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Sweeter Than Chocolate, Hotter Than Fire

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“Another signature here, please? Perfect! I’ll prepare an invoice for you and drop it round in the next couple of days, unless you’d prefer to have it by email?”

Bernie Wolfe zipped up her portfolio pad and shook hands with the client. Her tools were already put neatly away in her bag, and she picked it up, casting a last look round to make sure she was leaving the place tidier than she had found it. She had dealt with too many careless workmen herself to want to leave that kind of impression.

She put her bag in the back of her van alongside the rest of her equipment and she shut the door firmly. She opened the door and was about to get in, when a familiar smell reached her nose.

“Oh, no no no,” she muttered under her breath, and she strode back up the drive to the client’s door - only to find the smell fainter here.

“Hmm. Not me, then - good.” But there was the unmistakeable smell of an electrical fire in the air, and she couldn't in all good conscience ignore it. Stopping only to grab the relevant fire extinguisher from the van, she followed her nose, trotting along the street as it got stronger. Before long, the acrid smell intensified, and then she saw it - a drift of dirty smoke oozing from an air brick in the garage of a large detached Edwardian house. She dashed up the driveway straight to the door of the outhouse - not a garage, she saw, but a conversion into an office or something - and tried the handle. It was locked, and through the glass she could see a pall of smoke, but no flames. She rattled the handle again, but it was definitely locked.

She ran back to the front door and rang the bell, dropping the heavy iron knocker a couple of times for good measure, but evidently there was no-one at home. She made a rapid decision, and inspecting the door of the office, she saw to her relief, though with a tut of disapproval, that it bore only the flimsiest of locks, and the jamb looked pretty unsubstantial, too. She took a screwdriver from her tool belt and prised off the rotting jamb from the doorframe. It came away easily, taking the recess for the lock with it, letting the door swing open.

Dirty smoke poured out through the open door, and it didn’t take long to discover the source of the smoke: a double socket overloaded with extension plugs was sparking and emitting the horrid smoke. She turned the fire extinguisher on it until the smoke stopped, and she opened the two windows on the long side of the garage to let the air clear a bit. Looking round, she found an isolation switch and flipped it up to be n the safe side, though she suspected the whole circuit had blown.

The owner would be shocked to find the mess in the garage, she thought with a pang. Now that the smoke had cleared she could see that it wasn’t an office but a kitchen - at least, she assumed it was. She didn’t recognise half of the pieces of stainless steel equipment plugged in along the long workbench, but there was a row of several of the kind of covered dishes she was used to seeing in canteens under a heat lamp. She lifted one of the lids with curiosity, but it was empty.

She looked round to see if there were any further clues, either to the cause of the fire or to the owner’s identity or whereabouts. She had her suspicions about the wiring, and she stood for a few seconds chewing the tip of her thumb, then made a decision. She went back to her van, still a few doors up, and came back a minute later with her tool bag in hand. It did not take her long to confirm that the socket which had blown - and presumably the whole circuit - was running on much too fine a gauge wire. Not only that, but there did not seem to be a circuit breaker anywhere, which explained how the dud socket had been able to heat up to the point of smouldering

She wondered whether this was a botched DIY job, or if the homeowner had the been the victim of an unscrupulous cowboy. Either way, whoever used this kitchen was lucky not to have been injured by the dangerous set-up before now. They really had been lucky, actually, for was far as she could tell, none of the equipment was damaged, unless the taint of the smoke had rendered it unfit for food preparation.

She shook herself.

“Not your problem,” she told herself sternly. “You’ve earned a holiday - you’re not taking any extra work on now!”

She turned to leave, but as she did, she saw the one piece of equipment that was so everyday, she hadn’t noticed it before. There was a large fridge at the end of the worktop: not industrial in scale, but a very serious piece of kit. Her heart sinking, she opened it, seeing - just as she had feared - that it was fully stocked, packed full of great tubs of cream, blocks of butter, bottles of syrup, tubes of some sort of dark paste and all kinds of other things she had no idea about. There must have been around five or six hundred pounds’ worth of ingredients in there. Putting a hand inside, she noted with relief that it was still cold, and judging from the temperature of the fridge and the damage done to the wring behind the socket, she judged that she had probably happened upon the fire no more than ten or fifteen minutes after the cable had started to burn through.

Making a decision, she hopped in her van, and half an hour later, returned with an arm full of insulated shopping bags from the nearest branch of Iceland, along with a dozen bags of ice cubes. She rang the doorbell again without much hope, then she went back to the kitchen and started to load the contents of the fridge into the bags, well packed with the bags of ice. As luck would have it, her own new fridge freezer had been delivered earlier in the week and was standing more or less empty, and she thought there would room for most of this stuff.

