Dina entered the house and headed to kitchen where she saw Mrs. Brown already hard at work preparing breakfast.
“Good morning Bernice,” Dina greeted pleasantly.
“Good morning,” the older cook muttered as she worked.
“Any sign of the ladies of the house?” Dina asked, reaching to snag a piece of sausage and getting a spoon wrap on her knuckles for her trouble.
“Not yet. I imagine they’re sleeping in.”
Dina heard a peculiar tone in the usually stoic cook’s voice and she looked at the old woman and her eyes widened in surprise when she saw what looked suspiciously like a smirk.
“Okay, what’s so…” she paused as she thought about what Bernice had said and then the day before when Lily had given the entire staff the day off.
“Oh my God,” she rushed out. “Did they…? She made a vague but easily decipherable gesture.
“Would you have a problem if they did?” Bernice asked coldly, prepared to send the young maid packing if she dared disparage the happiness the two lonely women had found.
“Only that it took so bloody long,” Dina retorted and then laughed delightedly.
“Well I have no idea what went on here yesterday but I expect there to be no gossiping about it,” the cook warned.
“Of course not,” Dina assured her. “So what should I do? I need to start cleaning the rooms but I don’t want to…er…embarrass them.”
“Well perhaps you can go upstairs and make your usual racket to let them know you’re here. Just in case. I’ll make sure to distract the others as they come in.”
Dina nodded and left the kitchen and headed upstairs. She began to hum rather loudly as she walked down the hall.
Lily had been awake for some time. Ever since she felt the unfamiliar weight across her midsection. She’d opened her eyes, briefly frightened to see an arm draped across her but her fear vanished immediately when she saw the auburn hair splayed on the pillow next to her and heard the gentle snores. Part of her knew she should wake Bella so Bella could return to her room before the staff returned, but as she stared at the woman next to her, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was almost hypnotized by the sheer beauty of Bella at rest. Her features were relaxed and she somehow managed to look like both an innocent and temptress at the same time and Lily had desperately wanted to kiss her awake.
Before she could move however, she heard a familiar hum coming from the hall.
“Dina,” she muttered in shock. “Bella wake up,” she whispered, resting her hand on the slender arm draped across her
“But Mrs. Brown, I don’t want to make the bread,” Bella muttered, causing Lily to giggle.
“Wake up sweetheart, Dina is upstairs,” she said again, this time giving her shoulder a little shake.
Bella grunted in displeasure and opened her eyes, blinking rapidly to wake herself up. As her vision cleared she was greeted by the smiling face of her beloved Lily and memories from the previous night flashed through her mind and caused her to sigh happily.
“Do you always wake up so slowly?” Lily teased.
Bella flushed. “I don’t know. I’ve never had anyone notice before.”
“I suppose I’ll need further investigation,” Lily said a hint of shyness in her comment.
“I suppose so,” Bella agreed and for a moment they simply studied each other, both finding an unexpected joy in waking up together.
Just then they both heard a door slam and they both scrambled out of bed. “What do I do?” Bella asked nervously.
“Wait here,” Lily ordered and went to her door and cracked it a little. “I’ll go find Dina and distract her while you return to your room.”
“I doesn’t seem right that I have to sneak about,” Bella said sadly.
Lily went to her and took her hands. “I know love. And judging by Mrs. Brown’s approval, we shouldn’t have to much longer. We just need to give through the festival and then we can start our lives truly together.”
Knowing their time was limited, Lily lifted on her toes and placed a gentle kiss on Bella’s lips, wishing here were time for more.
“Now I’m going to go, keep watch out the door. Oh and when we get a chance, you’re going to have to explain your aversion to baking bread,” Lily laughed at the adorably confused expression on Bella’s face.
“Never mind,” she said and then pulling on her dressing gown, she stepped out of her room and sought out the unusually loud humming coming from down the hall.
She caught up with Dina as the young maid casually strolled down the hall. She only briefly considered that perhaps Dina was being too casual, but her anxiousness to divert her attention pushed that thought aside.
“Oh Dina, you’re here early,” she said, hoping her voice wasn’t reflecting her nervousness as she managed to shift their positions so Dina was facing away from her room.
“Yes, well we still need to clean the guest rooms and I want to help Mrs. Brown start the food preparations for Saturday.” Dina heard the shakiness in her mistress’s voice and the blush on her cheeks was telling and it was all Dina could do not to laugh in delight.
“Oh, yes of course. Well, would it be too much of a bother to have you bring some tea up to my room?” She glanced behind her maid relieved and somewhat amused to see a disheveled Bella scampering out of her room and into her own.
