A chill wind gusts across the Pont de la Concorde, tugging at the clothes of the tourists and locals braving the blustery day. Serena hunches deeper into her coat, clutching the fabric tighter around her body as she makes her way back to the left bank. November may not be the ideal vacation season in Paris, but she finds the persistently grey weather suits her mood, dulls the beauty of the city enough to be bearable.
She ducks into a little cafe, murmurs bonjour to the man standing behind the bar and settles at a small corner table with a view of the Seine. There’s almost no one else there - a couple in the back with their heads leaned close together, an old gentleman chit chatting with the bartender - and only a few minutes pass before the young waitress sets a small cup of espresso on the table, a delicate sablé balanced on the edge of the saucer.
Raf was right, Serena thinks as she sips the bitter coffee. She does need this time away to grapple with her mother’s death, to regain her own equilibrium in a way that burying herself in work would never allow.
Still, it’s hard to be in Paris. To see all the places her mother loved, the cafés they went to together over the years. It feels like a pilgrimage of sorts, both honoring Adrienne’s memory and pressing a thumb into the bruise left on Serena’s heart by her passing.
She spent the morning wandering the city aimlessly, eventually making her way to the Musée de l’Orangerie, reminiscing fondly about the first time her mother took her to see the water lilies. Sitting in the quiet space, surrounded by the massive paintings, it wasn’t until a kindly old woman pressed a handkerchief into her hand that Serena even realized she was crying, the soft colors blurring and splintering in her vision.
Shaking her head with a sigh, Serena forces her attention back to her coffee, the warmth of the cafe sinking into her skin. She picks up a magazine someone left on the table, one of those guides to local events and news stories, flips through it idly as she watches the people walking by.
An image catches her eye as she turns the page; a photograph of a woman near her own age in a lacey negligee, leaning against a window with her back arched just so to accentuate the elegant curves of her body. Even in the grainy black and white print, something about it draws her in, a sort of effortless confidence and sensuality without feeling tawdry. The text beneath the image turns out to be an ad for a local photographer who specializes in so-called boudoir portraiture.
She wonders what it would be like to take such intimate pictures with a complete stranger, can’t imagine being as comfortable and at ease as the woman in the ad appears to be. More likely than not the photographer - a B. Wolfe, according to the text - is some lecherous man looking to make a living off seeing women in their skivvies.
Serena dismisses the flight of fancy with a scoff, taking a bite of the flaky biscuit as she flips to the page of restaurant reviews in the back.
As the afternoon turns to evening and Serena walks the quiet streets back to her hotel, that image keeps unexpectedly resurfacing in her mind, striking some unknowable chord deep inside her.
Curled up in bed, glass of wine in hand, she taps in a search for B. Wolfe Photography on her laptop, almost without realizing what she’s doing. What comes up in her search results is so far from the leering man that she pictured in her mind, Serena has to stop and take a breath.
The headshot on the ’about’ page shows a woman near to Serena’s age. A beautiful woman, with deep, dark eyes and tousled blonde hair falling just past her jaw.
Immediately her mind fills with questions, bubbles up with thoughts, feelings, things that have been lurking, maybe forever, but the sight of this woman are bringing them to light. How did she come to be in this business? Does she have a set of boudoir photographs of herself? What are the walls of her studio like? Would she like the way Serena looks? Serena realizes that last thought assumes she’s already made the choice to go and have her photo taken.
Taking another sip of wine, she scrolls through the customer gallery, the images each accompanied by a glowing review. She’s struck again by the confidence of the women in the pictures, the way the photographer has illuminated their beauty without hiding the marks of a life well lived. There are bodies of all shapes and sizes, visible scars and stretch marks, curves that are far beyond the stick thin models of ad campaigns.
Emboldened by the wine, perhaps, Serena sets aside her computer and stands in front of the floor length mirror next to the bed. She looks closely at her face, at the grey that’s crept into her hair, the wrinkles around her eyes, the parentheses framing her lips. And then she unbuttons her blouse, slips her vest off over her head and looks at her body, looks at it in a way that she hasn’t in many years. She sees the age of it, the sagging, the pulling, but she doesn’t feel the pang of regret, of loss. She sees the strength of her body, of all it’s done for her. She wonders if that’s the power of this mysterious B. Wolfe. If just looking at her photographs can make Serena feel this way, what might it be like to have a full session with her?
Not bothering to redress, she settles back on the bed, navigating to the contact page and sending an inquiry before she can talk herself out of it. Just making the request, considering this as a real option, fills her with a sort of nervous excitement.
The ping of her email startles her a bit, and she sees she’s gotten a message from B. Wolfe, faster than she expected. Perhaps she’s not the only one up late, drinking wine. She pictures the blonde’s lips pressed against a wine glass, what she assumes are beautiful hands fingering the stem. And then she shakes the thoughts from her head to actually read the text of the email.
Apparently she’s had a cancellation, leaving an appointment available the next afternoon. Serena reads over the preparation recommendations - no spray tans, don’t wear anything that would leave marks prior to your appointment, hair and makeup provided. Her fingers hesitate over the keyboard for a long moment before she sends the reply accepting the appointment.
Nerves rush through her, now that it’s too late to turn back. The confidence she felt moments earlier is shaken, and she hopes that she can somehow be brave enough to follow through, to do this for herself. The last thought on her mind before she falls asleep, though, is of warm, dark eyes and a wide smile, looking at her with affection.
In the morning she walks to a nearby boutique after surveying the lingerie Elinor packed with dismay. The nerves return as she hunts though racks of silk and lace, trying to decide what would look best, what she’s actually brave enough to wear.
