Chapter 1: The Paying Guests
Bernie and Serena receive unexpected gifts from their respective offspring.
“We pass each other on the stairs. We meet on the landing. Everything happens on the landing. I had no idea landings could be so thrilling.” - Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests
Bernie was just about to pull off her scrub top after a long, weary shift when the clinical lead of the ward on which she was locuming stuck his head through the locker room door. “Five car pile up on the M32,” he said brusquely, seeming not to notice the exhausted set of her shoulders. “Can you stay?”
Bernie sighed. She was meant to be having dinner with her kids. Since the explosive end of her army career and her marriage, things had been tense between Cameron, Charlotte and her. They’d finally got back to a good place after a lot of time and effort, and she was loath to cancel on them.
On the other hand, she was a trauma surgeon - the best in the country, many would say - and there were five carloads of people who’d have a much better chance of seeing another sunrise if she stayed.
“Yes,” she said, sighing as she closed her locker door. “How long until they get here?”
“Ten minutes,” her boss replied. “We’re sending the minor cases to Holby City. We’ve got four critical patients coming here.”
Bernie nodded. Just enough time to get a strong coffee to keep her awake until the adrenaline kicked in.
* * * * *
“Five car pile up on the M32,” Fletch said, sticking his head in the door to Serena’s office.
She looked up from her computer, blinking owlishly, the email she’d been reading still flashing on the back of her eyelids. “What? We’re not equipped with trauma facilities,” she replied, her heart rate increasing at the thought of dealing with such a major incident on AAU.
“We’re only getting the minor cases,” Fletch reassured her. “The worst are going to the new trauma whizz at St Francis’.”
Serena relaxed minutely. That was something at least, though even the minor injuries from such a major accident would put paid to her plans to clear her emails and get ready for the next day’s board meeting. She sighed. It looked like it was going to be another late night for her.
“Well,” she said, rising to her feet. “Let’s get ready for them then, shall we?”
* * * * *
“You’ve some time off coming up, haven’t you mum?” Bernie’s son, Cameron, asked a few days later, when they’d finally managed to reschedule their planned dinner. Bernie flicked her eyes between her two offspring - Charlotte had managed to change her plans and come too - catching the over-excited look on their faces.
She nodded. She’d informed the locum agency she’d be unavailable for a week in June. “Yes. I was planning to spend a whole week at home doing nothing.”
“Yeah, right.” Charlotte rolled her eyes.
Bernie frowned as she answered. “What?”
“We know what’ll happen. You’ll spend a week tidying and scrubbing the kitchen sink to within an inch of its life,” Cameron replied.
“And at the first available excuse, you’ll call the agency to see if they need any,” Charlotte drew quote marks in the air for emphasis, “emergency cover.”
Berne’s mouth hardened into a thin line, but she didn’t bother arguing. “I seem to have raised a pair of geniuses so tell me, my lovely children, what should I be doing instead?”
Cameron grinned at Charlotte who nodded. He rummaged in his pocket and produced a crisp cream envelope with the words “Enjoy! Love Cam and Lottie,” scrawled in cursive on it.
“What’s this?” Bernie picked up the envelope warily.
Charlotte grinned. “Your home away from home for one whole week.”
* * * * *
“You look tired.”
Serena raised her eyebrow at her typically blunt nephew. “Bless you for that,” she said, taking a sip of her Shiraz and stirring the pasta. It looked like it was still a few minutes off perfect. She glanced at the clock, hoping she could get it on the plate by seven. There’d be hell to pay about Jason’s schedule if she didn’t.
“He’s right, mum,” Elinor said. She was home for the weekend from uni - Serena assumed she needed her washing done and a top up of her bank balance - and seemed to be joining forces with her cousin to batter at what was left of Serena’s ego.
“Well, running a ward, being deputy CEO and tending to your wants and needs, my darlings, is somewhat challenging.” Her voice dripped with weary sarcasm, but neither Jason nor Elinor seemed to pick up on it.
“That’s why we’ve organised a break for you,” Elinor said, her voice bubbling with barely suppressed excitement.
That got Serena’s attention. “What?”
“Mr Hanssen agreed to give you a week’s holiday in June,” Jason said.
An eyebrow crept upwards. “You’ve been arranging my holidays now?”
“We wanted it to be a surprise,” Elinor said, thrusting an envelope into her mother’s hands. “Here you go!”
Serena smiled, touched despite herself by her usually cynical daughter’s enthusiasm. Inside the envelope was a printout of a booking confirmation for an Airbnb. “The Open Book?”
“It’s a bookshop,” Jason explained. “You stay in the flat upstairs and run the shop during the day.”
“We read about it on Buzzfeed,” Elinor added excitedly. “The waiting list is insanely long, but we managed to sneak in after a cancellation.”
Serena blinked. “You’ve booked me a holiday...to run a shop.” She checked the sheet again. “In Scotland.”
“You love to read, mum,” Elinor said, a look of belligerent defensiveness creeping onto her face.
Yes, Serena thought, she loved to read. Did it therefore follow that she wanted to spend her exceedingly precious time away from the hospital working in a bookshop? A winery tour on the Amalfi coast? Yes. A beach holiday where she could do nothing but quietly toast and forget about everything? Yes. Even a ‘staycation’, pottering about at home and making a dent in her stack of unopened novels would be fine. But this?
Still. They had meant well.
“Of course I do, darling,” Serena said, forcing a smile onto her face. “It sounds wonderful.”
* * * * *
Of course, since the trip had been sprung on her at the last moment, there was no time to book transport other than her own car. It was going to take six hours at the least - probably more like seven, factoring in the inevitable traffic around Birmingham. She’d loaded her phone with music and audiobooks and the boot with clothes for the week, plus her laptop. She thought she might manage the odd email or scan through board presentations or weekly ward reports.
She set off bright and early at eight o’clock, waving to Jason and the cover carer she’d arranged for the week. Bracing herself for a long, uncomfortable day, she slipped into first gear and set off.
Six and a half hours later, just as she’d begun to think she’d arrive in Wigtown - a ridiculous name - with no dramatic upsets, Serena’s brow furrowed in confusion and then mild panic when her car seemed to suddenly lose forward propulsion. Her eyes flicked to the petrol gauge out of habit and, yes, it was more than half full. The engine shuddered a final time before going completely silent and she found herself at the mercy of Newton’s First Law, waiting helplessly for the Third Law to take over and render her motionless. She realised, of course, that this entire thought process was irrelevant but she couldn’t help herself. Her hands clutched a little tighter to the steering wheel as she looked for somewhere safe to stop.
The gods must have been on her side because a lopsided sign marking a layby lay straight ahead and she steered towards it gratefully. It was perfect timing as the engine whined one last time before going completely dead. Serena groaned in dismay as she watched a puff of steam grow as it escaped the gap between the bonnet and the car.
Well. It wasn’t like she really wanted to get there that badly anyway.
* * * * *
“Engine been growling or whining?”
Serena was vaguely aware that she’d heard something but she couldn’t be sure what. She pulled her coat around her a little tighter when another gust of wind blew in her direction. It should be illegal to be this cold in June. Serena imagined she’d be pottering about in short sleeves and capris had she been home. Still, this trip was a present from Elinor and Jason and she was determined to attempt to enjoy it.
The voice grew louder.
“Any intermittent smell of hot or burning rubber?”
Serena turned round found herself staring at what in her mind was a poor excuse for a mechanic. She narrowed her eyes as she scrutinised the figure walking towards her. The AA must be slacking these days.
The face was half hidden by an upturned collar and an untidy mop of blonde curls currently being whipped around by the increasing bluster.
“Alternator might be cactus.”
Serena arched an eyebrow. “Cactus?” Car engines weren’t her area of expertise but the descriptor didn’t inspire confidence even to her inexperienced ears. It’d probably be just her luck to get a newbie who hadn’t a clue.
A hand lifted and swiped at the unruly fringe. Not that it did much good, but Serena didn’t think it was appropriate to point that out. The last thing she needed, after all, was to ruin her preferred way out of this freezing layby. Her destination was still miles away and that was not a walk she was looking forward to.
“Do you think you could get me up and running again?” she asked hopefully.
The head turned towards her, revealing the slender face of a woman about her age, Serena surmised, judging by the tiny crinkling of wrinkles in the corners of her eyes as she smiled. “I’m not a mechanic. But I can give you a lift down the road if you want. There’s a small town about three miles that way.”
Serena shook her head. “Thanks, but the AA is on its way and I might as well get my annual subscription’s worth.”
The blonde head nodded, shoulders shrugging. “Fair enough.” Another blast of wind swept through and they pulled their coats tighter, almost simultaneously. Serena almost entertained the idea of accepting the offer after all as the chill sank into her bones but her would-be benefactor was already trudging her way back to her petrol blue convertible. The lanky figure paused just before climbing into the car, turning towards Serena with a vague smile. “Good luck.”
Serena watched as the MX5 gained momentum as it sped away. She recognised the car. She’d been seeing it on and off all day - it was almost like the two of them were making the exact same journey.
She shivered when another, now familiar, gust ruffled her hair and reached for the car door handle. There wasn’t any guarantee that help would appear soon and she might as well be comfortable while she waited. No point freezing in the wind, after all.
* * * * *
Help in the form of a bright yellow van trundled up sooner than she’d expected. She stayed bundled up and warm in the car while a lovely man in an AA jumpsuit studied the inner workings under the bonnet.
“The alternator’s knackered.”
Serena opened the door and pulled herself out of the car. “Sorry?”
That word again. Perhaps the leggy blonde stranger knew what she was talking about after all.
“Can you get me up and running again today?”
“Och, aye. Just need to disconnect everything and put it all together again.” He saw the frown on her face and waved dismissively. “Don’t worry, hen. I’ll have you on your way soon. Half an hour at most.”
Serena heaved a sigh of relief and nodded with a grateful smile. She groaned and drew her coat a little tighter as yet another blast of wind blew in their direction, even as she paced back and forth along the grassy verge in an attempt to keep her limbs warm.
The kindly face turned towards her at the sound and grinned. “You should wait in the car. No point both of us freezing our tits aff out here.”
She paused momentarily - they certainly were informal north of the border - before matching his grin in response as she headed for the relative warmth and comfort of the driver’s seat.
* * * * *
The wind had abated by the time Serena pulled out of the layby. The sky was bright blue, a vast contrast to the murky shade of slate it had been just half an hour before. It must be true what they say about the Scottish weather, she chuckled inwardly. Four seasons in one day.
Ten minutes later, she was within sight of houses and finally the busy streets of a small town. She didn’t need the sat-nav as there was only a main road running through the centre of it and she soon spied what she was looking for. The Open Book stood at the end of a row of shops, jutting out into the intersection. The street was narrow and she maneuvered slowly, making sure to avoid the parked cars on either sides of the single carriageway. The reservation said there was on-site parking and she soon found the entrance she was looking for behind the shop. It was a narrow gap, with a low crumbly wall bordering the gravelled space behind it.
Serena breathed a tired sigh of relief as she pulled the key out of the ignition. It had been a long drive but she was finally here. Elinor had suggested getting the train but it was too late to get a ticket by the time she got round to doing it. Her lips twitched upwards as she pulled herself out of the car. It was probably a blessing in disguise. The journey, bar that unfortunate blip with the alternator, had been pleasant enough and she had found herself relaxing and singing along to the music on her phone halfway through the roadtrip. A train journey would have meant hours spent on the laptop working away at emails and memos.
The gravel crunched underfoot as she made her way round the building to the large wooden doors which Serena assumed was the entrance. She pushed down on the handle and nudged only to be met with a rattle and resistance.
Maybe it was just stuck.
She tried again, pushing a little harder this time. The scrap of paper in her pocket said there would be someone expecting and waiting for her and she was sure she was on time, in spite of the unexpected delay. The door shook a little harder but it was definitely locked. Serena searched for a doorbell or a knocker and quickly realised that neither were present. She raised a fisted hand and tapped it against the wood.
She tried again, slightly harder this time and called out.
Silence greeted her again and trepidation began to fill her mind. She had no idea where the nearest hotel or B&B was and that was assuming they had a room available at this hour of the day. She shook her head and decided she was panicking instead of working the problem and took a deep breath. She was about to try a third time when she heard a faint rustle approaching the other side of the door. Despite her earlier attempt at bravado, she groaned in relief, taking a step back as the door finally cracked open.
“I’m sorry but we’re closed just now. You can come back tomorrow afternoon.” A head appeared as the gap widened. It belonged to a woman, possibly in her sixties from the lines on her face. She was wearing a friendly but apologetic smile, Serena thought, but it was the hair that caught her eye. It was the brightest shade of ginger she had ever seen - it looked like she’d dipped it in the runoff from an Irn Bru factory - piled high into an untidy, frizzy bun and Serena probably stared a little longer than she should have. The door was about to close again and the sound shook her out of her reverie.
“But I have a reservation.”
“No, love, I’m sure you’ve got the wrong address. We’re booked for the week and don’t take walk-ins.” The accent was clearly English, with the occasional Scottish sounding vowel mixed in. Serena surmised her conversation partner had transplanted herself from down south sometime in the last five years.
Serena dug into her bag and pulled out the printed sheet Elinor had given her all those weeks ago. “This is the Open Book, isn’t it? And,” she looked at the confirmation again before continuing, “I’m supposed to run the shop for a week. Here...” Serena offered the slip of paper as proof.
The movement stopped and reversed. This time, the door opened fully and revealed that the woman’s sense of style matched the exuberance of her hair colour. She stepped into the threshold, clad in a brightly coloured flowing blouse resembling the result of an enthusiastic paintball fight. The woman paused for a moment before plucking the paper out of her hand. Her eyes ran across the print before looking up, confused. Her voice was husky when she spoke again, and brought an image to Serena’s mind of too many cigarettes and a long familiarity with single malt whisky.
“There must be some mistake.”
“I assure you it’s not.” Serena shivered as she pulled her coat a little tighter now that the wind started blustering again.
“You’d better come in.” The woman tilted her gaze upwards with experienced eyes. “Looks like some weather blowing in soon.”
* * * * *
“This can’t be right.” The woman stared at printed page in her hand as she leaned up against the worn wooden surface of a small table that served as a makeshift reception desk at the bottom of the stairs.
Serena quirked a tired smile and replied. “I take it there’s been a glitch and you weren’t expecting me. If you need a bit more time to prepare the-”
The woman shook her head with a rueful smile, cutting her off. “It’s not just that… what did you say your name was?”
“Serena. Serena Campbell.”
“Gertrude Foulds, but you can call me Dusty.”
Serena couldn’t stop her eyebrow from quirking at the chosen nickname and her reaction drew a hearty chuckle.
“Long story and I’ll share it over a glass of wine sometime if you’re interested.” They shared a smile before Dusty sighed and nodded at the crumpled sheet of paper in her hand. “The problem is, Serena, the bookshop’s already booked for the week.”
“What do you mean already booked? I have a reserva…” Serena trailed off as at the sound of an adjacent door opening caught her attention. She stared for a moment before her eyes widened in recognition. “Oh, it’s you.”
The mop of blonde hair was a little less dishevelled but Serena recognised the face as her would-be saviour from earlier in the day.
Dusty looked between the both of them. “You two know each other?”
Serena shook her head and answered before the other woman managed to speak. “No, not exactly. My car broke down on the way and...” She looked at the blonde, unsure of how to address her.
The lanky figure returned her gaze and replied with a small smile. “Bernie.”
Serena nodded and a random thought flitted through her head - the blonde didn’t look like a Bernadette - but swatted it away as a silly notion instantly. She didn’t even know the woman.
“Bernie stopped to offer and help. I’m Serena, by the way.” She reached out and their hands touched briefly, Bernie’s grip stronger than she expected for a woman of her build. “Are you staying here as well?”
“As well?” Bernie frowned, tilting her head towards Dusty with a confused look on her face.
“Ah, yes. That was what I was trying to explain to Serena.”
Twin pairs of dark hazel eyes looked at her simultaneously and Dusty cleared her throat before continuing. She smoothed out the sheet of paper in her hand and picked up a matching one from the desk.
“I’m not sure how this has happened but it seems that both your reservations came through the same time and you’re double booked.”
“What?” Serena frowned instantly. She looked at the two pieces of paper, scanning over the details. The booking time on them both was identical, right down to the second. It seemed that was the source of the glitch. She glanced over the other details on the paper and was surprised to see that Bernie was from Holby as well. It seemed she lived about four streets away. So, she and the little MX5 she’d been seeing all day really had been making the same journey. The thought amused her, for some reason.
“I thought the website said that the accommodations are for two,” Bernie said, confused by the look of distress on Dusty’s face. In spite of their predicament, Serena’s mouth twitched upwards as her words. Well, she thought, at least one of them had done some research.
“There’s a flat above the shop. It’s a good size but there’s only one bedroom.”
Serena readied the speech in her head but Bernie piped up before she could speak.
“I’m sure that won’t be a problem as long as there’s plenty of space.” She looked expectantly at Dusty. “Can we take a look?”
* * * * *
They made their way up the stairway in a single file. It was narrow and steep and Serena clutched onto the banister more than once before they reached the top of the stairs. She scanned the living room and Dusty was right - it was a decent size. There was a small living area with a two-seater sofa up against a wall with an armchair on the opposite side of the room. An open doorway stood at corner of the room, leading to what Serena assumed was a kitchen area. There was just one other door in the room. It was closed and situated straight across from the stairs.
Serena paused at the implication. It had been a while since she shared a room but wasn’t anything new. She enjoyed the perks of being a senior consultant and being last on the late night rota but she hadn’t forgotten her experiences of sharing the close quarters of the on-call room. Still, this was perhaps her opportunity to beg out of this holiday and find something more her speed after all.
“Look Bernie, why don’t you stay and I’ll come back some other time.”
Bernie shook her head insistently. “I can’t let you do that. There’s a two year waiting list. My kids said the only way they got this booking at all was because there’d been a cancellation.”
Serena was on the point of saying she’d be more than happy to hop back in her car and head to Glasgow or Edinburgh or anywhere, really, with some museums and interesting shops and a decent wine bar, but Dusty beat her to the punch.
“That’s sorted then.” Dusty’s face broke into a smile of relief, obviously glad that what could have been an awkward situation had been worked out so amicably. “And we’ll refund half the cost to each of you, to make it fair. Why I don’t finish signing you in and you can both get settled? You must be knackered after the long drive.”
Serena forced a smile onto her face. Elinor had gone to some trouble to book this for her and she’d at least attempted to be thoughtful, which was unlike her. She should at least give it a try.
* * * * *
Bernie closed the door behind Dusty and locked it with a firm click. She could hear the soft sounds of movement above her. A quick glance round the hallway revealed that most of Serena’s bags were no longer there. There was one last item, a small carry-on which leaned against her own suitcase. She picked both up and started up the steps. Bernie had one step on the small landing before the stairs turned when she pulled to a sudden stop.
Serena steadied herself with a hand on a wall to stop from bumping into the other woman on her descent.
“Thank you. I was about to come down for that,” Serena said, smiling as she reached out for her bag.
Bernie returned her smile as she handed it over. “Thought I would save you a trip back down.”
They completed the short ascent to the flat in silence and were soon standing in the living room, their baggage in a heap in front of the door of what must be the bedroom. Serena cleared her throat before speaking, a tentative edge to her voice. “There might be a slight problem with the…” She trailed off with a small nod towards the open door.
Bernie’s brow furrowed momentarily before answering. “I really don’t mind sharing as long as it’s not a problem for you.”
Serena shook her head with a stilted smile. “It’s not that.” She took the two steps towards the door and pushed it fully open, Bernie following behind. It was a nice sized room and looked cosy. There was a door to an ensuite nestled in a far corner and the usual wardrobe and chest of drawers along the adjoining wall.
“Oh.” Bernie turned to look at Serena.
The centrepiece of the room was a large bed with twin sets of pillows and a bright red quilt cover lying neatly over the king-sized duvet.
“Yes.” The single syllable was punctuated with a sigh. “I don’t know about you, but this wasn’t what I had in mind for sharing. I had assumed there’d be two singles, for some reason.”
Bernie paused, only briefly, before her practical problem-solving instinct took over in an instant.
“You can have the bed. I’ll take the sofa.”
“Why you?” Serena’s voice raised half an octave in pitch.
Bernie’s eyes crinkled as she grinned. “It’s fine,” she said. “I’ve bunked down in less likely spots over the years.”
Serena’s eyebrow arched. “Do a lot of bed-hopping, do you?”
Bernie barked out a surprised laugh. “No, I was in the army for twenty-five years. Royal Army Medical Corp. Major Berenice Wolfe, at your service.”
“A kindred spirit.” Serena smiled at the look of surprise on Bernie’s face. “Medic, not soldier. Consultant General Surgeon. Not so much an action woman, but I know a thing or two about the world of trauma and broken bones myself. And,” she said, her voice hardening, brooking no further argument, “I don’t see why it should be you getting the sofa just because you’re a big macho army medic.”
Bernie let loose a honk of laughter at the description. She tilted her her head and finally nodded, conceding to Serena’s logic.
“How do you propose we settle this, then?”
Serena pursed her lips thoughtfully. A spark of inspiration lit in Bernie’s head as she remembered what she had in her purse. It was something she had inherited from a Christmas cracker years ago and it was the perfect solution to her getting her way.
“I’ll flip you for it.” She reached for her bag and pulled the coin out from a side pocket of her purse. “Heads I win and get the sofa.”
“You’ve a strange idea of winning but okay, go on.”
The result was inevitable and - after they’d found a takeaway that delivered and had eaten and indulged in mostly companionable small talk that only occasionally veered into awkwardness - Serena soon found herself sliding between duvet and mattress with a soft moan of delight. It had been a long day and her muscles began relaxing the moment she stretched out. Even as she began to drift off into unconsciousness, she could hear the muffled sounds of Bernie moving in the living room.
It was odd, sharing this unfamiliar space with a stranger. She found herself feeling glad of it though. She’d been slightly dreading a week on her own with no-one but bookshop customers to talk to. And to have lucked into meeting a fellow surgeon - different specialties notwithstanding - was an unexpected bonus. Even if they ended up having absolutely nothing else in common, two surgeons would always have something to talk about.
She had a feeling they wouldn’t need to resort to much of that though. Bernie seemed more than accommodating - polite, appropriately friendly, willing to muck in and get on with things. A bit too willing maybe, Serena thought, thinking of the small sofa and feeling her back wince in sympathetic pain. Perhaps she could try and convince her that they should take turns on the sofa in the morning...
Chapter 2: The Hours
Bernie and Serena find the pace of life in the bookshop a little slower than they're used to.
“But there are still the hours, aren't there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there's another.” - Michael Cunningham, The Hours
Serena woke to the smell of coffee brewing. She blinked bleary-eyed, staring up at the ceiling and was momentarily caught off guard at the unfamiliar light fixture looking back at her. The fog of sleep cleared as she remembered where she was. A quick look at her phone confirmed that it was still early, just before eight. Bernie must be an early riser.
Pushing herself up to a sitting position, Serena swung her legs round, feet touching the soft blue carpet. She hadn’t bothered to unpack last night but it didn’t take long for her to pick out an outfit before heading for the ensuite, suddenly conscious of the fact that she had inevitably commandeered the only facilities in the flat. It didn’t take long for her to have a quick shower and change before heading out into the living room to offer Bernie use of the bathroom.
The blonde was sitting in the cream armchair perusing the folder Dusty had left them the evening before. She also looked freshly washed and dressed.
“Good morning,” Serena greeted, mildly surprised. “I was going tell you the bathroom’s free, but I see you’re well ahead of me.”
Bernie looked up and smiled. “Morning. There’s a small washroom downstairs and it was more than sufficient compared to some of the facilities I’ve had to make do with in the past.” The smile broadened as she pushed herself out of the armchair. “But I wouldn’t say no to a shower.” She picked up her mug and placed it on the small dining table. “There isn’t much in the way of breakfast but I found a jar of instant coffee in the cupboard and the kettle’s boiled.”
