech, who held the reins of their pack mule. Both man and beast looked on the verge of collapse.
Anne was chatting with a sour-faced man at the door of his small cottage. Ann looked wearily at their surroundings: a grassy hillside in a valley studded with rocks and boulders, and surrounded on all sides by snowy mountain peaks. It was objectively beautiful, but now felt simply forbidding and discouraging in the rapidly fading light of evening.
Ann could only catch bits and pieces of their conversation, but Anne was obviously telling as charming a version of their predicament as she possibly could. The mule had thrown a shoe, they’d been delayed, they hadn’t intended to stop here for the night, her young companion and her servant needed rest, and wasn’t there somewhere…
Ann could see the man wasn’t impressed with Anne. Her charms didn’t usually fail, but when they did, she never seemed to know when to give up. Anne had pulled out her coin purse but the man was shaking his head and shrugging, gesturing behind the humble abode. Anne squared her shoulders and trudged back to where Ann was standing with Thomas and the mule.
“Well! We’ve reached a friendly agreement,” she said cheerfully. “Thomas, there’s a side passage around the cottage; this man has a couple of farm hands who sleep there and says there’s room for you. Take what you need from the packs for yourself and get to bed. Early start tomorrow.” Thomas wearily pulled his belongings from one of the mule’s sidebags and mumbled a goodnight to both women. The mule’s ears twitched.
“Right. Let’s get this fellow to the barn,” Anne said, leading the mule away from the house and towards a somewhat dilapidated structure up the hillside. “Then we can get some rest ourselves. Our accommodations may be a more little rustic this evening, but should serve us very well.”
“Why? Where are we sleeping?” Ann asked hoarsely.
Anne looked back at her, set her face in what Ann assumed was meant to be a reassuring smile, and led the mule on to the barn.
“You’re not serious.” Ann stared after her, then sighed heavily, got to her feet, and set out after Anne, promptly tripping over the edge of a stone.
Anne crouched over the bags she’d hauled off the mule’s back, pulling out items and putting them in a sack. She was exasperated with Ann, with Thomas, with the bad-tempered cottager, and with herself. Ann had been sullen for most of the afternoon, answering her questions tersely, showing no interest in the stories Anne told about her last trip to Mont Blanc. Thomas had been almost more of a hindrance than a help, constantly hungry and eating more than his share of the food. And the cottager – he could at least have offered them a space inside, a spot on the floor near his hearth. But to be fair, Anne herself needn’t have pushed the others so hard today, and then they might not be in this situation in the first place. She was having trouble maintaining an optimistic disposition, though she knew it was crucial for at least one of them to remain positive. And now, like it or not, she was going to be spending the night with an irritated wife in a barn. A hayloft! – under better circumstances it could be a little adventure, Anne thought.
Then she smiled to herself and shook her head. Of course – if the circumstances were better, it wouldn’t be an adventure at all. She examined a few items from the bag she’d opened, stuffed them in the sack, and slung it over her shoulder.
Ann looked around in despair. The barn was in rough shape, with holes here and there in the roof and walls, although it had been recently swept out. A half-dozen cows flicked and swished their tails on one side of the barn, snorting now and again or chewing their cud. They were obviously the source of the strong smells that had wrinkled Ann’s nose before she’d even stepped in the building. At the other end of the barn, a wooden ladder led up to the hayloft. What remained of the evening sunlight streamed in through the open barn door and the holes in the roof. At least it didn’t look like it would rain.
Anne, large sack over her shoulder, was climbing swiftly up the ladder. She turned back at the top. “Are you coming up?”
Ann fidgeted. “Where’s the…”
Anne shrugged apologetically and cocked her head outside.
“Splendid,” Ann muttered, gathering her skirts and heading out behind the barn.
Anne watched her step outside, then sighed and looked around the loft. Bales were stacked against the wall, and loose hay lay in scattered mounds at her feet. She carefully cleared a space on the floor away from the ladder and opened her bag. In a moment she had set up a spirit lamp with a small pot of water to heat. She kicked the loose hay into a pile and began shifting hay bales, hoping she could turn the tide of Ann’s foul mood.
