Lily was standing on the balcony of her bedroom sipping a cup of coffee. She loved this time of morning, just after dawn with the sun creeping over the horizon and dew on the grass. She often stood in the same spot taking in the view and marveling that everything she could see and much she couldn’t was hers and Bella’s. It was bittersweet in that she’d trade everything she owned or ever would own just to have her parents back, but she was still in awe that they had trusted Bella and herself enough that they went against propriety and left the business and the estate to them instead of the nearest male relative. It never ceased to amaze her and she knew she would have never even contemplated staying if it hadn’t been for Bella. She had only been fourteen years old when the twelve year old Bella had come to live with them but Lily couldn’t even remember what life had been without her.
So lost in thought was Lily that she never heard the knock on her bedroom door or felt the curious eyes watching her.
Bella had slipped out of bed early in the hopes of convincing Lily to join her for a walk before they had to face all the challenges and guests that awaited them. She’d knocked on the bedroom door but after not hearing a response she searched the house only to be told by Mrs. Brown that Lily hadn’t come downstairs yet, so she made her way back to Lily’s room
She knocked again but once more got no response. She knew Lily well enough to know she wasn’t still asleep so she opened the door. She wasn’t at all surprised to see Lily standing out on the large balcony and had no doubt that a canon could go off right next to the blonde and Lily wouldn’t even hear it. She was briefly diverted by the way the light filtered through Lily’s nightgown, offering a mesmerizing hint of the figure beneath.
She quickly shook her head to clear it of its very inappropriate thoughts and a grin lifted her lips as she decided on how best to greet the distracted woman.
She crossed the room, unconcerned with being quiet as she knew that when Lily was thinking, very little would distract her.
She had to fight from laughing when she stepped up to Lily’s back, all but touching her and the woman didn’t so much as flinch in recognition of someone even in the same room. Her grin widened as she slowly lifted her hands and then poked Lily in her sides all the while saying “good morning!” in her ear.
Lily jumped and squeaked in surprise, her heart racing a mile a minute as she barely kept from dropping her coffee cup. She spun around almost bumping noses with a laughing Bella.
“Damnation Bel,” Lily said, unable to resist the other woman’s lighthearted laughter and joining in with her own even as she swatted Bella’s arm.
“I’m going to put a bell on you,” she added.
“You could try,” Bella grinned. “Come, let’s go walk in the gardens.”
Lily shook her head, smiling fondly at Bella, as always loving this playful side of her friend. “Alright. Just let me get changed.”
Bella nodded and practically skipped from the room leaving Lily smiling as she went to dress. She knew that she’d have to deal with the strangers, her guests, Albert and Edith as well as planning for the two major events and other business matters, but that could all wait. Nothing at all settled her mind and prepared her for a busy day like spending quiet mornings with the woman who’d just scared ten years off of her life.
“Well boys, how are you feeling?” Albert asked his nephew as they sat in the drawing room waiting for their hosts to return.
“Much better,” William said, “and that’s lucky for you. If you ever even suggest we take that serum again, I may throttle you myself.”
“And I’ll bury the body,” Frederick added.
“Fair enough,” Albert acknowledged. “Still it worked and here we are. And not only did the girls not recognize you, neither did Dina nor your Aunt. Now all that’s left is for you to win the affections of Lily and Bella. And remember, the deal is you have to actually try in order for this wager to be valid. It would be too easy for you to do nothing or to simply act in a manner designed to offend them.”
“We know Uncle,” Frederick sighed just as they heard the front door open and the light joyful laughter of the two women in question.
Frederick and William exchanged glances. They each knew why they were taking part in the ridiculous wager and their Uncle had nothing to do with it. They got to their feet as they heard footsteps leading to the drawing room.
Lily led the way into the room looking back and laughing at Bella who was apparently finishing up a comical tale.
The women froze when they saw Albert and the two strangers and their smiles faded.
“Albert,” Lily greeted.
“Good morning ladies. Now that they’re properly awake and on the way to recovery, may I formerly present Mr. Jonathan Wallace and Peter Fitzwilliam?”
“I’m very relieved to see you’re both feeling better,” Lily said warmly.
