Actions

Work Header

no matter how many skies have fallen

Chapter Text

Serena McKinnie was a well-educated woman and one fortunate in this regard to have been born to liberally minded parents. In her youth she was privileged to have travelled widely; an only child, she journeyed with her parents as they themselves devoured the cultural and political offerings that continental Europe in the early 1900s provided. Young Serena might have found it tedious, as many of such delicate years would have, but it only served to bolster her passion to enhance her intellect with art and politics that she could never hope to encounter in England.

She was always a pretty child with vivacious brown eyes and tresses of chestnut curls, but Serena herself would admit she was not one that would be defined as a great beauty of her age. It was of no matter to her as what she might have lacked in classical beauty, she more than compensated for with her spirit and sharp wit.

As she matured her parents permitted her even greater freedoms and she found herself embraced by a vibrant group of young artists and writers who would seemingly spend their days ensconced together in the cafes of Paris bemoaning the politics of the day and debating the newest works by the latest talent in their field. It was here amongst the fug of cigarette smoke, rich, dark coffee and bottles of full bodied red that Serena fell in love for the first time.

Now what is meant by this is not a flight of fancy of a silly young girl whose head has been turned by a handsome face and limbs of sculpted muscles, no Serena McKinnie fell in love with intellectualism. She found her mind stirred beyond anything she had ever imagined before and it filled her and consumed her entirely. Each day she departed the cafes abuzz with new ideas, inflamed by a new socialist agenda that she passionately believed it was the responsibility of every educated person to support. She was enthralled by new expressionist art pieces and excited by the vast array of ground-breaking novels that sought to challenge and stretch the boundaries of the accepted status quo. In short, she was in love with this journey of self-fulfilment.

That is not to say that she did not indulge herself, with the best intellectual minds of her circle, in more primitive and intimate ways but their sexual encounters could never match the sensations that engaging in a heated debate could flare in her body. Indeed Serena thought herself not requiring of such animalistic endeavours, it rather more being something for a woman to tolerate in order to keep the attentions of those men who stimulated her brain so readily.

So blissful a state was Serena in that it was with the sickness of a broken-heart that she learned of the need for her to depart from Paris and return to England. The deterioration of her mother’s health had been rapid and her father was unable to cope alone any longer, so he wired for Serena to return home to her family and support her mother through her illness. Serena for all her desire to remain in Paris was a dutiful and loving daughter, so she bade farewell to her friends and erstwhile lovers with assurances of her swift return upon her mother’s resumption of good health.

Serena was to be frustrated in these desires as her mother’s condition both persisted and deteriorated and any hope of recovery was lost. It was with some small measure of relief for Serena that her mother’s suffering was ended but any hopes she harboured for her long awaited return to Paris to finally come to fruition were dashed by the increasing tension in continental Europe spilling over from the Balkan conflicts. Instead she was left to seek out like-minded people within her own shores with whom she could resume her intellectual debating. She found some such a set at nearby Oxford but despite the evident exposure of this group to education and new ideas, Serena found most of them still to be superficial in their views and lacking a true grasp of the concepts that they purported to champion.

It seemed to her that the men debated ideas more to impress women with their intellect rather than displaying a particular conviction for the topic they discussed. The only member of the group who gave the impression of being more widely read and more wholly committed to his subjects was a gentleman by the name of Edward Campbell.

Edward, the son of an aristocrat, passionately rallied against the trappings of the upper-classes and all that those of his background took for granted, instead he spoke of his desire to change the politics of the day and flatten out the tiers of society that kept so many from achieving more. To a woman of Serena’s cultural experiences and liberal upbringing Edward was like an oasis in a desert of vapid and inconsequential young men.

Serena grew closer to Edward, finding at last someone who could stimulate her imagination again, she would seek him out when their ensemble gathered; disappointed when he was absent. It was no great surprise to anyone who knew them when their relationship did progress, but as before Serena found herself less enamoured with their sexual liaisons than her partner, however she was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to keep him happy.

The commencement of the summer of 1914 brought the onset of war in Europe and with it a wave of fear. When Germany invaded Belgium, Britain could no longer remain a bystander. Despite assurances that the conflict would be swiftly ended, the long held desire of Edward’s father, Sir Malcolm Campbell, to see his only son married and producing heirs to their fortune was only intensified by these events.

Edward’s father was not a man you could say no to and so it was later that year that Serena McKinnie agreed to marry Edward Campbell and take up residence in the Campbell family apartments in London.

The wedding took place in 1915 amid the soft spring sunshine and the colourful awakening of tree blossoms. It was a lavish affair, well as lavish as could be managed without being indecorous in war ravaged times. Edward’s family seemingly far better affiliated than even Serena had hitherto appreciated. Edward himself perhaps indulged a little too heavily of the copious amounts of spirits on offer and Serena was required to escort him to bed earlier than she would have otherwise intended. The remainder of her wedding night was spent cleaning her dress where Edward had been overcome by his earlier overzealous consumption of alcohol.

Despite this initial mishap, their marriage was by and large a happy one. Serena enjoyed Edward’s company and conversation and she was content enough with most of his friends, she did find some of them to possess the small-minded nature of those who have been born into and lived within the aristocracy their whole lives, but these were far outweighed by friends from their days in Oxford.

Their happiness was compounded further when Serena fell pregnant with their first child, the delight of his family was only slightly tempered when she bore him a daughter, Elinor, in May of 1916. The Campbells knew that given the swiftness of Elinor’s conception, the marriage would doubtless yield many more children. Sadly Edward’s father would not bear witness to this as he died suddenly and unexpectedly only a few short weeks after the arrival of his grandchild and with his passing Serena henceforth became Lady Campbell, wife of Sir Edward Campbell.

The change in name was nothing to the change in Edward this event brought about. Gone was the spirited, passionate campaigner that Serena had loved so intensely, in his place a serious, sombre man. The parts of Serena’s life that she rejoiced in were cruelly snatched away from her; according to Edward it was no longer fitting for Serena to care for Elinor herself, as Lady Campbell she must employ a nurse; their Oxford friends and their socialist ideals were no longer welcomed into their house, in their stead came more of Edward’s ignorant upper-class set and their privileged snobbery that Serena so despised; their heated debates and intense discussions that had attracted Serena to Edward in the first place were ceased, Edward informing Serena that it would not be fitting for Sir Edward Campbell to be seen to allow his wife to speak to him in such a manner in public.

Serena’s unhappiness at this change became palpable, it seemed to cling to her very skin like a cloak and for Edward, his guilt at having affected this change in the woman he cherished, made him withdraw further and choose to drink himself into a stupor each night rather than attend to his wife.

So it was without further child, or even hope of such, that Serena found herself in the winter of 1916 when Edward was called up to serve in the Great War. Edward, to his credit, made no attempt to avoid his duty to King and country and it was with a heavy heart that Serena kissed him farewell before he boarded the train with the other new conscripts. As she stood at the station shoulder to shoulder with the other wives and children waving their loved ones off, she felt a sense of equality, in that place and that time she was no more or less important than the baker’s wife she stood next to. War, it seemed, was the great leveller.

Edward wrote to Serena during his deployment and she could not imagine the horrors his eyes must have beholden as with each new letter, the confident, privileged young man she married seemed to wilt a little further. When he eventually came home to her, war had broken him, not just the shrapnel damage that irretrievably took his legs, but everything else that had overwhelmed his mind. The best doctors were called to assess him and all of them agreed that his body was lost but that his mind may still be recovered in time with rest, peace and fresh air.

It was decided then that Serena and her husband should depart their cosmopolitan life in London and take up residence on the family estate, Holby Manor, which had lain empty since the passing of the late Sir Malcolm Campbell. The estate would provide every condition that Edward required to facilitate the recovery of his mind, for Serena it would bring loneliness and isolation in a beautifully gilded cage.

Serena struggled to settle into their new home. It was just so large; so forbidding, that she felt swamped by it. Her attempts to befriend the staff were met with a combination of shock and cool disinterest. Her only company was to be Edward so it would seem and his moods vacillated between melancholy and rage as the emotional effects of his physical limitations manifested themselves, Serena being the one bearing the brunt of both.

For a time Serena retreated from Edward’s anger to the sanctuary of the nursery to sit with Elinor, clutch her tightly to her breast, the feeling of her soft skin and the smell of her hair providing much needed succour to her empty heart. Serena cared not if her skirts were crumpled or if Elinor would smear paint on her gown for nothing was more precious than her child. When Mrs Williams, the housekeeper, would later take Serena’s soiled garments from her room, she could see the cool distain in the woman’s countenance and knew that her most recent indiscretion will be discussed at length below stairs later.

Strangely it was not disapproval that this gossiping stirred in her but a kind of jealousy. She so desperately desired to have something akin to the companionship and solidarity afforded to those huddled around the small kitchen table eating and laughing together. It seemed the very class system that she spent her life trying to breakdown now formed the bars of the prison of her solitude.

Edward made no attempt to be anything other than the aristocratic lord of the manor and perversely the staff seemed to respect him more for his contemptuous disregard for them than all of Serena’s attempts at politeness and familiarity.

Increasingly even Elinor was distant in her mother’s presence. The joyful embrace of her daughter of old had been replaced by a polite reverence. It was almost as if Serena were a beautiful doll on display in a window, something to rejoice in looking at but never an item to be handled and one that would not show the kind of wear that comes from a child’s fervent love.

As summer broke into autumn and autumn into winter, Serena was forced to spend a greater proportion of her time within the confines of the walls of Holby. She found her only sanctuary was her parlour rooms. Edward had permitted her to choose her chambers when they had arrived and Serena had elected her private rooms to be on the top floor, as distant from Edward’s as was conceivable. These rooms were the only ones in the house that she had been permitted to redecorate and she had delighted in making them her own. The main room was a large and bright with a big bay window overlooking the rose garden and out onto large lawns. She had kept the décor limited to a small palette of neutral shades with bold colour coming from the furnishings she chose. One whole wall had been given over to housing books, a combination of her own collections and those particular favourites from the library that she wished to have close to hand. It was in this room that she found the greatest sense of peace but even that could not detract from the weight of loneliness that she carried.

Serena finds the days passing her by, aging almost unnoticed as the year invariably follows the days into just memory. Her time is marked only by the passing of each part of Edward’s routine, his rising, his bathing, his shaving, his feeding, his dressing, his entertainment, his disrobing, his sleeping. She is ruled by his existence and it adheres to her, clinging like a stain. She scrubs and scrubs at the surface until it is raw and bleeding but it doesn’t shift, doesn’t even fade and at night she cries as she feels the walls of Holby close around her tighter and tighter with the passing of each day. Edward is to her now like a vine of ivy that had grown upon a wall so all that remained to be seen was the green, waxen leaves. The wall was no longer visible, indistinguishable from the foliage that clung to its every surface. At night Serena would awaken, cold and clammy; sweat soaked her nightshirt through. Dreams of ivy creepers wrapping around her throat and closing, constricting, crushing until her airway is shattered, broken beyond repair.

Her life follows this dreary pattern for a while, she starts to imagine her own personal imprint on the Holby floors, her footsteps, her cadence making the wood bow and dip where she treads the same inches of polished oak over and over again. So frighteningly monotonous is her life becoming that she almost looks forward to the weekend arrivals of Edward’s blue-blooded contemporaries. Here at least she may have a new face to look at, a new voice to hear. The new face and the new voice however just bring the same over-priviledged conversation that she has borne witness to a thousand times prior, the same hackneyed perspective brayed out by another boorish snob.

It happens on one of these particular nights during an especially nauseating party that a change finally arrives. As she listens to another round of overwhelming self-aggrandisement from Edward’s friends Serena feels the utter despair of her circumstance choking at her once more, harder and harder than before and she cannot breathe, her head is spinning out of control. She rushes away and bursts out of the west facing French windows that are capturing the last vestiges of the setting summer sunshine and as she gasps in the cool air she nearly collides with a young man stood nervously outside.

“Are you quite well?” He enquires towards her flustered form in his stuttering dialect. “May I be permitted to go and get you a glass of water?” Serena looks up and his grey eyes reflect only a polite concern.

“That is very kind of you. Perhaps some water would be beneficial.” He moves to go past her but it is at that moment that Edward appears at the doors. His eyes solely focused on his wife and flashing with ire.

“Serena. Why did you depart so abrubtly? One moment we were conversing quite happily and the next you were no longer in sight.”

“Apologies Edward, I was suddenly overcome with the heat and I required a breath of air. This kind gentleman was about to get me a drink of water.” Serena’s tone was clipped and as much as she attempted to reign in the rancour towards her husband within her voice, the awkward shuffle of the stranger’s feet informed her she had been unsuccessful in this endeavour.

It is only upon her remarking that Edward seems to acknowledge the other man and as he does a warm smile lights his face. "Ah Robert. You made it. Welcome. Welcome. I see you have already made acquaintance with my wife Lady Serena Campbell.” The stranger’s eyebrows elevated a fraction in surprise or alarm before returning to a moderated expression once more. “Serena, this is Sergeant Robert Medcalf of the Metropolitan Police. He was the sergeant involved in the Brownlow case and has quite a lot of insight he is willing to share with us.” Serena’s blank expression must register with Edward as he sighs. “I have been talking about this case for weeks, have you not been listening?” Edward's tone is filled with censure and condemnation and Serena feels a flush of embarrassment rush upon her features.

Serena regards Edward coolly but waits until Mr Medcalf has hastened away in search of her water before replying. “Edward I begin to tire of your constant accusations levelled at my person. If you must know I always listen to you. I listened when you said Elinor needed a nursemaid, I listened when you said we could no longer be associated with our Oxford friends, I listened when the doctors said we had to move to Holby, I listened when you insisted that it be I that was in charge of your daily care. Edward, I listen. I do not, however, consign every detail of the information you impart to my memory.” Serena’s eyes glitter dangerously and Edward chastens his expression. “My head has started to throb, so I will retire to my reading room for the evening. Please see that Mrs Williams direct Mr Medcalf to bring my water to me there.”

Edward looks about to protest at her departure but the force of her tone is one that he knows not to meddle with and emits a weary sigh before turning his chair to return to their guests. Serena permits herself a few more calming breaths before retreating to her private rooms.

It seems only a matter of moments after she is seated that a light knock upon her door disrupts her. She calls for the person she assumes to be Mr Medcalf to enter. He passes in somewhat hesitantly and she can understand the reluctance of the man to presume to arrive at a woman’s private chambers but this is merely her outer rooms. “Do not worry so Mr Medcalf, you may relax. Mrs Williams would not have permitted you entry to this room were it inappropriate to do so.” His posture softens a bit in response to her words and Serena holds her hand out and he brings her the water as he had promised. “Please take a seat for a moment while I drink this.”

Robert approached the seat she indicated and Serena can see his face more clearly in the low lamplight of the room. He was a fairly average looking man, although there was a boyishness to him that made him more interesting than most. His hair was brown with a sprinkling of blond where the sun had caught it and he had a thin set of whiskers which covered his chin, although Serena suspected this was required more to add a degree of gravitas to his youthful features than by his election.

Serena scrutinised the man carefully as she sipped at her water, he seemed to look about the room for the most part although the fall of the evening sun provided little clear light to do so properly. His eyes only returned to hers as she cleared her throat. Their gazes held for a moment and Serena could see the darkening of his eyes as she lifted her brow ever so slightly. The barely visible markings of scuffs against his shoe leather suddenly proving to be irresistible to his eyes. Serena shifted her feet, the motion hitching her long skirts up to reveal her pale, stocking clad ankle and the man’s eyes were drawn to the movement. His throat rippling as he swallowed hard. Now Serena was a woman who was well accustomed to observing the manifestations of desire, and she recognised the symptoms in the gentleman before her. When he tore his gaze from the newly exposed leg he sought out her eyes and she curled the corners of her mouth knowingly, bringing a deep flush to his cheeks.

He abruptly stood from the chair and went to appraise the impressive array of books that packed the full size case adorning one wall, Serena’s eyes tracking the man’s movements. He paused before her not inconsiderable collection of French works and traced his finger along the spine of a particularly fine example.

“Do you speak French, Lady Campbell?”

Serena’s eyes never left the man as she purred out her response. “Fluently.” With just this word she was unexpectedly transported back to those carefree days of her youth and the depth of her isolation gripped at her chest making her voice waver as she spoke. “I lived in Paris for many years and was fortuitous enough to know some of the writers whose books you are currently admiring.” Serena rose and moved across to the large bay window that overlooked the grounds, the ink black sky had swallowed the vista long before but she pressed her head against the window as a wave of desperation to break away swept across her. She could just run she supposed, hitch up her skirts and flee this place, keep going until her legs could carry her no further. Serena turned her cheek to the pane and closed her eyes feeling the cold glass soothe her racing thoughts. She made a vow to Edward and as much as she found him insufferable at times, she had loved him and cherished him and would not desert him now. The chill from the window brought her back to the present and she lifted her lashes to find Mr Medcalf watching her carefully.

“It must be quite a change to go from a life in gay Paris to one in Holby, especially with a crippled husband to care for.” Serena had not expected the man to be quite so blunt in his assessment of her life and it spurred her on to examine the man more closely than before. “If I may be permitted to speak freely Lady Campbell?” Serena’s head angled in contemplation before she permitted herself a tiny nod and he continued. “I imagine the confines of Holby to be quite limiting personally. It must be quite a lonely existence for an outgoing woman such as yourself. Do you not find yourself beset by boredom?”

“I have Edward’s routines to keep me busy.” Serena’s response was measured; cautious. She did not know this man and to speak so openly, albeit with her consent, felt suddenly rather crass.

“But, if I may say, that is Edward’s not your own. You do not strike me as a timid mouse whose only joy is provided by the servitude of her husband’s needs. Moreover I would anticipate from your vast collection of reading matter that it would prove most challenging indeed for one person alone to provide you sufficient stimulus to keep you from mundanity for long.”

“So what do you propose Mr Medcalf? That you be volunteered to provide me further stimulus in my husband’s stead?” Serena knew this was a dangerous road she took, the words were sufficiently innocent that she could withdraw from the underlying implication if the man’s sensibilities had been affected but she could go no further without becoming compromised.

The man stepped closer to her and their eyes engaged, there could be no doubt what they were discussing now, Serena saw it wrote large on his face. Perhaps his expression mirrored her own desires, she could not tell what he had observed, however it was sufficient to warrant him to progress down the path of their adulterous undertaking.

“I believe I could be of some little use to you during any visits I may be requested to undertake by your husband, should you be so desiring of my company at that time.”

“I must confess Mr Medcalf I do find your conversation to be a great deal more interesting than most of those that have come before and perhaps I might have need of your time on occasion.” Their eyes never left each other as they conversed. The polite offers of one and the hesitant but gracious acceptance of the other disguising the meaning they each read in the other’s eyes.

Mr Medcalf was to stay with them at Holby for a further three nights, Edward’s influence allowing him the additional time away from his employment to amuse Edward with his stories of criminal cases and entertain Serena in more intimate matters.

The first time he had visited her in her chambers, they had both been uncertain and hesitant and it had been Serena who had to initiate their romance. A lingering kiss pressed to his whiskered cheek slipping across to his mouth as he turned his head to face hers, their bodies shifting on the two seat sofa to meet each other’s skin. Serena found it very different from kissing Edward, the scratch of Robert’s coarse hair grating against her skin, his lips firm and insistently pushing hers to part and gliding his tongue in to meet her own. It was not unpleasant and it had been such a while since Edward had shown her such affections but it did not stir at her and leave her breathless with want.

The embrace persisted for some moments before Robert moved away to press his lips to the crook of Serena's neck and she was grateful he could not witness from there the flash of irritation that marred her features as he chafed her delicate skin. She felt the warmth of Robert’s hand through the heavy fabric as it began to roam across her corseted waistline to the curve of her hip, lingering and circling for a few moments before trailing a path down the outer line of her thigh and calf to her ankle where he found her hem.

His hand pushed up under her skirts journeying up her stockinged thigh and pressed to her undergarments, his fingers seeking and rubbing against her. Serena suddenly felt a tightness growing in her limbs, an ache sharper than any she had yet to experience and it unexpectedly thrilled her. She let out a small groan at the sensation and it seemed to be all Robert needed as his pressing fingers slid beneath the waistband of the silken material and dropped them to the floor. Serena allowed her head to recline against the cushioned seat back, her eyes closing and lips falling apart with a soft sigh, her breathing quickened as he slid across her damp skin spreading her glossy wetness. As quickly as his fingers had arrived though they departed, taking the thrilling sensations with them. Instead Serena felt Robert's hips rush to part her thighs enough to glean from her the access he required and then he was thrusting hard against her, the sudden fullness providing Serena with nothing more pleasant than a vague sense of malcontent.

So it was with some relief moments later that she heard him moan, felt the shudder and twitch of his body as his head slumped forwards onto her shoulder before he pulled himself back and away. She watched as his hand fumbled to return his exposed flesh to the confines of his trousers before he departed her presence once again with no more than a touch to her shoulder and a kiss to her cheek.

As ultimately fruitless as their previous encounter had been, Serena couldn’t help but want to feel again the stirrings of passion that Robert’s hands had teased out of her. He had awoken her to her own desires which she had assumed hitherto she lacked through a defect of birth. This awareness only made the thwarting of her need more painful as no matter how often or fervently she attempted to keep his fingers withheld as he stroked against her, his eventual overriding urge always won out and once more she was left unsatisfied. Each time she was brought towards the precipice of her relief and each time she was frustrated and it only served to drag her further into her melancholic state; accentuating in her mind the grim reality of her miserable existence.

Maybe it was this or conceivably it was Robert’s lack of world-wisely ways but their love affair burned and died with the changing of the season. As autumn bore in its amber palette so Edward tired of Robert’s acquaintance, his visits less frequent, his stay less lengthy and his companionship less agreeable until he was no longer welcomed to Holby and Serena slumped once more into her mundane existence.

 

Chapter Text

The departure of Mr Medcalf had more far reaching implications for Serena’s life than just the loss of a lover. A more significant impact was on the behaviour of Edward, now at a loss without his next great project lined up, he clung to Serena more tightly than ever, she was to be his sole entertainment in lieu of another endeavour. With the autumnal colours transfiguring the woodland, Edward was desirous of Serena to wheel him down along those paths sufficiently laid to accommodate his chair. Serena enjoyed these walks for the air but it became more difficult to converse with her husband. His frequent bouts of melancholy and his increasing reliance on drink to get him through meant that, for Serena at least, most days represented a roulette spin to determine his mood. At times he was almost childlike in his joy and reverence to the delights of the forest walks, others he despised the cold and damp that perpetuated the woods and declared it, with unwavering conviction, hazardous to his health.


It was thankfully on one of the days during which Edward’s demeanour was of a more joyful outlook that Serena first crossed paths with their new gamekeeper. This particular morning, she was, at Edward’s most fervent request, wheeling him along one of the recently laid paths that led further into the estate lands. They were happily conversing about the new shooting season and which acquaintances should be invited to Holby to join the first shoot when Serena’s eye line is drawn to movement in the distance. There is something about the man she regards that draws her attention, the length of his lean form or perhaps the strength of his posture. Serena is not sure that she herself could define what it is that captures her so completely but it is sufficient to require Edward to remark on her distraction.


“Serena. Have you heard my proposal at all?” Edward’s irascible tone reveals his displeasure at her apparent disinterest in his latest commentary.


“Forgive me Edward. My attention was drawn by a figure off in the distance nearby the woodland over there.” Serena gestures her finger towards the largest copse. “I did not recognise him and I was curious.”


“That is probably just our new gamekeeper, Major Wolfe. Shall I introduce you?”


Serena pauses and looks at the muddy, uneven tracks that they would have to bisect to approach the keeper ahead. “Apologies but I would not be able to navigate you down the path to reach the man, Edward.” His head turns sharply at his wife’s words and a small, amused smile curls at his mouth.


“WOLFE” He hollers across the open field land where the lone figure is stood, leaning casually against a wall puffing cigarette smoke up into the sky from between pursed lips. Serena can see the head twitch upward and turn to look whereabouts the call originated. The man obviously observes Edward and Serena as he begins to tread the track towards them. His progress is somewhat impeded by a slight limp which he tries to mask but it is apparent in the unevenness of his stride. As he nears, Serena can see that he is neatly apparelled in a pair of well-worn, heavy grey trousers, a light cotton shirt and grey waistcoat. A dark blue neckerchief was tied around his neck at his buttoned up collar and he wore a cloth cap of the same material as his trousers. His face was masked in smudges of dirt and he wiped his hands self-consciously to the material adorning his legs as he approached them.


“Major Wolfe.” Edward’s voice held almost a note of reverence for the man, despite addressing one of his workers. Serena wondered if it was a habit from their military days that he had not quite thrown off since his return. “May I introduce my wife, Lady Serena Campbell.” The gamekeeper turned his face to Serena, appraising brown eyes narrowing slightly before his hand went to his head to remove his cap as he bowed.


Serena soon realised her mistake and the cause of Edward’s earlier mirth as a cascade of tumbling curls fell from beneath the woman’s hat.


“Your Ladyship” she mumbled and Serena could see that same fierce scrutiny of her continue hidden beneath a long fringe that hung low across her eyes now that it had been freed from the fabric that formerly enclosed it.


“Serena, this is Berenice Wolfe. Former Army Major. Now our gamekeeper.” Serena did not fail to see the flash of pain on the woman’s face at the mention of the army and the ever so slight sneer of derision at her new title but as soon as it appeared it vanished, her expression reverting to neutral once more.


“A pleasure to make your acquaintance Major Wolfe.” Serena’s eyes held the other woman’s for a moment but there was something about her that disconcerted Serena. Maybe it was her evident displeasure at the manner of her beckoning or the way she made Serena feel so very exposed under her carefully study but Serena found herself suddenly wishing for the safety of the confines of Holby’s walls. “Perhaps, Edward, we may allow the Major to return to her duties and not delay her any further, I must still get you back to the house in time for luncheon or Mrs Williams will be most perturbed.”


“Might I assist your Ladyship with getting Sir Edward back to the house?” The woman's hands gestured towards the steep gradient that they needed to navigate in order to return but her scrutiny continued unabated. Serena could almost feel the gaze burning at her skin, making it prickle, such was the fierce intensity of it. Her need to leave greatly amplified by the effect it was having on her person.


“Thank you for the kind offer but I am capable of managing unassisted.” Serena’s eyes unconsciously drifted to the Major’s weakened leg and she sensed the woman stiffen her posture and when she looked up the eyes that met hers were cold and hard. Serena felt a shiver wrack her body before the Major gave a brief, nodded bow and headed back towards the woodland again. Serena watched for a moment as the Major departed, her gait almost disguising her injury, Serena supposed her wounded pride hurting more than her leg.


As they made their way at length back to the house, Serena enquired of Edward as to why he had chosen the Major, or more pertinently, a woman to fulfil such a position, especially one whose physical impairments made her less able than the men around her to adequately undertake the demands required by the work.


“I feel at least somewhat responsible for the injury she sustained.” Edward paused as if internally debating his next words carefully. “Some of our number were larking about one night just stood out in the trenches cadging smokes and the sort. We had been informed to stay away from the northern side of our lines due to increased artillery fire by the Hun but Jonny Wilson had heard there was a stash of cigarettes still down there left over from when we abandoned those trenches. We went in search of them and just as we were hunting around the Major discovered us, gave us a right earful and sent us packing quick sharp. “ He halts suddenly and a shadow falls across his face as a memory darkens his features. Serena presses her hand to his shoulder part in comfort, part to recollect him to the present. His voice is softer, more wistful than before when he continues. “We didn't hear the shell coming until it was too late, we were lucky Major Wolfe got us out of the way of the blast. She was not so fortunate herself and got badly injured by debris from the explosion. After a stint in the infirmary they deemed her unfit to return to her duties and she was discharged from the army. Many conscripts would have been pleased to return to these shores but for her the army was her life. When I found she needed work I offered, it really was the least I could do. She refused for a long while but must have fallen on hard times as she finally relented a month or two ago.” Edward stills his tongue for a moment as the weight of his actions bear down upon him. Serena offers him no solace from his remorse. In truth his recklessness sickens her heart. She finds she can only hum in response as her eyes unthinkingly cast back to the woods where the Major had stood only moments before.