Ann looked up resignedly at the outline of Anne moving quickly about in the hayloft and wondered, not for the first time, if Anne regretted bringing her to the continent.
She climbed the ladder slowly, catching her skirt on a splinter and tearing it in the process. She huffed angrily and hoisted herself the last step up to the loft, about to offer a complaint, but stopped short.
Anne had hefted several hay bales close together to form a sort of mattress in the corner of the loft, and was busily piling and fluffing loose hay on top of one side. She’d thrown off her greatcoat and was working in her shirtsleeves and gloves, bits of hay clinging to her dark skirt. Ann watched her tilt her head at her handiwork, then scoop the last pile of loose hay from the floor to cushion the head of the mattress on the one side. For me, Ann realized immediately. Then, with a sharp snap, Anne laid her greatcoat over it. She turned, brushing her skirt off, and started at the sight of Ann standing at the top of the ladder.
“Good Lord. I didn’t hear you climb up. Come away from there, now,” she said, coming over to take Ann’s hand. “You look tired enough to fall right down.” Anne brought her over to sit on her greatcoat, and knelt at her feet. “Let’s see if we can’t get you more comfortable.” Anne tugged her gloves off with her teeth one at a time and set them aside. She pulled a clean handkerchief – Ann didn’t even know they had any more that were clean – out of the bag she’d brought from the carriage. The water in the pot was warm, and Anne dipped the handkerchief in it, wrung it out and handed it to Ann. “It’s not a bath,” she said sheepishly, “but it’s something, at least.” She rummaged in the bag for Ann’s nightshirt. Ann held the warm, damp handkerchief to her face. It felt so good; when the heat had gone out of it, she quickly stripped off her boots, stockings, skirt, blouse, and chemise, leaving only her drawers on.
The sight of Ann’s half-naked body, even – or especially – crowned with tangled, disheveled hair made Anne’s breath catch in her throat. She put Ann’s nightshirt beside her on the greatcoat, took the handkerchief back, warmed it in the water and wrung it out again. She resisted the urge to take over the washing-up from Ann, passed her the handkerchief, and turned back to search in the bag.
“Better?” she asked a few minutes later over her shoulder, as she heard the rustles of Ann shedding her drawers and pulling on the nightshirt. “Much,” Ann sighed as she came over to crouch next to Anne. “What are you doing over – oh!”
Anne had laid down a small cloth and had set out cheese and dried figs. She glanced at Ann, opening a small bottle of dark liquid, and nodded towards the food. “I hid this from Thomas in case of just such an emergency. Eat. You must be hungry.”
Ann didn’t remember much about the next few minutes except the taste of the figs and cheese in her mouth. It was as though she’d never had them before. The sweet and salty flavours overwhelmed her senses. The bottle, as it turned out, contained cherry brandy Anne had bought in Geneva. As they sat on the floor passing the small bottle back and forth wordlessly, Ann felt her stomach settle, her limbs relax, her mood lift. But now that she was washed and fed and comfortable, she recalled with shame how she’d snipped at Anne all afternoon, spitefully withholding her interest and affection.
She reached for another fig and watched Anne gazing thoughtfully out at the sunset through a missing board in the barn wall. Anne sat there mesmerized for a moment, the bottle halfway to her lips, before taking another draught, tilting her head back. The reddish light glowed on her throat and collarbones where the top buttons of her shirt were undone. She had one knee drawn up, her arm perched over it. Ann was transfixed by the sight of Anne’s slender, strong hand hanging down from her wrist, relaxed and capable. Her thoughts returned to the drawing-room at Crow Nest, the first time she felt that hand reach out to cover her own as they sat next to each other on the sofa. And just a day or two later, when Anne had run her thumb over Ann’s lips, stroking her jaw with her fingers, murmuring, “Surely you know what I mean…” Ann could still practically feel the warm traces on her mouth and under her chin.
