“Oh thank God that’s over,” Lily muttered as she waved good bye to the last of their overnight guests.
“And to think, you have a reputation as such a generous hostess,” Bella laughed. “If they only knew.”
Lily’s lips lifted in a mischievous smile and she leaned close. “If only they knew the reason I wanted them gone,” she whispered suggestively, laughing at the blush that instantly colored Bella’s cheeks.
“Lily,” Bella chided with a nervous giggle.
“What?” Lily asked with a blatantly false innocence.
“I never suspected you had such a wicked nature,” Bella said, happily letting Lily take her hand and appreciating how different the simple contact felt now that their relationship had undergone such a drastic change.
“I’ve never been in love before,” Lily answered simply, earning a sweet sigh from her companion.
“We have so much to talk about Bel,” she added as she led them away from the front of the house and toward the garden, “and I just want everyone to go away so we can be alone. At least until the chaos of the festival in a few days.”
Bella’s heart skipped a beat at the sincerity in Lily’s voice, part of her still afraid she’d been dreaming the night before.
“But we’re almost always alone,” Bella replied cheekily. “Are you sure you don’t enjoy having something new to break up the monotony?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “Cheeky,” she teased. Finally they reached an isolated corner of the lush garden and took a seat on a nearby bench.
For a moment both women were silent as they studied their joined hands.
“Is this really happening?” Bella asked, meeting Lily’s gaze and nearly losing herself in the soft blue. She wondered how she’d never noticed just how appealing the little lines around Lily’s eyes were.
“If you want it to,” Lily replied. Unable to help herself, she lifted her hand and placed her palm against the warmth of Bella’s cheek.
“More than anything,” Bella said earnestly.
“Nothing has to change,” Lily assured her. “Nothing will change. We can continue on as we always have.”
“Well, I was hoping that at least a little something would change,” Bella said and then batted her eyes flirtatiously.
Lily ignored the heat that flooded her as she gave Bella a faux look of concern. “Oh no, did you get something in your eye?” she frowned, reaching up as if to brush at her eyelashes and then laughing when Bella slapped at her hand.
“You’re mean,” she pouted, though she couldn’t maintain it for more than a second before she broke into a smile.
“Yes I am, but you love me anyway,” Lily whispered, leaning close.
Bella didn’t miss the hint of question in Lily’s voice and it startled her that the woman who always seemed so sure and confident still held a twinge of doubt about Bella’s feelings.
“With all my heart,” Bella returned and then closed the distance and captured Lily’s lips. For someone who’d had very little practice in the art of kissing, it was amazing how natural and easy it felt to simply let her love for Lily guide her actions. Feeling surprisingly bold, she lifted her hands to place them tentatively on Lily’s waist even as she felt Lily’s hands slide around her neck.
It was if no one or nothing existed in the world except the two of them as the kiss continued and deepened. Desire won over inexperience as tongues cautiously reached out to dance together and little whimpers became low moans as they explored and tasted, both knowing there was more but neither knowing what and not particularly caring at that moment.
Bella reluctantly pulled her lips away from Lily’s but instantly began to kiss her way along the strong jaw and down her soft neck, stopping only to savor the strong heartbeat beneath her skin.
Lilly hissed and threw her head back as she felt Bella suckle hotly at her throat and her hands slid up to Bella’s hair, pulling her tighter against her as if fearing she would pull away.
“Are you sure you saw them enter the garden Mrs. Bernard?”
Lily and Bella jumped apart at Frederick’s overly loud voice.
“Bloody hell” Lily swore softly.
“Well it seems you’ve learned a new expression,” Bella teased.
“Working at the vineyard does have its advantages,” Lily said primly, before joining in Bella’s laughter.
“Oh there you two are,” Edith said happily. “I was wondering where you got off to.”
Lily met the vastly amused gaze of her pretend suitor and knew he was well aware of what she and Bella had been doing. She offered him her best glare, but the blush she knew colored her cheeks had him grinning.
“We were seeing off the William’s and Mr. Forsythe and then decided to walk in the gardens,” Lily replied casually.
“Of course,” Frederick said innocently. He’d been surprised when Edith had cornered him and asked him to help look for Bella and Lily, but as he still harbored a lot of guilt for deceiving the dear woman, he graciously accepted. He had heard the girls saying goodbye to the guests who’d stayed overnight and had led Edith outside hoping to catch them.
When he saw Lily take Bella’s hand and lead her into the garden, Frederick attempted to return to the house but unfortunately Edith spied them as well and quickly had them follow. Fortunately Edith was happily recounting her several dances of the night before when Frederick caught a glimpse of the two women through a small opening between the thick shrubbery and they were clearly distracted in what appeared to be a most pleasant manner.
His inner child was screaming at him to continue to watch, but his fondness for the two women quickly shut that voice out and he turned and spoke loudly enough to Edith to draw their attention. Now here he was being glared at by Lily for his efforts and it was all he could do not to laugh in her face.
“Was there something you wanted?” Lily said with a barely concealed impatience. Oh how she longed for the time when she and Bella would finally be alone so they could truly talk about everything and maybe continue what they’d been doing when they were so rudely interrupted.
“Oh yes dear. I was hoping to discuss the Festival,” Edith said pleasantly.
“Of course Edith,” Lily said. “We’ll be right in.”
“Miss Lily, if I may have a word before you go in?” Frederick asked.
“Oh. Well, alright,” she replied looking at Bella who merely shrugged.
“Miss Bella, Peter was looking for you as well,” he said, his best knowing grin on his face. It was time to move things along.
