Serena is using her Saturday to clean house, dusting here and there, getting rid of old mail that’s been lying around for too long. Elinor has sat herself in the sitting room, laptop perched on her knees, scrolling through websites and occasionally calling out some obscure joke based on an internet meme Serena was never going to understand in the first place.
“Oh, Mum!” Elinor’s voice is loud in the weekend quiet of the house, carries all the way to the kitchen where Serena is rinsing off the breakfast dishes. She shakes the plate, water droplets splashing into the sink, doesn’t hurry herself to answer Elinor’s yell. “Mum.” She is insistent, so Serena puts the plate in the drainer, wipes her hands on her trousers and pokes her head through around the corner.
“You bellowed?” she says, eyebrow arched, but Elinor’s enthusiasm isn’t tamped down any and she waves Serena over, pointing at something. Serena dutifully makes her way over, leans against the back of the sofa, arms folded on the cushion, her chin just grazing Elinor’s hair.
“Look at this!” Elinor says, thrusting her laptop up and towards Serena. She stands, holds it in her hands, squints, pulls her head back a bit, tries not to feel like an old woman as her eyesight focuses. “It’s a wine club, Mum! Practically made for you!”
It does certainly sound like something up her alley. Serena can see it’s an advertisement on Elinor’s feed, wonders if it’s some sort of scam to weasel money out of lonely women in their fifties. But she clicks the graphic, a glass almost full to the brim of red wine, text emblazoned above it reading “Women With Wine - for the discerning lady interested in mingling with wine and women.” It’s a bi-weekly group, from what she can gather, and it’s in a posh enough neighborhood that she doesn’t think she’ll be accosted if she shows up. “Oh, I don’t know, Ellie,” she says, because she doesn’t love group activities with a forced agenda.
“Mum, you don’t have any friends.” Elinor tilts her head back on the sofa, accompanying her harsh words with those wide brown eyes that match her mother’s, eyes that can sparkle and shine and convince almost anyone of anything. Serena is hardly immune to her daughter’s charms, as much as she might wish she were. “You don’t even do anything outside of the hospital, just go to the pub with your coworkers and watch episodes of Countdown with Jason. You’ve still got some life in you yet, I think. You’re hardly an old maid.”
“Thanks for that,” Serena says dryly, but looks it over all the same. It’s tempting, so tempting, to do something that’s just for her, something frivolous and fun and decadent. There’s a fee, of course, but she can justify the expense, because it’s cheaper than a night spent at Albie’s, quaffing a bottle or two of shiraz.
It floats around in her mind the next day, something her thoughts flit to when she has a spare moment. It’s when she finishes up a frustrating and exhausting meeting about hospital staffing and finances, immediately gets called into an emergency surgery, is on the receiving end of a patient’s multi-colored food poisoning, and knows she’s expected to go home and cook cottage pie in good humor that she decides it’s something she deserves. A night off, if nothing else. She calls the number on the page, puts her name on a list, and sets aside the twenty quid for the event.
- - -
The car pulls to a stop outside a quaint home in a nice neighborhood, yard manicured to within an inch of its life. Bernie looks it over skeptically, already feeling rumpled in comparison and wonders how on earth she got talked into this.
“Charlie, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
Her daughter just rolls her eyes, leans across to bump against her shoulder. “C’mon, Mum. You’ve been moping around that dingy flat since you and dad split. It’s time you made some proper friends. Maybe even met someone!”
“I hardly think a posh wine club is the ideal place to meet interested women, Charlotte.” It’s awkward, still, to say it out loud, to freely discuss her sexuality with her children. But her whole chest warms at the way Charlotte is trying to be there for her, how far they’ve come in repairing their strained relationship.
“Can’t hurt to try, can it?” Charlotte practically shoves her out the car door, pulling it closed before Bernie can change her mind. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t!” she calls out the open window with a jaunty salute as she pulls away, leaving Bernie standing uncomfortably on the curb. She sighs, fingering the lighter in her pocket and turns to the house like she’s facing a dress inspection, straightening her spine and squaring her shoulders as she walks up the front path.
Bernie is greeted at the door by a perky blonde who introduces herself as Cynthia and leads her into a sitting room full of middle-aged women chit-chatting in small groups. Ducking toward the back, Bernie manages to snag the last seat in the corner, balancing the provided tray with the small plastic wine glass, pile of notecards and stub of a pencil in her lap. Finds herself already eyeing the exit and wondering if it’s too late to slip out for a smoke.
“I take it this wasn’t your idea?” The husky voice cuts through the chatter and Bernie turns to face the woman in the next seat. She’s greeted by sparkling brown eyes and a wry smile that makes her pulse jump.
“Ah, no,” she stumbles, trying to recover. “My daughter thought this would be a good idea. I’m not exactly sure why.” Bernie lowers her voice, inexplicably compelled to confide in this stranger. “I don’t even drink wine, if I’m honest.”
The woman presses an elegant hand to her chest in shock. “You don’t drink wine?! Well, I’ll try not to hold it against you.” She extends her hand to grasp Bernie’s, her palm warm and smooth. “Serena Campbell. My daughter suggested this as well, likely because I drink enough wine for the both of us.”
Bernie can’t help but chuckle, already charmed by her new acquaintance. “Bernie Wolfe. I’ll make sure to crib off your notes, since you’re the expert.”
“I do pride myself on being the best.” Serena throws a quick wink, but anything further is interrupted by Cynthia clearing her throat and drawing the attention of the room. They both turn to face front, but Bernie can feel her eyes sliding back to Serena like filings to a magnet.
Cynthia claps her hands once, sharply, and Bernie wonders if there’s a bit of a dictator lurking under her pearls and cardigan. “Ladies, welcome to Women With Wine. If you’re new this month, make sure to fill out the information card and leave it in the basket on your way out. If you’re old hat, then you know the routine: Study, Sip, Scribble, Say.” Bernie shoots a look at Serena and then very quickly has to look away because she can see the humor dancing in Serena’s eyes and doesn’t think she’ll be able to keep a straight face through this whole endeavor.
The first wine is brought out, poured into their small glasses. It’s white, and Serena mutters something about a waste of grapes. “First, we study. What do you smell? What does it look like? What can you surmise from its appearance?” Cynthia has quite a flair for the dramatic and Bernie assiduously doesn’t look at Serena as she takes a whiff of the glass in front of her.
“Smells like sour grapes. And old melon. And it looks like watery piss,” Serena says, unimpressed. “How long do I have to sniff this before I’m allowed a sip?”
“I think we’d better wait for our fearless leader up there to tell us when to move to the next step. Wouldn’t want to upset the Wine Minister,” Bernie replies, feels a rush of pleasure at Serena’s throaty answering chuckle.
They’re given the go-ahead to take a sip, and Cynthia reminds them not to gulp, but rather to savor, and Bernie can practically hear Serena’s eye roll. The rest of the assembled women are daintily sipping and Bernie feels lucky to have found herself in this back corner, with Serena at her side and not next to some Posh Name McGuffin.
“Now scribble away, my darlings. Scribble your thoughts. Is it sweet? Savory? Are there notes of oak or fresh cut grass?” Cynthia begins flitting around the room, looking over the shoulders of the participants, commenting on what they’ve written down, murmuring feedback, giving gentle touches and condescending smiles. Bernie looks down at her paper, twirls the small pencil between her fingers, sees Serena watching the movement, one hand toying with the pendant of her necklace, her throat contracting as she swallows. She glances up and meets Bernie’s eyes, covers her staring by taking another small sip of wine.
“Doesn’t get better with time,” she says with a slight grimace and Bernie’s lips tip up in a small smile.
“What’ve you discovered?” Cynthia says in Bernie’s ear, making Bernie jump, bringing her back to the task at hand, dragging her eyes away from Serena. “Mmm, nothing written down? Not very encouraging, dear,” she says, making a small tutting noise, gently squeezing Bernie’s shoulder, her manicured nails digging in ever so slightly.
“We just wanted to make sure we’d studied carefully enough, dear. Didn’t want to scribble away without having sipped properly.” Serena’s voice is charming and flowery, with an edge of steel running through it. She empties her glass with a pointed air. Cynthia straightens, drops her hand from Bernie’s shoulder and walks away, doesn’t spare them a second glance.
“Oh, you’ve offended Malbec Thatcher now,” Bernie says under her breath and Serena just smiles.
“Drink up, Ms. Wolfe. Have to make room for the next wine. I think we’ll need it to get through this evening.”