“Not at all Miss Lily,” Dina replied.
“Oh, actually I’ve changed my mind,” Lily said once she saw Bella was safe. “I can smell Mrs. Brown’s cooking from up here and I’m suddenly quite famished.”
“Alright,” Dina replied, fighting a grin. “Do you need help dressing?”
“Um no, I believe I’ll be dressing in my riding attire today. Perhaps you can check on Bella?”
“Certainly, though I’m sure that if she knows you’re riding she’ll want to join you.”
“I’m sure you’re right. At least inform her I’ll be downstairs.”
Dina nodded and went to do as instructed. She hadn’t been comfortable discussing it with her older employer but she had very definite intentions of telling the much less intimidating Bella just how happy she was and that she’d do everything in her power to make sure they would be comfortable sharing a room without interruption.
Bella and Lily had just finished breakfast when Dina entered the dining room, her eyes wide with alarm.
“Miss Lily, Miss Bella, the Misters Wainright just rode up and are in quite a state. Mr. Albert is attempting to calm them, but they demand to see you at once.”
Lily and Bella shared a glance and Dina noted the smirk on both of their faces and found it odd to say the least.
“Are they in the sitting room?” Lily asked, getting to her feet.
“Well we’ll see to them. Oh and Dina. You may hear a rather loud commotion. Please tell Robert and the other staff that regardless of what you here, all is well and not to disturb us.”
“Are you sure?” Dina said warily, “they’re quite upset.”
“Quite sure. Let’s just say we’re playing a little prank on Albert.”
“Oh,” Dina said relieved. She left to instruct the other staff to avoid the sitting room.
“Are you ready?”
“Of course. It should be interesting to see what kind of actors our former suitors turn out to be,” Bella replied.”
Lily chuckled and slid her arm through Bella’s. “I just hope our own acting is up to snuff. Imagining an enraged William just makes me want to laugh.”
They reached the doors of the sitting room and inhaled deeply both remembering that the old man, as dear as he was, had this coming for wagering on innocent women.
They opened the door.
“William, Frederick, we weren’t expecting you back until Friday,” Lily greeted pleasantly, trying not to laugh at the small patch of dark still showing in William’s hair.
“Obviously not,” William said angrily, though he noticed the familiar gleam in Lily’s eyes and briefly wondered what had her so amused.
“Maybe we should apologize for interrupting your plans,” Frederick sneered to Bella who was startled by the furious expression on his normally friendly face. Then he winked at her, causing her to relax.
“What plans?” She asked innocently. “Frederick dear, why are you so angry?” She asked, placing a hand on his arm.
“It seems they’ve discovered your marital plans,” Albert interjected.
“You told them?” Lily asked with despair.
“I had no choice my dear. They’re my nephews and had a right to know.”
“Frederick, I’m sorry, it was a mistake,” Bella pleaded, reaching out to grasp Frederick’s arm. Frederick pulled away in anger.
Lily lifted pleading eyes to Williams. “We were just…”
“No,” William growled and took Lily’s chin so that he could stare in her eyes “You have betrayed us.
“Uncle warned us of your capricious hearts but we defended you. Now we will have our revenge,” Frederick said dangerously, stepping toward Bella.
Lily knew it was a farce but she instinctively found herself racing to stop him.
Bella gasped. “Revenge? Wh….what do you mean?”
Albert had been a bit startled by the anger his nephews were displaying but when Frederick pulled a pistol on Bella he nearly fainted.
“Frederick!” He shouted and Lily stepped between them.
“What’s gotten into you?” Lily cried, as William joined his brother, his own pistol in his hand.
“We have been cuckolded,” William snarled “We have the right. He said and cocked his pistol.
“Put that gun down at once,” Albert roared, stepping up to his oldest nephew.
“No sir. You warned us and we didn’t believe you. Now they have to pay.”
“By God, this isn’t what I intended,” he said, fearing that his nephews would commit an unforgivable act and two innocent women were going to lose their lives.
“Isn’t it?” Frederick pushed, keeping his eyes trained on Bella.
“No, I swear. I just wanted Bella and Lily to acknowledge that they loved each other and not you so that you would all realize marriage was a bad idea.”
There was silence in the room before the two couples turned shocked eyes on the frantic older man.
“What?” The foursome cried in unison. If he hadn’t been so afraid for the safety of the two young women, Albert would have found their expressions comical.
“Everyone in the village knows you and Bella belong together and we’ve all just been waiting and I’ve been worried that my poor nephews would lose their chance at finding their own loves.”