“Oh really?” Bella said with a happy smile. “Well I shan’t keep him waiting.” Bella knew what was coming and while all she wanted was for this whole fiasco to be done with, she couldn’t help but be a little excited at the idea of a little caper.
Edith and Bella returned to the house leaving Frederick and Lily to trail behind.
“You and Bel should be a little more careful,” Frederick said quietly. “Edith nearly saw you.”
Part of Lily wanted to shout ‘so what if she did’? The other part knew his warning was for the best.
“Is this what it’s going to be like?” she asked sadly. “Forced to keep my feelings for Bella a secret, like I’m ashamed of her?”
Frederick sighed, his heart hurting for her and Bella. “In some respects, I’m afraid so,” he admitted, “but you and Bella have never hidden your closeness. It’s just the more…intimate expressions that you may want to curtail.”
“We’re in our own garden Frederick,” she replied angrily. “I shouldn’t have to hide anything with Bella when we’re in our own home.”
“You’re right,” he said, holding his hands up, “and I’m sorry. I’m not trying to judge you or make you feel guilty about your feelings.”
“I know. I just….it shouldn’t be this hard to love someone.”
Frederick stopped and looked at his oldest friend. “It’s Bella,” he reminded her. “Is it really that hard to love her?”
Lily smiled. “No of course not, I just meant I shouldn’t have to worry about showing her affection for fear of scandal. I just want what my parents had.”
“I know. Though you know society Lil. Even the most blissful of couples rarely display their affections openly. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where who a person loves is nobody’s business and nobody cares who kisses whom in public.”
“And that’s why we need this business done and all of you out of our hair, so we don’t have to worry about it,” she smiled, poking him in the chest.
“Far be it from me to impede the progress of true love,” he laughed. “Now, before we head in, I think we need to give you a little glow to make our announcement more convincing.”
“If you attempt to kiss me, you may quickly find yourself without your hideous beard,” she warned lightly.
Frederick chuckled. “Well, as much as I hate this thing, he tugged at his dyed facial hair, “I’d just as soon have it professionally removed, so why don’t I just ask you about kissing Bella?”
And right on cue, red filled Lily’s cheeks causing another laugh from her annoying companion.
“There it is. Let’s go and see how my dear brother is getting along.”
“Are you ready?” William asked Bella. He had greeted Bella and Edith at the door and after a laughably effusive greeting, he escorted her to the library and ignoring Edith’s frown, closed the door in his aunt’s face, not looking forward to the lecture he would be getting once everything was out in the open.
“Do we really have to go through with this?” Bella asked nervously. “I’m a terrible liar.”
“I know,” William grinned, “and that’s part of your charm, but come now Bella, you can’t tell me you don’t enjoy the thought of giving dear Uncle Albert the vapors for what he did.”
Bella thought for a moment as an image of Albert’s reaction to their plan and she laughed delightedly. “I must admit it is appealing. Though,” her smile faded and she turned away from the man who’d courted Lily for so long, “I can’t help but wonder if you aren’t thinking he was right about us.”
William scratched at his beard and then he realized what she was saying. He quickly took her hand and turned her back to face him. He lifted her chin so she could see the sincerity in his eyes.
“Bella, please don’t berate yourself. Yes Lily and I always planned to eventually marry just as you and Frederick had, but Freddie and I….we’ve almost always known where your hearts truly belonged. We were both content with the situation because we’ve all been the best of friends for years but as I knew Lily wasn’t truly in love with me, I’m not in love with her either. Not the way you are. I could never hope to even come close to giving her what you can and I don’t begrudge her, or you one second of happiness together. Alright?”
Bella’s eyes stung as she looked at this wonderful man and she threw her arms around him. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done,” she said. “Even though you’re a cad for deceiving us so, if you hadn’t, I don’t think either of us would have dared say anything.”
“And you both would have eventually been miserable,” William added.
“But what about you and Freddie?” She asked as she pulled away. “I never meant to deceive him or mislead him. He’s a wonderful man.”
William smiled. “I don’t know about wonderful,” he teased, “but he understands. In fact he’s really the one really pointed out how you and Lily belonged together.”
“Oh,” she replied, having no idea how to reply. It seemed the fun loving man she’d spent so much time with had a poet’s soul. Though she’d never tell him that.
“So are we all sorted then?” He asked.
“We are,” Bella said proudly. “Let’s go meet up with Lil and Freddie and break the happy news to Albert?” she said a broad smile brightening her features.
Lily and Bella entered the study, followed by the preening gentlemen. “Oh Albert, I’m glad you’re here too,” she said, trying hard not to glare at the man who dared wager on her heart, especially since said wager was actually what brought her more happiness than she’d ever imagined
“Ladies,” he said warmly, getting to his feet. He paused when he noticed the way the ladies where clinging to the arms of the supposed strangers and he knew then that he’d won his wager.
“I know you wanted to discuss our plans for the festival Edith, but we have an announcement.”
“We’re engaged to be married,” Bella blurted excitedly.
Albert was glad he hadn’t been drinking coffee at that point as it would have assuredly been sprayed all over his sister.
“Engaged,” Lily explained with a grin that wasn’t remotely fake. Albert looked like he was going to faint.
“Engaged? But you only just met. And I thought you and Bella….what about Frederick and William?” He protested, staring at the two men in question.
Bella stepped forward and took the befuddled older man’s hand. “We’re so very sorry Albert,” she said sincerely, deciding she would be as truthful as the situation allowed. “It’s just, we fell in love,” she briefly looked at Lily, hoping her gaze said what she couldn’t.