She chooses something black from the rack, something blue - the color of her scrubs, and then her fingers pause on something garnet red, like wine that’s caught the light. She can imagine it on her body, the deep color against her pale British skin, the lace just barely obscuring things that haven’t been seen by another person in too long a time. It fills her with the flush of desire and longing, and she knows it’s the set she needs, the one she deserves.
Flinching a little at the total, she hands her credit card to the young woman behind the counter, smiling as she takes the small shopping bag and walks out into another dreary November day.
She arrives at the photography studio much too early, scans the area for a coffee shop, a wine bar, anything to keep her occupied for the intervening time. She checks her phone; no messages, nothing from anyone, can’t decide if it’s freeing or depressing, and walks to a little cafe only a few streets away, orders a glass of wine to calm her nerves, to give her courage.
Even with the detour, she walks through the door ten minutes early, doesn’t think she could wait any longer without losing her nerve. Making her way up the narrow spiral stairs, she finds a door with a small brass plaque affixed to the outside, B. Wolfe Photography engraved in clear calligraphy.
She’s not sure whether to knock or open the door, dithers a bit. “Come on, Campbell,” she says to herself, quite sternly, and places her hand on the doorknob, walks into the studio, dimly lit, just natural light coming in through heavy curtains, low lamps set around. She clears her throat, trying to make herself known, trying not to be too awkward, too naive, too earnest.
The woman from the website steps around the corner, an expensive looking camera in her hands. She’s taller than Serena expected, slender, with long limbs that are emphasized by her skinny black jeans and checked shirt.
“Oui,” she says, slipping into French like a second skin. “Vous êtes Madame Wolfe, je suppose?” The other woman looks embarrassed, the apples of her cheeks turning a sort of beautiful pink, and she tucks a hank of hair behind her ear, eyes not meeting Serena’s.
“Ah, je n’est parle pas Francais,” she says haltingly, her accent horrendous, her grammar stilted, and Serena can’t hold back the laugh that slips from her lips.
“Of all the people to not speak French, I would never have guessed it would be the boudoir photographer,” she says, and feels altogether more at ease than she thought she might.
The look of sheer relief that crosses the woman’s face pulls another laugh from Serena.
“You’d be amazed how much you can get across with hand gestures,” she says with a chuckle and reaches out her free hand, her fingers strong and sure. “Bernie Wolfe, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Serena,” she says, closing her own hand around Bernie’s, and she finds further comfort in the warmth of the other woman’s hand, marvels at the feeling of it, the gentle weight, firm and kind, so much conveyed in just the merest of touches.
“Where...do you want me?” she asks after a long moment, their hands still clasped, only dropping her grip when she hears the gentle clearing of a throat from behind Bernie, a head peering from behind a curtain.
“My assistant, Charlotte,” Bernie says hurriedly, not answering the question, looking away from Serena, though she could’ve sworn there was a glint in those dark eyes. A young woman steps into fully into view, bobs her head in greeting. “She’ll, ah, get you settled.”
Charlotte turns out to be a young woman with bright blue eyes and ginger hair in a short, stylish crop. She leads Serena to a makeup table in the corner, chattering lightly in French as she sets to with brushes and pigments. As she works, Serena can’t help but follow Bernie’s reflection in the mirror, watches her setting up lights, adjusting the decor. She feels a warm flush rise in her cheeks as Bernie plumps the pillows on the bed in the center of the studio.
She closes her eyes at Charlotte’s urging, feels the flutter of a brush against her eyelids, along the rise of her cheekbones.
“So, what’s the occasion?” Serena opens her eyes, finds that Bernie is standing just behind her chair, the light from the mirror reflecting in her eyes. “Is this for a wedding? Anniversary? Or just a gift for your partner?”
Serena’s stomach drops, heat climbing the back of her neck. It never occurred to her, the usual reasons women have for doing this kind of thing, makes her lack of a love life feel all the more pathetic.
“Ah, no, nothing like that,” she stammers. “I-, it’s a gift to myself, I guess.”
Bernie smiles warmly at that. “The best kind of customer,” she says, a pat to Serena’s shoulder, her hand solid, comforting, and it makes a thrum fly up Serena’s spine.
“Time to get dressed. Or undressed, rather,” Charlotte says, and Bernie flushes once more and practically vanishes from behind Serena, odd behavior for a woman who does this for a living. But Charlotte points Serena to a small room before she can dwell anymore on Bernie’s behavior, and it’s with a deep breath that she closes the door, clutching the lingerie bag.
It’s strange, undressing like this in an unfamiliar place, the murmur of voices on the other side of the door. She sheds her shirt and trousers, folding them carefully and placing them on the chair in corner, reaches into the small bag to unwrap the tissue paper parcel.
The slip of silk is cool against her fingers, the lace impossibly soft. Shucking off her plain black pants, she steps carefully into the wine red knickers, thrills a bit at the feel of the fabric sliding over her skin. Even in the light cast by the overhead fixture, the color practically glows, shimmers a bit as Serena turns, checking that everything is as it should be.
The lingerie is lovely, flatters her figure as much as she could hope, lifting her breasts just slightly, encasing her hips, lace and satin contrasting in the tasteful and alluring combination she hoped for, just masking the skin below it. Still, nervousness flutters in her stomach, makes her hands tremble enough she has to try a few times to hook the bra closed.
Once everything is in place, she slips on the robe hanging from the hook on the back of the door. Takes a deep breath, then another, and walks back out into the studio.
Bernie is bent behind her camera, angled at a low divan, silky sheets pooled around. Serena thinks how in another life, in another world, she might find this tawdry, distasteful, but in this moment, she finds it beautiful.
She presents herself to Charlotte for final approval, trying not to think about opening up her robe for a woman who could be Elinor's age. But Charlotte is courteous, only a wink when she says, "You're perfect," belying anything but consummate professionalism.
