“Dear God, if I survive this, I’m bloody going to kill our Uncle,” Frederick groaned as he entered his brother’s room and flopped in chair near the bed.
“I’ll help,” William returned weakly. “The plus side is we don’t have to drink any more of that tonic and hopefully this will work its way out in the next few hours.”
“And I don’t know about you but I don’t have anything left to throw up,” Frederick added.
“This whole thing is going to blow up in our faces,” William stated, shifting in bed and wincing at the resulting cramp
“I know, but it’s too late now. Even if we told the truth now, the girls will still be furious.”
“Maybe but not as furious as they will be.”
“I know, but the stupid wager aside, our original plan hasn’t changed,” William argued. “We are doing this to make them happy. Even if they wind up hating us for it.”
Frederick started to reply but the door opened and Lily entered followed by Bella and Dina pushing a tray.
“There you are,” Lily said coolly. “Look, Mr.…”
“Jonathan,” Frederick corrected quickly, getting gingerly to his feet and just barely remembering to use his admittedly pitiful Canadian accent.
“Mr. Jonathan,” Lily continued. “We don’t…”
“Not Mr. Jonathan,” he laughed, “Just Jonathan. Jonathan Wallace,” he said with as much fawning as his still nauseated self could muster. He bowed gallantly, instantly regretting the motion as his still sensitive stomach protested.
“Mr. Wallace,” Lily interrupted pointedly, “I understand you’re ill, and I don’t mean to be rude but ultimately you’re a stranger here and until your host returns with his sister, I’d appreciate if you didn’t simply wander about the house freely.”
Frederick wanted to laugh. Lily was the sweetest person in the world next to Bella, but she could be fiery when she wanted not to mention quite protective, he noted as Lily moved to stand between Bella and himself.
“My apologies dear lady,” he said. “I merely wanted to check in on my friend.”
“Alright,” Lily said, feeling a bit guilty for being so harsh. These poor men were ill and it was natural they’d want to be assured of the others well-being.
“Thank you by the way for taking us in,” William said as he slid off his bed and onto his feet. “I am Peter Fitzwilliam. You are I presume Miss Lily Tremaine and Miss Bella Long?”
“We are,” Bella said cautiously.
“Mr. Wainright informed us this was your estate when he stopped for assistance. He failed to mention how lovely you both were.”
Lilly rolled her eyes and Bella smiled warmly and stepped past Lily to approach the taller stranger. “You flatter quite well for a sick person Mr. Fitzwilliam.”
“I speak only the truth,” William replied grandly, or as grandly as he could through the remaining discomfort of the serum they’d taken.
Lily wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t care for the way Bella was looking at the dark haired stranger. She put it down to Bella’s far too trusting nature and fear it would lead her into trouble.
“Yes, well both of you should still be in bed,” she reiterated firmly. “Dina has made you some tea which she will take to your room,” she said pointedly to the blonde man.
Frederick’s lips twitched. “Of course Miss Tremaine and thank you Miss…Dina?” he approached the maid he knew well and lifted her hand for a kiss and trying not to laugh at her flirtatious giggle. Apparently she didn’t recognize them either.
“Yes, well come along then,” Dina prodded
Frederick bowed to Lily and Bella and followed the young maid back to his room.
“You need to return to bed as well,” Bella ordered Mr. Fitzwilliam, unable to keep from noticing the scar that went across his cheek and disappeared into the thin beard along his jaw. It made him look mysterious and rather dashing.
“Bella, you should leave Mr. Fitzwilliam to rest,” Lily stated shortly and Bella was startled by the almost angry tone of her voice. She turned and looked at her dearest friend, confused by the dark look on her face.
“Oh, of course,” Bella smiled shakily at the tall man. “My apologies,” she stammered and then left the room, wondering what she’d done.
William had initially been amused by the flash of jealousy in Lily’s eyes when she saw Bella studying him, but the amusement faded at Lily’s sharp tone and the confused hurt that crossed Bella’s face. He just barely kept from chiding the blonde for that, realizing Lily most likely didn’t understand her own reaction herself, judging by the alarmed look on her face as she watched Bella leave.
Before he could say anything, however, Dina returned with the tea cart and he slipped back into bed. With a cool nod, Lily left, no doubt to find Bella.
Lily hurried down the long hallway, knowing instinctively Bella retreated to her room. She didn’t understand what had her speaking so harshly to the one person who didn’t deserve it but she needed to make it right.
She reached Bella’s room and knocked tentatively on the door.
Lily wasn’t fooled by the indifferent tone of Bella’s voice but she entered Bella’s large suite and looked around until she saw the brunette sitting on a small sofa with a book. Lily couldn’t help but smile a little when it was made obvious that Bella was only pretending to read.
She approached the sofa and sat beside Bella, guilt rushing through her at the way the other woman stiffened. Both women remained silent for several seconds and knowing she’d have to be the one to speak first, Lily gently took the book from Bella’s hand.
“It’s easier to read if it’s right side up,” she teased softly, chuckling at the blush that inevitably crossed Bella’s face.