“Thank you,” Frederick said stepping forward and taking Lily’s hand and kissing her fingers before repeating the gesture with Bella.
“We are very grateful for your kindness,” William said repeating his brother’s actions. Remembering Lily’s flicker of jealousy from the night before and knowing there was really little time to waste in carrying out he and Frederick’s plan, he let his lips linger on Bella’s fingers a little longer than appropriate and smiled a little too warmly up at her. The shy giggle he got in return caused his smile to broaden as did the glare he saw on Lily’s face from the corner of his eye.
“We are also grateful for allowing us to stay the remainder of the week,” Frederick added.
“As your host was already planning on staying here, it’s simply a matter of efficiency.”
William snorted, but hid his grin behind his hand. How he loved his Lily’s wit. “Of course.”
“Albert tells us you’re from Canada?” Bella asked and Frederick’s stomach knotted. Albert had told him that Bella had already inquired about her parents and he should have expected she’d ask them directly. Still it was like a kick in the teeth having to disappoint her.
“Yes dear lady. We’re from Vancouver.”
“And you’ve never done any business in Ontario?” Bella asked. She knew the answer before he answered, but still she had to ask.
“I’m afraid not yet,” William replied, exchanging a guilty look with Frederick, “but we do have hopes of expanding one day.”
Fortunately at that moment Dina entered and announced breakfast was ready.
Frederick who was still feeling sick about having raised Bella’s hopes, plastered on a smile and offered his arm to Lily. “May I escort you?”
“Thank you,” Lily said, sliding her hand into the crook of his elbow. She frowned when she saw Bella smiling warmly at the man she knew as Peter and taking his arm.
Albert knew it was far too early to be smug, but things were progressing far better than he could hope for.
Once Edith had joined them and they’d received their breakfast, Bella took a moment to watch their guests. They really were quite handsome. Something about them made her think of Frederick and William and she wished they were there. Things didn’t seem so…unsettling when they were around. As it was, she watched as the blonde fellow….Jonathan, flirted outrageously with Lily and Lily laughed at his antics. It unsettled Bella for some reason so she turned her attention to the dark haired man, Peter.
“So tell us more about yourselves,” Bella said plastering a warm smile on her face as she tried to block out Lily’s laughter.
“Oh we don’t wish to bore you so early in the morning,” William replied lightly
“Two men your age who already own a successful import company? I’d say that’s anything but dull Mr. Fitzwilliam,” Bella said with the casual flirtatiousness she usually reserved for Frederick.
William had seen that look on Bella’s face before. She tried so hard to be a practiced flirt, but instead merely came across as adorable. Still he wasn’t blind. There was a peculiar tightness behind her smile and he had no doubt that her sudden interest in him was a direct result of Lily’s bantering with the man she believed to be Jonathan. This was going to be easier than they thought. Still he needed to answer her and both he and Frederick decided to stick as close to the truth as possible.
“Well, though we’d love to spin some fantastic tale about hard work and sacrifice, the fact is that we inherited the company from our fathers who were partners.”
“Oh,” Bella said rather deflated.
William had to force himself not to laugh. She really was something. “If it helps, we have managed to build the business up from a small local store that traded only as far as America to now include countries from across the ocean. Which is why we’re here.”
“That’s impressive indeed, though Frederick and William never mentioned they had buyers all the way in Canada. How did you hear about their store?”
Frederick stopped teasing Lily at that question and looked at William in surprise and then to Albert who looked far too entertained to be any help at all. When fabricating their backgrounds, they hadn’t imagined the girls would ask that and both knew they had to tread carefully so not to cause Bella distress over her absent parents.
“One of our regular customers came to our store and told us about their trip to London and a place called the Grove. They impressed us with descriptions of the numerous varieties of goods they found and it captured our interest so we began correspondence with your friends and then were invited over to see about potential acquisitions. And here we are,” Frederick said quickly.
“Well I’m very sorry that you’re first visit here ended with you becoming so dreadfully ill,” Lily said sincerely.
“That’s alright Ms. Tremaine,” Frederick smiled broadly. “Your gracious hospitality, tender care and stunning beauty have done great wonders for restoring our health and spirits.”