Anne glanced over at Ann, noting the redness in her cheeks and sheen across her eyes. “Are you alright?” she asked, lifting her arm from her knee and laying the back of her hand against Ann’s forehead. “You look flushed.”
Ann shook her head. “I’m fine. Feeling much better now, actually.”
Anne smiled. “Well, your colour’s certainly improved.” She paused. “What were you thinking about just now?”
Ann looked down at her hands. “Home,” she said, half-truthfully. “Well… not home. Not Shibden. Crow Nest.”
Anne bit a piece of cheese in half and regarded Ann carefully. “Are you homesick?”
“No,” Ann said hesitantly. “It does feel very far away, though. Even writing letters to Catherine, or to your Aunt Anne, feels like writing to people in another world.” Ann shook her head, smiling. “But I’ve seen so many wonderful places since we left, and met so many different people… writing it all in a letter, explaining it, seems impossible.”
Anne looked at her steadily, the dark pools of her eyes still and guarded. “You are glad we came, then.”
Ann sighed. “Of course I am, Anne.” She reached for one of Anne’s hands, roughened from scrambling across boulders and pulling ropes. “I’m sorry. About today. I wasn’t feeling strong or well, and you—“ She shook her head again. “No matter the hardship, it just never seems to affect you at all. I felt like I was slowing you down. Like I’m a burden to you. And yes, I know,” she added hastily before Anne could speak, “I sound like I have a poor opinion of myself. I don’t, but you’re… you’re just difficult to keep up with sometimes. For anyone.” She smiled again. “Even poor Thomas.”
Anne sighed. “You’re right, of course. I suppose we should be glad we left Eugénie at Sallenche.” Ann giggled, imagining their French maid scowling and grumbling every step of the way through the mountain passes.
The temperature was beginning to drop as the light faded. Anne found a candle in the bag, set it in a tin lid, and put it atop a crate a safe distance from their bed of hay. When she straightened up, Ann had got to her feet and was standing there expectantly.
“Do you forgive me?” she asked softly.
“Of course. Do you forgive me?” Anne murmured.
“What do you think?” Ann stepped into Anne’s embrace, resting her head on her shoulder and wrapping her arms tightly around her middle. Anne’s arms enveloped her, her hands smoothing over her nightgown from her shoulder blades to the small of her back as she rocked her gently. They stood like that for several moments, listening to the sound of crickets chirping in the night.
Ann buried her face in Anne’s neck. She smelled of sweat, but mingled with something ineffably Anne - the scent of trees and candle wax and rope. Ann kissed the hollow of her throat lightly, her tongue tasting the salt of her skin, and felt Anne’s pulse quicken in response and her hands tighten at the base of her spine. Anne rubbed the pads of her fingers firmly into the muscles on either side of her backbone. Ann murmured something wordless and relaxed in the taller woman’s arms.
“You must be stiff,” Anne’s voice rumbled against Ann’s ear, sending shivers through her body. “We have some of Dr. Day’s liniment if you –“ she stopped short when Ann wound one hand up around her neck and pulled her down to bring their mouths together. They kissed again and again, spurred on by the soft sounds of their lips meeting and parting. Anne tasted of sweet figs and brandy, a hint of salt in the corners of her mouth. Ann finally released her and whispered, “My back is fine.” Then she glanced at the hay bales in the corner, her breath catching, and back at the dark-haired woman holding her. “It’s fine, Anne.” Her fingers traced the shoulder seam of Anne’s shirt.
A quick intake of breath was Ann’s only advance warning, and then she was gathered up in Anne’s powerful arms. Anne was at their makeshift bed in a few quick strides, releasing Ann onto her greatcoat and sinking on top of her in one motion. Anne kissed her hard, leaning on her elbows, her hands working their way under Ann’s head and neck to hold her fast. Ann tugged the hem of Anne’s shirt out from her skirt, then slid her fingers under her chemise and up the warm, smooth planes of her back. She gasped at the feel of Anne’s muscles shifting under her hands as she bent and tilted her head to seek out more of Ann to kiss.