By now the two couples had given up their façade as they stared at Albert.
“I don’t…I’m confused,” Bella said looking to Lily as she often did.
“I am too Bel.”
“I think we all are,” William added as he and Frederick pocketed their weapons.
“Wait, was this staged?” Albert asked, growing annoyed as his heartbeat finally returned to normal.
“Don’t even start with the outrage Uncle,” Frederick said. “You deserve it and I believe we, especially Lily and Bella deserve an explanation.”
Albert sighed and sat on the sofa. Lily and Bella sat together on the other while Frederick and William continued to stand.
“Very well. First, Lily and Bella, let me assure you that I have always held you in the highest regard. I’ve looked at the both of you almost as daughters.”
“Then why would you want to humiliate us so?” Bella asked sadly.
Curse those expressive eyes, Albert thought fondly.
“Dear Bella, I didn’t wish to humiliate you and I know I went about this the wrong way…”
“You think?” Frederick muttered.
Albert glared at his youngest nephew before continuing. “The fact is that as you girls grew older it was clear that while you both were fond of my nephews, there was something between the two of you that would never allow you to settle for marriage with them or anyone else.”
“Why did you never say anything?” Lily asked, terrified by what the older man was thinking.
“Because you weren’t ready to hear it,” he said. “Look girls, I know this situation is difficult for you to truly understand. Relationships between people of the same gender….well, people fear what they don’t understand. I however, understand all too well.”
All four of the younger people gaped at Albert as if he’d grown another head.
“What?” William finally managed to break the silence.
Albert sighed. “Might we have some tea before I bore you all with the sordid details?”
“Oh, yes. Yes of course,” Bella said quickly and practically ran out of the room. Everything was so confusing it was making her head spin.
She hurried to the kitchen and asked Mrs. Brown for a pot of tea.
“Is everything alright dear?” she asked.
Bella snorted. “I have no idea Mrs. Brown,” she replied vaguely and headed back to the sitting room.
“It will be along soon,” she said, taking her seat beside Lily. Almost instantly she felt Lily’s hand covering hers and everything seemed almost right again.
“See it’s that right there,” Albert said almost wistfully.
“What?” Lily asked, confusion warring with anger.
Albert just chuckled and shook his head. “For two of the smartest individuals I’ve ever met, you do have a blindness about certain things. I’ve never seen a married or even betrothed couple who care for each other the way you do. Your feelings are written on your face for all to see, every time you look at each other.”
Lily opened her mouth to protest but just then Dina entered pushing the tea cart. The tension in the room had her hair practically standing on end and she quickly served the group and left as quickly as she could manage without spilling tea all over herself.
“Albert,” Lily began once Dina had gone, “do you have any idea what you’re saying?”
“I do. And I want you to know that I do understand why it has been difficult for you. I had a very hard time recognizing and then accepting my own feelings.”
Bella and Lily’s jaws dropped open while William and Frederick choked on the tea they’d been sipping.
“Uncle?” William asked in shock.
“You…” Bella had no idea how to even finish that question.
“I enjoy the company of other men?” Albert finished for her, casually sipping his own tea.
“You never….we had no idea,” Frederick said, shocked beyond belief.
“Of course not nephew. As difficult is for women to admit to such feelings, it’s even more of a risk for men. Men like me have been beaten and murdered in the streets for even just the suspicion.”
“You could have told us,” Frederick said kindly.
“No my boy, I couldn’t take that chance. You see, years ago, long before you boys were born, I….met someone. I loved him dearly but I was terrified. I knew my parents would cast me out if not have me committed and I was afraid Edith would never want to see me again. So, I ended things with him and married the woman my parents wanted. She was a lovely woman and understood who I was and didn’t judge me for it. We had a lovely twenty years together even if it wasn’t what either of us wanted. To this day I still miss Elizabeth terribly, but I’ve never forgotten who I had to leave behind and I knew it hurt her that I couldn’t love her the way she needed. I don’t want that for you girls and I don’t want my nephews to suffer the unhappy fate of being second choice.”
“I would never have stopped talking to you Albert.”
Everyone looked to the door, shocked to see Edith standing there with tears in her eyes.
Albert sprung to his feet. “Edith,” he said nervously. Edith just smiled and walked to him and pulled her brother into her arms.
“You’re ridiculous,” she said, kissing his cheek. I’ve always known dear,” she said. “We’re twins. Of course I knew and on those rare occasions your mask slipped and I saw the despair in your face…it broke my heart.”
“Well by damn,” Albert laughed helplessly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so confused in my entire life,” Bella muttered to Frederick.