Two more whites are met with equal disdain by Serena, her wry comments and pointed barbs making Bernie laugh more than she has in months. She feels like a schoolgirl whispering with a classmate, trying to avoid the ire of the teacher as they mutter behind the gaggle of women hanging on Cynthia’s every word.
The last wine is poured, this one a red. The room is warm and Bernie can’t tell if it’s from the press of bodies in the small sitting room or the number of glasses she’s quaffed.
“Thank god!” Serena’s voice is fervent and appreciative. “Something drinkable, at last.” She takes a slow sip, humming with evident pleasure.
Bernie loses track of what she’s doing, plastic cup dangling in her fingertips an inch from her lips, her gaze glued to Serena; her eyes are closed, cheeks gently flushed, a quick flash of pink showing as her tongue darts out to catch the last drop of red from the rim of her glass. Serena is, in a word, spectacular and Bernie finds herself completely transfixed.
“What?” Serena’s voice breaks Bernie’s trance. “Have I got something on my face?”
“N-no, nothing.” Bernie gulps her ration of wine, completely missing the notes of currant or the vanilla finish Cynthia had been discussing moments ago, only feeling the burn of alcohol down her throat, the burn of embarrassment on her cheeks. She can feel Serena watching her as she fumbles with her pencil, thinks she’s not fooling anyone with her attempt to look absorbed in the note-writing process.
She thinks Serena is watching her still as they all get ready to leave, keeps catching her gaze out the corner of her eye as they move around the room in a shuffle of coats and fare-thee-wells. Charlotte’s words spin in the back of Bernie’s mind and to a degree Bernie knows she’s right. Since her return from Afghanistan, since the divorce and the end of her relationship with Alex, she’s done little but work and put time into shoring up her uncertain relationships with her children. She can’t remember the last time she made a friend, the last time she had as much genuine fun as she’s had with Serena this evening. The possibility of friendship alone is worth taking a chance, but as she sneaks another glance at Serena’s profile, the shadowed dimple of her chin, a traitorous, hopeful part of her wonders if it could possibly be more.
Before she can second guess herself, Bernie snags one of the extra notecards, hand trembling slightly as she scribbles her phone number in pencil on the back. When she turns back, Serena is standing closer than expected. They practically collide, hands flailing to catch one another’s arms as they regain their balance, laughing out their apologies.
“It was lovely to meet you, Bernie.” The words rouse a flock of butterflies in Bernie’s stomach, the wide and genuine smile turns those butterflies into a stampede of rhinoceros. “Thank you for making tonight bearable.”
“It was nice meeting you, too.” Bernie hesitates a moment, swallows against her suddenly dry throat before holding out the unevenly folded card. “If, ah, if you ever wanted to get together for a cup of coffee, or, or something, that’s my number. Should you want it for, you know. Anything.” Her face heats and she knows she must be a hundred shades of red, can see the humor twinkling in Serena’s eyes. Also sees consideration, a spark of interest that bolsters her courage and she manages a crooked smile, head tilting to one side.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” It could be a dismissal, a polite exit from an uncomfortable conversation, but the arch of Serena’s eyebrow, the way her eyes track slowly over Bernie from head to toe and back again, the lingering brush of their fingers as she takes the card and tucks it into her handbag, all combine to ignite a spark of hope in Bernie.
They walk out together, and Bernie can see Charlotte idling in front of the house. “I’ll, ah, be seeing you,” Bernie says, wrongfooted and uncomfortable, doesn’t know how to say a proper goodbye. So she sticks out her hand, grasps Serena’s in it again, and the warm smoothness of her palm already feels familiar, friendly. Then, aware that her daughter is watching, Bernie drops their joined hands, makes herself walk at a normal pace to the car, and just dares a look back and a wave as she slides inside.
“Who was that, Mum?” Charlotte says, her tone playful, happy. “A friend? Did you make a friend on your very first night out?” Bernie resists the urge to stick out her tongue and to tell her daughter to shut up.
When she gets home that night, she finally plugs in the charging dock Cameron bought for her birthday, making sure her phone is settled in it on the nightstand before she goes to sleep.
- - -
Serena fumbles with her car keys, doesn’t know if she’s more off-kilter from all the wine or from meeting Bernie. Her hand still feels a little tingly from their handshake, her heart beating out a slightly frenetic rhythm in her chest. She sets her purse on the passenger seat, reaches in to touch the haphazardly folded card, as if to ensure its existence, takes a deep breath, then starts the car and makes her way home.
Neither Jason nor Elinor have decided to wait up for her and Serena is glad, as she’s not quite sure how to answer their questions yet. The wine club was decidedly silly, ridiculous even, but spending an hour and a half with Bernie Wolfe was not. What is she supposed to say when her daughter asks how it went?
Serena hangs her coat on the hook, steps out of her shoes and neatly lines them up next to the wall, a bit of her usual order a refreshing change from the excited chaos roiling about in her stomach, in her chest. She can’t think of the last time she enjoyed herself so well, of the last time she made a friend who didn’t also work at Holby City Hospital. Serena goes up the stairs quietly, not wanting to disturb the peace and quiet of the household, shuts the door to her bedroom firmly. She pulls Bernie’s number from her purse, sets it, along with her phone, on her bedside table. She’s not ready to call, not yet, doesn’t want to seem overeager. Best to wait a bit.
Waiting a bit is easier said than done, because Serena wakes in the morning with Bernie on her mind and the folded phone number just within reach, tantalizing and full of promise.
“How was the wine thing?” Elinor asks, bouncing into the kitchen all full of vim and vigor, while Serena is still pouring her coffee, her robe loosely tied, her hair a mess.
Serena turns, leans against the counter, holding her mug between her hands. “It was...well, it was fine, I suppose.”
“You suppose? That’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Wine was involved, right?” Elinor sidles up next to her mother, reaches into the cabinet to grab a mug of her own. “Did you meet anyone?”
Though she knows Elinor is just asking if Serena’s made a friend, the question strikes her as one that could be about a more romantic topic. Serena has never really spoken about her love life with her daughter. Elinor knew, of course, about her brief, ill-advised reunion with Edward, and she knew about Robbie, but beyond that, Serena has kept Elinor in the dark, unsure how to share this piece of herself with her sharp-tongued offspring. “I did,” she says carefully. “A woman called Bernie.”
Elinor scrunches her nose. “That’s not a great name. Is she eighty?” Serena laughs, rolls her eyes, thinks she’ll leave out any details of sparks flying, of extended eye contact, of fluttering stomachs, for another day.
“No, she’s probably my age, doesn’t know a thing about wine. And that wine club is hardly the place for her to learn. We were drinking wine that was probably bought at Tesco’s.” The last part is said with a sneer. Not that there isn’t a place for Tesco’s wine, but it isn’t at an event she had to fork over twenty quid to attend.
“You’re such a snob, Mum.”
Serena sniffs primly into her coffee cup. “It’s not snobbish to have standards, Elinor.”
“Whatever.” Serena stops herself from commenting as Ellie stirs a day’s serving of sugar into her mug. “D’you think you’ll go again?”
She opens her mouth, closes it again. Normally wild horses wouldn’t be able to drag her back to an evening of gossiping wives and horrid wine, not when she could drink far better in the peace of her own home. At the moment, however, all she can remember is dark eyes, messy blonde hair, a thin mouth lifted in a teasing smile and all the cheap wine in the world suddenly seems worth it.
“You know, Ellie, I just might.”
She ends up grabbing the card from her bedside table, tucking it in her purse on the way out the door. Goes as far as propping it up against the monitor on her desk, feeling every inch a foolish girl instead of a world class surgeon. It catches her eye every time she stops in her office, the bold, scratchy numbers underlined twice in pencil. More than once she reaches for her phone, but second guesses herself, never gets as far as entering the number.
The rest of her day is caught up in a whirlwind of surgery and administrative crises and the sun has set by the time she drops tiredly into her chair. Her eyes fall once again on the rumpled card, a little fizz of excitement pushing through her exhaustion. Before she can talk herself out of it she pulls her cell phone from her bag, enters “Bernie Wolfe” into her contacts. Taps out and erases no less than a half dozen text messages over the next minutes. Wonders if maybe she should call Ellie and ask how to hit the right tone.
She finally settles on simplicity: Hi Bernie, this is Serena, from wine club. I was wondering if you’d like to meet for coffee and a chat sometime?
She stares at the blinking cursor, thumb hovering over the “send” button. “Come on, Campbell. Be brave.” She taps the screen decisively, listens for the little whoosh noise that indicates the text has sent and ignores the rolling of her stomach.
