“Dina says the musicians have arrived. Do you want to…?” Bella froze midway through the sentence as she stepped into the parlor and saw Lily.
“Oh Lily, you are so beautiful,” she said with an awestruck softness. This wasn’t the first time Bella had seen her friend in formal dress, but something about this time was utterly different. The midnight blue ball gown was far more sophisticated and elegant than any Lily had ever worn and hugged her magnificent figure like a very lucky glove. The deep, rich color only served to emphasize the beauty of ice blue eyes that shone with a maturity that was incredibly seductive. Her soft blonde hair sat in an elegant twist on her head and exposed the smooth white lines of her neck and shoulders, shoulders that Bella suddenly had a frightening desire to bury her face against.
Lily turned at Bella’s voice, a warm smile of welcome on her lips as always but it faded slightly when she saw the other woman. Bella looked stunning in a silver gown that contrasted beautifully with the auburn hair that fell in soft waves around her bare shoulders and which to Lily’s shock, led to a head-spinning expanse of cleavage. She had to force her eyes away from the mesmerizing site, unsure if she wanted to keep staring or force Bella to return to her room to cover up. There was no doubt that lecherous eyes would be all over the younger woman tonight and Lily didn’t like it one bit.
Swallowing hard, she lifted her gaze to meet Bella’s and she couldn’t hold back a shiver at the peculiar intense expression on her face. Bella was staring at her with an intensity like she’d never received from anyone before and it had her torn between wanting to swoon and wanting to weep. Finally Bella’s whispered words broke through her fog and her smile returned. She walked to Bella and took her hands.
“Thank you, but Bella. You…you’re breathtaking,” she said honestly. Instinctively, Lily reached up to push a loose curl behind Bella’s ear, her fingers brushing against a warm soft cheek and just like that, something that neither woman could even begin to explain, shot through them. They found themselves lost, unable to look away from each other’s eyes. Bella reached up to cover Lily’s hand.
“Ladies, mere words alone cannot adequately describe the beauty that stands before us.”
Startled out of the private world they’d fallen into, they pulled away from each other and turned toward the unexpected and not particularly welcome visitors.
“Albert. Gentlemen,” Lily greeted warmly if a little breathlessly. “You’re early. We were just about to speak to the musicians.”
“We won’t keep you, we simply thought to offer our assistance,” Frederick said smoothly but with a twinge of discomfort. After what he, William and Albert had just walked in on, he found it nearly impossible to maintain his Jonathan persona. He’d never before seen so much longing on two people’s faces and it had almost broken his heart to interrupt them. He vowed that the game ended tonight and not entirely the way any of them had intended.
He looked toward William who was tugging at his beard and Frederick knew it was more than just the discomfort of the unwanted facial hair.
“Well if you really want to be of help,” Lily said a little skeptically, “Jonathan, could you go check with Joseph at the stables and make sure there’s plenty of feed and blankets for the horses belonging to our guests and Peter, perhaps you could make sure Davis doesn’t need help lighting the candles? And Albert, since we know you’re aching to be useful,’ Lily smirked, “would you check that the back parlor and drawing rooms are set up for the coachmen and the other servants to be comfortable and with plenty of refreshments?”
The gentlemen bowed politely and left and Bella and Lily turned back to each other and for the first time in years there was an awkward silence between them as they tried to ignore the peculiar moment that had been so abruptly interrupted.
“Yes, well let’s go get the musicians set up shall we?” Lily said with a smile that was a bit more forced than she’d ever shown to Bella.
“Alright,” Bella said quietly and followed Lily out of the parlor inexplicably fighting the urge to cry or scream. She paused mid-step as she imagined Lily’s reaction to that and she couldn’t help but giggle.
Lily turned, her smile this time was sincere as she delighted as she always did in the younger woman’s warm laughter. “What?”
“Oh nothing,” Bella prevaricated. “Can’t you just picture Albert scampering around the parlor setting up tea trays and biscuits?”