“I don’t….” Albert scratched his head looking between the two couples. He never in his wildest imaginings thought it would come to this.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Edith said happily, even if she was surprised. She had rather thought that Lily and Bella were…well it didn’t matter.
“We do adore your nephews sir,” Bella continued, “but we long suspected Freddie and Will were avoiding matrimonial shackles at all cost and we aren’t getting any younger,” she shrugged, ignoring the snort coming from William.
“And of course they’re so charming, we simply couldn’t resist,” Lily said, wanting to laugh at Frederick’s smug expression.
“We hope to make the announcement to the village the night of the Festival. It will be a grand celebration,” Bella said enthusiastically.
“Aren’t you due back in Canada soon?” Albert said pointedly.
“Indeed we are. And these wonderful women have happily agreed to accompany us.” William looked at his bewildered Uncle surprised by the almost dismayed look on his face. He would have expected at least a triumphant smirk.
“Yes well congratulations,” Albert finally said and then looked at his sister.
“Edith, why don’t you and the ladies get to your planning? I think I should speak to these young men regarding their intentions.”
The three men excused themselves and Bella and Lily exchanged a look that Edith couldn’t quite decipher.
“Well I hope you don’t mind my saying, this is all kind of sudden,” Edith commented casually as she returned to her seat.
“Love is like that,” Lily said and then glanced at Bella. “It comes in the most surprising of packages.”
Bella smiled shyly and then quickly looked away before Edith noticed or she did something entirely inappropriate.
“You asked them to marry you?” Albert all but shouted once he led his nephews into a private room.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” William asked coldly. “You wanted to show that Bella and Lily would leave us and here we are. You won. You should be gloating.”
Albert grunted and paced around the room.
“Well I didn’t expect you’d go so far as to propose to the girls,” he finally said. “That’s….now they’ll never forgive you. Or me, when they find out. Which they’re supposed to do in two days,” he reminded them.
“Yes, well what do we care after they betrayed us?” Frederick snapped. “It was all I could do not to teach Bella a lesson about constancy.”
“And Lily too,” William agreed coldly. “Every time I think about the way she was looking at you brother, I wanted to…”
“Hey now,” Albert interrupted nervously. “You boys need to calm down. I’m sure the girls are just…”
“They’re fickle, just as you said,” Frederick interrupted, barely able to keep from laughing at his Uncle’s panic stricken face.
Albert ran his hands over his face. No, this wasn’t what he’d expected at all. “Look boys, you have to understand these girls are lonely and all they’ve known is you. It was simply the experience of having new suitors that’s all. Once you appear as yourselves, all can go back as it was,” he said hopefully.
William frowned. Something was definitely off with his Uncle’s reaction which should have been one of superiority and ‘I told you so.’ “And when are we to end this farce?” he asked, finding it difficult to main his furious demeanor in the face of his poor Uncle’s anxiety, but he knew he must.
“We need to do this before the Festival,’ Frederick said with all the false anger he could muster. “I won’t be humiliated in front of the entire village.
Albert sighed. “Very well. We’ll go back to the ladies and tell them we are returning to the manor today. We can get you shaved and use the mixture my friend David gave us to remove the coloring from your hair. And then we can come back and we’ll reveal the truth.”
“And get our revenge,” William forced a fierce scowl.
Albert briefly considered saying forget it and just telling the girls now but he was actually more afraid of Bella and Lily’s reaction to his true purpose than his nephews.
“Very well,” he acknowledged.
“Leaving? Today?” Edith scowled at her brother. “What about the Festival? There’s still so much planning to do.”
Lily’s heart was racing at the unexpected hope of finally having Bella for herself. “Nonsense Edith,” she said quickly, fighting the urge to look at Bella “While we appreciate all that you’ve done, the Festival is planned. All that’s left is the setting up and we will do that the morning of the event.”
Frederick sensed Bella fidgeting beside him and he was very tempted to just step forward and shoo his Aunt and Uncle from the house as quickly as possible.
“I have to say that while there is no greater pain than parting from my beloved,” He cast a ridiculous look of adoration at Lily, and grinning when she rolled her eyes, “I think we have intruded on these lovely ladies hospitality long enough.”
“And we still have business to discuss,” William added, “which I fear will never be accomplished as long as we have such beautiful distractions,” he said kissing Bella’s hand and drawing a giggle.
Edith looked between her brother and two young couples, eyes narrowed suspiciously. Something was afoot and she was going to drag it out of one of the men if it killed her.
“Very well, let me go prepare my bags,” she said.
“I’ll help you,” Bella offered, almost giddy at knowing that very soon she and Lily would finally be alone.
After an hour, Lily and Bella were escorting their guests out to their waiting carriage.
“Thank you both for all your assistance with everything,” Lily said as Edith hugged her.
“You’re more than welcome,” the older woman said kindly. “I’m just relieved that you recovered after your spell dear,” she added to Bella before embracing her as well.
“Thank you,” Bella said, looking away as her cheeks heated in remembered embarrassment. “I must again apologize for that,” she said but then all discomfort disappeared as she felt Lily’s warm hand slide into hers.
“Think nothing of it,” Albert assured her. “We’re just relieved you are alright.”
“I must admit it was that moment that showed me the depth of my feelings for this incredible woman,” William said grandly as he lifted Bella’s free hand to his lips. He smiled as the pink on her cheeks darkened and Lily’s eyes narrowed in warning.
“Yes, well perhaps we should leave our dear fiancée’s in peace for now,” he said quickly.