Serena shrugged. “It is meant to be self-catering so I wasn’t expecting anything really. I was thinking of going to the shops for some supplies first thing anyway.”
Bernie’s eyes brightened at the idea. “Give me half an hour to freshen up and I’ll come with you.”
* * * * *
“There’s a Co-op just across the road,” Bernie suggested as they made their way down the narrow staircase.
Serena paused as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Why don’t we drive into the next town across? I’ve looked it up and it has a Sainsbury’s. Might as well get provisions for the whole week all at once, and I dare say there will be more than ready meals to choose from.”
Bernie nodded her agreement. “Not a bad idea. There’s a perfectly good oven and hob after all.”
Jackets zipped up snugly, they unlocked the front door and stepped outside. The sky was bright blue and cloudless.
“Nice day,” Bernie remarked, squinting out into the sun. “A bit chilly for June, though.”
“Yes, but at least it’s dry.” Serena pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her bag, pushing them onto her face. They walked the short distance across the gravel and Bernie slowed down as she rifled through her bag. “Do you want me to drive?”
Serena turned, an indulgent smile on her face. “I would take up the offer but I don’t think we’d get much shopping in the back.”
“Oi, it has a perfectly decent sized boot,” Bernie replied indignantly but the upward twitch of her lips gave her amusement away.
The car beeped twice as Serena pressed the fob. “Not if I’m getting a week’s worth of Shiraz as well.”
Bernie burst out laughing. “Fair enough. A woman after my own heart, although I was thinking of getting some single malt myself. It would be a sin not to, considering the locale.”
“I wouldn’t have pinned you down for a whisky drinker,” Serena said, as they buckled themselves in, the words slipping past her mouth before she could stop herself.
“Oh? Why is that?”
She winced internally, berating herself. She had been on the wrong end of being stereotyped more times than she could remember herself, after all, and mentally scrabbled for an answer.
Bernie grinned at the look of mild embarrassment on Serena’s face and decided to let her off the hook with a conspiratorial look. “I gave up the white wine spritzers along with the ex-husband a while ago.”
Serena laughed, relieved. “I gave up the ex-husband but kept the wine. I definitely got the better end of the deal.” She threw a glance towards her companion briefly before refocusing on the road. “I’m a fully paid up member of the embittered ex-wives club.”
Bernie snorted in laughter. “I was just glad to get out and move on,” she admitted, then decided to push her luck with a cheeky comment. “On a scale of one to ten, how likely is this car to break down today?”
Serena narrowed her eyes, but she was smiling. “Watch it,” she said.
Bernie mimed locking her lips and throwing away the key.
Oh, I like this woman, Serena thought. Her smile widened. She thought she might like her rather a lot.
The journey took a little longer than Serena expected. Her smile almost faltered as she waved a hand at an oncoming driver for what seemed like the umpteenth time, pulling into yet another gap in the single track portion of the road. She could see that it widened just ahead and slammed her foot on the accelerator the moment the coast was clear.
“I’m sure we don’t have to open the shop till after lunch,” Bernie remarked as the sudden increase in momentum pushed her back into her seat abruptly.
Serena smiled apologetically. “I’ll go slower round the next corner.”
They pulled up into a parking space in front of the supermarket minutes later without needing to test her promise for restraint. Serena pulled a small trolley loose from its usual spot just outside the entrance. Bernie dislodged a similar trolley before falling in step behind Serena.
“Where shall we start?”
“Why don’t we pick up the essentials together before getting anything else we want for ourselves?” Bernie suggested.
They worked their way through the store and the trolleys were soon filled with a variety of ingredients for several dinners.
“Wholemeal or white?” Serena turned to ask Bernie and realised she was speaking to thin air. She looked round the aisle but her companion was nowhere to be seen. Rather than make an executive decision, she placed a small loaf of each into the trolley. A quick glance at the burgeoning cart confirmed that they should have everything they needed for the week. Including her Shiraz.
Serena pushed the trolley towards centre of the store, hoping she’d have a better chance of finding the blonde on the main aisle. Her instinct was right and Bernie strode up before depositing the bottle she was clutching next to a bag of potatoes.
“Sorry. Got a little distracted in the whisky aisle,” she announced, slightly out of breath.
Serena glanced at the box and raised an eyebrow appreciatively. “Sixteen year old Lagavulin. Excellent choice, but very much an acquired taste.”
“It is.” Bernie looked surprised. “Not many people I know recognise the name.”
“I enjoy the odd dram or two,” Serena chuckled. “Besides, my mother had Scottish heritage and she taught me all I needed to know about whisky.”
The remark earned her a grin and a glance at the bottles of wine rattling against each other as they pushed the trolley towards the tills. “I’ll share if you’ll return the favour.”
“Deal. I think this’ll do us for the rest of the week and there’s always that shop opposite if we need anything else.”
Bernie nodded and checked her watch. “Speaking of which, we’d better head back soon. Wouldn’t want to keep the customers waiting.”
* * * * *
“Are there instructions for how to work this thing in the folder?” Serena called out to Bernie, looking above her reading glasses.
Bernie pulled her head out of the small storage cupboard she had been examining and blinked in surprise. “Rocking the Mr Magoo look, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“I could try it blindfolded if you prefer,” Serena replied, gesturing towards the elderly looking cash register.
Bernie walked over. “I’ll have a look but we should be able to figure it out without a detailed how-to guide. Can’t be that complicated, can’t it?” She covered the last few steps to the desk and looked over Serena’s shoulder.
The cash register had a tiny screen at the top and a bank of keys under it. There were the obvious numbers but the larger buttons were mostly marked with just initials. Serena pressed tentatively on biggest one hoping the screen would come to life, but nothing happened. Both women stared at the machine for a few long moments before Bernie spoke. “I’ll go check the folder.”
It didn’t take long to rifle through the pile of stapled sheets and it was soon clear what they were looking for wasn’t there.
“What do you want to do? Call Dusty?” Bernie finally asked after thumbing through the pages one last time.
The frown on Serena’s face deepened a fraction before the lines lightened as a determined look replaced it. “Why don’t we just try turning it off and on and see what happens?” Not waiting for an answer, she flicked the switch off at the wall and waited a few seconds before flipping it back on again. A small chime sounded and the screen lit up almost immediately.
“Look at you. Surgeon and tech whiz.” Bernie tilted her head, impressed.
Serena grinned. “When in doubt, as they say. Not exactly rocket surgery.”
”Or brain science, I suppose.” Bernie chuckled and nudged her with an elbow.
They broke out laughing simultaneously and a thought flitted through Serena’s mind.
Kindred spirits and a matching wit as well.
She might enjoy this week far more than she’d initially thought, after all.
After Serena’s conquest of the cash register, Bernie nominated her to set up the till and laptop they were going to be recording the daily activities on. She busied herself sorting out the piles of books in the storage cupboard into categories - easier to replace the gaps on the shelves once they’d sold something - and they worked in companionable silence for the next hour.
Serena glanced at the clock. One o’clock. Time to sell some books. As soon as a customer came in.
And waited a little more.
“Not exactly a roaring trade,” Serena commented after fifteen minutes of watching the second hand tick interminably round the clock on the wall. Nine hundred little ticks. They were supposed to stay open until five. That was thirteen thousand five hundred more seconds.
Thirteen thousand five hundred little ticks of that hideously noisy clock.
“Well, there are a lot of bookshops to choose from,” Bernie suggested. “And it’s only a small town.”
Serena’s lips thinned into a dissatisfied line. “Doesn’t leave a lot for us to do, does it?”
Bernie shrugged. “I’m sure we can think of something that needs to be done.” She brightened. “I know! We’re meant to create a display of books that fit our personality as a sort of introduction. We could go on the hunt for some suitable material?”
Serena considered that for a moment. It might be a good way for her and her new - friend? Acquaintance? Friendly acquaintance? - to get to know each other better.
“You’re on,” she said with a grin.
Trusting that the bell above the door would alert them to any customers - as unlikely as that was starting to look - they dove into the stacks, eyes peeled for likely contenders for their displays. Serena had a vague idea that hers would be an insight into the life of a surgeon, so she sought out medical books first of all. She found one about female physicians throughout history and picked it up, wondering if Bernie would like it for her display - but the other woman seemed to be ensconced in another part of the shop entirely.
After an hour of pleasant wandering, Serena returned to the front of the shop with a small armload of books. In addition to the aforementioned tome about famous female medics, she’d found a battered copy of Gray’s Anatomy, a self-help guide about fitting thirty hours of work into a twenty-four hour day, a novel entitled I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead and a guide to the wines of South Australia’s Barossa Valley - nothing to do with medicine that one, except perhaps the kind one administered to oneself at the end of a long day.
She found a chalkboard and busied herself making a sign for her display. She put her name at the top, then added a brief descriptor when she realised that her name alone wouldn’t mean much to strangers.
Serena (the brunette one)
An insight into my life as a consultant surgeon.
Too much work, not enough hours, too much
Shiraz (if my nephew is to be believed.)
She found some coloured chalks and busied herself decorating the blank space around her words with little doodles - a stethoscope, a clock, several wine glasses. She was so distracted by getting the little details right that she didn’t notice that Bernie was setting up her display next to her until she was almost done.
“Can I borrow the red chalk?” Bernie asked, making Serena look over. Bernie’s sign read:
Bernie (the blonde one)
June is the month for Pride.
Never be afraid to be who you are.
Surrounding these few words were a dozen little rainbows, all of which needed a semi-circle of red added at the top.
Serena handed the red chalk over and turned her attention to the books Bernie had chosen. There was a history of gay people in the armed forces, a textbook about issues in healthcare affecting the LGBT population, an account of the Stonewall riots, plus a couple of romance novels, one of which - a historical novel by Sarah Waters - Serena recognised. She reached for it, flicking through the pages absently.
“I’ve read this one,” she said brightly. “Wasn’t Kitty an utter cow?” She opened the book to the inside cover, finding a dedication there, written in a neat hand. To Marie, all my love, Janice. “Suppose this didn’t work out, if the book ended up in a second hand shop,” she murmured, running her fingers over the words.
“Suppose not,” Bernie replied softly, and something in her voice made Serena look up. The other woman seemed a little tense, almost like she was expecting a blow. Belatedly Serena realised that Bernie had just come out, to a near stranger with whom she was obliged to spend another five days, no less, and that perhaps she had not always experienced positive reactions. Her mind raced, trying to think of the best way to make her acceptance casual, not ostentatious or showy. It was hardly something a rational person cared about in this day and age, after all - though, she supposed, there were an awful lot of irrational people about.
After a moment’s thought, she decided that treating Bernie exactly the same as she had been for the last day of their acquaintanceship was the way to go. “I know we’ve barely done anything, but I could do with a break. Cup of tea?”
Bernie blinked, then a slow smile spread over her face. Serena smiled back, thinking absently how pretty Bernie was, if pretty was the right word for a mature, successful, professional woman. Beautiful, she decided. Beautiful was probably the word.
“I’ll make it,” she said. “What do you take?”
Serena shook her head. “I’ll make it,” she insisted. “It was my idea.”
Bernie slid her hand into the pocket of her obscenely tight skinny jeans. “Flip you for it?”
It came up heads again, and Bernie disappeared upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, with instructions to bring Serena builders strength tea with a dash of milk and no sugar.
Just as Bernie returned with a tray of tea things, the front door opened with a tinkle of the bell. Both their heads snapped up and both tried valiantly to hide twin looks of disappointment when their visitor was revealed to be the vermillion-tressed Dusty Foulds.
“Hello!” Dusty called brightly. “Just checking on you. How’s it going?”
Bernie and Serena glanced at each other. “It’s...uhm...quiet,” Bernie said.
Dusty laughed. “Well, it’s a quiet town. You should get some locals in checking out the newbies eventually though.” She glanced around, noticing that they’d made their book displays. “Ah, wonderful,” she said, glancing at their choices. “Lovely. Really nice to get a sense of who the guests are.”
Serena nodded. “Oh, it was quite pleasant getting to explore the shop a bit. I do love a good bookshop. The warmth, that delicious old book smell…”
Bernie nodded. “Cornerstone of civilization,” she agreed.
Dusty smiled. “I quite concur,” she said. “Obviously.” She suddenly seemed to remember the small tea-towel covered plate she was carrying. “I’ve been baking today - thought I’d bring you two a little something.” She nodded to their tea. “Looks like I arrived just in time.”
Serena accepted the gift with a smile, pulling off the tea towel to reveal thinly rolled, golden brown shortbread, twinkling with granules of caster sugar. “Lovely!” she said. “Will you stay for a cup of tea?”
Dusty shook her head. “Oh, thank-you my dear, but my son’s visiting.” She leaned forward a little, fixing Serena with a significant look. “He actually lives in Holby, you know. Neville. Good job at an accountant’s firm in town.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Single.”
Serena nearly choked on her bite of shortbread. Bernie patted her back firmly as she coughed. “Oh,” Serena said, eyes wide. “He sounds lovely but I’m not really…uhm...”
“Not looking for a relationship,” Bernie finished for her. “I think that’s what you’re trying to say, isn’t it Serena?”
Serena nodded, throwing Bernie a grateful look.
Dusty shrugged. “Shame,” she said, then turned to Bernie. “How about you, my dear? Do you put the L or the B in LGBT?”
Bernie’s cheeks pinked slightly, but to her credit she didn’t flinch. Serena supposed an iron constitution was a prerequisite for battlefield trauma surgery. “L,” she said.
Dusty blew out an exaggerated sigh. “Oh well,” she said. “Not meant to be, I suppose.” She lowered her voice confidentially. “I was after grandchildren anyway, if I’m honest my dears. I probably want to be looking a few years younger, eh?”
Bernie nodded sagely. “I’d say so,” she said, doing an excellent job of keeping a straight face.
Serena burst into gales of helpless laughter as soon as Dusty had retreated through the front door, surprised and delighted when Bernie joined in, making a honking sound that Serena had previously thought was the exclusive preserve of a donkey, or perhaps a goose. It just made her laugh more loudly.
* * * * *
Unfortunately, it turned out that Dusty’s visit was the closest thing to a customer they had all day. When the tea was finished, Bernie decided that reorganising a few shelves would be a good use of her time. Injecting some Army discipline into the place, as she put it.
That left Serena at a slight loss. Eventually she decided that updating the blog that came with the shop would pass the time, so she spent a couple of happy hours composing an entry about the coincidence of her and Bernie’s accidental double booking, of the way they’d run into each other on the road, of the things they had in common and how well they were getting on so far. She finished up with a snap of their book displays taken on her phone. She was just clicking the button to publish the update when the bell jingled as the door was pushed open. She looked up, half expecting to see Dusty again. Bernie paused in her work too, smoothing the spines of the books on the shelf she had been rearranging before turning to face the front of the shop.
“Are you still open?” A head poked through the door. “I can come back tomorrow if you’re shutting up.”
Serena stood up instantly and answered with a smile. “No, of course not.” She was determined they’d sell something before the end of their first day.
“Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” Bernie asked.
The man smiled and shook his head. He was about five or six years younger than them, balding, but with a pleasant, open face. “Not really. I’ve heard a lot about the shop and had been planning to drop in the next time I was visiting.”
He smiled. “My mother lives round the corner and volunteers for the trust that runs the festival. I’m sure you’ll meet her if you haven’t already.” His smile widened as he added, “You’d probably spot her hair from a mile away.”
“Is she called Dusty by any chance?” Serena hazarded a guess.
“I see you have met her, then.” The smile turned into a short burst of laughter.
“She helped sign us in yesterday,” Bernie replied. “And brought us homemade shortbread earlier. Which,” she said, waving a hand at the empty plate by the till, “was well and truly appreciated. I must remember to ask for the recipe.”
“Good luck with that. It’s a family secret but I happen to know,” he lowered his voice conspiratorially, “that it comes out of the Be-Ro recipe book. Mum adds her touch to it by rolling it out really thin and that makes it crispy on the edges.”
“I promise I won’t tell.” Bernie winked and smiled.
Serena glanced between the pair and decided the pause in conversation - as much as she enjoyed a good bake, herself - was the perfect time to address their current predicament.
“You can’t visit without leaving with a book as a souvenir,” she said, reaching behind her to grab the first thing she could find. “How about this one?”
Slightly too late, she realised she’d picked up something from Bernie’s display. It was a gay romance novel with a couple of shirtless young men staring at each other intensely on the cover. Serena’s face turned the colour of a Victorian brick house and she was about to stammer an apology when the man - Neville, she thought she remembered Dusty saying - took the book from her with a small smile.
“I haven’t read this one,” he said. “How much?”
Serena seemed to have lost the power of speech. “Two pounds,” Bernie supplied.
Neville dug his hands in his pockets and selected a couple of pound coins, handing them over to a still blushing Serena. “Don’t mention this to mum, will you?” he said. “Haven’t quite built up the courage for that conversation yet.”
Serena coughed, finally recovering her powers of speech. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said.
He nodded, thanking them again before dropping another couple of pounds in the Alzheimer’s Society collection tin by the till on his way out. Bernie followed him to the door and turned the sign to closed, as it was finally five o’clock. “Well,” she said. “I’ll just pick another book for my display, then how about I make dinner? Since you’ve made all the money this afternoon.”
Serena looked down at the coins in her hand, feeling a little bit like the small boy in Mary Poppins on the way to the bank to invest his life savings of two whole pennies. “Sounds like a plan,” she said, and smiled.
Chapter 3: Curious Wine
On their third day together, Bernie and Serena have a busy day and get to know each other a little better.
“They had quickly developed an awareness of each other, an affinity.” - Katherine Forrest, Curious Wine
Serena blinked at the bright sunlight streaming through the window. It looked like they were getting summer today as far as the seasons went. She had been up for a good quarter of an hour and was now wrapped in a fluffy dressing gown, staring at the gorgeous countryside whilst being warm and cosy.
Yes, she was definitely getting more enamoured with this holiday by the day, even if it had been the complete opposite of the pace she was used to. Then again, she mused, that was the point of going on holiday wasn’t it? To relax, take it easy and not do much. A small voice in her head begged to disagree. Her task was running a bookshop and selling books; not sitting about drinking tea and eating shortbread.
Serena shook her head and nudged that thought away. This was not a competition and there wasn’t a target to be met. And yes, if yesterday was anything to go by, she should prepare herself for another uneventful day, waiting for the odd customer or two to appear.
The familiar voice piped up right on cue.
You were looking forward to a holiday reading books at home. What better place to do that than in an actual bookshop?
She smiled inwardly, unable to argue with her own impeccable logic. Besides, there wasn’t any point in fretting over nothing. They could hardly do worse than the one whole customer they’d had yesterday.
Serena opened the bedroom door slowly, relieved that she’d been quiet when she saw the sleeping form sprawled on the sofa under a heap of blankets. It definitely looked far from comfortable for Bernie’s lanky build. She made a mental note to make another attempt at convincing Bernie to swap. Or hope for the toss to go her way the next time. It statistically had to happen soon, after all.
She made her way as quietly as she could towards the small kitchen. There was the bread they’d bought which she could toast but her eye was caught by a packet of croissants Bernie had added to their trolley.
Yes, that would do nicely for breakfast.
The oven was humming away in the background when Serena finally turned the kettle on, pulling two mugs down from an overhead cupboard.
“You’re making breakfast.”
Serena pulled up, a hand across a throat, vaguely surprised by Bernie’s voice just behind her.
“Can you wear louder shoes, please?”
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m wearing some,” Bernie answered with a smirk, wriggling her naked toes against the carpet.
“Cheeky. And, I was going to put croissants in and let you have first dibs at the shower as well. Perhaps I should change my mind.” Serena raised an eyebrow in response before a look of amusement softened her expression as Bernie put her hands up in mock surrender.
Bernie moved past Serena into the kitchen and leaned over the sink for a glass. The hem of her pyjama top rode up and pulled away from the waistband of her bottoms, revealing a slender waist and muscles contracting as she stretched. Serena watched, with what she called the dispassionate eyes of a surgeon, as the gap widened. Her glance paused for a long moment as she took in the distinct tone of Bernie’s back: the curve of her spine, the play of her muscles, the smoothness of her skin.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the fact that she’d been in the Army. The job would be both mentally and physically demanding and a fit physique must surely be a prerequisite after all.
“Did you mean it?” Bernie looked across the kitchen after taking a sip of water out of the tumbler.
Serena blinked and felt a light flush creep up her neck, almost as if she was child who’d been caught with her hand in the biscuit tin between meals.
“About first dibs on the shower.” Bernie replied, a little tentatively as she took in the look on Serena’s face. “Or you can go first, I don’t mind.”
Serena shook her head. “No. You go ahead. Croissants and coffee in fifteen minutes.” She grinned, waving the blonde out of the kitchen. “So you’d best get your skates on.”
* * * * *
“Ready?” Bernie asked as she took one final look round the shop.
Serena’s answer was prefaced with a slightly pained smile. “I’m sure we’re well prepared for the manic rush.”
The look she received was a notch shy of rolling eyes. Bernie turned the key and pushed the handle downwards to open to front door. She pulled it inwards, reaching for the sign as it rattled against the wood, ready to turn it over and declare the shop open.
The sound of crunching gravel caught her attention and she turned towards it.
“Are you open?” A slight figure wrapped in a thick jacket and a chequered scarf looked at her hopefully.
Bernie stared back for a brief moment before answering. “Yes, we are.” She shifted her gaze towards a chatter of voices coming from a parked minivan just across the street. “Are you all together?” she asked, more in hope than in expectation.
“Oh yes.” The balding man unzipped his jacket and loosened his scarf as he nudged past the opening in the doorway. “This is our book club’s annual pilgrimage to Wigtown and we always stop here first.” He turned and waved to his companions, gesturing them towards him.
A half a dozen or so similarly dressed bodies were soon trudging across the empty street towards the shop.
“Are you running the shop on your own this week?”
Bernie answered with a shake of her head and pulling the door completely open to let the group in. Serena lifted her head from the screen of the laptop, her eyes widening in delight as customers filled the front of the shop. They scattered in quick fashion towards different corners of the store and Serena was on her feet in an instant, following three of the party as they made their way to the shelves at the back.
A few of their guests, including a grey-haired woman, lingered at their tables. “I like what you’ve done with the display,” she remarked, picking up a book from Bernie’s side. She thumbed through the first few pages before turning it over to read the summary on the back cover.
“Thank you.” Bernie was by her side in an instant, determined not to lose a potential sale. She looked at the book the woman held in her hand - it was the one by Sarah Waters. “That’s a good choice. Very nice read.”
The head turned towards her and smiled. “I’ve read most of her other novels but for some reason I’ve never got round to this one.” The woman glanced at the twin chalkboards before continuing. “You must be Bernie.”
“Yes. Shall I put this at the till for you?” Her tone raised hopefully. The woman nodded and handed the chunky hardback over. Bernie barely suppressed the urge to heave a sigh of relief as she plopped the book behind the counter. “It must have been a long drive for you,” she remarked, when she returned, noting the print denoting the location of the book club above the right breast of the woman’s bright yellow shirt.
“Oh, it’s a lovely trip up the road and we come every summer. I haven’t missed a trip for the last -” There was a paused as frowned, searching her memory, “- ten years. Is this your first time running the shop?”
Bernie nodded and smiled. “First time for both of us.”
“Well, I can see you and your partner are doing a grand job,” she announced, patting Bernie’’s hand.
The smile wavered but stayed plastered on her face as Bernie’s brain processed the implication of the remark. She was about to add an explanation that their temporary co-ownership of the shop was an unplanned happenstance when the woman gave her an encouraging squeeze on the shoulder, shifting her gaze towards Serena who was chatting with a trio who by all accounts, seemed to be engrossed by her. “You two make a lovely couple.”
