“You’re being absurd Uncle,” William Wainwright laughed as he entered the large study followed by his Uncle Albert and younger brother Frederick.
“Mind your tone young man,” Albert said with no real anger. The older man went to the bar and poured glasses of scotch for each of them and took his seat on the sofa.
“I’m sorry,” William laughed, “but you’d have us believe that our Lily and Bella are unfaithful? I think you’re just jealous because you’ve never been able to find a woman like these two.”
“Rubbish,” Albert brushed off. “And I never said they were unfaithful, just that they would become so given the opportunity.”
“William is right Uncle,” Frederick joined in. “We’re with them almost every day and they’ve never so much mentioned other men, much less looked at them.”
Albert waved his hands dismissively. “Maybe not now, but given the chance…look boys, it’s not their fault,” he said kindly. “That’s just how women are. It’s in their nature to change affections as frequently as they change gowns and if you wish to marry them, it’s best you see them for what they are instead of what you envision them to be. You’ll all be much happier.”
“You come dangerously close to insulting a lady sir,” William protested, anger slipping into his voice. “Lily is an intelligent, independent woman who knows her own mind. She’s managed the estate and the winery with great success since her parents’ demise two years ago. They spend almost every day riding the property and at least two days a week working at the vineyard not to mention handling the acquisition of local goods for our department stores in town. Even if she were as fickle as you suggest she’s far too busy to do what you’re implying.”
“And Bella may be younger but she’s been right by Lily’s side the entire time. Those two are rarely apart. Not to mention that my Bella does love to talk,” Frederick added with a fond smile. “If there were any gentlemen in their lives, she would have let it slip by now.”
Albert held up his hands. “Ah but you see that’s just it. Women who were raised as they were, to think they’re the equal to men, are even more inclined to flit from one romance to the other because they are under the impression they have no need to settle down. Now Bella, true her own parents left her with Lily’s when they went to America, but she grew up with Lily nonetheless and with the same disregard for gender. Now they both feel they are independent enough that they have no need of a husband or security and thus they can pick and choose as they will and you, my poor lads, are their entertainment until someone better comes along.”
Frederick jumps to his feet. “You may be our Uncle Sir, but I find your jests becoming tiresome and offensive. We’ve known these women since we were children and they’ve never been anything but models of goodness, kindness and honesty.”
“Easy, Frederick,” Albert replied easily. “I mean no disrespect,” he insisted. “I have the utmost admiration for your ladies and how they’ve carried on alone for these past two years and I am well aware of their fondness for you. I just want to make sure you understand what you are getting into should you ever manage to propose. I don’t wish you to enter the matrimonial state blinded only to have your hearts broken.”
“Your concern for our marital happiness is touching Uncle, but we know these girls far better than you do.”
“Ah, but I know women far better than you,” he retorted smugly. “Still, if you’re that insistent that these two young ladies defy all womanly instincts, would you care to make a wager?”
“I don’t know,” Will prevaricated. “Wagering on a woman’s fidelity is hardly something gentlemen would do.”
“It’s harmless” Albert waved off “and something nobody but the three of us will know about and I’m not wagering on the girl’s honor. As I say, I have nothing but respect for them and their superior intellect. This wager is just to prove to you that regardless of their other stellar attributes, they are underneath, merely women and all women are the same. So how about it?”
“Very well Uncle. If it will quiet your ridiculous accusations, we agree. Name your stakes.” William and Frederick share a glance and then shake their Uncle’s hand in agreement.
“Good morning Bella,” Lily Tremaine
greeted warmly as she joined the auburn haired woman at the table.
Bella Long looked up and smiled at the woman who’d been her best friend for most of her life. “Good morning,” she replied, turning her cheek up for the kiss the blonde almost always bestowed on her each morning and fighting the peculiar shivers that always followed the innocent gesture.
“I hope you don’t mind, it’s such a lovely day I had Dina serve breakfast outside,” she said happily.
Lily smiled indulgently. “Not at all.” She sat down across the table and as always found herself studying the woman who’d been as close to her as a sister. No, even closer. As always, Bella had a beautiful open smile on her face and a sparkle of humor in her green yes and as always the sight filled Lily with a warmth that she thought had died with her parents.
Bella poured a cup of coffee and slid it to Lily, ignoring the now familiar tingle that ran through her as their hands brushed. She sighed in relief when she saw Dina approaching them with their breakfast.
“Thank you Dina,” Bella said.