“We thank you for taking us in when we were ill,” Frederick said warmly, “and for allowing us to win your hearts,” he finished with a kiss to Lily’s fingers
“Yes,” Lily said shyly, “when you find your soulmate, it’s extremely easy to lose your heart,” she finished, casting her eyes at Bella.
“It still all seems sudden,” Albert muttered but then smiled at the two women who were almost like daughters to him. “However, you all deserve to be happy. Now, I think we should be going.” He finished gruffly, never comfortable with affectionate displays, even more so when he knew he’d made a grievous error that was going to hurt two innocent women.
Frederick and William helped Albert and Edith into the carriage before turning to Lily and Bella and pulling them a little ways from the carriage.
“So the plan is that in two days, after we change our hair back and get rid of these ridiculous things” Frederick began, tugging at his beard, we storm back here with Albert in tow, allegedly outraged at your betrayal and that’s when we give Albert the surprise of his life.”
“I don’t know Frederick, I don’t want to scare him into apoplexy,” Lily said, starting to wonder if frightening an old man was really a wise thing.
“He’ll be fine Lil,” William assured her. “We won’t let it get that far.”
“Alright Will,” she said. “I’m just ready for all of this to be over.”
“I bet you are,” Frederick leered, looking between Bella and Lily and laughing outright at the matching blushes.
“You’re a beast,” Bella muttered, slapping him in the chest.
“I know,” he replied proudly.
“Well we should be leaving,” William prodded his brother and then he looked at the two dearest people he’d ever known.
“I’m so happy that you both have found each other,” he said sincerely. “I know it’s only a little respite before our next little drama, but I hope you can finally talk and…”
“Yes,” Lily interrupted, embarrassed and considerably uncomfortable at having her former beau advising her on spending time with her new…well, Bella. “Thank you, Will. And thank you Freddie for everything,” she said honestly.
“Just be happy,” William said kissing her on the cheek before making a show of fawning over his presumed betrothed Bella while Frederick did the same with Lily.
Finally the carriage was on its way and Lily and Bella were alone. Now that the moment had finally arrived, neither woman knew exactly what to do or say.
After a long and unusually awkward silence, Bella turned to Lily. “Cup of tea then?” she asked casually and Lily fund herself laughing.
“Oh Bella, you never cease to amaze me,” she said and as she always did, she took Bella’s hand, but now the contact seemed so much more and she thought she could easily become overwhelmed by the emotions running through her.
“I hope that’s meant in a good way,” Bella said happily.
“Most of the time,” Lily teased, laughing when Bella stuck her tongue out at her.
Dina greeted them at the door, basking in the evident happiness between her two mistresses. A happiness that had seemed a little strained of late.
“Well your gentlemen are gone then?” She asked
“Yes,” Lily said, barely able to disguise the relief in her voice.
“Pity. I’ll miss seeing some handsome faces around here.”
“I’m sure Robert and Davis would be hurt by that statement,” Bella teased the young maid.
“Not if they don’t know I said it,” Dina returned easily.
“I can’t argue with that logic,” Bella chuckled.
“Now that we’re guest free, is here anything specific you need before I go help Maria clean the rooms?”
Lily and Bella exchanged a look.
“Yes, some tea would be lovely,” Lily requested and then paused, fear causing a lump in her throat but as she looked into Bella’s eyes, she saw a little spark of something that she instinctively knew was just for her and she stiffened her spine.
“And, you can leave the rooms for tomorrow. We’re giving you and the rest of the staff the night off.”
Dina’s eyes widened. “That’s not necessary,” she argued curiously. Nights off weren’t uncommon at all, but not when there was work to be done.
“I know,” Lily said, trying not to sound suspiciously demanding. “However, it’s been a very hectic and stressful week for Bella and myself, not to mention you and everyone else, and we’d simply like a nice, quiet and relaxing evening and you and the others deserve it. The house can wait until tomorrow and Bella and I can find something to eat on our own.”
Dina wanted to decline, even though she wouldn’t be opposed to visiting her parents for the night, but she suspected that it would do no good. For some reason Mistress Lily had an insistent look on her face, so she shrugged.
“Alright then. Thank you. I’ll fetch the tea and tell the others. Mrs. Brown will probably have a tantrum though.”
“I’ll speak to her,” Lily said with a smile. The older woman didn’t take kindly to being shooed out of her kitchen.
“It’s your health,” Dina said negligently and headed to the kitchen, with Lily and Bella staying behind.
Lily met Bella’s gaze. “Soon,” was all she said, was all she needed to say.
Bella’s lips lifted in a slow smile feeling more confident than she ever had She leaned forward. “I can hardly wait,” she whispered, lips brushing Lily’s ear and the resulting shiver caused her to chuckle softly.
“You’re flirtation is vastly improving,” Lily said more breathlessly than she would have liked.
“Because with you I mean it,” Bella replied sincerely.
Lily released a yearning sigh at the simple yet heartfelt words. “I do believe this is a side of you I can grow quite fond of.”
“That’s good to know,” Bella smiled. “Now, shall we go brave the wrath of Mrs. Brown and then have some tea?”
“We shall.” She linked her arm through Lily’s and followed Dina to the kitchen.
To everyone’s amazement, Mrs. Brown was a lot less reluctant to leave than they’d anticipated. She had initially refused, but one look at her mistresses had her reconsidering.
“Well that took long enough,” she said decisively.
Both Bella and Lily gaped at their cook in shock and with a little fear.
“I beg your pardon Mrs. Brown?” Bella asked with a nervous laugh.