“Me either,” he laughed.
“You’ve been single as long as we’ve lived with you Uncle, which has been nearly thirty years.” William pointed out.
“Well, by the time my wife Lizzy had passed, my parents were also gone and I was able to live a little freer and found a few establishments that catered to gentlemen like me. I did meet someone and we became close. He actually told me about a small village near the coast that was unique. It was sort of a refuge for outcasts or those who were different and unfairly judged in London or anywhere else. He was right. The people thought nothing of us being together and they were welcoming and when Patrick left for France a year after we moved, they supported me.”
“Where is this….wait, Haven?” Lily asked incredulously.
Albert nodded. “Haven’t you ever noticed?”
“Noticed what?” Bella looked at Lily, relieved she looked just as lost as she felt.
“Haven’t you noticed that most of the people in Haven are…unique Old Mr. Miller who owns the restaurant who had lost his leg as a child? What about Henrietta Langley and Rose Smythe, the elderly ladies who own the tea shop in town? Have you not noticed that they occupy the very small room above the shop, and the remarkable closeness they share?” He paused at the matching blushes on Lily and Bella’s cheeks as they realized that the two dear and much beloved old ladies were like them.
“And then there are the gyspsies that operate the small farmer’s market outside of town and have become an integral part of our community. Those poor buggers had been threatened and run out of London without being given a chance to thrive. Then there’s Mr. and Mrs. Parks who run the bookshop you so often frequent, did you never realize that they’re dwarves?”
“Well they’re small,” Lily acknowledged, “so?”
Albert and his nephews couldn’t help but chuckle. “That’s what makes you ladies so remarkable. You’ve been to London and abroad, yet you don’t see the differences in others that so often has people tormenting them if not outright abusing them. And why do you think your parents settled here?”
Lily frowned. “I don’t know, I never asked. I just assumed it was because they enjoyed the countryside.”
“Lily, and I mean no disrespect as your mother was a very beautiful woman, but don’t you remember the scar on her face she got after falling from her horse as a child?”
“Of course I do, what does that have to do with anything?” Lily asked coldly.
“My dear child. I had some business dealings with your father before they moved here. He had loved your mother more than life itself and had from the moment they met regardless of her scar. Unfortunately the people of London, in our society were not kind regarding any sort of…please forgive the expression…disfigurement. The few times Anna left her home, there were whispers and laughs. Her father, myself and our friends attempted to spare her as much as we could, but it wasn’t enough. She was miserable and afraid to leave her home, so I told him about Haven and they moved here shortly thereafter. That’s when your father decided to open the winery and gave jobs to many who had been destitute and the rest, as they say is history.”
“Oh my God,” Lily sniffed. “I had no idea my poor mother had suffered so.”
Bella’s arm instantly went around her beloved. “That’s because when she was here, she didn’t suffer. She was happy,” Bella said softly. “And you made her happy. That’s what you should remember.”
Lily looked at Bella and not caring about anyone else in the room, she placed a hand on Bella’s cheek. “Thank you Bel,” she said softly. “And you make me happy.”
“Ah, it all makes sense now,” Edith said looking at the two young women. “I don’t know how I missed it.
Despite being nearly overwhelmed by anxiety and confusion, or maybe because of it, Bella began to laugh.
“Well apparently Edith, you, me and Lily are the only ones in the area who did.”
Edith shook her head in bemusement before looking at her brother and her nephews. “Well we shall talk about this later,” she told the girls, but right now I want to know why you three tore out of the house like it was on fire.”
Albert sighed and told Edith everything, from the ill-conceived wager to the point where Frederick and William seemed to turn violent.
“You pointed weapons at these poor girls?” Edith all but shouted.
“Our pistols aren’t loaded,” Frederick was quick to assure his Aunt, “and they were in on it. We merely wanted to teach Uncle a lesson about wagering. Though it seems all of us had the same secondary motive even though we didn’t know it.”
“You realize that Bella and I have every right to be furious. You have all toyed with us unmercifully, no matter the reason or the result.”
All three men had the decency to look ashamed.
“You’re right Lily. There really is no excuse, but we are very sorry,” William said sincerely.
“It’s a very good thing you are all so charming,” Lily replied only partially amused.
“I hear that a lot,” Frederick said thoughtfully.
“I’m sure you do,” Bella replied with a giggle.
“Are we forgiven then?” Albert asked hopefully.
Bella and Lily exchanged a glance before looking at the man who’d instigated their biggest turmoil and greatest happiness.