There was only one thing left to do, and taking a padlock from her van along with a hasp and staple fitting, she made the door as secure as she could given its precarious state. She sat in the cab of the van and scribbled a note, which she pushed through the letter box. She drove off, hoping to goodness that the owner had not gone away for any length of time: if they had, she was stuck with an awful lot of dairy goods.

***

Serena practically danced up the driveway to her front door. Her presentation could hardly have gone better, and as for the tasting - well, she couldn’t remember being responsible for those sort of noises outside of the bedroom. The look on Ms MacMillan’s face as she tasted the lemongrass cream had been quite the sight, and Serena had had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop herself saying something deeply inappropriate to the situation. The meeting had ended with a handshake and a contract that would be a challenge to fulfil, but one which Serena relished.

Humming happily as she unlocked the door, she stooped to pick up the post. She dropped her keys in the little bowl by the door, hung her coat up and went though to the kitchen, picking up a bottle of wine from the rack under the stairs as she went. She had a glass poured and in her hand by the time she turned her attention to the post, and she sorted through it peremptorily: a few Christmas cards; an invoice for some new equipment; an invitation to a breakfast club for SME owners. There was one last envelope - no, a folded sheet of paper - and as she turned on the radio, she shook it open, expecting it to be an advertisement for a window cleaner or something, but instead found a handwritten note.

She put her glass down and fished in her bag for her reading glasses, and read at first with some puzzlement, then with mounting horror.

Hi.
Don’t worry - you haven’t been burgled. I was passing by at lunchtime and saw smoke coming from your garage/kitchen. I don’t think the fire’s done too much damage, but your wiring is shot - that’s what started the fire.
Please don’t panic, I emptied your fridge and will keep everything cold until you can collect it - or I can drop it back round.
Don’t turn the electricity back on (this part was underlined heavily) - it really isn’t safe. I’ll be happy to have a proper look at it when I bring the fridge stuff round.
I’m pretty sure it can be put right fairly quickly. I’ve put a padlock on the door for now: the key is under the flowerpot next to the door.
Give me a call to arrange getting the stuff back to you.
Best,
Bernie.

Serena dropped the note and rushed to the back door. There was the key under the pot, and she scrabbled to pick it up. As she opened the door, barely noticing the splintered frame, she recoiled at the lingering smell of burning plastic, and she couldn’t help a choking little sob escaping her.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh, no, no, no.”

Fumbling for her phone, she swiped up to switch on the torch. She saw with a horrible cold sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach the mass of melted plastic on the brand new stainless steel work surface, the distorted remains of a double plug socket and the plug of her brand new melting kettle, for which she had not yet even paid. To add insult to injury, the whole place was now covered with a fine film of greasy looking residue.

She brought her hands to her face as if to hold in the appalled shriek that was threatening to explode from her, and she realised with contempt that she was actually rocking. She gave herself a little shake, and even a little slap where her hand rested on her cheek, and that did the trick. She opened the windows in the hope of letting the smell out of the confined space, unaware that she was echoing Bernie’s actions from earlier. She had not really taken in the full contents of the note, and she prodded the melted plastic gingerly, relieved to see that it had not fused with the worktop. Now she looked more closely, she could see that the cover had been unscrewed and removed, presumably by her Good Samaritan - Benny, was it? - and left on the worktop, exposing the interior of the socket cavity.

Well. There wasn’t much she could do in here tonight. She would need to reassess first thing in the morning, in daylight. She had a horrible feeling it would look much, much worse.

When she went back inside the kitchen, she realised she was shaking, and she splashed water on her face, then held the hand towel to it for a long moment, as though she could shut out the reality of what she had just observed. Then she picked up the note again, put it down, picked up her wine glass and drained it, then took the note, the glass and the bottle through to the living room.

She read the note again, more carefully this time. It was Bernie, not Benny - and what a good thing he had been passing! She was far from happy at the thought of someone being able to break into the workshop so easily, but thank goodness he had been able to today! And thank goodness, too, that he had been decent and practical enough to tackle the fire, to save the contents of the fridge, and to make the place safe and secure again. She could see that she owed him a great debt of gratitude - but debts were exactly what she was worried about now. Half of the equipment was yet to be paid for - would it be covered by her insurance?

Today had been going so well! Her first major delivery of ingredients; a perfect batch of pralines this morning, and the dream of a presentation to Ms MacMillan at Keller’s hotel.