Lily rolled her eyes. “You’re far too generous,” she said drily. She was used to the over exaggerated flattery coming from both William and Frederick, but it was less charming coming from these two strangers. Especially when the big dark haired one was saying such things to the impressionable Bella who appeared to be enjoying it.
“Your friends also told us about you. They mentioned you have a fantastic winery,” William said looking at Bella, deciding it was time to turn on the charm a little. “Would it be forward to ask if you would mind giving us a tour?” He offered his best smile, wondering if she’d be able to see it beneath the cursed beard he’d been forced to grow.
Not knowing why, she felt almost compelled to focus her attention on this man, even though she didn’t feel particularly drawn to him, so she batted her eyes at him, sensing Lily glaring at her and inexplicably savoring it. “Not at all. I’d be happy to show you around, if you’re sure you feel up to it.”
“Yes,” Lily inserted, feeling distinctly disgruntled. “We can all take a ride after breakfast.”
“But what about the ball?” Edith finally spoke.
“We can work on that when we get back. Come on Edith, you know you want to join us,” Lily prodded.
Edith laughed. “No dear. I’m afraid it wouldn’t be fair to the poor horse to have to carry me around,” she said gesturing at her full figure.
“Nonsense,” Bella insisted. “You are far too hard on yourself Edith. You have a wonderful figure. Please come.”
“You’re very sweet,” Edith told the younger woman sincerely. “However, I think I’ll pass and maybe write down some of my ideas for the ball as well as the festival.”
“Alright, but we won’t be gone long,” Lily insisted. “Perhaps an hour.”
“Will you be joining us Albert?”
“You mentioned feeling a little tired didn’t you Mr. Wainright?” Frederick added pointedly before Albert could answer.
Albert wanted to deny it, he knew there was great potential for amusement and he wanted to make sure his nephews kept up their end of the wager, but Frederick had put him on the spot.
“Oh yes. I suppose I haven’t completely woken up yet.”
“Good. I can put you to work,” Edit smiled at her brother.
‘Delighted,” Albert muttered sarcastically, drawing a laugh from the others.
“Well then, if you gentlemen will excuse us, we should go get changed,” Lily said looking at Bella.
The gentlemen got to their feet as Lily and Bella excused themselves and then returned to their seats.
“Such good girls,” Edith commented as she returned to her breakfast. She eyed the two young men speculatively. “I’m sorry, but you boys look quite familiar. Are you sure you haven’t been here before?’
Frederick and William exchanged nervous glances before Frederick turned his most charming smile on his aunt. “Dear Mrs. Bernard, I’m certain we would remember having met such a fine lady.”
Edith laughed. “Save your silver tongue for the young ladies lad,” she smiled and then shot a look at Albert who was watching them with an oddly curious expression.
“So aside from poisoning, I hope my brother has been treating you properly.”
Albert glared at his sister who just smiled innocently.
“He’s been reasonably accommodating.” William acknowledged reluctantly, enjoying is Uncle’s irritated expression.
“Well I’m relieved you’re both feeling better though perhaps you shouldn’t over exert yourself this morning. We wouldn’t want a relapse.”
William smiled at his Aunt, feeling guilty for deceiving her but expecting the extremely bright woman to figure it out sooner than later.
“So, what do you think?” Bella asked as she stopped outside Lily’s room.
Lily turned and rested her back against her closed door and faced her friend. The inexplicable ache in her chest from earlier dissipating as she met Bella’s warm gaze.
“About?” She asked coyly, just to see Bella’s predictable impatience.
“Really Lily? You know about what,” Bella huffed and then giggled when she saw Lily’s resulting smile. “You’re impossible,” she complained, gently slapping Lily’s arm.
“Fine,” Lily grinned. “Well come in. You can help me change and we can talk about the handsome strangers and then I’ll help you.”
Bella swallowed hard. She and Lily had each substituted for Dina when they needed help with their gowns and the maid was busy elsewhere but in the last year it had become increasingly difficult for her. Something about seeing Lily unclothed unsettled her like nothing else and so often she found herself hypnotized by Lily’s wonderful figure and smooth skin and the guilt and shame nearly overwhelmed her.
“I…maybe I should call for Dina,” she prevaricated. “I still need to change as well.”
