“I think that’s the last of it,” Edith said tiredly,
“I agree,” Lily stated looking at her notes. “The menu is set, the guest rooms assigned and we received confirmation from the orchestra.”
“And I just spoke to the servants about who’d be willing to work the ball and who’d be willing to work the festival,” Bella added entering the study and sitting on the arm of Lily’s chair.
“How did that go?” Lily asked looking up at the younger woman.
“Very well actually. They were all quite happy with the double salary offered for each event and we have a pretty even split of staff willing to work one or the other. Dina of course volunteered to work both.”
“Well that’s not going to happen,” Lily said firmly. “She works hard enough as it is.”
“Well good luck making her listen,” Bella said with a snort. “She’s as stubborn as you are,” she grinned innocently at the glare she received from the blonde.
“You’re hilarious,” Lily grumbled and then shoved at Bella’s leg playfully.
“And speaking of the festival, is there anything I can do to help with that?” Edith asked.
“Thank you Edith but I don’t believe so. At least not right now,” Lily answered thoughtfully. “Though I’m rethinking the idea of having it so soon after the ball.”
“I hate to tell you Lil, but it’s a bit too late to change the date,” Bella teased.
“Yes thank you Bella,” Lily chuckled. “I suppose there is a great benefit in that we get it all out of the way at one time and then we can have our home back.”
“You’re a very practical young woman,” Edith laughed.
“Hello ladies, do you mind if we interrupt?” Albert interrupted as he entered the study followed by Peter and Jonathan.
“Would it matter if we did?” Bella muttered to Lily, who chuckled behind her hand.
“Not at all brother,” Edith said only partially sincere.
“Excellent,” Albert clapped his hands delightedly. “The lads and I were saying how dull the day has been without your presence.”
“Oh that’s a shame,” Bella quipped drily, drawing another snort from Lily and an annoyed huff from the older Mr. Wainright.
As entertaining as it was watching Bella aggravate his Uncle, William thought it prudent to intervene. “Mr. Wainright tells us you have the musical voice of an angel,” he commented, knowing firsthand it was true. “We were hoping we could prevail upon you to sing for us?”
“I don’t know about that,” Bella said with a blush.
Frederick looked at the girl he had known for years and stepped beside his brother. He knew all too well Bella’s shyness when it came to admitting her own talents. “Oh I’m sure Mr. Wainright wouldn’t exaggerate,” he prodded. “At least about that. Won’t sing for us?”
Bella knew her cheeks must be bright red and she shifted uncomfortably, “I…”
Lily took Bella’s hands. “You have a beautiful voice,” she told Bella quietly. “I know I’d love to hear you.”
Bella sighed, never able to resist Lily. “Very well.”
Frederick bit his lip to keep from laughing at how easily Bella capitulated to Lily. “Wonderful,” he exclaimed.
“And I would be happy to accompany you on the piano,” Edith offered.
Lily got to her feet. “Well come dear, your audience awaits,” she teased, linking her arm around through Bella’s.
“Oh fantastic,” Bella muttered. She loved singing more than almost anything, but was never comfortable singing for anyone other than Lily or on occasion William and Frederick.
Lily stopped Bella, sensing the woman’s anxiety. “Bel, you don’t have to if you really don’t want to,” she assured her.
Bella smiled. “That’s alright. I don’t mind,” she said and looking into Lily’s blue eyes, she truly meant it. She didn’t think there was anything Lily could ask of her that she wouldn’t do happily.
“Shall we then?” William said holding his arm out to Bella who took it with a nervous giggle.
“May I?” Frederick crooned flirtatiously, holding his arm out for Lily,
Lily just rolled her eyes and laughed but took the proffered arm and followed the others to the music room, with Albert escorting Edith while smiling smugly.
Bella had finished singing one piece and was discussing another with Edith.
“She really is incredible,” Frederick whispered sincerely, just barely remembering to use his pitiful accent. One of the things that had first drawn him to Bella, after her charismatic personality and beautiful smile, was her amazing voice. He’d often sat for hours and listened to her to sing while Lily was doing paperwork.