Serena doesn’t have long to wait before three dots appear below her message. And then they sit there. And sit there. Serena starts to wonder if Bernie’s died or something. The dots vanish and are replaced with the grey bubble of a text message.
I’d like that :) Short and to the point, but the words bring a full-fledged grin to Serena’s face. She’s still grinning as she starts to reply, names a coffee shop in her neighborhood, asks what day works best for Bernie’s schedule.
It takes some texting, a bit of negotiating back and forth, but they eventually settle on a date in three days, at a respectable time of four o’clock. Serena wonders if she should’ve just called but thinks having the distance to type and consider her words is probably for the best.
Looking forward to it Serena types out, the schoolgirl giddiness refusing to ebb. She’s out of practice in this, out of practice making friends, but she feels like she’s done well enough for one day, thinks she’s toed the line between friendly and flirty, won’t scare Bernie off if all they’re destined to be is pals. Her phone lights up with Bernie’s reply: Me too.
- - -
The three days pass in a blur that Bernie barely remembers as she stands across the street from the quaint local coffee shop. She checks her phone - five minutes ‘til. Paces back and forth, tugging the wrinkles out of the long white blouse Charlotte had convinced her to wear, smoothing her damp palms along the thighs of her best black jeans. Checks the time again.
She wants a cigarette to calm her nerves, but doesn’t want to go into the coffee shop smelling of smoke. Forces herself to take a deep breath and crosses the street, heart pounding with each step.
A bell jingles softly as she pushes open the door, her eyes scanning eagerly over the warm, homey interior, quickly focusing on the familiar face in the back corner of the cafe. Serena’s smile lights up her whole face and Bernie can feel it’s warmth from across the room. She smiles in return, gives a little wave as she turns to the counter. Serena’s gaze on her back is a palpable force and Bernie is so distracted she orders the first thing she reads off the board after the barista prompts her for a second time.
Bernie shoves her hands in her pockets to keep from fidgeting as she waits, tries and fails to stop herself from glancing toward Serena. Finally her name is called and she grabs the oversized mug, holds it steady as she walks across the room and slides into the chair across from Serena.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” Serena says, her voice all husky and warm and Bernie has to stop a shiver from going down her spine. “Good to see you.” Her hands are cupping her mug and Bernie finds herself looking down at Serena’s fingers; idly tapping out an erratic rhythm against the porcelain, short, perfunctory nails, carefully manicured. Serena’s appearance is so elegant, clean, and she can’t help but feel slightly haggard in comparison.
“You too,” Bernie says, finds her voice a bit raspy, quiet, clears her throat. “How’s your day been?” She realizes then how little she knows about Serena - nothing except her feelings about wine, and that she has a daughter.
Serena huffs out a laugh at that, stretches slightly in her chair and Bernie watches the movement, watches as Serena’s torso elongates, swallows. “It’s been long. It started at two in the morning - the perils of being an on-call surgeon,” she adds by way of explanation.
“You could have canceled!” Bernie is quick to say, slightly horrified that Serena’s been on her feet for so long, worried that she’s keeping Serena from much-needed rest.
“Oh, please,” Serena says, her hand moving from her mug to pat Bernie’s arm. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” Her hand stays where it is, thumb brushing slightly against the soft skin on the underside of Bernie’s forearm. Bernie flushes with pleasure, at the words, at the touch.
They linger over their coffee, their chemistry undeniable, practically crackling between them. Bernie wonders all the while if Serena feels it too, keeps thinking about the feeling of Serena’s fingers on her arm, warmed by the mug of coffee, gentle and soothing. Serena extracts a promise from Bernie to meet at a local pub in two days, kisses Bernie’s cheek in farewell, and Bernie sits for a long time in the coffee shop, occasionally touching her face, the shadow of Serena’s mouth lingering.
The next meeting of Women With Wine isn’t for a few weeks but Bernie thinks Serena has a vendetta to make sure Bernie is prepared for it, armed with wine knowledge. They order whites, yes, but mostly reds, and with every sip, Bernie can only think of the first time they met, when Serena drank down the dark liquid, the hums that emanated from low in her throat. She finds that when Serena lets her order, she tends towards reds, learns Serena loves Shiraz best of all. It’s what she ends up ordering most often. How can Bernie ask for anything else when the mere suggestion of it makes Serena’s eyes go dark?
Between wine and coffee and dinners at candlelit restaurants, Serena lets Bernie into her life, tells Bernie about her daughter, her nephew, her work. She is witty and smart, shocks a laugh out of Bernie more than once. Bernie likes it, finds that spending time with Serena is like drinking wine, leaves her with a warm feeling suffusing her body, leaves her feeling happy and sated.
Bernie, too, shares. Talks about her family, her divorce, her children. Tiptoes around the idea of Alex, doesn’t mention specifics and Serena doesn’t press for them. She talks more around Serena than she ever did around Marcus, finds that she likes it more than she thought she did, finds it easier, too. She lets loose her braying laugh in restaurants and doesn’t even clap a hand to her mouth to cover the sound, because she likes the way Serena’s eyes light up, the way her own laughter joins in.
Charlotte’s commented on Bernie’s mood, notices that she seems lighter, less prone to moping around her flat, says wryly that she’s finding it hard to find room in Bernie’s increasingly busy calendar. “I was just joking, Mum,” she says, when Bernie starts apologizing. She wants to tell her daughter about Serena, but finds herself hesitant to talk about her, to really be honest and say out loud what Serena is coming to mean to her, because that means admitting it to herself too.
- - -
Serena rushes through the door at the next Women With Wine meeting a few minutes late, warm and out of breath. Her last surgery had run long and it was only through sheer determination and a complete disregard for the speed limit that she made it here at all. She hangs her long red coat on the peg and pads quietly into the sitting room. Smiles when she sees Bernie at the back holding an extra tray, slips into the empty seat beside her.
“Hi,” she whispers breathlessly. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Glad to see you’ve managed to avoid the wrath of Commandant Chianti.” Bernie purses her lips, her mouth in a moue of amusement, and Serena knows she’s holding back a laugh, feels an answering giggle rise in her own throat. “We already got quite the lecture about proper etiquette.” Before Serena can reply, a loudly cleared throat draws their attention to the front of the room where Cynthia is glaring at them disapprovingly. Their eyes meet briefly, both of them looking quickly down at their trays before they accidentally burst out laughing.
Tonight is all about reds, starting with a Dornfelder that’s so sweet Bernie leans over, whispers out the corner of her mouth that Cynthia has slipped them Ribena as a test. Serena snorts, nudging her with an elbow and shushes her before the giggles get worse.
“Now we’ll move on to the dryer reds, starting with a Spanish Malbec I think you’ll enjoy.” Cynthia starts to make her way around the room, pouring a small ration into each woman’s tiny plastic cup. “You’ll notice that we’re serving this wine at room temperature. This is very important. Reds should never be served chilled. Doing so entirely destroys their flavor profile.”
Serena knows she shouldn’t speak up. Knows that this “club” is more about Cynthia showing off her posh home than it is learning anything about wine. Alas, showing restraint on a topic she knows almost everything about has never been one of her strong suits.
“Actually, Cynthia?” Serena smiles sweetly, hand raised in the air, ignores Bernie cough of warning. “That’s a common myth. The ideal temperature for red service is slightly chilled, between ten and fifteen degrees, depending on the body of the wine.” Her answer is word-perfect, as if lifted from a textbook. “I think I studied that correctly.” Serena’s smile widens as Cynthia’s lips narrow to a thin line, splotches of color appearing on her cheeks. All eyes are on Serena now, the first person to ever question Cynthia’s expertise.
“Thank you for that...interesting fact, Serena,” she grits out, tone dripping with false civility. “Something new for us all to learn.” She turns away sharply, resuming filling glasses with stilted movements. Serena can’t help a smug chuckle as she leans back in her chair, arms crossed.
“Seig heil, fraulein,” Bernie mutters, leaning close enough that her breath tickles warmly against Serena’s neck. “Are you this bossy about everything?”
Serena cocks an eyebrow, tongue wetting her lips. “Wouldn’t you like to find out?” she purrs, enjoying the flush of pink creeping up Bernie’s neck.
“Not sure. You’re a bit scary.” Serena gapes, mock offence on her features, reaches over to pinch Bernie’s thigh in retaliation. Bernie is faster, though; catches Serena’s fingers before they make contact. A moment passes and instead of releasing them Bernie lightly tangles their fingers together, hidden from view between their chairs. Serena’s heart is pounding in her ears so loudly she’s afraid everyone can hear it. She keeps her eyes pointedly forward as she slots their fingers more tightly together, strokes her thumb softly back and forth against Bernie’s.
