“Are we really doing this?” William asked as he sipped his brandy.
“I don’t like it any better than you,” Frederick shrugged. “But you know Uncle as well as I do. He’ll never let up if we don’t.”
“I know, but there’s very little honor in it and it’s completely unfair to Lily and Bella who don’t deserve to be treated so shabbily.”
Frederick nodded in agreement but his thoughts were distracted. “I’m fairly sure we’re going to win anyway,” he said sadly.
“Why do you sound so distressed about winning?” William asked his brother. “I thought you cared for Bella?”
“I do. It’s just…” Frederick paused and looked around the dimly lit Gentleman’s Club, grateful it was still early enough to be mostly empty. “It’s a rather hollow victory isn’t it?”
“I mean it would be different if we showed Albert that Lily and Bella were faithful because they chose us, not because they simply didn’t want anyone else.”
“I don’t understand,” William said confused but suspecting where his brother was headed.
“Can you honestly tell me you believe Lily’s heart is firmly yours?” Frederick asked.
William sighed. “No, just as it’s clear Bella’s isn’t yours. Does that bother you?”
Frederick sipped his drink as he thought for a moment. “Surprisingly, not as much as it would if I didn’t know her heart already belonged elsewhere and always has.”
William sighed. “You saw it as well then?”
Frederick laughed. “Of course I did. I have eyes and a brain don’t I? Lily and Bella only have eyes for each other. We don’t stand a chance my brother and I’m sure we never did.”
“Keep it down,” William urged, looking around. “You know there are repercussions for those even rumored to be romantic with members of their own sex and Lily and Bella are known here.”
“And that’s just ridiculous now that I think of it,” he added. “Especially considering the lewd shows they put on at this very club, the ones that draw every old letch out of his townhouse.”
“You mean the ones we’re guilty of frequenting ourselves?” William grinned.
“Absolutely,” Frederick laughed.
“I admit I don’t understand those feelings between them,” William admitted reluctantly, “and if it were anyone but Lily and Bella I might react differently, but we’ve seen them practically every day for thirty years and whatever is between them just seems…natural somehow. It’s not like the displays they put on here, what I see with Bella and Lily is…gentle and loving, not lascivious or tawdry. They’re always touching in some fashion and never far apart from each other almost as if they can’t bear being separated. And, how many times have we escorted them somewhere and it’s like we weren’t even there?”
“I know,” Frederick sighed. “Bella looks at Lily as if she hangs the moon and Lily is far more protective of Bella than any sibling I’ve ever met. It’s as if she can’t bear to see Bella hurt in any way.”
“And the way they look at each other,” William said, not bothering to hide the touch of envy in his voice. “I mean, haven’t you ever just wanted to tell them to kiss already?”
“Hell yes,” Frederick laughed, blushing a little at the image that flashed across his mind.
William chuckled. “I don’t think either of us would be able to handle that without needing smelling salts,” he teased. “To be honest I’m surprised nobody in the village has noticed,” he added thoughtfully.
Frederick laughed “They’re lovely hardworking people Will, but frankly they wouldn’t know longing if it jumped out and bit them. And apparently that includes our two lovely ladies.”
William snorted. “They are rather oblivious aren’t they?”
“Have you ever known any two people in love who weren’t?” Frederick grinned.
The two men were silent for a moment and nursed their drinks.
“Does it bother you?” Frederick asked his brother. “That Lily isn’t in love with you?”
William shrugged. “I guess it should. I mean there’s always been a sort of unspoken expectation that we’d marry since we were barely out of the cradle and I never considered any other option, but to be honest it doesn’t really. What about you?”
“Same for me. I adore Bella of course. She’s wonderful and beautiful and kind and would make the best wife I could hope for, but I think if I was truly in love with her, I would have never recognized her feelings for Lily.”
William nodded in agreement. “So here we are. This little wager of Albert’s isn’t fair. We both know that the girls aren’t in love with us but there’s no way that they could ever admit their feelings for each other. Not without risking an enormous scandal or worse. And they are far too kind to want to hurt us either.”