Shortly thereafter bleak, grey clouds darkened the September skies and dampened the woodland paths that they had happily traversed priorly, making the soft earth unnavigable for Serena’s feet never mind Edward’s chair. And so the inclement English autumn compelled Serena to retreat back into her rooms, her solace from the world, a personal sanctuary. Even that small liberty was short-lived. Her peace frequently snatched away it would seem by Edward’s constant demands of her company. One moment he wishes her to read to him, the next she must listen to his inane chatter, enjoy his loud, music hall numbers that blare from his gramophone and to play chess with him as she listens to the rain beat down upon the window pane. She grabs the moments that she can, when he rests on his bedspread, to retreat back into her own rooms. As she stood and gazed out the high window, her mood it would seem just reflected the gloom in the heavens. Her entrapment within the walls of the main house began to bear on her breast, like the droplets of rain that weighed heavy within the clouds above turning their hearts from white to grey. She could only stand and think on how long it would be before she would eventually break and fall to the ground like the thundery rainfall that cascaded from the skies.


Thankfully for Serena's sake, it is not a great many days later when the clouds lift and the sun once more burns through to dry the sodden ground with its warming rays. On this occasion Edward's fearful disposition had led him to remain within the confines of the manor house but Serena was disinclined to allow such an exceptional autumnal morning pass her by untouched. Whether by design or by accident, she had followed the path that the gamekeeper had retreated down upon their first encounter and unencumbered by Edward's chair she is minded to venture further and further along it's track. In the distance she could see a thin wisp of smoke spiralling into the pure blue sky just visible through the breaks in the canopy of the trees where the autumn leaf fall had been more prevalent. Serena found her footsteps carrying her ever closer to the smoke until she hit upon the source of its vaporous trail.


It was a small stone cottage that in its former days might have been a perfect little English home of whitewashed walls and roaring fires that kept a family warm on chill, dark nights. It had now lost a lot of that charm from its facade, these days it was careworn in its appearance and a little unloved in part with a ramshackle fence and a small garden gone wild about the front, but there was still a certain indescribable beauty to it.


Serena was pondering who might live in such a place when from within its stone clad structure, the gamekeeper emerged. Her spine was stooped slightly to allow passage through the doorway for her tall, lanky frame and she seemed to wince as she placed a hand to her back to straighten herself once again. Her blonde curls were tied back but she bore no hat upon her head, her fringe long across her eyes once again. She wore similar apparel to that Serena had first seen her, but her jacket was slung across her shoulder, her heavy trousers bearing braces which hung loosely about her shallow, slender hips. There is an audible gasp but it is only upon the keeper pivoting in her direction that Serena realises it had come from her own lips. Their eyes meet for long moment before the other woman chances to speak.


“Lady Campbell. You have wandered somewhat far from the main house. Have you perhaps got lost in your own woodland?” Her tone was politeness itself but there was just a hint of jest that clung to the very fringes of it. Inexplicably, that small note of mockery grating at Serena more than the all the months of scorn and disregard of the other servants combined.


“I am perfectly familiar with the route back to the house Major but thank you for your concern, however unwarranted it may be.” Serena by now was entirely disinclined to even attempt to keep the sharp edge from her voice as she raised her eyes to meet the keeper’s. Their gazes held for a length, Serena’s inflamed emotion at the woman's casual contempt lighting up her eyes. The blonde eventually broke first, her stare falling away to closely observe the wooden fencepost that she toyed with absentmindedly. Her almost uncharacteristic shyness making Serena soften slightly, her stance relaxing from the combative one she had unknowingly adopted and she shuffled forward, some invisible twine pulling her relentlessly nearer and nearer to the woman.


“It is actually rather fortuitous that we have encountered each other again so swiftly. As indifferent as you may be to it, nonetheless, I would like to thank you Major.” The woman's head tilted up at the use of her title and she inclined it slightly in an unspoken question. “You saved the life of my husband, the father to my child. At great personal cost to yourself. I know you would believe you just did the duty required of you but I would hope you accept my most heartfelt gratitude all the same.” Serena's hand is held out towards the keeper and she looks down and regards it for a moment like a poisonous snake sent to harm her. Serena’s confidence wavers and she hesitates, hand falling slightly away before pressing forward again, arm outstretched once more determined that she will not allow herself to be shunned by this woman. She refuses to have another within Edward’s employ reject her well meaning gestures of friendliness. Eventually as if bidden by just the sheer force of Serena's will the Major relents and takes Serena's hand within her own, her grip firm and strong. Serena can feel the warmth of her palm, the skin dry and coarse under Serena's own delicate hands, there is the briefest twitch or a shiver within the other woman's grasp that she supposes annoyance or revolt and it forces Serena to withdraw her hand. Her gaze falls away, instead her focus shifts to the bramble that is scratching at her skirts, her heart recoiling at the despising emotions she has unwittingly unearthed.


“I shall leave you in peace now Major. I have disturbed your time at home for long enough.”


“As you wish, your Ladyship.” Serena glances up at the words and sees something swirling dark within her eyes and she feels a tightness coil in her stomach, a sudden need to be closer and further away all at once. It is too much for Serena to bear and she hurries herself back towards the house, her mind at a loss as to what to make of the encounter and the strange, warm churning sensation in her gut.


The tightness abates as she draws farther and farther away from the cottage and the woman with her dark, fiery eyes. The warmth of its sensation is replaced by a cold, bitter emptiness as her mind recalls the evident dislike that seemed to emanate from the other woman. The way she could not hold Serena’s gaze, could not even bring herself to look at her. A surge of forlornness rolls across her again and her knees buckle beneath her weight, heavy eyelids shutter closed and her hand reaches to grasp at a tree to keep her from falling. It takes a few moments to recover her breath, to feel the tremble fade from her legs before she puffs out a heavy sigh and resumes her course back to Edward and the great brute of a house they inhabit.


Her mind is so entirely consumed with images of scorn and contempt that her ears fail to catch the sound of soft footsteps that have tracked her progress, her eyes have not noticed the dark gaze that watches in concern as she stumbles, she is totally oblivious to the tall, slim form hidden only a small distance behind.

 

As much as the ill concealed disdain from Major Wolfe has wounded Serena’s pride, she is quite unable to deny her overwhelming fascination with the woman, although it is hard to quite picture her as someone of her own sex. She has never encountered in all her travels a high ranking female soldier before much less one now required by circumstance to find her employ as a gamekeeper.


Presently she has taken to spending an increasing amount of the time that Edward might allow her wandering in the multitude of copse and woodland that adorn their estate. She might tell herself that she seeks the reviving air, delights in the depth of the earthy smells or the beauty of the ever altering palette of the leaves but her circuits more frequently take in the gamekeeper’s cottage, although she is yet to find her at home again when she does.


There is a river that transects their land, well more a stream Serena supposes but it has occasion to rush and roar like a river in part so she really thinks of it as such. One such section of the stream has a large pool cut into its bed by the eddies and flows of the years and it is here that Serena next chances upon the taciturn Major again.


Serena has broken out from the close cover of the wood and stands upon the nearside bank of the stream, she doesn’t see the keeper until it is already too late, concealed as she was beneath the swirling surface of the water. She appears only when she stands on the shale like bed of the stream and pushes her body from the concealment of its grey blue covers. Serena can see her clearly now, droplets of water cascading down her porcelain skin, hair unclipped and tumbling in damp tendrils around her face. The pallor of her body that has lain covered by cloth so starkly contrasting to the earthy brown tan of her face and arms. Serena’s eyes wander to the dark thatch that nestles between her thighs, a stark counterpoint to her skin, not unlike the ebony sharps and flats against the smooth ivory notes and finds surprising femininity in her form.


Standing unseen above the blonde she permits herself a casual, unencumbered appraisal of her naked figure, eyes tracking up to the small breasts, firm, pale brown, the same hue as that on her sun kissed arms but so smooth and soft. Serena is suddenly given to wonder how the skin would feel beneath her cool fingertips, silky and warm such a contrast to the rough, sun beaten rasp of the keeper’s hands she had briefly experienced when their paths had last crossed.


As the woman turns away towards the other bank Serena first sees the lattice work of fiery red marks that traverse her back and snake over her buttocks and down her legs. The remnants of war that have besmirched her body still telling their angry tale against her alabaster skin. Serena downturns her face at last and can only imagine the pain that she must have suffered, the devastation that she must have endured and suddenly feels like she has intruded on something personal and reserved. Not the regard of her sex or the swell of her breast but her unsolicited examination of the markings of a soldier, that which the Major keeps so well hidden.


Serena turns about-face and stumbles in her haste, the sharp crack of the twigs from the woodland beneath her feet echoing like a gunshot around the space. It only presses her on faster; the keeper will have heard the noise and have known that there was someone nearby. Her feet seem to flutter underneath her as her heart hammers in her breast but she comes across no-one upon the path and if the keeper gave chase she did not catch up to her.



She arrives back at the house and it is a blessed relief to find that Mrs Williams nowhere about. She would be bound to pass remark on the dishevelled state of Serena’s gowns and hair and the unladylike flush to her cheek and brow. It would be the type of comment typical of those in Edward’s employ, superficially that of concern but underlying it a contemptuous derision and Serena has no mind to hear of it today. She hurries on up to her rooms, her mind still filled with the images of the keeper’s naked form each one indelibly painted to the lids of her eyes every time that they close.


She hastens to her full length mirrors and cannot help but indulge her compulsion to compare her body to that she has just borne witness to. Her hands smooth across the fine material of her gowns which emphasise the curve of her hip and her mind cannot shed the slim taut flesh and sharp defined bones that she has seen. Try as she may she cannot stop herself from wishing that she could be so, if only for a moment, she wishes that when she runs her fingers across her breast and down her body she would feel the tightness of flesh that the keeper would feel on her own skin.


She is clutched by a sudden derangement of her senses as she wrests her gown from her heated chest; can no longer bear the feel of the material pressed to her skin. She stares at her reflection, the dark cloth hanging in torn shreds about her body. Her breasts are exposed to her eye and she takes in the drooping of the once firm flesh. She drags the tattered gown further until it pools around her ankles and she permits her undergarments to follow. Finally nude, Serena allows the cool air that pervades the manor house to bite goose pimples into her skin, harden her nipples, cool her flushed face and chest. Her eye line falls to her own sex, dark hair covering it, kept neat by her own hand although she barely knows why as it has rarely been seen or touched by another in these many years. Her fingers splay down, tease through her curls, and she imagines the feel of the dark thatch of hair on the keeper so soft against her palm, opens her folds to display herself so wantonly to her eye. She takes in the glistening of moisture there, shining against her darkened pink skin and she is confused by its presence, intrigued by its very nature. It shocks her and she pulls her fingers away, revolted by her body and its manifestations. The mirror only reflects her disgust and she loathes the image it portrays back to her. She watches the reflection as hands rove over her form and she despises it all, she can't stand it any longer.


Her fingers have trailed up to her head and she pulls at her hair, desperate to free the curls from the combs and ribbons that her maid has earlier entrapped her locks within. Her hands frenzied and wild in their movement; raking at her scalp, roughly scraping her nails against the skin as she scratches and wrests her tangles free of their tethers.


She slows and her eyes drift from her unfettered locks and down her face, her neck and past her heavy breasts to the pale swell of her abdomen. The soft, plump surface marred by hundreds of silver grey lines, she runs a hand over her flesh and feels it crinkle beneath her touch, wonders how the keepers long fingers would define it, would her rough skin find it soft or as uneven as her own do. The scars are her bodily marks of motherhood, the lines a distinct labour of love and one she would have undertaken again and again had she the chance but fate had robbed her of the opportunity just as Edward’s vanity had robbed her of her child's embrace.


She hated the sight of those markings now, the emptiness that they represented to her. She clawed at them, dug her nails viciously into her flesh and ripped at the mottled surface. A pain so intense rippling through her as it burns within but in a strange way it acts as a soothing balm to her tormented mind. She finds peace in its agony. As her fingers release her body again, the flames that sear at her skin subside; she presses her nails more firmly this time, and grates against her own body once more; her flesh breaking and seeping its crimson ink across her fingers. Her blood hewn by her own hand. A cry half anguish and half in relief is wrenched from her and tears flow freely down her cheeks. She looks at herself then and laughs at the image. Lady Serena Campbell hair bedraggled, dress torn from her torso, nude and bleeding. She is still laughing in a kind of delirium when the staff find her, still laughing when the doctor arrives. Hysteria brought on by a melancholic episode he says. Prescribes rest and a return to London for a time, away from Holby and Edward, much to the latter’s deepest displeasure.

 

As the car bears her away, Serena fancies that she sights the keeper concealed beneath the darkness of the acres of woodland watching her disappear off down the track that heralds her passage. As she presses her head back against the plush leather seat she realises it is another trick of her confused mind for there is no earthly reason why that woman would care for Serena's whereabouts whatsoever. And so it becomes that, finally, Serena watches Holby Manor disappear over the horizon and she feels the gloom lift just a fraction as it does.

Chapter Text

Serena spent some months in London. At first she did not comprehend at all the need for her departure from Holby but as the weeks moved on a certain serenity fell upon her and the tension dropped from her shoulders. She had kept in regular contact with Edward throughout, the latter having priorly ensured that the manor had been fitted with a telephone system even before he was conscripted. They had also hired a woman, Mrs Chilcott, to attend to him in Serena’s absence. A widow, although she was not much older than Serena herself, her husband having perished in a mining accident leaving her childless and in need of employment. With Edward settled and well cared for, it allowed Serena the time to contemplate her own well-being, something she had determinedly neglected since Edward returned from the war. With the benefit of distance she could now see in herself the manner in which her confinement to Holby had affected her spirits.


As the winter set in and bore her towards Christmas her readiness to return to Holby and her husband returned. Her thoughts and dreams increasingly filled with the images of Holby and its woodlands. With her consciousness freed of its encumbrances her thoughts drifted to the enigmatic Major. Her dreams were beset by tumbling droplets of water that Serena’s fingers grappled to touch, yearned to halt from their cascading path down naked, goose pimpled flesh. Palms that longed to warm firm, taut skin. Fingertips that sought to trace delicate curves, soft swells and a curious maze of cherry red lines. When she awoke her skin flushed and her breath panting from within her lungs she was left to wonder what curious thing had left such an effect upon her.

It was the tradition in Holby Manor that every year the family would host a Christmas banquet for all the staff, workers and their families. It had always been a rather grand affair but the war had forced some curtailment of the usual excesses.

This year Serena had been due to return in time for the celebration but a snowstorm had confined her to London and she was frustrated by the delays that forced her to miss the event. Edward and Mrs Chilcott had been swift to regale her with their stories upon her return. How old Mr Parker had thoroughly enjoyed the supply of ale that Edward had laid on and had to be helped to bed before he embarrassed himself too greatly. Edward had drafted in additional staff so that cook did not have to prepare the meal but apparently she had taken it as a slight upon her skills and Mrs Williams had been required to smooth things over save there be a falling out.

Serena had only been half listening to most of their tales but upon mention of Major Wolfe her focus returned sharply to their conversation.

“Even the Major made a special effort.” Edward remarked. Mrs Chilcott merely huffing in reply. “Honestly Mrs Chilcott, I have never seen her wear a skirt before, to be honest I did not even know she owned one.”

“She actually cleans up all right. Might even find herself a husband if she made the effort more.”

Edward barked out a laugh at that. “Highly unlikely Mrs C.” Serena’s words of defence for the gamekeeper stalled on her lips though as Edward returned his attention to conversing with his wife about their upcoming plans.


Christmas was a joyful time of the year, Serena being permitted for once to coddle and rapture in the delights of her child and Elinor, although still somewhat apprehensive in her embraces, revelled in the cornucopia of dolls and toys that Serena had procured for her during her time in London. Their small family was to be joined for a week by Edward’s maiden aunt but the fearful weather had discouraged her and so the three of them enjoyed a cosy family Christmas. It was the happiest days Serena could recall since her arrival at Holby. Even Edward appeared more contented, although his drinking was only tempered by Elinor’s company and returned full force upon her retirement to bed each night. All in all it was with a sense of mourning that Serena saw in the New Year.

Another lavish Holby party for Edward and his friends welcomed the arrival of 1919 but heralded the cessation of Serena’s hitherto happy state. As the bells had long since tolled the dawn of the morning and the merriment continued unabated downstairs, Serena retreated to her rooms. Her gaze increasingly drawn to the blackness outside her windows and for the first time since she the day she returned, her thoughts drifted to the keeper and who she had spent her New Year with. Perhaps she had a man in whose arms she rejoiced in the coming of the new calendar. Then again, surely not, because no man would allow her to live alone in a cottage in the woodland in the way she does. And if that thought brought her sense of content, Serena chose to disregard it.

 

The inhospitable weather only tightened its grip on Holby as the first days of 1919 rolled through and each day of January passed marked only by fierce biting winds and fresh flurries of snow making any escape from the manor’s walls inadvisable at best. Serena was eternally grateful when the snows finally melted and the cold winter sunshine brightened the skies at last. It had been nearly five months since she last was able to venture the grounds surrounding the house and there was an unrelenting desire burning within her to be out there once more. Her feet tapping restlessly against the wooden floors each day that her wishes were denied.

It was not until the second week of February that she was able to attempt a walk in the grounds but the stone paths close to the house proved to be the only ones sufficiently dry and her desire to roam further was thwarted once again. She was still distracted by these frustrations upon her return to the house that she failed to notice the door to Edward’s study swing open and the tall figure of the keeper stride out. Barrelling straight into the chest of the woman, Serena was only saved from an ungainly fall by the Major's instinctive reactions, her arms encircling her in a tight grasp. Their bodies suddenly pressed closed, Serena could feel the strength of the arms around her, smell her earthy scent, the merest trace of forest pine and feel the brush of hair against her cheek. They seemed to remain like that for an eternity although it can only have been a few moments for Edward’s voice was still heard issuing instructions through the open door.

Serena shifted slightly and it broke the keeper from her trance. She released her grip and took a backward step, Serena’s legs buckled slightly as she was freed from the embrace, only just regaining her footing before she stumbled.

“I’m most terribly sorry your Ladyship.” The Major’s eyes usually so cool and detached showed a genuine concern which warmed Serena.

“No it is I who should apologise to you Major. I was distracted by my thoughts when we collided.”

“Are you hurt? You appeared slightly unsteady on your feet, I have not injured you I hope? I am afraid I have become so used to the company of soldiers that I forget the fragility of a lady.”

Serena barked out a sharp laugh and quirked her eyebrow at the keeper. “Never fear. I am not such a fragile flower as you may imagine. I am all the same most grateful for your swift actions without which I may well have started my day by tumbling at your feet.”

The corners of the Major’s mouth curled slightly at the humour before she regained her passive demeanour to reply. “I had best be getting back to the grounds. The heavy snow has brought down a few fences and as we head into breeding season we need to ensure we keep the property secure.” She nodded her head briefly in farewell and moved to depart but then hesitated and glanced back over her shoulder at Serena again. “If I might say, it is good to see you back Lady Campbell.”

“It is good to be back Major Wolfe.” Serena was surprised to find veracity in her words and it drew a small smile to her features. The keeper returned her smile for a moment more before she turned with a last swish of her blonde hair and retreated.

 

The cold snap of December and January brought a damp heaviness to the air in and around Holby and despite the constant warmth of Edward’s chambers, he was seized by a bout of pneumonia as his wracking cough echoed the sterile, empty halls. Much to Serena’s ire, Mrs Chilcott had taken it upon herself to worry and fuss around Edward like a nanny would a colicky baby and Edward simpered and whined like a child in reply. As much as she detested the spectacle of their mutual fawning Serena was compelled to keep her ailing husband company lest the staff begin to talk further of the cracks in their relations.

His pneumonia persisted throughout February and only showed signs of easing as the air warmed in the early March sunshine. The improvement in Edward’s health and the lightening of the morning skies brought a new levity to Serena’s heart and a spring to her step as her thoughts drifted to the warm brown eyes and the curl of the keeper’s half-smile. She had never really had a female friend before and for the first time in an age, here was someone who piqued her interest. A woman of strong character and determination, someone she could see herself content in the company of.

 

As March headed towards April the landscape had been transformed by dewy meadows and bright cool mornings which heralded the arrival of the Spring. The woodland paths had finally dried sufficiently for Serena to venture their lengths and had headed straight towards the cottage, seeking out her new acquaintance, but she found it only to be dark and empty. The bitter taste of disappointment rose in her throat before she swallowed it back down and chose instead to explore the woodlands now that she was free to do so again.

The uneven terrain had hindered her progress but Serena was mindful as she stepped across the tangled ropes of tree roots that traversed the path. She had taken time to marvel at the way the sunlight scattered dappled patterns across the drying earth and at the shafts of brilliant colour sprayed across the forest by the rays of light catching the early spring buds. So lost was she in the beauty her eyes beheld that she did not realise how far she had walked until the dull throbbing of her feet had provided a prescient reminder and it was with a tinge of regret she began to retrace her steps.

It was after she had journeyed for some minutes that Serena became aware of an erratic knocking emanating from nearby to where she passed. She had thought for a moment it may be a woodpecker but the beat was too laboured and pedestrian to have been the nimble tapping of the bird. She gave a final thought to the path homeward before her natural curiosity overcame her and she followed the tiny track towards the sound.

As she drew closer, a clearing came into view, within it there resided a small wooden hut, not large or grand by any means but it looked to be well maintained and the neatness of the surroundings indicative that it had some regular use. As she stepped further into the clearing she could also see a smattering of half built wooden structures; small, not much larger than the bed that Mrs Williams cat slept in. Serena had failed to notice the gamekeeper before but as she emerged past the hut the woman’s presence became apparent. Her back turned to Serena, right hand firmly clasping a hammer that most certainly had been the cause of the sound she had followed.

Serena stopped, her feet faltered as her heart started to pound from her chest and a prickling flush raced up her cheeks. She remained immobile, her body unresponsive to her brain’s instructions to turn and flee; forced to just watch for a while as the woman worked away at her task unbeknown to Serena’s presence. It had been her persistently aching feet that eventually broke her stillness as she moved to take a seat on a nearby fallen tree. Her footsteps alerted the gamekeeper to her closeness and Serena called out a shy greeting to the woman as she rested herself down. The keeper in return had merely offered a curt nod and a curious frown before returning to her work.

Serena had watched in peaceful content as the keeper worked repairing what appeared to be some kind of animal cages. The warmth of the Spring sunshine and the sporadic sounds of the keeper’s movement had lulled Serena into a light sleep; her head had fallen back to rest on the trunk of the tree she had propped herself against.

When she awoke she had lost sense of time but her eyes were drawn back to the woman at work in front of her. The air must have warmed for the keeper had removed her shirt and worked only in a vest, dirty and damp from her exertions. The fabric clinging to her form like a second skin and Serena marvelled at the beauty of the woman and wondered how she could ever have mistaken her for a man. The woman’s femininity, while different from her own, was undeniable. She brushed the curious thoughts away and watched once more as the keeper’s slender fingers worked nimbly at the little mesh wire facings and their wooden supports. A growl of annoyance had burst from the woman as the cage she worked on slipped from her grasp as her fingers, slick with sweat, provided little grip. She raised the hem of her vest to wipe her hands against the material before she had lifted it further to dab at her damp brow. Serena averted her gaze but not before her eyes caught the sight of the soft swell of flesh that had been exposed by her movement. Suddenly her mouth was parched and dry, she swallowed rapidly in a futile attempt to dislodge the lump of rock that had formed in a her throat. She finally coughed to release the tightness and it had been this that had reawakened the keeper to Serena’s presence. Her vest dropping back over her exposed skin and an embarrassed flush rushing her neck.

“I must apologise your Ladyship I had quite lost my cognisance of your presence otherwise I should never have presumed to be so under attired.” The woman’s hands gesticulated to her vest even as she had reached down to reclaim her earlier discarded shirt.

“Will you not just get hot again if you redress in that shirt?” Serena enquired as the woman lifted the thick, cotton garment to her torso.

“It will be warm certainly, your Ladyship, but I have suffered worse.”

“We are both women. Our bodies have the same basic shape although we are markedly different in many ways. If your work requires you to remove your shirt or roll up your vest to be comfortable then you should be free to do so. If my presence here makes you feel that you cannot then perhaps it is I who should leave.”

The keeper appeared to assess her for a moment, eyes narrowed in scrutiny. “It is your property m’Lady. You should come and go about it as you please. If you wish to sit at this hut and watch me at my work that is the right you have as Lady of the house.”  Her obviously educated accent had taken on a forced vernacular, almost as if she was mocking Serena and it aggravated her.

“So you would not object if I were to return to this part of the woods, if I were to watch you work again?”

“I believe I have already explained that I have no grounds to object your Ladyship.”

“Well in that case would you be so kind as to tell me what it is you are doing here?” I am an educated woman, but educated in the arts, languages and literature. My knowledge of estate upkeep and groundskeeping is sadly lacking. I would like to ensure no one can belittle my position as lady of the house.” Serena fixed the blonde with a piercing gaze, her jaw set in a determined line that almost dared her to mock. The blonde’s eyes remained narrowed, her brow drawn down in contemplation for a moment before a smile broke her stern countenance and her eyes crinkled in genuine warmth.

“I was attempting to fix these cages in preparation for the hatching of the new pheasant chicks but I am too clumsy it would appear today.” The blonde gesticulated to her hands which seemed to tremble slightly.

“May I assist you with that?”

The keeper had seemed somewhat confused until Serena approached and positioned herself close behind her, hands grasping tightly to the small wooden cage. A look of understanding had passed over the woman’s face as she manoeuvred the wire mesh into place and secured it fast with a nail. Decorum should have required Serena to step back given the close proximity of their bodies but as she found her nostrils filled with the scent of the other woman’s sweat her body had leaned further into the contact. If the keeper noticed she did not remark on it and picked up the next frame as they worked in tandem repairing the cages.

Only once all the cages were finished did Serena retreat from their contact as the keeper thanked her with a shy smile.

“So I may be permitted to return and join you as you work then?” Serena chanced.

The keeper paused for a moment. “Well, I suppose you are not as disruptive as I had expected. For a woman that is.” Serena was well minded to retort when she caught the teasing smile that ignited the keeper’s features. The face Serena once supposed sulky and withdrawn appeared animated with life, her eyes twinkling in mirth and something else Serena couldn’t quite define. Any harsh words Serena had been intending died on her lips at such a sight and she could only smile a reply.

 

As the March sunshine continued, so had Serena’s visits to the hut. She had found a quiet contentment in the silent company of the keeper, the lack of mindless chatter seemingly succour for them both. Serena had found the keeper to be a woman of few words but those she did share were thoughtful and considered. Their shared half-glances and smiles filling Serena’s heart with joy to have found such a friend hidden here in the estate woodlands. Their wordless camaraderie had made her feel like finally this part of the world could finally become her home.

On her visits she had taken to bringing a luncheon with her. She always requested the kitchen to make up more than she could ever require, having found it to be the only way the keeper would acquiesce to share the meal with her. It necessitated her to make a show of how aggrieved she was at such waste by the kitchen even though, in truth, both women knew it to be a blatant falsehood upon her part. They had continued to play along with this game, both happy to stay cocooned together in their mutual self-disillusionment.

As with all fantastical deceptions though, the harsh light of truth always found a way to break through the shutters. So it was to be in this case too. It proved to be the arrival of Edward’s aunt that was the catalyst for the unravelling of their falsehoods.

 

Edward’s maiden aunt, Lady Jemima Campbell, was what might be termed a woman of substance. Not one to suffer fools gladly, she abhorred the notion that women should be meek and mild creatures. Her title and family connections gave her the platform to speak her mind and she rarely encountered anyone brave enough to try and stop her. Her visit to Holby was long overdue and although she found her only nephew to be given to pomposity she loved him greatly nonetheless. This was how she came to burst into Serena’s world in a riot of cigarette smoke and gaudy bright tweed; a veritable force of nature and one that Serena wished she had come to know all those years before. For Serena, she was a tonic to the bland mundanity of her life and a source of constant amusement with her uncensored remarks. That was until Lady Jemima’s last night at Holby when Serena’s whole world was to be changed.

As usual Edward and his Aunt Mim had retired to his drawing room to drink and converse together. This having been her last night however, Mim had insisted that Serena join them.

It had been some twenty minutes of exceedingly dull diatribe about Campbell heritage when the course of the conversation shifted in a most unexpected manner. “Edward, you really are so fortunate to have such an astute and beautiful wife. One of these days you must tell me where I might find such a woman.” Mim’s remark so very casual Serena gave it no heed.

“Careful Serena, or Aunt Mim might just whisk you back away to London with her.” Edward winked toward his wife and his smile only broadened as he took in her obvious bewilderment.

