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the heart was meant to beat freely

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Sun beat through the tall windows fiercely. Beatrice, squinting in the harsh light, was nonetheless scrubbing hard at the dusty windows.

Though her arm was beginning to ache, Beatrice felt at peace. It was a quiet Thursday afternoon. The world was almost silent, besides the faint traffic outside and the muffled sound of Olivia practicing piano in another room.

Then Beatrice heard footsteps. From the reflection in the window, she could see Mrs. Veronica Billings standing behind her, her blonde hair curled and pinned neatly, her hands folded before her. Her expression was unreadable.

Beatrice turned. "Yes, ma'am? Is there something you need?"

Veronica Billings seemed to appraise Beatrice. "No, no, it's just that William will be home soon. I thought I'd wait for him. And I suppose I wanted to ask -- what do you think of this dress?"

Beatrice had been trying not to notice, but now, she couldn't help it. The dress was red, and clung to Veronica like a second skin. Quickly Beatrice lowered her eyes, but it didn't help. The sleek fabric brushed against Veronica's legs sensually.

Beatrice hurriedly lifted her gaze back up. Realizing she should respond, she stammered, "It's very beautiful, ma'am. What's the occasion?"

"Oh, nothing," Veronica said. "I bought this dress just last week, and I have been dying to wear it."

"It's very beautiful," Beatrice repeated.

"I wonder what you'd look like in it," Veronica said. Hastily, she added, "Hypothetically, of course. You know how the same clothes can look different on different people."

"Yes, ma'am," Beatrice said. "I'm . . . I'm sure Mr. Billings will think it's lovely."

Veronica smiled tightly. "You know, my throat is feeling a bit dry. It must be all this sun. Could you fetch me a glass of water?"

"Of course, ma'am." Beatrice hurried off, glad to have a moment to breathe.

It didn't used to be this bad. Over the years, Beatrice had found Veronica... compelling, to be sure. And Veronica had always acted a bit strangely, too: her gaze and touch lingering, asking odd questions, one moment personal and almost earnest, the next distant and cool.

But lately, it seemed, these long-controlled feelings were coming to a head. Beatrice didn't know what was going on on Veronica's end, but she knew what was happening on hers. She was tired of not knowing what to do. She was tired of being silent.

Beatrice walked into the kitchen, where carpet gave way to hard floors. She got a glass and began filling it from the tap. She should add a squeeze of lemon, like Veronica preferred it.

"What are you doing here?" Chef said from behind her.

Beatrice whirled around with a start. Water sloshed out of the glass and spilled on the floor. "S-sorry," she said, hurriedly placing the glass on the counter before crouching down to mop up the water with a nearby towel.

"What are you doing here?" Chef said, looking annoyed.

"Mrs. Billings needed water," Beatrice said.

A smile curled on Chef's lips. "Of course. Always scurrying around for her, aren't you."

"It's my job," Beatrice defended, looking up from the floor. At Chef's annoyed look, she flushed. "Uh, I'll go as soon as I'm done with the spill."

"Oh, leave it," Chef said. "I've cleaned up your messes plenty of times before. Give Mrs. Billings her water."

Face burning, Beatrice all but fled the kitchen. Chef did not like her, and she understood why. And she knew that she was very fortunate to have this job. But sometimes it was so stifling to have to stay quiet and take it.

She walked back into the foyer. "Mrs. Billings, I --"

She stopped. George, the butler, was standing by the door, looking away politely. William Billings was standing in the doorway, his arms wrapped around Veronica's body. They were embracing so tightly that for one morbid moment, it looked to Beatrice as though he was choking the life out of her.

"I missed you, darling," he was saying.

Beatrice stood there, holding Veronica's mostly empty water glass in her hand, and felt a lump in her throat. She choked it down, not wanting to bring attention to herself. But in that moment, all she wanted was to be in Veronica's arms instead of her husband.