Lily laughed. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy every moment.”
And just like that, the two women were back to where they had always been and looking forward to the night ahead.
Lily walked alongside of Jonathan, only half listening to what he said. She couldn’t get the image of Bella dancing with Peter out of her head. Bella had been smiling and animated and Lily thought she’d never seen the younger woman look so beautiful. That was until they danced past and Lily caught what seemed almost like desperation in Bella’s expression. The look confused Lily and she wondered if Peter was being too forward, especially when he pulled her closer than was acceptable for a waltz. However, Bella wasn’t pulling away and she even batted her eyes at him the way she normally did with Frederick. Suddenly, Lily found herself filling with an unexpected anger and she didn’t understand it. When Peter’s eyes drifted to Bella’s décolletage, Lily came close to stepping between them and putting as much distance between the scoundrel and her…Bella. It all became too much and she pushed away from Jonathan and fled the ballroom with as much decorum as she could manage.
“Such a beautiful countenance should never be marred by sorrow,” Jonathan commented flamboyantly after a long pause. Frederick was growing tired of the whole situation and having to play ardent admire when his friend was so clearly hurting was about the final straw.
“Oh just stop with the ridiculous flattery already,” Lily snapped, at the end of her rope. She could no longer deny that seeing Bella with Peter filled her with a jealousy like nothing she’d felt when she saw her with Frederick and she didn’t understand it.
“I’m sorry Lily,” Frederick said in his own voice, knowing the time had come to end this farce. When he saw Lily freeze he knew the game was up.
Lily recognized the voice immediately and she spun around. It took her a moment to put the voice to the bearded face and blonde hair but she finally saw it.
“Good God. Freddie?” she asked incredulously, looking or any sign of the man she’d grown up with.
“Surprise,” he smiled nervously.
“What…?” she stopped, unable to form a single coherent thought.
Frederick sighed and took Lily by the hand and led her to a nearby bench. “I have no idea really how to go about explaining all this,” he said awkwardly.
“Peter is William I assume?” Lily asked, suddenly realizing all the things about the tall dark haired fellow that should have told her it was the man she’d known her whole life and was supposed to marry.
“You two have been pretending to be strangers. Why?” She asked with a practiced calmness, knowing that as soon as Frederick explained the why, her temper was going explode.
Frederick ran his hand through his hair. “I’ll tell you. You’re not going to like it,” he said nervously, “but you need to let me explain everything before you react.”
“I don’t need to do anything,” Lily said with a tone of voice that Frederick had never heard before and it made him fearful that he and William hadn’t just humiliated the two most amazing women they’d ever met, but that they’d destroyed the closest friendships they’d ever had.
“The ugly truth is that it was a wager.”
Lily stared at the man she thought she knew. “A wager? To what, see how badly you could humiliate the village spinsters?” she spat.
“What? No,” Frederick replied instantly, taking Lily’s hand but not surprised when she pulled away. “That’s not it at all,” he finished. “Albert just wanted to prove that no woman could ever be faithful and implied you and Bella were no different.”
“Oh I see. You were just trying to defend our honor, is that it?” Lily’s voice was tight with sarcasm and repressed fury which only increased as she realized that this whole time, the stranger who’d been following her around like a puppy was the man Bella already believed secretly wanted Lily. The memory of Bella’s sad, resigned eyes had Lily slapping Frederick hard across his bearded face.
Frederick hissed at the pain but accepted it as his due, though had to admit he was quite impressed with the woman’s strength.
“I know it’s hard to believe,” he said, rubbing his sore cheek, “but in a way we were. I know my Uncle and he wouldn’t stop until we agreed and failing that, he would have found someone else to do it.”
“Bollocks,” Lily muttered angrily.
Frederick longed to laugh at his friend’s profanity but wisely kept the smile from his face. “It’s true. You know how Uncle is when he gets on one of his philosophical bents.”