"I thought we'd start over here," Bernie says with a smile, and Serena imagines her eyes linger a bit, feels a swirl of warmth at the thought. "If you'd like to take a seat?"
Serena walks on shaky legs, letting the robe drop from her shoulders as she settles into position. Bernie comes close, a finger moving a lock of hair gently, a thumb tilting her chin just so. It feels wildly intimate, but Bernie only ever looks at her eyes, nowhere else. When she leaves Serena's side to return to the camera, a bit of warmth is lost, Serena feels strangely bereft, wonders if it shows on her face.
"You want to make sure to look right at the camera," Bernie says, fiddling with a reflective panel, bouncing the light just so. "It can be helpful to to think of, ah, someone or something to set the mood. It shows in the eyes."
Serena just nods, feels her cheeks color at the idea of conjuring up a fantasy in front of a stranger, her mind going blank when put on the spot.
One more critical look, and Bernie lifts her camera. "Ready?"
Serena nods, just ever so slightly, and meets Bernie's eyes just as she ducks to look through the viewer. It's Bernie's eyes that she pictures when she looks at the camera, as terrifying as if she were looking down the barrel of the gun. But the thought of Bernie there, with her, sets her trembling feelings aside. The dark camera lens becomes Bernie's gaze, and it sets her at ease.
Any shame or embarrassment she thought she might feel is gone, her breath slow and steady, her chest rising and falling in the warm air of the room. She moves a hand to scratch an itch at her collarbone and Bernie tells her to leave it there, to soften her fingers. On and on they go, all of Serena's accidental movements, the little twitches, becoming part of Bernie's artistic vision.
Bernie moves her to stand by the large window, draped in gauzy curtains, moving and adjusting the lights as Charlotte touches up her makeup.
"All right, lean against the wall. One shoulder toward me, your other arm back. No, too far." Bernie's hands are warm and steady as she guides Serena's limbs to where she wants them, finding the perfect angles, even if it leaves Serena feeling a bit like a child's doll. Her fingers alight on Serena's chin, tilting her head a fraction toward the window.
"Beautiful," she murmurs with a small smile, fingers lingering just a moment before she steps away, returns to her camera.
Serena feels almost as if Bernie doesn't know she's said the word, stops herself from thinking that it's how Bernie talks to all her clients. A slight breeze makes the curtains move and Serena's fingers twitch out to touch them. "Sorry," she says, before she can keep the word inside, and Bernie straightens, looks at her. "I can't stop moving," she adds by way of explanation.
"The movement is what makes it real," Bernie says, and it sounds cryptic and arty, but her meaning is clear. Serena isn't a doll, not just a plaything. She's a human being, breathing and alive, and that's what's being captured here today. A giggle erupts out of her, a laugh following, tripping from her tongue and she tilts her head back, letting joy fill her for the first time in far too long. She doesn't even hear the shutter click as Bernie continues shooting.
The final set of photos are to be taken on the bed, and Serena feels ungainly as she climbs in, settles herself among the pillows. Bernie takes a few shots, adjusting the sheets in between, giving instructions.
"Now, for this next one, I'd like you to be like this." Serena's surprised when Bernie climbs onto the bed beside her, laying on her back with a hand up near her face. "And then I'd like you to arch your back, like so." Bernie's spine bows up off the bed, thrusts her breasts forward, sensual in a way that's totally contrary to her utilitarian clothes, and Serena can't stop her bark of laughter.
Bernie just flops back down onto the mattress with a grin. "I know, it feels ridiculous. Trust me?"
Serena nods, thinks she does trust this woman, more than she ever would've expected. She turns over as Bernie slides off the bed, arches her back upward as the shutter clicks.
It feels like a dream when it's all over, like she wasn't even a part of it while it was happening. Bernie hands her the robe to put on once more. "You did wonderfully," she says, "The pictures will turn out quite well." The surety of the statement, the confidence in her voice - it's an echo to how she's made Serena feel throughout this experience.
As she dresses, she feels regret, pulling on her old life as she buttons up her blouse, the sensual, alluring woman that allowed herself to be photographed hidden away again. Bernie is waiting at the front desk for Serena, says it won't take her long to go through the photos and edit them, to expect an email soon.
It's a dismissal, a good-bye, an ending to this magical afternoon, and Serena desperately wishes she had something to prolong it, wonders how foolish she would sound inviting the other woman for a drink. Instead, she leans forward to bus her face against Bernie's. "I'll look forward to hearing from you," she says, hoping regret isn't tinging her voice. As she walks away, she misses Bernie's hand tracing the imprint left behind by her lipstick.
When she gets back to her flat, she can’t think of anything but her time with the inscrutable Bernie Wolfe.
Serena tries to think if she’s felt this way before, if she’s thought about another woman this way. If there’s something else going on, if France is getting to her, if these feelings aren’t, in fact, real.
Fleur Fanshawe pops unexpectedly to mind, countless nights spent laughing over drinks at Albie’s. They’re both notorious flirts, and Serena’s always dismissed it as just that. Harmless. But now the memories take on a different flavor in her mind, a seriousness she didn’t recognize at the time.
There are other women too, if she’s honest. Women that Serena admired, wanted so badly to befriend. For the first time she finds herself wondering if that’s all it was.
It’s just as easy to convince herself that it’s a figment of her imagination as much as it is to convince herself it’s real. What does it mean if it’s real? she asks herself. Does it change anything? Does it make her less her? As she pokes at the thought, probes it, she thinks that it doesn’t change anything at all.
And then she lets her mind truly fly to thoughts of Bernie; her dark eyes, the soft touch on Serena’s face, the way she always looked like there was more she wanted to say.
She lets herself sink into the memory, imagine it in a different context: Bernie’s fingers gentle on her chin, those thin lips pressed against her own. The thought alone sends a shiver through her body, an electric current that raises goosebumps on her skin.