“We’re still upset with you,” Lily finally said, unable to be angry with the older man, especially after everything he’d just revealed, yet still angry he’d used them the way he did, “but we forgive you.”
Albert sighed in relief, thankful to know these two big hearted women. “Thank you. I…”
“Provided you help at the winery preparing bottles for the Festival Saturday.”
Albert gaped. “Blackmail,” he said, shocked.
“More like extortion, but well deserved don’t you think?” Lily asked innocently.
Albert finally laughed. “Oh good bloody luck with this one Bella,” he said warmly at the younger girl.
“I’m fairly certain I don’t need it,” Bella replied before turning her wide innocent eyes at the blonde who just sighed.
“That’s incredibly unfair,” Lily pouted, knowing that look would always have her melting into a big helpless puddle.
“I know,” Bella grinned. “Oh heaven’s look at the time,” she suddenly blurted, noticing the clock on the mantle. “I’m sorry everyone but I have to… I have an errand to run in town.”
“An errand?” Lily asked surprised. Bella hadn’t said anything at all about it yesterday, though to be fair they had been preoccupied. “What kind of errand?”
“Sorry nosy, but it’s a surprise.” Bella grinned.
Not caring who was watching, Bella dropped a kiss on Lily’s cheek. It was an act she’d done hundreds of times, but now it meant so much more.
“I’m going to get changed then,” she said and hurried from the room.
The room fell quiet for a few minutes and Lily found herself thinking that everything seemed a little less bright when Bella left a room.
“Well?” Edith finally prodded, looking pointedly at Lily.
“Well aren’t you going to go after her and try and find out where she’s going?”
“She said it was…” Lily paused as she considered her options. “Alright,” she said and then promptly followed Bella from the room.
“They are rather precious aren’t they?” Edith said happily.
Bella had just started to button her blouse when heard the knock and instinctively knew who it was. She wasn’t sure what possessed her but her lips lifted in a mischievous grin and turned toward the door, briefly hoping she wasn’t mistaken.
“Come in,” she called.
“Bel, I…” Lily froze as she saw Bella standing in her room wearing her usual riding breeches that in Lily’s mind seemed a lot more figure hugging than she remembered, her blouse still mostly unbuttoned and her corset cinched tight enough that it had lifted her full breasts to the point where the part of Lily’s mind that still functioned, worried she was about to see more of Bella than she was prepared to.
“Yes?” Bella said a little too casually. The heat in Lily’s gaze as she looked at her was like nothing she’d ever seen and her knees nearly buckled out from under her.
The low throaty sound of Bella’s voice brought Lily back to herself and she shook her head and quickly closed the door.
“Good lord Bella,” she said hoarsely, stepping closer. “I may have to insist you’re never to be without a shawl. For my own peace of mind,” she smiled even as her face heated.
“Is that so?” Bella asked, with a slow seductive lilt in her voice. She had no idea where this temptress side came from, but she really liked the reaction it was having on Lily.
Lily saw the amusement in Bella’s eyes and her eyebrow lifted, enjoying the fact that flirtation was coming so much easier to them now. However, she wasn’t about to let the younger woman have the upper hand.
She smirked and reached out to trail a finger from Bella’s throat down to the top her corset, grinning triumphantly at the small gasp. “Yeah, that’s so.”
Bella laughed shakily. “You win.”
Lily slid her arms around Bella’s neck. “I always do,” she said smoothly and then pulled Bella down into a deep kiss full of happiness, love and contentment.
“So you aren’t going to tell me where you’re going?” Lily panted when they broke apart.
“Nice try,” Bella smiled and stepped away from the distracting blonde, “but no. It’s a surprise for you. I just hope you like it.”
Lily saw the familiar self-conscious look on her Bella’s face and she quietly placed a hand against her cheek. “Whatever it is, I have no doubt I will love it,” she assured her.
“I hope so because I’m going to be going into town for a few hours over the next two days.” She paused as a thought occurred to her.
“Oh I forgot,” she blurted. “I’m supposed to be helping you get the wine prepared,” she finished miserably. “I’ll come help as soon as I’m finished, unless you…”
“No Bel,” Lily stopped her, “I’ll be fine I promise.”
“Alright,” Bella said, some of the enthusiasm having faded for her plans.
“Really. I’ll so busy trying to figure up what you’re up to, the time will fly until you come back.”
“I will meet you at the winery at noon. I promise.”
Lily smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “I know. Now go do what you need to do.”
She left Bella’s room and decided she might as well go put on her riding clothes. She called for Dina and asked her to tell her guests to help themselves to breakfast while they waited and then she would join them to discuss their own plans for the next few days.