“That is a conundrum,” Frederick agreed. “And quite frankly, it’s not really fair to us either. I mean, as much as I love Bella and despite the fact I’m not really ready to settle down into marriage right now, I would like to find someone, someday who looks at me the way she looks at Lily.”
“As do I.” William sighed. The men halted their discussion while the server refreshed their drinks.
“So what do we do?” Frederick asked when they were once more alone.
“Well as I see it, our first goal needs to get Lily and Bella to admit their feelings to each other if nobody else. They will never truly be happy until they do and we both can agree that for all that they do for everyone else and all that they’ve been through, they deserve happiness.”
“They do. But we also need to figure out how to accomplish that without casting them into ruin.”
“Well we can figure that out later. In the mean time we still have this ridiculous wager to carry out.”
“Speaking of which,” Frederick nodded toward the entrance to the club where their Uncle had just walked in.
The two men got to their feet as their Uncle approached. After an exchange of pleasantries, the three men returned to their seats and the server returned.
“Just bring the bottle young man. I apparently have some catching up to do.” The server nodded and left.
“How did you find things at the Grove?” Albert asked politely.
“Very well,” William said. “We have two new suppliers for the housewares department and we are close to finalizing plans to open a department that will feature wines from across the continent including our own Tremaine Winery if we can work out arrangements with Lily and Bella. And perhaps add tables for tasting and a smoking room with cigars for sale.”
“Very impressive,” Albert commended sincerely. “If nothing else, it will be a nice escape for gentlemen forced to wait for their wives or mistresses to finish spending all their money.”
Albert paused when the young server returned with a glass and a bottle of the house bourbon. He looked at the young men with an almost fatherly pride. “Your parents would be proud of you. You’ve expanded the department store into something they’d never imagine and have made quite a name for yourselves as fair employers and very competent men of business.”
“Why Uncle, you’re going to convince us you actually do have a heart if you continue with such flattery,” Frederick grinned, though he was touched the compliment.
“Well we can’t have that,” Albert replied with a faux haughtiness. “So let’s discuss the wager then shall we?”
“I still don’t feel comfortable with this,” William stated.
Albert waved a dismissive hand. “As I said, this isn’t to hurt your ladies, only to prove a point. If you’re correct, things will return to normal without them being any the wiser and you’ll be a hundred pounds richer.”
“And what if you’re correct and the girls decide they wish to be with these replacements of yours?”
Albert frowned as if he hadn’t considered that. “Well, after I collect my winnings, we’ll just convince them that these chaps are scoundrels and to send them packing, leaving you kindhearted gentlemen to pick up the pieces.”
“Hm,” William muttered doubtfully.
“So who are these two fellows supposed to be?” Frederick asked. “Bella and Lily are far too smart and have known us far too long to fall for simple false moustaches.”
“Ah, well, as it so happens, I happen to have particular friends who work for the theatre. Some of who have become quite adept at stage make up and disguises and I have another associate who has been experimenting with altering hair color.”
“What, like the ladies do?” William scoffed. “I’m not going to dye my hair like some brothel Madame.”
“It’s only temporary,” Albert assured him, over Frederick’s fit of laughter. “I propose we stay in London for two weeks. That’s enough time for your hair and moustaches and perhaps beards to grow out and then we shall make William darker and Freddie, you can go light. We can add a dashing scar or birthmark here and there and the girls will never recognize you.”
William shrugged. He knew his Uncle was probably correct but not for the reason he assumed. “As long as the color will grow out.” He shuddered as he pictured himself with dark hair. Especially as his eyebrows were as fair as his hair.
“But how do you propose to introduce us?” Frederick asked, sensing this whole thing was going to get out of hand before it even started.
“Simple, my dear boy. When we make our return in two weeks, my two traveling companions will take sick near the Tremaine estate. I’ll explain that they are importers from Canada and you invited them to stay with us until after the ball so they could meet Lily and Bella and get a taste of country life. However on the way to my manor, you both were overcome by a bout of food poisoning or some such and simply couldn’t travel any further. Of course being the good hearted women they are, Miss Lily and Miss Bella would be obliged to give you rooms until a doctor cleared you to travel.”