“Oh please,” Lily waved off. “Dina is helping Mrs. Brown in the kitchen and Maria has the morning off. It will only take a second and then I’ll help you,” she grinned. She went to pull her riding clothes out of the wardrobe.
When several seconds passed and she didn’t sense Bella behind her, she turned her head, surprised to see the brunette standing in the doorway looking a little panicked.
“When did you become so shy?” Lily teased, not aware of Bella’s mental torment.
Bella took a deep breath and told herself to stop being ridiculous. “Me shy? I don’t even know the meaning of the word,” she finally replied haughtily.
Lily laughed and turned back around relieved when she finally felt the laces on her dress begin to loosen. She stood patiently while Bella worked, blaming the rooms draftiness for the shivers wracking her body.
Bella stared at her fingers, wondering why they were having so much trouble with laces she’d undone numerous times. She seemed to have lost all control over them and no matter what she thought or wanted, all they wanted to do was stroke the soft skin of Lily’s shoulders above her shift and they proceeded to do so without her permission. The resulting shiver from Lily was noticeable and inexplicably Bella grew warmer and all she felt was want.
“Cold?” Bella inquired softly near Lily’s ear. She was surprised by the throaty sound of her own voice. There was something heavy permeating the air at that moment and she couldn’t move away if her life depended on it.
Lily gasped when she felt delicate fingers trace slowly across her skin. Bella had helped her change many times over the years and she’d helped Bella and she had never before felt anything like what she experiencing now. The tension in the air was palpable and it was confusing. It was terrifying. It was….exhilarating. She wanted it to go on forever yet she wanted something different. Something more. Then Bella spoke and it was all she could do not to whimper as she felt the warm breath brush against her ear.
“Not particularly,” she managed hoarsely.
Bella could hear Lily’s ragged breathing and it matched her own. Her own chest was tight with a need she couldn’t explain but that filled her any time she was near the blonde. She stepped closer, seeing Lily tremble and thrilling at it.
“Lily,” she whispered shakily, “I don’t understand what…”
The loud knock came suddenly and startled both women into jumping apart.
“Damnation,” Lily swore, clutching her chest in fright.
Despite the fire still burning inside of her, Bella couldn’t help but giggle. Lily was always so composed that it never failed to make her laugh when the older woman cursed, especially as she always chose the same word.
“Come in,” Lily called, her voice shaking both from the surprise of the sudden interruption but primarily from the very unexpected intimate moment she’d just shared with Bella.
“Mrs. Edith sent me up to help you get ready to go riding,” Dina said happily. “I can’t say as I blame her, those two strapping Canadian fellows are getting a bit anxious for your company.”
“Of course they are. We’re amazing women and incredibly diverting,” Bella quipped with a forced smile, grateful that she’d learned years ago to bury her emotions at will.
Lily shook her head and laughed at Bella’s quick wit. “Well I’m nearly finished here Dina. Bella?”
Bella was actually glad for Dina’s offer of assistance. She definitely needed a few minutes to gather her composure.
“Thank you Dina, I could use some help.”
Dina couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was a definite touch of strangeness in the room and she quickly looked between her two mistresses. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary but she had to admit over the last year or so, something had altered between them, though Dina wasn’t sure if it was good or bad because on the surface they appeared as close as they ever were.
“Alright then,” Dina finally said. “Well lets’ retire to your room and you can tell me about these two lovely gentlemen currently pining away for you downstairs.”
Bella and Dina left the room already deeply engrossed in giggling gossip, leaving a bemused Lily to finish dressing and wonder what the hell had just happened.
It had been an in interesting morning to say the least, Lily had to admit. It had taken some time to recover from the peculiar encounter with Bella but Peter and Jonathan had proven to be quite entertaining. Their penchant for ridiculously extravagant flattery and playfulness could rival that of Frederick and William, but unlike the Wainright brothers, they had no problem getting dirty once they stopped at the winery. They seemed try to have their hands on everything and it amused Lily to no end, each time the manager Michael slapped their hands before they broke something.