“If I thought you would allow it, Edward, I would.” She had laughed huskily before her gaze fell to the snifter of brandy she swirled in her hand. “Now that female gamekeeper of yours, surely you would not miss her if I were to borrow her services for a while.” Serena’s head had jerked up at the mention of the Major and her brow had furrowed in confusion at why Lady Jemima would require a gamekeeper in London at all. She was soon to realise her error.

“Well you might be in more luck there Mim, the Major was known to have a fondness for a certain type when we were posted. She happened to interrupt one of the lads inflagranti with a local beauty, the fellow said the Major couldn’t take her eyes off the girl. Turns out the Major clearly had something he didn’t because the lad didn’t get a look in after that night.”

“Oh I do like a lady who knows what she is doing.” Mim chuckled once more but it was unheard by Serena. Like a switch that had been flipped in her mind, suddenly every touch, every smile, every heated response of her traitorous body held new meaning. As it did, the realisation of her true nature rose to the surface and pooled between her legs. She had no doubt as the memories flooded her brain, that as much as she had only wished for a friend, she had discovered something deeper. Just like Mim, she was attracted to Edward’s gamekeeper; to Edward’s very much female gamekeeper.


It seemed that once the concept of her sexual attraction to those of her own sex had been released it would not be contained. Suddenly Serena found herself looking at every woman she encountered in a different light. Granted, none of them stirred in her the base desire the same way the keeper had, but she was given nonetheless to admire their curves and lines in the same way an artist might caress them with a stroke of his brush. It was as if she was seeing the whole world anew and just like the child who clung to the skirts of its mother when confronted with a stranger, so Serena had retreated into her books and far away from the very person who had made her a stranger to herself. If she had hoped that she could intellectualise away her disquiet then she was wrong, but there was a strength in her resolve to keep clear of the woodland until her unsettled mind had calmed sufficiently to face the keeper again.

Once her walks within the grounds had ceased she was left only to the solitude of her rooms and the company of her spouse. Her need to test the resilience of her unexpected new predilection led her to Edward’s side once more. She had thought the affection she lavished on him would be sure to dispel her Sapphic desires. However, the more time she spent with Edward, the more distant their lives became and the tugging of her heart to be out in the cool, fresh air could only be resisted for so long. Finally, after another of their bitter disputes about his over-exuberant drinking, she escaped the solemnity of the house and trod the paths once more.

If she had told herself she had no intention to see the keeper her mind and her feet had not listened, for the path she took was the most direct route to the clearing. If she had sought to deceive herself further to her motives she was thwarted by the surge of undeniable disappointment that overcame her upon finding the hut vacant and locked. Any remaining pretence she harboured about her need to see the woman was eradicated entirely as she seated herself outside the cabin to wait.

Serena was uncertain as to what outcome she had anticipated from her occupation of the anterior porchway of the small, wooden hut but she waited determinedly nonetheless. It must have been hours that she lingered there for by the time the keeper arrived it was nearing dusk and the chill wind nipped at her already bitterly cold skin like icy daggers.

The greeting from the woman when she at last arrived was cordial but restrained. “M'Lady. I did not expect to see you again, I thought you must have grown tired of my company, such as it is.” When Serena offered the keeper no reply she had forced her gaze upon the woman before her and was shocked as she took in the chattering of her teeth and the slight blueish tinge to her skin. “You are frozen to the bone, M’Lady. What are you doing outside for such a spell. Come, come.” The keeper drew a key from her pocket and opened the hut, putting a guiding arm around to usher her inside.

The cabin's interior was simple and sparse. A solitary chair and a little table sat near to a small fire which modestly warmed the space. A few hay bales lay on the other side of the hut with a rough blanket thrown across them. The keeper steered Serena to the chair by the fire before she collected the heavy blanket to cast about her shoulders. Despite this, Serena was still wracked with her chill. With a concerned look fixed upon her features, the keeper dropped to her knees beside her and clasped both her hands between her own, rubbing furiously to imbibe some warmth back into the frozen flesh. It was only when Serena felt real warmth rush against her icy flesh that she had looked down. As she looked on the keeper puffed her breath against the tips of Serena’s fingers, and the sudden intimacy of the act gave her halt; her whole being suspended in that moment with the woman’s breath making her every nerve ending start to spark like nothing before.

The sensations so overwhelmed her that she made to pull her hands away only to find them clasped tighter within the woman's grasp. Eyes of golden umber lifted and met her own and she was spellbound in the depths of the dark swirling pools. The emotions that seemed to stir within the other woman were unfathomable but Serena’s close scrutiny only pulled the keeper closer and she raised herself up on her knees, her body moving tight against Serena’s own. Her arm snaked back around Serena’s shoulders and there was barely but a wisp of air between them.

“Are you any warmer Lady Campbell?” Her words were softly spoken but Serena still felt her breath tickle against her cheek.

“I am much improved thank you Major.” She panted out as the keeper's hand begun to absentmindedly stroke against her shoulder. “Now I really must be getting back.” Serena had attempted to stand but her legs had given out beneath her.

The blonde’s sharp gaze missed nothing and she had pressed her other hand to her hip to pin Serena back into the chair. “Please I must insist. At least stay until you are warmed enough to journey back to the house.” Serena glanced up and her eyes caught the depth of tenderness in the other woman's expression and her heart lurched. Her breathing was ragged and her skin aflame as raw desire erupted within her. Serena’s eyes flicked down to her mouth, to lips which had parted just a fraction and when she looked back up the blackness of her own desire was reflected clear in the other’s eyes.

A small gasp escaped her and perhaps it was this that emboldened the woman as she shifted forward and captured Serena’s lips in an achingly tender kiss. The blonde’s hand slid across from where it had rested on Serena’s shoulder and clasped at her neck, fingers carding through her dark locks, and pulling her even deeper into their shared embrace. Serena opened her mouth to protest but it only brought the keeper closer and Serena tasted the soft flesh that surrounded her lips so enticingly. Any question of dispelling her desire for the woman was gone with the delicate press of the keeper's lip between her own and the ferocious heat that ignited between her legs.

As Serena had shifted to seek relief for her aching sex, it seemed to reawaken the keeper to their embrace and she pulled away with a jolt. Her eyes averted once more from Serena’s gaze and she stood suddenly, turning her back to Serena and thrusting her hands deep into her pockets. Serena rose up and moved to touch her, to reach out to her but every part of the keeper's body language seemed to scream of regret and Serena could not stay there to hear it spoken aloud, to face having her affection, so newly unearthed, rejected so swiftly. Instead she had tossed the blanket aside and ran from the cabin, tears pooling in her eyes, her feet carrying her relentlessly home, to where Edward and her solitude awaited her.

Chapter Text

When Serena returned to the house any remaining composure she had retained ruptured completely. Tears carved deep channels in her delicate features as they had poured forth; with the falling of each drop she had felt the keeper’s rejection spear her heart afresh. Her dreams that night were beset with thoughts of their embrace, their kiss and she awoke with the same wet heat burning between her thighs. Her waking mind, in a futile attempt to protect her well being, repelled the memories but it could not halt the steady flow that seeped into her slumbering consciousness. Her nightmares full of distorted images of the keeper’s face filled with mockery and revulsion at her unusual desires.

With the passing of the days the nightmares faded. Slowly Serena allowed the memories of their encounter to slip back into her waking mind. As she had, fragments of clarity returned to her hitherto clouded thoughts.

As the fog lifted and the memories flooded into the void she relived each instance as if she was there again; the scent of the keeper filling her nostrils, the warmth of skin infusing her body with the same glowing fire she had felt at the time. The onyx black of her eyes had reflected the purest desire Serena had ever known and the kiss, well it was the sweetest, most tender moment of her entire existence. Surely she could not have mistaken it all? It was desire she saw in the others eyes and it was that which they both had felt; the affection they had shared, it had been mutual. That very knowledge swelled in Serena’s heart, smashing away the spiteful self-disillusionment that had swallowed her consciousness for days and filling the space with a warm content.

She did not yet fully comprehend why the woman had withdrawn as she had but of this Serena was now convinced, it was not because she did not want her with the same passion that Serena herself was engulfed in. Serena stilled the questions racing through her mind and set her jaw. She may not yet know the answers, but she was adamant that she would find out.

 

It was without delay that Serena strode determinedly to the clearing the very next day. It was as it had been before, empty and deserted, even the small chimney of the cabin showed no sign of smoke. Resolute as she was, she was disinclined to await the keeper again and changed her path to make towards the cottage to seek out the woman. It was on that same path that she encountered her again, a bale of straw atop her shoulder and her shotgun cracked across her other arm. Her face registered her surprise at Serena’s appearance but she greeted her with her now customary politeness if a little more reservedly than usual.

“Major Wolfe…” Serena faltered for a moment before she steeled herself once more. “I was wishing to speak with you. Would you have a moment to spare for me perhaps?”

“I am sorry m’Lady but I must get the run prepared for the poults, more are hatching every day and they will soon be squabbling.” Her voice was gruff but not unkind.

“Oh.” Her heart had sunk at the words. “I suppose I should not detain you any further.” Serena’s despondency must have sounded in her voice and shown in her expression because the keeper halted and turned to look at her with that same narrow-eyed scrutiny.

The blonde’s face softened at the sight before her and a small, hopeful smile pulled at her lips. “Perhaps if you were minded to muddy your fine clothing, you might lend a hand? I believe that two of us would finish a lot quicker.” Serena could not prevent the happy smile that broke across her face and her she lost herself in the other’s gaze before the keeper turned with a jerk of her head and indicated for Serena to follow her.

It was not far to the clearing but the keeper’s limp was more pronounced with each passing stride. Serena thought it wise to hold her counsel on the matter and instead inquired what she might do to assist. The keeper set Serena to work turning the eggs that remained in the incubator while she prepared one of the new cages and runs for the older poults.

As Serena placed her hands inside of the incubator she had uttered a cry of surprise. It was barely a breath of time before the keeper was at her side, an expression of concern etched on her features. The keeper’s worry had been unfounded for she discovered only an entranced look upon the brunette’s face.

“I felt the chick moving inside of this egg.” Serena exclaimed.

The keeper looked down at the woman bent over before her and her face took on a wistful countenance. “Aye, they will not be long, those. Would you like to see the newest hatchlings?” Serena nodded in reply, a joyful smile spread across her face. “Here this way.” The keeper led Serena across the clearing to another cage set low down to the ground and smaller than those the keeper had been attending to. She took her jacket from her shoulders and laid it down on the ground, guiding Serena down to kneel in front of the cage. She opened up the front and shone her lamp into the space and Serena saw a dozen or so small, slightly scruffy looking birds pecking around in the wood bark that covered the floor of the cage.

The keeper reached in and when she withdrew her hand the tiniest of the brood was clasped within her slender fingers. “Here, hold your hand out.” Serena timidly cupped her palms and her skin fizzed and warmed where the keeper’s hand had brushed as she placed the little bird into them. Serena watched for a moment as the animal fidgeted in her clutches before it pecked at her with irritation. The keeper honked out a laugh at Serena’s sharp cry before she guided Serena’s hands to lower the bird back into the cage and they watched as it stumbled back inside.

The keeper pulled her hand away from Serena’s to fasten the door once more but as she did Serena turned to face her, her own fingers reaching out to softly touch at the keeper’s. They had hesitated like that for a moment before it was the blonde who entwined her fingers in Serena’s and they stilled like that with their eyes and hands locked firmly to each other. The keeper’s other hand shifted to rub delicate strokes of her thumb to the back of Serena’s hand. Just the merest feel of their skin meeting left Serena’s body boneless and immoveable like a vise had gripped her entirety. The flames of desire burned through her whole body like a sun that beat down upon parched desert sands, every hitherto hidden and unknown part exposed and scorched by it. The keeper, whose touch had rendered her so comprehensively undone, continued trailing a journey up her arm. Her fingers moved an agonisingly slow path across the full length of her collarbone leaving a vast expanse of tingling, quivering skin in their wake. Finally her hand came to rest at the hollow of Serena’s throat and the keeper broke their gaze and fixed her eyes upon her fingers that now stroked featherlight patterns at the soft, milky skin they found there. She suddenly pulled her hand away and bent her head low, lips pressing the most delicate kiss to the same spot her fingers had just vacated.

Serena could not control gasp that escaped at the soft touch but she emboldened herself to speak. “I greatly wish to feel your lips against mine again Major but I fear you would retreat as before. Tell me would you pull away from me were I to kiss you now?”

The keeper’s dark eyes lifted to meet Serena’s. “I do not think my legs would bear my weight if you were to kiss me again my Lady. Just the feel of your skin against mine has rendered my legs utterly immovable.” It was all the response that Serena required as she tugged the keeper to her, their lips meeting in a fevered collision of soft skin, teeth clashing in their desperation for contact.

The blonde pressed forward and Serena allowed herself to be lowered onto the coat that still lay beneath her, her every part relishing the feeling of the weight of the other atop her as their kiss deepened. The keeper’s mouth parting to lick softly at Serena’s lower lip, a deep groan leaving her as it did and Serena welcomed her tongue into her mouth. Serena felt the keeper start to move above her, her hips rolling against her own and the pressure of her against Serena’s sex was delicious and so acute that Serena’s hips rose up to meet her.

As if she sensed Serena’s need, the Major shifted her position, her movement lifting the hems of Serena’s skirts higher and higher until the fabric allowed the keeper to settle her thigh firmly between Serena’s legs and she began to rock slowly against her. Serena turned her head from the keeper’s warm lips to pant air into her frantic lungs, a moan ripping out from her as the woman pressed her weight again to Serena’s sex. Serena felt the lips that were now engaged planting more soft kisses to her neck curl into a smile at the the wanton sound before they jerked away sharply as the echo of a gunshot reverberated around the woods.

“What was that?” Serena asked even as the keeper rose to her feet and turned to her collect her shotgun.

“Poachers most likely. Probably after the deer in the top field as there is no game bird worth shooting at this time of year.” The keeper brushed her shirt back down across her lean hips where it had risen up earlier and moved to leave.

“Major” Serena’s voice was faint with emotion, both the lilt of a question and a note of entreaty contained within that one simple word. It seemed to tug at the keeper and she paused her stride. Her face turning back to regard the woman whose skin was still inflamed from her touch. The soft smile on the blonde’s face gave all the reassurance Serena required and she lifted the jacket from underneath her and offered it forth, their fingers brushed as the keeper took it before she turned again to hasten in the direction of the earlier shot.

Serena was unable to keep the smile from her face as she made her way back to the house. Her body still fizzed with the gamut of sensations that the keeper had awoken in her and her tread was light and airy on the path as she headed back.

 

Immediately upon her return to Holby Manor she was met by an anxious frown on the face of Mrs Chilcott.

“Lady Campbell. Where have you been? We have been searching to grounds for you. It is the master, he is unwell.”

“Has the doctor been fetched?” Serena’s earlier carefree demeanour instantly replaced by a deep sense of unease at the news.

“He has been called and is on his way my Lady but the master, he was…” Mrs Chilcott paused her hands wringing tightly as she did. “He was coughing up blood, Madam. That’s not a good sign is it?”

Serena reached out her hand and placed it against the woman’s agitated fingers, patting her lightly. “Let us wait and find what the doctor has to say before we fear the worst.” She gave a tight smile before heading to her husband’s rooms.

When she entered it was to Edward lain back against the pillows of his bed, the pallor of his skin stark contrast to the crimson stain against the white fabric beside him.

“Oh Edward. What have you done to yourself my love?” His head had turned to face his wife as Serena lowered herself to the chair beside him.

“Serena.” His voice was shaky and weak and Serena wondered when the confident, affable, funny young man she had so adored had become this feeble. Perhaps it was such a slow progression she had not marked its coming but it had come and had claimed Edward wholly.

“Shush Edward. Rest. The doctor is coming.” Serena bent her head and laid it against the chest of her husband as she had done so many times before. The steady thump of his heart reassuring in so many ways but the jut of his ribs, no longer adorned with his plump flesh, felt like a stranger against her cheek.

It was for some many minutes that Serena laid curled against her husband until the sharp rap of knuckles at the door started her. “Come in.” She commanded and Doctor Michaels’ face appeared through the door.

“Lady Campbell.” He gave a slight bow. A traditional man with very traditional values in many ways but had been a loyal doctor and friend of the Campbell family for three generations.

“Henry. Thank you for coming so promptly. I shall give you some space with Edward. If you need to speak to me I shall be waiting outside. I’ll get Mrs Williams to make up some tea.” Serena gently gave an affectionate squeeze to the suited arm of the elderly man as she passed.

It seemed like an eternity before Doctor Michaels emerged and his stern countenance did not soothe Serena’s worries. Serena had invited Mrs Chilcott to join them in the drawing room as they took the tea that the housekeeper had prepared. The invite was more a matter of practicality than of friendliness as Mrs Chilcott tended to Edward more than Serena herself and Serena was not minded to have to relay the doctor’s words on to the woman as surely she would have had to otherwise.

The tinkle of the Doctor Michaels’ teaspoon against the fine bone china teacup was the sole sound in the room as they awaited his diagnosis.

“How long has Edward been drinking as heavily as he has, Lady Campbell?”

Serena frowned a little as she thought. “He has always been fond of a drink as long as I have known him Henry. If you recall how he was at our wedding even.” The doctor nodded solemnly at their shared memory. “It was somewhat excessive even then. If I was to mark it though I would say it became more of a habit after his father passed. Then, since he has been confined to his chair, he has had more time to dwell on things and more opportunity to indulge. Mrs Chilcott, do you concur?”

“I must say he does not appear to be drunk that frequently but there have been some occasions when I find empty bottles hidden about the room. Perhaps I should have spoken up earlier.” Serena shook her head in reassurance to the woman beside her before the doctor resumed his diagnosis.

“The outlook for Edward is not promising. He would appear to have cirrhosis. Permanent damage to the tissue of the liver in layman's terms.  It is a condition that requires years of heavy alcohol consumption to develop and is rarely seen in one so young.”

“Is it fatal, Doctor Michaels?” Serena’s beautifully manicured fingernails digging into the fabric of her skirts the only outward sign of her turmoil at the question.

“I will not lie to you. It is extremely serious and it can be fatal. Edward must stop drinking completely if he is to have hope of surviving this. His body is already weakened from his injuries. He may not have the strength to pull through this.”

Mrs Chilcott let out a small sob. The sound seeming to hang in the air as Serena composed herself. “Thank you Doctor Michaels for your time and your candour. We will do everything to ensure Edward has the help he needs.”

“Lady Campbell I feel it is my duty to tell you that Edward may not wish to be helped. That being the case, it may be a matter of managing his consumption and its effects.” The weight of his words settled on them as the doctor rose from his chair and brushing an imaginary fleck of dust from his lapel bid them a good day.

 

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Mrs Williams had been informed only of the barest of facts and that for the master’s continued well being the house was to forego any alcohol for the present time. The party that had been scheduled for the following weekend was cancelled lest Edward succumb to temptation.

When he was feeling sufficiently well, Mrs Chilcott had wheeled Edward about the grounds while Serena combed his rooms for any alcohol he kept there. If she had retained any doubts as to the irredeemable nature of Edward’s malaise, they were dispelled with the near half dozen partly consumed bottles of whisky and a dozen more empty ones beside. It was a stark reality to suddenly be faced with and not for the first time she wished again for the simple pleasures of the life she had led before the Great War had scarred the face of Europe. There was no use looking back however, she must accept the hand she had been dealt, however unfortunate it felt.

Serena had retired to her own rooms early that evening. The events of the day having taken their toll on her energies. At some point Mrs Williams had brought Serena dinner as it still lay untouched on the table at her right elbow. Her thoughts tonight were only with Edward and her beloved Elinor. She had hoped to shield her young daughter from as much of Edward’s drinking as she could but it was now almost impossible to hide the effect anymore.

She had wondered for a time if perhaps Edward’s illness was punishment for her impure thoughts regarding the keeper but she was not a religious woman and if God did intend to punish her there would be more effective means than this. No. This illness was of mortal making. One brought about by Edward’s own hand and his own weakness.

 

The next day the morning rays burned through the house warm and bright almost mocking the quiet of the halls with their sunny disposition. Edward himself was in a weary sort of a mood. Neither wishing to be accompanied nor alone it appeared and nothing either Serena or Mrs Chilcott did was right to his mind. As he irritably rallied against each of her attempts to help she could not resist casting a wistful glance towards the woodlands and there once again was the same tightening of her abdomen as her thoughts strayed to her impassioned kiss with the keeper.

Mrs Chilcott had perchance noted her gaze for she suddenly spoke up. “You go out Lady Campbell. It is a beautiful day for a walk. I will attend to Sir Edward.”

“Yes go woman, leave me be.” Edward snarled back in concurrence. Serena had meant to stay, to be there with Edward and resist her urge to the other but their mutual insistence left her no argument.

That was how Serena had found herself treading the route to the clearing once more, her body urging her towards the woman and her tired mind unwilling to deny her the comfort she sought. The keeper was there, in the clearing tending to the pheasant broods. She must have heard Serena’s approach as she turned about to meet her, her hands were pushed into her pockets once more but she rocked about on her heels and toes as if the same nervous energy that thrummed through Serena’s veins also agitated at the keeper.

“Lady Campbell. I have heard about Sir Edward’s ill health. It is nothing serious I trust?” There was a hint of a sneer in her question but given the chequered history she shared with Edward it was perhaps unsurprising.

Serena was in no mind to address her husband’s health with the woman. “Major, if it pleases you I would rather not discuss Sir Edward at this time. I think we have other matters to discuss. Might we step inside to speak?” Her hand shifting to indicate the hut to their side as she spoke.

The keeper's head fell and she shuffled her feet beneath her. “Perhaps it might be wiser not to m’Lady. It may be best for you to stay clear of these parts altogether.” Serena’s upset at her words was clear to see. “That is not to say I do not wish to see you here, it is just….” Her words had trailed away and she took a deep breath before continuing. “My reputation is known about these parts. My preferences are tolerated through fear of me more than acceptance. I would not wish your good name to be sullied by malicious comment and accusations.”

“If it is my reputation you wish to protect should it not be my decision? Or do you believe me so weak as to not know my own mind?”

“Madam, an intimacy with a servant would be sufficient scandal to sully your Ladyship’s reputation but with a woman of my kind. I fear it would never recover from such a thing.”

“So I am to be subjected to a life without ever knowing this feeling again to protect my name? A name that is not even my own. The name of a man who has altered beyond all recognition from the one that I married some years past.” Serena paused, her tone deepening as she continued. “Do you not wish of me as I wish of you?”

“Do not ask me such things.” The keeper’s voice was harsh as she turned away and her hands clenched fists at the material of her shirt.

Serena stepped up behind her, her body close but still not touching. Her voice fell to a hush, barely above a whisper, when she spoke again. “Would you have me never know passion, Major? For me to never again feel the damp heat that you alone have stirred within my loins? Is that the existence you will condemn me to?”

The blonde spun back around and met her eye, the conflict evident in her expression but she wrenched her body away once more to leave. Serena reached out and her agitated fingers clawed at the keeper’s arms in a desperate attempt to prevent her flight. The woman looked from the hands that gripped at her to see the fear and need etched on Serena’s face and she could no longer deny the fire that burned in her. She surged forward connecting their bodies and firing hundreds of tiny sparks alight in Serena at every point they touched. The sudden motion propelled Serena back, her feet stumbling underneath her in surprise. Only the woman’s arms encircling her had prevented her falling as her lips crashed against Serena’s; the burning heat and urgency driving Serena almost mad with a desire that transcended anything she had felt before. Serena’s back thumped against the solid wooden door of the cabin before it yielded to their combined pressure hard against the surface.

This was not a soft gentle embrace borne of love and care. There was only urgent passion and fierce desire between them and there was not a hesitation in the keeper’s actions, she was of only one mind and intent as she kissed Serena savagely. Her determined mouth attempting to taste every part of the other, her teeth raking at soft, tender flesh as she tore and tugged at Serena’s lips.

She guided Serena to the same rough blanket she had wrapped her in when they had first kissed, this time there was no tenderness and no delicacy in her midnight black eyes. The keeper pushed Serena back and lay her down upon the makeshift bed made only of a bale of straw covered by that very same blanket. The blonde woman stood for a moment and regarded Serena’s supine form; watched the brunette as breath rasped from her lungs and desire fizzed through her veins. At the sight she beheld her expression changed and a feral hunger akin to a wild beast in sight of its prey transformed her features. Serena could not stop the sharp tug of desire that pulled between her legs at the raw sexual power of the woman in front of her and instinct pulled her shoulders back, arching her chest up in response.

A deep growl was the only sound the keeper made as she stalked forward and laid the length of her body against of Serena’s. Her mouth firmly attached to Serena’s neck, her hand deftly lifting her skirts to reveal her stockinged legs and undergarments. Serena moaned as tight pressure ached at the apex of her thighs, her hips lifted to find the keeper’s hand that had curled around her. Her words of entreaty swallowed in the unrecognisable noises that parted from her lips. Her senses assaulted as the scent of the woman’s skin surrounded her and loose curls that had slipped from their ties cascaded in waves across her face.

Their shared urgency propelled them on as Serena’s undergarments were quickly shed, cool air striking her sex now left entirely open and exposed to the keeper. Serena smelt her desire hanging heady the air and she could scarce believe it was her own such was the strength of it. The keeper’s fingers danced across her centre stroking softly at her curls before pressing her to part and sliding deeper. A guttural groan came from the keeper’s mouth as she slipped her hand through the soft dampness she had found and elicited a sudden cry from Serena as her sharp teeth clamped onto an exposed collarbone and Serena felt long, slender fingers press inside to meet her aching need.

If Serena had expected the same oppressive discomfort that she had experienced in all her previous encounters, she was indeed greatly mistaken for the keeper seemed to just glide within her body almost as if she had been moulded to perfectly fit. In place of the invasiveness of her male lovers, the keeper had lit a fire that burned at her and seemed to spread and grow with her every motion. It was like acid pounding through her veins, burning beautifully at her whole being; blinding her with sparkling lights and deafening her with a thunderous roaring. Having always detested the carnal grunting of prior lovers she had imagined she projected a certain stoic dignity in her silences. Such dignity was not to be hers under the keeper’s hand. The stillness of the air splintered at the unchecked profanities that spilled from her as she fell like glass upon stone and her body shattered into a thousand shards of pleasure.

Serena only regained a semblance of her lucidity as she felt the tug of silk against her dampened thighs. She lifted her leaden head to catch sight of the keeper redressing her undergarments carefully. The woman looked up shyly at Serena as she became aware of her gaze.

“I am sorry my Lady. I must get back to my duties. Breeding season is such a busy time of year and I would dislike anyone to come looking for me in here.” Serena thought she caught a slight smugness in the half smile that curled her lips but would not argue that being discovered in such a dishevelled state would be rather catastrophic.

“Then you must leave, if you might permit me to stay for another moment or two.” Serena’s husky tones barely recognisable to her own ears.

“As you wish Lady Campbell. It is your hut and you are free to come here as you please.”

Serena merely quirked an eyebrow and this time the self satisfaction in her smile was unmistakable. The keeper gave a last nod before pulling the door closed behind her with a thud.

Serena laid back down against the coarse fabric beneath her and allowed the tingling of her skin and the heavy thud of her heart to subside. Her fingers absently traced patterns across her clothed body as she recounted the keeper’s touch in her mind. Knowing as she did that those very caresses had rendered her powerless to prevent her return to this cabin and that self same woman.

Chapter Text

For 26 years Serena Campbell would have sworn an oath to her utter lack of sexual impulse worth any significant note. Under the keeper’s careful hand, like the daffodil bulbs that lie dormant during the winter snows to emerge in a sea of colour with the coming of the spring, so Serena’s desire had awakened from its prolonged frost. Just as the flowers seem to surface from their earthy refuge as one in a synchronised display of brotherly unity so it was with Serena’s sexual need. Every thought, every memory of the keeper brought a tightening to her loins; a springing bud of desire. Having felt naught akin to this for so long her frantic state of longing was now prolonged and constant. Each springing desire that she vanquished back into the recesses of her mind only seemed to burst another to the surface.

Her nights were spent in a perfervid state as memory and dream met in a fierce embrace. Each morning she awoke with the same dull ache burning at her centre, her frenzied fingers brought her fleeting respite but that was a mere shadow of the unparalleled rapture the keeper’s touch had wrought from her.