Lily couldn’t help but agree but that did nothing to alleviate her fury. “Why didn’t you just pull us aside and tell us what was going on? Why did you go to all this trouble,” she gestured at his wild disguise, “just to lie to us. And worst of all, how could you play with Bella’s heart like that?”
Frederick could barely look at Lily. Her eyes were so full of betrayal and sadness that he knew was for Bella. “That wasn’t our intent,” he swore.
Lily scoffed. “That’s comforting,” she sneered, “however that’s exactly what you’re doing. Are you aware that Bella believes you only courted her because I was with William?”
Frederick was shocked. “No. I had no…why would she think that?”
Lily shrugged. “She said it was because she’s noticed you looking at me.”
“Lily, I swear on my life, that’s not true. I care for Bella a great deal.”
“That’s what I told her,” Lily agreed, “but she insists that you preferred me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Frederick protested as he finally had to accept his doubts on his feelings for Bella were confirmed. If he had ever been truly in love with her, he would have seen it and that just made him feel sick. “No offense,” he added as he realized how his words must have sounded.
“Yes it is ridiculous, but that’s how she feels.” Lily’s anger reignited when she pictured Bella’s reaction to Frederick and Williams’s deception. “Just how do you think it’s going to make her feel to learn the man who has been making a fool of himself over me is the same man she believed was going to leave her?”
Frederick got to his feet and began to pace. “I didn’t know,” he repeated almost anxiously. “I’d never hurt her like that. I just wanted to…”
“Wanted to what?” Lily snapped, standing up and stepping up to Frederick, her hand itching to slap him again knowing what this little game would do to Bella.
Frederick felt overwhelmed by guilt and frustration of the entire mess and he was tired of it. It was time to not just end this wager but to put a period to the denial between Lily and Bella as well so that all of them, especially Bella could have a chance to be happy.
He met Lily’s eyes straight on. “I just…William and I both decided to use this ridiculous wager as a way to get you and Bella to finally acknowledge what is so obvious to us and anyone else who bothers to look.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Lily asked with confusion.
“You and Bella. Do you really not know?”
“Frederick, my patience was thin before, but now it’s almost nonexistent. If you have a point to make, do so.”
“You’re in love with her,” Frederick blurted, knowing there was absolutely no delicate way to phrase it.
Lily gaped at the man she’d known virtually since the cradle. “Have you gone mad?” she hissed out, searching the garden to make sure they hadn’t been overheard. “Bella is a woman. I can’t be in love with her.”
Frederick took her hand and led her deeper into the garden to ensure privacy. “I notice you didn’t say you weren’t,” he said quietly when he was confident nobody could hear.
“Why are you saying such things,” Lily whispered in a panic. “Are you trying to ruin us?”
“No of course not,” Frederick replied with growing frustration, wishing William were here. He was much better with these types of situations. “We don’t want to ruin you, we want to help you.”
“How, by getting us run out of the village or arrested? I’ve heard what happens to people who are like…what you’re implying.”
“Lily forget all that for a moment. Look in your heart. Think about what you feel when you’re with her. Think about what drove you out here, your feelings at seeing her with William.” He took her silence as permission to continue but the resistance in her face had him lifting her hands and forcing her to look at him.
“Lily, I’ve seen how you look at her and I’ve seen how she looks at you. I’ve never seen love so clearly on display as when you two are together. I think the fact that you’ve spent your whole lives together is why you probably never noticed the change in your feelings but I’ve see it. So has William.”
“How dare you,” Lily snarled. “How dare you try to turn the closet relationship I’ve ever had into something….lewd.”
Frederick stepped back before he felt the sting of Lily’s palm on his face again “That’s not what I’m doing at all. Neither William nor I see it remotely that way. It’s love Lily and there’s nothing lewd about it. It’s so clear that what you feel for Bella, what she feels for you is no different, no less potent than what your parents felt for each other, or what my parents felt.”
