"Anna! Anna! Have you heard?"
Having spent the better part of the afternoon in the library hearing of the more…surprising…aspects of Mr. Carson's past it was only now that Anna had seen any of the rest of the staff. She turned at Daisy's exclamation, seeing her standing with the other kitchen and housemaids. Their excitement was palpable.
"Anna! We just heard today down at the pub. The farmers have set the date for the spring dance. It's in two weeks! Mrs. Hughes has already said we might go. It will be my first year!" Daisy fairly trembled in her eagerness.
So that was what they were all so excited about. It had been tradition long as Anna could remember for the farmers' collective to get together and hold a spring dance in the village after the year's planting was done. It couldn't compare to the grandeur of an upper class ball of course, but it was still a good time for the village folk.
Ostensibly, the purpose for the event was to celebrate the end of the long winter and to foster relationships among the neighboring farmers, but in all reality it was a marriage market. Young ladies were paraded out before the sons and farmhands in the hopes a match could be made. Anna had attended since she was Daisy's age herself, but lightning had never struck for her. Still, she did enjoy the party, especially the dancing.
The rest of the servants filtered into the kitchen. "All you girls are on about this dance. Can't see why. Bunch of pasty-faced boys looking for girls to sneak around with for the summer, that's all it is"
"Thomas!" Anna exclaimed.
"What? It's not true?" he asked, tossing a smirk over to Miss O'Brien.
"Quite right," she agreed. "Don't see the use of it myself."
"What about you, Mr. Bates?" Daisy asked, hoping for someone to share her excitement. "Will you go?"
"Well," he began, trying not to damper her enthusiasm while still declining. "It sounds very nice."
"Really? I didn't think that YOU danced, Mr. Bates."
Any injury that might have resulted from O'Brien's rudeness was blunted by Anna, rolling her eyes and mouthing the word "crone" at him from over her shoulder.
He smothered a grin. Maybe he had been too hasty. "It might be fun to look in—get to know the village a bit. I may not dance much these days but I do enjoy the music."
O'Brien snorted derisively at that, and the discussion was ended by Mrs. Hughes calling them to tea.
The hall was full when the party from Downton arrived, and the musicians were just getting ready to start. Thomas and O'Brien had come along in the end, the promise of a night out enough to make up for their disdain for the event. Only Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes stayed behind, declaring themselves much too on in years for this sort of frivolity.
The ladies made for their cards. Bates noticed Daisy's delight when Thomas signed hers and her impatience when William claimed a dance as well. That was trouble in the making, he mused. Anna, of course, had many applicants as soon as she arrived. He had expected no different for a pretty girl like her.
For the first two sets he relaxed at a table, enjoying the punch and the lively music. The room was nicely decorated and the cheer of the dancing couples was contagious. He was glad he had come. He caught sight of Anna a few times, the flash of her golden hair hard to miss in the crowd. She was having fun, twirling gaily across the floor with various besotted boys. He firmly tamped down a wisp of melancholy at the thought that she might take a liking to one of them. He knew he had nothing but to wish her happy, so he quickly attempted to redirect his thoughts.
That attempt took such great effort he failed to notice the very subject of those intractable thoughts as she slid down beside him. She spoke his name and he started, shocked that she had somehow materialized right in front of him.
"Anna?" he asked in confusion. "Why aren't you dancing? It certainly can't be from lack of a partner. You're the most popular girl in the room."
"I don't know about that," she replied modestly "but as it happens I preferred to dance the third with you."
He was truly bewildered. Was she mocking him? She couldn't be so unaware. Gritting his teeth against the humiliation, his voice was soft as he replied "Anna, surely you realize I can't…"
She placed her hand on his arm, cutting him off. "In that case," she said, eyes sparkling, "I suggest you find some other way to entertain me."
Unbidden, an image popped into his head of a way they could possibly be entertained. It unsettled him greatly. That part of him had long lay dormant-he had honestly wondered if all that business was behind him now. Apparently not. He struggled to regain his wits.
Anna resisted the urge to fidget as she waited for his reply. She knew she was being awfully forward, but she didn't think he was the type of man who would mind. She hoped she hadn't made a gross miscalculation.
Finally, a grin spread across his face, the twinkle in his eyes leaving her breathless.
"I will endeavor to be equal to the task. May I ask what amusement might be acceptable for a young lady who invites herself to dance?"
In the background the orchestra slowed, bringing the song to an end.
"I will have to leave that to your contemplation, Mr. Bates. It seems our dance is finished. However we are engaged for the ninth, so I'm sure you will have it settled by then."
He laughed aloud at that and caught her wrist as she rose from the table. Noticing one last slot open on her card, he extracted a pen from his coat pocket and signed his name to it.
"Put me down for the fourteenth as well. I daresay I can dream up enough diversion for two songs."
Her bright smile was all the reward he could ask for. "I'll look forward to it."
She turned to head back to the dance floor. "Anna," he called after her, "I don't suppose you'll be taken with one of these lads and go off, will you?"
Her eyes softened and something passed over her face that made his chest ache. "I don't think that's very likely, Mr. Bates. It seems that my card is full."