It was after a particular night which had found Serena’s dreams permeated with memories of those expanses of the keeper’s pale alabaster skin to which she'd borne witness. A night of Serena’s questing fingers desperately chasing an endless stream of droplets of water. A night of pursuing those tiny beads that trailed their inexorable path down silky lengths of taut flesh to a dark thatch of hair. A night where her hand entwined against those very same soft curls. A night where her fingers curled and she had held another’s heat within her palm. It was after this night, where even her fingers most fervent attempts could not provide the release that Serena needed, that she set foot towards the cabin and the inextricable object of her desire.

 

She found the keeper as usual within the clearing tending the pheasant poults which had now all but hatched. Serena watched as they squawked and pecked around their runs, watched as the keeper’s long fingers clasped each in turn and carefully checked for any disease or signs of their squabbling injuries. The woman’s gaze had been drawn at the sound of her footsteps and for the first time of Serena’s note there lacked the conflicted dilemma of past in her countenance. The hitherto seen uncertainty had been replaced by a raw desire. A raw desire that only magnified as Serena declined the banalities of conversation and moved straight into the cabin, the burning heat between her thighs no longer content to be patient.

The keeper was a mere moment behind, her hand closing and bolting the door in a smooth, assured motion. She spoke no words as she strode forward and took Serena into her arms. The wanton desire ignited by their contact caused Serena’s head to slump back and the keeper brought her lips down to brush softly up and down the newly exposed column of muscle and skin. Serena’s blood rushed through her veins and her heart beat urgently as the pulsing moved lower and lower. Her lips parted and her indecorous moans were met with soft affection from the keeper as she stroked and caressed her way across from shoulder to shoulder. Her lips gentle, her tongue warm and smooth as it traced lines and left a path of cooling skin in its wake. Her mouth travelled its way to the neckline of Serena’s gown; her kisses featherlight; her words of endearment unrelenting. The gown, made of a light fabric more suited to the ever warming sun, yielded readily to the will of the keeper as she slowly eased the fabric away and trailed her nails reverently across the line of the delicate lace that framed Serena’s breasts. Fingers brushed against her already hardened nipples through the scant material and Serena bit down against the sharp hiss that escaped her lips. The keeper had tugged the lace clear away with a look of devilment in her eyes and the cold air of the hut caught at Serena’s sensitive flesh mottling its surface.

If Serena imagined that she had discovered the summit of her desire under the keeper’s fingers, she would decry her ignorance now as the woman’s mouth captured her breast. Her tender flesh tingled as her tongue languidly stroked and circled. Her throbbing flesh called out in urgency as she bit and tugged at her protruding nipples.

Only her whimpered pleading halted the woman’s lips from their devout worship of her ever tightening skin and the keeper roused to stand in front of her. Serena clutched the woman tighter to her, her hips pressed forward and back arched connecting their bodies in a maelstrom of jolting sparks of energy.

Despite Serena’s impatient longing, there was no rush of heated desire in this coupling. The keeper laid Serena gently down and trailed her fingers along her still clothed skin. Tracing down from torso to ankle in a tantalisingly slow journey as Serena’s body relished the ecstasy of touch and rebelled against the frustration of her need in equal measure.

No amount of pleading, coercion or entreaty would hasten the keeper’s course. “Patience my lady, patience.” Her half smiling face bent low and placed a soft kiss to her stockinged thigh before her fingers danced up to peel the silken fabric from her leg.

The chill of the air on Serena’s denuded skin sharp contrast to the raging fire that scorched at her core more ferociously than ever. Serena stilled her hips and calmed her thoughts in a fruitless effort to advance the keeper’s touch to meet the pulse that tensed at her centre. She had almost wept in relief as the fine fabric of her knickers was slipped from her person only to be taunted further as the keeper’s palm swept upward again to pass long, steady strokes across the swell of her abdomen.

“Do not tease me any further, I shall go quite mad if you do.” Serena’s voice ragged and broken in her frenzied turmoil.

“Is that an order, my Lady?” Her eyes glinted in wicked glee at the dishevelled state of the other.

“If that is what it takes to make you relieve me of this ache, so be it. I tell you to fuck me, Major. I wish to feel you tight inside me." Her tone sharpened. "Now, madam.”

The keeper lifted herself up and hovered over Serena, a smile of amused satisfaction affixed to her face. She was so close that Serena could take in the treacle dark of her eyes, the curve of her prominent cheek, her long thin nose perhaps more suited to a man but she had not yet met one who wore it so well as this. Their proximity was broken as the keeper reared back onto her haunches and her fingers skimmed down and brushed along the seam of Serena’s sex. A low groan greeted her as she pushed Serena to part and gathered up the pool of her arousal that greeted her touch. The keeper’s fingers fluttered up to graze the apex of her desire, the very point of its focus and her fingers straddled it, squeezing and rubbing closer and closer until it burst out from Serena. Like a sluice gate finally raised against the building tide her body rushed and flowed its torrent forth, the feeling was otherworldly; dazzling in its brilliance and resounding in its intensity.

Even as her heart had settled, the thrum of Serena’s passion still drummed strongly. The keeper’s palm pressed once more to her clit and drew a further jerk and moan from Serena, a tantalizing echo of her afore held bliss. Serena was perplexed as the woman’s fingers curled again teasing at the threshold of her sex. Had her lover missed the peaking culmination of her earlier desire? Her confusion was swiftly dissipated as the keeper’s thrusting fingers brought sharpness back into her ache. The echo became a pulse as the keeper’s ministrations built her back up again. Her brain fogged and her thoughts muddied as she was washed away with the sweeping desire and pleasure, her renewed passion cresting up and crashing down more swiftly than the last.

As the fingers curled and pressed her loins yielded their last ounce of stamina to the woman’s hand and Serena’s final vestige of function within her limbs was taken in a blissful collision of fire and chill. When her mind returned she had found the keeper laid close beside, arm draped about the dip of her waist and the woman’s warmth seeming to imbibe her broken form with life again.

If Serena could have described one moment of purest happiness in her existence thus far it would have been that. The blissful tremors of her body against the comforting solidity of the other’s limbs. When the keeper stirred to move it was this very thought that coiled Serena’s body around her, this that entwined their limbs, clutching fiercely to her like a lifebuoy as she floated adrift. Serena felt the tightening of the woman’s arms about her, the answering of her body's anguished cry for her touch. It both reassured and frightened her that this woman with whom she spent so much time but spoke so few words, knew her mind so keenly. The graze of her fingers across skin pimpled with desire seemed to interpret her innermost needs like a blind man’s touch might read the pockmarked pages of Braille.

The sound of the keeper’s voice broke through her tranquility and recalled her to the present. “I should be returning to my work.” She spoke the words plainly but the tinge of regret contained within conveyed their true nature. “I need to check the boundaries again before nightfall. Deter as many poachers as we can.” The keeper slid her form out from under the close embrace they had laid within, Serena’s skin chilling at the loss of her warmth as she had.

Serena huffed out a sigh as the keeper sat up and straightened her shirt which had wrinkled in their entanglements. “Why do you fear so many poachers suddenly?” Serena idly queried as she raised her skirts and petticoat up to replace her priorly discarded knickers, exposing, as she did, her still swollen centre to the keeper’s gaze. The woman swung her face away, a flush rushing her cheeks.

“Ah.” The keeper stood from beside her and pushed her hands into the pockets of her trousers as was her customary nervous habit. “Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. The mines still needed to run but with men away at war, they found other ways to do more with less. Now those men that can return, have, only to find they are no longer required down the pits. Desperation leads many to poach, to feed their families.” Her words were direct and firm, but her tone not without compassion for the men who had served King and country only to return to find their circumstance altered so cruelly. Her eyes flickered back to the woman before her only to catch Serena still slipping the pale pink silk into place and her gaze slid quickly away once again.

Serena was still, her eyes narrowed and contemplative. Her voice soft when she finally spoke again. “Why do you turn your eyes from me?”

For some minutes the keeper gave no response and Serena was given to wonder if she ever would but she at last broke the still air that seemed to hang between them. “I should not presume to be able to look at you so freely. You are Lady Serena Campbell. I am nobody of note. A broken shell. Officer and soldier no more. A gamekeeper, your gamekeeper. Your servant.”

“Do you believe I think myself better than you? I wish for nothing more than the freedom you have.” Serena paused for such a great length it compelled the keeper to meet her stare once more. Serena spoke again and their eyes interlocked as tight as their earlier limbs had been. “You think you are nothing. I think you are everything I wish I could be. You think of me as Lady Serena Campbell. I am and always have been Serena McKinnie. Serena McKinnie who spent her youth smoking, drinking and cavorting in the cafes of Paris. Serena McKinnie who scoffed at the pomposity of the aristocracy and their preoccupation with status.” Her face grew serious. “If I could I would cast Lady Campbell and all the fine trappings of her existence aside because I care not for the woman. If it were not for Elinor I should have escaped her years ago.”

A melancholy caught at the keeper’s tone. “I wish I could have met Serena McKinnie.”

“Oh you have and you do. It is she that comes to you here, in this place.”

“Then I wish I could have met you before. Met that youthful, free spirited Serena McKinnie. Perhaps life might have taken a differing course.” Her lips pursed in contemplation. “For both of us I believe.” The tenderness of the words led Serena to her side; to clasp against her, their bodies warming one another. The keeper stirred from her thoughts and linked their arms, her hand squeezing Serena’s for a beat as she placed it upon the crook of her elbow. “Come. I shall walk you back to the edge of the woodland.”

The walked in peaceful content together; few words necessary between them as they had journeyed the paths, their bodies as close as decorum would permit. They reached the last yards of copse before Serena broke into their reverie.

“Might I be permitted to come to you again tomorrow?” Her steady voice belying the anxiousness she held for the other’s response.

“Sorry my Lady but I am at Lethbridge tomorrow. I must make statement against some of those who have been caught on Holby land intent on poaching.” Serena’s churning disappointment at her words was fleeting as she spoke again. “I will be back in the clearing the following day however and would be most pleased of your company again.”

“The day after tomorrow it is then.” Serena’s could not and did not wish to withhold the smile that lit her features with the words.

The keeper reflected her smile and nodded. “At the same time? And you will come by this same path?”

“Yes indeed.” Serena slid her hand from the crook of the keeper’s arm, her fingers giving one last caress to the rough fabric of her jacket before she turned away and continued the rest of her journey to the manor house alone.

 

If Serena had found the question of her chosen journey to the cabin unusual she did not call it to mind unduly. Perhaps if she had taken more regard she would not have been so surprised by the arms that reached out to grab her and diverted her off the track at their next appointed meeting. Serena opened her mouth in shock to call out but had found a hand clasped firmly across her lips silencing her cries. But for the unmistakeable scent of the keeper that had enveloped her and the familiar feel of the woman’s breasts pressing through her thin shirt she should have been most alarmed. When she was finally released it had taken some moments to recapture her breath before she could elucidate her thoughts.

“Major, what is the meaning of this?” The question almost barked out in Serena’s shock at the manner of their meeting.

“Apologies my Lady.  I wished to surprise you but if you had screamed it may have drawn undue attention to our presence.” Her face was contrite but there was hint of a smile toying at her lips.

Serena had scowled and pressed her hands to her hips in ire at the frivolity of the other. “Do you find my discomfort amusing?”

The keeper had not replied, choosing instead to press her mouth hard against Serena’s, her tongue driving insistently forward chasing Serena’s own in a duelling battle before she pulled back once more. There had been a slight hesitancy in her manner, barely noticeable Serena had supposed but it was a sign of the edge of disquiet in the keeper’s mind.

“You said the last time we met that you wished you could shed all the trappings of your status and class. Do you still wish it to be so?” The anxiousness of her mannerisms betraying the weight of importance the woman placed in the question.

Serena held her gaze, her absolute steadfastness conveying the sincerity of expression, even as her pulsing desire jumped in her throat. “Unwaveringly so.”

The keeper stepped forward, her body so close that anyone who might have chanced upon them would not construe it as anything other than a romantic tryst. “You wish to feel the freedom of your life before Holby, then that is what I shall give you.” Her eyes raked up and down Serena’s body and a shiver of pure longing thrummed through her as she did. “When you come to me in these woods, when you come to me as my lover then I shall strip you of every last semblance of Edward and his titled existence, Serena.”

It was not the lust evident in her words or the darkness in her eyes that had made Serena’s breath hitch, it was that one final word. Serena. The keeper had never spoken her given name aloud before and the effect it had was enthralling. The woman had almost caressed each syllable around in her mouth like all those noble French gentlemen of her past would roll a fine vintage claret around their palates. The longing in her loins only deepened. Her need to feel the other only intensified.

“Fine words. I thought you were a woman of action, Major?” Serena’s words intended to goad her lover into action had the effect she had sought as lips crashed against hers in a ferocious kiss that stole the very air from her lungs.

The keeper was first to pull away but even as she did her lips hesitated in their retreat and chased back to place a kiss gently to Serena’s own; soft, sweet but over too soon as she reached down for Serena’s hand and tugged her impatiently away from the main pathway. She hastened further and further into the depths of the woods, Serena ragdoll like in her wake, until they at last halted within a close-knit circle of trees.

Serena’s gaze cast round at the tight enclosure, dark within the furthest reaches of the woodland the only light bright beams of sun that sprayed from the breaks in the canopy above their heads. “What are we doing hidden away here, Major?”

“I have something I wish to show you.” Serena heard that same hesitancy, a nervous tightening of her lover's voice.

“Please don’t be afraid, you can show me.” Serena’s reassuring words filled with an affection that she had never fore spoken; an affection borne of desire, yes, but kindled into something more by the soft, timidness of the woman whose hand she still caressed in her own.

The tender compassion in her tone bolstered the keeper as she pushed her long trench coat back and hooked it behind her arms. Her fingers trailed to her buttoned up trousers which she had begun to open. Serena’s curious mind had never conjured up an image close to that of the chestnut brown leather phallus that the keeper had unclothed.

Serena could not have contained the surprised expression even if she had wished it so. Her eyes widened in rapt fascination at such an unimagined object. Her hand reached out to pull it to her only to find it was secured to the keeper’s person.

“I was introduced to one like this when I was in France.” The keeper’s words stuttered slightly. “It was quite intriguing to me at first also but I must confess to having enjoyed it so thoroughly that I had this commissioned upon my return to London. I put a few extra pounds the way of the maker to ensure his utmost discretion.”

“How does it….?”

“It is bound to me and for you it should seem much like a man might. I thought given your previous gentlemen lovers that this would feel more familiar for you. More comfortable.” Serena’s face had clouded at the words, her searching fingers fallen away from their curious exploration.

“I do not know. That is I am unsure if it will work for me.” The tilt of the keeper’s head told of her unspoken question. “I have never experienced the same pleasure with a man that I have with you.”

Serena averted her gaze as the shame of her confession had flushed at her cheeks. The keeper’s hand tenderly cupped her face, her thumb brushing along the heated skin she had found there.

“There is no dishonour in that. If this is not what you wish, we do not have to.” Serena raised her eyes and found only care in the other’s gaze no judgement or censure. The sight gave her strength and comfort and she lifted her frame, determination set once more in her posture.

“No. I want to give myself over to you, for you to have me as you wish.” Her eyes steadfast and sure now. The keeper’s lips dropped to hers. Soft in their caress and tender in touch. The chill of the spring had stung their faces but a warmth infused their lips as their mouths moved slowly against one another. Their embrace lasted for a few moments before the keeper leaned back with a smile curling endearingly at her kiss swollen lips.

“Here. Touch it, feel it. There is nothing to fear. I wish only to please you.” The woman guided Serena’s hand down to the object that still protruded from her hips. A small giggle burst from her as she stroked her palm up and down the leather clad surface.

“I was not expecting it to feel so cool against my hand.” Serena remarked almost absently as her eyes remained watchful of the fingers that touched at the artifice.

“True enough it is different to what you have felt prior but I could warm it for you if you would rather?”

“No. I am here with you. I believe we have just now established that I do not desire what I have had previously.” The keeper nodded her assent and with a soft smile gently guided Serena back to support her against the largest of the trees in their surround. Her hands moved swiftly and surely as she raised Serena’s skirts and in her haste tore the undergarments clean away from Serena’s trembling legs. She paused to caress at the soft skin of Serena’s thigh eliciting a sharp gasp before she gripped at that same leg and lifted it to wrap about her own hips. Serena was open and exposed now, angled such to allow the keeper’s fingers access to the wetness that dripped freely from her.

“You are so soft, so warm. I could die in contentment just to feel you as you are now. You are so utterly enchanting.” The keeper repeating soft affections like a mantra, a mantra that washed over Serena’s cheek as delicate as a fine Spring rain. The woman continued to stroke and caress Serena with both her words and the hand that danced within ever dampening flesh. “I want to look in your eyes as your desire takes you over. I want you to be looking at me as it does.” The softly spoken plea had so enraptured Serena that she barely noticed the removal of the stroking fingers and the gentle press of the leather to her core. It was only as the keeper pulled away and Serena felt its loss within that realisation had sprung into her mind. Any doubt she still possessed was eradicated as the keeper thrust more deeply and Serena gave herself over to the woman’s embrace.

The slight cool of the leather that touched inside her was stark contrast to fiery heat that the keeper had stoked within. With every drive forward and every retreat back, however, the chill was lessened until that left was just a comforting warmth. The supple leather soft to the touch but firm as it drove against her deeper and deeper. The graze of the tree bark at her back provided sharp counterpoint to the softness of the kid soft hide that she gripped fiercely inside her. However, try as she might the stretching throb, while pleasant and stiring, was not the unquenchable fire the keeper had ignited before.

A disappointment had clutched at Serena's heart. She had wished for the keeper to vanquish her frigidity in this as she had before, but seemingly it was not to be so. Truly, in all her earlier defeats, it had been her lacking and not the sudden wilt of flesh from her estwhile lovers which caused her sexual dismay. Her leaden heart had all but given up hope when the keeper shifted. The woman brought herself even closer as if such a thing were possible and suddenly there was spasm from within, a building aching need. A whimper left her lips as the keeper’s full length was pressed into hers, her mouth whispering words of desire into Serena’s ear as she rolled and propelled her hips in an every increasing rhythm. Every squeeze now fired another burst of flame through Serena. A maddening pressure had clutched her mind; her blood turned to molten lava as her frantic heart pounded it wildly through her entire being. Her eyes had fallen shut and her head lolled back as the sensations overwhelmed her. It was only the keeper’s words that pulled her back, their eyes meeting as Serena’s fingers clasped and clawed at her coat. Her nails dug harder into the material and she battled to keep upright as her legs shook and twitched beneath her. The pure fire that burned in the deepest reaches of the keeper’s eyes set her aflame and Serena could contain it no longer. She cried out her release, a song of absolution and joy that echoed back in heavenly chorus from every tree and branch.

The keeper’s arms clasped her, vise like in their intensity, as the woman’s head fell heavily against Serena’s shoulder, her breath rasping against the heartbeat that raced in her own neck. They had remained vertical only by the substance of their bodies against the unwavering trunk, Serena wondered if a lesser tree might have bowed and broken under the furious demands that they would have placed upon it. It was as her senses returned and the numb ache of pleasure faded that she felt the presence of the keeper still stretching inside her. Felt the heavy weight of her body slumped against Serena’s own, pressing down hard inside her walls. The woman’s form twitched and shivered and each movement stirred within Serena’s loins, a physical reminder of the blissful heights which the keeper had unmasked within her.

The woman moved from her, her weight lifting away as she had eased the warm leather out from the grasp of Serena’s walls. An echo of pleasure thrummed through Serena as she had, her body ached in glorious memory and she had immediately missed the intimacy of holding that part of the keeper deep within herself. A cool rush of air had filled the void and chilled her most heated skin and Serena sucked her breath in through her still clenched teeth with a sharp hiss.

“Are you content?” The keeper flushed at the words. “That is to say was that sufficiently pleasurable for you?”

Serena could only smile at the shy uncertainty of the words. “I believe I made the depth of my feelings abundantly clear. Well at least to those within a half mile of this mark I would hazard”

“It is good when it is like that. I mean to say it is best when we come off together.” The keeper drew her long coat around her as she spoke, her hands fumbling to refasten the buttons at her still opened trousers. She glanced around at the shock of pale cream material awkwardly set against the brown earth, the fabric ripped and discarded by her own hand. “I am sorry I think your underwear may be beyond salvage.”

“I would sacrifice a thousand more again for the return of such a thing.” The earnest sentiment clearly written in Serena’s eyes as she straightened her slip and skirts back down. “Perhaps you might take them with you however. I should hate to have someone chance upon them here, scented and torn as they are.”

The keeper laughed her now signature bark of mirth and collected them up, pressing the silken material into her coat pocket. As if gripped by a sudden shock of emotion, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms about Serena, holding her close, her nose brushing against Serena’s ear. “You are so very beautiful.” Her words softly whispered, breath ghosting across Serena’s neck as she did. As quickly as it had gripped her, the emotion faded, and the woman withdrew from Serena’s arms. Face set back to that neutral countenance that was her standard. “I had best let you get back my Lady.” Her titular address a pronouncement of the end of their intimacy, a return to their formal relations of lady and servant once more.

“It was pleasant to see you again, Keeper. I wish you a good day.” The same formality mirrored in Serena’s reply. Only the soft smile they shared as they parted told of the depth of the intimacy they had experienced together only minutes before. A last glance back, a catch of her eye and then she was gone. Serena stiffened her posture, set her face and resumed her turn about the manorlands as Lady Campbell.

 

That same evening as Serena sat ostensibly reading at Edward’s side, her thoughts meandered back to that closed copse, back to the heated breath of the keeper panting against her skin as she too was overcome by their mutual desire. Serena had never considered the fulfilment of the other as part of their illicit liaisons but as it had been with Serena’s own passion before, now that the keeper had shown her the briefest glimpse of her own impulse, Serena craved more.

That night when Serena’s hand slid beneath the hitched hemline of her nightgown, it was the keeper’s damp warmth that she imagined she felt against her fingertips, it was the velvety softness of the other’s skin that she brought to mind and it was her muted cries of pleasure that finally drew her release. When she fell back against her pillows, her skin clammy and warm and her aching at last relieved, she determined to relive her imaginary passion and she determined she would make it real.

Chapter Text

For the next few weeks Serena’s efforts to meet her lover seemed destined to be thwarted at every turn. Whether it be her delicate negotiation skills required to defuse a crisis in the kitchen between cook and Mrs Williams with both fair set to knock seven bells out of each other or Elinor being taken ill with chickenpox, each moment required her resolute attention and she found no moment to return to the keeper or even send word of explanation. Then at last when she had warded off the latest growing discontent, the clouds burst forth such a deluge of rain that it rendered her unable to set foot outside lest people wonder if her strange, melancholic state had returned.

Each evening without fail she would stand at the same window of her rooms that overlooked the estate and gaze towards the woodlands, sending silent message for the moon and stars to whisper back down to her lover’s ear. One night she chanced that she saw her there, when the rain and storm thundered and raged, stood on the roadway that approached the house, hair plastered to her head, fabric sodden and black akin to the night sky itself. With the next flash of lightning her hope was extinguished and realisation returned, for there was no-one in sight, only the same grey tarmac as had always stood, just as empty and dark as before.

It was somewhat ironic that it should be Edward who provided her the chance to see the woman again. As May beckoned in its welcome rays of sunshine, so Edward yearned to be outdoors once more. If Serena had imagined his ailment might make him more amenable to her assistance it was proved not to be the case. If anything his temperament had become more mulish than ever. He loathed every offer of aid and heaven help anyone who might show him even a hint of pity. He had caught a young garden hand passing such a comment, the lad’s words no more than kindly concern but it had unleashed in Edward the most frightful rage and he had dismissed the poor man on the spot. It had required Serena to once again step in and smooth the discontent of the staff and she was forced to muster up every aspect of her charms to secure the man employment elsewhere.

It was this same refusal of help and an almost obsessive need to appear as fit and healthy as ever he had been that had led Edward to procure for himself a motorised chair. The first few days following its arrival were rainy and during those Edward was to be found whirring around every room of the ground floors, a childish glee in his manner as he chivvied the staff on in their daily tasks. It was the fourth day, as the sun beamed in through the windows of the Great Hall that Edward decided to put it through its paces outdoors, insisting as he did that Serena accompany him on his tour of the grounds. As had been evident from his evening time conversation of the last few weeks, Edward had become progressively more fixated with the prevalence of poachers and their forays into his lands. His tone more mutinous each night over the last, his threats of retribution against those caught more outlandish than ever.

As such he was in an impatient frame of mind as Serena emerged to join him for his inspection of the perimeter. She had a light jacket thrown about her shoulders to stave off the chill that still hung in the spring air. Any shivers she experienced were caused more by the combination of excitement and apprehension that swarmed in her stomach at the thought of encountering the keeper than any effect of the air.

“There you are at last.” He called as she hurried after his fast retreating chair. “Come along.” The motor of his chair buzzing in exertion as it propelled him over the uneven ground. The path they took did nothing to quiet the pounding of her heart as they headed directly towards the keeper’s cottage, Edward evidently in search of its resident. Once they arrived, however, they found it was vacant despite the open doorway and upon receiving no reply to Edward’s calls, they proceeded onward towards the further reaches of the estate.

Serena had not until now appreciated how close to the boundary the cottage was. It was nestled into the woodland, tucked away from sight and sound however the perimeter wall was but a few minutes walk from its doors. It was here that they encountered the keeper, trails of barbed wire dangling from the wall as she worked up a sweat affixing them to the stone. Serena felt Edward shudder as he took in the sight but he steeled himself and let out a loud cough to signal his presence.

The cough caused the woman to start but she finished attaching the length she worked on before climbing down to seek out Edward.

“Horrible stuff.” Edward remarked to the keeper inclining his head towards the lengths of wire that now topped the boundary wall.

“Indeed. I too have seen more than enough of it for one lifetime but we need to deter any unwanted visitors and this is the most vulnerable spot and close enough to the main road to be easy to get to.”

“Would you show me more of the estate perimeter, keeper? I wish to ensure we are sufficiently protected and there are no weak spots.”

“Of course, Sir Edward, as you wish.” Her reply was curt, a slight offense in her tone but nonetheless she motioned her hand towards the stony path and fell in step behind the buzz of Edward’s chair. Serena hurried along to follow but the keeper did not look back just kept her eyes trained on Edward’s chair bumping along the path.

It was not much farther before the keeper slowed as the end of the track loomed into view up ahead. Edward’s chair had scarcely managed the terrain thus far, this would be the extent to which it would take him.

The keeper cast barely a glance at Serena as she moved off the main path to lean against a tree from where she smoked and observed Edward wheeling around the wall edge poking a fallen branch at loose stones and boughs that would overhang the boundary. It was clear the woman would make no approach to Serena instead it was Serena who went to stand at her side.

“It is good to see you Major.”

“Is it?” Her tone was cautious and a slight uncertainty glimmered in her eyes.

“For certain. You have no idea how I have longed to be in your presence. How I have wished to feel you touch me again and I to touch you.” Serena’s fingers trailed down the sleeve of her jacket as she spoke the words, a tremor of desire thrummed through her as she had.

“And yet you persisted to stay away?”

“I could not come to you, not without question. Question that I could provide no good answer as to why I needed to come. Well none that I could fathom at least, but that does not mean I did not want it. That I did not fervently desire it.” Her tone lowered, words laced with yearning. “That I did not desire you.”

“I came to the house one night. I feared you unwell again. I saw you stood there in your window healthy as ever you were, and I presumed…” The keeper's words trailed off as her eyes cast down.

“You presumed I had made my use of you?” She offered no confirmation but a flash of guilt passed across her face. “I spent my nights at that window, looking to the skies wondering where you were, wishing I could just speak to you.”

“So you do not wish me gone yet then? You have not tired of me?”

“It is the farthest thing from my mind.” Serena offered a small smile that the keeper returned in kind. She glanced about her shoulder and seemingly satisfied, swung Serena around and pressed her wholly back against the tree on which she had leaned just moments before. A shiver wracked Serena as the woman’s form pressed to her and her lips grazed Serena’s lightly before she trailed a path of featherlight kisses to her neck. Serena glanced over her shoulder but Edward was some way farther down the path and the tree obscured them from his sight.

“Will you come and visit me in the cottage?”

“Tomorrow?” Serena’s reply breathless as her pulse jumped to meet the lips of the keeper that pressed against her neck.

“Tomorrow.” The keeper pulled back and with a last press of her mouth to Serena’s she moved to the side, the low buzz of Edward’s chair getting closer with every passing second.