It’s the shiver, the electricity, that impels her to find a gay bar nearby, maybe a safe haven in which to learn about this newly uncovered facet of herself. Scrolling through the many, many locations in every arrondissement, she finally settles on one just a few blocks away, known for their wine list, their calmer atmosphere.
When looking at her closet, it strikes her that she has no idea what to wear. She keeps on the lingerie from earlier, any impracticality shoved aside by how strong it makes her feel. It’s all blouses and trousers in front of her and she tries to pick the combination least likely to earn her the label of “old frump,” sends a silent thank you to her daughter for having the forethought to pack a pair of heels.
Chez Marie looks like any other wine bar in Paris — dim lighting, small, intimate tables scattered around the room. There’s a young woman strumming an acoustic guitar on a small platform, her blunt cut hair shaved along one side.
Serena can’t help feeling conspicuous, as if all of the women in the club are going to take one look at her and realize she doesn’t belong.
Her heart settles a moment later when she realizes absolutely no one is looking at her with judgmental eyes. She’s seated by the hostess, close enough to the small dais that she can hear the music, but far enough away that she could talk comfortably to anyone who might sit down with her. The thought is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, but at least she knows, if nothing else, she’s a very well-accomplished flirt, and never struggles too much finding the words she wants to say.
She orders a glass of Bordeaux, the smooth warmth of the wine relaxing her a bit, and lets her eyes wander over the other patrons of the bar. Sees women chatting in pairs or small groups, gratified to realize that she’s not the oldest woman here, feels marginally less out of place for it. Her eyes catch on couple kissing across a small table, a strange thrumming excitement settling in her chest, as if she’s seeing something she never before imagined.
And then she sees a woman leaning up against the bar with obscenely long legs, her posture comfortable, secure, her blonde hair an alluring sort of mess, one that Serena wishes she could put right. The woman turns to speak to someone, and her profile is unmistakable; that long thin nose, those deep set eyes.
It seems impossible, unreal, like something out of a dream or a silly romantic comedy, that the two of them would end up here.
Of all the gin joints...
She has an urge to give a schoolgirl wave, to catch the attention of the beautiful woman, all the things she might’ve done in her teens. But she has to remind herself that she’s grown, that she’s respectable. And so she sits on her hands and waits to see what happens next.
Before she even really has a chance to breathe, Bernie turns from the bar, a glass in her hand, and their eyes meet across the room. Even in the dim light, Serena can see Bernie’s eyes go wide, startled at the sight of her. She desperately hopes she looks normal, doesn’t look too eager for Bernie to come join her as she gives what she hopes is a welcoming smile.
Bernie smiles too, a sort of lopsided look that makes Serena think she hasn’t smiled as much or as often as she should. She sips at her drink, amber liquid and clinking ice, and as if she’s gotten a hit of liquid courage herself, makes her way to Serena.
“Come here often?” she asks, setting her drink on the table, not sitting just yet. Serena recognizes the caution in Bernie mirroring her own caution that she’s holding.
“Only on the days when I’ve had a long, tiring photoshoot,” Serena answers, a facetious hand to her forehead, put-upon tone to her voice, and Bernie laughs. “You’ve probably worked harder than me today - take a load off,” she says, gesturing at the empty chair across from her own.
Bernie nods her gratitude and sinks into the chair. Her elegant fingers fiddle with her glass, turning it this way and that on the lacquered table top, and Serena thinks she’s not even aware she’s doing it.
“I have to admit,” Bernie begins cautiously, not quite meeting Serena’s eyes, “I’m a little surprised to see you here.”
“Mm?” Serena hums her question, not sure yet how much she wants to share, how much she wants to let Bernie in.
“I didn’t, ah, think this would be your cup of tea.” Serena can’t hide her amusement now, as Bernie tries to fumble her way to some sort of politically correct way to phrase what she’s actually asking.
“But it is my glass of wine,” Serena says, gently tapping the lip of her glass to the rim of Bernie’s. “I might not have come here a year ago, but today, I find it’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Whether she means to load the words with a double meaning, Serena can’t even tell, but Bernie blushes as she sips her whisky, and all Serena can think is how beautiful the pink is on her cheeks.
There’s a lull as they each sip their drinks, the silence stilted and awkward, each of them not quite sure where to go from here.
“So,” Serena says, breaking the charged atmosphere, “how does a Brit who can’t speak French end up working as a boudoir photographer in Paris?” Bernie barks out a laugh at that, a sort of honking noise loud enough to pull some attention from the nearby tables, and Serena’s surprised at how charming she finds it.
“Have you ever looked at your life and wondered how you’ve gotten to where you are?” Bernie asks, and Serena can’t help but nod emphatically - it’s the way she feels every day, all the time, a feeling she can’t shed. “It’s a bit like that. Picked up a camera at a pawn shop when I was a kid, and I just never stopped pointing and clicking. And there was a woman,” Bernie pauses here and Serena thinks she’s having a similar thought in her head about how much she wants to share with a near-stranger (albeit one she’s seen practically starkers). “And I followed her. Then, she went somewhere else, and I wasn’t willing to go. As the French say, c’est la vie.”
“Cheers to that.” They clink glasses again, Bernie smiling a little close-lipped smile that makes her eyes crinkle at the corners.
“And how does a Brit who speaks excellent French end up spending her vacation having her photo taken?” Bernie parrots back teasingly.
Serena is tempted to parrot back Bernie’s earlier words but decides against it. She trails a finger around the rim of her glass as she weighs her words.