Mrs. Brown offered a rare smile as she prepared the tea. “Never mind Miss Bella. As it is, I think I am a little tired so I shall take you up on your offer and spend the evening with my daughter.”
“That was almost too easy. Do you think she poisoned the tea?” Bella muttered to Lily, drawing a giggle from the blonde and a glare from the cook.
“No but you have given me the idea,” Mrs. Brown quipped blandly, while the two young women simply laughed.
“There are two fresh loaves of bread as well as soup and cheese in the icebox should you get hungry. I know your mother insisted on you knowing how to use the stove so I’m sure you ladies are capable of fending for yourselves for one day.”
“Thanks…I think,” Lily replied, wondering if she’d been insulted or not.
“Well then, you let me get things organized here and then I’ll be out of your hair.”
“Thank you Mrs. Brown.” Once the kettle was ready, Lily filled up the pot while Bella grabbed a tray with cups and sugar.
“We’ll see you tomorrow,” Bella offered.
“Bright and early,” Mrs. Brown replied. “Now you ladies enjoy yourselves,” she said with a knowing smile.
“Mrs. Brown, are you trying to tell us something?” Lily asked nervously.
Mrs. Brown considered denying it, but she thought these two special young women should understand something.
“I realize this isn’t my place,” she began, hoping she wasn’t mistaken.
“Mrs. Brown you know you can always speak honestly to us,” Lily assured the old woman.
“Very well,” she said and braced herself. “I’ve known you both since you were knee high and have loved you both like my own.”
“Oh dear Mrs. Brown, we love you too,” Bella assured her, taking the older woman’s hand.
“Yes, well I’ve watched you grow up and I could see early on how close you were becoming especially once you grew older and it always hurt my heart a little to see you fighting it.”
Lily and Bella exchanged a glance filled with hope and fear.
“Fighting what?” Bella asked awkwardly.
“Oh Miss Bella, you never could fool anyone with that innocent look,” Mrs. Brown laughed. “If any two people belonged together it’s you two and there’s not a person here who won’t delight in knowing that you both have accepted the love we’ve all seen growing between you.”
Lily swallowed. “Are you….are you saying that everyone knows?” she asked, not bothering to deny it. She’d never deny her feelings for Bella as if she was ashamed.
“Please don’t think you are the subject of idle gossip. That’s not the case and I can’t speak for your employees at the winery,, but yes all of us that work in the house, we’ve all suspected for quite some time. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but it wasn’t hard to see, well to any except yourselves,” she smiled gently.
“Oh dear,” Bella whispered.
“You don’t think it’s wrong? I mean we grew up almost like sisters,” Lily voiced her one true fear. “You don’t think I took advantage of her?”
Bella’s eyes widened. She hadn’t even considered Lily would think that. “Hardly,” she blurted, drawing a rare and approving laugh from Mrs. Brown.
“Of course not dear. You’re relationship has always been looked on as very close, but after a year or so it was clear there was nothing sisterly about how both of you felt. And there isn’t a single person here who believes Bella would allow herself to be taken advantage of. You really have nothing to fear,” Mrs. Brown finished earnestly. “We’ve all been hoping the two of you would open your eyes and nobody here will sit in judgment or be anything but happy for you.”
Swallowing her tears, Bella promptly flung her arms around the cook’s neck.
“Thank you Mrs. Brown. We…. I am very happy.”
“We both are,” Lily affirmed, also reaching out to embrace their beloved cook.
“Yes well,” Mrs. Brown coughed awkwardly, having displayed more emotion than she was comfortable with.
“You’re both good girls,” she muttered. “Now, go on with you so I can finish up and be on my way.”
Lily and Bella left the kitchen, both feeling a lightness of spirit and an increasing sense of anticipation. They decided to have their tea in the study, where the fire was already lit and it was a lot more intimate for the conversation they were going to have.
Bella placed the tea tray on the table and poured a cup for herself and one for Lily, already knowing exactly how she liked it and then joined the blonde on the sofa, allowing herself to sit closer than was even remotely appropriate.
Neither woman said anything for a while. They simply enjoyed the warmth of the fire and their tea as each took the time to gather their thoughts and slow their racing hearts.
Eventually they heard a knock on the door and looked up when Dina poked her head in.
“Everyone has gone,” she announced, “and I wanted to see if you need anything before I leave.”
“No thank you Dina,” Lily answered. “Just enjoy your day off.”
“Yes ma’am,” she said, eyeing the two women speculatively and then without another word she left, closing the door behind her.
“Oh thank God, alone at last,” Bella sighed happily.
Lily laughed and nudged Bella’s leg. “Dina would be hurt if she heard you.”
“Well that’s what she would get for eavesdropping,” Bella quipped, as always basking in Lily’s full laugh.
“So,” Lily said, suddenly at a loss for what to say.
“So,” Bella replied. A very big part of her wanted nothing more than to put her cup down and kiss the blonde watching her so intently. She knew that kissing Lily had become her new favorite pastime.
“Do you have any idea what we’re supposed to do now?” Lily giggled nervously, trying not to be distracted by the look on Bella’s face, however when she dropped her eyes she was faced again with the distraction of the low cut nature of Bella’s gowns. She really should consider talking to Bella about it because the vision they presented increased her temperature to a dangerous level.
“Well I have some ideas,” Bella grinned, boldly lifting her hand to toy with a lock of Lily’s blond hair.
“I had no idea you were this brazen,” Lily teased.
“I didn’t either, but I rather like it,” Bella replied cheekily.