Then it hit her. The contract. She had just signed a contract - only an hour or two ago - possibly even as the fire was taking hold - to supply the Royal Grange with all their chocolates and petit fours for Christmas week - starting with the Holby Veterans’ Club Christmas Banquet a mere three days away.

“Oh, God, this can’t be happening,” she groaned.

She reached for the bottle of wine, but thought better of it, and picked up her phone instead. She punched in the phone number that Bernie had printed at the top of the note, and fretted with the corner of the paper as the ring tone sounded. It rang six or seven times before she heard a click, and a low voice - a woman.

“Hello, WolfeGuard Security: how can I help?”

Slightly flustered by this unexpected greeting, Serena stumbled over her words. “Oh - yes, hello - I was trying to get hold of Bernie - is he available, please?”

The women chuckled wearily. “He’s not, but I am. Bernie Wolfe speaking. What can I do for you?”

It took Serena a second to work it out, and she shook her head to try and reset her poor addled brain.

“You’re Bernie? I’m sorry, I just assumed… My name’s Serena Campbell, I live on Midwinter Lane, and I think you might have saved my bacon today. You put a fire out in my workshop?”

“Oh - yes! Yes, that was me. I’m sorry bout any damage I did getting in there - was it alright when you got in?”

“God, don’t worry about the door, I’m just so grateful that you stopped. It doesn’t look as though you had much trouble getting in anyway - I should have known better than to let my ex convert the garage - half of me wonders if he bodged it deliberately to see me fail. Well, look, never mind all that - I’m sorry, I think I’m in shock. You said you took the contents of the fridge for safekeeping?”

“I did,” Bernie replied when she could finally get a word in. “I didn’t know how soon you might be back and I didn’t want it all to spoil. It’s all in my fridge at the moment - if you’ve got room for it in your kitchen fridge I could bring it overnight this evening? But there’s no rush - it’s not in my way at all,” she said reassuringly.

There was something about Bernie’s voice that was so soothing that Serena could almost feel her heart rate slowing as the panic started to subside.

“Oh, god, you’re a lifesaver, really. I can’t thank you enough. I haven’t got much room in the fridge at the moment. Are you sure it’s okay to keep it for a little bit longer? I’ll need to get someone out to look at the wiring, and goodness knows how long that will take. I’d better start phoning round this evening, though I don’t suppose there’ll be anyone willing to come out this close to Christmas. Oh, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time!”

Bernie cleared her throat. “Listen, I’m not touting for business, and if you can get your regular electrician to come out I’d say do that, but I’m an electrician myself, and I’ve actually managed to keep my books clear over Christmas - I meant it when I said I could have a look for you. I could be with you first thing in the morning if that works for you?”

There was a hesitation before Serena spoke. “I couldn’t ask you to do that, not when you’ve obviously kept the time clear for family stuff. But if you could recommend someone who’s still working that might fit me in, that would be wonderful.”

Bernie didn’t sound the least bit sad or regretful as she explained that she had no family to entertain this year and had just been keeping the time clear out of habit as much as anything.

“And from what I saw last night, it shouldn’t take all that long to sort out. I might only delay my holiday for a day or so if you’re lucky. The channelling’s all done, you’d just need a heavier cable and a few more socket spurs - and you really need a decent circuit breaker. You really would have had problems if it hadn’t been spotted until later.”

“You mean, if you hadn’t spotted it. Listen, if you really mean it - but only if you really, really mean it - I’d be so grateful if you could get me up and running again. I’ve got a ton of stuff to get ready for next week, and there’s only so much I can do in my own kitchen. You’re sure it’s all right?”

Bernie laughed. “Quite sure - I wouldn’t have offered if I hadn’t meant it. Is eight o’clock too early for you? Then I can measure up and see if I need to get anything in specially - but I think I might have everything we’d need, apart from the door - but we can talk about that in the morning. You might want to clear as much stuff out of your workshop as you can this evening to make sure it doesn’t get damaged.”

They spoke for a minute or two longer, making arrangements for the morning, and ended the call. Serena looked at the phone in her hand for a moment or two, then made sure to add Bernie’s number into her contacts. Today really had been a rollercoaster - the high of securing the contract, the terrible low of finding the workshop ruined, and now the upswing of finding a saviour ready to put things right for her. She wondered whether it was really as simple a job as Bernie had made it sound.

Seeing car lights swing into the drive next door, she shrugged her coat back on and trotted outside to intercept her neighbour.

“Fleur! Can I borrow you for half an hour?”