“I’ve always had an ear for languages,” she says. “A cunning linguist, as they say.” Bernie gamely laughs at the hackneyed line. “Which explains the French. The rest is, well, a bit harder. Starts with a woman as well - though it’s my mother, so not the least bit romantic.” She knows she’s rambling, but Bernie’s expression is patient, gentle. “She died.” Serena doesn’t know how to say it except plainly. “And now I’m here, trying to think of anything but that. Failing miserably, usually. Except for a few hours time today, when a lovely new woman distracted me very well.”
Bernie reaches across the table, covers Serena’s hand with her own. It’s just as warm and strong as Serena imagined, and she finds herself turning her hand over, their fingers slotting together as easily as breathing.
“I’m so sorry, Serena.” She says it with such sincerity, indescribable tenderness filling those big brown eyes, that Serena feels the prick of tears, the tightness in her chest that’s been present all too often of late.
“Thank you.” Serena forces a smile, gives Bernie’s fingers a soft squeeze. “But enough of me being maudlin,” she says, freeing her hand reluctantly. Her smile comes easier this time, eager to not let the specter of sorrow intrude on whatever it is that’s happening between them.
She prods Bernie a little bit more, asks about her past. By some astonishing coincidence, it turns out she’s originally from Holby too, has even heard of Albie’s. “Though no one told me about a Shiraz fiend by the name of Serena when I was there,” she says, and Serena laughs, draining her glass.
“Can I get you another?” Bernie asks, and Serena nods, watches Bernie walk away, an easy lope to her legs, a comfort in her skin that Serena admires, envies. She can’t help but look at the way her arse sways to and fro either, wonders if Bernie’s put an extra pep in her step on purpose.
With a few moments of space, Serena tries to collect her thoughts. How far does she want this night to go? Does she want to kiss Bernie? She most certainly does. Does she want to do...more than that? She thinks, quite possibly, yes, for all that she might feel nervous about it. But she recalls the softness of Bernie’s hand, the length of her fingers, and blushes at the thought of what they could do.
Her blush deepens when Bernie returns, their fingers brushing as she hands over the glass of wine. The images swirling in Serena's mind become all too vivid, and she takes a too large swallow, hiding her burning face in the wine.
“You know, you never did answer my question,” Bernie says, a quirk of Serena’s eyebrow encouraging her to continue. “Why did you decide on a photoshoot?”
“Didn’t I?” Serena rubs at her neck, fingers toying with the pendant of her necklace. “Just something to do, I suppose. I liked the look of your work. And,” she adds, before she can think better of it, “when I saw the portrait of the photographer, I was convinced.”
She feels a little stab of pride at the way Bernie ducks her head, peers up through that unruly fringe.
“I’m just hoping I didn’t make too much a fool of myself.” It comes off as a joke, a little harmless self-deprecation, but Serena inwardly curses herself for the unintended honesty.
“Serena,” the word slips out between Bernie’s lips like a prayer and a whisper, sibilant and beautiful, and Serena wants to hear her name said that way over and over again. “You didn’t. At all. Actually, can I show you? I loaded them online and we can look at some of the proofs.”
Bernie scoots her chair around to Serena’s side of the table, not even waiting for an answer, angling her phone so they both can see the screen.
The small screen shines bright in the dimness of the club, and unexpected nerves blossom in Serena’s stomach, fear at the potential of disliking the outcome, disliking herself, with Bernie at her side. Before she can open her mouth to protest, the first image loads, Bernie sliding the phone a little closer to her.
“Oh,” she breathes, doesn’t even realize she’s made a sound.
It’s her, in a way that Serena’s never seen herself. But it’s not unfamiliar, not strange to see. It’s just surprising, like Bernie unlocked a part of her she’s kept mostly hidden. The first photograph is of her near the window, hand near her throat, the gauzy curtain giving her a dramatic backdrop. Her face is direct, unflinching, as she stares down the camera. Charlotte did a wonderful job in the make-up, and Serena touches her own lips, thinking perhaps she might have to try that shade of red more often.
Bernie swipes to the second one, Serena’s back arched on the bed and it is so sultry, so alluring, she can’t help but wonder what Bernie thinks when she looks at it. “This next one’s my favorite,” Bernie says, her mouth close to Serena’s ear, their heads bent close.
It’s a close shot of her laughing; mouth open, head tilted back, lengthening her neck, the soft light catching on the deepened shadows of her laugh lines, the creases next to her eyes. She looks…happy. Genuinely happy in a way she can’t remember being in far too long. For all that the other photos highlight the shape of her body, it’s sensuality, something about this feels even more intimate.
“It’s...it’s...,” she fumbles for the word, unsure of how to express what it is she wants to say, what it makes her feel.
“Beautiful,” Bernie provides, and Serena turns to look at her, nose in that beautiful mess of blonde hair for a moment before Bernie turns too, as though reluctant to tear her eyes from the picture on her phone, but the smile in her face says that she’s more than happy to be looking at the real thing in front of her. “I think beautiful is the word you’re looking for.”
Noses almost touching, faces so close, Serena can smell the whisky on Bernie’s breath, mixed with the woodsy scent from her studio, a lovely alluring scent that she’ll never forget.
"Do you have any plans for the evening?" she asks, glancing up from Bernie’s lips (when did they land there?), meets her eyes, glinting like she knows the secret desires playing in Serena’s mind.
"Are you offering a plan?" she says by way of an answer, and Serena feels time freeze for a long moment, is able to envision a world where she says No, just wondering and then they go their separate ways. And she sees the world where she nods, where she leans forward and brushes a lock of hair from Bernie's cheek, tucks it behind her ear, lets her fingers linger. I might be.
The moment breaks as the ice in Bernie's glass falls, and Serena knows what she wants to do, what every part of her body is crying out for her to do, and the next moment, she's doing it, thinking how Bernie's hair is so much silkier than she would've guessed, that her cheek is just so soft. And there's no embarrassment in her voice when says "I might be. If you're interested."
