The small dressing down her son had received at the hands of the Annes hadn’t gone unnoticed by Nelly Rawson. She rather enjoyed the way he had tried all through dinner to goad Anne and how she had deftly deflected evey snide little comment he had made. Still, she had to admire his tenacity, if only it didn’t make him look like a complete fool. She was thankful for his sake that it was such a small audience.
Delia had wisely chosen to concentrate on the contents of her gin glass, she did enjoy her granddaughter’s youthful perspective on most topics but she missed having Catherine there to spar with her. They were always so entertaining. Her other son - Jeremiah, was as ever, completely surplus to the conversation. She understood why Christopher always wanted him there, she supposed someone had to be on his side. The poor boy, every time he tried to speak his point was almost always completely taken over by his brother. Then of course there was Ann, the elder Ann Walker, she sat quietly, shrewdly observing the interactions happening across the dinner table. The sour expression on her face letting all present know how displeased she was with whom her namesake had chosen as her dinner companion.
To their credit, the handsome couple hadn’t allowed anything to ruin their evening. The Rawsons and Listers had moved in the same social circles for years, so she was no stranger to seeing Anne put on a show, but she noticed a deference to Ann. She didn’t know for certain but she presumed Anne wasn’t left handed, and yet she had eaten everything except the main course with that hand. Her right hand clearly already occupied holding Ann’s since they had sat down.
Ann too appeared more relaxed than she had seen her in years. Even when she had her brother and sister with her at family functions, she never seemed to enjoy them much. She always shrank into the background except when she was talking to one or two select people. It would have been easy for her to fade in the presence of someone as striking as Anne Lister, but being in her company appeared to bring her to life. She hadn’t realised the girl was quite as interesting or as funny as she had been that evening. Trading a few quips of her own with Christopher.
She of course had known for years about her crush on her dashing neighbour, but that was true of almost every woman in Halifax. That’s why it had been such fun keeping an eye on her dalliances, to find out just who might finally capture her. She had never thought her quiet unassuming grand-niece could be the one. As the plates were cleared and dessert was served she had already come to her own conclusions about the potential new family member. From the way Ann had looked adoringly at Anne all evening she had no doubt it would not be long before a more formal arrangement was made between them.
“And how is my granddaughter?” The question broke Christopher’s present diatribe about some business deal he was conducting that he seemed to think they would care about. Ann swallowed the mouthful of food she had just consumed and put her spoon down before politely smiling and turning to her great-aunt. Mrs Rawson smiled, she always did have impeccable manners. “Catherine’s very well, I spoke to her yesterday.”
“Has she found a job yet?” Christopher garbled between mouthfuls. The implication behind his loaded question was obvious to all present. Everything came down to this with him, how much were you costing the family and how much were you contributing? Even if the latter was greater you were still taking far too much.
Ann turned her attention to him, “Yes she’s started working with a local theatre group. They’re hoping to stage a play in the autumn.”
“Acting?” Ann wanted to explain that Catherine was actually working behind the scenes securing funding for the play but she knew whatever she said he’d find fault with it.
“Well Christopher, our side of the family has always been quite dramatic,” his mother chimed. He pulled a tight smile as she rolled her eyes dismissively. Anne looked down at her bowl of mixed berry crumble covered in lashings of custard and tried not to smile too broadly at the exchange.
“What about you Ann?” Christopher spat out from across the table, “Are you working yet, or are you still spending the family fortune too?” There was an uncomfortable cough from the other side of the table as Aunt Ann shifted in her seat. All eyes glanced in her direction, it was the first sign of life she’d shown since the main course had been served. Anne noticed Ann grip her hand a little more tightly as her aunt’s penetrative stare fixed on her as they awaited her answer.
Despite Anne’s reassuring presence Ann felt her mouth go dry. She felt she had done so well, but now the focus had turned to her the familiar feeling of dred started to sink in. She chastised herself for not having an answer to this question prepared. She had enquired with a few galleries about showing some of her paintings and was planning to follow up with them once they got back to London. How could she say that now without it sounding like an excuse? “There’s...some galleries...I-”
“Do speak up dear,” came her aunt’s imperious tone.
Ann felt every pair of eyes at the table bore into her as she struggled to speak. She reached out a shaky hand to take a quick drink of water. “I honestly don’t know how you expect to speak to people in London if you can’t even talk to your own family about your...art.” The inflection in her voice told Anne everything she needed to know about how she felt about Ann’s work. She doubted she’d ever even looked at her paintings because if she had she wouldn’t have been so dismissive of the idea.
Ann focussed on the glass that was in her hand. She felt impossibly warm no matter how much she drank. There was a soft press of moist lips against the back of her other hand before it fell empty to the table. Anne was gone too.