“Dina, Bella and I are going riding with Frederick and William later and will probably be working in the vineyard most of the day. Why don’t you take the afternoon off?”
Dina’s eyes lit up. “Really? That would be wonderful. Thank you Miss Lily. I’ll make sure I’m back by the time you return.”
“That’s not necessary Dina,” Lily protested kindly with a smile. “I’m sure Bella and I can manage to feed and dress ourselves this evening or have Maria and Mrs. Brown assist us.”
Dina lifted an eyebrow. “And come back to a house on fire? I don’t think so Miss Lily. I’ll be back this evening.”
Lily grinned at the way the young maid scampered away, most assuredly to make plans to meet some young gentleman in the village.
“Do you think we should send a warning to the village that Dina’s on the loose?” Bella only half jesting.
Lily laughed. “Oh let them be surprised,” she replied.
Bella smiled, for a moment losing herself in Lily’s smiling blue eyes. Why, oh why, couldn’t she have these feelings for Frederick?
“Speaking of gentlemen, William and Frederick should be here soon,” Lily said pulling her hand away and beginning to eat.
“Do you think we will manage to get them to lend a hand with the vines today?” BeIla asked with fond amusement.
“I sincerely doubt it,” Lily grinned. “As willing as they are to assist others in need, manual labor is a bit beyond their limits. I have to admit though that they’re both uniquely wonderful in that they don’t try and dissuade us from working.”
Bella nodded. “True.” She’d been to London enough to know that women were allowed very few freedoms, and most of the society ladies she’d met had no desire to work even if they could.
“And William is quite handsome isn’t he?” Lily continued thoughtfully. “He’s kind and good natured and very attentive. Everything a girl could want,” she smiled, even though she felt something was missing. “Even on the rare occasion he tries to be bossy and overprotective, he’s sweet and gives in when I remind him I can take care of myself.”
Bella felt a knot in her stomach at Lily’s glowing compliments of her suitor but smiled as if she was equally content. “And Frederick is all of that too. Plus, he’s quite diverting with a wonderful sense of humor though I’m sure he’s not near as enamored with me as William is with you,” Bella teased.
Lily frowned. “Why would you think that Bel? I’ve never noticed him appear anything but particularly fond of you.”
Bella swallowed the pain that was never far from the surface and shrugged negligently. “Because my dear Lily, even though you’re adorably oblivious, I see how he looks at you when you’re not aware of it and really, who wouldn’t want you?” She smiled affectionately. “You’re beautiful, strong and the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. It’s quite clear that if William were suddenly gone, he’d happily step in for his brother.”
Lily’s eyes widened in surprise and she quickly took Bella’s hands. “Bella, please don’t say such things. You have to know you’re all those things and so much more,” she insisted firmly, her voice rising with her sincerity and leaning close to make sure Bella met her eyes. “You have the biggest, most beautiful heart of anyone in this land or any other and Frederick knows that. He doesn’t want me.”
Bella laughed lightly “Perhaps,” she replied casually but it was too late. Lily had seen the hint of something dark in the always expressive green eyes. Almost from the time Bella’s parents had left her with Lily’s family, Lily had noticed that sometimes, traces of sadness would flicker across Bella’s face. It never lingered long but it never failed to hurt Lily’s heart to see it and it hurt even more that Bella refused to acknowledge it. Even to her.
“Bella?” she pushed.
“So, I’m going to go get changed before William and Frederick arrive,” Bella smiled and got to her feet, fleeing the garden before Lily questioned her further.
Lily watched her go, her heart sinking. Something was definitely troubling the woman who meant more to her than anyone in the world and it was more than her thinking Frederick’s affections were directed elsewhere. She knew when Bella came down she’d be back to her normal jovial self but Lily wouldn’t push her to talk. At least not yet.
“Mr. Wainwright is here along with
Mr. Frederick and Mr. William,” Maria, the youngest housemaid announced as she
poked her head into the library.
Lily looked up from the papers she’d been studying. “Oh good. Thank you Maria, send them in.”
Bella rose from the sofa where she’d been reading and almost unconsciously moved to stand beside Lily who had also risen to her feet.
“Good morning ladies,” Albert greeted as he entered the study.
“Bella, my beautiful dove, you’re looking lovely as always,” Frederick said with a ridiculously exaggerated flourish as he walked to Bella and picked up her hand, placing a gallant kiss on her fingers.