It took significant effort on her part to stop her eyebrows from leaping into her hairline. There wasn’t quite enough left restraint left to stop a flush from colouring her cheeks. She blinked, her eyes drawn towards the brunette across the room.
Serena was pointing out the sections and categories on the shelves that Bernie had painstakingly arranged the previous day. She tilted her head, vaguely surprised that her companion knew where everything was, as if she had stacked the books herself. Bernie paused, collecting her thoughts, feeling inordinately pleased at the idea that Serena might have been watching her at some point. And as if she could read those thoughts, her companion looked towards her and their gazes met and lingered briefly.
The sound of a throat being cleared pulled Bernie back to woman in front of her and from the look on her face, she was clearly waiting for a response. “Well, yes, except…” Bernie started speaking when a voice interrupted her, saving her from having to supply one. The door had opened again and in the midst of buzz, she hadn’t noticed that they had a new customer. A tall man in tweeds boomed loudly as he picked up the copy of Gray’s Anatomy. “Do you have anything else related to medicine?”
Bernie had barely opened her mouth to answer when Serena appeared by her side, cutting in smoothly. “Yes, I think there might be a section on life sciences over there. Let’s have a look, shall we?” The eager-faced man smiled as he was swiftly led away, eyes bright at a possibility of procuring another volume for his collection.
Bernie watched as he was led to the opposite corner of the shop. Her eyes followed the pair and they inevitably landed on the back of Serena’s blouse. It was a silky affair which hung off her shoulder and floated, surrounding her upper body. The fabric clung to a curve for a moment as the torso beneath it leaned forward before pulling away as she straightened herself. Bernie was far from being an expert in fashion but couldn’t stop a fleeting thought that the outfit did little justice to Serena’s figure.
Bernie swivelled round and pulled herself out of her reverie and turned to find a face smiling back at her. “Yes?”
“I was hoping to pay for these, please?”
“Of course.” She covered the two steps it took to reach the back of the till in seconds. The book club members were more or less congregated in front of it and Bernie was pleased to see that all of them were holding several books. One man was trying desperately to keep the pile in his arms from teetering over and accepted Bernie’s offer to use a corner of the counter with a grateful nod.
“Where are you all off to next?” Bernie asked as she slid the last of the customer’s purchases into the cloth bag he’d brought with him.
The man winked. “Well, the men are off the the pub,” he confided. “And the women are off for tea and scones at Reading Lasses down the road. You should go if you’ve got time. Lovely cafe, or so the lassies tell me.”
Bernie smiled inwardly at the idea of any of the middle aged verging on elderly women in the shop today being described as “lassies” but restrained herself from commenting. “I’ll bear that in mind,” she said.
* * * * *
Serena waved brightly at the doorway as the last of the customers thanked her and left. She closed the door behind them, almost surprised by the sudden silence. “That was bracing, wasn’t it?”
She turned to Bernie, who seemed relieved to be surrounded by peace and quiet again. “That’s one word for it,” she said with a small smile. “I think it’s a good thing the customers in my real job are usually unconscious. I don’t know how you manage all that small talk.”
“One of the few upsides of being the Deputy CEO - lots of practice schmoozing.”
Bernie’s eyebrows lifted lazily into her hairline. “I didn’t have you down for a paper pusher.”
“Oi, watch it,” Serena replied with mock severity. “I’m the clinical lead of AAU as well, you know. I’ve hardly forgotten what a scalpel looks like.”
Bernie held up her hands in surrender. “Don’t shoot.”
Serena laughed. “I’ll try to restrain myself.”
Bernie looked round the shop with a small smile, noticing the empty spaces on the shelves and the gaps in her and Serena’s displays that would need to be filled. “I don’t know about you but I think we’re earned ourselves an early lunch,” she said.
Serena glanced at the clock and hummed her agreement. It was close enough to mid-day and there was no telling what the afternoon would be like. She was fully expecting it to be busy if the morning was anything to go by. “Might be a good idea, while it’s quiet. And,” she lifted a finger to pre-empt Bernie’s next suggestion, “I’m not going to offer to make it but I’ll nip across the road and get us some sandwiches. I insist.”
The look on her face brooked no argument and Bernie discreetly withdrew the hand that was about to reach into a front pocket of her jeans.
“I’ll have the shelves filled up for the afternoon rush.” Her answer was laced with a tinge of cheek. Their eyes met for a long, unwavering moment before Serena finally gave in with a soft chuckle.
“Anything I should avoid?” Serena knew from the previous night’s dinner that Bernie wasn’t a vegetarian but didn’t want to assume anything beyond that.
Bernie shook her head but then paused hesitantly.
“Nothing with mayonnaise if it’s possible. It reminds me of a certain engine coolant we used in Kandahar. And…” she paused again, this time with a laugh. “I can’t imagine it as a sandwich filling but I’m not a fan of beans.”
Serena raised an eyebrow in consideration. “All of them? Even baked beans?”
“Especially baked beans,” Bernie answered vehemently, before softening her tone at the look on Serena’s face. “It’s not that I don’t like the taste. Just too many memories of meals out of a tin. Occupational hazard, I suppose.”
“I suppose,” Serena echoed.
Bernie managed a half-smile before straightening her back and heading in the direction of the storage cupboard. “Best get started; the books aren’t going to stack themselves after all. I should be done by the time you get back.”
Serena watched her as she did, her mind filling up with questions but deciding that they wouldn’t be appropriate at that particular moment. That conversation, when it happened, would definitely involve Shiraz and a dram.
* * * * *
The afternoon passed almost as quickly as the morning had with barely a pause in the stream of customers and interested locals passing through the door. Their latest visitors were an elderly couple, the man holding the door open for his partner who inched her way across the threshold with the assistance of a stout walking stick.
“Hello,” Serena greeted them with a smile, “are you looking for anything in particular?”
“Oh no, we’re not buying,” the man replied, shaking his head. “I’m Harold and this is my wife Maisie. We live just round the corner and we always come by to meet the bookseller of the week.”
Maisie made her way slowly across the room. “Always a chance of meeting someone exotic.” She looked between Bernie and Serena before continuing. “Well, sometimes we get interesting people running the shop, don’t we pet?”
She paused halfway to the desk when her eye caught their themed displays and turned towards it instead.
“Where are you from?” Harold asked.
“Holby,” they answered almost in unison.
Maisie shuffled the last few steps, steadying herself against the edge of the table when she finally reached it . “You’re a surgeon,” she said, looking up at Serena. “Running a bookshop must be quite a change of pace then.”
“Yes and no,” she replied. “It’s not quite AAU but this place can be surprisingly busy.”
“How about you, hen? Do you have a busy job as well?” Maisie turned her head towards Bernie’s display.
“I’m actually a surgeon too,” she said. “Locuming at the moment. I specialise in…” The blonde trailed off as it was clear from the look on the older woman’s face that she was no longer listening.
Maisie picked up one of the books, eyes widening at the cover picture of two women entwined in each other’s arms, and peered at the board next to the table. A look of realisation blossomed across her face and she waved at her husband. “Come look at this.”
He was by her side in an instant. She could barely keep the excitement off her face as she gaped open-mouthed before declaring loudly, “Harold, they’re-”
Harold took a glance at the writing on the board before cutting in seamlessly, “-very interesting people, dear. We should go.”
“Yes, but-” She opened her mouth to speak again but was distracted when he grabbed her hand and patted it. She smiled fondly as he drew it upwards and threaded it round his arm.
“We need to stop by the bakers before they shut, remember?” he reminded her.
“Oh yes. Have to get rolls for breakfast tomorrow,” she agreed. “Crispy rolls with butter and jam are such a treat and they only have them on a Tuesday.” Maisie gave her husband an affectionate look. “Harold makes his own jam from the brambles in the back garden, you know. We’ll bring you some when we come round tomorrow.” She turned towards the door, tugging him along. “Come on, pet, let’s leave the girls to it.”
Serena and Bernie watched her putting one foot then the other over the threshold as Harold held the door open. Satisfied that she was safely out the door, he turned just before pulling the door shut, giving Serena and Bernie a wink and a smile. “Enjoy the rest of your stay, ladies.”
The bell tinkled one last time and Serena turned to Bernie, amusement evident on her face. “Good to know we qualified for interesting. What could be more fascinating than two middle-aged surgeons running a bookshop together for a week?”
Bernie chuckled, her lips twisting in mock consideration. “I could have told them about the time I had to perform surgery on a pseudoaneurysm of the splenic artery in back of a moving vehicle.”
Serena smiled, impressed. “I’m not sure about Maisie and Harold but I wouldn’t mind hearing the story. Over dinner,” she added after checking the clock. It was only four thirty, but she felt justified in closing up early considering the productive day they’d had.
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll make dinner again if you like,” Bernie offered.
“Oh no you won’t. My turn tonight.”
“I’ll flip you for it. Heads I win.” Bernie reached into her front jeans pocket and fished out the now familiar coin.
Serena shook her head. “I insist. You made dinner last night and that coin of yours comes up heads far too often for my liking.” Her eyes narrowed as she continued her line of thought. “A few too many times for it to be statistically possible by my reckoning. Maybe I should do the coin toss instead. There’s definitely one in here.” She punched the appropriate button on the cash register and the drawer sprung open.
Bernie was grateful for her natural ability to look impassive as she shoved the coin back into her pocket. “No need for that. I’ll let you have this one on the house.”
Serena’s face broke out in a huge victorious grin and she started collecting and counting their takings for the day. Bernie headed for the door and pulled it open just wide enough to check there were no obvious candidates for customers lingering in the streets before turning the sign over, signalling they were closed.
“I’ll head upstairs if you don’t mind finishing up down here,” Bernie suggested after watching her companion tally up the numbers on a small notepad. It was obvious from the concentrated look on Serena’s face that her help wasn’t required for this particular task. “I was thinking of a quick shower before dinner. Feeling a little grimy after moving all those boxes.”
“Of course. I’m nearly done here.” Serena nodded distractedly. “I’ll start dinner when I come up and it’ll be at least an hour so take your time.”
* * * * *
Bernie threaded her arms through the sleeves of a plain black stretchy top and pulled it over her head. The hot shower was just what she’d needed to relax her muscles. She rolled her shoulders and felt a small twinge just below the small of her back. It disappeared after a little stretching but she couldn’t ignore what her body was obviously telling her - that two nights’ worth of being cramped up on the sofa were taking their toll. Nothing a few nights back in her own bed wouldn’t fix, she rationalised.
A growl emanated from her stomach and Bernie suddenly realised how hungry she was. She hadn’t had anything since the plain ham and cheese sandwich Serena had procured - the only thing without mayonnaise or beans she had explained - which she had wolfed down in the two minutes they’d had before the bell above the door signalled their first customers for the afternoon.
She picked up a towel and ran it through her damp hair. It was possibly a Pavlovian reaction but the delicious smell wafting in from the next room was reminiscent of her favourite bolognese, made of sweet tomatoes, oregano and juicy mince bubbling away in a pot. Bernie closed her eyes and inhaled. Whatever it was, it was definitely making her mouth water. She stepped into the living room and followed the smell. It grew stronger as she entered the room and found Serena grinning up at her from the armchair, cashbox on her lap.
“You’re looking pleased with yourself,” Bernie remarked, giving her hair a final rub. She had long since given up the idea of a comb or a brush - her hair was untameable and ended up looking like a mess regardless of her attempts.
Serena looked up at her, eyes shining. “We made a hundred and fifty-eight pounds today,” she said, her voice radiating pride at a job well done. “I’ve checked the last six months or so on the account book and I’m pretty sure that’s a record.”
Bernie grinned and held up her hand. “Girl power,” she said, and laughed when Serena stood up and high fived her. “Dinner smells wonderful.”
“Ready in ten minutes. I’ve stuck some garlic bread in the oven, is that okay?”
“It’s fine as long as you’re both eating it,” Bernie replied absently, then blushed the colour of a ripe tomato when she realised what she’d said. Luckily Serena had breezed into the kitchen and hadn’t heard her.
She’d gotten over her embarrassment by the time they sat down at the little table and tucked in to what actually did turn out to be a delicious spaghetti bolognese. It was even better than Bernie’s, and she prided herself on her bolognese, given it was one of the few things she could make successfully every time. “This is fantastic, Serena,” she said. “What’s your secret?”
“Good quality wine,” Serena replied dryly, filling Bernie’s glass. Bernie smiled and raised it to clink against Serena’s.
“Cheers,” she said. “Thanks for this. It’s not often someone cooks for me these days.”
Serena twirled pasta onto her fork. “No lucky lady waiting at home for you?” she asked carefully.
Bernie laughed. “Not likely,” she said. “My last relationship blew up.” She took a bite of her pasta with a rueful smile. “Quite literally, as it happens.” She took a sip of her wine, seeing Serena’s inquisitive glance. “We were training medics in Kabul. Roadside IED. Didn’t see it till the last second, swerved to avoid the explosion, rolled...ended up upside down in a poppy field.” She took another sip of her wine, larger this time. “Alex was in the car with me.”
Serena couldn’t control a sharp inhalation of breath. “Did she…?”
Bernie shook her head. “Oh no, not a scratch on her. She dragged me out of the wreckage, probably saved my life. The Army flew me back to Holby for surgery. I had an unstable C5-C6 neck fracture, plus a left-ventricular pseudoaneurysm for good measure. Bloody lucky to still be walking.”
“You’re lucky to still be alive!” Serena exclaimed, a vague memory niggling at the back of her mind. “You must have had a hell of a surgeon.”
Bernie inclined her head in agreement. “Yes, he certainly thinks so. I expect you know him, if you work at Holby City. Guy Self?”
Serena snapped her fingers together. “I knew this all sounded familiar. You were admitted two years ago, January maybe? No, February. February the second.”
Bernie blinked in surprise. “Yes. How did you know?”
Serena shook her head. “It was a big day for me too,” she said vaguely. “How did you find the illustrious Mr Self?”
“I thought he was an arrogant, egotistical martinet, but,” she paused, knocking her knuckles against the wooden tabletop, “I’m not paralysed and I’m not dead yet, so…”
Serena barked out a laugh. “He is a good surgeon, I’ll give him that,” she conceded, before her curiosity led her back to the previous topic. “So, if you and Alex both made it out of the explosion…”
Bernie looked down at her plate for a second, seeming to develop an intense interest in the pattern that was slowly being revealed as she worked her way through the pasta. “She went back to the Army,” she said. “I stayed here. For my kids, mostly, but also…” She shook her head. “I think I’d lost my bottle, in a way. All those years in war zones, I never really felt like anything could happen to me. But everything can change in the blink of an eye, can’t it? I wanted to be around to see my kids fly the nest, become their own people. She said she understood, but…” She shrugged. “It turns out maintaining a relationship with someone who’s out of the country for most of the year is just as hard as my ex-husband always said it was.”
Serena’s face twisted in sympathy. “Sorry, I’m being nosy. Just tell me to shut up.”
“No, no,” Bernie said hurriedly. “It’s fine, honestly.” She attempted a smile. “How about you? Anyone waiting at home for you?”
“Ha!” Serena exclaimed. “Not unless you count a grown-up daughter who only calls when she wants something and a lovely but rather challenging nephew.” She drained the last of her Shiraz and reached for the bottle to pour another, leaning over to refill Bernie’s glass too when her questioning look was met with a nod of assent. “There was someone for a while, but then Jason - that’s my nephew - came to live with me, and Robbie couldn’t cope with that. He said he’d give me a call.” She chuckled ruefully. “Still waiting.”
“What a tosser,” Bernie said reflexively, then covered her mouth with her hand in embarrassment as she realised that the first thing that had crossed her mind had in fact passed her lips. “Sorry. You don’t develop much of a filter in the Army.”
Serena was laughing. “No, you’re absolutely right. He was a complete tosser in the end.” She swiped at her eyes, still laughing. “And, at least according to my daughter, very reminiscent of a certain variety of potato.”
That was too much for Bernie. She threw her head back and let out a laugh that was reminiscent of a performing seal at an aquarium. It was an extraordinary sound, but somehow infectious. Serena caught herself thinking she wouldn’t mind inspiring it more often. Every day, if possible.
When she’d calmed down, Bernie took a large sip of her wine. “I assume it was the challenging side of your nephew rather than lovely side that scared him off.”
“Correct.” She glanced down at their plates, slightly surprised to see that they’d both managed to clean them while they were talking. “Bit of a long story, that. Oddly enough, it begins on the same day as yours. The second of February. That’s why I remembered the date.”
Bernie raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like quite a tale,” she said. “How about I wash these up and we can go into the living room and get a bit more comfortable for the duration?”
Serena nodded. “Good plan, Major.” She stood up with a mock salute and a slight grin, gathering up their glasses and the plate of garlic bread and heading off to the living room. Bernie collected the plates and cutlery together and turned on the tap, waiting for a few seconds until it began to run hot. “Bernie?” Serena’s voice called from the other room.
Bernie turned her head to face the doorway. “Yes?”
“Bring another bottle…”
Chapter 4: Fingersmith
Bernie's back begins to give her trouble, and a thief visits the shop.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart.” - Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
It started out as a small twitch of discomfort. Bernie grunted, her consciousness slowly being dragged away from the fog of sleep. She shifted onto her side and sighed contentedly as the action immediately eased the pressure on her back. There was a moment of relief before it was obvious that the earlier twinge hadn’t gone away.
It had merely relocated to the base of her neck, which had begun to ache as the result of the new posture. She rolled over onto her other side out of instinct and met with thin air. In the haze of sleep, Bernie had forgotten how little maneuvering room she had on the narrow sofa. The lower half of her body slid inevitably off the edge and, despite her best efforts to clutch onto the back of the sofa, her torso followed suit.
She bit back a loud curse as a wave of pain radiated across her lower back when her backside landed hard on the carpet. Wincing, she pushed herself up into a kneeling position. The throbbing lessened immediately and Bernie groaned in relief. A quick check of her phone confirmed that it was still early and she could easily get in another hour’s sleep before she needed to be up.
The sofa was not an option, Bernie decided straightaway. She weighed the next obvious choice. Another heave of effort brought her up onto her feet as she pulled the blanket off of the makeshift bed and walked gingerly towards the armchair. It looked fairly comfortable. Bernie lowered herself into the armchair and twisted onto her side.
This isn’t too bad.
It took a little squirming to find a comfortable position and her eyelids started to droop when she eventually managed it. Her torso relaxed, sinking into the back of the chair. She was about to drift back into unconsciousness when a loud honk from outside the window made her jump. The ache around her waist transformed into a jolt of pain up her spine from the sudden movement.
The curse was more audible this time and punctuated with a sharp hiss. Bernie pushed herself out of the armchair. It was evident that any kind of contact on her back and posterior was going to be uncomfortable for a while and she resigned herself to the fact that the less contact there was with the affected area for now, the better.
She yawned, stretching cautiously, wary of pulling yet another muscle. It was still early but she was up and the likelihood of more sleep was increasingly remote given her sleeping options and the precarious state of her back. She yawned and made her way into the kitchen. Her eyes landed on the three empty bottles lined precisely on the worktop and smiled. Bernie didn’t recall finishing that quantity of Shiraz but she definitely remembered enjoying Serena’s company and easy conversation.
Bernie peeked through the window and was greeted with a pink salmon hued horizon. A morning run was out of the question, a timely twinge of her back reminding her, but a stroll down the high street she could definitely manage. It didn’t take long to retrieve a hoodie and a pair of bottoms to go with it. Bernie pulled the drawstrings tight and tied them into a little bow as she tiptoed down the narrow staircase, in anticipation of the cold and wind.
* * * * *
Bernie blew into the palm of her hands as she unzipped her top. It wasn’t that cold but the wind was brisk. As much as she’d enjoyed her little jaunt, it was nice to be back in the warmth of the flat.
“I was wondering where you were.”
She turned towards the source of sound. Her flatmate stood in the middle of the living room looking snug in her fluffy dressing gown, obviously freshly awake from the evidence of sleep still lingering in her voice.
Bernie paused before replying. “It looked like a lovely morning and I went for a walk. Some interesting shops down the high street.” She looked for somewhere to sit but decided against the sofa or the armchair. The soreness around her lower back had now dissipated and spread up to her waist. It twinged every time she bent even slightly, and there was every chance that she wouldn’t be able to pull herself up without causing herself more pain.
Serena watched as Bernie leaned up against the edge of the dining table, picking up the brief grimace colouring her face.
“Everything okay?” she enquired, looking up and down the lanky figure of her temporary housemate out of habit.
Bernie nodded ruefully. “Back’s giving me gyp but it’s nothing really.”
“I suspect being squashed up in that,” Serena nodded at the sofa, “the past few nights is what’s causing it.”
Bernie shook her head hastily. “I always get a twinge now and then.” She contemplated briefly and considered revealing her little tumble out of the makeshift bed but decided against it. For some reason, she felt an inexplicable need to impress Serena. It didn’t take long for her brain to settle on what she was sure was a satisfactory answer without sounding too vague. “It’s a hangover from the IED. It flares up occasionally. Even when I’m in my own bed,” she added hastily.
“That may well be but perhaps we should just agree that I take the sofa tonight,” Serena suggested, “and give the coin and your back a rest.”
Bernie wasn’t ready to give up. “It’ll be fine, honestly. A hot shower usually does the trick.”
Serena pondered for a moment and Bernie saw it as her opportunity to put the matter to rest. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll go take that shower just now while you make breakfast.”
The wide-eyed look on Bernie’s face was so earnest that Serena had no choice but to acquiesce with a sigh. “Fine. But,” she lifted a finger, her voice a little firmer, “there will be fresh negotiations if your back’s still sore by the end of the day.”
* * * * *
The morning started off fairly quiet. Serena sipped her tea and smiled, the initial worry that the week wouldn’t go well long dispelled. She was settling comfortably into the routine of running a bookshop and it was getting easier. One of the locals had stopped by to say hello before their current customers appeared a few minutes ago. Serena had sussed from a brief exchange that they were visiting family in the area who insisted they stopped by the shop.
Bernie watched for a moment as the couple worked their way along the shelves.
“Oh, I love his work,” the young woman exclaimed as she picking up a volume. Her companion paused, turning to peer at the cover before replying, “Douglas Adams was a genius. I’ve been meaning to get the whole set but never got round to it.”
“Maybe I can help,” Bernie cut in smoothly with a smile.
They found three other books from the series on the shelves and it was obvious they belonged to a set.
“We have most of them,” the man sighed glumly.
“But the third book is your favourite,” his companion replied. “Maybe we can get it on Amazon?”
Bernie looked between the pair and asked, “What’s is called?”
Twin pairs of eyes looked at her in mild disbelief before the woman answered. “Life, The Universe and Everything.”
Bernie sensed the unspoken ‘duh’ at the end of the reply and looked over to Serena for help, out of desperation more than anything else. The brunette smiled before making her way towards a shelf in the corner. She scanned it for a moment and quickly found the book. She pulled out a slim hardback and held it up. “I think this might be what you’re looking for.”
There were a few minutes of excited squealing and chattering, Bernie soon found herself barely suppressing a whoop of joy as they hefted away their purchases in a large shopping bag.
“You have a knack for this.” Serena grinned at the gleeful smirk on her companion’s face as she rang the three ten pound notes through the till.
“You were the one who came up with goods in the end,” Bernie answered. “How did you know we had that book, anyway?”
“My nephew has the whole set on his bookshelf at home. I’ve never gotten round to reading it myself but the third book is supposed to be the best in the series and he has painstakingly explained its merits to me.” She looked at Bernie pointedly. “More than once. It reminded me of him when I saw it on the shelf earlier.”
“It was a good thing you did.” Bernie smiled. “We’re on a rocking start for the day. Might even break our record from yesterday at this rate.”
Predictably, Bernie had jinxed their run of good luck by saying those words. As it turned out, the couple were their only paying visitors for the morning. Harold returned, sans Maisie, with a jar of his homemade jam as promised.