“You’re wrong,” Lily cried. “It can’t be the same.”
Frederick smiled gently. “Lily, it’s just us. Look at me and tell me that when you’re with her, when you look at her there isn’t something that flares between you. That there isn’t something that has you feeling….”he paused as he struggled to find words that wouldn’t shame her and embarrass him, “that has you feeling a longing that you never felt with William. A longing to be closer, maybe even to…”
“Stop!” Lily cried, burying her face in her hands as she was overtaken by guilt and shame.
It was true that the morning kiss she placed on Bella’s cheek each day had begun to linger longer each time as she lost herself in the softness of her cheek and there had been times when Bella had been near and smiling that big smile of hers and the entire world faded away. There was the near painful heat that had filled her when she saw Bella earlier in her beautiful dress with a neckline that made Lily’s mouth run dry and filled her with an ache she couldn’t explain and then there was the fact that even the thought of a world without Bella in it threatened to crush Lily’s heart.
“You’re wrong Freddie,” she choked. “You have to be.”
Frederick reached out and took Lily’s face in his gentle hands. “I’m not and there is no reason for you to be ashamed. No matter what anyone else says or thinks, there is nothing shameful in loving someone. Whoever it is.”
“No buts,” Frederick interrupted firmly. “Do you love her?”
Lily shook her head in near panic. “Frederick please I…”
“Do you love her?””
“It’s not that simple,” Lily argued desperately.
Frederick’s smile widened as he sensed her surrender. “Do. You. Love her?”
“Yes!” Lily shouted and began to weep. “God help me, yes I love her.”
Frederick heaved a sigh of relief and then pulled her into his arms. “Then you need to tell her,” he said softly into her ear.
“How can I?”
“It will be easier than you think and Lily, Bella really needs to hear it.”
Lily pulled it away. “Why aren’t you disgusted…or at least angry? You’re supposed to marry Bella and I’m supposed to marry William?”
“Because as much as I care for her and I think we would get on tremendously should we get married, I’m not in love with her and after seeing so clearly what she feels for you, I can’t deprive her of a chance to be with someone who can give her their whole heart. She deserves to be loved completely, so do you and do we.”
Lily couldn’t argue with that but she wasn’t about to concede it either. There was too much at stake. “None of this matters Freddie. Bella and I will never be allowed to be together no matter what we feel.”
“It does matter,” Frederick insisted. “You and Bella are meant to be together and the rest we can work out. Just tell me you’ll try.”
Lily had never felt so torn in her entire life. She had never known anyone of the same sex who shared such emotions and wasn’t even sure how to go about it. All she knew was that she’d never felt more complete and content as well as confused than when she was with Bella, but the thought of Bella’s reaction, of her fleeing in disgust terrified Lily.
“At least think about it,” Frederick urged.
“I won’t be able to do anything else,” she laughed weakly. “However, you and William need to tell Bella the truth. Tonight,” she said more firmly.
“And you need to find a way to do it without breaking her heart.”
Frederick smiled knowingly at the warning tone. “Always so protective,” he said pointedly. He coughed nervously when Lily narrowed her eyes dangerously.
“Yes. Well, I’ll speak with William and once the guests depart we’ll all sit down and talk to Bella.”
“And I’ll go have a word with your Uncle,” Lily said dangerously, “and point out the error in wagering on women’s affections.”
“No, don’t,” Frederick stopped her, a gleam that she knew well entering his eyes.
“What are you plotting now Frederick Wainwright?”
“You’ll see,” he said as ideas began swirling in his mind. “In the meantime, let’s return to the dancing before people begin to gossip.”
“My dear Bella, why do you look so unhappy?” The man known as Peter asked with concern as he handed Bella a glass of wine.
“I’m not unhappy it’s just…I haven’t seen Lily in quite a while. I just hope she’s alright.”