“Serena?” His call beckoned Serena away from where she still stood with her back to the bark against which the keeper had pressed her fleeting moments before.

“Here Edward. I was just taking a moment to rest and discuss with Major Wolfe about the poachers.” He muttered something unintelligible in reply before starting his chair towards the most direct way back to the house. He had elected to take a route comprised solely of a series of muddy tracks that it would be far too generous to be term a pathway. Serena hesitated and cast a sceptical glance at the track he had decided upon but Edward was adamant in his resolve.

“We need to get back and the keeper needs to get back to work. Come along. This way will be quickest. Come, come.”

Perhaps the keeper had noted her hesitance but it was she that spoke next. “Sir Edward, if I might recommend I assist you back to the house. That route is steep and the earth still wet from the rains, you motor may not be powerful enough to manage that way on its own.”

“Nonsense Wolfe. I paid good money for this chair, I did not buy it so I should continue to be wheeled about like some invalided old man.” Edward urged the chair forward once more, its wheels spinning and the chair lurching forward in a haphazard fashion as he did. The keeper had moved to steady the chair and prevent it toppling over.

“Remove your hands from my chair, Wolfe. I do not need the help of a woman to move me about my own estate. Perhaps if you were more concerned with keeping out poachers rather than my affairs, we would not have the issues we have. Now I suggest you get back to work.” The keeper’s eyes darkened with a flash of anger at his tone, her fists balled at her sides and Serena feared she might strike him where he sat but the moment passed and she stepped away once more, the white of her knuckles and set of her jaw the only outward signs left of her earlier indignation.

“Edward.” Serena’s sharp tone cutting through the air between them. “Apologise to Major Wolfe, immediately. It is us that have delayed her from her duties not to mention that you would almost certainly have fallen just now were it not for her quick action. Lest we forget this is not the first time she has saved you from injury by all accounts.”

“I shall not apologise for telling her to do the job I pay her for, Serena. Now come along.” He irately slammed the lever forwards and the motor sputtered to life, the chair jerking erratically once more before skidding to a halt, wheels turning uselessly against the sodden soil. Edward continued to lurch the controls back and forth urging the chair to move but the wheels merely dug more firmly into the earth. The chair’s stubborn refusal to move standing in direct opposition with Edward’s determination that it must.

Just as with the two stags whose antlers rut in battle for dominance, one would eventually have to yield, so it would be thus. In its final defiant act the expended motor sputtered its last protest before it ceased with a resolute clunk and no amount of Edward fiddling with the levers would bring it to life again. Still his stubborn pride would not permit him to call on the keeper for help. She instead stood back; an amused smile playing at her features as Edward tried in vain to turn the frozen wheels of his chair by hand. After some ten minutes of exertion and with an expression of pure vexation he turned towards Serena and she dutifully stepped forward to push at the heavy chair, her feet slipping and sliding from underneath her as she struggled to gain purchase against the muddy ground. Her efforts yielded scant reward as the chair budged but a few yards. With the next push she all but toppled over, only the keeper’s arms about her prevented her landing onto the sodden earth beneath her feet.

“Come on Serena. We can manage this. Push a little harder and we’ll get her going again.” Edward cajoled as he continued the futile wrenching of the levers in his hand.

“Sir Edward, stop.” The Major moved, her arms falling from about Serena, to stand directly in Edward’s path. “Lady Campbell cannot push you and the weight of this chair back to the house unaided without risking serious injury. No amount of you turning those controls will make it work for that motor has seized. Now, if you do not wish my help, at least allow me to fetch someone from the house to aid you.”

For the first time of their acquaintance, Serena could envisage the keeper marshalling her troops in battle. Her presence was commanding, her voice strong but not overbearingly so, her stance indomitable, hands planted on hips, every inch of her declared that there was no argument to be brokered here. Serena found her legs failing her again though no fault of the wet soil this time and her hands gripped at the chair to keep her upright.

“Very well.” His expression relaxed into a semblance of contrition although his words remained haughty and dismissive. “Major Wolfe, please assist Lady Campbell to push this useless contraption back to the house.”

“As you wish Sir Edward.” The keeper shifted close to Serena, their sides brushed against one another as her fingers wrapped about the handles of the chair next to Serena’s, shoulders bumping as they moved.

The touch of her body was electric. The effect on Serena felt far beyond the small patch of skin where their fingers lightly grazed against one another as they worked in tandem to propel Edward’s stricken chair through the thick mud that seemed determined to labour their journey. Truth be told, neither woman was given to mind their slow progress as their fingers linked together, gazes catching at moments in a heated exchange. Serena felt that familiar persistent ache of passion grow between her thighs with every glance and each step she took only served to provide a tantalizing but unfulfilling friction at her centre.

Serena glanced down at the crown of Edward’s head, the thinning of his hair starting to become more evident and a pang of guilt gripped at her. Her head swam with the weight of her infidelities but as if unconsciously sensing the torment of her lover the keeper gave a gentle squeeze of her fingers. It was nothing more than that, just a simple gesture of support, but it pulled Serena back to her and their eyes met and in that one prolonged glance her guilt and pain was dispelled; blown back from where it had arisen.

They had walked the remainder of their journey back in a quiet contentment, fingers entwined against the handle of the chair, faces upturned to the blessed May sunshine until the house came into view and the path leveled; the smooth, firm surface under foot rendering their combined efforts no longer necessary. The keeper withdrew her fingers from Serena’s grasp and with a final brush of them against the back of Serena’s hand she stepped away.

“I shall leave you here as I really must get back to reinforcing the boundaries. Sir Edward.” The keeper nodded in Edward’s direction. “Lady Serena.” The keeper smiled softly before turning on her heel, her eyes still trained on Serena as she did. Finally she swung her head around and headed off whistling softly to herself.

Serena avoided Edward for the rest of the day, his cantankerous mood of the morning not improving any upon their return. She was not disappointed however as it had permitted her thoughts the time to drift to the keeper, to the touch of their hands, the brush of their shoulders, the bump of their hips as they had moved. Come deluge or disaster she would make her way to the cottage tomorrow regardless, she had been too long away already and her heart would surely break were she kept any longer.

 

As it was she encountered neither, the household ticked along merrily, Edward was fortuitously diverted by his car mechanic who had arrived that morning from London to inspect the chair motor and the sun beamed down steadily as she made her way to the cottage.

As before the house was without occupant but save wait outside to be seen by anyone who might happen by she stepped within and drew back a seat at the small table she found there . It was obvious from the sparse decor that the keeper was the sole inhabitant and seldom received visitors. One chair close beside the hearth was worn and faded from where she would sit; one chair at the table that Serena currently occupied was askew, as if its previous occupant was ill-minded to tuck it under when she left; one cup and one plate sat washed upon the side. Serena was given to wonder if the keeper minded the solitude of her existence here, if she ever craved company as Serena would in the same circumstance. The more it had dwelled in her mind the more she came to suppose that the woman must have elected to live this way of life, that she had chosen this isolation, for what reason it was unclear but this could not have been her only choice. Suddenly the cottage around her felt smothered with the keeper’s person; every object and item seemed to carry the very spirit of the woman and a sense of her own intrusion washed across her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have presumed to enter without bidding, to sit at the woman’s table uninvited and rose to leave but her path was barred. The keeper stood blocking her exit, her form casually leaned against the jamb of the door and an unreadable expression on her face.

A flush crawled up Serena’s cheeks as she spoke. “I’m sorry. I should not have assumed to sit at your table. I just did not think it judicious to linger outside but perhaps it would have been more appropriate.” Serena could hear the untempered outpouring of her words but was powerless to restrain them. The keeper remained unmoved, impassively stood in the doorway still. “Perhaps I should go.”

At her words the keeper moved at last and stepped up to run a reassuring hand down Serena’s arm. “Please do not worry, Serena. I believe it was I who invited you here yesterday. I should have been more aggrieved had you felt unable to sit. I would want you to be welcome here, to be able to come and go as you please. Unless you wish to leave that is, in which case I will not prevent you.” The keeper stepped to the side to permit Serena unimpeded passage out of the cottage. She had done so with every expectation that Serena would remain, she was therefore surprised when woman moved past her towards the door, her relief palpable when Serena shoved the solid oak into the frame to capture them within.

“Now you have me here, Major. What are your intentions?” Serena’s tone was grave but lift of her eyebrows conveyed the meaning in her question.

The keeper’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “Sit down Serena, I’ll make us some tea.”

“Now if I am to feel welcome, perhaps it is I who should make you some tea?” The keeper looked amused as she took her customary seat at the table and gestured Serena towards her modest kitchen where the small stove and kettle stood. “How do you take your tea, Major?”

The keeper had narrowed her eyes at the question and leaned back against the chair, arms folded. “Can you still not bring yourself to call me by my given name?”

“Not at all, I did not want to presume that I may do so. In that case, how do you take your tea, Berenice?”

Serena was startled by the loud bark of laughter that greeted her question. “Bernie. My friends call me Bernie. I am assuming that is what we may be considered? Friends.”

“More than I would hazard.” A smile curled at Serena's lips momentarily and their eyes held for a minute before Serena’s raised brows reminded the keeper she had yet to answer.

“Just milk please. It is in a jug in the pantry just there.”

Serena navigated her way around the small kitchen and the pantry. A surprising joy to be found in being permitted to undertake such menial tasks. Cook wouldn’t even allow her into the kitchen in the manor house, nevermind consent to her making anything. Her fingers, that usually offset their idle life by twirling the necklace of her mother’s that still hung at her neck, now rejoiced at their occupation with something more practical. She had been so consumed in the process she had failed to notice the keeper move unbeknownst behind her until she laid hands softly upon her hips.

Serena had jumped at the sudden contact. “Did your mother not scold you for sneaking up on a woman with a hot kettle in her hands?” Serena cuffed her arm lightly as she poured the water into the teapot she had laid upon the side.

“I shall have to wear louder boots for you in future then madam.” The keeper reached around her and placed the kettle back to the stovetop, her arms encircling Serena as she did.

“I thought you invited me here for tea?” Serena enquired as the keeper’s lips had met the nape of her neck and the same jolt of desire coursed through her veins as she always felt when their skin touched.

“I like my tea strong. It can wait.” The keeper swung Serena around in her arms and kissed her firmly. Her lips dry and coarse against Serena’s soft, smooth mouth, her tongue warm as it had slid against Serena’s own. Serena allowed it for a moment before she pushed her back and guided her down to her chair.

“Strong and hot though surely?” Serena replied. The keeper merely pulled her down to sit on her lap. “Bernie, if you carry on like that it will be steeped and cold.” Serena kissed her softly for a moment before using the keeper’s distraction to escape her arms and collect the rapidly cooling tea to set down on the table. Serena poured them both tea before settling in the chair she had seated herself at upon first arriving. A slight frown had clouded her delicate features as she sipped at her drink.

“Can I ask you something Bernie?” Serena’s fingers tapped restlessly against the rim of the teacup as she spoke. “Did you always know you preferred the company of your own sex?” Bernie, who had observed the changing expressions of her lover, now smiled at the coy demeanour in her enquiry.

“Do you mean to ask was I always a lesbian? I suppose I was always given to admire women but I was not always certain what it meant. It would be true to say that I have never sought out or enjoyed laying down with a man, though many have asked and some even tried without asking. Why the question?”

“I was recalling what Edward’s aunt had said. It was her that made me…..” Serena paused, the words had seemed to dry in her throat before she spoke them. “She made me realise that what I wanted from you was more than just friendship. It had never occurred to me that it was possible to come off with another woman. I had known men in Paris who had intimacies with other men, but they have the necessary parts with which to do so. I hadn’t even thought about two women together, but when I did it wouldn’t leave me. Not for a moment.” Serena hesitated again as her nervous fingers sought the comforting weight of her pendant within, once found she had resumed in earnest, voice filled with steel and certainty. “It made me curious. Curious to find out if I was as dead inside as I felt or whether it was something else. You answered that question for me. You made me feel things I never had before. I will never be accepting of a second-rate lover again thanks to you.”

Serena had lifted her eyes to meet those of her lover only to find her brows pulled down, displeasure evident across her face. She stood abruptly and scooped up the teacups. “I’m glad I have been of service to you.”

Serena rose to her feet and stood to face the keeper’s ramrod straight back as she wiped the cups. “Bernie. Let us not go through this again. I did not mean it to sound as if I had all my future lovers lined up in wait. That is not true. We must be honest about our situation however and it would be naive to believe we could continue on as we are forever.”

The blonde turned, her lips were pressed tight into a pale, thin line. “I know that you are correct in what you say but that does not mean that the thought of you with another lover is something I could listen to with the nonchalant disregard of a casual acquaintance.”

Serena closed the gap that persisted between them and wrapped her arms around the keeper’s waist, their faces mere inches apart as she spoke in a hushed tone. “Presently you are the only person I wish to touch and I wish to touch you so very much. I want to touch you in all the ways that you touch me; touch you everywhere that you touch me.” Serena had felt the breath shuddering out of the keeper’s lungs at her words, the quickening of her pulse. Their lips had met once more in a fearsome kiss that fair tore the air from each other’s lungs and had left them panting and flushed with desire as they pulled apart. The keeper’s hand threaded into Serena’s and motioned to pull her through the passageway towards her room.

Serena had stood her ground, resisting the pull of the other. The confusion that the keeper wore upon her features caused Serena to provide explanation. “It feels different to be here. Here where Edward and I came only yesterday. Walking together as husband and wife.” Her voice had dropped to a soft murmur as she continued. “That does not mean I don’t want to, that I don’t feel a pull in my loins to go with you and all else be damned. I do owe at least owe Edward as much discretion as I can muster.”

The keeper smiled softly and let her tugging fingers fall away. “It’s merely a postponement, Bernie, I promise you that. Tomorrow. After breakfast. At the hut.” Serena held her eyes for a moment more before she turned and stepped to the door, she stopped with her hand on the doorknob and glanced back. “I think it is high time that I be allowed to touch you as you have touched me. I must know how you feel, I think I shall go mad from my dreams if I can’t.” Serena knew her words had their desired effect as the most fearsome blush coloured the keeper’s cheeks. A last smile exchanged, Serena strode out into the May sunshine knowing each would be counting the minutes until they met again.

Chapter Text

Serena had awoken early the following morning, her mind racing with thoughts of what the day may hold for her. She watched as the sun rose veiled by a thin layer of cloud that the bright, persistent rays looked set to burn away. As soon as it may be considered reasonable she ventured down to the kitchen, where the household was busy preparing for breakfast.

Her appearance drawing some raised brows and the odd frown of annoyance as the friendly chatter amongst the staff dwindled to naught. She requested cook to make up a lunch basket as she informed them that she planned to spend the day walking and then luncheon in the woods. Cook agreed readily enough but Serena’s keen ears caught the acerbic retort from the woman as she left. Her heart was too full to mind it much and she merely smiled as she made her way up to Edward’s rooms to greet her husband.

As it was she breakfasted alone. Edward refusing to leave his bed, his complaints of an impending cold made all the less believable by the sickly sweet smell of alcohol that leached out from his pores. Mrs Chilcott confirmed Serena’s fears back, unshed tears glistening in her eyes as the woman begged Serena’s forgiveness. Serena’s ire was directed at Edward and Edward alone. She held no ill will towards Mrs Chilcott and her ineffective attempts to keep her husband free of his poisonous vice. Wrapping her arms around the distraught woman she had reassured her of such and reminded her that if Edward was so minded he would find a way to get alcohol regardless of her efforts.

There had been a fleeting moment when Serena had idled; her mind seeming unsure of whether she ought to remain and deal with her husband’s woes. As it was, and just like the morning sun that had dispersed the early cloud, Serena’s urgent need to feel the warmth of the keeper’s touch had hastened away any lingering guilt or doubt she may have felt.

Her feet had felt surprisingly light as she progressed along the now dry paths that proved so tantalisingly familiar. Despite her efforts at normality anyone who watched surely couldn’t fail to have noticed the levity of mood; the purpose in her step, but she cared not if they saw, her thoughts solely on the woman who awaited her.

The door to the hut was ajar as she approached and despite her joyful disposition, a sudden bout of nerves clutched at her stomach. She had never before touched a woman as she was about to now and fear paralysed her step.

Once more, as if sensing Serena’s predicament, the keeper chose that moment to appear. Leaning against the jamb of the doorway, a gentle smile affixed to her face. It was a smile that was saved just for her, soft and unsure but one that gave courage to Serena’s heart and put paid to her wayward fears.

If asked, Serena would say she had no recall of moving to the keeper, of stepping through the door; of shutting it fast behind them but she would recall the press of their lips, the soft tenderness of their embrace, the hesitance in the keeper’s actions.

It was Serena that took control of their tryst after that. It was Serena who peeled the clothes from her lover’s form, who stilled the keeper’s trembling fingers and she herself who swiftly slid the thick material that encased the keeper’s legs down to pool at her ankles. Serena who cast the unwanted fabric aside, left, forgotten to adorn the floor in a haphazard fashion.

A sigh escaped Serena’s lips as she took in the denuded splendour of the woman before her. She had seen the keeper undressed before, all those months ago but despite how studiously she had observed her then, she had failed to give due credence to the sheer beauty of the woman who shuffled nervously before her now.

The keeper’s breasts were smaller than Serena’s own but they felt so delicate within her hands, so in contrast to the strength and assurity of the army Major she had thus far been privy to know. She dwelled so long in touching and caressing them it had taken a sharp intake of breath from the keeper’s lips to recall her to her task. The dusky pink skin mottled under her fingertips, the bud tight and firm as she rolled her fingers around, her mouth watered at the sight compelling her to capture it between her lips drawing a moan from the other as she did.

The warm, buttery softness of the keeper’s breast was heavenly within her mouth, her tongue eager to push and swipe at the hardened flesh she had encaptured. Each action prompted another moan, another sigh, another gasp that only served to ignite the fire between Serena’s own thighs to burn more fiercely than ever. Despite the aching yearning she felt, her resolve was firm, she longed to feel the scalding heat of her lover more keenly than any desire she maintained.

Serena’s hands had ghosted over the soft, pale flesh of the keeper's naked form but as she had approached her sex she had felt the woman beneath her freeze, her muscles going rigid and tense. Serena raised up and brushed her palm across the blonde keeper's pink tinged cheek.

“Bernie?” The word had sounded strange falling from her tongue, her own insecurities and fears tightening her voice beyond recognition of her ears.

“I…” the keeper stumbled to speak her own words in reply. “I, that is you, don’t have to proceed any further should you not want. This is all unknown to you and I would accept it if you wished to keep it so.” The keeper's eyes were averted. Serena’s fingers grazed down the slightly weather-beaten cheek and brought her face around to meet her gaze.

“This may be unknown to me in action but not in thought. This is what I desire, more than anything. But if it is not what you want or I am not pleasing you then I will stop?”

“No, Serena, no. My concern is merely for you.I would not wish you to think I expect anything from you. I can be content to just please you if you would rather.”

“And if what I fervently desire is to feel you lose yourself to my touch? Would you permit me to?” The keeper, who had been anxiously working her lip between her teeth, released it as a shy smile tugged the corners of her mouth to life.

Serena leaned back and regarded the delicate form beneath her, the points where taut muscles carved sharp lines against the silky softness and down to the dark curls of hair. Those self same dark curls that had stood so markedly against her skin all those months before when the keeper had emerged from beneath the swirling waters and had captured Serena so completely.

A note of worry niggled at Serena again. Her unpracticed hands so eager but unsure as she looked at each spot she wished to touch and explore. “Bernie. When we met in the woods. That is when we….. well you know what we did. We were overcome together. I, well.” Serena’s voice had trailed away a look of confusion adorned the face of the keeper. Perhaps it was the whole ridiculousness of the thing that emboldened her, the farce of her tongue-tied rambling in the face of the keeper splayed out naked before her. “How did it work? For you that is. The appendage. Oh Lord in heaven what do I even call it?” A nervous laugh bubbling up from her chest as she asked.

A light dawned across the keepers face and leaning up upon her elbows she took Serena’s trembling fingers and guided them down to meet the burning heat of her sex. “Here. It rubs against me here when I moved within you.”

The keeper’s voice was strong and clear but her words were not heard. Instead Serena had lost all sense of place the very moment her fingers were pressed to the keeper’s core. The fiery wet heat enrobed her fingertips like the smoothest silk and only this could possess her thoughts. She had expected it to be raw, rough in some way but it was nothing of the sort. Softness, warmth and silken heat was all she encountered and she was enraptured. Her fingers slid and stroked at every delicate fold and inch of heated flesh, her nerves quelled by her now lustful quest. The heat had only seemed to get stronger. The dampness became all encompassing as she trailed fingers through the keeper’s sex, somehow the intimacy of exploring her this way more personal than all the thrusting pleasure they had shared before.

As her fingers found their courage so her eyes and ears trained back upon her lover. The flush of her skin, the merest sigh and gasp providing all the guidance that was required. As she enticed her fingers farther and deeper within she caught the smallest utterance of her name that fell from her lover’s lips. It was like a chorus to her ears; a prayer; an entreaty; but a blessing nonetheless. Her hand quickened and slowed, the whisper becoming a request, a request becoming a plea, a plea she would readily acquiesce to as she brought the keeper to the precipice and caressed her over to the oblivion beyond. Her every sense tuned to capture the sights and sounds and commit them to that part of her memory she saved for her most cherished and private thoughts.

Serena was not conceited enough to believe this was the pinnacle of life’s pleasure for the keeper. This was a woman who had encountered many before and would have been fortunate enough to have had the attentions of vastly more experienced women than Serena in that time. She may not have been the greatest of the keeper’s life but the pooling wetness against her fingers and the prone, motionless, naked form underneath her left her no doubts as to the enjoyment she had wrought from her lover.

As she lay sated and still, Serena had curled against her. The press of the keeper’s warm breast against her cheek, the whump of her heart, the rise and fall of her chest as her breathing steadied all provided Serena a sense of calm. The gripping of the keeper’s arm around her had pulled her closer, tighter than before and Serena felt their bodies mould together. They nestled so perfectly together, their fit so natural it was like a stone that had carved its home in the earth over the years leaving a perfect imprint that only it will ever fill.

As her loins tightened and swelled with unreleased passion, Serena’s mind played back to all the trysts they had shared up until now and as she did a small frown pinched at her features.

“What troubles you Serena? Was that not as you hoped?” The keeper’s hand stroked softly against Serena’s goose pimpled skin as she spoke.

“No. It was. It was so much more than I imagined I would ever be able to feel. It is not that. I was just given to wonder if you found yourself as aroused all those times you brought me pleasure as I now find myself.”

Her response was unflinching and instant. “Every time. It has a most profound effect on me and I cannot imagine a time of when I might be unaffected by touching you and pleasing you.”

“But yet you never asked or even indicated you wanted anything from me.”

“It never felt right to at first and then there was not such opportunities. Do not worry about me so. I am a capable woman well able to meet my own needs when called upon.” Serena’s fingers had fluttered down her skin as the keeper spoke and laid to rest against her sex, holding her with a gentle pressure.

“And how do I compare to your own hand?” As Serena’s fingers curled tightly once more, the keeper’s head slumped back. A soft cry of Serena’s name was all that she was able to manage before her lover resolved to wrest the air from her lungs once again.

 

From that day forward the happenstance of their meeting became more communal, pleasure taken and shared in equal measure. Serena had found herself positively enchanted with the hushed sighs and almost inaudible moans of pleasure that the keeper made when she brought her off. So much so that it was this she dreamed of more frequently now. Although that is not to say that she forewent her own needs. Indeed, the keeper had been able, on more than one occasion, to extricate almost unimaginable pleasure from Serena’s immobile form when she herself swore she would not be able to come again for at least a further week.

One such occasion they had laid together within the seclusion of the hut; their hut as it was thought of now. Their bodies aglow with a fine sheen of sweat; their limbs sagged, weighed down by muscles imprinted with a hundred memories of pleasure.

Lying there in her lover’s embrace it had felt to Serena that the greatest summits of her pleasure had been conquered. Even as such thoughts had ghosted through her mind the keeper sought to wrench another ounce of bliss from her incapacitated body.  Serena should have had warning from the glint of mischief and promise held within her eye as their gazes locked but even when the keeper’s lips captured Serena’s rigid nipple within her mouth it did not surprise her unduly.

The keeper did not still her journey at her breast however and her lips quested further; tongue darting out to taste the salty droplets strewn across Serena’s abdomen. Her lips had felt both soft but firm against the pale, mottled skin they trailed. Each silvery line that Serena so detested was worshipped reverently as lips tenderly brushed against their surface.

And yet her lover did not cease as her mouth moved across the soft swells of flesh to between Serena’s now parted thighs. The shrill squeal of surprise from her lover was still insufficient to deter the keeper as she traced her tongue through heated flesh. Only the reaching up of her hand to grasp at and interlock their fingers gave any mark that she had heard Serena’s exclamation at all.

The keeper’s lips shushed against her and the vibrations had sent electric pulses of desire, need and pleasure coursing through her veins. Serena’s free hand instinctively reached down to grasp handfuls of the keeper’s blonde curls. Her grip fierce and unrelenting as her lover had moved head, mouth and tongue in a fevered dance against her sex. Serena had spent many hours swivelling and turning, stepping and pivoting in perfect time on dancefloors and through gilded ballrooms since first stepping out with Edward. She had thought herself well practised in moving in time to her partner. These skills had deserted her now and she could no longer maintain her rhythm as the crescendo built and broke, her pleasure vociferously acknowledged in loud and uninhibited cries.

Serena’s conscious mind had abandoned her, only to be pulled back to the present by the soft press of the keeper’s mouth to her own. She had felt rather than seen the smile of satisfaction from the keeper, knew that her broken, dishevelled state was the cause of her enjoyment but cared not a jot at that moment in time.

As the keeper’s lips had moved against her own she took in a sharp, soft taste that was different to the keeper’s usual earthy tobacco flavour. Even as her tongue chased the flavour from her lover’s lips she knew it to be her own taste upon the other. It was different to anything she had encountered before but the flavour too quickly faded as their mouths tangled together in an lustful wrestle.

As she pulled away the keeper’s breath had sighed from her lungs, her eyes dark with longing. Serena mused that if the taste of her own pleasure upon the keeper’s lips had sent her mind reeling she could wait no longer to sample the flavour of her lover. As these thoughts filled her mind, she had set her course and she would not be deterred.

She had taken her time to rake her eyes across her lover, still the beauty of the woman before her never failed to astound; each time she felt a sense of awe at the sight, a need to worship the glorious expanses of skin and muscle with her gaze. This instance was no exception. Her intent study seemed to have heightened both her own impatient state and the keeper’s arousal for when she placed her hands upon her lover’s silken thighs and parted them she found her coated and glistening with want.

She had bent down onto her knees and for perhaps the first time taken in the keeper’s sex at such close quarter. The brown curls at the apex speckled with some of a paler blonde which caught the light and almost shimmered; the pale skin opened to yield vivid pink and dusky brown within her lips. The scent that rose and filled her nostrils was like a heavenly aroma that only served to beckon her closer. She had lowered her cheek and laid it atop the keeper’s knee for a moment, her face inclined to ensure an unencumbered view. She leant forward and placed the softest kiss to the skin on the inside of the keeper’s thigh. It had felt so delicate against her mouth as if it had been crafted from a tailor’s finest silk.

Had it not been for the scent that cried out the keeper’s need she may well have just prolonged there and rested her cheek against the tender flesh she had found. As it was she could hold back no longer and she leaned up, her arms rested atop the keepers thighs and began to move her mouth to her sex. The first touch of her lips brought a taste to her that was reminiscent of her own but yet so markedly different. The taste was sweet and almost fruit like; the sweetest orange she had ever savoured and one taste was not enough. As Serena’s mouth moved, caressed and pressed so her lover's lips had parted further and offered up more of her unique nectar for Serena to partake. It was too much temptation to be denied and her tongue darted out to stroke and soothe at the heady, heated flesh she found. Each pass of her tongue had scooped more tantalising flavour into her mouth as she swirled and teased through the folds of her lover.

Her moans of pleasure at the taste and feel of her lover were reciprocated in kind at the effect her endeavours had on the keeper above her. Indeed Serena had been forced to move her arms across her lover’s hips to hold her still as she continued to tease and tempt the woman beneath her. The experience itself had proved to be highly effective in reigniting Serena’s desire to life as her own arousal fell against the wooden slats that she knelt upon. The darkened stain upon the rough grain of wood growing and deepening as she worked her lover into a tumult.

