“Good morning Miss Bella.”
Bella pulled her eyes away from the shrub she’d been mindlessly staring at when she heard the deep voice coming from behind her.
“Mr. Fitzwilliam,” she greeted and took a deep breath, it was time to begin pushing away the troubling feelings she had for Lily and if it meant using this man to do it, well until Frederick returned she simply had no other choice. “You’re up early this morning.”
William offered his most charming smile, knowing time was running short on their little charade. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I thought to wander in the garden when I saw you standing here looking a bit sad. Naturally I was compelled to discover what could possible distress such a beautiful woman so early in the day.” He mentally cringed at how melodramatic that sounded.
“My but you are far too kind Mr. Fitzwilliam,” Bella said a little more warmly than the comment warranted.
William’s eyebrow lifted at the way she was batting her eyes and the almost simpering tone of her voice. Bella Long had never simpered in all the years he’d known her.
“Not at all,” William replied hiding his puzzlement behind a gallant demeanor. “And please, I would be honored if you called me Peter.” If he had expected a polite and demure refusal, he would have been sorely disappointed.
“Peter,” Bella smiled and then boldly linked her arms through his arm and encouraged him to walk with her through the garden.
“So tell me, why isn’t there a Mrs. Fitzwilliam?” she inquired, turning her brightest smile up at him.
While part of him wanted to find Bella’s change in demeanor charming, he couldn’t. The broad smile she was flashing did nothing to hide the hint of desperation in her eyes and it didn’t take a genius to know what was behind it. He suspected that perhaps things between Bella and Lily were developing faster than they could understand and he had no doubt if it wasn’t dealt with soon these two women would wind up hurting each other beyond repair. He wasn’t convinced that using jealousy was the right course of action to take but it was all they had and it couldn’t make things any worse.
So, he offered an adoring gaze at the woman beside him. “Because I hadn’t met the right woman,” he said pointedly and squeezing the hand resting on his arm.
“Hadn’t?” Bella said with a teasing lit in her voice, even though she felt a pang of fear in her chest at what he was implying
“Certainly,” William replied as if he wasn’t aware of Bella’s inner conflict. “I’ve always known what kind of woman I wished to marry, unfortunately beautiful, independent and strong willed women who are also kind, generous and enormously fun haven’t been easy to find. Until now,” he finished boldly. Stopping and looking in her eyes. It surprised him to realize just how lovely she truly was. Only the knowledge that there was no risk of her falling for him kept him from giving up his plans right then in fear of hurting her.
“Mr. Fitz…Peter, what are you saying?” Bella tittered nervously. This was what she wanted. She needed to feel loved and wanted. She needed to feel normal before she did something that had Lily turning her out with disgust forever.
“Bella, there you are.”
William turned at Lily’s familiar voice and almost laughed out right at her expression. She was struggling so hard to keep the anger off of her face that she looked as if she’d bitten into a lemon.
“Good morning Mr. Fitzwilliam,” she managed through a very forced smile.
“Miss Tremaine,” he replied with a grin. “You’re looking lovely this morning.”
“Thank you,” she said coolly and then deliberately stepped between Peter and her…and Bella. “Bella, I need to ride into town to pick up a few things. I was wondering if you’d like to join me.” She asked far more warmly than she’d spoken to her companion.
As usual, as soon as she looked into Lily’s blue eyes her ability to think began to fade and her chest grew tight as she tried to remember to breathe. It was actually painful for her to push those reactions aside and look back at Peter who was watching them with an expression made indecipherable by his beard.
“I’m sorry Lil, I think I may just stay here and enjoy the garden a while,” she said, her heart aching at the way Lily’s smile faded.
“Oh,” Lily said glumly as she looked between Bella and Peter. “I understand. Alright well I’ll return by this afternoon,” she added and then left without another word, fearing she was going to burst into tears and having absolutely no idea why.