“How is it that for so many years, the only thing that ever made me happy was being near you,” Lily began. “For so long, anytime I saw you or held your hand, my heart raced and I wanted something I could never explain and your lips,” she paused as she let her thumb brush against Bella’s mouth, “I could barely stop from staring at them and wondering if they could possibly be as soft as they look. How could I feel all that and not know it was love?”
Bella covered Lily’s hand and kissed the thumb that had been tracing her lips. “I don’t know.” She frowned as she tried to organize her thoughts. “I’ve known for some time that my feelings for you were stronger than what would be considered normal. I knew that there wasn’t a moment in the day that I wasn’t thinking about you and that every time I saw your eyes fall to my lips, I would become lightheaded and I would feel this need I didn’t understand, but I was too afraid of losing you to think about it.”
“Is that why you sometimes seemed to run away from me?”
Bella nodded. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t risk you knowing. I couldn’t bear the thought of you finding me disgusting.”
Lily gasped. “Bella that could never happen. Ever. Even if I wasn’t head over heels in love with you, I would never, ever see you as disgusting. Ever,” she insisted adamantly.
Bella smiled in relief and sweetly kissed the back of Lily’s hand. “Thank you Lil.”
“Still, I’ll never understand how our feelings be so strong and we never recognized it?” Lily asked.
Bella smiled. “You’re thinking too much again,” she teased. “I think that we never really understood our feelings because we didn’t know this love was possible and we’ve known each other so long and have spent so much time together, we just weren’t aware of when our feelings shifted. Not to mention Freddie and Will were always there distracting us.”
Lily laughed softly. “They were underfoot all the time so it isn’t so surprising we never noticed.”
“Well not until Peter and Jonathan made their appearance anyway,” Bella corrected.
“I still can’t believe what they did,” Lily replied with a mixture of lingering anger and amusement.
“I can’t believe they colored their hair,” Bella laughed, thinking Frederick looked ridiculous as a blonde.
“I wonder how they plan on getting rid of it in two days.”
“Maybe they’ll shave their heads,” Bella said and then she and Lily burst out laughing at the imagery of their two debonair suitors walking about bald.
Finally their laughter slowed. “I was afraid you know,” Lily admitted shyly.
Lily nodded. “You seemed quite taken with William…I mean Peter and I thought you were…”
“No,” Bella interrupted earnestly. “I wasn’t. I just…I was so confused and Jonathan was gone. I began to fear that if you learned of my feelings for you before Johnathan returned I would lose you too and ….well there’s a difference between what’s certain and what’s not,” she finished lamely.
“Oh Bel, I hope you know now that if there’s anything certain in the world it’s how I feel about you.”
“I do now,” Bella replied.
Lily pulled Bella into her arms. “I don’t think I will ever forgive your parents for what they did to you,” she said quietly, rubbing her cheek against Bella’s soft hair. She silently berated herself for having missed just how afraid Bella had been of being abandoned again.
“I already have forgiven them,” Bella said softly.
Lily wasn’t really surprised. Bella had the biggest heart in the world, but she still had to ask. “Why?”
“It brought me to you,” Bella answered honestly, “so how can I be angry for that?” She pulled back so she could look into Lily’s face.
“If I could go back in time and have my parents stay or take me with them, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t give up knowing you…loving you for anything in the world.” And then unable to resist any longer, she kissed her.
It started slowly, neither in a particular hurry to rush the amazing sensations that were still so new, but soon it wasn’t enough. Lily’s long fingers pushed into Bella’s hair, freeing the silky mass from its restraint as Bella’s arms slid around her pulling her tightly against her. They both gasped at the incredible sensation.
“I need…” Bella whispered breathlessly into Lily’s ear but stopped when she wasn’t exactly sure what it is she needed.
“I know,” Lily finished for her. “I just don’t know what I’m doing,” she laughed and dropped her face into Bella’s neck.
“I never thought I’d hear you admit to that,” Bella teased and then gasped when she felt warm lips against her throat.
“That’s because I usually know everything,” Lily replied, nipping at Bella’s chin before pulling back.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Bella quipped, hoping she wasn’t about to collapse with heart palpitations.
“Do you really want to discuss my intelligence right now?” Lily questioned even as she let herself do something she never knew she wanted to do until the night before. She lifted her hand and tentatively trailed a finger across the top of Bella’s bodice, feeling the warm skin that was so beautiful and so constantly on display.
“Not really,” Bella managed to reply between her little whimpers. “What are you doing?”
Lily pulled her eyes away from the hypnotic sight of her beautiful bosom.
“Exploring,” she smiled. “And there’s quite a bit to see so it might take a while.”
Bella looked down at her chest and blushed furiously. She had no idea how much of herself was exposed to the world.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me,” she said, lifting a hand to cover herself, but Lily’s hand stopped her.
“Bella stop. Don’t be ashamed,” she urged. Bella’s self-consciousness erased all of her previous thoughts about telling her to cover up. “You’re not indecent sweetheart. You’re beautiful. It’s just…”
“Just what?” Bella whispered.
“It’s just that you are so beautiful and I don’t want anyone else to look at you,” Lily admitted with embarrassment.
“Oh possessive are we?” Bella smirked, though her heart flipped happily.
“Oh most definitely,” Lily said seriously. “Does that bother you?”
“With anyone else it most likely would,” Bella answered, “but not you because I feel the same way.”
Lily’s hand went to Bella’s neck as she let her thumb caress the strong jaw and she lost herself in beautiful green eyes.