“That’s very kind of you, Harold,” Serena greeted him warmly. “You really didn’t have to.”
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. “It’s no bother at all. Maisie and I have more than enough stocked away until the next season and,” he leaned in, a twinkle in his eyes, “it’s not often we get visitors as lovely and interesting as you two lassies.”
“You’re too kind, I’m sure that this place must be busy enough to have loads of exciting guests in the past,” Serena replied.
Harold nodded. “You’re right enough there. There’s always folk who’ve travelled from all over to spend a week here running a shop. If memory serves, we had a man last summer who came all the way from…now, what was that place called again...” He scratched the back of his head trying to remember the name. An audible bang rang out from the corner of the shop Bernie was working in and both their attentions were drawn towards it immediately. A pile of books lay scattered around the front of a shelf she was working on as she clutched desperately at the stack of books that were still in her arms.
“Is everything all right?” Serena called out immediately.
“Yes,” Bernie shouted back, bending over to gather up the books she had dropped.
“Do you need a hand?” Serena was about to push herself away from the desk and head towards her before stopping when Bernie shook her head. “It’s fine, just me being old butterfingers and ignoring the laws of gravity as usual.”
The wayward tomes soon filled the empty spots on the shelf and Bernie dusted her hands on her jeans with a satisfied look on her face. She patted the spines of the books one last time, straightening them in a neat row and turned towards Serena.
“I think this deserves a cup of tea. Builder’s strength, right?”
Bernie was halfway up the stairs, not waiting for an answer, her voice drifting down towards the shop before Serena had a chance to remind her. “And with a splash of milk.”
Harold watched the exchange and smiled fondly. “Maisie always knows when I need tea. Even before I do.”
Serena’s lips curled half way into a smile before she paused, remembering that she was potentially being a bad hostess. “How rude of us. Would you like a cup of tea, Harold? I’ll get Bernie to -”
He shook his head and patted her hand. “No, I’d best be going before Maisie starts wondering where I am. You girls enjoy your wee break.” He straightened himself up and pulled his hat a little tighter on to his head. There was a pause before he spoke again, as if he was unsure whether he should. “And I’m sure you’ve been told this many times before, but…”
“Yes?” Serena asked.
“You two do really make the loveliest couple.”
* * * * *
Harold’s words lingered at the back of Serena’s mind. Her first instinct was to share it with Bernie as an anecdote and something to laugh over but she hesitated. There was plenty of opportunity over lunch which was a simple salad, soup and tiger bread. She had offered to clear up after lunch and Bernie hadn’t argued or offered to help, for once. Serena had gathered their empty bowls and was halfway to the kitchen when Bernie rummaged in her case, fishing out a hoodie.
“I’m nipping over to the Co-op. Do you need anything?” Bernie asked as she pulled the top on. Serena shook her head and smiled, heading for the kitchen with their used crockery.
The bowls were soon engulfed in a steamy mist of hot water and Serena was in the midst of rinsing the finals remnants of suds off when the question inevitably crept back into her thoughts.
Why hadn’t she shared what Harold said with Bernie?
Serena paused, her hand lingering on the knob of the tap. Perhaps, she finally surmised, it was because she didn’t want it to be awkward. For Bernie, of course. They had been getting on so well. The slight ache in her head when she woke up was testament to how much they had enjoyed each other’s company and conversation well into the early hours the night before.
The bowls safely deposited on the drying rack, she wiped her hands dry on a tea towel, a smile creeping back onto her face. It had been a long time since she had met anyone as intriguing and refreshing as Bernie.
Not to mention stunningly perfect.
Serena paused and found her heart beating a little faster, caught off guard by the random, yet accurate fact that appeared spontaneously in her head. That inner voice was momentarily batted away with a shake of her head but a remnant lingered. There was no denying that the ex-army medic cut an attractive figure. Long, lean limbs which reflected a subtle strength. Her torso, from what Serena had seen, was well sculpted and toned, in spite of the extensive trauma she had had to endure.
“I’m back.” A blonde head poked through the kitchen doorway.
Serena turned round and pulled a hand up to her neck, almost jumping in surprise. The suddenness of Bernie’s presence combined with her very recent mental appraisal of her flatmate caused her to gape wordlessly as their eyes met. Bernie frowned, taking the few steps needed to close the distance between them.
“Are you all right? You look a little flushed.” Bernie lifted a hand and touched Serena’s forehead. The hand was cold from being outside and it only intensified the heat that was seeping from Serena’s face and infusing the rest of her body.
“I’m fine.” Serena finally found her voice and pulled back abruptly. “Must be the steam from washing up.” She wiped her hands down on the side of her trousers. “We should get back downstairs and start up for the afternoon, shouldn’t we? Don’t want to keep the customers waiting,” she said in a bright tone as she headed out of the kitchen in quick steps, not stopping for a reply.
Bernie stared for a fraction of a moment, a little confused, at the flash of fuschia that had disappeared into the hallway. The week had been surprising so far. For one, she wouldn’t have imagined that being the temporary owner of a bookshop would be so much fun. She’d been expecting slow, relaxing days to decompress from her non-stop life, not fun per se. The added complication of sharing her holiday with a complete stranger should have made it awkward at the very least but she had felt comfortable with Serena right from the start.
Her head told her it was most likely down to their mutual vocations and an automatic kinship with a fellow surgeon. They were both driven by nature and, from her enthusiasm to get cracking, she felt like Serena must be as competitive as she was. That observation pulled her out of her reverie and she paused to collect a few items from the carrier bag she had brought back from the shop before making for the stairs.
She’d better get moving before Serena thought she was skiving.
* * * * *
“Here,” Bernie said as she thrust a bottle of water in front of Serena. “Hydration,” she explained. “It's warm today and you were looking a little pink earlier.”
Serena looked up from the laptop where she was updating the latest blog entry, managing a response that, she hoped, wasn’t an awkward version of her usual smile. “Thank you.”
Their eyes met and lingered. Bernie hadn’t noticed it before but Serena’s eyes were unusually mesmerising. A similar dark hazel to her own, yes, but there was a hint of something more bubbling just underneath the surface. The earlier tinge made a return to her companion’s cheeks and Serena looked almost radiant, as if she were blushing. Bernie stared and found herself swallowing hard, her throat suddenly dry at that simple observation. A flush of heat grew in her chest, spreading towards her neck and upwards. She instinctively reached for her collar before pulling her hand away in reflex when it was obvious there was nothing there to loosen.
Must be the warm weather today.
“Shall I flip the sign over?” Bernie took a deliberate breath before she finally asked, reluctantly breaking her gaze. Serena's reply was a hurried nod, her eyes darting instantly back onto the screen, hoping that her cheeks wouldn’t betray her yet again.
The afternoon continued in a similar slow, lazy way to the morning. A couple of customers dropped in to browse and chat, a couple of books were sold, a couple of cups of tea were drunk. Serena expected to get bored but somehow she didn’t. Even when there was nothing much to do, Bernie’s steady presence and occasional conversation were more than enough to hold her interest.
As the day wore on, Serena noted the way Bernie was carrying herself with slightly narrowed eyes. The other woman’s protestations that there was nothing much wrong with her back were wearing extremely thin. She watched her as she bent and stretched to organise the books on the shelves, taking in the clenched jaw, the careful way she held herself, the frequent pauses to rub ineffectually at her lower spine. “It’s been four hours since you went to the Co-op,” she said casually, glancing at the clock.
Bernie blinked. “What?”
Serena smiled gently. “You can take some more painkillers now,” she said, her smile broadening at Bernie’s surprised reaction. “You thought I didn’t know what you were going over there for? Come on. I am a doctor, you know. I know pain when I see it."
Bernie looked away, chagrined, her cheeks pinking in what might have been a blush. “It’s fine, honestly,” she insisted, but she pulled a strip of ibuprofen and another of paracetamol out of her pocket anyway.
As she did so, a coin was dislodged and fell to the ground, rolling across the shop to land at Serena’s feet. She bent down to pick it up, turning it over between her fingers to confirm a hunch. “A two-headed coin,” she said, raising one eyebrow archly. “I think you must be the only person I’ve ever met who’s used one of these to give away an advantage.”
This time there was no mistaking the blush that coloured Bernie’s cheeks. She looked down at her feet and so missed the affection that spread over Serena’s face, turning her expression soft and gentle. “I’m used to roughing it,” she said. “You were expecting a comfortable, relaxing holiday. I didn’t want you to give that up.”
“But why should that mean you have to be in pain?”
Bernie shrugged, giving in at last and popping two pills out of each blister pack in her hands. She swallowed the pills dry, obviously used to taking medication.
Serena stepped forward, crossing the floor to stand in front of the other woman. She waited patiently until Bernie lifted her head to look at her, before smiling gently. “We’re friends now, aren’t we Bernie?” she asked earnestly. “I mean, I know it’s only been a few days since we met, but…”
Bernie nodded, smiling faintly. “Yes,” she said. “It feels like I’ve known you much longer than that, somehow.” She raised and lowered one shoulder in a self-deprecating half-shrug. “It’s a bit unusual for me, feeling a kind of instant liking for someone.”
Serena beamed. Bernie liked her! Had liked her right from the start, apparently. She chose not to examine why that made her so happy. “That’s settled then,” she said.
Bernie’s brow furrowed. “What’s settled?”
“We can share the bed tonight.”
It was quite comical, really, the way Bernie’s eyes widened, bugging out of her head like a cartoon character. “What?” she spluttered.
“We can share the bed,” Serena repeated calmly, her lips twitching in amusement when Bernie continued to look like a deer caught in the headlights. “Come on now. I wouldn’t hesitate to double up with any of my other girlfriends.”
“Probably not the kind of girlfriends I’ve shared with,” Bernie muttered, but Serena just laughed.
“I somehow think you’ll be able to resist my charms,” she said with a wink.
The sudden acceleration of Bernie’s heartbeat made her unable to speak for a few moments, long enough for Serena’s face to soften into an indulgent, affectionate expression. “This self-sacrificing martyr business is very sweet and everything, but there’s really no need. If you’d rather not share because it makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine, but don’t decline because you think I might have a problem with it. I don’t.” She held out her hand, pinky outstretched. “Pinky promise.”
Bernie looked at the outstretched pinky for a few seconds before finally raising her own hand and locking their pinky fingers together. “A sacred vow indeed,” she murmured. “All right. Maybe just for tonight.” She winced as another crackle of pain spread up her spine. “It’s been a bit wearing, if I’m honest.”
Serena frowned. “Maybe you should go up and lie down for a bit just now.”
Before Bernie could answer, the bell over the door jangled cheerily, indicating a customer. They turned to see a little boy, about ten years old Serena would guess, dressed in shorts and a sky blue polo shirt with the emblem of the local school embroidered over the heart. Serena smiled broadly. “Hello,” she said. “Can we help?” The boy’s eyes widened and his lips squeezed shut as he shook his head. Serena’s smile gentled. “Do you just want to look around?”
The boy nodded quickly. “Well, just come and get one of us if you need any help,” Bernie said. Serena turned back to her, ready to continue their previous conversation, but the door opened again before she could speak.
“Hello, my dears!” a familiar voice called and Serena smiled as Dusty Foulds entered, bearing another tea-towel covered plate before her.
“More shortbread?” Bernie asked, glad of the opportunity to stop talking about her pain or their sleeping arrangements.
“Scones today,” Dusty replied. “With a touch of clotted cream on the side. Harold tells me he’s taken care of the jam already.”
“Yes,” Serena said, taking the plate of scones and setting them on the table that contained their book displays. “We’ve had a few visitors just in to say hello. I must say, everyone is very friendly here.”
“It’s a nice little town,” Dusty agreed. “And everyone is always very interested in the guest booksellers. We had a chap who came all the way from Vancouver a few months ago. Can you imagine?”
Both women nodded and murmured their agreement that it was indeed a very long way to come. Serena would probably have scoffed at the idea, even just a week ago. She’d probably have decried the money spent and the distance travelled, would have been able to suggest dozens of better ways to spend a week. She glanced at Bernie. She felt differently now. Perhaps it was the change of pace, combined with the continued sense of purpose. Perhaps it was the friendliness of the local people, their obvious interest in their lives.
Perhaps it was the stunningly beautiful, kind and generous woman she’d accidentally ended up sharing her time with.
Before she could examine that thought too closely, she noticed Bernie’s eyes widening. “What’s wrong?” she began to say, but before the sentence was fully past her lips Bernie was off, dashing after the little boy in the blue polo shirt who was pushing through the door and sprinting off down the street.
“Oi!” Bernie yelled, breaking into a run. “Get back here right now!”
Frowning at each other, Serena and Dusty followed her onto the street. The little boy was a dozen or so feet ahead, but Bernie was gaining on him swiftly. Army training, Serena thought dimly. Plus those long, lithe legs that just ate up the pavement.
Bernie caught up to the boy and grabbed him by the back of his shirt. They were too far away for them to make out what she was saying to him, but there was no mistaking the authority she exuded. The little boy began to march back towards the shop, looking terrified. It was only then that Serena noticed he was holding the pale blue Alzheimer’s Society collection tin that had been on the counter.
“Jimmy McGlinchey!” Dusty exclaimed. “Did you steal that charity tin?”
The little boy looked like he was about to cry. “It was an accident,” he wailed. “I didn’t mean it.”
“Come on now,” Bernie said, her voice injected with a note of steel. Oh, hello Major Wolfe, Serena thought, a little shiver skittering down her spine. Bernie crouched down and looked the little boy in the eye. “Tell us the truth. Lying is the coward’s way.”
When Jimmy still looked disinclined to spill his guts, Serena decided a slightly different approach was needed. “Come on, sweetheart,” she said gently. “I’m sure you’re not a bad boy. You must have had a reason for doing this.”
Jimmy ground the toe of his trainer into the pavement. “Tommy dared me,” he murmured at last. “We were going to bring it back. He just dared me to take it.”
Bernie’s face softened in understanding. “Ah, I see,” she said. She paused for a moment, considering her words. “I’ve got a little boy,” she said at last. “Well, he’s grown up now. Cameron. He was always getting into scrapes. He had a friend like this Tommy when he was about your age. Always egging him on to do things he knew were wrong. And Cameron was the one who got into trouble because this other boy always very cleverly stayed in the background.” She ducked her head, looking for Jimmy’s eyes. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Jimmy sniffed and nodded, rubbing his nose with the heel of his hand. He looked the picture of misery. “Are you going to call the police? Will I go to jail?”
Serena glanced at Dusty, who was looking down at the boy with aggravated affection. “Oh, worse than that,” she said. “I’m going to take you home and tell your mother.” She took the cleanest of his hands in one of hers and passed the collection tin to Serena. “I’ll see you girls tomorrow, maybe,” she said. “I think you’ve earned an early closure now as well.”
Serena watched them both walk off down the street then turned back to Bernie, ready to suggest that they flip the sign and think about what to make for dinner. She frowned when she realised that Bernie was still crouching down, her face pained. “What is it?"
Bernie grimaced. “Uhm...not entirely sure I can get up by myself,” she admitted.
Serena’s eyes widened. “This is more than a twinge,” she said, a slight touch of anxiety for her new friend’s pain making her sound harsh. “This must have been building for days.”
Bernie grunted softly as Serena slipped her arm under hers and helped her slowly to her feet. “Probably longer,” she said guiltily. “I fired my osteo last month. Turns out I’m fussier than I thought about who puts their hands on me.” She smiled, attempting humour. “Must be an Army thing.”
Serena was in no mood for jokes. “Straight to bed with you,” she fussed, helping Bernie through the door and flipping the sign to closed. “And you will not be going back to the couch for the rest of this week. Doctor’s orders.”
“Yes, Ms Campbell,” Bernie said. Serena rolled her eyes.
The stairs were a challenge, being narrow and barely wide enough for one person under normal circumstances. Somehow Serena managed to wrangle Bernie up, with minimal swearing. By the time they reached the top, Bernie’s face was pale and her eyes were slightly glassy.
“There we are,” Serena soothed, helping Bernie to settle onto the bed. She hissed in pain as she settled against the pillows, but eventually seemed to find a position that was comfortable enough. Serena fussed around her a little, making sure a pillow was supporting her lower back and that she had a bottle of water within easy reach. “I’m just going to nip out to the chemist for some supplies,” she said.
Bernie winced. “It’ll be shut now,” she said. “Half day on Wednesdays.”
“Oh.” Serena shook her head. “I suppose I’ll be driving to Newton Stewart then.”
“There’s really no need,” Bernie began, but Serena cut her off with a wave of her hand.
“No arguments,” she said. “Now, do you need anything before I go?”
Bernie shook her head, then hesitated. “Uhm...maybe a book?”
Serena’s eyes twinkled. “I think we can scare up one of those.”
About forty-five minutes later Serena returned, having successfully secured ibuprofen gel, deep heat cream, tiger balm patches and a cute little heat pack shaped like an owl that could be warmed up in the microwave. She didn’t suppose she’d need all of those things, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
“Honey, I’m home,” she called as she began to climb the stairs, having remembered Dusty’s scones and collected them from the table where she’d left them an hour before.
For a moment Bernie didn’t reply, and Serena suddenly remembered Harold’s assumption that they were a couple. A little flush of heat spread through her chest. Perhaps it had been a silly thing to joke about. She was just about to call out an apology when Bernie replied.
“You’re a riot, Ms Campbell. I’m only not laughing because I’m afraid my sides might split and I didn’t bring my suture kit.”
Serena opened the bedroom door with a bright smile on her face, relieved that she hadn’t made her friend uncomfortable. “I come bearing gifts,” she said, holding up the plate of scones and her bag of supplies. “Shall we see what Harold and Maisie’s jam is like? Then we can have a look at your back.”
She bustled away to put the kettle on before Bernie could answer. She came back with tea, scones, jam and clotted cream on a tray, along with two plates and various pieces of cutlery. “I didn’t know if you took yours the Devon or the Cornwall way,” she explained. “Thought I’d let you make yours up yourself.”
“Jam first,” Bernie said, reaching for a spoon. “Whichever county that is.”
“Cornwall,” Serena replied. “And it’s the correct way, so well done.”
They ate in companionable silence, making the occasional remark on the quality of the jam and reminders to each other to thank Harold again for his kindness.
When they were done, Serena cleared away their things and did the dishes before returning to the bedroom and laying out her purchases. “What shall we try first?” she said.
Bernie considered the options. “Is the...owl thing a heat pack?” Serena nodded. “I’ll go for that first then.”
* * * * *
Bernie lay wide awake in the dark staring at the ceiling, holding herself so stiff it was like she was practising for rigor mortis. It wasn’t just the unaccustomed warmth of another woman lying beside her - it had been a while since Alex, after all - or even the fact that Serena was such a new friend and a straight one at that. The fact of the matter was she was in agony. The owl shaped heat pack was no longer hot. And she had an hour to go before she could take more painkillers. She was beginning to regret downing the ibuprofen and paracetamol together that afternoon - if she’d staggered them, she could have had a hit of something every two hours instead of every four.
She tried moving slightly again, but stopped with a hiss when the pain made it clear that would be impossible. She felt tears of frustration prick at her eyelids. Stupid, she thought. She’d overdone it, despite knowing her limitations these days. It wasn’t just the nights on the cramped sofa, though that hadn’t helped. It was the traipsing around with armloads of books, the compulsion to tidy shelves both high and low, the running off after pre-pubescent shoplifters. Now she was stuck like this for god knew how long - immobile and useless.
“Are you ever going to admit you’re in pain?”
Bernie started at the sound of Serena’s voice in the dark. She’d thought she was asleep.
“I’m in pain,” she said after a moment. There was no point in hiding it.
She held her breath as Serena leaned over her to flick on the lamp. The scent of the other woman so close to her was extremely pleasant - old books and soap and a floral hint from her perfume. The soft light of the lamp cast a warm glow over her features; her expression gentle with concern and affection. It made Bernie’s heart ache in an all too familiar way.
“Let’s get you on your front,” Serena said. Bernie reacted to the note of instruction in her tone before she’d really taken in what she’d said.
“What are we doing?” she asked. Serena put her arm around her shoulders and helped her maneuver onto her front.
“I’m going to give you a quick massage with the deep heat cream,” she said. “I think it’ll help.”
Bernie was glad her face was pressed into the pillow and that the room was relatively dark, because she was sure she must be blushing a hitherto undiscovered shade of red. Her immediate instinct was to demur, to tell Serena it was too much trouble, too much to ask. But her screaming back begged to differ and she knew it would give her some relief.
“Thanks,” she said. “That would be nice.”
Serena smiled, pleased to have got her way without any arguments for once. She tugged on Bernie’s t-shirt, pulling it up to reveal the smooth planes of her back. She cast her eye over the other woman’s body with a dispassionate, surgeon’s eye. Strong, she decided. Obviously tense. Definitely beautiful.
She blinked, shaking that thought from her head as Bernie slipped the t-shirt over the top of her head. Reaching for the tube of cream on the bedside table, she squeezed some out into her hands. “Let me know if it hurts in the wrong way,” she said and Bernie nodded.
She almost groaned with pleasure at the first touch of Serena’s hands on her naked back. If her osteo could do massages this good she wouldn’t have needed to sack him. “I say, you’re very good with your hands, Ms Campbell,” she mumbled.
Serena laughed. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, Ms Wolfe.”
Bernie smiled against the pillow. “Promises, promises.”
She lapsed into silence again, reveling in the sensation of someone who knew what they were doing massaging the tension out of her tense muscles. The heat from the cream spread through her with a pleasant tingle. As the pain began to recede, she felt herself relax, sighing as she settled more comfortably against the pillows.
“There we are,” Serena soothed. “That’s good. Just relax.”
“Mmm,” Bernie hummed, a small smile curling her lips upwards.
Serena ran her hands firmly over the strong muscles of Bernie’s back, noting which places seemed more tense and which places made the other woman hum in pleasure. She found herself concentrating on those places, enjoying the sounds rumbling from deep in Bernie’s throat.
“That’s it,” she murmured, not really aware of what she was saying. “Relax. Just let me take care of you."
“Hmm,” Bernie murmured sleepily. “Serena…”
Serena kept up her rhythmic movements for a couple of minutes after she was sure Bernie had fallen asleep. She wasn’t quite sure why. She didn’t want to stop abruptly and risk waking her up, she thought. That was it. That had to be it. Nothing whatsoever to do with the warmth of Bernie’s skin, the strength of her muscles, the exquisite softness of the woman beneath her hands.
She shook her head, slowing and halting her movements at last. Carefully, she snuck out of bed and headed to the ensuite to wash her hands. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror as she ran the water over her hands.
Bernie was still asleep when she came back to bed. Gently, she pulled the duvet up a little so that her skin was covered, knowing the muscles should be kept warm to keep them loose. She clicked off the light and climbed back into her side of the bed, being very careful not to wake her sleeping companion. Despite her efforts, Bernie stirred a little as she settled in.
“Serena?” she mumbled.
“Sssh.” Serena reached out and rubbed gently between her shoulder blades. “Go back to sleep. I’m right here.”
Bernie seemed to hover for a moment in that liminal space between sleep and wakefulness. Then she relaxed again, her breathing deepening as sleep claimed her again.
Serena stared into the darkness until her eyes began to adjust and she could pick out her friend’s face on the pillow next to her. She moved her hand from her back, moving to push a few strands of unruly blonde hair behind Bernie’s ear.
She thought there was something she should be noticing, something obvious that was escaping her. She frowned a little, sifting the silky strands of Bernie’s hair between her fingertips.
She was too tired to think about it now. She returned her hand to Bernie’s back, rubbing a few more soothing circles over the warm, soft skin between her shoulder blades. She was still touching her when she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Bed-sharing trope: achieved.
Chapter 5: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Serena wakes up in a compromising position, and takes some advice from her oldest friend.
Apologies for the delay between this chapter and the last. We were waylaid by a full weekend of mashing potato-faced men.