It felt like she was moving through water as she turned her head to the side, the two second movement taking too many moments. Why had Anne let go? The next thing she felt was those same soft lifts pressing gently against her cheek. Time resumed to its normal speed as Anne’s arm came around her shoulders as she pulled her in closer. She looked up, Anne’s deep brown eyes meeting hers, silently asking if she was okay. Ann’s nod was met with a quick wink before Anne turned to her aunt, “Actually I’ve asked Ann to help decorate my office.”
Anne ignored Christopher as he scoffed from across the table, “The break in was actually probably a blessing. My office needs modernising. I mean so much of the furniture was starting to feel old and stale.”
“Didn’t you say how much you admired how Anne’s office was decorated?” Delia added turning to Christopher.
“That’s right, you were talking to Mariana Lawton about it the other day when she came by the office.” Jeremiah had hardly spoken all evening but Anne was glad that he’d chosen now to do so. Her brow peaked with interest, Christopher glared at his brother who smiled cluelessly back at him.
“Well yes,” he blustered. “I knew she helped you decorate, and I was asking her about it. I was considering doing something similar. It’s very…” His eyes narrowed at Anne, “Classic.”
“Old and stale then, like Anne said?” Delia said flippantly.
Anne gave Ann’s shoulder a tight squeeze as she heard her giggle at Delia’s comment. She turned her attention back to her aunt and adopted a serious tone, “Your niece is very talented. Hopefully you can come down to London when she has an exhibition.” There was a low hum and a quick nod. That was the most acknowledgement Anne had received from her so counted it as a victory. “You too Christopher,” he was still glaring at them. “Your cousin has exemplary taste, after all...” She gave a shrug of her shoulders as she smiled smugly. Mrs Rawson let out a raucous laugh, cutting the tension in the air.
“As soon as you’ve secured the gallery space we shall all be there, Ann.” Mrs Rawson declared as she looked pointedly at her son who begrudgingly nodded as he smiled weakly.
Ann looked across at Delia who silently mouthed, “Five for the Annes.” She snickered but was glad Delia had been keeping count.
“I take it you’ll be going to the Belcombe wedding,” Ann’s head immediately shot up. She felt Anne tense beside her. The self-congratulatory smirk across Christopher’s face spread at the surprise on both their faces. “Mariana did mention she’d invited you.” He turned to Ann and waved dismissively, “I suppose you could be the plus one.”
Anne sat upright, “I’d actually decided not to go.”
“Really? Aren’t you two old friends?” He drew the last word out as he sneered back.
“Yes, we are. But I’m here to spend time with my family, and Ann.” She drew her arm back and took Ann’s hand back into hers, placing them both on top of the table. “They’re my priority.” Ann interlocked their fingers and squeezed her hand tightly.
“It could actually be fun to go,” all eyes turned once again to Ann, including Anne’s. “Don’t you think dearest?” She looked at her incredulously as she spotted a glimmer of mischief in her eyes, “I haven’t seen Mariana since the tennis, it might be nice to show you off.” Ann leaned in and gave her a quick kiss before drawing back with a playful smile playing on her lips.
“Oh I think we’ll all be going to the Belcombe wedding this weekend,” Mrs Rawson clapped her hands gleefully.
“Exactly how are you related to the Rawsons?” Marian asked as she took another piece of toast. Anne shook her head as she took a sip of tea, she was sure Ann had already explained this to her several times.
“One of my grandfather’s cousins, I think married one of their cousins.” Ann scrunched her face up as she tried to work out her complicated lineage. She shook her head and sighed, it was no use trying to figure it out, “My family has been very adept at strategic marriages.” Anne was thankful that Marian finally seemed to accept that answer as she went back to her breakfast.
“How is your grandmother dear?” Aunt Anne asked from across the dining room table.
“She’s very well thank you,” Ann replied.
“She didn’t give you any trouble did she?” Captain Lister asked his eldest daughter, “I know how sharp her tongue can be.”
Anne leaned back in her chair, a smug smile on her face, “She likes me. Always has done.” She turned to Ann, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively at her. Ann reached over and playfully swatted her arm, Anne gasped as she jutted her bottom lip out as if she’d really been hurt.
Marian tried to reconcile what was happening right in front of her with the memories of how breakfasts used to be when Anne was home. She would often trundle downstairs in a foul mood after whomever she’d brought home had disappeared some time during the night. Or worse, they’d have to sit through an awkward conversation knowing that Anne had no intention to call the poor woman fawning over her.
With Mariana they had at least been given time to get used to their dynamic over the years that they were together, and not. It was always a coin toss on whether they’d be happily planning the rest of their lives together or perpetuating the illusion that she’d gone to Anne as a friend seeking comfort. Whatever this was with Ann, the childlike glee that filled both of their faces as they teased each other incessantly, even the soppy heart eyes they constantly made towards each other, it was better. A hundred times better. Even if she did have to suffer through it.