Bella longed to run after Lily and tell her she changed her mind but she stayed where she was, knowing that this was the best thing for everyone. She needed to convince Lily that she didn’t’ harbor unnatural feelings for her so that Lily wouldn’t hate her.
“So, shall we continue our walk?” Bella smiled up at her companion, hoping he didn’t notice the choked sound of her voice.
“Of course my dear,” William replied, feeling victory growing closer even as he worried that two innocents may end up irreparably broken instead of being brought close together.
“Are you alright dear?”
Lily turned to her companion as they left the shop. “I’m fine Edith,” she replied with a smile. “Why?”
“Well for one thing you’ve been distracted all morning, and for another you just walked out of the shop without paying.”
Lily froze and looked at the packages in her arm and then at her grinning friend. “Damnation,” she swore and then hurried back inside.
“I’m so sorry Lucy,” she said to the clerk and promptly paid for her purchase.
“That’s quite alright Miss Tremaine,” Lucy offered. “I expect you’re preoccupied with everything. I knew you’d come back.”
“Thank you,” Lily smiled back. “I do hope we’ll see you at the festival?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” Lucy assured her.
“I’m glad. I look forward to seeing you,” Lily replied and then she and Edith left the store once again.
“So?” Edith prodded as Robert loaded their packages and helped them into the carriage.
“So what?” Lily asked with a touch of impatience. She really didn’t want to discuss what was distracting her with anyone. Normally Bella was the one she would turn to for advice but she obviously couldn’t do that.
“So what has you so troubled?” Edith pushed, her amusement fading into concern. In the many years she’s known the young woman, she’d never seen her so agitated.
Lily sighed. “It’s nothing Edith. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“It’s more than the panning for the ball and the festival isn’t it?”
Lily remained silent which was confirmation enough for the older woman. “Is it Bella? Did something happen between you?” she asked, knowing that would be the only thing important enough to effect Lily so strongly.
Lily’s heart nearly stopped. “What do you mean?” she asked panicked, fear that Edith had seen them in the hallway the night before.
Edith was confused by the stricken look on Lily’s face. “I just meant did you two have a disagreement?”
“Oh,” Lily heaved a sigh of relief. “Not really.
“Then what is it?”
Lily wanted to tell her. She wanted to tell her that she felt Bella slipping away from her and her hear was breaking but she just can’t do it.
“I’m just worried that these men, the tall dark one in particular, are turning her head,” she answered. It wasn’t a complete lie.
“And that’s a bad thing?” Edith inquired.
“Of course it is,” Lily retorted. “He’s a stranger and what about Frederick?”
Edith studied Lily, puzzling at her reaction. “I see nothing wrong with a little harmless flirting.”
“Harmless?” Lily scoffed. “Bella is…she’s so very sweet and trusting that this harmless flirting will end in her being hurt. How can I sit back and accept that?”
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” Edith said gently. “Without experiencing heartbreak, one can’t truly appreciate true love when they find it.”
“True love?” Lily asked doubtfully. “You mean Frederick.”
Edith chuckled. “Oh I do love my nephews, both of them but I’m not blind. I know you are all vastly fond of each other, but I don’t believe any of you are truly in love. No I believe each of you have someone else in store for you. And perhaps this Mr. Fitzwilliam may be Bella’s destiny.”
Lily felt dizzy at that thought. She couldn’t deny that Peter was handsome and kind and seemed to be almost as fond of her as Frederick, but it was too soon. And then what if they were to marry?
“Lily? What is it dear?” Edith asked in alarm when she saw the color drain from Lily’s face.
“If he is, as you say, her destiny, you realize that means she’ll leave me. She’ll go to Canada and leave me.”
Lily’s voice cracked at that and she turned away from Edith fighting the tears that threatened.
“Oh my dear,” Edith said softly and she finally began to understand, even if she couldn’t yet express that. “That won’t happen. For one thing, young Mr. Wallace is as taken with you Mr. Fitzwilliam is with Bella. Perhaps you will both find your happiness and you could move to Canada together.”