Bernie's eyes crinkle again, but this time there a heat there that makes Serena's breath catch. She reaches up slowly, her palm warm as she covers Serena's hand, pressing it more firmly against her cheek for a moment before moving it to her lips, brushing a soft kiss against Serena's fingertips.
"I'm definitely interested."
Serena's fingers curl slightly, pulling Bernie's face towards her own, drinks forgotten, pushed aside without conscious thought. Her lips brush against Bernie's once, twice, and on the third touch, Bernie's hand comes up to Serena's jaw, her chin, holding her close so she can't move away, and then they kiss and Serena's stomach drops straight through to the sewers below the bar even as her heart soars to the top of the Eiffel Tower. A roller coaster and airplane turbulence all in one, and she marvels at the feel of Bernie's soft lips and strong fingers, at the wonder of kissing a woman.
She must look a little stunned when Bernie pulls back, because her brown furrows slightly, the touch of her fingers becoming tentative against Serena’s chin.
"Is, um, I mean was that...all right?" Bernie looks so unsure, Serena can't help but wonder what past experiences have made this amazing woman doubt herself.
Wanting only to banish any doubt, this time she's the one to take Bernie's hand, holding it as steady as her gaze.
"More than," she says softly, eyes fixed on Bernie's as she presses a gentle kiss to the lifeline carved through the center of her palm.
There's symmetry to the moment, a kind of quiet beauty, and it's the easiness of it all, the rightness that she feels, that makes Serena stand, Bernie's hand sliding from her face, their fingers interlocking.
"My flat's not too far from here, if you don't mind a walk," she says, summoning a bravery she didn’t know she was capable of, thinks that Bernie brings it out in her.
Bernie shakes her head, and moments later they're out in the open air. Bernie fumbles in her pocket, pulls out a cigarette and lights it, blowing a puff of smoke into the air. She offers it to Serena, the slight trace of her pink lip gloss on the end.
Serena takes the cigarette and sucks in, the hit of nicotine, something she hasn't had in years, sliding through her veins, mixing with the wine on her breath. She thinks that, no matter what happens, there will be this perfect memory in her mind; hand in hand with Bernie Wolfe on the streets of Paris at night, whisky and wine and smoke.
She tucks her hand in the crook of Bernie's arm as they cross the bridge, the breeze whipping the smoke from Bernie's lips. Serena can't stop herself from gazing at her profile, the elegant features picked out by the lights of Paris behind her.
"My mother loved Paris," she finds herself saying, the words spilling out into the night air unbidden. "She first brought me here when I was a girl. I guess a part of me has thought of this as her city ever since." She catches herself before she says she thinks that might change after tonight. That she may never again think of Paris without thinking of Bernie.
Bernie doesn't say anything, just shifts closer, their shoulders bumping companionably as they walk, a steady presence at Serena's side.
She feels a bit nervous as she punches in the code to the building, her fingers not quite shaking, but she has to think of the number sequence, when it's practically been by rote for weeks now.
It's when she gets out her keys that the nerves show, jangling slightly, and she can't seem to find the lock. But then Bernie's hand is there, wrapping around hers, and they bring the key home together.
Bernie at her back as she twists the door knob and turns on the hallway light.
Bernie's mouth on her neck as the door closes behind them.
Serena moans softly, a hand coming up to tangle in Bernie's hair, to hold her closer, to keep herself grounded as impossibly soft lips trace the side of her neck, the occasional flick of Bernie's tongue sending shivers down her spine.
The flat is small, little more than a studio, which makes it easy for them to navigate toward the bed, guided through the dimness by Bernie's firm grip on her hips. It's not in Serena to stay passive for long, and she twists in Bernie's arms, pulls her down into a searing kiss, feels strong arms wrap around her waist, fingers pressing into her back.
Her calves hit her mattress and she buckles into a sit, Bernie leaning down over her, mouths still joined, her tongue swiping into Serena’s mouth, licking a path that’s a preview to her range of skills. The thought makes Serena feel warm, wanton.
Bernie pauses, moves away only far enough to strip off her shirt in a fluid movement over her head. She’s not wearing a bra and her bare breasts bring home for Serena the fact that this is all very real, and very much happening to her in this moment. Something must show on her face because Bernie again looks slightly concerned.
“All right?” she asks, her hand cupping Serena’s cheek.
She nods into Bernie’s warm palm, her eyes cast down as she musters up the courage to say the truth.
“This is...I haven’t...it’s new,” she says, feels Bernie’s hand withdraw but grasps it between both of her own. “But so very good.”
Bernie just smiles softly, eyes understanding, and guides her back onto the bed, lean body plastered against her side. Kisses her again, softer this time, coaxing and teasing until Serena is practically whimpering into her mouth. She forces one of her hands from its death grip on Bernie’s shoulder, trembling with nerves, with desire, as she trails over all that soft skin.
The sound Bernie makes when Serena gently cups her breast, palm chafing against her nipple, is one she immediately wants to hear again and again. Taking it as encouragement she begins to explore, caressing the dips and planes of Bernie’s torso, their kissing becoming increasingly sloppy and desperate.
When Bernie’s hand begins to lift the edge of her shirt, her fingers just touching the bare skin of her waist, Serena feels some of her control slip even further from her grasp and she pulls back, lips swollen and rough from contact, lets Bernie strip the shirt off.
She lets out a guttural groan at the sight of Serena in the red lace from the morning.
“I thought about this all day,” she says in a low voice, gruff with want. She touches the strap with fingers almost unthinkingly. “You’re beautiful,” she says, and bends down to kiss Serena once more, her lips, her jaw, her clavicle, moving to the swell of her breasts, leaving Serena breathless in her wake.