“After my parents died, I never thought I’d be truly happy again but here we are,” she smiled gently.
“Would your parents…do you think they’d approve? Of me?” Bella asked tentatively.
Lily frowned and she thought back to all she knew of her parents and how they were with Bella and how they teased the two of them about their closeness yet never pushed them to marry Freddie or Will.
“I don’t know,” Lily said honestly. “I like to think so. They loved you dearly Bella and they knew how happy you made me. I believe they would take joy in knowing I’ve found my heart and if it isn’t destined to be William than they would want it to be you.”
All of a sudden everything, Lily’s sweet words, the adoring looks, the sweet kisses, and the realization that maybe she was loveable after all, it all seemed too much for her heart to absorb and she began to cry.
Lily’s hands instantly went to her face. ”Oh Bel, please don’t cry, I can’t bear it.”
Bella shook her head. “I’m sorry Lil. I’m just so…I can’t believe you really love me. The way I love you.”
Lily smiled. “Oh sweetheart, believe it,” she said, just before leaning in and kissing the sweet lips that so often tempted her and that she could now taste whenever she wanted.
This kiss was different. It was more desperate as if they both needed to assure each other just how much they were loved and then it morphed into pure desire as they each felt a burning need they couldn’t describe but had to explore.
Lily returned her lips to Bella’s neck, discovering for herself just how wonderful she tasted. Bella, meanwhile lifted trembling hands to Lily’s waist where she briefly paused before sliding them upward and stopping just as her thumbs brushed Lily’s full breasts. She hissed as Lily’s teeth nipped her throat in response.
“Oh my God,” Bella gasped, fire raging through her at the sensation.
“Did I hurt you?” Lily asked frightened as she looked at the mark she’d left on Bella’s skin.
“If you did, you’re more than welcome to hurt me again,” Bella chuckled weakly.
“God, it’s no wonder men behave the way they do,” Lily panted, thumb stroking over the darkening bruise, hoping to ease any pain she may have caused Bella.
“Lily, if kissing you does this to me, I’m not sure I’ll survive if we do anything further,” Bella told her, even as she pulled the blonde closer. “By the way, do you have any idea what that….’further’ entails?”
Lily laughed and placed a kiss over Bella’s heart. “No, but I’ve always thought learning can be fun.”
Bella let out a mock groan. “Lily, you know how I feel about learning,” she pouted. A giggling Lily kissed her way slowly up her throat and then across her jaw. She stopped and hovered over Bella’s grinning lips.
“Are you sure you won’t reconsider your opinion?”
Bella leaned forward and flicked her tongue over Lily’s lips. “You always could talk me into anything,”
Kissing someone while laughing was a unique experience for both of them.
It was quite a while later before both women felt it was imperative to step back from the still unfamiliar desires driving them.
“Let’s go shopping,” Bella finally said as she fought to still her racing heart.
Lily nodded in agreement. “I think that’s a good idea. As much as I enjoy being here like this with you, I’m still a little nervous.”
“I am too. And I’m afraid that if we go too fast, one or both of us will panic and fall into a coma or something,” Bella commented, reaching up to straighten her hair as best she could.
Lily merely laughed. “You’re so dramatic,” she teased, attempting to repair her own hair.
“I know,” Bella grinned. “It keeps you entertained, yes?”
“Always,” Lily agreed and then got to her feet, surprised at how shaky her legs were. She held out her hand which Bella promptly accepted.
It had been a lovely afternoon. They had ridden into town where they had visited the shops, treating themselves to new books and other trinkets they didn’t need but found they wanted. They had followed their shopping with tea at one of the restaurants in the village where they discussed the festival and William and Frederick’s plans, both amused at the idea of teaching Albert Wainwright a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget. Lily had wanted to go speak to Harold Miller, the restaurant owner about the catering for the party and Bella unexpectedly said she had an errand to run.
Lily asked what it could be but Bella offered one of her cheeky smiles and said she’d be back shortly. Lily just shook her head and went to finish her business.
Once they’d spoken to all the business participants about arrangements for setting up for the festival in the town center, they returned home.
It was strange for both of them to enter an empty house. As long as either could remember, Robert had been there to greet them when the entered the house and there had been the giggles of Dina and Maria and the other servants filling the house followed by grumbles from Mrs. Brown. Now it was just them.
“Dinner?” Lily asked as they hung up their coats.
“Alright. Are you entirely sure we aren’t about to poison ourselves?” Bella laughed.
“Very funny,” Lily quipped. “Have you already forgotten those blissful hours mother insisted we help Mrs. Brown in the kitchen so we would know how?”
Bella gave a mock shudder. “How could I forget the horror?”
“You loved it,” Lily gave nudged her playfully.
“I enjoyed stealing cookies,” Bella admitted.
“I’m surprised your knuckles don’t have permanent spoon marks.”
“You’re just precious,” Bella retorted, sticking her tongue out.
“I know. Now, let’s go see what Mrs. Brown left us.”
They managed to heat the soup that had been put in the icebox and there had been some fresh bread and a bottle of wine. They had decided to dine in the kitchen and it had been perfect. The conversation had been as light and enjoyable as always, with the added bonus of occasional touches and soft smiles.
When they had finished, Bella went upstairs to light the fires in their bedrooms to heat water for their baths and then joined Lily in the study where they curled up on the sofa together and merely read their new books for a while and enjoyed each other’s company.
It wasn’t long before Bella’s attention was diverted from her book by a warm pressure on her shoulder. She looked and her heart fluttered to see Lily had fallen asleep against her. Lily was such an incredibly strong woman, that she would willingly let herself be vulnerable in such a way and with her, made her want to weep with love and happiness.