“I don’t want to go to Canada,” Lily muttered. “And with all due respect Edith, I would rather not discuss this anymore. If you don’t mind.”
“Very well,” Edith agreed thoughtfully.
Bella sighed heavily as she made her way through the dark garden. Her chest held a constant ache the likes of which she hadn’t felt since the day she accepted her parents weren’t returning for her. She knew she was hurting Lily with her peculiar behavior and her seeming attachment to Peter Fitzwilliam, but she couldn’t help it. The fear of losing the person who meant everything to her was almost overshadowed by the terror of Lily discovering the unnatural feelings Bella had for her. Scenarios constantly ran through her mind of Lily finding out and most of them ended with a hand across her face and harsh words of disgust and betrayal echoing in her ears.
Sometimes though, like now, when she was alone in the darkness, she let herself imagine a scenario where Lily wasn’t horrified. She imagined Lily’s beautiful smile lighting her face and her arms opening wide as she welcomed Bella’s embrace and it made Bella want to weep in happiness. Occasionally, she would imagine a moment where she would lean in and press her lips to Lily’s. The image never lasted past the first longing shiver as Bella refused to let her own mind defile Lily in such a manner. Still there were times Bella thought she could almost feel the tender warmth of Lily’s lips against hers and the realization that it would never be, sent her into a lonely depression.
“Miss Bella, Miss Lily was looking for you,” Dina greeted once she found her mistress in the garden. Her smile faded at the rather pitiable sight before her.
“Are you feeling alright?” She asked quietly as she approached the younger sister. If the fact Lily had sent her to find Bella instead of going herself hadn’t told Dina that something was wrong, the younger woman’s dejected posture as she sat slumped on a bench in the garden definitely would have.
“I’m fine Dina. I was just enjoying the night air.”
Dina paused. While her employers were warm, kind people who always encouraged their staff to always speak their minds, Dina knew that whatever was troubling both ladies was big and more complicated than Dina felt comfortable interfering in and they may not take kindly to her opinions. She knew whatever the problem was, it all stemmed from the arrival of the two handsome strangers. If she didn’t know better, she’d say it was jealousy, but she wasn’t about to say that to a woman who could terminate her on the spot. Still, she couldn’t bear to see these women looking so distraught.
“Miss Bella,” she began gently, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you’re lying.”
It was a testament to Bella’s distraction that she merely sighed. “Have you ever been so confused you didn’t know which way was up?”
“Of course, especially when it involves matters of the heart,” Dina said pointedly. “Are the two strangers bothering you?” Dina frowned. Maybe those two men and their ridiculous attempts at flattery had become more aggressive.
“Not really,” Bella said and then chuckled. Despite their bumbling attempts at seduction, they’ve been quite pleasant and extremely amusing, whether they know it or not. It’s almost as if Freddie and Will were still here.”
“They definitely seem to have taken a liking to you both.” As Dina had expected, Bella frowned.
“Lily seems to have taken a liking to you Mr. Wallace,” Bella muttered.
And there it is, Dina thought. It was jealousy.
“Oh, I’m sure she’s just enjoying the novelty of a new fellow paying her attention. Is that what has you so upset?” She asked carefully.
“What? No, of course not,” Bella protested. “Lily works so hard and I know she gets lonely sometimes. Nothing makes me happier than to see her carefree and enjoying herself.”
“Then why do you look as if you’ve lost your best friend?” Dina pushed gently.
Bella’s eyes widened and Dina thought she saw a touch of true fear in her eyes.
“Miss Bella, you know I have nothing but respect for you and Miss Lily, but you both have seemed unhappy lately and I’m worried.”
Bella smiled and took Dina’s hand. “Oh Dina, you are very sweet, but we’re fine I promise. There’s just a lot going on right now and with these two strangers, it’s just very stressful.”