William, looked at Bella thoughtfully. He’d seen Lily watching him dancing with Bella and not looking at all happy about it. He’d exchanged glances with Frederick just before his brother followed the blonde from the ballroom and new that things were about to come to a head. He decided it was time to push the sister of the woman he’d been expected to marry for years.
“I believe I saw her and Jonathan step into the garden some time ago,” he said casually, eyes watching for a reaction. The slight tightening of her lips was enough. Still he decided to keep pushing. “I do think she’s quite taken with my business partner,” he added noting with interest the way the flash of fear and despair in her lovely eyes was almost instantly replaced by offense.
“You’re too presumptuous by half sir,” Bella protested, ignoring the pain in her chest that Peter may be right. She had never felt this…discomfort when seeing Lily with William, but for some reason she felt far more disturbed by the way Lily’s apparent fascination with the Canadian. “Perhaps she simply needed a breath of air.”
“I meant no offense Miss Bella,” he said quickly. “Oh, here they are now.”
Bella looked toward the doors leading to the Garden path and unconsciously released a sigh of what could only be relief, which hadn’t gone unnoticed by her companion. She smiled, prepared to interrupt the couple when she met Lily’s blue eyes. There was a look on Lily’s face that Bella had never seen before. She appeared disheveled and distracted but it was when she turned her eyes away from Bella, as if she were embarrassed, that Bella felt her chest tighten so painfully she couldn’t breathe. All she could think of was Lily had fallen for the stranger and wouldn’t want her around anymore and images of what she and Jonathan had been doing alone in the garden had her clutching her throat.
“Bella? Bella, are you alright?” William had seen the color drain from Bella’s face and instantly retreated from his disguise.
Bella didn’t hear him. All she saw was the woman who had become her everything turning from her to walk away with someone else. Suddenly the air grew too heavy and the room began to spin. Then she knew no more.
Lily heard William’s shout, even over the musicians and her heart stopped. When she had first seen Bella’s big beautiful smile, all she could think of was Frederick and William’s betrayal and that Frederick had forced her to acknowledge her most inappropriate feelings for the woman who’d been closer than a sister for most of her life. A young woman she’d looked after and protected and Lily had to look away before she revealed herself to the one person who’d always been able to read her like a book.
Now, she spun around at the frantic shout and the music stopped. She pushed her way through the crowd and let out a cry as she saw Bella in a heap at William’s feet. Lily was on her knees beside her in an instant and pulled her head onto her lap.
“Bella,” she whispered, brushing the auburn hair back from her face. “Wake up sweetheart,” she whispered.
Bella didn’t stir and Lily looked up at William helplessly. William immediately moved and gently picked Bella up in his arms. “I’ll take her to her room,” he said quietly and ignoring all the guests standing around staring and whispering, he left the ballroom followed by a near frantic Edith.
Lily shakily got to her feet and walked to the front of the room.
“As you all are aware, Bella has become unwell, so I’m afraid the festivities must come to an end so we can tend to her. Thank you all for coming and I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Without another word, Lily left the ballroom followed by Frederick and Albert. She stopped outside of Bella’s room and addressed the two men.
“Will you please find Dr. Redmond and send him to us? Oh and please return to the second parlor and inform the guest’s servants of the situation so they can prepare to leave. Without waiting for an acknowledgment, Lily hurried into Bella’s bedroom, pushing past William who had stepped back a respectable distance and Edith. She stopped at the bedside and looked at William.
“Thank you for bringing her up, but it is probably best if you waited outside.”
William nodded, bowed politely and left the room. Edith hesitated, having no idea what to do. It worried her to see Bella so pale and unconscious, but it frightened her to see the devastated look on Lily’s face. She’d never seen her so distraught and it was almost more than she could bear.
“Can I do anything dear?” she asked quietly.
“No, thank you Edith,” Lily replied, not taking her eyes from Bella. “Would you mind giving us a few minutes?”