They only drop their hold on one another to take notes on the Malbec. Serena chuckles when she sees Bernie pointedly write would be better served chilled across the top of her card. She brightens up when Cynthia announces the next wine is a Shiraz, but sighs in disappointment when she sees the label.
“What a shame. I have five better bottles in my pantry as we speak. The body on this one is far too lean.”
“I do prefer a fuller body.” Bernie’s voice is low in her ear and when Serena risks a glance in her direction she finds herself caught up in Bernie’s dark, intense gaze.
Serena swallows, wishing she had a glass of even mediocre wine to wet her suddenly dry throat. “Perhaps you should come over for a private tasting. We could find out if I have something more to your liking?” Her stomach flutters, worried she has pushed their harmless flirting too far, that she’s misread Bernie’s interest.
Bernie’s gaze flicks from Serena’s eyes to her lips and back again. For one breathless moment Serena thinks Bernie might close the space between them, might kiss her right in the middle of Cynthia’s sitting room. The possibility makes her dizzy with longing and without thinking she sways forward slightly in her seat.
“Shiraz, ladies?” Cynthia’s voice jolts them back to reality, her arm reaching between them to fill their glasses. “Hopefully it’s chilled enough for you, Serena.” She spins on her heel and marches away, spine ramrod straight.
“I don’t think Cynthia is going to be heading up your fan club anytime soon.”
“I should say not.” The heat of the moment is gone, but Bernie’s eyes are still bright and her soft smile warms Serena more than any wine can.
As the night ends, they walk out together, Bernie helping Serena into her coat in the foyer. Their hands are so close they almost brush as they walk down the steps, turn onto the sidewalk and head toward Serena’s car.
“What are you doing tomorrow evening?” Serena asks, desire making her blunt. She leans against her car, looks up at Bernie, eyes dark and honest.
“Having a meeting of the Women With Wine Satellite Society?” Bernie asks, her voice tinged with hopefulness. Serena laughs, nods, gives Bernie her address, tells her to be there around seven o’clock.
- - -
Bernie wonders if she needs to pack an overnight bag. She wonders if it would be like bringing an umbrella on a day it’s supposed to rain - the surest way to ward off a deluge. It’s also early days; they’ve not done anything more than chaste hand-holding and lips pressed to cheeks, but the promise flickering in those gestures. Bernie puts a toothbrush in her tote, tucked next to her chapstick and supposes that’s enough.
She drives up to Serena’s house, pulls into the driveway. There’s a light on over the front steps, casting a warm glow around the scene, so like Serena herself. Flower boxes sit in the windows, well-tended and neat. The lawn is mowed, the sidewalk clear, and Bernie isn’t sure she can ever let Serena see where she lives.
Knocking on the door, Bernie fidgets, shifting her weight between her feet, feels awash in a sense of relief when the door opens, when she sees Serena’s lovely, open face. She looks nice, her lips full and pink, her cheeks rouged ever so slightly, her eyes bright with excitement and happiness. Bernie wishes she’d thought to drag a mascara brush across her lids, or to do something besides lipgloss. But Serena grasps her hands, pulls her into the house and Bernie does her best to shut off her worry.
The inside of Serena’s home is just as warm and lovely as the woman herself. Overstuffed chairs, accent rugs, a scented candle burning in the entryway, making the house smell like fall. Serena takes Bernie’s coat and hangs it on the hook right next to her red one, urges Bernie to take off her shoes. “Come in, come in. Sit down anywhere you like.”
Bernie opts for the loveseat, thinks she’s giving Serena the option to sit next to her if she likes, or to sit in the chair opposite the settee. Serena comes into the room holding a bottle of wine under each arm, a third in her left hand, and two glasses in her right. It doesn’t even seem as if she pauses for a moment to assess her seating options, simply plonks herself right down next to Bernie, their thighs touching, and Bernie can feel the warmth of her through the thin material of her shirt.
Serena pulls a corkscrew from her trousers pocket. “I thought we’d start our tasting with the sort of wine you could get at M&S, then move up to some of the rarer wines, older vintages.” Bernie’s about to protest, that she doesn’t want Serena to waste good wine on her, but Serena holds up her hand. “Wine is meant to be drunk with good friends, it’s not meant to sit in dusty wine cellars forever. You spend your whole life waiting for the perfect moment to open the bottle, you never give the wine a chance to make the perfect moment.” She opens the bottle with ease, generously fills each glass. “Never saw the point in tasting portions,” she says with a smile.
Bernie lifts the glass, sniffs it experimentally. “Do we need to study the wine first? Where are our notepads for the scribbling?” Serena’s only answer is to raise her eyebrow and lift the glass to her lips, the pink of her lipstick leaving a light imprint on the rim.
“It’s peppery,” Bernie says, when she’s had a sip. She swirls the liquid in the glass, takes another taste. “There’s heat to it.” Serena nods encouragingly and Bernie feels like a star pupil.
“You’ve got it. It’s quite a juicy wine, rich.” Serena’s voice drags out the word rich, rolling it in her mouth, savoring the word as she savors the drink, and Bernie can feel her mouth open, her lips part, feels a heat not coming from the wine. All the flirting has built up between them, heavy and tantalizing like dusky grapes on a vine, waiting to be plucked.
They don’t finish the bottle, because Serena says there are better wines to be had, that she just wanted to give Bernie a taste of one of the good ones at a bargain price. “For when you just need to have a serviceable wine at hand because you never know who will be popping over,” Serena says and Bernie swallows, because her meaning is abundantly clear.
“I do understand the importance of the historical origins of Shiraz,” Serena says as she pulls the cork out of the next bottle, “but I’ve found I prefer the Australian varieties. This one has quite a - a full body.” Bernie feels a bit of relief at their banter, that they can act as they always have, every comment holding a double meaning, sardonic wit lacing every remark.
Bernie lets the liquid sit on her tongue, lets it fill her mouth, lets the flavor sink in, savors it with her eyes closed, but all she’s thinking of is Serena. When she opens her eyes, Serena is staring at her, her gaze trained on Bernie’s mouth, a flush to her cheeks that’s from more than wine and make-up. “It’s good,” Bernie manages, thinks her voice doesn’t sound too ragged. “It’s rather firm.”
Bernie’s wine vocabulary has increased since meeting Serena. She’s not even sure she uses all the words correctly, at least to describe the wine, but from Serena’s reaction to them, she’s getting the results she’s after all the same.
Again, after a glass and a half Serena sets aside that bottle, reaches for another. “I’ve been waiting to pop this cork,” she says, her tone neutral, but her eyes sparkling. She leverages herself up with a hand on Bernie’s thigh, a squeeze of her fingers, and Bernie almost flinches from the intensity of the touch.
“Just been waiting for the right moment?” Bernie asks, can’t help how her voice goes high, can’t stop the reddening of her cheeks, the rush of heat to the back of her neck.
“Mmmm,” Serena says noncommittally, her focus back on the bottle of wine in front of her. The cork slides out easily, just a small ‘pop’ as it comes free. The wine is a deep garnet color, and Bernie can smell it before she’s even brought it to her nose. It makes her think of Christmas. She settles into the couch, her glass jostling a little and she just misses her mouth as she goes to take a sip, a drop of wine falling to her cheek.
There’s not a moment for Bernie to react, because Serena’s set down her own glass, is pulling Bernie’s out of her grasp, and her mouth is right next to Bernie’s face, her breath hot, her tongue darting out to capture the wayward wine, soft and delicate. “An excellent vintage,” she says with a smirk, and doesn’t move away.
Bernie finally finds an appreciation for wine when she tastes it on Serena’s lips. Her tongue chases the taste, past Serena’s lips, delves into her mouth to chase those drops. When mixed with the ineffable Serena Campbell, wine is nigh irresistible.
It’s been a long time since Bernie’s kissed someone, since she’s felt the rush of desire in the pit of her stomach, felt heat pooling between her thighs. She slides her hand against Serena’s waist, her fingers pushing at her loose shirt, grazing the soft skin underneath. She feels the hitch in Serena’s breath, the way her chest moves against Bernie’s shoulder. They pull apart, just enough so Bernie can see Serena’s wild eyes, pinked cheeks, red lips; stained from wine, flush from use.