Nimble fingers tease her nipple through the sheer lace, tug down the edge of the cup far enough for Bernie to engulf it with her warm, wet mouth. Serena’s back arches up helplessly, her hands flying to their new home in Bernie’s hair.
She finds herself wondering a little wildly if all women have such an innate understanding of each other, or if Bernie just has a special skill. Whatever the reason, it’s as if Bernie already knows every nerve in Serena’s body, every sensitive spot. She hardly notices her bra coming loose, discarded somewhere over the edge of the bed, is too caught up in the perfect pressure of Bernie’s teeth tugging at her nipple.
Her own hands are busy in Bernie’s hair, prompting her, prodding her, pushing her on, anything to make sure she never stops. She kisses Bernie’s head, her ear, anything she can she can reach until it’s all too much and her head falls back. Bernie continues to move, her hands faster than her mouth, unbuttoning Serena’s trousers, her lips on the elastic of her pants, her dark eyes looking up until she meets Serena’s gaze, making sure they’re still good, that this is still wanted.
“Please,” Serena gasps, pushing against the bed, thrusting up, willing her trousers to be gone, her knickers to disappear, for Bernie’s mouth to just be where she wants it most.
Bernie understands the silent request of her body, whisks the remainder of her clothes off and settles between her legs. Serena holds her breath at the sight of those dark eyes looking up from the crux of her thighs, gasps at the first touch of her mouth, that wicked tongue parting her easily, lapping at her, Bernie’s hands anchoring her hips to the bed.
She can’t stop herself from writhing, from moving, but Bernie’s hands are strong; not hurting Serena, but firm, and Serena stays just where Bernie wants her. She appreciates the not having to lead, the not having to think about it, giving herself over to feeling and sensation.
One of Bernie’s hands moves from her hip to her thigh, then her fingers join her tongue, stretching, filling, teasing. It’s all so much, not enough, everything in between.
She reaches her peak almost unexpectedly, effortless, like slipping into a warm pool, her body responding to Bernie’s touch as if it was made to do so.
Serena murmurs Bernie’s name when she doesn’t stop, her fingers curled just slightly inside as her tongue scribes gentle swirls. She feels the pleasure building again, heat blossoming out from her core, washing away every thought, every fear, until there’s nothing left but sensation.
She doesn’t know how long her eyes have been closed, how long she’s been gripping the bedspread. She’s only aware of Bernie’s gentle kisses to her inner thigh, one hand softly stroking against her waist, soothing, wonderful. A smile worms it’s way across her face, feline and happy, and she sees Bernie’s small answer smile.
“I can’t believe you don’t have a line of women out the door,” she says, her voice thick.
Bernie gives her tender legs a quick peck and then moves up beside Serena, lays on her side, hand propping up her head.
“I’d rather one good woman than many women,” she says, and Serena can’t stop herself from leaning in for a kiss, moaning a little at the taste of herself lingering in Bernie’s mouth.
“I also can’t believe,” Serena says in between kisses, not able to tear herself away, “that you’re still wearing your trousers.”
Bernie chuckles into the kiss, their teeth bumping as their hands meet at the waist of her denims, tangling up in mutual eagerness. Between the two of them they manage to get the tight material down Bernie’s hips, the warm press of her body breathtaking as she awkwardly kicks them the rest of the way off.
Serena takes the opportunity to roll Bernie onto her back, settles astride her hips without breaking the kiss. She thinks she might be addicted to the way they fit together, curves interlocking, warm skin meeting and parting deliciously with every movement.
Bernie looks up at her, eyes shining, lust and wonder all mixed up in her gaze, dark stars gleaming in awe and Serena struggles to feel worthy. She thrusts against Bernie experimentally, shifting, finding what feels right, a thigh slipping between Bernie’s legs, wetness bathing her skin, firm confirmation that she wants this just as much as Serena does. As she moves her thigh, she can feel Bernie rutting slightly, but she can also feel Bernie holding herself in tension, trying to keep herself in control.
She bends down to kiss Bernie’s cheek, hitting the corner of her mouth, and then she whispers, “You can let go,” and enjoys the moan that slips from Bernie’s lips, the feeling of her hips thrusting up, the slick warmth spreading between them.
They a find a rhythm together, legs intertwined, each panting a bit as they kiss any patch of skin they can reach. It’s like nothing Serena’s ever felt before, a closeness beyond anything she’s known.
She shifts her hips, feels a thrill at the way Bernie’s head falls back with a groan, a grimace of pleasure etched across her beautiful face. Serena manages to worm a hand between their bodies, their moans blending as her fingers slide into molten heat.
She’s not sure what’s she’s doing, only knows what she does to herself, where it feels good when she’s alone in bed at night. This is different, backwards, new angles and sensations entirely, but she soldiers on, finds Bernie’s clit, swollen, thumbs against it before her fingers delve in deeper, two and then three, feeling Bernie stretch, grow, move around her. Being inside her is a revelation, an extension of herself and completely apart from her.
“Left,” Bernie breathes, her lips buried in Serena’s neck, her hand pressing against her cheek, holding her close. “Just a little - ah - yes.” Her words fizzle into a hiss as Serena manages to hit her just right, finding the magic spot, the one that makes Bernie practically purr.
It’s awkward, her hand trapped between them at an angle that she knows will leave her wrist aching, but there’s no way she’s going to stop. Not when Bernie is making the most gorgeous sounds; whimpers and pleas and bit off curses that set Serena’s brain abuzz.
Bernie stills suddenly, silent, muscles taut. Serena feels a fluttering around her fingers and Bernie relaxes with a sigh, a picture of pure bliss that leaves Serena in awe.
Her hand slips from between Bernie’s thighs and she bring it to her lips, breathing in the musky scent she’d only gotten hints of before. Then she slides her forefinger into her mouth, to the first knuckle, then the second, and then Bernie’s eyes open, watching her, pupils large and dark.