“Of course dear,” she said quietly and left the room, closing the door behind her, barely noticing the still hovering gentleman.
After Edith had gone, Lily sat on the bed next to Bella, taking her hand and studying the sweet face that meant the world to her. Once again, her fingers found their way to Bella’s hair and for the first time she let herself relish how soft it was. How had it happened? How had she lost her heart to the one person that was all but forbidden to her?
“Bella, sweetheart, please wake up,” she whispered.
After a few painful seconds, Bella moaned softly and her eyes fluttered open. She was startled to find herself staring at her bedroom ceiling, having no recollection of going to bed.
“Oh thank God, you’re awake.”
Bella turned, surprised to see Lily sitting beside her with a worried expression on her face. “Lily? What…why are you in my bedroom? Did something happen?” she asked struggling to sit up and grateful when Lily reached out to help her.
“Well yes something happened. You fainted,” Lily said fighting not to remember the horror of seeing her Bella laying in a crumpled heap at her feet.
“Fainted?” Bella asked groggily, her head still spinning. “Why on earth would I do something so undignified?”
Lily couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I have no idea. I was hoping you could tell me.”
Bella looked at Lily and finally noticed she was still in her ball gown. Suddenly everything from before came rushing back and she remembered seeing Lily returning from a tryst with Jonathan and she remembered how Lily wouldn’t even look at her and her heart hurt all over again.
“I…I don’t remember,” And for the first time in her life, Bella lied to Lily.
Lily saw the lie plainly in Bella’s face and it hurt.
“Bella. Please tell me what happened,” she pleaded, needing to know what she did so she could make it right.
The hurt in Lily’s voice was painful to Bella, but she was so confused and afraid that she was going to lose the most important person in her life that she simply couldn’t bear her presence at that moment.
“Lily, I’m still a little light headed. Would you mind if we do this tomorrow?” She asked dully.
Lily’s heart fell. “I suppose, but the doctor should be here any moment.”
“I don’t need him. I’d really just like to go to sleep.”
“Alright, Bel. Let me help you change,” Lily said getting to her feet.
“No thank you Lily,” Bella interrupted coolly. “Dina can manage. You should get back to your guests.”
Lily felt as if Bella had just slapped her and it was all she could do not to burst into tears right there. She walked to the door but turned to face the woman who was looking more distraught than she’d ever seen her.
“I don’t know what I did to make you so angry with me,” Lily said unsteadily, “but I’m sorry and I hope that you’ll talk to me about it so I can fix it.”
Lily left the room and Bella instantly dissolved into tears, unaware that on the other side of the door Lily had done the same thing.
“My dear Miss Lily, what…”
“Oh just stop it William,” Lily stopped and glared at her old friend. “I know everything and not only is this all your fault, but you’ve ruined everything. Now you need to go explain what you did to Bella, especially since she doesn’t want to talk to me.”
Without another word, Lily fled to her own room unable to deal with anything else.
William sighed and cursed his Uncle for getting him into this mess and himself and his brother for going along with it. Finally it all became too much and he decided enough was enough. Knowing he was breaking all bounds of propriety by doing so, he cautiously knocked on Bella’s door and announced himself before waiting for her to open the door.
“I’m sorry Mr. Fitzwilliam, but I’m simply not up for a conversation right now.”
William forced himself to ignore the sad tear-stained face. “Bella, it’s me. William.”
Bella gaped at the man she’d been dancing with earlier. The man who’d been so actively pursuing her since waking up injured in one of their guest rooms. Where William was clean shaven with neat fair hair, this man had an air of wildness with longer dark hair and a full beard and moustache.
“I’m sorry I can’t explain right now. Please join me downstairs in the study in thirty minutes. There are some things I need to tell you and I’m afraid it can’t wait.”
Not giving the befuddled woman a chance to protest further, William walked away. After a stop at Lily’s room to tell her the same thing, he went in search of his brother as they had plans to make.