Anne suddenly raised herself up, breathing heavily. “Just a minute, love. I’m still –“ Anne reached back and started yanking at one of her bootlaces.
Ann reached down to grab Anne’s hand and pull it back up, settling it on her hip. “No.”
Anne’s eyes seemed to grow darker. “No?” She rubbed Ann’s hipbone with her thumb through the fabric of the nightshirt.
Ann shook her head. “No. I want you exactly as you are right now.” She smiled impishly and tucked one hand into the waistband of Anne’s skirt. “Unless you want me to –“ Anne jerked her hips back and chuckled softly. “No, no, not this time. Perhaps later.” Anne took a moment then, hovering over Ann’s midriff, to look at her beautiful wife in the flickering candlelight. With a groan, she fell on Ann again with fierce kisses, leaning on one elbow and letting her other hand roam down Ann’s body until she found the hem of the nightshirt and lifted it.
Clumsily, and laughing a little, with Anne tugging and Ann wriggling and lifting her head and shoulders, they managed to get the nightshirt off completely. Anne dropped kisses from Ann’s mouth down her throat and across her right breast, lifting one hand to cup the left, grazing her nipple with her thumb. Ann shivered at the sensation, feeling both nipples get hard, aching for Anne’s hand and mouth to switch places – or to be in both places at once.
Anne misread the tremble beneath her and swept back up to cover Ann’s body comfortingly with her own. “Are you cold?” she asked, nuzzling Anne’s cheek. “No,” Ann whispered, even as a shudder ran through her. Anne pulled back to look at her. “Are you sure?” Ann nodded. She didn’t know how to explain the thrill of Anne’s warm weight on top of her, pressing her naked body into the rough cradle of the greatcoat, which smelled of Anne herself and now of hay. She wondered if it was the kind of thing Anne would have been able to put into words, inscribing it in relentless code into her journal.
Anne smiled. “Alright, then.” She lowered her head to kiss Ann again, running her tongue along her lower lip with a smile before coasting back across her cheek to her ear. “What do you want?” she coaxed, thrusting her hips gently into Ann’s. She trailed one hand down the length of Ann’s arm, interlaced their fingers and pressed the back of Ann’s hand into the hay at the edge of her greatcoat. Ann moaned just exactly as Anne had hoped she would – her usual response to being whispered to as they made love.
Before Ann could answer, a roaring bellow echoed through the barn from one of the cows below them, followed by a decidedly bovine sneeze.
Anne pursed her lips. Ann looked up at her. She bit her lower lip and tried not to smile, but the perturbed look on Anne’s face was too much. Ann’s breath escaped in a snorting giggle, and soon Anne dropped her forehead onto Ann’s chest, her shoulders shaking in helpless mirth. Ann quaked with laughter, tears squeezing from her eyes; the already-sore muscles of her stomach soon screamed for mercy.
Anne managed to get control first, but was still grinning as she wiped the tear tracks off Ann’s temples with the back of her finger. Ann reached up to kiss her wife amid her last gasps of laughter. In a moment, her merriment gave way to desire as the familiar ache to somehow get even closer to Anne’s long, hard body rose again in the pit of Ann’s stomach. She brought Anne’s hand back to her breast. The older woman groaned in delight, “God, you feel so good.” Ann writhed beneath her touch, and Anne gently nudged her thighs apart with her hip; at Ann’s encouraging moan, she slid her hand between their bodies and placed it at the apex of Ann’s legs. She prodded her tongue into Ann’s mouth, exploring the underside of her tongue and flicking it suggestively while she let her middle finger slide between the wet folds under her hand. Ann’s hips bucked with longing of their own, and she felt Anne smile against her mouth. “Is that a request?” Anne growled. “Oh, God, yes,” Ann hissed shamelessly.