“You didn’t say we’d be imposing on them,” William protested. “And they can’t have two unmarried men staying in their home. The scandal would ruin them.”
“They are well enough respected that I don’t think it would be that dire,” Albert argued, “but I agree it would be unseemly. That’s why we would have my sister, your Aunt Edith, arrive to chaperone.”
Frederick sat back in his seat and laughed. “And how exactly are we supposed to feign a sickness bad enough that would require us to be bedridden for days?”
“Ah. That’s the easiest part. A small dose of syrup of Ipecac can provide the symptoms needed to be convincing.”
Both William and Frederick gaped at the older man. “Have you gone mad? That syrup is positively dreadful and the effects from what I’ve heard are most unpleasant, not to mention painful.”
“True, but it’s only temporary and we will give you but a small dose.”
“Do you realize how ridiculous this sounds?” Frederick protested. “This is a hell of a lot of trouble, primarily on our part, for you to attempt to prove a point that’s preposterous at best?”
“Well humor an old man,” Albert grinned.
Frederick was about to tell him to cancel the whole thing when the kernel of an idea began to form. He looked at William with a small smirk that had his brother eyeing him curiously and then suspecting Frederick was forming a plan to get them out of this mess and he nodded his agreement.
“Very well Uncle. Make your plans and as business allows, we’ll make ourselves available for your theatre companions.”
“Does Aunt Edith know what you’re up too?” Frederick grumbled.
Albert grinned fondly at the thought of his twin sister. “Not a bit,” he admitted proudly but then his smile faded. “And for God’s sake don’t tell her. She’ll murder me.”
“Miss Bella, Miss Lily, come quick!”
Lily and Bella spun around at the frantic cry, startled to see Dina rushing into the garden.
“Dina good heavens, what’s happened?” Bella hurried toward the young maid.
“It’s Mr. Wainwright,” Dina panted breathlessly. “He and his companions were on their way to his home and…”
“Wainwright?” Lily exclaimed. “Is it William? Frederick? What happened?”
“It’s Mr. Albert, Miss. He’s fine but he’s in the drawing room and needs to see you urgently.”
Lily and Bella exchanged brief worried glances before hurrying after Dina and back into the house.
“Dina, please fetch some tea?”
“Right away,” Dina agreed before scurrying to the kitchen.
The two women entered the drawing room to see the older man pacing frantically and looking far more disheveled than he’d ever appeared.
“Albert, what happened?” Lily asked, rushing to his side. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. Unfortunately my companions aren’t so fortunate.”
“We? Are Will and Freddie with you?” Bella pushed fearfully.
“No. They stayed in town for a little while longer, but I was traveling with two young businessmen that the boys invited down for the ball and…”
“Where are they?” Bella interrupted.
“They’re still out in the coach. We were just outside of your estate when they both suddenly took horribly ill. They both ate fish at the stage house in Windover and I suspect it was that which has them in such wretched condition.”
“That’s terrible,” Bella sympathized drawing a warm, grateful smile from Albert who felt a flicker of guilt for the farce he was perpetuating on these two women, but what he was doing had to be done for their own sake as well as his nephews.
“Indeed. And I am very sorry for imposing upon you, but we are still quite a distance from my home and I fear that they need to see a doctor as soon as possible and…”
“You want them to rest here,” Lily finished.
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but they’re quite ill and I really am concerned what should happen if we continue the journey and delay their treatment.”
“Of course you can bring them in,” Bella insisted, looking to Lily who nodded in agreement, though there was a concerned look on her face. “Please ask Robert to help you.”
“Thank you, and with your permission I’ll ride on ahead to the village and fetch the doctor.” With a bow, Albert left them and Bella stepped closer to Lily.
“Lily? Did I overstep my place in agreeing to assistance?” she asked worriedly.
Lily snapped out of her thoughts at that and instantly took Bella’s hand. “No of course not,” she smiled. “And you’re right of course, they should be brought here. Still two strange gentlemen in our home…won’t people talk?”
Bella thought for a moment. “Well, people always talk Lily, you know that, but they’re injured. We can’t just turn them away.”