“She is isn’t she?” Lily said, unaware of the wistful sound of her voice. Frederick however, wasn’t.
“You care a lot for her don’t you?” He dared to ask and hoping he wasn’t about to ruin everything.
“Of course I do,” Lily said as if that was the most ridiculous question she’d ever heard. “She is….” Suddenly words deserted her. The word family didn’t seem adequate for what Bella was to her and the word sister seemed incredibly wrong somehow. “I love her,” she said simply.
Finally, Frederick thought, even if in her mind, she hadn’t connected that love to romantic love. “I think it’s wonderful that you have each other and that you’ve maintained your closeness for so long. Unfortunately, many people aren’t so lucky.”
Lily looked at the man beside her curiously. “Are you referring to yourself Mr. Wallace?” she asked curiously.
Frederick shrugged. “Perhaps a little,” he said truthfully.
Lily thought it was rather sad. Though she’d never particularly thought beards were appealing, he did cut a dashing figure, even with the scar down the part of his face she could see. They were also both very kind hearted and charming and she wondered why neither gentlemen had yet found someone to marry. She considered asking him but Edith began playing the opening notes of a new piece and instantly she forgot her companion and anything else as she lost herself in Bella’s talent and the music of Mozart.
She became entranced as Bella began to sing, her entire demeanor changing as if she had become the playful if flighty Dorabella from one of Mozart’s most daring operas. To her surprise Bella began to move about the room as she sung the seductive words that proclaimed love a thief that gave one peace, yet stole their soul. Lily’s heart warmed and she smiled as she watched her Bella lose herself in her music. Her smile wavered however, when Bella sauntered over to Mr. Fitzwilliam, casting one of her flirtatious smiles at him as she sung about how love the serpent would bring sweetness and pleasure if only one let him, and Mr. Fitzwilliam was obviously enchanted. Lily scowled darkly as his eyes wandered down to Bella’s impressive décolletage but it was replaced by amusement when Bella frowned, poked him in the chest and began to sing her warning about what would happen if love was denied and Lily almost laughed outright at the wary expression that crossed his bearded face.
As Bella continued to sing, she moved past William and then to Frederick who leered up at her. Lily lost track of the wandering singer. Suddenly she felt delicate fingers on her shoulders sliding teasingly downward until Lily nearly swooned from the sensation but then Bella wrapped her arms around her neck as she sang and Lily could do nothing but smile up at her.
For a brief moment, Lily forgot anyone else was in the room as Bella pulled her close and continued to sing Mozart’s seduction, the words urging her to let love steal her soul. Only when she heard clapping and felt the coolness replace the warmth of Bella at her back did she remember where she was.
“Beautiful as always Bel,” she managed to smile sweetly, getting to her feet and taking Bella’s hands.
Bella blushed. She had actually surprised herself. Usually when she sang, she never strayed from beside the piano, but to her shame, watching Mr. Wallace talking so quietly to Lily had her agitated and she felt compelled to try and regain Lily’s attention as well as show Lily she could flirt too.
“That was absolutely magnificent” the tall Mr. Fitzwilliam said warmly, stepping almost between her and Lily.
“Thank you Mir. Fitzwilliam,” she smiled up at him.
“Will you play another?”
Bella was about to reply when she saw the blonde fellow step up beside Lily, far closer than Bella thought was appropriate and inexplicably that seemed to erase the joy she almost always felt after singing.
“I’m sorry but I think that will be all for me this evening,” she replied.
“Already?” William protested. “It’s still early yet.”
“I know, but I’m afraid it’s been a long day and I’m a little tired.”
“I believe I’m ready to retire as well,” Lily interrupted coolly. She’d seen Bella’s discomfiture and she wouldn’t allow these strangers to increase it. “The ball is in two days and we have a lot of work to do tomorrow so please excuse us?”
The men graciously nodded and watched as Lily took Bella’s hand and led her out of the music room.
“Do you see that Uncle?” Frederick asked the previously silent Albert. “You might as well concede defeat now. They aren’t the least bit interested in either of us.”