Anne grinned and backed down Ann’s body, planting light kisses as she went, finally settling between her legs. She was glad she’d heaped hay under the top of the greatcoat where Ann’s head lay, so she could watch those blue eyes watching her, flickering in the light of the candle. Her hands found Ann’s, bringing them to rest on the younger woman’s hipbones. Ann’s fingers tightened around hers as Anne’s lips found the soft hair and inched lower. Her open mouth hovered over Ann’s sex, tormenting her first with her warm breath and then with the tip of her tongue. Ann gasped and her knuckles went white as she dug her fingers into Anne’s palms.
Anne ran her tongue up and down the seam, teasing it slowly with each pass, and groaned at the tang of her wetness. She twisted her hands free of Ann’s and brought them down to part her gently with her thumbs, and kissed the slick, delicate places she’d exposed. Ann’s legs twitched involuntarily as Anne draped her long fingers overtop of her thighs, letting her thumbs slide leisurely up and down her folds, alongside her lips and tongue. Ann arched her back, panting with need. Anne stopped to kiss Ann’s thigh, studying her face all the while, and when she saw brief impatience flash across it, she smiled. She hadn’t even gotten to the good part yet.
She bent her head back to her work, enclosing Ann’s clit in her mouth and sucking it lightly, then slowly letting it slip from her. Ann shifted her thighs restlessly, but Anne clamped down on them with her fingers and repeated the motion with her mouth again and again, each time just a fraction faster and harder, soon adding flicks of her tongue after releasing her with her lips. The flicks became bolder strokes as she heard Ann’s moans increase in pitch, her breath coming in shuddering gasps approximating Anne’s name. Ann’s hands finally found purchase in the greatcoat, gathering the fabric in her fists.
Anne could feel her lover’s body beginning to crest, and pressed her mouth mercilessly around her center, stroking as hard and as quickly as she could with her tongue, pushing Ann’s thighs further apart with her palms while her thumbs held her wide open. Ann came with a full-throated cry, her body convulsing with wave after wave of pleasure as her head lolled back helplessly and her fingers clutched at Anne’s greatcoat. Somewhere, with the last rational thought left in her mind, she wondered how Anne always knew exactly when to still her tongue, when to release the pressure on her thighs, how long to wait before withdrawing her mouth, which spots on her hips to kiss to elicit that last shuddering sigh.
When Ann could see again, a single star came into focus through a hole in the roof, twinkling in the dark. An owl hooted somewhere nearby. In half-lidded delight, she looked down at Anne, who had laid her cheek on Ann’s belly, broad shoulders under her shirt rising and falling with each breath. She could feel Anne’s eyelashes tickling her skin. She stroked Anne’s hair idly for a moment. Anne finally raised her head and rested her chin on Ann’s stomach, looking across it into her eyes. With a mischievous smile, she reached over and pulled the edge of her greatcoat to her mouth and wiped it thoroughly. Ann grinned as Anne crawled up her body with an exaggerated grunt and settled halfway on top of her.
“You’re not going to write to Aunt Anne about this, are you?” Anne teased, shifting her legs to entwine them contentedly with Ann’s. “Good Lord, no, not this part!” Ann said with a laugh.
“There’s a nightshirt somewhere in the vicinity for you. I can’t think where though,” Anne mumbled, laying her head down on Ann’s shoulder. Ann chuckled, reaching one hand up under Anne’s shirt again and caressing her back.
“If I get cold, I’ll look for it. Speaking of clothes,” she said, flicking the edge of the greatcoat, which was now very damp between her legs, “what on earth are you going to wear tomorrow?”
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” Anne replied with a yawn. “And anyway, this coat needed a wash.”
“Well, it definitely does now,” Ann said, smirking. She stretched one arm above her head, her hand drifting through the loose hay. She picked up a handful and scattered it in Anne’s hair. “Beautiful. Very rustic,” she snickered. “Hmmmm,” Anne murmured carelessly into the crook of her neck, already half asleep.
Ann slowly plucked the bits of hay out of Anne’s hair as her breathing slowed and deepened. Anne might have called for an early morning departure. But Ann drifted off thinking of ways to pay her back as soon as the first rays of dawn filtered into their accommodations, in the finest hotel in all of France.