“I know,” Lily said quickly. “And we won’t, but…”
Bella chuckled, “But you can’t help it. You always worry so much about what others think,” she said warmly. “Lily, first of all we both are fully capable of defending ourselves should the situation arise. Plus I think that we have enough respect from the people here that nobody would gossip and they all know we’re as good as engaged to Freddie and Will. Besides, these two poor men are apparently gravely ill. I doubt they’d be able to make advances, even if they wanted to.” Instantly an image crossed her mind of the strangers, weak from illness, stumbling over themselves to woo her and it made Bella giggle.
“What?” Lily smiled fondly.
“I was just picturing what two men, weak as kittens would look like attempting a seduction,” Bella replied lightly, basking in Lily’s light and airy laugh.
“Besides,” she continued, “it has been rather dull around her lately since Freddie and Will went to town.”
“Goodness Bella, that makes me feel so loved,” Lily said with mock offense which apparently missed its mark as Bella instantly sobered.
“Oh Lily, you know I didn’t mean it that way,” she said quickly.
Lily laughed and pulled Bella into a hug. “I know dear. I was teasing you. Still, don’t we have enough excitement with trying to plan a ball and a village festival?”
“Exactly,” Bella grinned. “And now, provided they aren’t seriously ill, we’ll have two more sets of hands to help us.”
Lily shook her head with amusement. “Always practical you are,” she teased. “Come, let’s go inform Mrs. Brown to make sure we have two bedrooms prepared.”
Lily and Bella stood in the hallway anxiously as the doctor tended to their unexpected guests.
“Oh those poor men looked dreadful,” Lily said quietly.
“I know, but handsome are they not?” Bella whispered.
Lily rolled her eyes. “Bella, they’re all bearded and green.” Bella simply shrugged.
“Well?” Lily asked once the doctor stepped out of the blonde strangers’ room.
“I really can’t say what’s wrong with them. I tend to agree with Mr. Wainwright in assuming that something they ate didn’t agree with them.”
“They’ll be alright?”
“Certainly, though I’d like for them to stay in bed today and at least part of tomorrow just to ensure that it really is merely food poisoning.”
Lily and Bella exchanged a worried glance. Having strange men in their home for two days was extremely awkward not to mention it was only five days before the ball.
“Two days?” Lily repeated with no small amount of trepidation.
“I know it’s a lot to ask,” Albert agreed stepping out of the room behind the doctor, “but they’re terribly ill.” Loud groans came almost as if in response from both room causing Bella and Lily to wince in sympathy.
“But Albert, what will people say?” Lily asked, feeling guilty for worrying over reputation when two strangers were so ill, but unable to help herself.
“They will say you are angels of mercy helping strangers in need,” he replied. “Everyone in town knows you are above reproach and would never dare question your honor.”
“Angels of mercy?” Bella whispered drily in Lily’s ear.
Lily had to bite her lip to keep from laughing. “Maybe,” she agreed doubtfully. “Still I can’t in good conscious turn these poor men away either. So, they can stay.”
“Thank you ladies,” Albert said with a gratefulness that Lily felt didn’t necessarily fit the circumstances given he barely knew these two men. Something seemed off, but she couldn’t put her finger on it and it didn’t change the fact that these men were ill.
“You’re welcome. And considering these are your charges, and as you were going to be staying her for the ball and festival anyway, why don’t you and your sister return this evening and stay here as well,” she said in a tone that wasn’t completely a suggestion, not about to let him just push his responsibility on to them.
“Of course,” Albert assured them. “Thank you again ladies,” he said grandly, hand over his heart. “Your reputation as ladies of such noble…”
“Oh please stop,” Bella held up her hand, but had a smile on her face. “You already got what you wanted, I wouldn’t test Lily’s patience further.”
Lily laughed. “I think you mean yours Bel,” she said.
“Well then, as the young men seem to be asleep, I’ll head back to the manor and tell Edith that we’ll be staying here from tonight through the Festival and we should return within a few hours.”
Albert left, feeling a hint of foreboding and not understanding why. Things were going to plan and the girls didn’t even show a flicker of recognition, nor did Dina so he really had nothing to worry about except how to spend his winnings so he pushed his doubts aside.