“As are you my dearest darling Lily,” William added grandly, ardently kissing Lily’s hand.
Lily chuckled at their overzealous displays of affection and playfully shoved William back. “Stop it,” she chided, smiling at William’s laugh. Bella giggled as well.
“Dear ladies, you do look fetching,” Albert said smoothly, “though I still don’t understand your insistence in wearing men’s attire instead of a skirt. Surely you fear the scandal.”
“You say that every time you come riding with us Albert,” Bella returned lightly. “Surely you know us well enough by now to realize a little thing like a scandal doesn’t trouble us. Besides, our employees are quite used to it and would most likely be more shocked to see us in skirts and riding side-saddle.”
“That’s true” William agreed.
“And breeches do look far more becoming on you than they do our dear Uncle,” Frederick added, laughing at Albert’s affronted expression.
“Overblown flattery aside,” Lily interrupted drily, “you gentlemen don’t appear dressed for a day of riding.”
“Yes,” Albert said soberly, “I’m afraid we have to return to London for a while.”
“Oh no, did something terrible happen?” She asked anxiously. Then Lily took her hand and as always her anxiety was replaced by a sense of peace she never felt when she was away from the older woman.
Frederick smiled at the woman he’d always expected to marry. “Nothing serious Bella,” he replied soothingly. “Just some business we need to attend to.”
“I’m sure this business wouldn’t involve cards, scandalous behavior and an obscene amount of alcohol,” Lily laughed.
“Why Lily, you couldn’t be more wrong. There won’t be any cards at all,” Frederick protested with mock offense, drawing a most unladylike snort from Lily but Bella remained still, her hand instinctively tightening around Lily’s.
“Yes well I’m sure at the least, you’ll have no shortage of sophisticated female company to keep you diverted,” she offered a smile that was too shaky to be credible.
Frederick approached his intended, all signs of humor gone from his face and decided to tell her the truth. Well most of it. “You have nothing to fear on that front Bella. We truly are going for business regarding expanding the department store.”
Lily’s heart ached to see the mysterious pain from earlier returned to Bella’s eyes and she didn’t understand it at all. She knew the young woman well enough to know it wasn’t the thought of Frederick leaving for town that had her looking so distraught. She slid an arm around Bella hoping to comfort her.
“When will you be back?” Bella asked quietly.
Frederick saw Lily’s gesture and exchanged a glance with William who’d also noticed the tender action.
“We’re uncertain,” Albert said, noticing the sudden tension and uncertain how it played into his plan. “However be assured we’ll be back in time for the Ball or at the very least the village Festival. Now, however, I’m afraid we really must take our leave.”
Suddenly Bella was filled with an inexplicable dread and an overwhelming fear that she was about to lose the only hope for normalcy she had and she found herself perilously close to tears and for once the feeling of Lily’s arm around her wasn’t helping. She pulled away and rushed to Frederick, taking his hands.
“You won’t forget us?” she tried to tease but the shock on Frederick’s face and the way he instantly looked over at Lily told her she failed.
“Of course not Bell,” Frederick assured her and kissed both of her hands gently.
William looked at Frederick and Bella and then to Lily who was watching the couple closely and with an expression that wasn’t at all difficult to interpret, still, he had a role to play.
“Indeed, how could we forget the two most beautiful women in the country, not to mention the ones who know all of our most embarrassing secrets?” He inserted, hoping to return the smile to Bella’s face. “Why, the threat of blackmail alone will always have us on our best behavior.”
Bella found herself laughing through her tears. No matter what else she felt, the two men were so very dear and always made her laugh.
“I sincerely doubt that,” she said with a broad smile.
Frederick’s own lips lifted and he felt a true warmth at the beautiful sight. He ran a finger along the delightful dimple that always appeared on Bella’s lovely face when she smiled and for a moment he paused to wish she could see herself the way he and others, one certain blonde in particular, saw her.
“Well come on lads, we have a schedule to keep,” Albert interrupted, hoping his nephews weren’t about to give up their part of the wager.
William and Frederick embraced their ladies and kissed them on the cheek.
“We’ll return before you know it,” Frederick said and then grinned, “and just in time for you to remind us of our remarkable handsomeness.”
Bella rolled her eyes. “You don’t need us to remind you Frederick. You do a splendid job of reminding yourself of that daily.”
Frederick laughed and kissed her on the cheek once more.
Lily walked up to stand near Bella as they said their final farewells. When they were gone she turned Bella to face her.