“I was confused. Everyone always said you found the right man.” - Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Serena woke first the next morning, her eyes flickering slowly open and a groggy whimper springing to her lips. She felt very warm for some reason, and something soft was tickling her nose as she breathed. She blinked the sleep from her eyes, frowning as the room came into focus.
Oh. Right. Bernie.
Bernie had slept in the bed last night. She had taken her top off so Serena could massage her back, working deep heat into tense muscles. She had fallen asleep like that and Serena had drifted off with her hand absently stroking the soft skin between her shoulder blades.
All of that came back to her in the split second it took Serena to realise that their bodies had shifted in the night. Bernie had at some point rolled onto her side and the duvet had slid down, leaving her shoulders and chest bare. More to the point, Serena had curled close to her in the dark, spooning against her back, her face buried in that mane of soft blonde hair, her arm draped protectively around her waist, a leg twined posessively with Bernie’s under the covers.
Serena flushed hard, the intimacy of their positions hitting her like a blow to the solar plexus. It had been a while since she’d shared a bed with anyone, she told herself. It was only natural to gravitate towards another human form in the night, wasn’t it? It didn’t mean anything.
She shifted slightly, her hips moving minutely to a new position, but it was enough. She sucked in a breath, bowled over by the realisation that she was immensely turned on. Had she been having some explicit dream and curled round Bernie like this on some kind of animal instinct? Her flush deepened. She couldn’t remember dreaming. All she could remember was Bernie’s strong muscles beneath her hands, the velvet of her skin, the silk of her hair, pale gold sieved through her fingers. A throb of desire made her gasp.
“Bernie?” she whispered. “Are you awake?”
There was no reply, save for her friend’s deep, rhythmic breathing. She exhaled shakily, unsure if she was disappointed or relieved. Relieved, she decided at last, not least because she didn’t fancy explaining to a woman she’d known for four days why she was wrapped around her topless body, practically groping her in her sleep.
She shifted again, trying to gently disentangle her legs from Bernie’s without waking her. Her thighs pressed together, making her acutely aware of her own arousal. A tiny moan of frustration escaped her lips before she finally managed to extricate herself, rolling onto her back and staring at the ceiling with wide, glassy eyes.
It took her long minutes to get her heart rate under control.
When she finally did, she risked a glance at Bernie. Her back was smooth and pale, except for the occasional light freckle that made her heart clench with the desire to touch. Her fingertips were tingling, practically itching to reach out and trace a path over those freckles, like a living join the dots picture. She knew Bernie’s skin would be so soft beneath her touch.
She gave in to the impulse before she’d really thought about it, reaching out and just barely brushing her fingers over that warm, smooth skin. Her breath hitched, her heart speeding up again as she indulged in this ghost of a caress.
Bernie stirred in her sleep and Serena pulled her hand back as if she’d been burned. Shame rose up, hot and viscous. Bernie was asleep. She hadn’t consented to being gawked at or touched by her apparently extremely sexually confused bedmate. This was completely wrong.
She plastered her hand to her side and closed her eyes as Bernie slowly began to wake up. Pretending to be asleep was definitely the better part of valour. She’d just lie there with her eyes shut until Bernie had woken up and put her top back on, she decided. Then she could feign waking up again and have a shower.
A cold one.
* * * * *
She could hear Bernie getting breakfast ready in the kitchen as she stepped out of the shower, wrapping herself in a towel and tiptoeing back into the bedroom. She grabbed her phone and scrolled through her contacts as she perched on the end of the bed.
“Serena!” Siân Kors trilled as she picked up after the fourth ring. “I thought you were up beyond the wall this week.”
Serena frowned. “Hadrian’s Wall?”
Siân laughed. “If you like, darling,” she said. “What’s up?”
Haltingly, Serena explained about the mix up with the booking, about Bernie and how well they were getting on, about Bernie’s bad back and the massage and the compromising position she’d found herself in this morning.
“What does it mean?” she asked, her voice slightly high and breathy. To her dismay, Siân just laughed.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she said. “You fancy her.”
Serena nearly dropped the phone. “No,” she muttered. “I mean...she’s a woman, Siân.”
She could practically hear Siân’s eyes rolling through the phone line. “Oh yes, she’s all woman from what you’ve said.” Her voice dropped to a husk. “Those long legs in skinny jeans, her beautiful blonde hair, her gorgeous soft skin you can’t help but want to touch.” She laughed. “God, imagine if she’d woken up while you two were still all tangled together this morning. Would she have turned over, do you think? Or would she have put her hand over yours and moved it down a few inches into her-”
"You're right, I fancy her," Serena blurted, as much to get Siân to stop talking as for the obvious truth of it. Her mind caught up with her mouth seconds later and she paled, gripping the phone tighter in her sweaty palm. She was suddenly reminded of how thin the walls were in this little flat, and that Bernie was mere feet away. “Oh God, what do I do?”
“Hmm." Siân seemed to consider the idea for a moment. "Well, it’s been a while for me, but I recall spelling out the alphabet with your tongue is quite effective.”
“Siân!” Serena hissed. “This is serious!”
“Oh come on Serena, no it isn’t,” Siân replied. “You’re on holiday, you’ve somehow got shacked up with a hot soft-butch army medic, and you’re rediscovering your Sapphic side. It’s not a big deal.”
“Not a...shacked up...soft-butch…” Serena spluttered. “I don’t even know what a soft-butch is!”
“No, but I do, darling and you described it perfectly.”
Serena rolled her eyes. “Anyway, what do you mean rediscovering?” she said. “I’ve only ever been with men.”
“Oh Serena,” Siân said pityingly. “I’ve got one word for you. Stepney.”
Serena’s eyes widened. Oh God. That party all those years ago, when she’d been on rotation at the Royal London. Someone’s birthday, was it? Or just a generic piss up? That girl with the red hair and blue eyes and the softest lips. She’d been drunk, of course, and it hadn’t gone further than kissing and a bit of over the clothes groping. She’d convinced herself that it had been totally meaningless. “Oh,” she breathed. “But...but…”
“And anyway, she was hardly the only woman you’ve had your sights on over the years,” Siân continued breezily. “What about Fleur Fanshawe?”
Serena’s jaw dropped. “Fleur?” she said. “I didn’t...we didn’t…”
“No, but you were flirting for England, darling,” Siân said.
Serena’s mouth snapped shut.
“Anyway,” Siân continued. “Like I said, you’re on holiday. You’ve met someone who stirs your loins a little. I say go for it. It’s not like you have to see her again if you don’t want to.” She put on a wild approximation of a Scottish accent. “What happens in Wigtown stays in Wigtown.”
Siân laughed. “Anyway, it’s been how long since that potato Robbie? You need to clear the bats from your belfry. Dust off the cobwebs. You don’t want your bits healing over-”
“Right,” Serena interrupted, immensely regretting the entire conversation. “Thanks for your counsel, dearest. If I ever call you with a serious problem again, please feel free to shoot me.”
She could hear Siân’s distinctive cackle until she stabbed at the red end call button, cutting her off.
Still, she thought as she got dressed, maybe there was something in what Siân had said. Would it be so bad to have a little holiday fling? It had been a while, it was true. And she clearly did find Bernie attractive, there was no denying that after this morning. Would Bernie be interested? She ran her fingers over the material of her tightest fitting top. There was one way to find out. And it was certainly true that she could flirt for England. Even in Scotland.
“Right,” she said a few minutes later, breezing into the kitchen to grab a piece of the toast Bernie had made for her. “I think we should deposit you by the till today while I do the heavy lifting. Give your back a bit of a rest.”
Bernie blinked, looking Serena up and down on pure impulse. “Nice top,” she said, then blushed a little. “Uhm...my back actually feels a lot better you know.”
It was true. Sleeping in the bed had done wonders, as had the hot shower that morning, but she attributed most of her recovery to Serena’s magic fingers.
Serena smiled. “Well, we’re going to keep it that way,” she said. “Light duties only today, Ms Wolfe. I insist.”
Bernie held up her hands. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I give up.” She smiled softly. “I’ll rest up today and be fighting fit again tomorrow.”
“Hmm.” Serena pursed her lips. “We’ll see.”
She finished the last few bites of her breakfast and busied herself with washing up the plate and mug she’d used. She could feel Bernie’s eyes on her as she worked. Her cheeks coloured slightly as her courage rose. “Do you, uh...fancy a drink later?” she asked, keeping her eyes steadfastly on the washing up. “After dinner, I mean. There’s a pub down the road.”
She held her breath as she waited for Bernie’s response. “Well, if you’re buying,” she said at last. Serena laughed, a little excitement bubbling up in her chest.
“That can be arranged,” she said.
* * * * *
The pub was relatively quiet when they entered into the cosy lounge. There were two men drinking at the bar and they both turned and threw a friendly smile in their direction.
Bernie smiled as she approached the oaken counter. “Lovely evening,” she greeted the pair, shrugging out of her thin waterproof jacket. It wasn’t cold but if she had learned anything from the week that had gone by so far, it was that the weather was nothing if not unpredictable. Serena had disagreed and chosen a sleeveless vee neck top layered with a thin cardigan. “It’s too warm and nice to be stuffed up in a jacket,” she had said when Bernie suggested she brought along something more substantial.
“Yes it is,” said the barman. “But there’s meant to be rain later so you’re wise to have come prepared.”
The younger of the two men nodded approvingly at the jacket, now draped across her arm. His companion nodded, setting his pint down on the surface of the bar, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Aye, it’ll be stoatin’ aff the grun soon.”
Bernie turned towards her friend with an expression halfway between a victorious smirk and gentle indulgence. Serena responded by nudging an elbow in her direction, rolling her eyes for maximum effect. Bernie reacted quickly enough and it barely grazed material of her linen shirt.
The men watched the exchange, amused. One of them chuckled before finally speaking. “Dinnae you worry, you can always borrow a spare umbrella from the back room.”
“I’m sure the excellent weather will hold,” Serena replied smoothly with one final glare in Bernie’s direction. “Looks like we’re here on a quiet night,” she added glancing round.
“Oh, you’ve missed the rush, hen,” the short balding man replied from behind the bar. “Most of the regulars are away to catch the eight o’clock soaps on the telly,” he continued with a warm smile. “So, what will you be having?”
Serena turned to Bernie and asked, “Do you want whisky or shall we share a bottle of Shiraz?”
“I think I’ll have a glass of Sauvignon Blanc,” she answered after considering for a moment. “And I might steal a glass from your bottle later if you still feel like sharing. Wouldn’t want to leave you short, seeing that we’ve finished the last of the Shiraz until we do another shop.” Bernie was failing miserably in her effort to keep a straight face.
“Oi, cheeky.” The attempt at sounding indignant was completely ruined by the smile in Serena’s eyes. “Don’t forget that you had as much to do with emptying those bottles as I did.”
“Probably not quite as much.” She shifted her torso just in time to avoid another swipe of Serena’s elbow. “But I’ll let you have this one because I like you.”
Her tone was casual, a little playful perhaps but their eyes met just at that instant and it was as if the air thickened into treacle and time froze for an imperceptible moment. A familiar heat crept up Serena’s chest and she almost forgot she ought to tear her gaze away before she finally managed to, hoping the flush didn’t show on her cheeks. She was sure that her voice was the consistency of jelly when she finally spoke. “Why don’t you get us a table and I’ll bring the drinks. First round’s on me.”
Bernie’s mouth was half-opened as if she was about to say something, but she nodded in agreement and meandered her way toward the opposite end of the lounge. The pub was largely empty except for the only other occupied table in a corner and a couple of blokes playing pool.
Serena turned back towards the barkeep. The bottle of red was opened and it sat beside Bernie’s glass on the counter. “Can we settle up when we’re done?” she asked, carefully picking up the drinks.
“Och aye.” He grinned. “Don’t you worry about that. You just enjoy the evening with your lassie. I’ll be right here if you need anything else,” he finished off with a wink. He disappeared into the back room leaving Serena staring after him. A flush crept up her cheeks, something that was happening with increasing frequency of late. The heat intensified enough to necessitate a steadying breath to dispel any sign of pink on her cheeks.
Pull yourself together, Serena.
She took a steadying breath. That was what this whole evening was about after all. Testing the waters, seeing what flirting with Bernie was like, if the other woman would show any sign of interest back. She shouldn’t be put off her stride when people assumed that they were more than friends.
It took some effort but she finally managed to regain her usual composure. She trod, hands full, towards the table Bernie had chosen. The blonde smiled and was up on her feet the moment she saw how precariously Serena was balancing the glasses and the bottle. She plucked the bottle out of her hand and laid it onto the worn wooden table, Serena following suit with Bernie’s glass of wine and her own empty glass. It wasn’t until she’d done that that she realised her companion had chosen a table tucked right into the corner of the room. Instead of the usual duo or quartet of chairs, the table was set up against an L-shaped overstuffed leather booth.
Just the perfect size for two to snuggle up close, a tiny voice chirped in her head.
The verdigris material looked worn and incredibly comfortable and Serena would have sunk into the seat in delight under ordinary circumstances. This, on the back of her recent thoughts, was outwith what was run of the mill. She steadied her thoughts and hoped that her expression would reflect the calm she was hoping to project.
“Is this okay?” Bernie asked after a moment with a look of concern on her face.
Her effort had clearly been in vain and Serena winced internally. The question, the tone of her friend’s voice made that clear. She put on her brightest smile and answered. “Yes, of course. It looks cosy.”
It was Bernie’s turn to grin shyly. “I thought that this would be more comfortable and easier on the back than those hard wooden chairs. Wouldn’t want to undo all your good work from last night and impose on your skills for a second day running.”
Serena smiled as an image of Bernie’s bare back along with the memory of how her skin felt under her fingers rushed into her head once again. The image caused her to twitch surreptitiously. The idea of a repeat performance was certainly the complete opposite of any definition of the word imposition.
“Oh, that would be the least I could do for my partner…” The words slipped out before she could stop herself. There was a beat, as Bernie paused, midway through edging herself across the seat to make room for Serena. Their eyes met as Serena breathed a shaky chuckle, her brain finally finding an appropriate phrase to finish the sentence, “...my partner in crime. We’ll need you fighting fit for all the heavy lifting after all, if you’re insisting on doing it.”
Bernie let out a bark of laughter as she scooted the final foot and a half along the way and patted the seat next to her. “Ha! I knew you had an ulterior motive.”
Serena joined in with a chuckle of her own and their combined mirth lightened the atmosphere, and the hint of tension dissipated into the warm air of the pub. She sat down on the leather bench and scooted along until she was halfway along her side of the booth. Bernie wasted no time in pouring out a generous portion of Shiraz for Serena which she accepted with a nod of thanks. The wine was warm and spicy and she hummed in delight as she swallowed her first mouthful.
“Be careful now, Wolfe. You’d be right back on the sofa tonight if it didn’t mean I’d have to fix your back all over again.”
Bernie winked and smiled, taking a large gulp of her white wine. “Looking for an excuse to keep me in the bed, Campbell?”
Serena raised her glass and clinked it on the side of Bernie’s half-empty one before taking another sip of her drink.
“I didn’t know I needed an excuse.”
There was a pause and Serena wavered for a moment, wondering if she had gone too far. She could always blame it on the wine, she supposed.
“Probably not,” Bernie replied, draining her glass and placing it back onto the table in one smooth motion. Her cheeks were coloured a light pink, probably from the warmth and the alcohol, Serena surmised. “But you know what they say about doctors making the worst patients. I expect that it was the surgeon in you that made the offer in the first place.”
Serena couldn’t decide if it was relief or disappointment she was feeling for being let off so easily. “Oh, all right, you caught me out. But I’ll have you know that I prefer to think of it as a win-win situation.” She tipped her head in the direction of Bernie’s empty glass. “Do you want a fresh one for the red?”
Bernie shook her head and reached for the bottle. It scraped softly across the wooden table as she pulled it towards her before lifting it up to rim of her glass. Serena watched the deep ruby liquid filling up the bowl as her companion poured it out, finishing expertly with a quarter twist of the bottle to shake off the last drop. Bernie plonked the bottle back onto the table and raised the glass for a first sip.
“I can’t see how it’s possible to be a win for you,” Bernie finally remarked, her face a picture of innocence.
Serena pondered for a moment. The twitch at the corner of Bernie’s mouth all but gave her away but she found herself tempted to play along. She hadn’t had an adversary worthy enough to play along with for far too long. Since Fleur, perhaps.
“Well,” Serena drawled, smiling. “Shifting piles of books isn’t my preferred choice of physical exertion.”
To her credit, anyone other than Serena would have missed the flickering look of surprise on Bernie’s face and the accompanying blink. She sipped her drink, glancing over the rim of the glass before setting it back down on the table, satisfied that she had achieved the upper hand while she waited for Bernie to take the bait.
“Oh?” Her eyes inevitably landed on Serena’s, curious to see where she was going.
Serena kept Bernie’s gaze pinned to hers as she took another sip of her wine. “Not so much an action woman myself. I’d rather do something more delicate, something that involves working with my hands.” She raised a hand and wiggled the fingers slowly, watching closely as Bernie followed the languid movement, swallowing her latest mouthful of wine in a quick gulp. The blonde finally pulled her eyes away, a deep flush rising rapidly on her cheeks.
A clatter rang out from the opposite side of the room and they turned simultaneously in the direction of the sound. The guys at the pool table were just finishing up, returning the cues to the barman with a bit of good-natured chatter. Bernie seized upon the distraction. “How about a game of pool?”
“Pool?” Serena gave her a curious look.
Bernie nodded, an idea forming rapidly in her head, “Yes. It’s been a while but I used to play regularly back in the day.”
Serena glanced in the direction of the now vacant table. “An expert then.”
“I wouldn’t go that far but I was fairly decent,” Bernie answered with a smile. “I can show you how to play if you like.”
Serena considered her offer for a fraction of a moment before nodding. “Lead on.”
* * * * *
“You want to make sure that you are eyeing the ball in a straight line,” Bernie said, observing Serena as she fumbled with the cue.
The brunette looked up from her spot at the edge of the table and straightened herself upright. “I know what I’m doing.” She leaned down and lined up for a shot before jabbing at the white ball. It spun, drifting an inch to the left of its starting position.
Bernie smiled indulgently before stepping forward.
“Your angle’s too high,” Bernie remarked. “Here, let me show you.” She lined up behind Serena before leaning forward, placing her hand on Serena’s.
Serena managed to stop herself from gasping aloud but there was no denying that her heart was racing a little quicker from the warmth and proximity of Bernie’s body. Her waist bumped into the side of table bending forward as the long arms circled round her torso. Bernie leaned forward to reposition Serena’s other hand, her front almost flush against Serena’s back.
“Lower this hand a little…” Her fingers clasped a little tighter around Serena’s, “...yes, like that and use the other one to keep the cue steady on the centre of the ball. Pull back then thrust forward lightly.”
Serena nodded dumbly, Bernie’s breath tickling her cheeks, a more than willing student. She relaxed her arms and let Bernie lead and complete the motion. The white ball rolled towards the triangular formation at the other end of the table, striking it squarely in the middle. Bernie pulled back and Serena followed suit, straightening her back as they watched the coloured balls break in different directions before a striped one fell into a pocket in the far corner.
“Well done. You’re stripes then,” Bernie whooped in delight.
“I’ve always been a fast learner. Shall I go again?”
Bernie nodded. “Of course, you keep going until you miss a pot.”
Serena rounded the table to line herself behind the white ball before leaning over to take aim. She was about to take the shot when she paused, straightening herself up to give Bernie a look.
“What?” The blonde frowned, confused. “Do you need me to show you again?”
Serena had to bite her tongue to stop herself from saying yes, the heat and the flush still fresh in her mind. “Let’s make this more interesting.”
“Go on.” Bernie was intrigued.
“If I win, you promise to take it easy tomorrow - no lifting boxes and stacking shelves.”
“And if I win?”
Serena pursed her lips in consideration before answering. “If you win, I’ll make dinner: starter, dessert, the works. And I’ll even throw in a decent bottle of white. Just for you.”
Bernie regarded her offer and grinned. “Deal. And I’m partial to a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, don’t forget that when you’re shopping for dinner.”
Serena tilted her head and smirked. “We’ll see.” She turned her attention back onto the table and lined her cue up behind the white ball. “Nine ball top left pocket,” she called out before her cue struck crisply, sending it racing across the table, hitting the chosen striped ball at an angle. It bounced once, twice along the side cushions before falling neatly into the pocket. She strode round the top end of the table, picking up the chalk and rubbing it expertly on the tip of the cue before blowing away the excess.
Bernie’s eyes widened as Serena sized up her next shot for a brief moment before sinking it with equal ease. “Why do I have the feeling that I’m being hustled?”
Serena looked up, cue at ready for the following play, with a wink and a huge grin across her face.
* * * * *
“You, Serena Campbell, are a menace,” Bernie announced, laughing as they tumbled out together onto the street.
Serena grinned, the picture of innocence. “Whatever can you mean?”
“Couple of glasses of Shiraz in you and you become Wigtown’s next great pool shark.”
After resoundingly thumping Bernie three times, she’d turned her attention to the other denizens of the pub. Bernie had watched, strangely proud, as she tried her pool novice act on a couple of middle aged guys and had won them a free bottle of Shiraz. Probably hadn’t been the best idea to drink all of it, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to regret it, given the pleasure it had brought Serena and the very attractive flush it had brought to her chest and cheeks.
Just at that moment, the rain the drinker from earlier had promised began to materialise. Bernie looked up at the gathering clouds as the first spit of moisture began to descend.
“Oh, this won’t do,” she said, unzipping her coat. “Here.” She draped it round Serena’s shoulders, protecting her from the rain. “Let’s go.”
Serena balked. “Oh, I can’t take your jacket,” she began, but Bernie just shook her head.
“You can argue with me, or we can get back,” she said. “But if you argue, I’ll just get wetter.”
Serena’s mind dropped to somewhere in the vicinity of the gutter. She spluttered out a syllable that might once have been something like a word, before Bernie grabbed her hand and tugged.
“Come on!” she called, breaking into a run as the rain began to beat down.
Serena let herself be dragged along, letting out a whoop of wild delight. Bernie was laughing too, and by the time they arrived back at the bookshop she was soaked to the skin, but flushed and exhilarated.
“I’m going to have a shower,” she said, shaking drops of water from her hair.
Serena stared at her, her eyes raking down her torso, watching the way the rain had made her shirt cling to her curves. She was beautiful, and more than that. Hot. Alluring. Indescribably sexy. She shuddered slightly, raising her eyes to Bernie’s lips.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll...uh...I’ll just head to bed, I think.”
Bernie nodded, seeming shy all of a sudden.
Serena waited until she could hear the shower running before she began to get undressed and ready for bed. The evening’s experiment had definitely yielded results. There was no question about what she was feeling for new friend, not after tonight. And she was a good enough reader of people to realise that Bernie was certainly open to the idea.
She climbed into bed and closed her eyes, pretending to be asleep as Bernie quietly slid in next to her a little bit later.
Yes, the opportunity was certainly there, she thought, lying awake in the dark with Bernie at her back. The only question was, did she have the guts to go for it?
Chapter 6: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
It's their last full day in the bookshop. With feelings - on both sides - becoming more and more clear, will they act on them before it's too late?
“All my wondering was put to rest when our lips met.” - Sara Farizan, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel
Bernie grunted softly as she stirred, gradually conscious of the gentle weight pressing across her chest. It felt nice, warm and soft as she pulled it closer and found herself being tugged gently onto her back in response. She sighed sleepily, settling into her new posture. The weight shifted with her, lying centred on her chest as it rose and fell with each breath.
She cracked an eyelid open, finding Serena’s face buried in her shoulder. The weight, she now realised as she blinked, was a hand. Some time during the night the brunette had snuggled up close to her and had thrown an arm around Bernie in a loose embrace. Despite the width of the king-sized bed, their bodies now shared a dip right in the centre of it, as if pulled together by some force.