She looked over at both her aunt and father, they were smiling at their antics. She was glad that they could see Anne finally being happy. Initially she had been hesitant to tell them anything about the budding romance happening down in London, but she knew how much they worried. When she was last home, at Christmas, they all sensed something was different, there was a determination to change her life. The last time they’d seen her that way she packed her most important belongings and moved down to London. They felt right to be concerned about where this new direction might take her, thankfully it had taken her rather indirectly to their shy neighbour. Marian would never tire of reminding Anne of that.
“Ma’am, package just arrived for you.” Marian looked up as Cordingley brought in the mail from the hallway. Anne thanked her and eagerly set about opening the parcel.
Marian waited till she left then leaned over to speak quietly to her sister, “You know you’re going to have to give her up.”
Anne shot a confused look across the table, “Who?”
“Cordingley,” Aunt Anne clarified. “She should be home with her family. Not cooking fresh meals for you that you don’t even eat.”
“I do eat them!”
“After you’ve heated them up.” Anne really was pouting now, they’d reached her least favourite part of the day where the family took turns to lay their grievances at her feet. “It was only supposed to be a couple of months.”
“It has been!”
“It’s been six dear.” Anne paused and did the calculation in her head. Aunt Anne took the silence to mean she knew she was wrong but was too stubborn to admit it, always so proud this niece of hers. “I’m sure you could cope on your own now.” There was a quiet grumble of agreement. She wasn’t going to confess that it was less about the cooking and cleaning, she could find someone else to take on those tasks - or at least Eugenie could. She liked having someone who knew her in her home.
“Do you cook, Ann?” The Captain’s seemingly innocent question took her a little by surprise.
She smiled as she nodded, “Yes, I normally cook for myself and Catherine.”
“She’s a wonderful cook!” Anne beamed as she took her hand proudly, turning to the elder Listers who were staring at them both knowingly. Anne’s mouth dropped. She couldn’t believe she’d fallen so easily into that trap.
Ann stifled her laugh as she saw the offended look on Anne’s face. Deciding to rescue her from the hole she’d dug herself into she gave a slight tug of her hand, “What’s in your parcel dearest?” She asked as she took a bite of her toast.
“Hmm?” Ann nodded at the half-opened package in front of Anne, “Oh! Yes!” She turned her attention back to the box and finished unwrapping the delivery. Her eyes lit up as she placed the box on the table, discarding the packaging on the floor next to her. They all stared curiously at it, finally Marian broke the silence, “What is it?”
Anne looked at them triumphantly, “It’s a white noise machine!” She was met with blank glances from all four pairs of eyes. Her brow furrowed, how did none of them know what it was? “It creates noise to drown out other sounds.” Marian’s eyes widened exponentially as Ann started coughing violently as she choked on her mouthful of toast. Anne looked around at the trio of shocked faces as she rubbed Ann’s back and tried to get her to drink some water. “For father’s snoring!”
She turned her attention back to Ann who was still doubled over across the table as she tried to compose herself. Her cheeks were a deep red as she glared at Anne as she winked cheekily at her. Anne sat up, slowly followed by Ann. “Are you alright dear?” Aunt Anne’s voice laced with concern.
“Yes. Sorry, it went down the wrong way.” Anne bit her bottom lip to stop herself from laughing.
“I got one for you and Marian, Aunt,” she said enthusiastically.
“Lovely dear,” she tried to sound as excited as possible.
“Can’t wait,” Marian added flatly. Ann narrowed her eyes as she gave Anne a sideways glance. She puffed out her chest as she absentmindedly started to draw circles along the outside of her teacup with her middle finger. The visual caused Ann to blush further.
“Completely unrelatedly, sister of mine!” Marian waited until she had her attention before continuing, “What time are they coming to repair your door?” Ann couldn’t believe Anne’s grin could get any wider or her cheeks feel any redder, and yet somehow, there they were.
Ann felt Anne’s insistent hips pressing her against the wall of her bedroom, a few feet from the wide open doorway. Her warm mouth immediately on hers, the tip of her tongue gently darting forward. Ann tilted her head back as she opened her mouth just enough for Anne’s tongue to press against hers. Anne held her hips firmly as she started to grind slowly against her. There was a small reprieve as she pulled away, only to then start to suck ardently at Ann’s neck. An unmistakable moan escaped her lips as she felt Anne smirk against her skin. “Darling,” she whispered between kisses. “Not yet, we still don’t have a door,” she said teasingly.
Ann’s heart quickened as Anne continued relentlessly, her hands reached up to tangle themselves in her chestnut hair as she arched her neck, pulling her in closer. “We need to stop,” she said breathlessly. “I have to go.” That didn’t stop her. She ran her tongue the length of her neck, slick with a mix of perspiration and the moisture from her kisses. “Where could you possibly need to be but here?” she husked into her ear.