“Bella, what’s troubling you so?” she asked worried.
Bella tried to pull away but Lily’s firm grip wouldn’t allow it. “Nothing. I’m just sad the boys are leaving.”
“Sweetheart, I know you better than anyone and I know very well that while you may be sad at their departure, as I am, that’s not all that’s troubling you. Why won’t you talk to me?”
Bella looked into the pleading light blue eyes that always managed to get through her strongest defenses, but this time she simply couldn’t allow it.
“I can’t Lily,” she said weakly, hating the hurt that crossed the beautiful face. “At least not yet.”
“But you will?” Lily prodded.
Bella nodded. “One day. I promise,” she said and then unable to help herself, she leaned in and kissed Lily on the cheek.
“Now, let’s go out to the vineyard. Nothing like a little hard work to take our mind off of being abandoned,” she grinned and held out her hand.
Something about the last sentence disturbed Lily, but just relieved to see Bella smile again, she took Bella’s hand and they left house without further argument.
“I can’t ever remember being so exhausted,” Lily sighed as she and Bella entered the house. They’d spent the last six hours helping their hands finish harvesting the last of the grapes.
When Lily’s parents were alive, Lily’s father had insisted that the girls accompany him on his tour of the vineyard, the winery and the farms to learn the business and after the accident both Lily and Bella had felt they owed it her parents and to everyone to continue. It had taken a few visits for the Manager and the other hands to accept Bella and Lily’s help, despite the fact the girls were their employers, but once they saw Lily and Bella were actually serious about working, and worked as hard as anyone, they accepted it and treated them as one of their own which meant not letting them slack.
“Me either,” Bella agreed tiredly, “although I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Lily smiled fondly at a young woman who sometimes tried so hard to appear flighty and selfish but had no idea she failed miserably at it. “Careful Bel, if Mrs. Brown hears that, she may have you helping to clean the house as well.”
“Heaven forbid,” Bella shuddered and Lily laughed knowing if Dina or any of the other staff so much as hinted they needed help, Bella would be the first one to offer assistance.
“Welcome back Miss Lily, Miss Bella,” Dina greeted happily as she entered the foyer to greet her mistresses. “It looks like they worked you near to death today.”
“It feels like it went well beyond ‘near,’ Bella griped playfully.
“Well a nice hot bath and warm dinner will revive you both sure enough,” Dina suggested. “Both of your baths have been drawn and when you come down I’ll have your dinner waiting in the study since I’m assuming you’ll be working on the ball?”
“Oh dear Dina how we love you,” Lily sighed happily and kissing the girl on her blushing cheek as did Bella.
“Thank you for coming back,” Bella added. “Although Mrs. Brown is a bit put out that you didn’t trust her to take care of us properly.”
“Well the old dear is always put out about something,” Dina quipped fondly, “I’ll be sure to make it up to her. Now, go on with the both of you.”
Lily and Bella laughed and after removing their muddy riding boots, they headed upstairs.
Forty minutes later Bella entered the study feeling more refreshed and much lighter of spirit. She paused when she spied Lily bent over the desk, pen in hand and lost in whatever work had caught her interest. For a second Bella let herself be captivated by the sight. Lily had always fascinated her more than anyone or anything she’d ever encountered. Something about her drew Bella like a moth to a flame and she had come to relish the burn that came with it. And sitting there in candlelight, blonde hair, damp from the bath and falling around her shoulders, Bella felt a yearning that had haunted her for years and it frightened her. Before she could bolt, however, the smell of the roast beef coming from the small table Dina had set up for them hit Bella, causing her stomach to rumble rather loudly and distracting her from her thoughts.
Lily was startled by the noise and she lifted her head to see Bella standing in the doorway blushing furiously. She laughed outright realizing the noise had come from the perpetually hungry young woman.
“I assume you’re ready to eat?” She finally asked once her laughter faded.
Bella huffed and moved into the room and sat primly at the table with an air of indifference.
“Yes and how kind you are not to make sport of me.”
For a moment Lily was worried she really had offended Bella but the twitching of full lips as the brunette poured their wine eased her mind.
Their dinner was as always pleasant and full of simple conversation, yet there was an air of distraction that both women felt but neither could define.
“So,” Bella stated with more awkwardness than she normally felt with the blonde. “I’m very excited for the new chardonnay,” she said. “I think it will make a wonderful centerpiece for the festival as well as the ball.”