Inexperienced though she was, Serena made amends for her lack of knowledge with passion to learn her lover’s every desire. Her relentless mouth revelled in both teasing and satisfying the woman beneath her and when she all had too swiftly brought the keeper to release, even then she would not rest. In fact she did not still until the keeper had begged, with broken voice, for her to cease the torment of her ruined body.

Serena barely attempted to conceal the swagger in her manner, the self-satisfied smile at the feeble condition she had brought the keeper to. In point of fact the keeper, if she had been given mind to, would have no means to recourse such was the state she had been reduced to. Serena was not permitted to dwell in her self-congratulation too long as the keeper, once revived, had determined to erase the smile from her face in the most pleasurable ways imaginable. Every single creature within hearing of the cabin would have borne witness to the keeper’s undeniable success in that regard.

 

The remaining days of Spring past and Serena met with her lover as frequently as they could manage. On occasion it was a fleeting, frantic release of burning mutual need but more and more often their time together was an escape from the burdens of their separate lives.

For Serena the freedom from the oppressive demands of her husband and the aristocratic title that came with him. In the keeper she had found unexpected gentleness given her gruff, direct manner and a sharp intellect that was refreshing surprise in someone of her own gender.

For Bernie, she had found a woman who challenged her and drew her in in equal measure. Ironically given their markedly different statuses in the societal order, she had found an equal in many senses, someone who could stir in her as easily a fierce debate, a passionate agreement or an unquenchable desire.

The early summer months heralded a spell of warm days and dry lands that allowed them to walk farther together than they had managed afore. There was a meadowland past the farthest reaches of the woodland that was usually filled with deer and game. The prolonged period of warm weather however had driven the animals down to the banks of the stream in search of the cooling waters and the shade to be found there. It was in the quiet, vacant meadow, that Serena and the keeper would oft meet and share luncheon or just lay together on a blanket and bask in the heat of the burning sun.

It had been a particularly hot spell and this day had been no exception. Their favourite spot was to be found someway out into the further reaches of the meadow, surrounded by wildflowers and tall grasses. It was a fair distance for them to walk but here they were entirely hidden from view from all but those who would walk directly up to them. While Serena herself would have elected for a more scenic spot, this one had undoubtedly afforded them the privacy they had craved.

Here laid together on the blanket the keeper had brought, bellies full of the luncheon Serena had the kitchen make up they had laid with their bodies entwined together, locked in their lovers' embrace gazing up into the purest, cornflower blue skies.

For many hours they had talked of everything and yet nothing of note, content to just feel the other there, strengthened by their very presence. Skin pressed to skin, hair brushing at temples, fingers locked snugly against one another. There together, lulled by the soporific heat of the summer, they gently dozed, the hum of the insects in the meadow and the rush of the breeze the only sounds to be heard.

It had been a slight murmur of dream from the keeper that stirred Serena from her docile state and her in moving that awoke the other. The keeper’s eye had cracked open for a moment and she pulled Serena closer, arms tightened about her waist, before she closed her eye tight shut once more. Yet Serena still shifted and stirred within her arms, her mind so obviously consumed with a trouble that it disquieted their happy peaceful state.

Finally she found courage to form the words that gnawed at her mind. “Bernie?” The query was soft but laced with a determination that told of its importance.

The keeper gave a sleepy hum of acknowledgement, her eyes remaining firmly closed but her head had inclined slightly towards her lover.

“Can I ask you, are you content with your situation?”

“Lying in the sun with you in my arms? There are worse places I can think of Serena.”

“Come now, I am being serious. I mean, is this what you want for your life? Do you not have plans for the future? That is to say, if you could live anyhow you pleased, how would it be?” The keeper had opened her eyes, squinting against the bright, intrusive sun and regarded Serena for a moment. The stream of questions had poured forth from her lips like machine-gun fire, seemingly held back for such a time that once freed they were impatient to be heard.

She had paused for a time before giving her reply. "I suppose I want the same as anyone. To live a comfortable, happy existence. I don’t crave wealth or extravagance if that is what you mean, if anything I think I should run from it's confines.” She stopped again for a moment and sucked her lower lip between her teeth, eyebrows knitted in fierce contemplation. “I have often wondered what your life is like when we're apart and although I cannot imagine it I do know that I could not live as you do.”

“Somehow I am unsurprised by that.” An amused smile curling at her lips.

“And what of you? Are you content?” Bernie reflected the self same question back at the woman still curled snugly in her arms.

“Me? Well I suppose you might say I am more content now than I have been for much of my life. I am, on occasion, given to wonder if I would have been more happy if I had never left Paris and stayed in spite of the war. Then I imagine, I should not have Elinor and I could never wish that. Would never wish for a life where she were not with me. In that I am happy and blessed. She is my family." As she talked the keeper had turned once more onto her back, head resting in her linked palms, face upturned to the sky. Perhaps it was this that allowed Serena to enquire further. "And what of you? Did you never want a family?”

The keeper stayed as she had been, her eyes cast to the heavens above as she made her reply. “I never thought I had wanted to live my life shackled to another. I had tried it once and I found the solitude of my own company much more agreeable to my manner.” Her face so averted it did not bear witness to the faltering of Serena’s smile, the slight melancholy in her gaze. The signature bark of laughter from the keeper broke the tension that seemed to hang between them. Her eyes reaching for Serena's once more. “I am not sure that quite answered your question but it is all I can offer I am afraid.”

“And what of companionship? Do you not miss it?” The keeper just shrugged in reply. “It just seems such a lonely life, such a bleak future. To live out the rest of your days alone, to turn your back on a life filled with laughter and love.” Serena halted suddenly. Her mind reeled with the weight of the word. Love. They had never spoken that word aloud between them, never acknowledged its very existence before now.

The keeper seemed unaffected and smiled slightly. “It is what it is. I am what I am I suppose.” She hummed contentedly and curled Serena up into her arms again, the conversation closed as her face upturned once more to the sun that beat a hundred new freckles onto her already generously patterned skin.

As Serena lay in her arms, she was not so unaffected. The word seemed to grow and bloom in her chest. A warmth that had nothing to do with the summer sun spread throughout every limb and as she pressed the skin of her cheek to her lover's chest she felt it pass into her mind. If this was not love whatever would love be. Just as with Elinor, she could imagine no happiness in her life that did not have the keeper in it. Strangely as the idea crystallized in her mind it brought calm to her racing thoughts, almost as if it had always been this way and she had just never noticed it before.

The deep evenness of the keeper’s breathing beside her, the slight twitching of her muscles in dream let her know that she had slipped back into her slumbering state. Serena rolled over and rested on her elbows to watch as her lover’s features relaxed in sleep, her tanned skin softened without the tension she always seemed to hold.

She brushed a wayward strand of hair from the keeper’s forehead before snuggling down next to her again. “I do wonder how many others have loved you. How many have had their hearts broken when they find you to be so unaffected in reply." Her voice fell to no more than a whisper. "Indeed how long it will be before you break my heart too.” With a deep sigh of regret, Serena’s eyes closed against the warm sun. Beside her the anxiety, of which Serena had made note only moments prior, returned to the keeper's features. Her eyes opening to stare at the sky as a new fear marred her brow.

Chapter Text

A few days had passed before Serena had chance to reunite with the keeper once more. They had spoken little on their walk back from the meadow when last they met and had not agreed a next date upon which Serena might return. Truth be told Serena had been almost relieved to have those days free to mull over her growing feelings away from the intensity of the keeper’s presence. The intervening time served, however, only to engrain the feelings deeper into her heart.

To Serena, whomever it had been that said “out of sight meant out of mind” was but a fool. Her consciousness had never been so consumed by another and could scarce imagine a time when the keeper mightn’t be her first waking thought every morn.

It was with a full and happy heart that she took to the woodland paths in search of the object of her desire. While her mind was resolute, her stomach still writhed with uncertainty at the idea of expressing aloud such to the keeper.

As it was, she need not have worried so, for that day there was no sign of the woman. Both the cottage and the hut in the clearing, even their secluded meadow, devoid of her presence. It had not been an entirely wasted effort for the walk in itself had been a pleasant enough. At last the oppressive heat of the summer had been broken by a stiff, cooling breeze that rattled through the trees and blew Serena’s hair in wild abandon as she had strolled across the lands.

Indeed, she looked most windswept as she returned to the house, fortunately it was only Edward and Mrs Chilcott who caught sight of her there. Mrs Chilcott had merely laughed in wonder that she would walk so long in such a fierce wind. Edward had been nonplussed, his eyes glazed and unseeing even as Mrs Chilcott tittered and laughed next to him. Serena cared not for his tedious mood, for her spirits were too high to be dampened by Edward’s ill-temper. He could not taint her joyfulness, not anymore.

 

The following daybreak, however, it became apparent that Edward’s foul disposition of the day prior had indeed only been soothed by his thirst for liquor. Consequently he was to be found in a frightful state, his usual disinterested demeanour had been supplanted with wretched pain. Doctor Michaels had already been called, but in the meantime the house was filled with his howls of agony. As much as Serena yearned for the keeper, she could not depart whilst her husband was so beset.

When Doctor Michaels did arrive his news was of little comfort. Edward, it would seem, was beyond his remedy. If he did not stop drinking he would not live to see another year through. So bad was it, Doctor Michaels feared that should he continue a pace he may not even survive out the month. All the man could suggest was that they seek out a specialist that he knew of in London. The name he offered up was a good one indeed, but one of such repute that it may take many weeks to see him. Edward, it appeared, may not even last long enough to keep such appointment. For now Doctor Michaels could only sedate Edward to keep him calmed. Thus the remainder of Serena’s day had been spent settling her ailed husband and administering his medications.

It had been somewhat of a tonic when the following day Edward had been in a more calm state than that of the day before. He showed no signs of the pain of yesterday but his waxen, jaundiced skin provided stark reminder how advanced his illness had become. She could not be long away from the house but time enough, she had hoped, to see the keeper. The least she owed her was explanation of her absence. Memories of the last interval between their meetings and the keeper’s displeasure at the length of their spell apart swarmed in front of her eyes. It was therefore rather essential that she avoid a recurrence, even if her brief detour to the woodland at this juncture might raise an eyebrow or two.

The great lawns that wrapped their pale, green arms around the house sprawled out before her and she crossed them at an even and steady pace, seemingly just catching a breath of fresh air to anyone that might be watching from out of darkened windows. It was only once clear of gaze of the house that she did hitch up her skirts and hasten towards the clearing. Despite her efforts, it was disappointment that swelled up again in her breast when she had found the keeper absent once more. Determinedly she redirected her step from the clearing onto the path leading to the cottage but her disappointment turned to dismay when she discovered the cottage was also just as vacant as before.

She had tried to allay her own concerns but as she headed despondently back to the house something troubled her. Never afore had it concerned her when she found the keeper’s cottage or the hut empty, but this instance was unlike those others. All those times prior she had observed signs of the keeper there, small details that spoke of her presence. It was this, or rather the absence of this, that now marred her brow.

As she cast her mind back to their last assignation she dearly hoped that she had not inadvertently slighted the keeper with her unfettered thoughts. Might she have delved too deeply? The more she recalled it to mind, she imagined the keeper was even more taciturn than usual on their walk back from the meadow. At the time Serena had supposed it just the heat that had made her so. Now the cause was not so certain.

It was with a head riddled with questions and doubts that Serena returned to the house. It was how she had spent the rest of the day, ostensibly the dutiful wife, sat beside her ailing husband, all the while her thoughts circled back over and over again. A futile exercise that would only serve to drive her to madness if she permitted it.

 

The very next day she did not even wait to see Edward, nor was she interested in partaking of her breakfast. As soon as the household began to stir she had hurried off directly towards the cottage. Her heart had nearly beat out of her chest, her desire to depart from the house so ill-concealed in her haste. The relief upon seeing the open door had been palpable and she had promptly released the breath she had unknowingly been holding in.

Her ease had been short lived though, for out of the cottage had stepped not the keeper but Mr Barnes, Edward’s estates manager. He rarely visited Holby Manor as Edward was always close at hand to take care of matters that arose. Therefore his presence here now had tightened Serena’s brow into an anxious frown.

“Lady Serena.” The man had removed his cap upon his greeting and given her a small bow. His surprise at her sudden appearance making his greeting brusque and his expression unwelcoming.  “What are you doing out in the woodlands so early? It is not safe to be wandering alone at this hour.”

“I was merely getting some air before breakfast and I noticed the gamekeeper’s door was ajar. I had some business to speak with her about. Would she be in?”

“If you mean Wolfe, she has taken herself off to London. Some family emergency supposedly. Left us high and dry I can tell you.” His tone was gruff and irritable.

If Serena had been displeased to see him before, the news he imparted had left her even more aggrieved by his presence. “Do you mean she has left for good?” Her sharp tone conveyed a slight note of desperation even to her ears.

His snort of derision spoke volumes about his feelings for the keeper. She was to all intents and purposes under his employ but clearly not so by his choice. “If I had my way that is exactly what would happen, but no. I believe she agreed with Sir Edward that she would take some weeks off to attend to her personal business.” With Serena’s intake of breath, he anticipated her next remark. “How many weeks I do not know, so I save you the trouble to ask. Now as you can observe I have her work to do as well.” He paused and his eyes narrowed as he regarded Serena. ”You seem to have a peculiarly keen interest in her.” The man had shrewd, beady little eyes and Serena had no mind to provide fuel to his obvious dislike of the keeper.

“It is no urgent matter. A few weeks back I had been out walking nearby these parts, when I tripped and landed on a patch of damp soil. It was soft enough to save a bruised head, but not my pride. Wolfe had happened past and had lent me her handkerchief to wipe at my soiled face and hands. I had it laundered for her and as I was happening nearby this morning I wondered if she would like it returned.” The banality of the story she had spun was clearly sufficient to disinterest the man. He had no desire to understand anything of ladies muddied skirts and dirty kerchiefs.

“Well I cannot help you with that I am afraid y’ladyship.”

“Not to worry. I shall leave a note for her when I next happen past. Good day Barnes.” He had nodded swiftly and replaced the scrunched cap upon his head before turning back into the cottage once more.

The walk back to the Manor must have been laboured but Serena could not recall a single step she took. Her mind had reeled with the news that the keeper was gone. She had left without a single word. No note. Nothing. What could have been so urgent as to call her away without hesitation? Such thoughts plagued her fevered mind, tormenting her with their questions and seemingly without answer to provide.

Immediately upon her return to the house Mrs Chilcott had accosted her, for Edward it would seem was in pain once more but Serena could not bring herself to care today. She had soothed Mrs Chilcott with her assurances that she would ring for the specialist in the morning but, for tonight at least, she had no space for Edward within her thoughts. Her heart hardened to the man she had once so loved. Edward undoubtedly had brought his pain upon himself, Serena could only wish to have such control over the source of her anguish.

 

As Doctor Michaels had predicted it was an interminably long time before Edward could see Mr. Goldman, the specialist in London. Serena had pleaded with him to prioritise Edward’s case above his others. Perhaps it was her persistence or maybe due to the severity of Edward’s condition, most likely though the vast sums that Edward had offered his way, but their efforts were rewarded. Mr. Goldman had finally relented to make review of his appointment book and attempt to find an opening for Edward sooner than would have otherwise seemed possible. Serena’s first thought had been whether such appointment would arrive before the keeper had returned or perchance by a cruel twist fortune they would be in the same locale once again, but unbeknownst of the other’s whereabouts.

As it was, word of the keeper came before news of an opening in Mr. Goldman’s diary. It was from the rather loathsome Barnes, of all people, that she first heard of the keeper's return to Holby. He had come to the house to speak with Edward about the very matter, though upon finding him so full of morphiate that he was no use to man nor beast, he had sought out Serena in his stead.

It was here that he informed her of his intention to depart from Holby the following morning. That with the return of the gamekeeper he was no longer required to remain. In all honesty Serena was happy to see him go, not least because it meant the keeper, her beloved keeper, had come back.

Her heart urged her to rush directly to her lover but her tormented mind stilled her feet. She had spent days, weeks even, trying to fathom what greeting she might receive from the keeper when they next might meet. Now the moment had at last arrived she was even more betwixt than ever.

She had fretted upon this dilemma for the remainder of the morning and she barely ate a mouthful of her lunch. Eventually she knew that regardless the outcome she must have the answers that her own frenzied thoughts alone could not summon.

Serena had taken her leave of the house as soon as luncheon had been cleared. Her desperate need for answers was to be thwarted again when she came again upon the cottage. Her heart sprung up a flare of hope though, because whilst the cottage was just as vacant as before, it was changed somehow, almost as if she could feel the keeper’s imprint upon the dwelling once again. It was therefore with a mixture of relief and anxiety that she had doubled back towards the clearing.

It had not taken long to reach her intended destination and from some steps away she could hear the woman she sought as a curse shattered the air. She could still make out her muttered profanities as she drew closer. Then there she was, tall and slender as ever but she looked pale and wan under her now fading tan. The woman’s attention held fast to a finger that she gnawed at between her teeth before irritably drawing it away with a curse and a growl.

Serena had moved forward then, drawn nearer by the woman so tantalisingly close, her hesitant steps snapping a twig underfoot. The keeper’s head had whirled round, an unguarded look of most profound relief passing across her pallid face, before she had turned away to resume her task clearing the poult cages that she tended.

“Bernie.” Serena’s voice husky and broken with the flood of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. “I had heard you returned to us.” She composed her words and her voice tempered with caution once more.

“Indeed you can see it is true.” The keeper straightened once more and rubbed at that same finger she had chewed at earlier, wincing in obvious discomfort.

“Are you hurt? What have you done?” Serena’s uncertainty at the welcome she might have received dropped away with her concern for her erstwhile lover.

“It is nothing.” The sharpness of her words stark and sudden, a pang of hurt springing to Serena’s brow with them. The keeper must have heard the barb in her tone, must have known it unwarranted, for she softened her voice to continue. “To be certain, it is barely worthy of note, Serena.” The informality of the address, an unchecked slip in her cool demeanour, only furrowed Serena’s brow further. “It is but a small splinter of wood from the cages. It’ll right itself soon enough.”

Serena, despite the chill of greeting from the keeper, would not take her word for it. Choosing instead to step forward and grasp the other’s hand to peer closely at the site. “Hmm it looks deep. You skin is starting to swell already. We had best remove it and get it cleaned.”

Serena had tried to grasp the tiny sliver that protruded above the layers of skin with her nails but she had, of late, bitten them to the quick and her blunted fingers could gain no purchase. It had been instinct really, nothing more, but she had bent her head and grasped at the tiny shard with her teeth, lips encapsulating the finger she still held. She wrestled to free it twisting her head, moving her soft lips to suck and draw at the flesh she held captive.

Finally it was with a triumphant “Ah-ha” that she had pulled her head back, splinter clasped between her teeth still. Her eyes had met the keeper’s gaze just in time to see the dark fire that pooled within them before the woman averted her eyes and turned her back.

“Bernie? Please tell me what troubles you? Are you not pleased to have returned?”

She had swivelled back around. Her eyes a storm of emotions of which Serena could read so very few. “No Serena. I am happy to be back. Happy to see you once again. I just…..” Serena had quirked her head, half question, half in challenge. The keeper had wilted under such demands. Her head had fallen away and she shuffled her feet against the leafy canvas beneath them. “I just have a great deal of work to do. I have been away for some length and it has much been neglected in my absence.” The keeper’s mask of caution and indifference clearly visible on her face once more.

It had felt as a dismissal might and Serena took it as such. “I had best leave you then. Afford you the time to remedy that neglect then.” The keeper looked as if she wanted to speak further. Her eyes seem to draw Serena towards her, all the while her firm stance screamed out to stay back. She must have resolved on the latter for her curt nod of assent was sufficient to send Serena away.

Every step that furthered her from the keeper only served to intensify the tugging at Serena’s heart. It was as if pure longing pulled at her, trying to draw her back; an invisible twine that squeezed at her very core. She had for much time felt that self same longing was their mutual desire, but maybe it was just the fierceness of her own passion that choked the very breath from her lungs. As doubt gnawed in her guts and bedevilled her mind, it was clear that something between them had shifted and she could no longer say for sure that the keeper felt anything more for her than a vague indifference.

It was ironic that the very day the keeper returned should be the same day that they had word from Mr Goldman. She had barely set foot back into the house when news came to her ear on the subject. An appointment had become available, but it necessitated them to travel the very next day. They would stay at their house in Kensington the following night and then visit with Mr Goldman at his practice on Harley Street early the next morning.

While this was the opportunity they had craved to get Edward the very best care they could, Serena was conflicted. Uncertainty loomed in her mind. She was loathe to leave with circumstances so unresolved between the keeper and herself such as they were.

That night sleep eluded her, the pallor and strain etched into the keeper’s features haunted her each time she closed her eyes. A thousand causes plagued her consciousness, each more troublesome than the last and would not be stilled. Finally she had ceased her futile attempts to settle and rose, redressing quickly and started from her rooms. As careful as she was, each floorboard that groaned and creaked drove fear into her heart that she might be discovered furtively sneaking around the house dressed for her midnight assignation.

To her relief, her soft footsteps were the sole sound that stirred in the vast emptiness of the house. It was without sight of another that she slipped into the Great Hall and squeezed the door closed behind her. The large glass windows that looked outwards onto the impressive lawns gave a high pitched squeal when she pushed them open and slid free of their confines. Indeed the sound gave Serena cause to wonder if the very fabric of this hideous building was trying to yell out in protest at her immoral behaviour. Thankfully, such was the distance to any of the other bedrooms, save her own above her head, that even the most resounding noise should not disturb those that slumbered within Holby’s walls. With a final glance behind she stole away across the lawns which, lit only by the scattered stars that shone above in the clear night sky, looked blackened and foreboding. Even their darkened canvas could not forestall her as she hastened to seek out the keeper and quell her troubled mind.

It seemed only moments later that she stood outside the door of the cottage. Her hand shook wildly as she raised it to knock upon the dark stained oak. She might have expected some delay before the keeper responded given the hour and that most sensible persons had been long asleep. It was the soft glow of lamplight that still burned in the upper window which told tale of the keeper’s wakened state. She too it would seem was too troubled to rest.

When the keeper shortly thereafter swung the door open, she appeared both dishevelled and swollen of eye, but did not possess however the bleary, disorientation of one who had slept. Indeed the puffiness about her eyes looked more akin to the raw, raspiness that salty tears might render. She did not disguise her look of surprise to find Serena at her door, but made no remark upon it as she moved aside to permit her passage.

Serena stepped inside hesitantly and when the keeper moved to push the door closed behind her once more, they had found themselves barely a hair’s breadth apart. Both shifted from foot to foot awkwardly at being found in such close company with one another but neither moved to build space between them. Their lips moved in tandem as they went to speak, then each halting as they heard the other. Gone was their easy conversation but when their eyes had reached out at last to meet they found they needed no words. A force beyond reason compelled them to move closing the narrow distance until not even a slip of finest silk could have been slid between their bodies, clasped as they were in a tight embrace.

The keeper’s head had fallen heavy against Serena’s shoulder, her face buried snug against her neck, warm breath tickling at her pulse. The keeper had clung to her, tighter than ever before, driving the very air from Serena’s lungs until her fierce strength failed her and she yielded to Serena’s soft arms. Serena would swear oath she had felt warm tears touch against her neck but when they had finally disentangled themselves to part, Serena turned away, ostensibly to straighten her rucked dress. In truth she had felt the keeper’s pride would not appreciate Serena’s eyes to bear witness to her vulnerability and her last wish would be to further inflame the woman’s turmoil.

The keeper had cleared her throat before she spoke and the last vestiges of tears were dispersed with it. “May I offer you a drink, Serena? I am afraid that I have little to choose from and certainly nothing to compare to the cellar at the Manor. I can lay hands on a palatable whisky if you would care for that?”

“I am not here for liquor Bernie.”

“Then why did you come?”

Serena had expected such a question in response but even so she had been given to pause before her reply. “I suppose that I came for answers, but now I am here I have found that is not why I stay.” Her next words filled with the weight of implication which they carried. “I stay for you, if you wish me here that is.” The keeper’s eyes had snapped upwards, a perplexed expression crossing her face. A combination of fear and longing etched there seemingly fighting a private war against each other.

“I do not know what troubles you, Bernie, I find that I do not need to know. Through the course of our acquaintance you have gifted so much to me and, I fear, I have given so little in return. Here and now I can give you this. Tonight I can be, no, I want to be whatever you need of me.” The confusion cleared from the keeper’s face and she nodded almost imperceptibly, taking Serena by the hand and leading her unchallenged this time to her room tucked away to the rear of the cottage.

The room itself was small with sparse furniture within; just the barest of essentials and really rather in keeping with the inhabitant herself. Thin covers lay strewn messily across the bed, whether from her attempts to sleep this evening or just unmade from before it was unclear.

“I am sorry. This cannot be what you are accustomed to.” The keeper had waved her arms vaguely to indicate the tousled bedding and humble decor.

“It is of no concern to me. I find with you I am just as happy with the roughness of tree bark pressed to my back as I am with finest cotton sheets.” Serena quirked a smile filled with their shared memories and the keeper returned in kind. Serena was still smiling as she watched her lover walk across the room and rummage through a shabby dresser sat tucked away in the corner. Withdrawing a clean nightgown she offered it forth, but Serena was in no mood to be coy and a tiny shake of her head drew only a slight smirk in reply before the keeper departed from the room. Serena could only presume she had left to attend the bathroom for she returned with peppermint on her breath and the familiar smell of her soap about her skin.

In the keeper’s absence Serena had taken the chance to disrobe and slip underneath the flimsy cover that had lain so haphazardly upon the bed. It had been no small feat to determine which side of the bed the keeper might frequent as its entirety had been somewhat jumbled. Indeed only the small pair of reading glasses on the other side from that upon which she elected, gave her any idea where to choose.

A nod of approval upon the keeper’s return had confirmed the wisdom of her choice. The keeper undressed swiftly, a messy pile of clothes, appearing suddenly where she had once stood fully clothed. Serena, under most circumstances, would have relished the chance to watch the spectacle but her sleepless night had a last caught up and her weary eyes would scarce focus on the woman who had slid into the bed beside her. The keeper had maintained a respectful distance between them, although how she had managed such a task in the confines of the small bed they shared was unfathomable. It was only when Serena unfurled her arm to invite the keeper closer that she finally succumbed to Serena’s embrace.

The keeper started to speak but Serena hushed her. “Not tonight Bernie. Let us not spoil this time with words we are both too tired to form coherently. Let us have this. Tomorrow we will speak more, as we must, but for now you have me and I you. Tonight that is enough.” The keeper had settled at her words, head leant against her arm, face turned to study the other beside her. She had leant in and pressed a hesitant kiss to her lips. It was a chaste goodnight and so markedly different to the kisses they had shared before, the kisses that had filled Serena’s very soul with fire. This was a kiss of thanks, a kiss of comfort. The warmth and care of it only propelled Serena further down her descent into sleep, as exhaustion dragged at the edges of her vision she saw the keeper’s lips move, felt her warm breath stir her hair but weariness had muted her ears and whatever words had been spoken fell silently upon Serena’s unconscious form.

 

It was a burning light that had stirred Serena from the depths of that sleep, a threadbare patch of the curtains casting a beam of the bright sun directly at her eyes. She had squinted and attempted to move but a weight bore her immobile. An arm snaked about her waist, a hand curled against her soft flesh clasping her firmly but gently, warm breath tickling at the fine hairs at the nape of her neck. If Serena were to awaken at such unholy hours as these, this was perhaps the only thing that might make it tolerable. The temptation to turn, to cast eyes upon the sleeping keeper whose arm held her so close, was too great for even a woman as determined as Serena to resist. And the sight she caught was one she would never hope to forget. It was not a sight of poetic beauty, although to Serena’s mind the keeper was the most remarkable woman she had ever laid eyes on, but it was not her beauty that made it so memorable, it was the sense of calm. Serena had never seen her so at peace, so free from the shackles of her conscious worries and it was breathtaking. She was bewitched by the sight, her lips compelled to press to the others, mouth desperate to taste. Even the sharp, sourness of sleep that greeted her tongue would not deter her drawing deeply from the keeper’s lips.

The keeper had stirred at her kiss, her arms stretched up high above her, muscles taut and sharp. Her movement had lifted her breasts free of the thin sheet, Serena’s gaze drawn to rest upon them as she had been all those months before. The strength of desire that had coursed through her veins at the sight still surprised her but before her mouth could move to capture the delicate flesh, the keeper had bolted from the bed.