Bernie closed her eyes, smiling, enjoying the feel of their bodies touching, fitting together naturally. It was obviously simple physics. Gravity. Or it could be that their bodies were simply drawn to each other by affinity. The natural law of attraction.
Her breathing hitched as the realisation hit her square in the stomach. Bernie shifted reflexively in an attempt to pull away from body nestled against hers. That small motion caused the hand on her chest to shift, drifting across before resting on her left breast. There was a gasp and Bernie had to bite her lip to stop from groaning out loud at the feel of Serena’s palm dragging across the thin fabric of her top . Her body reacted instinctively, the heat of arousal growing between her thighs and a flush lighting up her chest.
Serena moved again and Bernie froze. She swallowed hard and tried to control her breathing but her body had other ideas and she could already feel her back arching, pressing her chest into Serena’s hand. A quick glance reassured her that her friend was still asleep.
She knew she had to extricate herself before Serena woke, but the exquisite feel of Serena’s touch, even though separated by a layer of fabric, made her pause.
It wasn’t that she was relishing the sensation of almost being skin to skin with a gorgeous woman in bed.
No, of course not.
She didn’t want to make any sudden moves that might wake Serena, she rationalised. Their new friendship was still fragile and Serena didn’t need the embarrassment of waking up with her hand groping Bernie’s chest. She made a tiny movement, edging herself away from the centre of the bed. Serena stirred immediately and closed the gap, pulling her even closer. A fresh flood of sensations hit her, adding to the growing warmth between her thighs.
Bernie forced herself to stay as still as possible as she contemplated her next move. She needed some way of moving her body from under Serena’s arm without waking her.
Perhaps if she moved really slowly.
She drew a breath and held it as she gently lifted Serena’s hand off her body, pausing to see if there was any sign of wakefulness. Bernie slid towards the edge of the bed before letting out a sigh of relief once her feet found the floor. She stared at the hand in her palm for a long moment, knowing she should place it back onto the mattress before Serena stirred. Her thumb had other ideas. She stroked the warm flesh beneath her fingertips, grazing the back of Serena’s hand.
Her skin was so soft.
Serena shifted, grunting softly, and that was enough to snap Bernie out of her daze. It took all the restraint she could muster not to let go of the hand and jerk away, knowing the sudden movement would most certainly wake her sleeping bedmate. Instead, she lowered the hand gingerly onto the cotton sheets before pulling slowly away. Serena rolled toward the space Bernie had been occupying and, even in sleep, she seemed to know something was missing, grasping for something that was no longer there. Bernie’s eyes searched wildly before landing on her pillow.
That should do, she thought as she slipped it under Serena’s hand. Serena latched onto it instantly and Bernie sighed in relief as she buried her face into the pillow, her breathing slowing before evening out into a gentle snore. Her own heartbeat slowed and Bernie took a step backwards, still looking at Serena, unwilling to tear her gaze away just yet now that she had put a degree of physical separation between them. The small motion caused her pyjama bottoms to slide across the wet heat between her thighs and she stiffened.
Bernie couldn’t remember the last time her body had reacted like a this. A small voice berated her inside her head immediately.
Of course you can. Last night? When you were attempting to teach a certain someone how to play pool?
Bernie shook her head and drew a deep breath, trying hard not to think about how well their bodies had fit together. She pulled her eyes away from Serena and swivelled in the opposite direction.
A cold shower would do the trick, she decided. She was halfway towards the bathroom door when the next thought appeared, stopping her in her tracks.
It would make her feel better, certainly, but it might also wake Serena and she wasn’t sure she could speak to her in the state she was in without turning twelve different shades of pink. Bernie crossed the room and peeked out the window into the early morning sky. It was a cloudless morning and the brightening shade of blue spreading across the horizon signalled that they might be in for a scorching summer’s day ahead.
Bernie smiled as she turned and headed for the bedroom door instead.
The perfect morning for a run.
* * * * *
Bernie slowed down to a stop and lifted a hand to wipe the perspiration off her brow. She took a deep gulp of air, waiting for her breathing to even out. It hadn’t been a long run, no more than four, perhaps five miles at most, judging from her pace and the forty minutes that had passed since she left the shop, but she had been out of practice for a while now. There was a low wall just along the way and Bernie walked briskly towards it, leaning up against the cool stone surface as her heartbeat slowed down to its usual rhythm.
The sky had lightened significantly since she left the bookshop but it was still early and the country road she’d ended up on was deserted. She closed her eyes and breathed in the fresh morning air. Her thoughts relaxed and started to drift. This past week had been enjoyable. It had been both a figurative and literal breath of fresh air. As much as she would hate to admit it, she had needed this break. Her life since her unplanned return from Kabul had been a non-stop whirl of barely organised chaos and Bernie had long since given up trying to gain any semblance of control, resorting to burying herself in the one certainty she had complete control over - her work.
But that was before this week. Before their paths crossed and she was pulled into the orbit of one Serena Campbell. Bernie sighed in resignation as she pondered her present situation.
She fancied Serena.
Alone, without any distractions, Bernie finally allowed herself to admit that her feelings for the other woman were indubitably well beyond the realms of platonic friendship.
What now, Berenice?
What indeed, Bernie sighed, nudging her backside onto the edge of the wall. Her feet relaxed, dangling loosely just above the grassy verge. The last time she’d had to deal with the prospect of anything beyond friendship with another person…
Bernie paused, her thoughts trailing off, as realisation struck. The recent failed affair with Alex was still painfully fresh in her memory but she hadn’t had much experience before that. Her life with Marcus had been unconventional: they had spent about as much time apart as together for the twenty five years they were married.
Her lips twisted ruefully as she thought back to how they met. She was in her final year, on placement on the ortho ward and it had been a particularly difficult shift. Bernie had been exhausted, staying up half the night studying and spending most of the shift running after a senior consultant whose idea of teaching had been spouting random facts and sending her to the break room to bring him tea at regular intervals. She had been watching the kettle boil when Marcus appeared, smiling, with an offer of a distraction. He was on his way to observe a complex repair of the upper tibia and wondered if Bernie wanted to join him. After she delivered the tea.
They grew close and Bernie, not one to easily make friends, found herself spending more and more of the little free time she had with the charismatic F1 who seemed to go out of his way to help her and be her friend. It wasn’t until Marcus fumbled nervously and kissed her as they were leaving the pub after birthday drinks for one of the nurses that she realised that he wanted to be more than just friends. One thing led to another and, before she knew it, she was saying yes to Marcus kneeling on one knee and grinning rakishly at her, a bunch of roses in one hand and a ring in his other. It was genuine affection and she had loved him but, if she were to be honest, she had never been in love with him.
She just hadn’t realised the distinction until twenty five years later.
Bernie closed her eyes and Alex’s face, dark hair curving gently across her brow, her eyes bright blue and shining, smiled back at her. If she had stumbled into her marriage with Marcus, the relationship with Alex was more akin to throwing herself headlong off the edge of a cliff. Her eyes slid shut for a moment.
She had fallen in love with Alex.
Bernie drew a deep breath and considered her thoughts.
No, that wasn’t quite right. Was it? It seemed too gentle a description for the seismic shift in her sense of self that her relationship with Alex had triggered.
The first day they met was still crystal clear in her mind’s eye. There had been an attack on a village on the outskirts of the province and a small squad had been dispatched to help immediately. They returned, barely an hour later, hood of their truck shrouded in dark smoke as it stuttered to a stop in the middle of the compound. The rescue mission had walked into an ambush and they had barely managed to speed down the dirt road before their transport had been crippled.
Two of the men had been caught in the gunfire and needed emergency surgery. They might have been worse off, the squad leader had reported, but they’d had help along the way in the form of another transport which had just happened to be carrying their new anaesthetist. It was touch and go for a while but both men pulled through in the end. Bernie had barely shucked off her surgical gown when she heard her name being called from the entrance to the enclosure.
Her eyes had landed on the dust covered, disheveled form of Captain Alex Dawson, on her second tour, their new resident anaesthetist and the person responsible for helping to keep her injured comrades alive. There had been something about that confident smile and those bright blue eyes that caught Bernie’s attention right from the start.
The weeks and months in which they had initially worked together were a blur in Bernie’s memory. They had been an excellent team, collaborating seamlessly in theatre. Alex with her warmth and easygoing chatter rapidly found her way under her skin and Bernie in response had opened up, relishing the younger woman’s friendship. It hadn’t been long before they were spending most of their time on and off duty together.
Bernie had told herself that the surge of euphoria she felt every time the younger woman said something that made her smile was nothing more than camaraderie with a fellow medic. It was only natural, she had mused - they were both women plying their trade in a dust-strewn conflict zone mostly dominated by men.
A light breeze blew a discarded plastic bag across the road in front of her and Bernie’s eyes were drawn to it, watching for a moment as it danced away into the distance.
When had it all changed?
Her eyes slid closed as she tried to remember the exact moment, realising quickly that it wasn’t something that could be pinned down to one single point in time. In retrospect, there had been certain tell-tale signs. Sitting closer than they had needed to in the mess hall, elbows practically touching. Heat rising in her cheeks and settling in her belly whenever Alex teased her about something she had said. Fleeting glances that had grown longer with each passing day. Bernie had caught Alex looking back more than once but one of them had always found some distraction to break the awkwardness.
Until that fateful night.
They had been enjoying the cool evening breeze from a spot just at the edge of the camp after a long day working in the dry heat. Distracted by the hues of sunset peeking above the horizon, Alex hadn’t realised that Bernie had been staring at her, mesmerised, until their eyes met and she stared back. Bernie had tried to break their gaze but her eyes refused to turn away, flicking between Alex’s lips and her steel blue eyes.
She remembered the thundering of her heartbeat in her ears, the wave of heat that had flooded her chest and her cheeks, from embarrassment and possibly something more, when Alex responded. Her heart had soared, her head almost dizzy when the response was Alex’s hand tentatively covering hers. She had answered by threading their fingers together, grasping on as if for dear life, and leaning forward.
The bottom fell out of her world the moment their lips met. Bernie hadn’t known it was possible to feel so free and yet so intrinsically connected to someone else. It had been as it someone had pulled away the translucent veil her eyes had been shrouded behind up till then and she had seen her world in high definition at long last.
Bernie Wolfe had fallen head over heels in love for the very first time and, for a while, it had seemed that nothing could pierce the happy little bubble they were in. They had had to keep it all secret, of course, but the lingering looks and intimate touches no longer needed to be hidden from themselves behind the pretense of friendship.
Then the IED had hit and she had been blown back to reality. Physically and metaphorically. As the wheels turned frantically to return her home for treatment, Bernie had been reminded of the life she had pushed aside and to which was now expected to return. She had to be a wife and a mother now that the surgeon and soldier had been stripped away and in the end it was all too much. It had been as if one part of her couldn’t hold itself up without the other and it had all disintegrated to pieces.
Bernie sighed and pulled her thoughts back to the present.
You should know better by now, Berenice.
It was one thing, falling in love with Alex in the middle of the desert. At her lowest point, she had wondered if the only reason they had been drawn to each other was the fact that she was the only other female kindred spirit within a hundred miles. After all, as soon as they were no longer in that highly-charged situation, it had all fallen apart.
She sighed again, her thoughts returning to where they had begun.
There was no doubt that she liked her as more than just a friend. And for brief moments during the past week, Bernie had entertained the possibility of Serena reciprocating. Had Serena been flirting with her last night? Her gut said yes, but was it just the same as the situation with Alex? Was it all just the circumstances, the unexpected intimacy of being thrown together like this and fortuitously discovering a friend in an unlikely place? Was Serena just having a bit of fun before she went back to her real life?
And did it matter if she was?
The rising glare from the horizon made her squint and Bernie pushed herself off the seat on the wall. A quick glance at her watch reminded her that, although it wasn’t late, she should start heading back to the bookshop soon. She turned and started a slow jog, retracing her steps.
* * * * *
Serena came slowly awake feeling warm and floaty, her arms wrapped around something soft and yielding. She nestled closer automatically, breathing deeply through her nose, getting a lungful of a scent that was rapidly becoming familiar. “Bernie,” she mumbled with a smile, her eyes blinking open.
The other woman wasn’t there. Serena frowned, confused, until her mind caught up with her senses and she realised she was hugging her friend’s pillow. She listened for a few moments but it was clear that the little flat was empty.
With a stretch and a yawn, she dragged herself out of bed, padding through to the kitchen in search of coffee. There was a scrap of paper next to the coffee machine wIth Serena written on it in what could only be a doctor’s scrawl. She unfolded it with a smile and read the few lines.
Woke up early and thought It’d be a great morning for a run. My back’s feeling up to it, thanks to you. I’ll see if I can scare up some breakfast on my way back.
Serena’s heart swooped in her chest at the sight of those two little ‘x’s after Bernie’s name. Her finger traced over them speculatively, wondering if she was reading too much into it. They could mean anything or nothing. Bernie didn’t strike her as the kind of woman to leave kisses on notes for just anyone. Of course, she didn’t know her that well yet.
But she would like to. The previous evening and the dreams she’d enjoyed during the night had cemented that. She wanted to get to know Bernie very well indeed.
Putting speculation about the meaning of Bernie’s sign off to one side, Serena concentrated on brewing the coffee. She was feeling the after effects of her slight alcoholic overindulgence of the night before - nothing too bad, just a general sluggishness - and knew that something strong and hot would go a long way to getting her back on top form.
Just as the coffee was finished brewing, she heard the tinkle of the bell from downstairs that indicated that Bernie had returned from her run. Serena smiled as she listened to her friend mount the stairs and poured a second cup of coffee ready for her.
“You’re up,” Bernie said in mild surprise as she entered the kitchen. “You were dead to the world when I left.”
Serena shook her head slightly ruefully. “Probably shouldn’t have finished that second bottle last night,” she admitted, cradling her mug between her hands and blowing on the drink to cool it. “I think the need for caffeine woke me up.”
Bernie laughed softly. “Could have ordered by the glass,” she ventured, smiling at Serena’s incredulous look.
“I’m sorry, Serena Campbell - have we met?” Serena fired back, holding out her hand for Bernie to shake.
Bernie took Serena’s hand in hers, sliding her palm across Serena’s, curling around her fingers and holding with just the right pressure. They both paused, staring into each other’s eyes as the moment stretched beyond a simple handshake and into something else. Serena’s heart began to pound as her thumb stroked gently over Bernie’s skin.
Bernie was the first to pull away, blushing a pretty shade of pink as she broke eye contact. “I...uhm...the bakery had just opened. I brought croissants.”
Serena blinked then nodded, swallowing hard as she tried to get her heart rate back under control. “Sounds lovely,” she said.
Conversation was stilted at first as they sliced open their pastries and spread on butter and jam, but they soon regained the natural affinity that had built up between them over the last few days.
“I can’t believe this our last day here,” Bernie said when they had finished eating, leaning back in her chair with coffee in hand.
Serena nodded in agreement. “It’s flown by, hasn’t it?” she said. “I’ve had such a wonderful time - completely down to you, I think. I doubt I’d have enjoyed it half as much on my own.”
Bernie blushed, fighting against her natural instinct to demur, to insist that she was surely completely incidental to Serena’s enjoyment of her holiday. But she stopped herself because wasn’t it true that what Serena had expressed was exactly how she felt herself? She was sure she’d have enjoyed running the bookshop well enough if she’d been on her own, as had been the original plan. But how much better had it been to discover a new friend too, to spend time getting to know someone who was charming, interesting, funny and beautiful?
“I feel exactly the same,” Bernie said at last, and glowed with happiness at Serena’s bright smile.
* * * * *
The day progressed much like the others, except that Serena had stuck to her guns and made Bernie sit at the till rather than do any heavy lifting. Bernie had protested, of course, but Serena had reminded her who won the bet the previous night at pool and had been absolutely resolute that she was not going to back down. “You’re going to be driving for hours tomorrow, Major,” she had reminded her. “Putting your back out again is the last thing you want.” Bernie had acquiesced in the end, realising that there was clearly no dissuading Serena Campbell when she had her mind set on something.
So Bernie sat at the till and served the odd customer who came in, but mostly she just watched Serena moving around the shop while they maintained a loose conversation. They weren’t talking about anything in particular but it flowed effortlessly anyway - one minute exchanging stories about surgeries they’d taken part in or colleagues they both knew, the next chatting about a book they’d read or something one of their kids had done. Bernie couldn’t remember the last person she’d felt so easy around - even with Alex there had been a layer of tension under everything. She’d thought it was because of the situation: the fact that it was against military rules, or the underlying knowledge that she had a husband at home who needed to be told that his wife wasn’t the person he - or she, in fact - had thought she was. But perhaps it was more than that, she mused, because even after all of those situations had been resolved, being with Alex had never felt as simple and joyful as these few days with a woman who had until recently been a total stranger.
She was jolted out of her reverie by Serena leaning up against the counter, her arms crossed casually in front of her. “I think that’ll do for shelving stock,” she said. “Don’t want to leave next week’s proprietors with nothing to do after all, do we?”
Bernie nodded absently, her eyes drawn by Serena’s position to her collarbones and the hint of cleavage displayed by her leaning posture. Her mouth went suddenly dry.
“I could do with a cup of tea,” she said, forcing her eyes up to look at Serena’s gently amused face. “Want one?”
Serena pursed her lips, seeming to think about it. “Love one,” she said at last, and Bernie escaped gratefully up the stairs.
She heard the bell herald a customer as the kettle boiled but she took her time, brewing the tea to just the right strength and making sure the right amount of milk was added to achieve Serena’s desired colour. There was half a packet of custard creams on the counter too, so she grabbed it and carried it between her teeth as she made her way back downstairs, two mugs in hand.
The sound of low conversation floated through to her as she neared the bookshop proper. She strained to hear what was being said, anticipating being able to eavesdrop on Serena’s sales pitch, which was a joy to behold. The woman was so charming she could sell coals to Newcastle.
However, the voice she could hear wasn’t Serena’s at all - it seemed the customer was doing all the talking, and he wasn’t all that interested in books.
“I must say, you’re a lovely looking woman,” he said. “Too lovely to not have a ring on her finger. How would you like me to take you out tonight, show you the sights round here?”
Serena’s voice was calm but brusque. “Oh, no thank-you,” she said. “I’ve a long drive tomorrow - should really have an early night.”
Bernie nudged the door open with her foot and entered the shop, immediately noting that the man was about her own height, a little overweight, and standing far too close to Serena for her liking. From her friend’s posture and body language, Serena wasn’t exactly comfortable with the situation either.
Without really thinking about it, Bernie deposited the mugs and packet of custard creams on the counter and stepped up behind Serena. She slipped her arm round her waist, pulling her close so their sides pressed against each other and smiled brightly down at her as Serena turned her head to face her. “I brought your tea, darling,” she said. “Thanks for taking over the till for me.”
Serena blinked but played along instantly, smiling as she leaned forward to press a kiss against Bernie’s cheek. “Thanks, love,” she said, taking the opportunity to step away from the over-attentive customer.
Bernie felt her cheek burning where Serena’s lips had touched her, but decades of working under pressure in war zones had left her with an iron will and the ability to shut off her physical responses when necessary. So she ignored the jolt of desire and the rush of adrenaline in favour of smiling at the dejected looking customer who was holding a tatty paperback loosely in his hand and gazing forlornly at Serena’s back as she sipped her tea.
“Just this, thanks,” he said, handing her the book - The Natural: How to effortlessly attract the women you want by Richard La Ruina - and waiting as she rang it up. Bernie raised an eyebrow at the book’s title. She didn’t approve of pick up artists or their methods, seeing them for the misogynistic games they were, but this guy clearly needed all the help he could get.
When he’d gone, their eyes met for a brief second before they were laughing helplessly, wiping tears from their eyes. “Did you clock what he was buying?” Serena gasped helplessly. “Obviously thought he could save himself some money if his own tactics worked on me.”
“I think the women of Wigtown are safe, somehow,” Bernie replied.
“Oh, especially with you around,” Serena said, nudging Bernie’s shoulder with hers and fluttering her eyelashes coquettishly. “My hero,” she said, then smiled and dropped her voice to a purr. “Darling.”
A tiny shiver skittered up Bernie’s spine, but before she could even think about whether or not she could or should flirt back, Serena moved away. “Drink up,” Serena said, nodding towards Bernie’s mug. “It’ll get cold.”
Bernie blinked at the sudden change in tone. “Right,” she murmured, picking up her mug. She cleared her throat. “Risotto okay for you for dinner tonight?”
Serena smiled. “More than okay,” she said. “But you don’t have to cook. I should treat you, for coming to my rescue.”
Bernie shook her head. “No, no,” she insisted. “You only had to cook if you lost the bet, remember? I’m a woman of my word.”
“Hmm,” Serena hummed. “Admirable integrity, Ms Wolfe.” She met Bernie’s eyes over the rim of her mug. “I suppose I’ll just have to consent to being waited on hand and foot this evening. However will I cope?”
* * * * *
The mushroom risotto she had planned was a fairly simple dish, but Bernie had a little surprise in mind for dessert. She’d noticed a couple of ramekins in the cupboard which had given her the idea, and she thought Serena would like it. She imagined Serena’s lips closing over the spoon as she ate, moaning in pleasure, and felt her heart speed up in anticipation.
Leaving Serena in the living room with a book, she nipped over to the Co-op to get a few things before it shut. On an impulse, she grabbed some candles too, thinking that a little romantic mood perhaps wouldn’t be unwelcome.
Was this a dinner date, she wondered as she paid for her few purchases. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had an actual date. Nothing she and Alex had ever done had qualified, and she and Marcus hadn’t been the kind of couple to have ‘date nights’. This would be a new experience. If, in fact, it was a date.
She rolled her eyes at her own thoughts. She could just ask Serena what her intentions were, of course - remove the ambiguity. But that would mean getting an answer. Somehow that seemed scarier than just going with the flow.
Once back in the kitchen she busied herself with dessert prep, rebuffing Serena’s offers of help. Serena pretended otherwise, but Bernie thought she was enjoying being treated. She thought back to the other night when they’d stayed up late drinking wine and talking about their lives. With her work and her nephew, Serena never got this kind of luxury and Bernie was determined to give her a night to remember.
When everything was ready, Bernie lit the candles, set the table and poured the wine that had been breathing on the countertop for the last half hour. She surveyed her handiwork, rubbing suddenly sweaty palms on her jeans and biting her bottom lip. Everything looked okay. She exhaled shakily and set her shoulders. It was now or never.
“Okay, dinner’s ready,” she called, then turned back to the hob to plate up the risotto so she wouldn’t have to see Serena’s face when she entered the kitchen. She wasn’t sure she could bear it if she saw confusion or - worse - pity as it became clear what she was hoping this dinner would be. She busied herself grating some parmesan to sprinkle over the rice, concentrating on not skinning her knuckles.
Suddenly, she felt Serena at her back and she held her breath. “Looks delicious,” Serena murmured, and when Bernie turned round she found the other woman staring at her face rather than the food. Her lips curled up in a tentative smile which widened into a grin when Serena smiled back at her.
“Uhm...we’d better eat before it gets cold,” she said, gesturing towards the table. Serena nodded, still smiling, then laughed as Bernie moved to hold out her chair for her.
“Very chivalrous, Major,” she said.
The risotto was delicious - creamy and earthy and rich. They barely spoke as they ate, which wasn’t to say they didn’t communicate. Their eyes said everything that needed to be said - meeting, looking coyly away, only to meet again and hold for longer than before. Bernie felt her nerves begin to disappear under a growing sense of certainty that she and Serena were on the same page.
Soon it was time for dessert. Bernie retrieved the ramekins from the fridge and spooned some sugar over the top, setting them under the grill to caramelise. “Crème brûlée?” Serena said, impressed. “My favourite. How did you know?”