Lily looked up at that. “The Festival. Do you think we’re doing the right thing? Having it so soon after the ball”
Bella was startled by the question. Lily had always been such a decisive woman a fact she both loved and envied about the other woman. “Of course we are,” Bella said. This time it was her turn to take Lily’s hand in support. “We both know the fancy ball is purely for business but this festival is for everyone. It’s a wonderful idea and one the villagers are very excited about. That’s one of the reasons they love you so.”
“And you as well,” Lily reminded Bella with a smile before she frowned once more. “This is…would this have been something my parents would have liked?”
Bella saw a familiar flash of grief in Lily’s blue eyes and quickly went around the table to comfort her, knowing that two years hadn’t eased her sense of loss.
“Of course it is Lily and you know that.” She reached out and placed a hand on Lily’s cheek, her thumb wiping away a stray tear. “They would be so very proud of you. You’ve accomplished so much and done so much to improve the estate and to improve the lives of the people who depend on you. I imagine that if they bemoan anything it’s that they didn’t think of it first,” she smiled gently.
Lily returned the smile and covered Bella’s hand with hers. “Do you really think so?”
“I’m positive of it and I know they would love this idea far more than knowing you were still lost in mourning.”
Lily was silent for a moment as she met Bella’s gentle eyes before laughing softly and pulling her into her arms. “Oh Bella. You always know just how to make me feel better. What would I ever do without you?”
“That’s something you’ll never have to find out,”” Bella assured her, before a flicker of doubt flashed through her and she pulled back a little. “Unless you want to. I mean, I was forced on you all those years ago and stuck around like a bad penny,” she attempted to tease. “And then there’s the fact your parents left me part of what should have been yours and maybe you want your house back and…”
The more Bella spoke, the broader Lily’s smile became until she finally placed her fingers over Bella’s lips, stopping the never-ending sentence while trying extremely hard not to notice just how soft the lips beneath her fingers truly were.
“You’re babbling love,” Lily chuckled at the blush that crossed Bella’s face before she grew more serious.
“Bella, I never want to hear you say anything like that again,” she scolded softly. “I adore you and my parents taking you in was the best thing that ever happened to me.” She paused as she realized how that may have sounded. “I mean, I know that it hurt you having your parents move so far away without you, but never, not for one second, doubt that I want you here as long as you want to stay. This is OUR home and always will be.” Bella tried to look away but Lily wouldn’t have it. Placing gentle fingers under her chin, she lifted Bella’s eyes to hers. “Alright?”
Bella was frozen as she fell into Lily’s blue eyes. There was not a more beautiful sight in the world and Bella wished she could stare into the beautiful eyes forever. Unexpectedly Lily’s eyes flickered to her lips and Bella nearly fainted but she swallowed and ignored the whispered voices telling her to lean forward those last few inches and…”
Bella started at Lily’s voice, realizing she’d been silent for far too long. “Oh. Yes, alright,” she agreed, having already forgotten what they were talking about.
Dina had arrived in the study to remove their plates and stopped cold as she witnessed the obviously private moment between her two mistresses. She felt her eyes sting at the palpable love between them. She’d never seen anyone as close and she occasionally found herself envious of it and wondering if she’d ever find anyone who cared about her half as much as they cared about each other.
She pulled herself together and cleared her throat to announce her arrival, almost regretting it made Bella move away and reseat herself at the table.
“Did you care for dessert?” she asked casually as she placed a full carafe of coffee on the table.
“No thank you Dina. The coffee is perfect so you and the rest of the staff can have an early night.”
“Alright then. Just ring if you need me.”
“Oh Dina, I do have one other thing,” Lily called before the maid had left.
“Of course Miss Lily.”
“Would you mind speaking with the rest of the staff and your friends in the village and perhaps get their input on what they’d like to see at the festival or any suggestions at all to make this an exciting event for everyone?”
Dina smiled happily as she once again thanked her maker for her position. She figured if she was destined to be a maid instead of a mistress, she couldn’t have asked for better employers who never hesitated to entrust her with responsibilities nobody else would have even considered.
“I’d love to. I’ll start on that first thing in the morning,” she agreed as she cleared the plates from the table.
“Excellent. Well goodnight Dina. Thank you as always for everything.”
“Good night Miss Lily, Miss Bella. Don’t stay up too late.”
“Yes Your Highness” Bella grinned.
Once Dina was gone, the two women moved the table out of the way and retired to the sofa where they began to discuss the upcoming festivities.