“I’m sorry Bella,” Lily continued seriously, taking Bella’s hand in hers and relieved when she didn’t pull away. “I didn’t mean to be so curt.”
“Why were you?” Bella asked, her eyes stinging. In the fifteen years she’d lived with Lily, the older woman had never talked to her like a child before and it hurt.
Lily hated that Bella wouldn’t look at her and she cursed her temper again. She shifted and lowered her head until she could force Bella to look at her. The tears in the usually bright eyes brought a lump to her own throat.
“I don’t know,” she said honestly, “I guess just having these men in the house has put me on edge.”
“Well I’m not thrilled about it either,” Bella returned defensively.
“Really? It didn’t seem that way when you were talking to Mr. Fitzwilliam,” Lily snapped and then groaned in remorse.
“I resent that,” Bella said sharply, trying to pull her hand back but Lily held tight.
“God, Bella I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said earnestly, meeting the anger in Bella’s eyes with a pleading look in her own.
Bella sighed, as always unable to resist Lily’s expressive eyes “It’s alright,” she relented. “I know you’re under a lot of pressure with everything and having two ill strangers in your home…”
“Our home,” Lily interrupted wondering if the young woman would ever accept that everything that was Lily’s was hers as well. “And that doesn’t excuse my behavior. You know how much you mean to me and I’d never hurt you for all the world. Please tell me you know that.”
“I know you’d never mean to,” Bella acknowledged.
Something about that statement ate at Lily and she placed a hand on Lily’s soft cheek. “You’re my family Bella. No, you’re so much more to me than that. I’ll never hurt you,” she insisted.
All Bella wanted in that moment was to nuzzle her cheek further into Lily’s warm palm. How something so strong could be so soft and comforting she would never know. “I understand Lily, I do and I’m not mad. How could I ever stay mad at you?”
Feeling more relieved than she probably should, Lily smiled and pulled Bella into her arms. “Thank you Bel,” she whispered and kissed her cheek.
“Now, let’s go downstairs, have some wine and wait for Albert and Edith to arrive.”
Bella let Lily pull her to her feet and followed quietly behind the older woman, letting herself enjoy the feeling of her hand resting in Lily’s. One day she really needed to sit down and contemplate how one palm touching another could instill so many conflicting and unsettling feelings.
“I must again apologize for the imposition,” Albert said sipping his wine.”
“Nonsense,” Lily shrugged. “Fortunately your companions aren’t seriously ill but we are just glad we were nearby to help. We are, however, grateful to you Edith for your willingness to come a few days early.”
Edith smiled kindly. “Of course. Albert said you were concerned about propriety and while nobody could question your honor, we can’t say the same for these strangers.”
“Edith,” Albert protested. “These are businessmen known quite well to Frederick and William. They can be trusted.”
“Well it never hurts to be cautious,” Edith replied.
“So who exactly are they?” Lily asked.
“They own their own import and export business in Canada and have come to meet with Frederick and William about working out a contract with the department store.” Albert briefly applauded his own acting abilities. Maybe he should take a turn on the stage, he thought with amusement.
“They’re from Canada?” Bella asked.
Lily heard the almost excited tone in Bella’s voice and after a brief moment of confusion her heart broke when she realized where Bella was going
“Yes,” Albert replied curiously. “Why?”
“Bella,” Lily said, hoping to divert the poor woman before the question was out.
“I just…do you think they know my parents?” Bella asked hopefully.
Albert cursed his own shortsightedness when he looked into Bella’s innocently hopeful face. Despite the nature of the wager he made with his nephews, he truly had no desire to hurt these women and when he developed the background for Frederick and William’s characters, he had neglected to remember Bella’s ties to Canada and her ongoing quest for information about the parents who had left her behind so long ago.
“I…” he coughed awkwardly, feeling a bit ashamed of himself, unfortunately he knew it had already gone too far. “I’m sorry Bella, but they come from Vancouver and the last we heard, your parents had gone to Ontario.”
“Oh. Well it doesn’t hurt to ask right?” Bella smiled, but Lily saw the trembling lips and took her hand offering what comfort she could.
“Robert has already seen to your bags so why don’t we show you to your rooms and then Albert you can go see them. I’m sure they’d like the company and then you can let us know how they’re doing?” Lily suggested, wanting to change the subject.
“Edith, you’re welcome to make yourself at home. Dina or Maria can see to dessert or drinks in the library if you’d like to read?”
“Thank you dear, but I think I may just retire for the evening. However I insist on working with you in the morning to help the plans with the ball and the festival.”
Lily smiled at the older woman who had become almost like an aunt to her and Bella. “Of course. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Lily, Edith and Albert started toward the stairs but Lily paused when she saw Bella wasn’t following.
“Aren’t you coming?”
Bella smiled. “I don’t think so. It’s a lovely evening so I think I may just take a walk in the garden for a while.”
“Why don’t I join you when I…”
“I…don’t be mad, but I think I’d like to go alone. Is that alright?”
Lily sighed, wanting to push but knowing she shouldn’t. “Of course it is Bel.” She walked to the taller woman and embraced her. “Goodnight dear,” she said softly.