“I didn’t,” Bernie replied. “But I figured everyone likes a good brûlée.” She got the plates ready while waiting for the sugar to finish caramelising. She’d made shortbread biscuits to put on the side and a passable example of a raspberry coulis, given the flat had no blender. It had required quite a lot of straining, but it had been worth it, she thought. It looked good.
When Serena took her first bite of crème brûlée, Bernie realised her imaginings from earlier had been wholly inadequate. Dear God, that voice. It ought to be illegal to have a voice as sexy as that.
“This is wonderful,” Serena purred after she’d taken a few spoonfuls. “I’m feeling very pampered.”
“Good,” Bernie replied. “You deserve to be.”
A slow smile spread over Serena’s face, lighting up her expression. “Thank-you,” she murmured, her gaze flicking from Bernie’s eyes to her lips. “Oh,” she said. “You have a little sauce just there…”
Before Bernie could ask where or reach up to wipe it off herself, Serena had cupped Bernie’s cheek and rubbed at the drop of raspberry sauce with her thumb. Bernie watched with her heart in her mouth as Serena brought her thumb to her lips, tongue flicking out to lick the sweet red liquid from her skin, her eyes never leaving Bernie’s.
After that, there was nothing Bernie could do but lean forward and kiss her.
Chapter 7: Tipping the Velvet
The holiday is over. Will what happened in Wigtown stay in Wigtown?
With thanks to Professor Flimflam for her assistance in proofreading this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“How different wanting seemed, when I knew it was you I wanted...” - Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet
A low moan bubbled up from somewhere deep inside Serena at the first touch of Bernie’s lips. Without consciously deciding to do it, she found her fingers threading through Bernie’s hair, sifting that soft blonde silk that some part of her had been admiring since the moment they met on that windy country road outside Wigtown.
“Is this actually happening?” Bernie murmured against her lips, turning her head slightly and deepening the kiss before Serena could answer. So she simply moaned again instead, letting her hands drift down to cup Bernie’s cheeks as her lips parted and they kissed and kissed, leaning awkwardly over the corner of the kitchen table, heedless of the wood digging uncomfortably into them.
“I thought you were straight,” Bernie whispered as they broke for breath, before leaning forward again to leave a trail of kisses over Serena’s cheek, leading past her ear to the straining tendon of her throat. Serena sighed and leaned back to give her better access.
“Not exactly,” she breathed, gasping as she felt the bright edge of teeth at the point where her neck met her collarbone. “I...there was once...I mean, I’ve been to Stepney.”
Bernie raised her head, frowning. “Uhm...is that some kind of euphemism I’m not aware of?”
Serena blinked, her eyes glassy. “What?” She shook her head as if to clear it, then laughed. “No. Sorry.” She trailed her fingers through Bernie’s hair again, pushing a few loose strands behind her ear. “I just mean...well, there haven’t been many, and not for a long time, but…” She took a breath. “You aren’t the first.”
Bernie smiled a slow, soft, shy smile. “Okay,” she said, the little worry that she was just a straight woman’s holiday experimentation fading away.
Serena’s eyes dropped to Bernie’s lips, her pupils darkening as she leaned in to kiss her again. It was softer this time, and she might have described it as chaste if not for the fire it unleashed under her skin. She whimpered softly, pressing her body forward to try and get more - more what she didn’t know. More kisses? More skin beneath her trembling fingertips? More Bernie, she decided at last.
They broke apart at the sound of a spoon dropping to the floor with a clatter. Bernie looked down at the table they were leaning across, her eyes dark and a little wild. It looked like the spoon was just the vanguard of a cutlery and crockery disaster, as they seemed to have unwittingly been pushing the remnants of their dessert towards the edge and the whole lot was on the verge of crashing to the floor. She blinked, taking a breath to steady herself. “Uhm...why don’t I clear this up,” she suggested. “And then we can take this somewhere a little more comfortable.”
Serena nodded shakily. “I’ll take the wine,” she said, grabbing their glasses and the remainder of the bottle and disappearing into the other room.
Without her there as a distraction, Bernie was able to clean up their plates and cutlery quickly and efficiently. Excitement and nerves thrummed under her skin like a reverberating chord, but decades of experience at maintaining control of her adrenaline kept her hands steady as she washed up the dishes and left them on the rack to dry.
After drying her hands on a teatowel, she headed into the living room, expecting to see Serena perched on the edge of the sofa or leaning back with a glass of wine in hand. But the room was empty, and she found herself drifting into the bedroom by default, it being the only room left to explore.
What she found there made her breath catch and pulse skyrocket. Serena was stretched out on the bed wearing nothing but a leopard print bra, matching underwear and an amused smirk. “I hope you don’t think me too forward,” she drawled. “But I thought it’d save time if I made my intentions perfectly clear.”
Bernie blinked, her brain short-circuiting as she took in the expanse of dips and curves and creamy skin spread before her like a banquet. Her eyes raked over Serena from head to foot and back up again, her breath catching and turning ragged. Serena’s smile widened at the glassy look in her eyes. She held a hand out to her. “Come here, Major,” she said gently. “I want you.”
Bernie’s feet moved her before her brain caught up. She reached out and took Serena’s hand, their fingers threading together instinctively. “I want you too,” she whispered.
Serena looked up at her through hooded eyes. “Then take me.”
* * * * *
Serena didn’t think she’d ever forget her first sight of Bernie’s naked skin, or the first press of their bodies together, or the feeling of running her hands over the taut muscles of her back as she hovered over her, eyes dark and heated as she paused for the briefest moment before surging forward to kiss her.
She certainly wouldn’t forget Bernie’s gentleness, the almost reverent way she touched her, kissed her, the feeling that Serena’s pleasure and her comfort were her only real concerns.
It wasn’t anything like being with a man - not like any man she’d ever known, anyway. She remembered one time with Robbie, how he’d been so serious and so offended when his light touches had tickled and drawn a laugh. She’d needed to stroke his ego for ten whole minutes afterwards and it had completely killed the mood.
When Bernie’s gentle touches made her wriggle and laugh, Bernie just grinned and dug her fingers into Serena’s sides to provoke more helpless giggles. “You’ve got a beautiful laugh, Ms Campbell,” she murmured warmly into her ear, her caresses becoming firmer and surer as she pressed against her and kissed her again and again and again, until Serena was dizzy with affection and desire.
Bernie was warm and wet around her fingers when she finally rolled her onto her back and touched her. It surprised Serena more than a little that she was going first, but it felt right somehow. For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, she was almost more hungry to see and to kiss and to touch than to push on to her own conclusion.
She had always enjoyed sex, always been confident in bed and unafraid to express her needs. She was surprised by the intensity of her desire to see Bernie let go, but excited by it too. “You feel so good,” she whispered breathily into Bernie’s ear. And she did - warm and soft and so responsive. Her hips thrust up against Serena’s hand.
“More,” she whispered, and Serena obliged by sliding another finger inside, moaning at the way Bernie held her breath and then sighed, relaxing into Serena’s touch.
“I’m so much gayer than I thought I was,” Serena murmured, drawing a breathy laugh from Bernie as they moved gently against each other.
“I’m very glad of it,” Bernie replied, running her fingers through Serena’s hair and drawing her down for a kiss.
When, after long minutes, their lips parted, Serena trailed a series of kisses over Bernie’s cheek, down to her neck, nipping at the racing pulse point she found there. She let the bright edge of her teeth scrape against her skin, tasting the salt of sweat and something sweet underneath.
“Serena,” Bernie gasped, sliding her hand down her own body to join Serena’s. “Can I…?”
Serena exhaled a shaky breath. “Please,” she whispered. “Show me. Show me what you like.”
Bernie’s head slammed back against the pillow, her fingers and Serena’s thumb joining together to create a delicious pressure and friction. “Serena,” she moaned, rolling her hips against Serena’s hand. Stuttered syllables, gasps and broken expletives dropped from her lips like a sudden burst of rain. Serena wrapped her free arm around her shoulders and just stared at her, drinking her in.
“You’re magnificent,” she purred. “I bet you look so beautiful when you come.”
At those words, Bernie’s eyes flew open, her whole body straining into Serena’s touch. Her back arched and she gasped, holding still for one long, endless moment. Then she crashed back down onto the bed, gasping and clenching and clutching at Serena as she showed her just how beautiful she could be.
“God,” she gasped at last, her chest heaving. “Serena…”
Serena smiled a little smugly, enjoying the feeling of the aftershocks shuddering through Bernie’s body. She moved her fingers inside Bernie, laughing when her whole body twitched.
But when she made to gently withdraw, Bernie covered her hand with her own, shaking her head. “Not yet,” she whispered. “Please.”
Slowly, Bernie began to move against her again. Serena felt a sudden surge of arousal as she realised what was happening. “Again?” she said wonderingly. “Wow.”
A light blush coloured Bernie’s cheeks, barely noticeable under the dark flush of desire. “You don’t mind?”
Serena shook her head. “Mind?” she said, a little incredulously. “You are…” She trailed off, overtaken by the sudden need to kiss her. “You are absolutely wonderful,” she said at last when their lips parted.
Bernie’s eyes were dark and a little wild. The world seemed to condense into a little bubble, a magic kingdom just for them as they moved together and Bernie gasped and her muscles strained.
“Come for me, darling,” Serena whispered, tightening her hold around Bernie’s shoulders. “I want to see you.”
“Serena,” Bernie gasped, then pulled her closer so she could capture her lips, letting her moans be swallowed up in a kiss that carried her though the initial waves and the aftershocks and all the way until she had to pull Serena’s hand away because she’d become too sensitive to touch.
“Wow,” Serena whispered at last, resting her forehead against Bernie’s. “You’re fantastic.” She curled her hand round the curve of her hip. “And so lucky. I usually manage one, but that’s my limit.”
Bernie slowly opened her eyes. “That sounds like a challenge to me,” she said.
With a burst of sudden strength, Bernie flipped Serena onto her back, reversing their positions before Serena really knew what had happened. She bared her teeth in a grin.
“And I do love a challenge, Ms Campbell.”
* * * * *
Is it always like this with women? Serena wondered as she floated in bliss. Whatever possessed me to wait this long?
Serena brushed the question away, her eyes focused on the sprawl of tousled blonde curIs across her torso. Her muscles clenched when Bernie turned a kiss on her belly into a gentle nip.
“You taste so good.”
The words were muffled in yielding flesh and Serena reacted the only way she could; by resting a hand on the top of Bernie’s head, urging her downwards.
She complied immediately, peppering kisses along Serena’s stomach, down to the soft swell of her hips, anything her lips could reach. Bernie paused, glancing upwards, just as her chin brushed across a different texture, her eyes blown with desire but still seeking the final affirmation.
Serena somehow managed a half-nod and that was all the permission Bernie required before her mouth continued downwards, sure and determined.
The first touch was almost tentative but it was rewarded immediately by a throaty moan. The second was surer, encouraged by the upward thrust of Serena’s hips. Bernie dipped in for another taste and a sound long forgotten bubbled from Serena’s throat. It was halfway between a moan and a growl and the sheer intensity of her arousal made Bernie pause. She closed her eyes, breathing in the heady scent that was Serena, and her hesitation was immediately chastised with a plea and firm pressure from the hand buried in her hair.
“Please.” Serena’s voice was barely a whisper and Bernie came undone.
The hands on her thighs nudged them further apart as Bernie slid down between them. Her mouth continued its relentless assault and Serena felt an excruciatingly familiar tension building. Her hand reached for something to grasp onto, to ground and provide a counterpoint as her body edged towards the precipice. Bernie’s head was now just beyond her reach, so Serena instinctively swung a leg across her back to anchor herself. Her heel dragged slowly up and down her spine as Bernie teased, coaxing her over the edge.
“Bernie!” she gasped, her muscles going taut for an exquisite second before the pressure released. She thought she heard Bernie mumble something against her overheated flesh, but she was too far gone to take it in, her perceptions shrinking to a pair of lips and a wicked tongue and the softness of Bernie’s skin where her heel was digging into her back.
It was long moments later before her breathing recovered enough that she could open her eyes. Bernie was hovering over her, a gentle smile on her face.
“Welcome back,” Bernie murmured and leaned in for a kiss, her lips still glistening with the taste of Serena. “Now,” she murmured against her lips, her hands sliding across oversensitive skin. “I haven’t forgotten my challenge. Get ready for number two…”
Serena laughed, ready to say that she couldn’t possibly, that she needed more time to recover, that she’d never managed more than one even by herself. But then she thought...why not? Even if Bernie couldn’t make good on her bravado, it would certainly be fun to let her try.
And the night was just getting started...
* * * * *
For the third day in a row, Bernie and Serena woke tangled up together.
They’d forgotten to close the curtains the night before, having been slightly preoccupied by the time they’d gone to bed, so Serena was woken by an unwelcome beam of sunlight on her face. She grimaced, turning into Bernie’s neck and nuzzling against her. Bernie mumbled something and pulled the duvet up over their heads. The lines on Serena’s forehead smoothed out as she opened her eyes, blinking against sleep. Bernie was looking back at her, her eyes soft and gentle in their little cocoon as she stroked tentative fingers across Serena’s cheek.
“Morning,” Bernie whispered, like she was worried she’d break the spell if she spoke too loudly.
“Morning,” Serena replied, leaning forward to steal a kiss. She snuggled into Bernie, wrapping her arms round her waist and resting her head on her chest. “We have a few hours yet, hmm?”
Bernie sighed, bringing a slightly hesitant hand up to stroke softly through Serena’s hair. “We do,” she said softly. She leaned down and pressed a kiss to Serena’s forehead, who was already halfway back to sleep.
* * * * *
Serena watched from the window as Bernie loaded her bags into the compact boot of the MX5. Her lips curled upwards in a small smile as Bernie swiped at her fringe in a hopeless effort to keep it out of her eyes. It widened as she recalled the feel of those cornsilk strands threading between her fingers, soft and silky. She stared, from the safety of distance, her eyes raking along the lithe form her hands had so recently mapped before settling on the shapely curve of her backside. Her eyelids fluttered shut as she allowed herself a moment of indulgence at the memory of the night before.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw that Bernie was walking back towards the shop and she had company with her in the familiar form of Dusty Foulds. The bright-haired woman was chatting animatedly with Bernie, and Serena opened the front door just to in time to hear the end of Dusty’s question.
“...and did you enjoy your stay?”
Bernie nodded and smiled. “Very much so.”
Dusty beamed and turned towards Serena. “How about you, my dear?”
Serena paused as she thought about the week gone by. To say it had been interesting would be a gross understatement. It might have been random chance that they ended up running a bookshop together but, in retrospect, the undeniable chemistry they shared had been there from the first moment they met.
“Yes, it’s been a pleasant week.” Serena’s lips curled upwards as she answered. “It was an enlightening experience. Especially the excellent company I had to share it with.” She sneaked a glance at Bernie, pleased at the hint of a blush blooming across her cheeks. Soft brown eyes slid across, met hers, and lingered, neither in a hurry to break the connection.
“Are your bags ready?” Bernie asked. “If you give me your keys I’ll pop them in the boot for you.”
“Oh, I can manage,” Serena said, but Bernie was undeterred.
“I’d like to help,” she said. Serena smiled shyly and nodded, handing over her keys.
When she was gone, Dusty smiled. “You two seem to have hit it off,” she said.
Serena blushed, thinking about what they’d spent the night and most of the early hours of the morning doing. “Uhm…” she began, but Dusty’s eyes were widening.
“Oh, you’ve really hit it off,” she said, a knowing grin beginning to spread over her lips.
Serena’s blush deepened. “Yes, I suppose you could say that,” she admitted softly, looking down at her hands.
“Good thing you live in the same city then,” Dusty remarked. “No need for a long-distance romance.”
“Oh,” Serena said, shaking her head. “It’s not...we’re not...I mean we haven’t really discussed…”
“Why ever not?” Dusty said. “You’re single, you’re obviously compatible.” She patted Serena’s arm. “It could be wonderful. Don’t let it slip through your fingers.” She pushed a piece of paperwork towards Serena. “Sign here please, dear.”
Serena bit her lip as she signed the checking out paperwork. The end of the holiday seemed to have come upon her very quickly. And for all she and Bernie had kissed and laughed and made each other come over and over again last night, they hadn’t actually talked. They had never once discussed what this thing between them was or what it could mean.
Which was probably her fault, Serena mused. She hadn’t really given Bernie much time to broach the topic, what with the whole stripping off before she’d even finished the dishes thing and all.
“Here you go,” Bernie said with a smile as she reappeared, holding Serena’s keys out to her.
Serena watched her as she leaned over the table and signed her part of Dusty’s paperwork. She really was exquisitely beautiful. Her heart ached a little looking at her.
“All done,” Dusty said, and Serena found herself walking out onto the street, her car keys in her hand.
“Right,” she said, searching Bernie’s eyes. “Well...it’s been wonderful, Ms Wolfe. Thank you for your company this week. I doubt I’d have enjoyed myself half as much without you.”
Bernie blinked slowly. “Uhm...yes. You too. I mean, I feel the same.”
A long pause stretched between them. Serena reached up to fiddle with her pendant, waiting for Bernie to break the silence. She bit her lip, her heart tripping over itself.
The pause lasted a heartbeat too long. With a sigh, she opened her arms to Bernie who stepped into the hug, a little stiffly, but willingly enough. Serena dropped a soft kiss onto her cheek, just below her ear. “Take care of yourself then,” she whispered.
Bernie’s cheeks were flushed when Serena pulled back. “Yes. Uhm...you too.”
Serena hesitated for half a beat before ducking her head. “Well,” she said. “Long drive. Best get on.” She looked towards the car park where their cars had been nestled next to each other all week.
“Yes,” Bernie agreed. “I’m just going to pick up a few things for the drive before I go.” She nodded towards the Co-op across the street.
“Right,” said Serena. She met Bernie’s eyes one more time, her heart pounding like she’d run a race. “Okay.” She ducked her head again. “Well, goodbye.”
And she turned and walked slowly to her car.
* * * * *
Bernie stood on the street, watching Serena drive away. She waved once, but Serena was concentrating on the road.
Dusty Foulds emerged from the bookshop, locking the door behind her. She’d been checking on a few things for the next occupants while Bernie and Serena had said their goodbyes. “That’s her off then,” she said.
“Yes.” Bernie said distractedly, then forced herself to smile, arm outstretched to shake Dusty’s hand. “Thank you again.” Ignoring the hand, the other woman leaned in, folding her into a hug instead. Caught off guard, Bernie just about kept her balance as the air whooshed out of her chest from the brief but hearty squeeze before Dusty’s grip loosened.
There was a twinkle in her eyes when Dusty answered as she pulled away. “The pleasure is all mine. Even though I didn’t get a chance to play Cupid.” She caught the look of embarrassed panic on Bernie’s face and continued with a knowing smile. “It’s always nice to see romance blossoming.”
Bernie flushed pink. “Is that what Serena said?”
“She didn’t have to,” Dusty replied, picking up the nervous edge in Bernie’s question. “I recognise the symptoms when I see them.”
Bernie let loose a bark of laughter and thought back to the unique set of circumstances that had brought them together. “You’ve definitely helped. Possibly more than you realise. It’s just that we’ve not really talked about this being anything more than…” She broke off, reluctant to finish the sentence the way her head was telling her to.
Dusty nodded and patted her shoulder. “It isn’t easy, I know.”
A brisk gust of wind sent a shiver down Bernie’s back and she instinctively pulled her jacket a little tighter around her torso.
“I’d better let you get going,” Dusty remarked, peering into the slate grey sky above them. “You’ve got a long drive ahead and the weather looks to be taking a turn.”
Bernie nodded and began to head across the road to the Co-op, thinking about whether she wanted boiled sweets or chocolate for the trip. As she reached the other side of the road, Dusty’s voice made her stop. “Ms Wolfe?"
Dusty smiled. “You two really make a lovely couple. Don’t keep her waiting too long.”
* * * * *
Serena flicked through the radio stations before stopping at the sound of a familiar tune. She shifted in her seat and rolled her shoulders, feeling the stiffness ease away as she did. The road ahead was relatively clear and she soon found herself humming along to the music. Dusty Springfield was singing about someone having a hold on her from the moment they met.
Another Dusty’s recent words rang in her head, stirring up the thoughts that she had been trying very hard to push aside the moment she pulled away from the bookshop.
It could be wonderful.
This week had been a revelation, she thought as the scenery swooped past. Never in her wildest imaginings had she envisioned actually acting on an attraction to another woman. Stepney, in her head, hadn’t counted - drunk and curious was one thing but this…
Her lips curled, remembering the sounds, the taste and most of all, the feel of Bernie’s touch. Last night was much more than just a prurient experiment. They’d shared a connection much deeper than that and Serena was certain it was one borne out of intimacy, friendship and perhaps - just perhaps - something more.
She could find Bernie, if she wanted to. She was a well known figure in their profession, and she lived in the same city. It would be relatively easy.
The question was, was she brave enough to take it any further?
And did Bernie even want her to?
* * * * *
The motorway had begun to make Bernie sleepy after a while, so she’d turned off a few miles back and started down the back roads to Holby. The song she’d been listening to on the radio faded away but the final words stuck in her mind as the car zoomed along on the empty road.
I only want to be with you.
A little over-dramatic considering they had only known each other for a week but not completely untrue either, Bernie mused ruefully. Surely it wasn’t possible for Serena to get under her skin in such a short space of time.
Bernie focused on the road again, hoping for something to break the sheer monotony of the drive and distract her from the uneasy flutter in her pit of her stomach. A lone cyclist loomed up ahead and she eased her foot off the accelerator immediately. The change in pace was just what she needed and she concentrated on keeping a safe distance as he pedaled hard up the slight incline. They crept slowly up the gentle hill and round the bend and it was a few long seconds before Bernie was able to pull away and pass him on other side of the road.
She sped up the moment she was clear and turned her attention back to the road ahead again. There was another car just rounding the bend, and from her vantage point at the crest of the slope, she could make out that it was a light green compact, not unlike the one that had been parked next to her own car for the past week at the bookshop.
Bernie clenched the wheel and took a nervous breath. Had she caught up, even with the half hour head start Serena had had? It would be a couple more hours before they reached Holby and Bernie wasn’t sure that she could concentrate on driving if she ended up following her all the way. It was one thing having distracting thoughts but quite another altogether having the experience compounded by the sight of Serena right in front of her.
Her grip tightened as she drew closer. A quick check of the speed dial confirmed that she was well within the proscribed limit.
How was it that she was closing in?
Perhaps Serena had taken a break earlier, something that Bernie had chosen not to do, mind set on getting home as quickly as possible. Her right foot eased off the pedal reactively, applying just enough pressure to keep the car moving forward.
Still she drew closer and her pulse quickened. There could be worse ways of finishing the rest of the journey, she supposed, than having Serena’s company as a distraction. The car ahead of her was now close enough that Bernie started slowing down to keep a modest distance away.
But it wasn’t Serena after all. A similar make and model, from what she could tell, but the driver was clearly a man and clearly not local, judging from the German number plate. That might explain why he was going so slowly on the nearly empty road.
Bernie’s heart sank, disappointed. She swiped a hand through her hair and almost laughed out loud at her own contradictory behaviour, having swung from trepidation to anticipation and now back to disappointment, all in the space of minutes.
Oh, Bernie, you’ve got it bad.
* * * * *
Serena shrugged her shoulders as she arched her back away from the back of the car seat, feeling the stiffness creak out of her joints, relieved that she was nearly home. She could just about pick out the entrance to her driveway from this far end of her street and knew that it was a matter of fifteen, maybe twenty seconds at most before the long drive was over.
She’d been looking forward to a long soak in the bath and a glass of Shiraz but now, a hundred yards away from home, a dawning realisation began to sink in, dulling the anticipation she should be feeling.
Her bookshop holiday would technically end once she pulled into her driveway. She’d be back to her daily routine and life as she knew it would carry on. As it always had.
That is precisely why it’s called a break, Serena.
She thought back to Siân’s words from mere days ago and sighed.