The only dark spot of the morning was after they’d stopped to walk around the pond. Jonathan, as had become his habit, had wound up by her side while Peter walked alongside Bella. They made small talk for some time, though to her dismay, Lily found her eyes constantly straying to Bella and Peter. Bella seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, laughing up at the tall man. Part of Lily was relieved that the peculiar sadness that had overtaken Bella at Frederick’s departure had vanished, but she felt an uncomfortable knot in her stomach just the same.
Lily started, realizing Jonathan was addressing her. “I’m sorry?”
Frederick smiled, fully aware of where Lily’s attention had wandered and deciding to poke the bear a little.
“I was merely asking about how Miss Long came to be living with you.” Lily stiffened and Frederick cursed himself. He’s supposed to be a stranger and couldn’t think of a more personal question to ask. Especially since he already knew the answer.
“I’m sorry, I overstepped my bounds.”
“You did sir,” Lily agreed coolly but then sighed. She wasn’t ashamed of her relationship with Bella or how she came to be there.
“Bella’s parents were close friends of my own. When she was twelve, they were given an opportunity to buy an exclusive grand hotel in Ontario Canada and they didn’t want to uproot Bella so my parents offered our home.”
Frederick knew very well Lily was understating it and it still infuriated him that her parents could just leave such a tenderhearted woman and then barely even contact her.
“That’s extremely generous,” he said sincerely. He’d always had nothing but admiration for Lily’s parents. It was because of them that she and Bella had become the independent and formidable women they were.
“Not generous at all,” Lily argued coldly, wanting to make sure this man knew better than to even think the word charity. “My parents were Bella’s godparents. They loved her as one of their own and having her in my life has been the best thing to ever happen to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Frederick held up his hands, finding it very hard to not just yell at Lily to wake up and shove her into Bella’s arms right then. “I truly meant no offense.”
“Yes I know and I apologize for my curtness,” Lily conceded with a sigh. “It’s just sometimes Bella feels that she’s a burden and it’s a struggle to convince her she was and still is wanted. Strangers will never understand and I won’t have anyone assuming she’s here simply out of charity.”
Frederick shook his head, once again at a loss at how Lily still had absolutely no clue as to her own feelings.
“I understand. I imagine it must be hard for her,” he said simply and then looked at his brother who was gesturing wildly and had Bella laughing and Lily scowling.
“I hate to be presumptuous…” he continued.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” Lily interrupted drily, causing him to laugh.
“How is it that two such beauties as you and Miss Long remain unattached?” He continued, unfazed by her sarcasm.
“You really are a bold one aren’t you?” Lily asked, wondering if it was the nature of all Canadians or just these two that the idea of boundaries didn’t exist and wondering why she didn’t slap him in his impudent bearded face and send them both packing.
“Why yes I am,” Frederick grinned happily.
Lily hated it but she couldn’t help but find this man somewhat charming. “Fine. I’m fairly certain that Albert…Mr. Wainright explained to you that we are all but engaged to the men you’re working with? Frederick and William?”
“Oh yes. And I have to say they’re quite the impressive businessmen and rather dapper,” he said with pleased little smirk that he hoped was hidden beneath his beard.
“Well don’t tell them that, their egos are just as impressive as their business acumen,” Lily laughed. Frederick almost huffed in offense, but then grinned. She wasn’t wrong.
“Fair enough,” he replied. “Still, the fact that they haven’t yet hurried you both to the alter makes me question if they really are that intelligent.”
Lily held up her hand. “Do not insult them sir. Frederick and William are two of the most intelligent and honorable men I know and they’ve turned the Grove into a fantastic success. If anyone has been dragging their feet regarding matrimony it’s myself.”
Frederick couldn’t help but preen a little at her ardent if misguided defense of he and his brother, even as he fought his instinct to push her to tell him why.
“Again, no insult was intended,” he quickly stated. “It’s just that I’ve never met two women with the strength and independence, not to mention beauty of you and your Bella. It’s refreshing and admirable. And, I find I’m rather envious of the ones who’ve captured your heart,” he said and it was the truth.
Lily merely nodded, refusing to admit to this stranger that her heart was still fully her own. At least as it pertained to William. “I think it’s time we return to help Edith,” she finally commented with a polite smile.
“Yes milady,” Frederick said ostentatiously, hoping to put her back at ease and relieved when she promptly mocked him before taking his arm.