Serena moves her hand to Bernie’s cheek, cradles her face so gently, makes Bernie feel fragile, delicate, lovely. “I’ve been wanting to pop that cork too,” she says, her voice low, that husky timbre making Bernie shiver, as it always does. Serena’s hand slides into Bernie’s hair, uses it to pull her closer. Their lips meet again, and Bernie closes her eyes at the sensation, can’t get enough of it. Her own arms go around Serena, helping adjust their position, easing the tension in her back, their lips coming together with more surety. Serena’s almost straddling Bernie on the loveseat in the front room of her home, the blinds on the windows open, any neighbor walking by could look in.
The feel of Serena in her arms is surreal, almost too much, but it’s the feeling of Serena’s hand slipping beneath her shirt that makes Bernie’s brain short-circuit. Serena’s fingers are as clever as her tongue as they palm Bernie’s breast through her bra, all the while her mouth continuing its welcome assault on Bernie’s.
And then the front door bangs open and Bernie doesn’t think she’ll be needing that toothbrush after all as they spring apart, as far as the loveseat will allow. Their flushed, embarrassed faces meet Elinor Campbell’s wide-eyed, disbelieving gaze.
“You must be Bernie.”
- - -
Serena leans her back against the door with a sigh. Bernie had rushed out moments earlier, understandably discomfited by the interruption and none too interested in being in the middle of a Campbell family domestic. They hadn’t even had a chance to talk, just a quick squeeze of hands, a murmured promise to call and a rueful smile of support.
She finds Elinor sitting at the kitchen table, two glasses poured full of Serena’s best Shiraz, the one which she had hoped to be drinking in bed with a certain leggy blonde later that evening. Instead, she now has to face what is sure to be a tremendously awkward conversation with her daughter while wearing her laciest lingerie beneath her clothes.
They sit across from one another in silence, harkening back to countless pre-lecture standoffs in Elinor’s youth. Except this time the roles seem to be reversed. Serena takes a slow sip of her wine; it really is an excellent vintage.
“I thought you were staying at Caitlyn’s tonight.” A neutral topic to open the lines of communication.
“I thought you dated men.” Right.
Serena sighs heavily. “Elinor…”
“When were you planning on telling me about her?” Elinor’s eyes are hard and her voice channels her grandmother’s so accurately it instinctively raises Serena’s hackles.
“I have told you about Bernie,” Serena snaps back. “You know that we’re friends.” She knows she’s prevaricating, knows Elinor will never fall for it, not with what she had likely seen. But the last thing Serena wants to do is face her daughter’s accusatory gaze when she can still smell Bernie’s scent on her clothes, can still feel the memory of her fingertips skimming along her waist.
“Friends?!” Elinor’s eyebrows make to climb right off her forehead. “Mum, you had your hand up her shirt!”
“And what business is it of yours, exactly?” Her arms settle across her chest, defensive and backfooted, she can feel the flush of embarrassment on her cheeks. “You may be living under my roof, but you’re an adult, Elinor. I give you your privacy and I’d thank you to give me mine.” It’s an old argument, one that they have hashed over repeatedly through the years each time they rubbed one another up the wrong way.
Instead of taking the bait, Ellie sighs, hands flat on the oak table top to either side of her wineglass, thumbs twisting it back and forth by the base. “Mum, you know you can talk to me.” Her eyes are wide and soft and she looks so very young it makes Serena’s chest tight. “Is this the first time you’ve been interested in a woman? Do...do you think you’re a lesbian?”
Serena catches her bottom lip between her teeth. As much as doesn’t want to be having this conversation with her daughter, now that it’s upon them she knows she can’t lie.
“No,” she replies carefully. “On both counts.”
Elinor’s brow furrows. “What does that mean? Have you dated women before?”
“Ellie, I really don’t think…”
“Mum.” She cuts Serena off with an exasperated roll of her eyes. “You know if you don’t tell me I’m just going to call Auntie Sian.”
They stare each other down for a long moment, until finally Serena relents. “Fine. Not many, but yes, I have dated women in the past.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not exactly something that comes up in casual conversation, Ellie. Besides, they were mostly before you were born.”
“‘Mostly?’” Elinor leans forward eagerly. “When did you...”
“Absolutely not, Elinor.” The steel is back in Serena’s voice and it makes Ellie sit back in surprise. “I’m not going to give you a bullet point list of my sexual history in order to satisfy your curiosity. There are some things that mothers and daughters simply do not need to know about one another.”
“And the other?” Ellie’s voice is soft but her eyes are sharp, fixed on Serena’s face.
“As to that…” Serena swallows, her throat dry. “I believe the more appropriate term is bisexual.” She’s not ashamed, has long since come to terms with her preferences although she doesn’t often broadcast them publicly. It’s that she’s only ever said the word to a few people and it still sits heavy and uncomfortable on her tongue, even as the truth of it buoys her.
They both sip their wine in silence, the words hanging in the air between them. Serena studies Elinor surreptitiously over the rim of her glass; her face is smooth, considering, but thankfully free of anger or disapproval. She knows how Ellie is when she’s faced with change, knows it’s best to give her space to process even if the silence makes Serena feel like she’s going to crawl out of her skin.
“Are you and Bernie dating?” Serena’s hand jerks in surprise, wine sloshing up the sides of the glass.
“I’m not entirely sure. We haven’t really talked about it.”
“But you like her?”
Serena can’t stop the grin that spreads across her face. “Very much.”
Ellie studies her a moment longer; Serena doesn’t know what she’s looking for, but whatever it is she must find it. She nods, finishes her glass of wine and rises from the table, walks around to wrap her arms around Serena’s shoulders from behind her chair. Serena’s eyes mist over as she slides her hands along her daughter’s arms, turns her head to press a kiss to her temple.
“I love you, Mum.”
“I love you too, darling.” Serena’s voice is husky and Elinor gives her one more squeeze before pulling away and turning to walk from the kitchen.
Her voice floats back down the stairs to where Serena remains seated. “Next time put a sock on the doorknob!”
Serena chuckles and pours herself another glass of wine.
Across town, Bernie lays flat in bed, staring up at the ceiling, her tongue running back and forth over her lips, trying to regain any lingering taste of Serena. She falls asleep with a smile on her face and dreams of red wine and dark, sparkling eyes.
- - -
They’ve been given notice that the next meeting of Women With Wine will be held at Imàgo, one of the fanciest restaurants in Holby, one of the hardest reservations to get. There’s a bit of a dress code, but to Bernie’s mind, it’s worth it, if only to be free of the suburban confines of Cynthia’s house.
She hasn’t seen Serena since they were interrupted by Elinor, but they’ve texted. Normally, Bernie feels an abhorrence for using short messages to stand in for actual communication, but in this instance, she’s developed an appreciation for it - it’s an easy way to make sure Serena’s all right, an easy way to plan out a flirtatious remark without stumbling over her words out loud. If she had a quid for every winking face Serena sent, Bernie might have enough to buy her a replacement bottle of that nice wine.
Bernie makes the mistake of telling Charlotte about the fanciness required of this next wine outing and Charlotte latches onto the idea, pushing Bernie to go to a salon, to get her roots covered, her fringe trimmed. “Don’t you want to look your best for Serena?” she asks with a bit of an eyebrow waggle.
“It’s not like she hasn’t already seen me,” Bernie mutters, but acquiesces because Serena always looks so nice, so elegant. She sits in a chair at the salon, the smell of bleach tickling her nose, snippets of hair falling as the stylist moves around her head. It’s nice, in a relaxing sort of way. When she’s all dried and fluffed, her hair shorter, brighter, cleaner, Charlotte’s approving nod helps convince Bernie that this was the right thing to do.
Her hair turns out to be just the first domino to fall, as then it becomes a shopping trip to get a nice outfit to wear. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dressed up, Mum,” Charlotte says thoughtfully, sifting through hangers of dresses, gauzy shirts. “Just your uniform.”
Bernie shrugs, follows Charlotte around the shop, letting her pull out things she thinks will look good on her mother. “I think I probably looked quite nice in my wedding dress,” she says, and Charlotte just rolls her eyes.
Bernie loathes trying on clothes, loathes having to stand naked in a small stall in a shop that isn’t kept warm enough. She almost rebels after the third outfit gets pooh-poohed by Charlotte, but then she says the magic words: “Don’t you want to look nice for Serena?” and Bernie’s mind is swayed. She goes back into the changing room, but doesn’t miss the smirk on Charlotte’s face, the self-satisfied smile that means she knows she’s found Bernie’s weakness.
She ends up with a dress, navy and simple, but Charlotte assures her with the right accessories she’ll fit in with Cynthia and the rest of her posh squad, says she’ll help Bernie get ready, a promise that makes the whole shopping endeavor worth it. As they’re standing in line to pay, Charlotte gets a serious look on her face, one that mirrors Bernie’s expression more often than not.