“That’s practically sinful, you know,” she says, nuzzling against Serena’s cheek, but Serena can’t stop, enjoying the taste, reveling in it. She slides her middle finger into her mouth next, straight to the base, and Bernie lets out a strangled noise.
“It’s not my fault you’re the finest delicacy I’ve tried in Paris,” she says primly, when her fingers are licked clean, and all that’s left to do is chase the flavor with her tongue. She satisfies by kissing Bernie again, soundly, confidently, happily.
Bernie growls, levers her hips, and Serena yelps as she finds herself flipped on her back, laughing into a toe curling kiss. Teeth catch at her bottom lip, nipping sharply, the sting soothed by Bernie’s tongue.
“I am so glad you came to me for a photoshoot,” she says fervently, eyes sparkling with mirth, and all Serena can do is pull her down, kiss her again and again.
“Me too,” Serena replies, thinking she doesn’t know the last time she’s had this much fun in bed, unabashed and lovely. “Do all your clients get such exquisite post-shoot treatment?” she asks, a small smirk on her lips.
“Only the ones,” Bernie says, punctuating the words with kisses, “I really like.”
“Mmmmm, lucky me,” Serena purrs, swallowing Bernie’s gasp as her hands slide lower, starting the dance between them all over again.
The sun is coming in through the window when Serena opens her eyes and she tries to remember the last time she slept this late that wasn’t preceded by a night shift. And then she sees the sun catch the corn silk strands of Bernie’s hair, lustrous in the light, buttery and golden.
She carefully turns onto her side and watches Bernie sleep, her eyelashes moving ever so slightly against her pale cheeks. Serena can’t resist the urge to trail her finger down the ridge of Bernie’s nose, a gentle and delicate touch that she thinks she gets away with until Bernie’s eyes flutter open.
“Morning,” Bernie mumbles, voice husky with sleep. She hooks a foot over Serena’s shin, drags her closer and wraps herself around her, nuzzling into Serena’s neck with a sigh. It’s adorable, and Serena smiles as she cards her fingers through Bernie’s hair, scratches lightly against her scalp.
“I just realized I forgot to ask you something important last night.” An inquisitive hum is the only response, lips brushing lightly against Serena’s collarbone. “Do you drink coffee?”
Bernie huffs out a laugh at that, a gust of warm breath that raises goosebumps on Serena’s skin. She pushes up onto her elbows, all sleepy eyes and bedhead, and Serena thinks she’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
“Is that a request?”
Serena noses into the dip of Bernie’s collarbone, licks a small circle with her tongue. “Mmm, it might be,” she says. “Are you a barista as well as a photographer?”
“Not sure I can manage anything that fancy,” Bernie says, standing, gloriously naked, the sun illuminating her from behind, a halo at her head, a melange of angelic and sinful.
“Strong and hot’s all I care about,” Serena says, and Bernie’s answering smirk is heart-wrenchingly familiar, even after less than a day of knowing her.
Bernie snags Serena’s discarded blouse from the floors, the fabric fluttering as she pulls it over her slender frame, fingers fumbling with the small buttons as she bends over the bed to press her lips against Serena’s.
“Be right back.”
Serena waits until Bernie disappears around the corner, flops down onto the mattress with her arms spread wide, grinning up at the ceiling. She feels like a teenager with a crush, feels better than she has in months, maybe years. Feels more herself.
Off-key humming floats in from the kitchen, broken up by the delicate clatter of spoons against china, the gurgling of the coffee maker. It’s all shockingly domestic, and it occurs to her that it probably shouldn’t be this easy, that falling into bed with a stranger in a foreign country isn’t going to solve all of her problems.
Still, she can’t summon an ounce of regret.
There’s no onrush of worry that she’s done something wrong, no regret behind sleeping with a woman for the first time. Instead she feels a sense of calm, completion, like she’s a flower that’s finally bloomed.
Sun on her face, peace in her heart, she waits for Bernie to return, finds some part of herself missing the other woman, the feeling of their bodies next to each other, the weight of her on the bed.
Bernie walks through the door, a steaming mug in each hand. The rich scent of coffee hits Serena’s nose, and she props herself up in bed, sheets wrapped around her as she leans back against the headboard.
Setting down her burden on the night table, Bernie goes to sit on the mattress, but Serena stops her with a tsk.
“No clothes in the bed,” she says with a smirk, reaching for one of the cups. Bernie’s eyes narrow a moment, then she straightens with a shrug, shucks off the blouse and slides back under the covers.
The coffee is good, and it tastes even better on Bernie’s tongue, morning breath chased away.
“I’m impressed you can work the coffee machine - took me a week to get it right.”
”There’s one just like it in my flat. Maybe it comes standard in apartments rented out to Brits.” She sets her mug aside and moves over Serena, leaning down to kiss her squarely on the lips, one hand skimming up her hip.
They both doze off again eventually, tangled together, sweaty and sated. This time when Serena opens her eyes, she can tell right away that she’s alone in the bed, lifts her head as she rubs the sleep from her tired eyes.
The room comes into focus and she sees Bernie sitting across the room, once again wearing the blouse she appropriated, long legs tucked up beneath her. Serena’s surprised to see a camera in her hands, small and vintage looking.
“Not your normal boudoir location, is it?” Serena asks, and Bernie just smiles, a little shyly for all they’ve shared.
“My new favorite subject, though,” she says, looking at Serena through the camera. She’s tempted to throw up her hands, to block the shot, all the self-conscious things she might have done in her previous life, just forty-eight hours earlier. Instead she looks right back at the camera, smiling at Bernie, smiling at her life, for the first time since her mother’s death.
She smiles, the sun beaming out from her face, and she hears the shutter click.