What happens in Wigtown stays in Wigtown.
She slowed to a near halt before turning the steering wheel, easing her way through the gap between the stone walls and into her driveway.
Serena turned the key in the ignition, silencing the engine. She sat for a moment, looking up at the familiar facade of her home, and sighed.
If Bernie had wanted to continue whatever they had started, she’d have said something, wouldn’t she? She’d have given her some sign, some indication that their night had meant more than a holiday fling.
The kind of more it had meant to Serena.
They hadn’t even exchanged numbers. There had been no need while they’d been staying together, and then as they’d parted Bernie had been so reserved. Serena still had the slip of paper on which she’d written her own number in her coat pocket. She’d been waiting for the right moment to give it to her, but it had never arrived.
Before she quite realised what was happening, she found herself blinking back sudden tears. “Oh, pull yourself together, Campbell,” she whispered savagely, swiping at her eyes.
It took her a minute or two to get herself back under control. She glanced up at the house again, noting that Jason’s light was on. He’d no doubt want to know how she’d enjoyed her holiday.
She squared her shoulders as she got out of the car. She couldn’t let Jason see she was upset. No, it was time to put on a brave face. However much her heart felt like it might just be breaking.
* * * * *
The smell of the city hit Bernie the moment she opened the door of her car. It wasn’t unpleasant, no, just a stark reminder that she was back in the real world.
Bernie unfurled herself from driver’s seat, pulling herself upright with a hand on the door to steady herself. She was home and a few dozen steps away from the sofa in the living room. Or better yet, an indulgent half hour under the spray of a hot shower.
There was barely room between the boot of her car and front of her neighbour’s but she managed to squeeze in through the gap and grasp the nearest bag, tossing it onto the pavement. Bernie was about to reach for her suitcase when something caught her eye. A small disc had fallen out of a side pocket of her duffle bag, spinning briefly before falling flat on the concrete.
Bernie’s eyes narrowed in momentary confusion before she realised what it was. She bent over, lifted the thin metal disc from the ground and stared at it. The identical facets of the coin mocked her as she twirled it between her fingers, a reminder of the week just past.
Had she done the right thing?
Her fingers curled round the coin. Bernie drew a deep breath in resignation as she slammed the boot shut. Either way, it was too late to regret anything. It was out of her hands now.
To her surprise, she found that her flat was occupied when she turned the key. She could hear some comedy show droning in the background, and two familiar voices drifting out of the living room.
“Hello you two,” she said, plastering a bright smile onto her face for her children. “Been wrecking the place while I’ve been gone?”
Cam and Charlotte looked up at her, twin smiles on their lips. “No,” Cam said. “Just putting it to a little light use.”
Charlotte stood up and drew her mother into a hug. “Sit down,” she said. “You’ve had a long drive. I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
Bernie shook her head. “Something stronger, I think love.” She gestured towards the cabinet above the dishwasher. “I’ve got some gin in there,” she said.
Cameron looked up at her sharply. “What’s happened?”
Bernie blinked defensively. “Nothing.”
Cameron shook his head. “The last time you drank gin was when Alex sent you that Dear Jane letter,” he insisted. “You only drink gin when you’re heartbroken.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, waving her hand in the air dismissively. “Anyway…” She shook her head. “I barely know her.”
“Aha!” Cameron crowed triumphantly. “There is a her. I insist you tell us everything.”
Bernie hesitated, then sighed as she realised she’d never get any peace until she spilled the story.
“Okay,” she said, accepting the gin and tonic Charlotte handed her. “Well, you know how you got to place your booking because of a cancellation…”
* * * * *
Jason hadn’t let Serena have a moment to herself for hours after arriving home. By the time she’d been able to crawl up to her bed she’d been too tired to unpack her bags, choosing instead to leave them at the foot of her bed. She’d slept fitfully, waking up frequently after frankly erotic dreams, surprised every time to find herself alone. In the end, she’d curled around her pillow, trying to ignore how much she wished it was Bernie she was holding.
She slept late, grateful that Jason had agreed to get his own breakfast that morning so she could recover from her long trip. When she finally got up, she showered slowly and dressed in her oldest, most comfortable clothes. She thought she’d spend the day moping. That seemed like a fantastic plan.
But first she had to unpack her bags.
She approached the task slowly and with trepidation. Every item of clothing in her bag held memories. The top she’d worn when Bernie tried to teach her to play pool. The nightshirt she’d had on the night she gave Bernie the massage. The leopard print bra… Well, she was trying not to think about the memories brought up by the leopard print bra.
And then, at the bottom of the bag, she found it.
Her heart began to thud almost painfully as she pulled the slip of paper from the bottom of her bag and began to read.
I’ve had such a wonderful time this week, and it’s all been because of you. I can’t thank you enough for your companionship, your concern for my wellbeing, and of course your friendship.
We haven’t talked about what last night meant. I’m not sure what you want it to mean. Maybe this is just a holiday fling for you, I don’t know. I don’t want to put you on the spot - hence this letter. Maybe slipping this into your bag instead of actually talking to you is a bit cowardly? But I don’t want you to feel pressured in case you want to just toast our undeniable sexual chemistry, then say no more about it.
But...if you do want to see where what we began last night could lead us… I would very much like to see you again.
This is my number. Call me anytime. I hope you do.
A mobile number was scrawled below the signature. Serena choked out a tiny sob, then laughed, holding the letter to her chest.
When she felt confident she’d be able to speak, she reached for her phone.
* * * * *
Cameron placed a large mug of very strong coffee in front of his mother as she perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, her head in her hands. She’d told him and Charlotte an expurgated version of the full story last night - she felt the full details of their night together probably weren’t necessary - finishing with how she’d slipped a note into one of Serena’s bags when she’d sloped off to put them in the boot for her.
Cameron had just shaken his head. “God, mum,” he’d muttered. “You are such a useless lesbian.”
Bernie hadn’t really had a rebuttal for that. So she’d got blind drunk instead.
“She might call today,” Cameron said gently.
Bernie shrugged. “Probably not,” she replied. “Serena’s definitely an ‘unpack the moment you get home’ kind of person.” She took a sip of her coffee, feeling the thump of her hangover ease somewhat.
“You’re being negative.”
Bernie managed a small smile. “You know me,” she said. “Expect the worst; hope for the best.”
Cameron blinked, nonplussed. “Mum,” he said. “You’ve mastered the first part of that but you have never even heard of the second.”
Bernie flushed and was about to argue, when her phone began to ring.
She looked down at the screen and felt her heart leap into her mouth when she saw it was an unknown mobile number. Cameron grinned as she fumbled to pick it up, patting her on the shoulder as he headed back to the spare room where he’d spent the night, obviously giving her some privacy.
“H-Hello,” she said, picking up just before it clicked over onto voicemail.
There was silence on the other end of the line for a long second. “Bernie,” a familiar voice said at last, and Bernie felt her headache completely disappear in an instant as a rush of warmth flowed over her.
“Serena,” she breathed, exhaling a long sigh of relief. “Hi. How are you?”
“Oh, you know,” Serena said, laughing a little. “Same old.” She took a breath. “I missed you last night.”
Bernie smiled slowly. “And I missed you.” She closed her eyes, picturing Serena’s face. “You got my note then,” she said.
“Yes,” Serena said, and that one syllable seemed to encompass more than just an answer to that simple question. Yes to the possibilities they’d glimpsed in each other. Yes to all the uncertainty and all the potential heartbreak and all the potential joy. Yes to Bernie, whatever that meant.
Bernie felt happiness bubbling up inside her like water from an unattended pan. “You know,” she said carefully, “I’m not due back at work till Thursday.”
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. “Dinner?” Serena said at last.
Bernie smiled, slow and beautiful.
Just an epilogue to go now folks ;-)
One Year Later
Bernie ran a hand through her hair for the umpteenth time. It was pointless, she knew, and it was sheer providence that the disheveled curls with the fringe in her face look passed off as something Serena considered to be attractive. She thought back to the very last time it had been a topic of conversation and smiled. It widened into a grin as she recalled Serena’s description of her appearance when she turned up late and frazzled for a theatre date two weeks ago.
A labrador puppy. Post an enthusiastic wrestling contest with a stolen biscuit.
There had been a moment of weak protest before Bernie inevitably gave into the bewitching smile and the breath-stealing kiss that followed.
She gave up on her hair within minutes of attempting to tame it and turned toward her outfit for the evening instead. There was the option of a dress but a quick rifle through her wardrobe yielded two choices, both a little drab. Bernie continued flicking through the rail in her wardrobe before finally stopping at a white long-sleeved dress shirt. The missing top button caught her eyes and she grinned, wondering if it was still nestled in some random corner of Serena’s bedroom floor.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” Serena murmured hotly against Bernie’s chest, her hands resorting to jerking the plackets of the shirt apart, having given up fumbling to undo the button.
The flush of heat which filled her belly as she remembered what happened after made her mind up for her instantly. And she had a brand new jacket to go with it as well. A spontaneous purchase, perhaps, but there was something about it she was certain Serena would appreciate. Bernie tugged on the broad lapels of her jacket, her hands brushing down the sleeves before straightening the cuffs of her dress shirt at the same time.
Half an hour and a cab ride later, she pushed open the heavy glass door and stepped into the foyer.
“How can I help?” A bright voice greeted her immediately.
“I have a reservation. Wolfe. For seven thirty?” Bernie smiled apologetically as the young woman nodded and turned to the screen next to her. “I’m running a little late but my partner should already be here.”
“Table for two?” She looked up from the terminal and signaled towards the waiter who had been hovering in the background. “They aren’t here yet, Ms Wolfe,” she continued as he approached. “James will show you to your table. Unless you’d prefer a drink at the bar while you wait?”
Bernie shook her head. “Lead the way, James.”
* * * * *
“Would you like another of the same?”
Bernie looked up from her phone and shook her head. “Better not.”
The empty tumbler was swiftly removed and she turned her attention back to the screen.
Ten past eight.
A brisk flick downwards to refresh showed that she hadn’t missed any calls. Neither were there new text messages or emails other than the ones Serena had sent her earlier. Bernie hadn’t had time to reply any of her messages through the day. Her entire shift had been a blur of surgeries and being being pulled from one consult to the next and it was nothing short of a miracle that she’d left the hospital a mere forty five minutes later than she had planned.
She swiped the screen and was about to tap on the name on top of the call list when a presence at the corner of her eyes made her pause.
“Sorry I’m late, darling.” The familiar smoky voice carried over the sound of the other diners and the soft classical music emitting from subtle speakers around the restaurant. Bernie looked up and felt her stomach contract.
Serena moved smoothly towards her, elegant and beautiful, wearing a low-cut, wine-red dress that clung to her curves and had a sinful slit up the thigh. Bernie’s eyes dragged up her body, from her kitten heels to the silver pendant nestling in her cleavage, before she finally remembered that she should be meeting her eyes. Serena’s expression was both amused and pleased. “I do enjoy making you non-verbal,” she purred, leaning down to drop a kiss onto Bernie’s cheek as she arrived at the table.
Bernie scrambled to her feet. “Serena,” she said, blinking hard. “You look…” She held Serena at arms length so she could look at her again. “Wow. So beautiful.”
A light blush coloured Serena’s cheeks. “Why, thank-you Major,” she said. She ran her hands over the lapels of Bernie’s jacket, tugging her forward a few centimetres so she could kiss her hello properly. “You’re looking rather dapper yourself.”
“Oh,” Bernie replied, looking down at her own outfit. “Well, the dress-uniform is in storage, so…”
“Mmm, we’ll be revisiting that image another time.” Serena winked. “Come on, let’s sit. I haven’t eaten since twelve.”
Bernie held out her chair, then returned to her own seat when Serena was settled. “Surgery ran late?”
“Mmm,” Serena replied. “Broken leg with vascular compromise. I had planned for a vein graft, but it turned out to be more complicated once we got in there. Ended up having to do a temporary shunt - we’ll need to operate again tomorrow.”
Bernie nodded in understanding as Serena began perusing the menu. “Well, in a trauma situation you always need a plan B.”
“So a beautiful trauma surgeon of my acquaintance has led me to believe.”
Bernie smiled. “Know a lot of beautiful trauma surgeons do you?”
Serna quirked an eyebrow, but didn’t look up from the menu. “Just the one.”
Bernie ran her eyes over the list of starters. “Ah. Sounds pretty special.”
“Oh, you know,” Serena said absently. “The greatest trauma surgeon this country has to offer. The one great love affair of my life.” She shrugged. “An excellent fisher of compliments.”
“Oh,” Bernie breathed, shaking her head. “I...I wasn’t trying to-”
“I know darling,” Serena said, smoothly cutting her off. She looked up from the menu and met Bernie’s eyes. “But I meant every word.” She reached across the table and took Bernie’s hand in her own, squeezing gently as their fingers entwined.
A gentle clearing of the throat drew their attention to the waiter who had just arrived by the table. “Good evening ladies,” he said smoothly. “Would you care to order drinks?”
Serena’s eyes widened. “God, I haven’t even looked at the wine list yet,” she said in a scandalised tone, as if she couldn’t believe she’d been so remiss.
“Oh, I hope you don’t mind.” Bernie glanced up at the waiter. “I called ahead to ask for a particular bottle…?”
“Ah, Ms Wolfe!” the waiter said, his eyes lighting up in recognition. “Forgive me; I’ll bring it over immediately.”
Serena smiled. “What have you ordered?”
“Oh, well...I know how much you love a good Shiraz,” Bernie replied, grinning when Serena’s eyes lit up. “But I thought a change of pace would be nice. I’ve heard good things about Portuguese Chardonnay…”
The look of stricken horror on Serena’s face was so comical it took all Bernie had not to burst into laughter on the spot. Over the course of the last year - the best year of Bernie’s life by far - she’d been treated to Serena’s opinion on Chardonnay more than once. It could fairly be summarised by one particularly forthright view she’d shared after a disappointingly poor wine tasting - “If I wanted to drink chilled urine, I could make it myself for free.”
The waiter returned with the pre-selected bottle and smiled as he showed them the label. “I think you’ll enjoy this,” he said pleasantly. “It’s one this particular winery’s best vintages.”
Serena’s expression brightened when she saw that they had in fact been brought a red, then her eyes widened as she took in what she was seeing. “The ‘96 Astralis!” she exclaimed. “Bernie, this is about £200 a bottle!”
Bernie resisted the urge to say she was fully aware of what it cost, seeing that she was the one paying for it, and just smiled. “Worth every penny, if it makes you happy.”
The breath was stolen from Serena’s lungs and for a few brief moments she lost the power of speech. The waiter poured her a mouthful of wine to taste and she turned her attention to that, swirling the ruby liquid in the bowl of the glass and taking a delicate sip, her heart racing all the while. The wine was delicious - rich and heavy and complex - and the waiter poured each of them a full measure once he’d received her nod.
When he’d gone, Serena reached across the table and took Bernie’s hand. “You know, for someone who says they’re not good with words, you’re rather adept at ruining me with them.”
Bernie glanced at her through the overlong fringe that Serena so loved to push away from her face, a blush of pleasure on her cheeks. She raised Serena’s hand to her lips and pressed a gentle kiss to her knuckles. “I love you, Serena.”
Happy tears swam in Serena’s eyes. “I love you too,” she murmured, then laughed at herself to break the suddenly thick atmosphere. “And you are so getting lucky tonight, soldier.”
Bernie let Serena’s hand drop back to the table and laughed. “Oh, I think I’ve been lucky every day for the last year. Lucky to have met you, lucky to have kept you, lucky you put up with me.”
Serena narrowed her eyes as she took a sip of the expensive yet delectable Shiraz. “Still need to work on your self-esteem, I see,” she commented, but mildly enough that Bernie knew she wouldn’t be turning it into a lecture. This time. “Happy anniversary, darling.”
They clinked their glasses together and Bernie smiled brightly. “Happy anniversary.” She glanced at the bag by her feet, hesitating a little before looking back to Serena. “I know we said we weren’t doing gifts, but-”
“-but you ignored that?”
Bernie blushed, but Serena didn’t look annoyed. Instead, she pulled a beautifully wrapped gift from her own bag and placed it on the table. “Luckily, so did I.”
Bernie shook her head, laughing as she pulled out a very similar package - less beautifully wrapped, it had to be said - and passed it to Serena. They both went about unwrapping their gifts in their own ways - Serena delicately peeling off the tape and keeping the paper in one piece; Bernie recklessly tearing. Bernie was therefore the first to reveal what was hidden beneath the wrapping paper.
Whatever reaction Serena had been hoping to provoke, it wasn’t the wild goose-laugh that she always shook her head at but secretly adored. But a few seconds later she understood, and she began to laugh along with her partner, eyes streaming as she pulled off the last of the wrapping paper.
“Well,” Bernie managed to say after a minute, gesturing between the two identical copies of Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller - an account of the author’s experiences owning the largest of Wigtown’s many second-hand bookshops - that they now owned. “They say great minds think alike.”
Serena grinned. “Oh, in that case my darling, we may be the very greatest of minds.”
* * * * *
Serena slipped the last spoonful of creme brulee between her lips with a sigh of contentment. It was delicious - smooth and creamy and rich - but not a patch somehow on the one Bernie had made for her one year ago to the day. She said as much to her partner, who smiled in quiet pleasure as she finished her own dessert.
“Coffee?” Bernie suggested, but Serena just shook her head.
“I’d rather take you home, Major,” she purred. “The night’s just getting started.”
The cab ride back to Serena’s leafy detached was a haze of laughter and kissing and fingers threading through hair. Bernie was barely able to pay the driver before she found herself being dragged out of the cab and into the house. As soon as the door closed behind them she found herself pressed up against the wall, Serena’s hands in her hair and her lips on her throat.
“I’ve got one more present for you,” Serena whispered into her ear, her warm breath on Bernie’s skin making her shiver.
Bernie rested her hands on Serena’s hips and smiled. “Will I find it in the bedroom?” she asked with a slightly raised eyebrow.
To her surprise, Serena’s face was serious. “No,” she said, nodding her head back towards the door. “You’ll find it there.”
Bernie frowned and turned to look at whatever Serena was trying to point out to her. For a moment she didn’t understand - it was just the hooks on which the Campbell-Haynes household kept their keys. Serena hadn’t put the set she’d used tonight back yet, but Jason’s were there, along with the spare set, and-
Her eyes widened when she realised what she was seeing. A new set of keys hung on one of the hooks, shiny and obviously freshly cut, attached to an enamel keyring in the shape of a pile of books. She reached out and picked them up with slightly trembling fingers. “Oh,” she breathed, then looked back at Serena. “Is this...are you…”
Serena nodded, her eyes shining. “It is. I am.” She pushed Bernie’s hair behind her ear and swallowed hard. “I miss you when you go back to your place.” She shrugged, trying to affect an air of nonchalance. “So, I think you shouldn’t anymore. I want you to live here. Or we can find somewhere new together, whatever you want.”
Bernie’s fingers closed over the keys - her keys - and she smiled, her heart almost bursting with happiness. “I doubt Jason would appreciate moving house,” she said slowly.
Serena blinked. “Is that a yes?” she breathed.
Bernie searched her face. She thought for a brief second about teasing Serena, saying no, just to see how she’d react. But she was too happy to do that, brimming over with joy at the idea of going to sleep next to Serena every night, of watching Countdown with her and Jason in the evenings, of fighting over the thermostat in October when Serena always felt cold and Bernie was always warm. “Yes,” she said, pulling Serena close and holding her tight. “Yes, yes, yes.” She pressed kisses to her partner’s temple, trailing down to her cheek before finally finding her lips again.
For long moments they just kissed, lost in the feeling of being alive and together. “I can’t imagine a life without you,” Serena murmured as their lips briefly parted before meeting again, firmer and surer than before.
“You don’t have to,” Bernie replied, then kissed her again. “You don’t have to…”
* * * * *
Despite how romantic it sounded to fall asleep in each other’s arms, it very seldom actually worked out like that for them. One or the other would always get too hot, or would need to stretch in a certain way, and after a few months they both just admitted that a kiss and a cuddle before they retreated to their own sides of the bed to sleep was more than enough.
Mornings were different though. Bernie regularly found herself waking up earlier than she needed to - a hangover of Army life - and she would always feel the urge to gently pull Serena close for the last quiet hour of dozing before the alarm went off. They fit together perfectly, Serena’s head on Bernie’s shoulder, her arm curled round her waist, their legs tangled together. This morning Bernie forced herself to stay awake after she’d tugged Serena into her arms, running her fingers tenderly through her hair while her partner slept on.
It had been a wonderful night. Perfect. The best possible way to mark their first year together. First of many, Bernie fervently hoped.
Half an hour before Serena’s alarm was due to go off, Bernie slipped out of bed and pulled on a pair of boxers and a white vest top. It was a warm morning and, more to the point, Serena had expressed more than a passing appreciation for this outfit in the past.
She returned to the bedroom ten minutes later, carrying a tray that held a pot of coffee and a couple of warm pains au chocolat. Serena was just stirring when she walked in, blinking sleep from her eyes. She brightened almost instantly as the scent of coffee and pastry finished the job of waking her up.
Bernie balanced the tray on her lap as she settled back onto the bed. Serena dropped a kiss onto her cheek before reaching for one of the pastries and taking a large bite.
“What’s this?” she mumbled around pastry crumbs, gesturing to a white envelope balanced on the tray with her name written on it in Bernie’s messy handwriting.
“Ah,” Bernie replied. “I may have had another gift that I forgot to give you last night. After you distracted me.”
Serena’s eyes flashed with amusement as she remembered exactly how she’d managed that. “I didn’t hear you complaining,” she said smugly. “Unless I completely misinterpreted all that clutching and moaning and the declarations of undying love.”
“Well,” Bernie conceded. “I suppose I didn’t mind all that much.”
Serena took a sip of her coffee - black, no sugar, just how she liked it when she was on an early shift - and reached for the envelope. She tore it open and removed a printed sheet, her eyes squinting a little as she held it further away from her face.
“Shall I get your reading glasses?” Bernie asked with slight twinkle in her eye, earning a swat from Serena.
“I can see perfectly well, thank-you,” she replied haughtily, then her face softened as she took in what was on the paper. “This is a reservation for The Open Book. For next summer.”
Bernie smiled. “I thought it’d be nice to go back to where it all started.”
A kiss was her reply, then Serena frowned. “I thought there was a two year waiting list.”
“Ah.” Bernie suddenly seemed very interested in her coffee. “Well, I may have made the booking last year.” She cleared her throat. “Uhm...the day you found my note.”
Serena glanced to her bedside table where the note - now laminated to keep it pristine - was serving as a bookmark. “A little presumptuous of you,” she managed to say, but her voice was husky and lacked any bite.
Bernie shook her head fondly. “No,” she said. “Just...just hopeful.”
Their fingers tangled together on top of the duvet. “Well,” Serena said. “It’ll be nice to let Dusty and Harold and Maisie and all the rest know that we actually are a couple now.”
“Mmm.” Bernie’s eyes twinkled. “Did I tell you that Dusty gave me a talking to after we left last year? Don’t keep her waiting too long.”
Serena barked out a laugh. “She said something similar to me when we were alone. Were we just really obvious to everyone, do you think?”
Bernie shrugged. “Maybe. But we got there soon enough on our own.”
“Indeed we did.” Serena stroked her thumb over the soft skin of Bernie’s palm, then sighed. “I suppose I’d better get up. Mr Bradley’s vein graft isn’t going to happen by itself.” She glanced up at Bernie, almost shyly. “But I’ll see you tonight? At home?”
Something settled in Bernie’s chest at the idea of home with Serena. She smiled as she leaned in for one last kiss before their days had to begin.
“I’ll be here...”
This story seemed to take much longer to write than we intended. Thanks to everyone who's read and especially to those who left kudos and commented. We've learned a lot about collaboration from doing this, and enjoyed it a lot, so we'll definitely be doing something together in the future. Watch this space!