“How serious is it, with Serena?” she asks, and Bernie chews her lip thoughtfully, giving herself time to answer.
“I’m not sure,” she answers truthfully, because it’s one thing to flirt endlessly and have a heated snog session on a loveseat, but it’s quite another to make the leap to something more serious.
“Do you want it to be?” Charlotte is like Bernie in that they are both taciturn and quiet, but when they speak, words carry weight, conversations have meaning.
Bernie’s answer to the question is instinctual; a smile gracing her lips, a shy nod of her head. Charlotte gives an answering grin, so pleased for her mother. Neither prone to overt displays of affection, Charlotte merely squeezes Bernie’s elbow as they move forward in line.
There’s a bit of a pause and then Charlotte leans into Bernie’s ear, her voice low and tinged with humor, “Aren’t you glad you’re going to look nice for her, then?”
- - -
Serena pulls into the parking lot of Imàgo, smooths the fabric of her dress, fiddles with the pendant of her necklace nervously. She hasn’t seen Bernie since she’d been caught with her hand up Bernie’s blouse, has only heard her voice once, when she called to make sure Bernie would show up tonight.
She feels like she knows Bernie well enough by now that there’s a chance doubt has seeded itself in her mind, that she’ll have talked herself out of pursuing whatever it is they’re about to embark on together. She offered to pick Bernie up, so they could come together. And go home together, Serena thinks, but Bernie declined. It makes Serena nervous.
Imàgo’s stringent dress code means Serena’s wearing a dress, a light pink shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and she’s even located a pair of heels from the back of her closet. Elinor gave a nod of approval as Serena was on her way out, had opened her mouth to make some no doubt lewd comment about getting lucky with Bernie, but Serena had pulled the door shut before she could hear the words about to escape from Elinor’s mouth.
She sees a mop of blonde hair near the door and her heart begins to beat more quickly because she knows it’s Bernie, thinks Bernie has waited outside for her, briefly entertains the idea of walking into the restaurant on Bernie’s arm, their bodies close and warm. As she nears the entrance, Bernie turns at the sound of Serena’s heels, and Serena pulls up short. This is a Bernie she’s never seen before, a Bernie with makeup on, with diamonds in her earlobes, with her legs bare from the knees down. Her hair is different, shorter, and Serena can see so much neck, it makes the breath catch in her throat. There’s a cigarette hanging from Bernie’s lips, like she’s been trying to get the effects of the nicotine without having to light up and Serena thinks perhaps Bernie is just as nervous.
“You look lovely,” Serena says, her voice a little rough, a little strained, because she’s trying so hard to sound normal. She gives Bernie’s cheek a peck, can smell Bernie’s shampoo as she pulls back.
Bernie’s cheeks flush and she smiles shyly. “So do you,” she says. “But then you always do.” It’s Serena’s turn to blush and she slides her hand into the crook of Bernie’s elbow, holds her close, wants there to be no chance of Bernie misconstruing what Serena wants from tonight, from Bernie. It seems Bernie is of the same mind as her hand comes up to cover Serena’s, to give it a quick squeeze as they walk inside.
The hostess leads them to a long table in the back corner of the restaurant. Cynthia’s pinched face at the sight of them is far from welcoming, but it is expected. They take seats as far from the head of the table as possible, Serena moving her chair infinitesimally closer to Bernie, close enough she can feel Bernie’s body heat.
The meal has been decided for them, a prix fixe menu, complete with wine pairings. The appetizer course comes out first, with a light red wine poured into their waiting glasses. Serena can’t resist murmuring into Bernie’s ear, “This has a velvety body. Some very tart notes, but quite a smooth finish.” She lets her foot slide next to Bernie’s as she talks, their calves touching now. “Drink up,” she says to Bernie, her smile soft and secret.
“I prefer to take it slow. Drink every drop.” Bernie smirks as she takes a sip, and Serena’s eyes go straight to Bernie’s mouth as her tongue darts out to swipe a drop from the rim, her gaze tracking every movement.
Their behavior doesn’t improve as the night wears on. Serena proposes a drinking game where they sip every time Cynthia shoots a dark look in their direction, which only serves to make Bernie laugh.
The main course is steak, a garnet-red wine poured out for them. Bernie takes the first sip, her eyes closed as she takes in the flavors, and Serena finds herself slightly breathless, keyed up in anticipation. “It’s dark.” Bernie lets the liquid roll around in her mouth and Serena can picture the way her tongue is moving, realizes her lips have parted, a little breathlessly. As Bernie swallows, she opens her eyes. “It’s rich, too. Oaky.”
Serena laughs then, can’t help it. “Oaky? Oaky?” The moment is broken, somewhat, but Serena wouldn’t trade that for feeling Bernie’s shoulders shake slightly from her dry chuckle, their arms touching, their bodies close.
“Ladies, please,” Cynthia calls from her end of the table, where she’s been holding court on why red wine pairs better with red meat. Neither Bernie nor Serena has taken in a word she’s said all night, too happy to be drinking in wine and each other to pay attention to questionably factual information about fermented grapes. Their chastisement does nothing to halt their laughter, Bernie’s lips pulled in as she tries to hold in a honk that Serena knows is threatening to escape.
Dessert comes, a chocolate cake with a warm sauce drizzled over the top, and it comes with another lovely red wine. “They’re better at selecting wines than Cynthia,” Serena says under her breath, and Bernie nods.
“Not as good as you,” she says and Serena’s only mode of recourse is to slip her foot from her shoe, to slide it along Bernie’s smooth calf. She can feel Bernie’s shoulders hitch as she gasps sharply at the sensation. Serena looks at Bernie, eyebrow cocked, crooked smile on her lips, feels happy, lucky, that this woman is next to her.
Bernie sips at the wine and leans in close, her hand just grazing Serena’s where it rests atop the table. “It has a beautiful body. Warm and smooth.” Bernie’s voice is low, full of promise, and Serena can’t pretend they’re talking about the wine any more. All she can think about is the taste of wine on Bernie’s tongue, about Bernie tasting her, and she has to stand, excuse herself to the restroom. Can only come up with the mindless excuse that the wine has gone to her head.
- - -
Bernie watches Serena leave, wonders if maybe she’s gone too far, but replays the flash in her eyes, the heat on her cheeks and thinks it’s that she hasn’t gone far enough. She places her napkin neatly next to her plate, slides her chair back quietly and follows Serena to the loo.
Serena’s arms are braced against the sink and she’s looking at her flushed face in the mirror when Bernie comes in. She pointedly flips the lock on the door closed, moves toward Serena slowly, giving her every opportunity to put an end to this, to tell her to stop. Bernie can see Serena watching her in the mirror, her pupils wide, her gaze never leaving Bernie’s face as she comes up behind Serena, molds herself to Serena’s back, pressing their bodies together.
With a boldness she rarely feels, Bernie places her lips gently at the juncture of Serena’s neck and chin, her hands going around Serena’s waist. Serena stops leaning against the sink, her arms meeting Bernie’s, their hands tangling together, smooth skin against smooth skin. Serena tilts her head, giving Bernie more room to explore and Bernie takes it, her tongue flicking against Serena’s ear, nosing into the soft skin at Serena’s neck.
“Jason and Elinor are both out for the night.” Bernie feels the vibration of Serena’s voice against her lips, the hitch of her breath beneath their joined hands. Their eyes lock in the mirror, both sets wide and dark and desire coils low in Bernie’s stomach.
Serena turns in her arms, hands sliding up over Bernie’s shoulders and then they’re kissing. The familiar taste of wine, lipstick and Serena pulls a moan from Bernie, her hands skimming over warm silk to land on Serena’s hips, pulling them flush as she presses Serena back against the countertop. Serena’s tongue teases between Bernie’s lips, her thigh slotting between her legs and it’s only the knowledge that they’re in a public restroom that keeps Bernie from tugging up the hem of Serena’s lovely dress.
Breaking away with a gasp, Bernie rests her forehead against Serena’s, their ragged breaths mingling. She can see the shine in Serena’s eyes, the color in her cheeks, the lipstick smudged around her mouth, and Bernie is barely able to restrain herself from kissing her again.
“We should probably get back before Cynthia makes a fuss.” Bernie says and Serena chuckles in response, low and dark, her breath warm and damp on Bernie’s cheek.
“Cynthia? I must be losing my touch if you’re thinking about her right now.”
Bernie growls and leans forward, catching Serena’s earlobe between her teeth, Serena’s breathy gasp making her throb. “Believe me, I’m thinking of a great many things right now and none of them involve Cynthia.”