Dina didn’t believe her for a moment but she wasn’t going to push. “Well, as long as they’re here, you may as well have some fun with these Canadian fellows. These poor men are so far from home and I’m sure it’s their loneliness that has them behaving so boldly. Live a little, I say,” she finished with a grin.
Bella couldn’t help but laugh and kissed the maid who’d become just like family on the cheek. “Thank you dear. Now I guess I should go attend Lily before she calls up the army.”
Dina shook her head and followed Bella into the house, relieved to see some of the usual happiness back in her face.
It was the night before the ball and the household had fallen into near chaos. The household staff were readying the guest rooms for those who were to arrive the next morning, polishing the silver and dusting the furniture.
Mrs. Brown and her kitchen staff worked diligently on the menu while others prepared the stables that would house the guests’ horses and carriages.
Everyone was so busy, including Lily and Bella who spent their time alternating between the house and the winery, they hardly saw each other and the unusual separation was wearing on both.
William had been watching both women for some time. Lily was looking more haggard than he’d ever seen her and as the man who’d courted her for so many years, he longed to go to her and explain everything and tell her it would all be alright, but he knew she wasn’t ready to hear it and telling her now would only have her retreating so far into herself she’d shut out everyone, including Bella. Bella on the other hand, was becoming more flirtatious and daring especially whenever Lily came into sight,
Frederick was doing his best to keep Lily diverted and he knew he should be jealous by the way the blonde laughed at his jokes, but he wasn’t. He was just sad and frustrated and his Uncle’s smug looks weren’t helping.
“So, what do you think brother?” Frederick asked as he approached his brother in the study. William was holding a glass of scotch as he stared distractedly into the fire.
William turned at his brother’s voice. “About?”
“I think this has all gone too far. They’re miserable,” Frederick commented as he helped himself to the scotch as well.
“I agree and I hate to say it but Bella is becoming more and bolder with her attentions,” William admitted.
Frederick stiffened. “Is that so?” he said coolly.
William looked at his brother in surprise. “Jealous are we?”
“No!” Frederick protested and then chuckled. “Okay perhaps a little.”
“You realize that, while it pains me to admit, it’s not my amazing good looks that’s causing her behavior right?”
Frederick snorted. “With that face of yours, that’s not a surprise,” he grinned. “And yes I know. She’s feeling trapped and a bit desperate. I think she’s finally figured out her feelings but is confused and completely terrified.”
“That’s understandable” William agreed. “Women are rarely allowed to examine their own feelings when it comes to romance but this is even more complicated. I doubt she and Lily have even heard of people in this type of relationship.”
“So, what happens if we succeed?” Frederick suddenly asked with a frown.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if we manage to convince the girls to accept their feelings for each other, what then? They’ll never be able to be together openly. And sure enough, someone will suspect.”
William frowned and scratched at the annoying beard. “True. Well, we can always still offer to marry them but let them live their lives together as we live ours.”
“Well, that’s not entirely uncommon, especially in London,” Frederick acknowledged, “but it’s not really fair to us though is it? What if down the road we find the women we want to settle down with?”
“I know,” William said tiredly. “Our options are limited here. Convince them to follow their hearts and hang the consequences, we marry them to give them so-called respectability but we all go our separate ways, or we stop what we’re doing, marry them as we’d always planned and know they’re miserable which would in turn make us miserable.”
“The only thing that has the best chance for making everyone happy is forcing them to go with their hearts. They would have our support and Albert’s penchant for obnoxious wagers aside, he’ll stand by them as well and he’s very well respected.” William placed a hand on Frederick’s shoulder. “We will make sure they don’t suffer for falling in love.”
Frederick nodded. “Very well, but I think it’s time we end this.”
“And I think I know how to do it while salvaging our friendship with the girls and teaching dear Uncle Albert a lesson.”
William smiled. His brother tended to be the more devious between them and he had no doubt whatever he had planned would be vastly entertaining.
“Well don’t keep me in suspense brother,” he said with amusement.