Before Serena had even been able to speak the keeper was rushing about her, collecting her clothes and pulling them on. She slowed only upon sight of the hurt and confusion on Serena’s face. She strode across, even while she pulled a clean shirt over her head, and pressed her mouth to Serena’s.

“Sorry Serena, I have slept far beyond the time I should have been at work. I must hurry or someone will come looking and I should hope they not discover us here, like this.” She turned to go before shifting back and bent once more, pressing their mouths together. “Thank you, for last night. I…” Serena’s fingers reached up to knot in her mussed curls, tangling to pull her back into another kiss. None of the chaste kisses of comfort from the night prior, this was a kiss that stoked fire and tightened their loins with need. When they parted, breath wrenched from their lungs, the keeper stood dazed for the briefest moment before a sudden look of sadness flitted across her face. “I must go now, Serena. I am sorry, truly.” Serena barely had time to say a word in reply before the soft thump of door to the cottage heralded the keeper’s departure.

Serena had been pleasantly surprised to find the keeper owned a hairbrush amongst her minimal possessions. So it was with some semblance of respectability that she was able to walk back to the house. To her eternal relief even the wretched window to the Great Hall stayed silent as she slipped unnoticed back into the house.

It was perhaps in her haste to freshen up, to change her clothes in effort to disguise her night-time adventures that it slipped her mind. Indeed it was not until Edward’s car had already spirited her halfway to London that she remembered; she remembered she had left no word of her absence for the keeper. There had been no good time to speak of it. It had seemed so irrelevant in the face of the keeper’s turmoil the night prior and the keeper had left so hurriedly in the morning they had scarce spoken two words.

Now it was too late. Serena was gone and just as she herself had been for the weeks before, the keeper was left with nothing but uncertainty and the anguish of doubt.

Chapter Text

The journey to London was largely unremarkable, save for Serena’s stomach which churned not so much by the malaise of the traveller as the ache of worry that gnawed at her insides. She might have told herself that some of her fear was born from concern for her ailing spouse but it was only thoughts of the keeper that filled her mind. Edward had no space in her heart and no place in her daydreams. The man was a vague shadow of the one she married; a blighted spirit possessed his soul, only his was no ghoulish spectre, his possessing spirit was liquor.

He, perhaps, had always been a weak man. He dutifully followed the demands of his father and proposed to Serena. He shunned his youthful pursuits of equality, his desire to change the lives of those born into poverty had been so swiftly abandoned as to make believe it had never been real. He chose instead to embrace the pompous rituals of his aristocratic bloodline as was expected of him. This should have bade her warning about his weakness of character but if it did, she chose to ignore and elected still to marry the man.

She chanced a glance over to him. Pale and wan. Thin around the face. His clothing loose about his person, ill-fitting; the tailored suit of a man hung upon a child. His hollow eyes did not think of her; had not thought of her for many a year even. The self same eyes that used to glitter with life and vitality were dull and glassy. A shudder crawled across her skin. Their life doomed to this by his weakness. Now, after all was said and done, all his noble bloodline and his money could bring them was time. How much time is what they hoped their journey would find.

Serena averted her eyes, she could no longer bear to look at him. Instead, she turned to the window and watched with a sinking heart as the autumnal rain spattered against the pane. The green fields had long ago turned into the great brick constructs that now surrounded them, each marred and blackened with the years of life amongst the smoking chimneys that belched out their polluted breath. Dark clouds swirled above their heads, the sun lost behind a mixture of storm and smog. London. For so long she yearned to return. To leave Holby. Now her wish was granted all she could think of was how much she desired to be back. To be in Holby. To be back amongst the lush green fields, the trees mottled with orange and browns. To be back there with the keeper; with her lover.

With every effort that she made to push the woman from her thoughts, she would flood back in. Like the soot that coated every surface they passed, so the keeper coloured every part of Serena’s life. There was no thought, no memory that she did not touch.

Such a thing should have been alarming to the fiercely independent Serena, but instead she was soothed; a warmth blossoming through her veins, expelling the damp, autumnal gloom that chilled her bones. Memories of the warmth of the keeper's arms about her, soft skin pressed to soft skin in a lover's embrace flooded her with heat; a heat which sustained her for the rest of their journey to their London home.

As she stared up at the clean white pillars of their London abode it struck her again just how much had changed since she last stayed here. Serena was changed; seemingly a change, that even should she wish it, could never be undone. As it was she found no desire to alter it. She was at last fulfilled in a way no man ever had and she doubted ever could. She was as certain of it as she ever was of any matter. All that troubled her mind now was how that future would play out. How it would play out for her, for Edward, for Elinor, for the keeper, for them all.

 

Mr Goldman, as it turned out, was exactly as Serena might have expected. Every part was the immaculate professional, from his elegantly fashioned offices to his manicured fingers that slipped into hers when they shook hands; from his expensive cologne to his Saville Row suit. He was the embodiment of wealth and privilege but for all his obvious success in his chosen field, his diagnosis brought only crushing disappointment. He could do no more for Edward than that which had already been done. Even were he to cease his drinking entirely, the damage had long since been done. It was irreversible.

“In most cases of this kind, I am afraid to say, that when unmanaged death will be painful and unpleasant. I strongly recommend that you be admitted to a hospice where morphia can be administered to ease you.”

“No.” Edward’s reply muleish. His jaw set firm.

“Edward, please see reason. Mr Goldman has seen this before, if he recommends you stay and see out your remaining days in comfort, listen to him I implore you.” Serena’s exasperation biting through her words.

Edward wheeled round to face his wife. “Serena, please. I am begging of you. I know the kind of husband, the kind of man I have been to you, but I do not wish to spend my last days shut away. I need to see Elinor. I have done so many things wrong in my life, but marrying you, having Elinor are not things I could ever regret. Even if you might.”

“Edward, I can send word for Elinor. She can come to London and visit you in the hospice.”

“Is that the last memory you want her to have of her father? Shut in some soulless place?”

Serena was forced to concede his point. Edward was already a faded soul, he was only likely to worsen over the time he had remaining. If Elinor were to see him in this condition it would be best that she be at home, somewhere familiar and comfortable surrounded by the people who knew her and loved her. “Very well, Edward.” She nodded sharply once, reverting her gaze to the consultant who observed their exchange with a well practised, neutral expression. “Mr Goldman, we will require appropriate medication and nursing care to be arranged at Holby. Naturally, money is no object. We have a very able carer already who can assist anyone you may send.”

The consultant leaned back in his chair, the expensive leather creaking underneath him as he did. His brow furrowed in concentration. “I can make no guarantees you understand, but I will try to fulfil your request. It may take several days to arrange. I would still recommend Sir Edward be admitted to the hospice in the interim.” Edward nodded his assent. “I will start making arrangements then.”

Edward and Serena rose to leave but Mr Goldman drew Serena to one side. “Lady Serena, I do think that you should reconsider this path. The end stages of this illness will be most unpleasant to witness first hand. It is no sight for a lady of your position to endure.”

“It is not what I would wish Mr Goldman but I do owe Elinor and Edward the chance to see each other again. If this is what is required then so be it.” Serena extended her hand. “Thank you, Mr Goldman. We shall ensure you properly compensated for your additional efforts to acquiesce to Edward’s wishes.”

 

Mr Goldman, despite his well-meaning objections, was true to his word. It had only been three further days, no more, before they were journeying back to Holby. A cache of pain medication transported to Holby, Doctor Michaels already there training Mrs Chilcott and Edward's new nurse to administer it. Those three days alone had seen a sharp fall in Edward’s health. His skin a waxen yellow, his eyes bearing the same jaundiced hue, his lower limbs swollen and bruised. Serena could only hope he would be sufficiently well to see Elinor when they, at last, did arrive.

September had finally given way to October and with it, the last vestiges of warmth had passed. Indeed the arrival of October had made the return journey from London back to Holby most eventful. A quite frightful storm had erupted from the heavens and it necessitated them to stop for a while at a roadside inn and wait for the worst to pass.

It took so long to travel back that the night was swiftly gathering when they arrived. Though brownish grey storm clouds were still evident in the dark, their ominous presence looming over the great house as they approached. The air hung heavy with that one particular smell that only a thunderstorm can evoke. A shiver ran through Serena as she stepped from the car, she had yet to shake the feeling those sinister skies portended troubled times ahead.

Edward, as always, was unaffected by it all, his health so far gone that he had nothing more than a blankness of gaze about him. Mrs Chilcott still fussed as ever she did and chided him like a child but Serena could see the sadness and despair that drove it now. She wondered if her Mr Chilcott himself suffered the same smothering treatment in his last ailed days.

 

As keenly as her heart called her to the keeper, Serena's duties necessitated her to remain at the house. Much work needed to be done getting their nurse trained in the household routines and whilst Mrs Chilcott was indispensable in her help, Serena was still required to decide how everything would be handled. Serena hoped that the keeper would understand but a gnawing fear churned her stomach. It had been some weeks since her departure and she had managed to leave no word since their parting. That sweet night locked in the keeper's embrace seemed a lifetime ago now. A different world almost to the one she now inhabited.

For that moment at least she focused on settling Edward back into Holby and preparing Elinor to see her father for one last time. Since their return from London, Serena spent a greater amount of her waking hours with Elinor, for once her governess permitting the disruption to Elinor's schedule. Serena sat and talked to Elinor about how she might find Edward when she next visited her Papa, when she would last visit with him. It troubled her still - how could she really explain such things to a three year old? Elinor appeared to understand but it wouldn't lessen the shock when she saw him or the pain when he eventually died.

Indeed when the time came, Elinor was shocked at first, she cowered behind Serena's skirts, held onto her mother's leg and refused to approach her Papa. It is true, however, that children are resilient and Elinor was no different. Her Papa was weak and his voice roughened with pain but she still recognised it. As such, it was not long before her initial shyness faded to be replaced by the natural, innocent curiosity that is only present in those so young. Elinor, soon enough, was just keen to look closer, to ask him about his ailment, tell him stories about her day. Serena could almost see him as he had once been sitting with their beautiful child reading to her or laughing at her games, teasing her as they played together. Perhaps Elinor saw it too as she curled up against him and pushed her favourite bear into his arms.

“So you don't get sad, Papa.” Serena turned away to wipe the tears from her eyes before swivelling back with a bright, kind smile.

“Come, Elinor. Let us leave Papa to rest.” Elinor snuggled against him once more before skipping from the room to rejoin her governess. Serena went to follow but Edward halted her.

“Thank you, Serena. Thank you for letting me see her.” His eyes had shuttered closed before she could even reply. Serena stood and watched him for a while, lost in her own thoughts of what might have been before she slid away silently, closing his door softly behind her.

Serena, with her promise to Edward fulfilled, fervently hoped that soon she might return to see the keeper; that soon she might feel the keeper's arms wrapped about her, feel her safety and warmth once more. Still, she could not depart, there were just a few last details to settle with Mrs Williams and she had yet to agree the nights Mrs Chilcott would stay with Edward and those his nurse would cover. Once that was arranged she would finally get the chance to slip away again; to escape for a few moments from the bindings of her duties here that ruled her life.

So focused was Serena on making good on these plans that next word of the keeper nearly passed her by. She was rarely given to eavesdrop on gossip but she was busying along towards her rooms when she was given pause. The keeper's name catching her ear from the whispered conversation from the floor below. Serena could only stop still save her steps alert them to her presence. Beneath her feet, Mrs Williams and one of the housemaids were deep in conversation. Their hushed tones echoing up against the vaulted ceilings and amplifying back to within her hearing. The words they spoke of chilling her heart.

“...can you believe it? All this time. A woman of her sort carrying on as she does with a husband waiting at home. I have no idea what kind of man would permit such a thing.” Mrs Williams’ indignant words splitting the silence of the otherwise deserted hallways.

“And he has come after her?” A timid, quieter voice undoubtedly that of the maid.

“So they say. Taken up rooms in Lethbridge. Intends to stay until he can take her back so I understand. Can't imagine her going willingly mind. The Major doesn't seem the sort to trot back and dutifully keep house.”

“Surely this Mr Dunn has a right to claim his wife back?”

“Makes you wonder why she ran away in the first place.”

Any further words fell against deaf ears as the sound of the pounding of her blood silenced them. It could not be true. They must be mistaken. Perhaps it was someone else of which they spoke. As much as her mind deluded her, the leaden weight that settled in her stomach would not shift. Nausea swept across her and her legs gave way as she fell against the carpet in a dead faint.

The staff must have helped her to her rooms for that was where she next found herself, Edward's nurse had obviously also been summoned as she stood close by with a small vial of smelling salts clasped in her hand. Serena ushered the gathered throngs away, her words reassuring there was nothing of concern beyond that which a solid night of rest would cure. Assuaged the staff left her to her rest, a rest that would not come as Mrs Williams words came hauntingly back to her.

She was left to wonder alone if it were true, if the keeper truly was married to this Mr Dunn of whom they spoke. And if it were so, what reason she held to keep it secret, why she were not able to confide such information to Serena?

The very next day she intended to discover the truth from the woman herself. The elaborate excuses she had conjured to allow her retreat to the woods were not required on this instance. The staff, so used to extolling the virtues of country air after the poisonous toxins of London, needed no persuasion that a walk would revive Serena's flagging spirits. As always Serena checked on Elinor and Edward but finding both settled peaceably, if not comfortably in Edward's case, she was free to seek out her love.

Serena could recall not a step nor feature of the well trod paths that she traversed. Her eyes saw nothing. Tormented visions of the keeper, a long, white dress accentuating her enviable figure, laughing and smiling with a faceless man blurred her sight. Only a few days past she would have scarce imagined the keeper ever having given a moment's thought to marriage, however now that the idea had solidified into near truth it could not be dispelled.

Her hopes faded upon her arrival at the cottage. The cold stone building looked deserted again; the door closed firm, curtains drawn as if left one night without thought of return. Her hand knocked upon the door, once, twice but to no reply. It was instinct more than knowledge, that turned her eyes to the window above. The window through which the sun had burned her eyes that bright morning. It was faint; a tiny motion but it was there - the keeper's slender fingers curled around the corner of the threadbare curtain - a sure and certain giveaway. Serena could no more mistake those fingers for another's than she could mistake Elinor for someone else's offspring.

It was with renewed force that Serena returned to the door. Her insistent knock told of the keeper's discovery. The woman who answered the door, however, was but a pale imitation of the one she had known.

“Serena.” Her voice ragged and broken, soft like a child.

“May I come in?” Serena straightened her back; her eyes locked into the other's almost daring her to deny the request. The will of the keeper was broken and she had no strength to defy Serena on this or any other matter so it would seem.

Once inside the keeper shuffled nervously against the floor, having no words she would freely offer it would seem.

“So may I guess from your hiding away in here that what I took to be idle gossip is in fact true?”

The keeper looked up but could only meekly nod

“And this Mr Dunn is indeed your husband returned to claim you back?” Another nod in reply. “When do you intend to return to be his wife may I ask? And were you ever intending on informing me of this happenstance?” Serena's tone so cool throughout suddenly burned with the pent up anger that now threatened to erupt like the great Mount Vesuvius of old.

“I never intended to return to him.” The keeper's words firm but still her voice cracked with pain and emotion.

“Ah ah. She can speak!”

“Serena, please. I had sought to stay away from Marcus. I had remained hidden from him since my return from the war but my last trip to London. It was necessary to make contact with him. It was, in hindsight, an error on my part. He must have followed me back here and well you have probably heard he demands my return.”

“He cannot make you return. If you go back it can only be because it is your wish to do so. If that is your wish, then tell me so. Tell me so honestly, to my face, as I stand here. Save me from shaming myself any further.”

The keeper lurched forward her arms reaching out, beseeching Serena to listen. “He threatens me if I do not.”

“Nonsense. He cannot set foot onto these lands. You are perfectly safe here.” Serena crossed her arms haughtily, indignant at such an idea.

“It is not my person which he threatens. He threatens to expose me. Expose what I am.”

“It is common knowledge what you are. His threat holds no weight. Why do you capitulate to him so readily unless it is what you wish?”

“He will expose me to my parents, Serena. They live in a small village where any hope of keeping this secret is fruitless. My father is a very proud, very traditional man.” Her head fell and she shook it, her lank hair swinging like strands of twine about her face. “A very proud, traditional and unwell man. While he might forgive me this in time, it is time I do not have left with him. I had hoped that Marcus would not find me, not at least until later.” Her inference clear but unspoken. Not until after her father had passed. “If I do not go with him now I am lost to my father for all eternity.”

“So you will go?”

“I must.” As their eyes locked the keeper’s fingers reached out to curl against her arm but her touch which always felt so warm and soft only burned with her deceit.

“No. Just stop. I can’t Bernie” Serena wrenched her arm free of the keeper's grasp. She could stand no more, and swung about on her heel.

“Serena, please wait.” Serena was of no mind to listen, she heard enough, her worst fears finally confirmed. The keeper was married to another. A man she intended to return to. Serena was to be left alone again. The big, soulless walls of Holby her only sanctuary. Only a year since such news would have broken her. She was however a changed woman and no longer would stand idly by and have her world shattered. If Bernie herself would not act she was left only one choice.

 

It did not take much work. Less than she had supposed. Lethbridge was, after all, not all that much bigger or grander than Holby itself. Most knew each other, perhaps not by name but by sight at least and a stranger could not stay long without being noticed. The rooms he had elected for were modest, a clean place and well run but there were grander options he might have chosen. Such meagre accommodations did not put her off her task, if anything it bolstered Serena's hopes.

The proprietress, a widow by the name of Mrs Blake, allowed them to use her own sitting room, perhaps the only private space in the place that it would be appropriate for them to meet. Serena made no effort to disguise her identity. Although not a regular to Lethbridge enough living thereabout knew Serena's face for such attempts to be folly. It would only serve to heighten the gossip if she did.

Marcus Dunn himself Serena found to be an ordinary sort of a man, weak in the way so many men are when it comes to his pride. His actions were borne from his feelings. Here was someone who remained blindly and steadfastly in love with his wife. An ailment she could hardly blame him for, given her present circumstance. She could however find a great many faults in the way he chose to express that affection.

Blackmail and threats could never bring one to love another. It would only serve to make a life of falsehood and one founded in such desperation for control that it would surely poison any kind feeling the keeper might retain towards her husband. He was a fool if he thought otherwise. Her disdain for the man ill-concealed as she slowly and carefully ran her gaze over him.

“Lady Serena.” He nodded curly though lacking any real warmth. “I am unsure to what I owe this pleasure.”

“It is not a visit that pleases me, Mr Dunn. I merely wish you to explain why you think you may come here and demand our gamekeeper to leave her position without forethought or notice.”

“As much as she may disagree, I find her circumstances here unsuited to her undertaking her obligations as my wife. I must insist she return with me at once, your Ladyship”

“You misunderstand me, Mr Dunn. It is merely that she has been in our employ for some time and I do not understand why now you take issue with it.” As much as it riled her to hear the keeper spoken of as if she were this man's errant cattle that had roamed to graze upon another's land, Serena bit her tongue and maintained her calm demeanour. To let loose her ire and exhibit such display of female emotion as she felt at that point would only serve to antagonize the man.

“It has taken me quite some time and quite some effort to locate her whereabouts, Lady Serena. If she had not come crawling out from under this rock she has been hiding beneath to beg me for a divorce I should still not know where I might look. However now that I do, I must insist she return.”

“And if that is not what she chooses to do?”

“Then she will be made to regret it.” The placid, ordinary man she had greeted had vanished, his eyes now dark with spite and vengeance.

“Ah yes. Your threats to expose her proclivities to her ailing father. Hardly the actions of a loving husband.”

“How did you know….? If you'll excuse me Lady Serena it is hardly any of your concern what occurs between myself and my wife.”

“On the contrary, Mr Dunn. We owe a great debt of gratitude to your wife. My husband owes his life and thereby I owe the life of our child. It is this debt that brings me to you today.” For the first time of his encounter, Serena could feel her heart hammer. She only hoped that Mr Dunn could not detect the lie it revealed.

“With that debt in mind, I now offer you a choice. You may leave here with your wife as you plan but every place you go, every job you seek, I shall ensure you are unwelcome. I shall blacken your name across the length and breadth of the land if I must. Please believe me when I say I am entirely willing and capable of doing so. Alternatively, you may go from here, grant your wife the divorce she seeks and the money I would have invested in tarnishing your reputation shall be gifted to you instead. You can live a very comfortable existence for the rest of your days in peace.”

Serena unfolded a slip of paper and presented it to Mr Dunn. The letter handwritten to her solicitor in London included such a sum as Marcus had never seen before.

“What on earth would induce you to pay this sum to me? No matter how great the debt of gratitude.” Marcus’s eyes which had narrowed in cold reflection suddenly widened, a lascivious grin splitting his face. “Oh. Oh- That is just priceless.” A loud laugh barking out. “Bernie really did get her revenge on Edward Campbell then. She made him a cuckold by her own hands. Oh, that is just the perfect retribution. To take his wife from him. And you. You must really have fallen in love to offer such a sum. What a fool she had made of you.” His snide remarks reeked of the jealousy of a spurned lover but his poisoned barb hit its mark nonetheless, a sickening acid churned her stomach.

Perhaps it was her wounded pride but even as the agony tore at her heart she would not bring herself to repeal her offer. “Mr Dunn regardless of your beliefs on the matter. My only wish is to end the needless torment of someone who once saved the life of my husband. She may be inclined in a queer sort of way, just as you have labelled her. That being so though even a man of limited intelligence would have realised by now she could never love you again, if she had ever truly to start with.” Serena looked upon the man, the venomous dart of her own words also finding its intended target. Serena gleaned a small amount of satisfaction at her triumph. “You have until the end of the week to accept my terms or it shall be withdrawn and no further offer shall be made.” Serena leant forward, eyes hard as flint. “Am I clear in this regard Mr Dunn?”

As hard as Marcus tried to repel her stare, to withstand her attempts to coerce him. Her words tolled such a bell of truth that he could not bring himself to deny. The offer she made was too good, such monies he could not hope to come by should he live a hundred of his lifetimes. Indeed the sheer intensity of the woman intimidated him and his eyes fell away with a weak nod.

“Good. I believe our business is concluded. I shall have my solicitors draw up the necessary paperwork. I wish you all the best but I say in all earnestness that I hope we never meet again Mr Dunn.”

Serena turned on her heel.

“And one last matter Mr Dunn. The document drawn up by my solicitor will also bind your tongue on the salacious gossip you have sought to spread here about. Should I find that you have been loose of lip in this matter I shall endeavour to drag you through every court in this land until you are a bereft and broken husk of a man. If you think I do not have the courage to bring this matter to bear in court, believe me I have. I hope for your sake you never seek to test my mettle.”

She bade him no further farewell but with a sweep of her cloak, strode purposefully from the dwelling. Only once she was safely back in the car did she allow the emotion to clog her throat and tear at her heart. How could she have fallen for it? The keeper hated Edward. She had seen it that first day. Had she been so blind and desperate for affection that she had allowed herself to be used? Was she so enraptured by the feelings that had stirred in her loins that she had ignored the keeper’s cool demeanour?

Serena was a fool. A fool of her own making. The keeper, whose lips never uttered word of feeling for her beyond the desires of her flesh, used her to exact her revenge. A sweet revenge it must have been too. How she must have congratulated herself on the totality of her triumph. How she must have laughed at Serena's pliability to her seduction. Hot tears of anger scorched her skin, burning trails of fury against her pale cheeks as the car trundled slowly back to Holby - a place only recently she thought held such warm memories, each memory newly scarred with betrayal.

 

With their final approach to the house it became abruptly apparent something was amiss. Gone was the usual hustle and bustle of the staff about their duties, an eerie stillness in their stead. It was then Serena caught sight of Doctor Michael’s car. She barely waited for the car to halt before she was moving. Her fleet passage from the car sweeping her past the housemaids and valets that stood with identical numb expressions upon their faces. She hoped she might be in time to say her final goodbye but it was clear from every face she passed - it was already too late. Edward was gone. While she had been paying to secure freedom for her treacherous lover, her husband had died without his wife by his side.

“I wish to see him.” Serena composed her voice, the wavering of grief for her lost husband genuine. The amassed staff stepped aside as she passed through into her husband's room. The first thing that struck her was the stillness, almost as if the house itself carried the mourning of its residents upon it. Mrs Chilcott was sat at his side praying. She looked up when Serena approached.

“I thank you for your prayers, Mrs Chilcott but Edward was not a man of faith. I doubt your prayers can save his soul now but I am sure he would have appreciated your efforts nonetheless.”

“I have faith, your Ladyship. Perhaps my faith can go some way towards making amends for his.” Serena gave her a small, tight smile as she rose up from her seated position. “I shall leave you with your husband. Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss.” Mrs Chilcott gently wrapped her arms around Serena and pressed a kindly kiss to her cheek as she passed.

Serena moved to her husband's side. Was that even what he was now? Surely this was just a body now of a man who used to be her husband. She was a widow. “Well Edward. I suppose it is time for us to part.” She reached out her fingers to brush his hair behind his ear, idly thinking of how long it had gotten during his prolonged illness, how she should arrange a barber for him. The sudden coolness of his skin where her fingers had brushed shocked her hand back away. A loud sob broke out of her throat and she let it free, allowed her grief to sound out unrestrained. Crying for the life of the man before her that duty, war and finally addiction had destroyed; crying out for her heart broken by the woman who would rejoice in his demise, whose arms she even now craved to comfort her, whose eyes she could so easily lose herself in. The woman who had been freed by her own hand to go and find love with another. Perhaps it was a fitting punishment that she should stay to witness it, see her love leave for another just as she had deserted Edward at the end.

It was long after the last vestiges of her tears had fallen and her anguished wails had all but died in her throat that Mrs Chilcott had to come and pull her away. Serena, still numb with shock at losing both her loves in one day, acceded to her and rose, pressed a last kiss to Edward's icy lips. “Goodbye Edward.” She whispered against them.

When she emerged the entirety of the household stood in solemn guard of honour outside his door, united in their loss. Sympathy and compassion written on the faces of those who met her gaze, the gravity of mourning weighing heavy on those with their heads bowed. Finally, there at the end of the line, was the keeper. Her cap scrunched tightly in her long fingers, her head inclined down but her gaze fixed upon the brunette. Their eyes catching for the briefest moments and the surge of both regret and longing overwhelmed Serena and her legs buckled from beneath her as she fell to her knees. The keeper instinctively moved to aid her but the cold, warning stare Serena shot her was enough to halt her progress. Mrs Chilcott reached Serena’s fallen form instead and guided her steadily up to her rooms without a backward glance; without a look to the woman who alone taught her about love.

For Serena, devastation and heartbreak was the price of that love.

Chapter Text

Time held no meaning for Serena in those intervening weeks. Her days filled with the confused questions of a child who was yet too young to understand her father's death. This, at least, offered distraction from the ache of her broken heart; the long, unyielding nights sadly offered no such solace from the pain.

Serena was in no doubt that this pain was brought about by her own folly. It was no lie to say she was in love, that she had been in love for some many months. Her mistake was to believe the keeper cared for her in return; the over-eagerness of her heart twisted lustful impulses into more than they truly were. Now this was how her existence would persist - lifeless, lonely, moving from minute to minute, hour to hour and day to day without forethought or intention. Mind tormented; heart blighted. It was not until Edward's funeral that life’s pattern would alter for her. The events of that day would finally break her free from the hollow void which surrounded her.

The funeral itself was held at Lethbridge Abbey, the small chapel at Holby proving insufficient for the numbers of mourners expected. It was mostly those local to the manor, both staff and villagers, who attended. All those fawning gentlemen who would travel from London to laugh at Edward's jokes and drink all his whisky had long since vanished. It was only Mr Medcalf who made any effort at condolence, his kindly letter to Serena, though well intentioned, only served to provide further reminder of her life before the keeper. That life, one of ignorance and denial, was one that she could never return to even if she might wish it were so.

Serena sat mutely and listened to the praise heaped upon Sir Edward Campbell all the while those who, in point of fact, barely knew him eulogised at length. She offered each a wan smile of thanks though she scarcely heard a word they spoke. Their speeches passing her by much like the redbrick buildings that lined their route to London; nothing more than a vague blur that blended into one seamless background. Life seemed so full of opportunity back then, so full of hope and possibility. Now it was all gone; Edward; the keeper; only Elinor remained, the last vestige of joy in her life.