They eventually manage to separate, sharing smiles and heated glances in the mirror as they touch up their lipstick. Serena slips out first, Bernie staying behind for a few minutes, breathing deep and trying to bring her racing heart under control, before she leaves the loo and returns to the table.
The rest of the meal passes in a blur, even Cynthia’s increasingly pointed glares unable to pierce the atmosphere between them. The evening draws to a close and they exit the restaurant side by side, the chill night air a welcome counterpoint to Bernie’s overheated body. She walks Serena to her car, the sharp edge of desire between them settling into a warm anticipation, a certainty that they won’t have to wait much longer.
“Will I see you back at mine?” The question stokes the longing in Bernie, the husk in Serena’s voice telling Bernie that she is feeling the same. She leans in, barely brushing their lips together.
“Count on it.”
- - -
Serena’s hands tremble as she unlocks the front door of her house, drops her keys on the side table and hangs her coat on the peg. The hall light is on, but the rest of the house is dark and silent. Walking through to the kitchen, she clicks on the light, pulls a pair of glasses from the cabinet and a bottle from the wine rack. A piece of paper rests on the table, a scribbled note from Elinor that Serena quickly folds and stashes in a drawer, a blush heating her cheeks.
She’s just retrieving the corkscrew when she hears the front door open, close softly a moment later. Serena can’t help but hold her breath, straining to catch the rustle of fabric as Bernie sheds her coat, the soft click of her heels across the hardwood. The atmosphere thickens and without turning around Serena knows Bernie is there, watching her, and goosebumps erupt across her skin.
“I know we’ve been drinking all night, but I thought you might like a glass?” Her voice sounds odd to her own ears, thick and quavering, her throat tight.
Click, click, click. Bernie’s steps are loud in the quiet room and Serena gasps as strong, slender arms slide once more around her waist, the heat of Bernie’s skin soaking through the thin silk of Serena’s dress. Her eyes slide shut at the feel of Bernie nuzzling against her hair.
“I don’t want more wine.” Bernie’s voice is lower than Serena’s ever heard, barely audible, echoing the need that is pulsing through Serena’s veins.
The butterflies in Serena’s stomach swirl and dance, it’s an effort to keep her voice steady. “What do you want?”
Bernie’s hands tighten on her waist, spin her around; she catches only a glimpse of dark, dark eyes before she’s being kissed more fiercely than ever before. Her hands fly up automatically, anchoring themselves in messy blonde waves as she opens herself eagerly to Bernie. Tongues tangle and caress, teeth clash, hands scrabble to pull one another closer until it’s hard to tell where one of them ends and the other begins.
Serena doesn’t even realize they’re moving until her hips bump against the edge of the kitchen table. She gasps as Bernie lifts her bodily to sit on the antique oak top, steps forward to settle between Serena’s thighs. Their kiss is softer this time, a slow, sweet exploration. Bernie nips gently at Serena’s bottom lip, soothing away the sting with her tongue, detours to pepper kisses along the line of her jaw, the column of her neck.
“God, Serena.” Her words are hot against Serena’s skin, punctuated by open mouthed kisses. “I’ve been thinking about this for weeks.”
Serena hums her approval, hands skimming down Bernie’s back, feeling the play of muscles beneath the smooth fabric. “So have I. It’s been extremely...distracting.”
Bernie looks up at that, lips pursed and eyebrow raised. “Is that so? I’d love to hear more, Ms. Campbell.” Her hands dance upward along Serena’s calves, pushing beneath the hem of her dress, warm fingers stroking the curves of Serena’s thighs.
“I’m not sure I’m going to be able to speak much longer if you keep that up.” Serena’s rueful chuckle fades into a moan as Bernie’s hands inch higher.
Fingers skim across a boundary of lace, meeting warm flesh and Bernie’s eyes widen. “Jesus, Serena,” she breathes, catches Serena in a kiss as she teases a finger beneath the strap of her garter.
They’re both breathless when they break apart, bodies arcing toward one another. “Bedroom, now,” Serena growls. Bernie nods eagerly and steps back to help her down off the table.
They make their way upstairs, progress hindered somewhat by their apparent inability to keep their hands off of each other for more than a few seconds. Serena finds herself especially glad the house is empty when a picture hanging in the hall is unseated by her back hitting the wall beside it, Bernie’s mouth hot and insistent against her own.
Finally they cross the threshold into Serena’s bedroom, the bright light of the full moon illuminating them in a silver glow. They stand close, lightly pressed together, taking a moment to feel each other breathe. Bernie brushes her lips against Serena’s forehead, her cheeks, the dimple of her chin, the feeling of being treasured so strong tears prick behind Serena’s eyes. Bernie’s hands slide upward along Serena’s back, fingers hesitating at the zipper pull between her shoulders.
“May I?” Serena nods, holds her breath as Bernie slides the zipper down, gentle hands easing the straps over her shoulders until the fabric falls to the floor with a sibilant hiss. Heart fluttering, Serena resists the urge to wrap her arms around herself. She’s rarely self-conscious, has made peace with the changes time has wrought on her body, but it’s been a long time since she’s been with someone, even longer since she’s been with a woman and this moment feels so charged, so precious, it leaves her a little unbalanced.
“Oh, Serena.” Bernie’s eyes are huge and liquid in the moonlight, her face suffused with such wonder, Serena feels her skin prickle, heat racing through her veins. “You’re incredible.”
A teasing smile tugs at Serena’s lips. “And you’re overdressed. May I?” At Bernie’s nod she reaches around, pulls down the zipper, the simple shift slipping easily to the floor. Bernie’s skin is pale and luminous in the moonlight, her body lean and strong, softly curved at waist and hip, her small breasts clad in simple navy satin.
“Gorgeous,” Serena whispers, stepping close, both of them gasping as they finally press together, skin against skin. Hands roam eagerly, mapping every curve, shedding the remaining barriers of fabric as they make their way to the bed.
Serena feels like she can’t get enough of Bernie, like she may never get enough of the softness of her skin, the taste of her kiss, the whimpers and gasps that drop from her lips like prayers. Her fingers sink into silky wetness and Serena thinks deliriously that she wants to do nothing but this for the rest of her life. Could happily spend her days making Bernie writhe and arch, feel her flutter and clench around her fingers again and again.
She frowns, disappointed, when Bernie finally bats her hand away, gasps as she is rolled onto her back, pressed into the bed by Bernie’s lean hips between her thighs.
“My turn,” Bernie murmurs, kissing her way down along Serena’s torso. Pleasure overwhelms her, racing like lightning across her nerve endings with each press of Bernie’s lips, each touch of her hands. When Bernie settles between her thighs, looking up at her with that intense gaze, all Serena can do is hold on, one hand fisted in the bedsheets the other clenched in Bernie’s hair, desperately anchoring herself as she cries out into the moon-limned room.
- - -
Later, when the clouds have skidded across the moon and the only light outside is from streetlamps, Bernie gets up from Serena’s bed, pads into the bathroom, doesn’t flip the switch on until the door is closed behind behind her. She looks at herself in the mirror, really looks. She sees the wrinkles at her eyes, the creases in her neck. Her hair is tangled, a mess, and she can imagine Serena saying, “No more than usual.” She’s wearing an old t-shirt, one that Serena said belongs to Elinor. It’s faded and worn, and is hanging off her shoulder. She sees a small splotch forming, right near the neckline of the shirt, leans in closer to peer at it in her reflection, poke at it. She doesn’t notice Serena entering the bathroom, doesn’t notice until Serena’s behind her, chin tucked on Bernie’s shoulder, arm coming around to meet Bernie’s hand, gently caressing the wine-dark bruise.
“Sorry,” she says, and doesn’t sound the least bit sincere. “Everything all right?” Bernie looks at Serena’s reflection, can see the worry in her eyes, leans her head against the top of Serena’s, just for a moment.
“Yes,” she answers, because it’s the truth, because she can see the anxiety make way for pleasure in Serena’s open, honest gaze. “Let’s go back to bed.” Her voice is low, and she tangles her fingers with Serena’s, turns off the bathroom light as they walk together towards the bed. The covers are rumpled, the sheets a tangled mess. Together, they straighten it out, a quiet feeling of domesticity settling in the air.
Serena seems hesitant to curl into Bernie, as if it might be asking too much, so Bernie rolls to her side, reaches out a hand to grasp Serena’s, uses her foot to pull Serena’s legs closer. She kisses Serena, soft and sweet, lets their foreheads rest together, lets her eyelids flutter closed. She falls asleep to the measured sound of Serena’s breathing.