She felt Anne’s fingertips graze her thigh as she started a slow trail upwards. Why had she let Catherine talk her into dresses only for this trip? Her breathing hitched as she played at the hem of her dress. “Anne,” it was a breathless plea. She wasn’t sure whether she was asking her to stop or to keep going. She drew the same lazy circles across the top of her thigh that she had done on her teacup earlier.
As Anne’s tongue traced her outer ear, her hot breath causing her to shiver, she was aware of her name being called. At least she thought it was her name, it didn’t belong just to her in this house. As Anne’s hand moved agonizingly further between her thighs she heard it again, someone was definitely calling their name. “Anne, someone’s calling us.”
“Hmm?” She moved her lips back to the juncture where her neck met her shoulder.
“Ann!” The call was much louder that time.
Anne paused momentarily but soon returned her lips to the side of Ann’s face, finding her way back to her lips. “I know...you heard...it too.” Ann managed between their fervent kisses.
“Well?” Ann’s head was spinning, they were soon reaching the point of no return. If Anne’s hand continued any further, door or no door, she wouldn’t be able to stop.
Anne groaned as she pulled back, “If they want me then I’m busy.” She licked her lips hungrily as she looked at Ann’s heaving chest, a low growl emitting from her throat, “And if they want you, you’re definitely busy.” She leaned in, intending to capture her very red, very full lips again. The loud knock against their door frame froze them both. Anne brought her hand up and placed her index finger across Ann’s lips, gently pushing against them as her other hand - still under Ann’s dress, simultaneously moved between her thighs. There was a flicker of mischief as Anne angled hips to push against her hand. Ann gasped sharply.
“If you’re quite finished Anne, we have somewhere we need to be.” Anne’s shoulders slumped at the sound of her sister’s voice. She removed both of her hands with a heavy sigh as she placed them against the wall, either side of Ann and pushed herself back. She looked ruefully at her, “Tell me again why you agreed to go into Halifax with my sister.”
Ann placed her hand on Anne’s chest, pushing her back gently. “Because you said you had things to do on the estate.” She leant in and kissed her soundly, pulling back before it got too heated. “If it involves you moving any more furniture around,” her eyes dropped as they followed her hand as it trailed down to Anne’s taught stomach, “Or doing anything else physical…” Ann took a deep breath as she raked her eyes back upwards to meet Anne’s pupils dark with want, “I’ll never be able to look any of your family in the eye again.”
Ann pushed her further back and quickly walked to the door where Marian was waiting patiently. “Ready?” she asked, pretending that she hadn’t heard anything they’d just said.
“Let me just grab my bag,” Ann was about to spin around when Anne stepped behind her, wrapping one arm tightly around her waist so she couldn’t move. In the other she held up Ann’s bag, “Here you are darling.” She turned her head and kissed her on the cheek before resting her chin on her shoulder, “And where are you taking my Ann?”
It had been a while since she had heard her refer to Ann so possessively, but given what she’d just interrupted she could understand why. “I’m taking your Ann to the garden centre, Newbank. Then we’re going to lunch.” Anne opened her mouth to speak but Marian spoke first, “No I haven’t decided where we’re going.” Anne took another breath, “And no I’m not going to tell you because you’ll just show up.” Marian raised her eyebrow as her sister started to pout, she would earn no sympathy from her. Not after the white noise machine stunt earlier. She’d had to spend the rest of the morning trying to explain how it worked to Aunt Anne.
Marian’s brow furrowed as she looked past Ann, “What have you done in here?” Anne followed her gaze. She and John had made a few changes the day before. Marian wondered why there was now a large rug underneath the bed that also covered most of the hardwood floor. Anne had always said she loved the feel of the old timbers beneath her feet. A large bookshelf had also been placed on the wall she shared with Aunt Anne and the small vanity placed by the window. Of course because it was Anne, it was already covered with books. “Why has everything moved?”
Anne looked at them trying to find an answer. She shrugged her shoulders as she smiled slyly, “Acoustics.” Ann’s eyes widened and she grabbed Marian’s hand pulling her out of the room just as she was about to ask what she meant. Anne quickly followed them out onto the landing, leaning over the bannister as Ann marched them down the stairs, “Bye darling! Have fun.” Ann glared up at her.
As she was about to step back into their room she heard Marian cry out loud from outside, “Oh my god, Anne!” She started to laugh, it always took her sister a moment, but she got there eventually.
She heard the car drive off as she stood surveying the room, her hands on her hips. Yes, she thought to herself, once the door was fixed their room would be a lot more soundproof than it had been. Plus, there was still that little project she was working on. A self-satisfied grin spread across her face as she thought of the possibilities a little privacy would bring them.