“Well you don’t have to sound so happy about it,” William grumbled, hating to admit his ego was slightly damaged by Bella’s continued resistance, even if he did sense her teetering on occasion.
“Oh come now, It’s not as easy as all that,” Albert argued getting to his feet. “Yes the girls are a bit more of a challenge than I had expected, still I think you simply aren’t being as charming as I know you can be,” he taunted.
“Have you given any thought to what would happen if Lilly and Bella find out about this little wager?” William asked.
Albert nodded. “Yes and should that happen, I’ll do everything in my power to assure them that the last thing I want is to make sport of them and beg their forgiveness, but I’m confident things won’t get to that point.”
William and Frederick both doubted that. Bella and Lily were extremely intelligent women and they knew that if the two women hadn’t been so distracted by their own feelings, they would have figured it out already.
“I hope not because if they stop talking to us when this is over, we’re going to be very put out with you,” Frederick warned.
“It will all be fine,” Albert assured them, suddenly feeling a slight twinge of doubt for his duplicity but knowing it was going to all workout for everyone and if he got a little bit of amusement out of it, who was he to complain?”
“Honestly Bel, I can’t get enough of hearing you sing,” Lily said as they stepped in front of Bella’s door.
Predictably, Bella blushed endearingly and looked away. “Thank you,” was all she could think of to say. It had been different when she was focused on her singing, but now that it was just she and Lily again, memories of what had happened earlier floated to the front of her mind and she shifted nervously.
“Mr. Fitzwilliam seems to have taken a liking to you,” Lily said a little too casually.
Bella blushed, “I’m sure you’re mistaken.”
“Oh I don’t think so,” Lily smiled but the smile faded as she braced herself to ask a question she was sure she didn’t want the answer to. “And it seems you have taken a liking to him as well.”
Bella stared at Lily in surprise not so much at the statement, but the almost jealous tone of her voice.
“I…he’s handsome and kind and attentive,” she admitted reluctantly. “And I notice you and Mr. Wallace are getting along quite famously.”
Lily shrugged. “He’s entertaining, I’ll give him that. Still, I hope you…” she froze, afraid of upsetting the wary younger woman.
“You hope I what?” Bella asked, curiously.
“I’m just worried that you might get hurt. You don’t know him and…”
Bella stiffened. “I’m a grown woman Lily. I think I know my own mind and heart.”
“I know that,” Lily said anxiously, taking Bella’s hands, “but I can’t stand the thought of you having your heart broken.”
The words, spoken so earnestly had tears springing to Bella’s eyes. Nobody ever spoke to Bella’s heart the way this woman did and somehow it was more painful than she thought it should be and she knew that whatever was happening with her had to stop and she knew only one way to do it.
Bella smiled and lifted Lily’s hands to her lips. “And that is why I love you,” she said, relieved she didn’t choke on the honesty of those words. “I’ll be careful, but how can I turn my back on an opportunity for a new life?”
Lily felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest by her horse. “A new life,” she repeated numbly.
Bella saw the flash of hurt on Lily’s face and wanted to take it back almost instantly. She wanted to take it back and beg for forgiveness for even thinking such a thing but it was for the best. It had to be.
“Oh Lil, you know what I mean,” she smiled, forcing a giggle. “I just meant why not embrace new experiences? You know, broaden our horizons a little?”
Lily swallowed her sorrow and returned Bella’s forced smile with one of her own. “Oh my dear, I thought you knew, I like my horizons fine just the way they are.”
“Sourpuss,” Bella teased softly, this time a sincere gleam of fond amusement lighting her eyes as she poked playfully at Lily’s belly.
Lily chuckled. “Well then I guess I’ll say goodnight.” Then to Bella’s surprise, Lily pulled her into her arms and placed a kiss on her cheek that lingered far longer than usual and Bella’s knees nearly buckled out from under her.
“Goodnight Lily,” she said quietly and then escaped into her room. Collapsing back against the closed door she clenched her eyes shut and tried to calm her racing heart, even as her fingers drifted to her still burning cheek. For a brief moment she let herself believe that maybe Lily felt as she did, but she shook her head. It was far too dangerous for her to hope.