To say Bernie hadn’t been impressed by Cameron’s idea was a massive understatement, but as she tucked her scarf around her neck and watched her breath cloud in front of her, she almost though it was a good one. The hills and valleys in front of her sparkled with white, a glorious deep frost in the early morning sun. She pulled her gloves on and set out, boots crunching across the frozen grass.
It had been his Christmas present to her, something of a fait accompli. He’d sorted her leave and booked her a week in a little b and b on the edge of a tiny village in the peak district. She’d protested, saying it was far too expensive, meaning that she couldn’t think of anything worse than a quiet week to do nothing all by herself. But he and Charlotte had ganged up on her, pointing out she needed a break after a fun-filled year of recovering from being blown up and getting divorced, and eventually she’d acquiesced. And now, here she was, on her own, nothing but the soft noise of her feet and the huff of her breath to hear. And almost enjoying herself.
She didn’t really have a goal in mind. A map was stuffed in her bag, along with water and a packed lunch, which the owner of the b and b had pressed on her as she left. She would just walk, and see where she ended up. To begin with her mind felt crowded, thoughts pressing on her, worries and guilt built up over years, the constant feeling that she wasn’t good enough, could never be good enough, that accompanied her everywhere. But gradually, as she climbed up a hill, and watched the little birds chirping and flitting over the hedgerows, the voices quieted and she felt peaceful.
The last pull up had her panting, and wondering how she’d become so unfit so quickly. But finally she reached the top and stood, chest heaving, looking out over the beautiful view in front of her. Despite the sun, the frost still hadn’t disappeared and everything was coated in diamond sparkles. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the few cottages dotted around the hills. Christmas card land. It was stunning. A crunch of twigs, heralding the arrival of another hiker, made her jump and turn.
“Oh, I’m sorry to intrude,” the newcomer said.
“You aren’t,” Bernie said hastily, “Isn’t it lovely?” The other woman’s cheeks were flushed red with cold and exertion and her eyes sparkled as much as the frost. Bernie’s eyes were drawn irresistibly to the large fluffy hat on her head.
“It’s warm, if nothing else,” the other lady laughed, “Just what you need on a day like today. Are you visiting? I’m Serena, by the way.”
She held out a hand and Bernie shook it firmly. “Up for the week. I’m Bernie. Are you local?”
“No such luck. I’ve been sent up here to recuperate. What?” As Bernie laughed.
“I’m here for a similar reason. My kids all but ordered me up here. They said I needed a quiet break after a hard year.”
“And it is very quiet,” Serena agreed. She eyed Bernie speculatively. “You look like you could do with a good chat. Where are you headed to next?”
Bernie bit back the reply that sprang almost without thought to her lips, that she didn’t want company. Serena was interested and pretty and it wouldn’t do any harm to wander along with her for a while. “I’m not really. I don’t have a plan.”
“Fancy coming with me then? I’ve got a destination in mind – an Italian with an extensive wine list. It’s a bit of a way, but you look pretty fit to me.” This last said with a side-long glance that sent Bernie’s pulse racing.
“Sounds good to me. And I was in the army, so I was pretty fit. Although since I got blown up, my exercise regime has not been my priority.”
“Blown up? Well – come along and tell me all about it.” Serena produced a map from her pocket. “We’re here,” she prodded a gloved finger at the paper, “And here’s our destination.”
She looked querying at Bernie, who nodded. “You’re in charge.”
There was no mistaking the grin that spread across Serena’s face. “Well then, let’s go. A bottle or two of Shiraz await.”
By the time they reached the restaurant they’d swapped life stories and discovered a chemistry that made Bernie tingle. She wondered that she’d thrown her usual reticence to the wind, that she was telling a stranger such personal things. But perhaps that was it, perhaps the very fact that Serena was a stranger allowed her to be honest about herself.
They sat opposite each other at the table and as Bernie gazed at Serena she knew she wanted more, even if it was just for the next few days, just for holiday. Serena sipped her wine, ran her tongue over ruby-red lips and Bernie gulped. She slid her foot forwards a little, nudged against Serena’s, just gently enough that it could be construed as a mistake. But Serena only smiled and Bernie felt suddenly bold, and stretched out her hand across the table.
Serena’s fingers were slim and elegant, soft in Bernie’s grasp, and Bernie wanted her.
“I’m staying at the hotel just down the road,” Serena said, stroking her thumb slowly over Bernie’s. “Do you have plans for the afternoon?” The look in her eyes left no way that Bernie could misinterpret the question.
She lent forward, raised Serena’s hand to her lips and kissed it. “I think I do now.”