After the service, Edward’s coffin was taken from Lethbridge to Holby. His remains to be housed in the old family crypt that sat within the grounds. His interment a thankfully brief, private affair while the rest of the mourners partook of a feast of baked meats Mrs Williams had arranged for them back at the house.

Once rejoined with them there, Serena took her time to move about the room and greet the assembled mourners, a handshake or a word of thanks for each. Her motions however were without thought or consideration; she was as a puppet, limbs controlled by invisible strings, only hollow wood where her living heart used to beat. Finally, after her fourth circuit, she came to rest in a weary daze at the periphery of the room, the low hum of voices deep in conversation numb against her ears.

“Lady Serena.” That soft voice stirred her from her reverie. “If I might please pass on my condolences.” The very sound sending warmth flooding through her veins. Her immobile heart thrummed against her chest, even now in all her anger and grief it was only she who could breathe life back through Serena's soul. She swallowed down the spark of desire which dried her mouth and heated her cheeks to nod her acknowledgment to the keeper before her.

“You are very kind Ms Wolfe.” Serena met her eyes for but the briefest moment before turning away again to observe the room.

“Might I ask to speak with you in private for a brief minute.” Serena’s face twisted in a perplexed expression. It was unlike the keeper to even speak to her in the presence of others, even stranger for her to make the request at such a public moment. The keeper herself obviously recognised the unusual nature for she answered the unspoken inquiry. “I understand this is an inconvenient time but you will permit to see me at no other.” The keeper's long fingers stretched out towards her as they did so many times before but this time her touch was unwelcome and Serena recoiled away. “Please. A moment is all I ask then I shall leave you in peace.”

Even after all that passed between them Serena could still not deny her. She gave a curt nod and they slipped out from the gathered masses to the small library tucked away at the back of the house.

“I can only be away for a moment, so please say what you must, then leave.”

“I wished a chance to explain for so long, but now I have your ear, I find words have deserted me.” She paused, hands wringing in her familiar gesture. She looked down upon her fingers, the anxious knotting of them seemed to alarm her. In response, she shifted them swiftly to clench behind her back, her posture straightening, the determined Major once more.

“Perhaps you heard word of this through the other staff but finally Marcus consented to a divorce. This time next year I shall be unmarried once again.” Serena could not meet her eye this time, her part in bringing the divorce to bear clearly still unbeknownst to the keeper. “I shall be free. I cannot believe that he agreed not make word of the nature of things to my father. I could never have dreamed…”

“I am most pleased for you.” The insincere bite of Serena's words audible to both of them.

“Serena please, you judge me unfairly.” Serena's gaze still as cold as a heavy frost caused a spark of ire to ignite within the keeper. A flush of pink rising to colour her pallid face and a sharp retort to spill from her tongue. “You can hardly claim to have been entirely without fault in this regard. You punish me for having a husband but all the while you deluded and betrayed yours.” The blur of her sleeve the only warning as Serena's hand landed firmly across the keeper's cheek.

“How dare you accuse me. It was you who lied to me. You deceived me. All those hours we lay together. I was honest with you. I poured out my very soul to you and you remained silent in reply. You could have told me. You should have told me.” Her voice suddenly louder and stronger than it had been for many a day. The unleashed pain and anger filling her lungs with the strength she lacked till now.

The sudden vitriol quelled the keeper's own grievances. The truth Serena spoke filled her with shame. Her fiery words muted back to quiet apology. “I wished to. So many times. You must believe me.” Serena merely shook her head and turned away. Her eyes that had desired the sight of the keeper so many times could not regard her now. “Serena. Please.”

The keeper gripped her arms, turning her about. Their lips meeting in an ungainly crashing of flesh. To Serena it still felt as right and natural as it always had, her body drawn into her lovers arms as if by force that she could not see. Her heart leapt with joy at the connexion of their bodies.

All too swiftly it overwhelmed her while her conscious mind reclaimed control against the yearning of her flesh. Serena pushed the keeper away, lips tearing from one another, her grip firm as she drove them apart. Despite her intention to stay resolute in such a circumstance, the frantic pounding of her heart still cried out for the other.

Serena drew a long, deep breath to compose herself. She smoothed the ruffling of her skirts, hands unconsciously ironing out the evidence of the keeper's embrace. When she straightened her back her eyes were hard and cold again. “You cannot deflect me from the answers I seek so easily. I must know the truth, Bernie. Why did you pursue me? Did you intend to use me to wound Edward as he wounded you?” The keeper looked up sharply, her startled guilt as obvious as if it had been carved there for years.

“Who told you such things?” The tremor in her voice only offering further evidence of the answer.

“It is no matter how I found out. Tell me the truth.” Serena’s words came out louder than she intended, even the books on the shelves around them seemed to shudder in surprise.

“Serena, you cannot possibly understand what it was like for me. All those nights I would dream of nothing but Edward and his friends. Lying in the infirmary, barely hearing the doctors as they denounced all hopes for my future. I would think of how I might find them one by one and take from them as they had taken from me. Bitter and twisted in mind and body. I despised them. I despised him most of all. So yes, I did come here to see if I could deny Edward that which he prized above all else. At first I intended to sully his reputation, his good name. I learned soon after I arrived that he held something much dearer than that. You.” Her eyes were far away and Serena called to mind that first meeting, her scorn, her anger, the mocking way she regarded Edward and herself.

“When did you determine to claim me? Indeed when did you first suspect I might acquiesce to such an act?”

“In truth, I do not know for certain but it was when I bathed I think.” She moved to lean against the same desk Serena rested against. Their elbows brushing as she passed. “I saw you watching me. I saw the stirrings of something beyond the natural curiosity that one female has for the makeup of another.” The keeper's eyes lifted. That shared memory sending a sudden bolt of lustful fire down between Serena's legs. “I think it was then that I desired to take you from Edward’s arms.”

The warmth of the keeper's arm against her own; the maddening fire between her thighs only served to inflame her bitterness. The words when they came were laced with that angry resentment. “I must congratulate you then on a very successful outcome.” At last the keeper had given her the truth. Sadly it was a truth that extinguished the last embers of hope, with that gone, there was no more of which to speak. She rose, her legs shaking with that same mixture of fury and desire, and started towards the door.

“No Serena, wait.” The slender fingers gripped fiercely at her arm, painfully biting into her flesh. Serena wrenched away, angry red welts rising as the unrelenting grip tore at her skin.

“Get your hands off of me. How dare you touch me. You who have done naught but lie and deceive me. You who have drawn me from my family. You who have led me to this despair. Get out if this house. I wish you out of my sight, to see you is to just bring more pain. Surely you owe me that small mercy at least?”

The keeper reared back, the words stinging far more than the earlier burn of Serena's hand striking her cheekbone. She seemed ready to speak further but her parted lips stalled and closed once again. With a last, pained look she spun and strode out. Serena heard the distant thud of the large, oak door in the entranceway slamming shut as the keeper took her leave of Serena. Probably for the last time.

Despite the anguish of their parting and the revelation of the keeper's vengeful act against Edward, the events of the funeral at least served one purpose. The haze of pining for her lost love finally past, she was renewed, filled with fresh purpose and with it the seed of an idea formed.

 

Slowly the house returned to normal life and the staff busied themselves with their regular duties. Sir Edward had left all his property to Elinor to be held in trust until she came of age. A generous pension was provided to his wife which would allow them to maintain their residence at Holby for the rest of their days should they choose. Serena never made any secret of her dislike of Holby and this very knowledge sent an undercurrent of uncertainty rippling around the fabric of the place with each passing day.

The arrival of a well turned out gentleman to call on Lady Serena did little to quell their fears. Many, Mrs Williams included, speculated she was attempting to break the trust Edward had given to Elinor to allow the property to be sold. Indeed the regularity of his visits only heightened the fevered gossip that ran amok below stairs.

The keeper did not return to the great house after Serena's dismissal of her. Serena had asked it of her and in this she would comply. This particular day there was little avoiding it; cook had requested a side of venison be fetched from the meat store for luncheon and none of the labourers who worked the estate could be found to oblige.

She only meant to drop it into the kitchen and leave but the steaming hot bowl of soup which cook offered by way of thanks was too good to turn down on such a bitter winter’s day. As her ears caught the thread of conversation, she wished that she had made a different choice.

“He’s back again. In her rooms bold as you please. The master barely gone six weeks. That woman has no shame.” Mrs Williams scornful tone ringing loud around the stone kitchen walls.

“Now we don’t know anything for certain.” Cook, as ever, the voice of reason.

“Oh what else is she doing up there with him all these hours? Needlepoint? Lily walked in on them the other day, their heads bent close together and they swiftly halted their conversation. Mark my words, up to no good that one.”

The thick soup curdled in her stomach and sat heavy as she stood to leave. The rush of cold air that hit as she stepped outside burnt her lungs and stung her eyes. Serena had already found another admirer. The keeper knew that she would eventually but it was too soon, she was not ready. The stinging in her eyes intensified and she blinked rapidly against the pain. She barely noticed the aching of her war wounds as with heavy legs and heart she returned to the cottage.

 

It was akin to torture seeing their relationship unfold but she could not seem to stop. Now that she was aware of Serena's new admirer, she could no longer stay away. Hidden at the edge of the copse she freely watched his approach and departure unseen. Just as Mrs Williams observed, the keeper herself noted his visits become more frequent and of ever increasing length.

Her last vestiges of hope were extinguished with the arrival of Lady Jemima Campbell. Serena and her new love were both stood in front of the great house to greet Edward's last remaining relative in what could only be a formal introduction of one to the other. A prelude to an engagement she did suppose.

Their disappearance, faces filled with warmth and smiles, through that same large, oak door that she slammed shut when last they spoke, served as a painful reminder of that day. Perhaps it was this that drew her out of the copse, that made her approach the house, to stand gazing up at Serena's window as she appeared there with Edward's aunt. Serena did not see her, her face was turned away, gaze filled with warmth as there close behind them appeared Serena's lover, his hand touching her arm to pull her to him.

It was all her fears confirmed, with a last glance at Serena's retreating form she turned and limped despondently back to the woodlands.

 

Serena watched the figure make its way to the furthest reaches of the lawns. In truth it might have been any of the labourers such was the enormity of the distance between them but the halting, off-centre movement was achingly familiar. The agony of their parting had largely faded but the longing still remained. Serena was no longer angry. The more the weeks passed, the more she was given to wonder if she might have acted as the keeper did were their roles reversed. It was an answer that she would never know for certain but even the time spent mulling it over had tempered her fury.

“Serena.” Mim's voice broke her from her thoughts. “Mr Walpole is leaving.”

Serena turned and regarded him with a bright smile. Yes it was time to move on and Mr Walpole gave her what she needed to do just that.

The door to her chambers had barely closed behind him before Mim spoke. “So you are certain this is what you want to do?” Her words were cautious but her eyes studied Serena shrewdly.

“It is time for a change. This is what I need. This is what Elinor needs. It gives us both a future, a chance of happiness.”

“And there is nothing here in Holby that would make you happy?”

Serena's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You are not usually given to idle questions, Mim, everything with you has purpose. I suppose there is some hidden meaning you are alluding to here as well.”

“I may be old, Serena, but I am not blind. I, at first, thought when Edward passed you might find another husband. You are young and very beautiful, it would be most easy for you to find any number of acceptable suitors, if that is truly what you want. The question is whether you desire that or whether you want something or rather someone else?”

“I do adore you, Mim, but you do speak such nonsense sometimes.”

“So you have no feelings for that gamekeeper you so avidly watch walking across the lawns?”

Serena's heart thudded against her chest. “I thought it was you who were interested in her. Have you given up the chase?”

“Oh yes I would be most keen to acquaint myself with her intimately but it would be fruitless for she only has eyes for you Serena Campbell, as well you know.”

“I know no such thing.” Her words hotly denied the old lady's accusation all the while the tell tale flush of her lie bloomed up across her chest and neck.

“Very well, Serena. Deny it to me. Do not be so foolish as to deny it to yourself. You want a future? You want a chance of happiness?” Mim grabbed her arm and with surprising strength for someone of her years led Serena back to the large window from where she had observed the retreating keeper. “She went that way.” Her finger jabbed sharply against the glass as she pointed towards the woodland edge.

Further denial was useless, Mim was too shrewd to be deceived for long. “I am of no interest to her. She led me on with the sole intention of hurting Edward. Whatever my feelings on the matter, she is indifferent to me now he is gone.”

“For such an intelligent, capable woman, darling Serena, you are inordinately stupid. If your gamekeeper was only using you to hurt Edward, why is she still here now? As you said he is gone and long past the reach of her vengeance, yet she remains.”

“Do not make light of this Jemima, it is not so simple as you think. Elinor has lost her father, I cannot wrap her in further scandal based on a vague notion. It is a view you alone seem to hold.”

“Do you not see how that woman looks at you? Perhaps she did come to you in vengeance but she stays with you now through love.” Serena gazed out across the lawns, a delicate flutter started up in her stomach. “Do you feel the same though is the question?”

“You talk so freely of love. In truth I doubt that woman is capable of such a thing.”

“Undoubtedly she is in love with you. It is clear as the nose on your face if you are minded to look at her for more than a moment. I saw it the day of the funeral. The way her gaze followed you when your eyes were averted. The way she stood just now out there on those lawns desperate for even the merest sight of you. I was watching her although I doubt she realised it as her eyes were fixed to you and you alone.”

“I think your eyesight is failing you in your later years, Jemima.”

“I might have spoken of this sooner but I could not be sure that her affections were returned until I saw the way you gazed after her just now.”

“Jemima, please stop. I have made it clear this is not for further discussion. I have a chance of a new life and a future for Elinor away from the spectre of her father. My decision is made. I ask you to respect that.”

“As you wish, Serena. I will say this, Edward was not a good sort of husband to you. He himself knew this to be true. He would not sanction you for finding happiness, whether that be then.” Jemima paused and took a deep breath, her eyes travelling back to the woodlands beyond. “Or whether it is now.”

Serena's gaze couldn't help but follow Mim's and look out to the woods where she found happiness for the briefest of time. With a wistful sigh of regret she turned away. That was the past. There was a new future waiting for her. For Elinor's sake, if not her own, she would not be diverted.



The keeper could not stand to bear witness to Serena's inevitable engagement to her gentlemen visitor. Instead she spent her days taking feed to the remote reaches of the woodlands where the deer shelter out the winter months which by happy coincidence kept her well away from the main house and Serena. After one such day she returned to her cottage to find urgent summons to the main house. Mrs Williams had called all the staff and despite her instinctive desire to ignore it, her burning curiosity made her relent.

She arrived at the kitchens later than the rest of the staff only to find the household in utter turmoil. The news was not good. The staff received word that very morning of Serena's immediate and permanent departure from Holby. Now, in the kitchen, a fierce debate raged about what would happen to the house and staff should such news be true.

“There is little point standing here speculating as to what might happen. We need to understand her ladyship's intentions.” The old butler’s practised professionalism still evident.

“Which of us is to ask her, pray tell me?” Mrs Williams shot back. A hush fell around with no one seemingly willing to take on such a task. The silence hung about the kitchen as each person looked from one to the other.

“Very well. I will do it.” All eyes swivelled to the gamekeeper at her words. “I have little to lose should she take offense and dispense with my services.”

“Why would she receive you?” Mrs Williams, ever suspicious, enquired.

“Why should she not and even if she refuses we have lost naught from what we know right now.”

Each there had to concede her point and so it was that she was duly elected by the staff to speak to Lady Serena. In truth, the keeper would have approached the woman regardless of whether they agreed or not, this way at least assured their privacy from eavesdropping.

A cruel pang of jealousy bit her insides as she approached Serena's rooms for the first time. Here was a place she had never been invited, never been welcomed, unlike the male companion who Serena now deserted her and Holby for. Oh that she was visiting her rooms in different circumstances to these.

The rap of her knuckles against the wood echoed around her, such was the loneliness and isolation of this part of the house. A shiver ran down her spine at the thought of spending hours in this desolate place. Thankfully there was little delay before the rich sound of Serena's voice beckoned her to enter. Her fingers shook as she grasped the door handle and turned it hesitantly. Bright light spilled through the door as she opened it and she was relieved to depart the gloomy hallway to the light and airy decor within.

“Bernie.” Serena's eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the keeper.

“Apologies for the intrusion but the staff have asked me to come. There is some rumour abound. So is it true? You intend to leave?”

The directness of the question stalled Serena’s step but her voice when it came was measured in its reply. “Yes. I never made any secret of my ill regard for Holby. It was always Edward’s choice that we live here and it is his family home not mine. I don't belong here anymore, there is nothing to keep me.”

“Nothing?”

“This place, this building, holds a lot of painful memories for me. Every day I stay they haunt me more.”

“So what do you intend next?”

“Tell the staff not to be concerned. Their positions will be secure. Yours too.”

“That was not what I asked you Serena. Are you leaving? When?”

“We depart for France, well Paris to be exact, the day after tomorrow.”

“For how long?”

Serena looked her squarely in the eye.

“Ah. So what of this place? Do you intend to sell it?”

“No. It, that is the house and estate, have been placed in trust for Elinor. When she is of age she may do with it as she would. As I said, it is her legacy not mine. In the meantime it will continue to run largely as it always has. The one good thing I learned from all those fawning buffoons Edward attracted was that wealth is no longer concentrated in the pockets of the aristocracy. All these rich, young men these days want nothing more than to play lord of the manor. So in exchange for a tidy sum they can. Every weekend if they like. They can hunt and shoot. Have grand parties. Have staff wait on them as they wish. Everyone’s employment is safe. Any monies the estate makes are invested back into it.”

“Seems you have it all carefully planned. I assume you will join your new gentleman friend in France then?” Serena looked up sharply at the comment but her face showed only confusion not a trace of guilt marred her expression. “Your frequent visitor. The house has been abuzz with news of him for many weeks.”

“Ah the rumour mill. Mrs Williams no doubt relishing that bit of salacious gossip. Not that it is any of your concern but the man in question is my good friend and solicitor. He drafted all the legal documents for the management of the trust and the new business which Mim will facilitate from London. Her ever expanding social circle should ensure we have enough paying guests to keep this household busy for a long time to come.”

“He certainly looked like he might happily take more than just your friendship.”

“Perhaps he might have but it is of no matter. You should also be more inclined to kindness towards him. He is after all the man who secured your divorce and Marcus's silence.”

The keeper's surprise at her statement was genuine. Serena did wonder if Marcus would reveal her involvement in a last defiant act but it would seem his love of money outweighed his spiteful intent.

“You secured my divorce?”

“I could not stand idly by and watch you suffer when he could be so easily swayed with a small consideration.”

A cloud seemed to clear from the keeper's mind. “It was he who told you that I came here seeking revenge on Edward.” Her brows pulled tight in confusion again. “Yet you still arranged my settlement even after you knew of my deceit?”

“Marcus was weak, a man more likely to garner pity than affection. The idea of tying you to such a creature for your remaining years was unappealing. I would rather see you be free to pursue someone new than leave you shackled to such a man.”

The keeper's features cleared. The despondent mood that pervaded her suddenly lifted. Her hands reached out and grasped Serena's two within her own “Don’t go to France. Stay here.”

“Really Bernie, what do I have here to stay for?”

“Me. Us. Is that not enough?”

“Us? You used me. You admitted as much yourself.” The words were direct and blunt but she did not pull her hands away as she did before.

Bernie took a deep breath, filled her lungs, powered her courage and spoke. “When last we talked you would not let me finish. Out of respect for your wishes I chose to trouble you no further. Now you intend to go and never return which provides me only this chance. What I have to say must be said now. Will you allow me to speak? I promise to tell you everything, good and bad and allow you to decide what action you wish to take.” Serena nodded curtly but drew Bernie by their linked hands to sit upon her sofa if still in somewhat uncomfortable formality.

“You are aware of what happened in the war but I suppose it all began long before that. According to my parents I was always a difficult child, awkward and shy. I never fitted in anywhere I went. It was a lonely and unhappy existence. When I met Marcus, a polite, unassuming gentlemen who seemed to have a growing attachment for me I saw a chance to escape and start a new life away from my loneliness. I was not expecting to be more lonely in that marriage than I was before.” The keeper's face had fallen into a resigned sadness. “I accepted that it was to be my lot in life. Fortunately we had moved close by to an army barracks and I would often pass it on when out walking, well running really, another activity Marcus never approved of. Indeed I struck up a friendship with a rather gruff Sergeant Major posted there who allowed me to exercise on their assault course where no-one would be able see and pass disapproving comment to Marcus. When my times surpassed even their most proficient troops they permitted me to enlist much to Marcus's dismay.” The keeper's eyes suddenly danced with life at the memories.

“He could have objected of course but I lived at home and trained at the barracks. To him it was a hobby for me; to the army it was a novelty, a way to appease the suffrage movement; to me it was freedom and a happiness I had never known.”

“When war came Marcus tried to hold me back but I would never desert my regiment. I proved rather adept at it and was promoted beyond any of my male peers. Most troops in my command initially rejected me as their superior but I earned my place, my rank and eventually their respect.”

“Some of the men tried to proposition me but it was decidedly unwelcome, I left a few with broken bones as a lasting reminder of their forceful overtures. Some evenings I would join my regiment on their trips to local hostelries, many of which catered for more than just their thirst. Needless to say it was a young French woman there that opened my eyes to my true nature. At first I would be secretive about my assignations but in war there can be no real secrets and soon enough my preferences became common knowledge. Some of the men were curious, some disgusted but most held no care for what I did personally as long as I kept them safe to get home to their families. Then came the shell.”

“Suddenly I was back in England. In a hospital. My life, my happiness gone in the blinding flash of that explosive. Marcus visited of course but I could not sanction returning to be his dutiful wife. So as soon as I was able I discharged myself and gave Marcus no word where he could find me. I ran into Edward by pure chance, I did not seek him out I promise you that. He offered me this job and I initially refused but then I came to think it was fate, that I was destined to get my revenge. My hatred for Edward was raw and despite his infirmity, as far as I was concerned, no punishment would be sufficient for him.” The keeper flushed with either a residue of the anger or a shame at her feelings it was not clear but true to her word Serena kept silent and listened as the keeper continued.

“The anger towards him warped my mind and afflicted my dreams. I could think of nothing else but how much I wanted him to hurt. So I made a plan. A plan to come here and to destroy him. Take his fortune, destroy his good name, whatever it took. I had not decided how.”

“Until you saw me by the stream that day.” Serena's words still laced with the hurt of that painful truth.

“All I wanted was to hurt Edward, if truth is told, I failed. Instead of hurting him, I only succeeded to hurt you, and in hurting you I find I have hurt myself. I thought the life I lived in the army was happiness. A life of purpose and an endless stream of empty fucks. It was not real happiness I can see that now. You have shown me that, shown me how good life might be if only I could be brave enough.”

Her grasp on Serena's hand eased, fingers moved to tangle into Serena's own. “It would seem, Serena Campbell, that as hard as I might try I cannot extricate you from my life. You are a part of me now. When you hurt, I hurt. When you laugh, I laugh.” The keeper hesitated and when she spoke again her voice no more than a soft, low growl. “When you love, I love.”

“What are you saying Bernie?”

“That I love you Serena. I never intended to love you but I do. I have never felt love like this before. I can not breathe without you. I can not smile if you are not there to bear witness. Go to Paris if you still wish to. Go. Go with happiness. I want only that for you but do not believe I felt nothing for you. I felt everything and more. I still do.”

“I wish you had told me this before now.”

“I did. So very often. Watching you sleep. Holding you in my arms. I spoke it to the night time sky more times than I can count. I was just never brave enough to let you hear it before.”

“And now?”

“I will stand at the centre of Lethbridge and shout it out loud for all to hear if it will make you to stay.”

Serena faltered, her chest rising high as she drew a deep breath into her lungs. “Darling Bernie.” Her fingers brushing at the rough skin of the keeper's knuckles. “I love you more than I have ever thought it possible to love. I cannot stay however, there is a new life waiting for me, for Elinor, far from here. This place holds too many memories, too much of Edward and my old life. Please believe me when I say I dearly wish it were not so.”

The keeper abruptly rose to stand, Serena rising up beside her. “In that in case, I best take my leave. I am sure you still have much to prepare.” The keeper stopped and turned, her hand rising to stroke a calloused thumb along Serena's jawline. “I sincerely hope you find the happiness you seek. You deserve to be happy Serena, so very much.” The keeper stepped forward and pressed a soft kiss to her lost love’s cheek. Serena's eyes shuttered close and her face tilted to press to the keeper's face to feel her warmth once again. How her heart yearned for this moment to last forever, her arms tight about the woman she loved but the keeper slipped from her arms, the cool air rushing where her warmth had once been. Serena closed her eyes, tears slithering down her cheeks. She could not bear to watch the keeper leave, could not bear her lips to utter their final farewell.

Chapter Text

Serena stood pressed tightly up against the cold railing at the farthest corner of the deck. Elinor’s little fingers clasped firmly to her leg as she watched the families with their loved ones waving them off.

“Come here and wave Elinor. Wave goodbye.” she lifted the girl up to wave her arm wildly at the crowds before putting her down safely on deck once again.

“Goodbye.” Serena shouted, the hoarse catch of emotion making even that single word a jagged, broken one. A tear slid silently down her cheek as she braced herself against a sharp gust of wind. Her bleary eyes still cast across those amassed before her. Even now, she wondered if she might come; wondered if this might be their last chance to see each other but as she scanned the crowds one last time she found only strangers reflected in the faces on the dock. It was all too late now, the low purr of the engine and the rumbling vibration through her thin soled shoes heralded the start of their voyage and the end of another chapter of her life.

It was not an unhappy chapter all in all. She was lucky to have been blessed with joy, love and passion. True it was interspersed with loneliness and melancholy the like of which she could scarce have imagined. On close reflection she would never omit the horrors of those experiences if it meant she must sacrifice the desire she discovered in the arms of another woman.

It was as if called, almost like she could sense her lover's thoughts. Serena felt the warmth first of all; the brush of a curl against her cheek; the hand that slid into hers within the pocket of her thick, winter coat. “Just who are you waving so frantically to?” Bernie's voice was curious as she scanned the mass of faces for someone she might recognise.

“Are you envious Bernie? Perhaps I have a phalanx of other women who are rushing here to tearfully wave us off? You need not worry, I merely wondered if Mim might show up, I dearly hoped to see her again.” The engine churned the water around the dock, turning the dark, foreboding waters into a swirling, green foam. “Now is the last chance to run if you've changed your mind. I think you could make the jump even with your bad leg.” Serena's teasing words met with a serious countenance.

“Serena Campbell, I would follow you to the ends of the earth if you ask me to.”

Serena laughed softly. “Let's just start with Paris, darling.” Serena inclined her face to catch her lover's eye. “Bernie?” The blonde gave a slight hum in reply. “Have I ever told you how happy you make me?”

“You may have remarked upon it once or twice.” A mischievous glint twinkled in Bernie's eye. “Although if you would like remind me again I have a few ideas how you might.” A flush bloomed up Serena's neckline as she took in the darkened promise building within her lover's eyes.

“Later darling, for now let us wave.” She turned back to face the crowded dock and resumed her frenetic waving.

Bernie smiled and moved to hoist Elinor high onto her shoulders. “I still have no idea who I am waving to Serena.” One hand threaded back into Serena's the other she gamely thrust up into the air up nonetheless.

“In truth, Bernie, I'm waving to everyone and no-one. I'm saying goodbye to myself most of all I think, goodbye to my old life.” Serena turned and met Bernie's eye for a moment before a broad smile arched across her face. “Goodbye Serena Campbell. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.” She cried loudly at the rapidly disappearing dock.

The brush of Bernie's lips to the back of her ear caused a shiver of desire to run through her. Her breath stirring her hair as she whispered softly. “So if you've left Serena Campbell behind, who exactly am I holding hands with? Has the much lauded Miss McKinnie finally returned?”

Serena blushed, a fearsome red coloured her cheeks. A hard lump had inexplicably formed in her throat. “I had thought about Wolfe. It is a new start for us all. It would be nice if we shared a name at least and we couldn't chose Campbell and I thought McKinnie might be too confusing for Elinor. So I wondered if it might be appropriate but it was a silly idea. Forget I said anything.” Her nervousness causing a rambling soliloquy to pour forth.

Bernie blinked rapidly, eyes cast up to the sky, fingers tightening their grip against Serena's. Her voice, when it came, was thick and gruff with emotion. “Serena Wolfe.” She hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “I think I could live with that.”