When she wakes, they’re even closer, Serena’s head tucked right under Bernie’s chin, her arm resting in the dip at Bernie’s waist. Bernie smiles at her face, the imprint of the pillow etched on her cheek, her hair sticking out and up, what’s left of her makeup slightly smudged beneath her eyes. It’s a privilege, Bernie thinks, to see Serena this unguarded, bare-faced and vulnerable. She levers herself out of bed, careful not to disturb Serena, thinks she understands how important sleep is to a surgeon, and pads downstairs, intent on surprising Serena with coffee, maybe even breakfast.
She stumbles a little in the dark of the house, though the sun is starting to show through the curtains. She finds light switches as she goes, ends up in the kitchen eventually. The wine from last night is still on the counter, the glasses too, and Bernie feels her face flush at the memory of Serena prone on the kitchen table, the feeling of her lace garter against Bernie’s fingers.
She busies herself trying to find a stopper for the bottle, pokes through drawers and things, finding coffee grounds and measuring scoops as she goes. In the last drawer, she finds what she’s looking for and also sees a crumpled up piece of paper. Normally she wouldn’t snoop, but she can see what looks like her name written on it and can’t stop herself from picking it up, smoothing out the wrinkles.
I’m out with Caitlyn this evening and I promise I won’t interrupt your night with your girlfriend. The metaphorical sock is on the door. Have fun with Bernie
Bernie stares at the slip of paper for bit. She twists her lips into a moue of thoughtfulness, leans against the opposite counter, stopped in her quest to bring coffee to Serena.
“Where’d you get to?” Serena’s voice stirs Bernie from her reverie, and if she thought the sight of Serena asleep in bed was endearing, it’s nothing compared to Serena wrapped in a terrycloth robe, her hair still sticking up in all directions. She’s washed her face, it’s clean and pink from scrubbing.
“Elinor thinks I’m your girlfriend?” is what comes out of Bernie’s mouth and she winces slightly at the harshness of it, as it’s not what she intended to say. Serena looks a little poleaxed and Bernie points at the note on the counter, a stark white square of panic.
“Um,” is all Serena manages, which doesn’t quite assuage Bernie’s worries. She moves into Bernie’s orbit, leans against the counter next to her, crosses her arms over her chest. “I’ve not used that word, I think she was just being a bit of a brat.” Serena smiles a little wanly, and Bernie chastises herself. Of course it’s just Elinor’s idea of a joke.
“But,” Serena continues and Bernie feels herself on full alert again. “I think that’s where this is headed, if I’m honest. Over a month of coffee and wine and restaurants, the best shag of my life - you needn’t look so smug,” she adds as Bernie smirks, unable to stop the expression from washing over her face. “Was - was it just - is that not what you want?” That same look of anxiety and fear and worry floats across Serena’s face, creases her forehead, though Bernie thinks she’s trying desperately to be nonchalant.
She takes a deep breath, decides to try for honesty too. “I’m not - I’m not very good at relationships.” Serena stiffens next to Bernie then, her face going blank and Bernie’s next words rush out in a jumble: “I say that as a warning not as a - it’s not that I’m not interested. I’m interested. Very interested.” Her neck is hot and she’s uncomfortable, fidgeting slightly, her fingers tapping against the marble counter. Serena’s face softens ever so slightly, and her hand comes up to cup Bernie’s cheek.
“You’re interested?” she asks, her voice low and beautiful, tinged with humor, and Bernie nods, turns her face to press a kiss to Serena’s palm.
“Girlfriend sounds a bit juvenile, though,” she says, crinkling her nose at the term.
“What would you prefer?” Serena asks, eyebrow arched, and Bernie knows that means she’s in for a good ribbing. “Ladyfriend? Companion? Lover?”
Bernie laughs at that, full and throaty, bleating her pleasure, and she feels Serena laughing too, collapsing against Bernie. They’re leaning into each other, a bubble of warmth and happiness, and Bernie feels it easing away the tension in her heart, the worry that she’ll muck it all up. “Maybe we’d best have another go in the bedroom, see if that lover label really works for us,” she says when she’s stopped laughing, caught her breath.
Serena’s eyebrow is arched once more. “Race you,” she says, and before Bernie can react, Serena pushes off from the counter, moving towards the stairs. Bernie’s competitive instincts take over and she launches herself after Serena, stops in her tracks when she sees the robe discarded on the floor, catches sight of Serena’s pale legs darting into the bedroom, her happy chuckle echoing down the hall.
“Coming?” Serena’s voice is flirtatious, coy, even when called from another room in the house. It’s all the inducement Bernie needs to run up the stairs after her, past the picture they knocked from the wall the previous evening, and fall onto the welcoming softness of Serena’s bed, into Serena’s waiting arms.
- - -
They stop going to wine club because, as Serena says, twenty quid is better spent on wine they can drink together, alone, without having to listen to General Gewürztraminer natter on.
In honor of their decision to save themselves from attending the dullest of wine clubs, Serena suggests they go out to dinner. (It’s also been six months since they first started sleeping together, but she isn’t sure Bernie remembers and isn’t sure if it might be the sort of thing that could send Bernie running for the hills).
Bernie suggests they invite Elinor and Charlotte, too. Perhaps they could impart some of their winely wisdom to their daughters.
It is in that setting, the four of them grouped around a table at Imàgo (a reservation gotten through sheer willpower and flirtation), that Bernie and Serena see Cynthia for the first time since their abandonment of Women With Wine. She’s there with her husband, perfectly proper in pearls, manicured fingernails, not a hair out of place.
Serena notices her first, nudges Bernie with her foot, tilts her head in Cynthia’s direction. “Should we send a bottle of wine to her in thanks?” she asks, and Bernie snorts. “Or tell her what we got up to in the bathroom on our last night in attendance?”
“Mum,” Elinor hisses, her cheeks pinking and Serena just laughs, pats Ellie’s hand with all the motherly comfort she can muster.
“Don’t worry, Elinor,” Bernie says, “I’m sure they’ve cleaned it since then.” It’s these kinds of things that make Serena marvel at how far they’ve come, Bernie bantering with Elinor while she plays footsie with Serena.
Elinor looks helplessly at Charlotte for support, and Charlotte just shrugs, a gesture she’s inherited from her mother. “At least they’re buying us dinner,” she says and Serena laughs at that, wishes she could reach Charlotte’s hand to give it a pat too.
Cynthia catches sight of them when she’s getting up to leave and all of her high society manners dictate that she at least say hello, but Serena can see the tension in her neck, the fake smile pasted on her lips.
“Ladies,” she says curtly, “how good to see you again. We’ve missed your...invigorating presence in Women With Wine.” Her smile looks more like a grimace as she spits out the words covered in sickly sweetness.
“Yes, well, we decided it wasn’t quite our thing after all. We still prefer our red wines slightly chilled, you see,” Serena says, matching Cynthia’s saccharine tone. “But we do owe you a bit of thanks - if not for you, Bernie and I would never have met. Perhaps that can be a selling point if you’re trying to drum up membership.” Serena’s smile is sunny and bright and she knows it’s killing Cynthia.
“Hmmm,” is all Cynthia manages.
“It’s been six months, in fact,” Bernie adds, “and I do think the ambiance of this very restaurant might be partially to blame. You do have good taste in dining, at least.” The false compliment lands as it’s meant to and Cynthia’s smile falters a bit.
Serena beams at Bernie, can’t help the joy exploding from her face, feels she might burst. Bernie remembers the date, knows it’s significance, and she’s here, holding Serena’s hand in front of a bitter-faced woman in pearls.
“Well,” Cynthia says. “I’m glad to see you’re both doing well. And if you know of anyone interested in a wine club….don’t send them my way.” Serena is content to let Cynthia have the parting shot because Bernie’s honking laughter drowns out anything else she might say.
Cynthia’s gone by the time their mirth subsides, Bernie’s laughter proving to be as infectious as ever. Serena squeezes their joined hands, just once, then lets go in order to raise her glass. “To us,” she says, the red wine catching the candle’s glow, gleaming in the low light of the restaurant.
“Cheers,” Bernie says, clinking her glass against Serena’s. Elinor and Charlotte follow suit, and they’re all quiet for a moment as they sip.
“You know,” Bernie says, “this has quite an oaky finish.” Serena snorts into her glass, the memory not lost on her, and looks at Bernie with shining eyes, feels like her happiness is going to spill over onto the table.
“It does, indeed.” She drops a sly wink at Bernie. “Looks like you did learn something about wine after all.”