“Lily?” she whispered quietly, not wanting to frighten her. She fought a giggle at the soft snore she got in response. “Lil, wake up.”
Lily moaned and then slowly opened her eyes. “Oh Bel, I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“It’s alright,” Bella assured her. “I think it’s time we retire though.”
“You’re right, Lily said getting to her feet.
Almost instinctively they joined hands and made their way up the stairs as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And for them it was.
The awkwardness came after they’d worked together to fill the tubs and had to help remove each other’s gowns. They’d done it so many times before but now they were both having to deal with fingers that wanted to explore warm soft skin as it was exposed.
“I had no idea I could feel this way,” Bella sighed as Lily took her time removing her stays.
“It’s a bit overwhelming isn’t it?” Lily agreed distractedly, finding herself stepping closer and tracing a finger across Bella’s soft shoulder. Inexplicably the resulting shiver caused her to tremble in response.
“Yes, but it’s wonderful,” Bella rasped, the feeling of Lily’s fingers doing amazing things to her insides. Suddenly she felt a compulsion that wouldn’t be denied. She spun around and slid her hands onto Lily’s waist.
“I now know what desire is now,” she said lowly, pulling Lily closer, “but it still pales in comparison to the love I feel for you.”
Lily smiled and cupped Bella’s face. “I adore you.” She reached up and tenderly kissed Bella’s lips.
“So…do you…would you…?” Lily paused, feeling uncharacteristically afraid.
“Would I what?”
Lily sighed. “When you’ve finished, I was wondering if you’d like to…well, would you like to share my room like we used to.”
Bella gaped at the blonde. “You mean…” her heart nearly leapt out of her chest at the idea.
“Well, we don’t….I’m not ready to…you know…do anything,” Lily blushed furiously, “but I just…I want to be close to you, while we have the house to ourselves.”
Bella smiled, somewhat amused to discover that for once she was actually the more confident one at this moment.
“Nothing would make me happier,” she agreed. “I won’t be long and then I’ll come to you.”
Lily nodded and then left to take care of her own bathing, anticipation and nerves warring inside of her.
In a remarkably short amount of time, Bella had finished her bath and slid on a clean nightgown. She took a shaky breath and after dousing the fire in the fireplace, picked up a small package from her dressing table and made her way to Bella’s room with as much courage as she could muster.
She knocked, hoping beyond hope that Lily was actually finished with her bath. She wasn’t even close to prepared for a naked Lily.
“You don’t have to knock silly,” Lily called and Bella relaxed and opened the door. The only light came from the fireplace, casting the large bedroom in shadows that couldn’t only be described as romantic.
“Are you sure?” Lily asked, when Belly was standing before her.
“I’m positive,” Bella said with a firmness that surprised her. Then she took Lily’s hand and led her to the bed. When they were seated, Bella held out the small, neatly wrapped box.
“For me?” Lily asked with surprise.
Bella rolled her eyes. “No, it’s for me, I was just showing it to you,” she drawled sarcastically, laughing when Lily slapped her arm. “Of course it’s for you, goose.”
Lily saw the smile on Bella’s lips, but there was still a wariness in her eyes. She took the gift and opened it, gasping when she saw what was inside.
“Oh my,” she breathed as she stared at the stunning heart shaped sapphire necklace.
Bella blushed. “I saw it while we were shopping and I immediately thought of your eyes. And that sounded incredibly absurd didn’t it?”
“Oh no Bella,” Lily said, tears stinging her eyes. “Never absurd. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Put it on me?” she asked, turning her back to Bella and pulled her hair out of the way.
Bella swallowed as she tried to ignore the very tempting skin in front of her. She picked up the delicate chain and slowly placed it around Lily’s neck. Unable to help herself, she dropped her head and placed a kiss on Lily’s shoulder.
“So soft,” she said almost to herself.
Lily gasped at the feel of hot lips against her and the husky sound of Bella’s voice was doing incredible things to her. She turned back to face the woman she loved.
“Thank you Bella. I love it.”
“You’re welcome,” Bella replied simply and then both women fell silent. It was incredibly nerve-wracking for both of them.
“Are you alright?” Lily finally whispered.
“Perfect,” Bella answered just as softly. She leaned forward and placed her lips against Lily’s. Something inside of her wanted more and the little whimper coming from Lily told her the feeling was mutual, but both were still unclear on how to proceed.
“You are so beautiful,” Lily stated sincerely, charmed as always by the delightful blush on Bella’s cheek.
“You’re the one who’s beautiful,” Bella answered. “You have been so good to me when you had every right to resent me.”
“Oh Bella, even if I wanted to resent you I couldn’t. The first time I looked into your eyes I was lost. All I wanted to do then was make you happy and that’s all I want now.”
“And I have been. You have been my happiness Lily. And you always will be.”
There was no way Lily wasn’t going to kiss Bella after that earnest declaration and so she did. She thought that she could happily spend the rest of her life doing nothing but kissing this woman who’d had her heart the moment they’d met.
Lily reluctantly pulled away, her body sending her mind very detailed suggestions on how to please Bella. Suggestions she simply wasn’t ready to process yet.
“Goodnight Bel,” she said reluctantly.
“Goodnight Lil,” Bella whispered and they both slid under the covers. Bella took Lily’s hand and rested her head on the pillow next to the blondes, staring contentedly into sleepy blue eyes.
It was only seconds later before they both drifted off to sleep.