Once Serena had told Fleur what had happened and shown her the state of the workshop, Fleur popped home to change, then came back round ready to help. Together the two women shifted as much of Serena’s equipment as they could carry from the workshop to the house, and they set about removing every trace of the fire from everything. All the utensils and some of the trays and moulds went straight into the dishwasher, and they got to work on the rest of the equipment with hot soapy water and a sponge.

As they worked, Serena told Fleur about her mystery saviour.

“What are the chances of someone - anyone! - passing by just as the fire started? And for it to be an electrician, as well - and one with a conscience! Thank goodness she was there, and that she had the presence of mind and decency to do something about it! Honestly, I could kill Edward - he’s such a cheapskate he wouldn’t fork out for an electrician to re-wire the garage, swore blind he could do it himself - I don’t know what I was thinking of, letting him do it.”

Fleur rolled her eyes at the mention of Serena’s ex-husband. “You needn’t bother killing him - just let him keeping doing his own DIY and he’ll manage it for himself sooner or later. It’s a shame you didn’t get it checked over by a professional - but at least that’s what will happen now.” She wiped down a warming tray with a dry cloth, polishing it until it looked new again. “This Bernie of yours: what did she sound like?”

Serena pause, suds dripping from her hands. “She sounded rather wonderful, actually. She was so easy to talk to - I don’t know why more women don’t go into the trades; it was far nicer dealing with her than the usual patronising sods you get.”

“Bernie the lady electrician. I predict sixteen stone of old school diesel dyke in dungarees, DMs, haircut à la Victoria Wood circa 1987, and a forty a day habit. Well, I hope she knows her earth from her elbow. It’s all very well being able to talk the talk - make sure you check out her qualifications before you let her loose on the workshop.”

Serena dried her hands, shooting her neighbour a sharp look. “Fleur Fanshawe, are you being the tiniest little bit sexist? Would it have occurred to you to suggest I check a male electrician’s qualifications?”

Fleur coloured up a little, but defended herself stoutly. “If it was someone just turning up off the street like this, yes, I would. It’s not as though you’ve found her in a directory, or had a word of mouth recommendation. I just don’t want you to stung by a cowboy, that's all.”

“Cowgirl, surely?” Serena asked drily. “Alright, it’s a fair point. I’ll ask to see her qualifications - I’ll ask for her cycling proficiency certificate if it will make you happy?”

“Silly. I’m just looking out for you.” Fleur bumped her hip affectionately, and Serena smiled at her.

“I know, and I love you for it. Now, do you think we’re about done here? Let me repay you with a glass or two of the red stuff. Fancy a takeaway as well?”

As they shared an array of Chinese dishes from foil containers, Serena used Fleur as a sounding board for her rapidly revised plan for the next few days. Bernie would bring over all the chilled ingredients tomorrow morning, and together they drew up a list of all the tasks that Serena could achieve in her own kitchen while the workshop was being restored to a functional state.

“It’s not looking as bad as I feared,” Serena said, “but it still leaves me behind by a good margin. I don’t suppose you’re free at the weekend, are you?” she asked hopefully.

“I’m sorry, I’m not,” Fleur said with genuine regret. “It’s the only weekend before Christmas Miranda and I are able to meet up - she’s taking me for a dirty weekend in Bath.”

“Don’t you mean a romantic weekend?” Serena laughed.

“I’m hoping for both,” Fleur said with a twinkle in her eye. “I wish I could help, but we haven’t been able to get together since October, and - well, you know…”

“I can just about remember,” Serena said ruefully. “You go and have filthy festive fun in Bath, I’ll be all right.”

***

Serena was just about up and dressed by the time she heard a van pull up onto her drive. She looked out of her bedroom window and was startled to see the larger than life image of an arctic wolf staring fiercely from the back of the van, next to the legend “WolfeGuard Security,” and the mobile phone number she had called Bernie on last night. She ran lightly down the stairs to open the front door, just as Bernie raised a hand to knock. Serena grasped her hand with both of hers instead, shaking it vigorously.

“Bernie? Hello, I’m Serena. Thank you so, so much for coming out. I think you must be my guardian angel!”

And indeed, in the pale light of the early winter’s morning, she really did look angelic, her fine features edged with a golden glow from the beautiful sunrise, her blonde hair shining like gold. Serena almost laughed, so far from Fleur’s vision of a butch woman in overalls was the woman on her doorstep. She collected herself and invited her in, but Bernie gestured at her van.

“I thought we could get your big fridge up and running again first - I’ve got a long extension lead if we can run it from the house, that way it should be at temperature by the time I’ve finished the wiring and you can put everything back in place all the sooner.”

Serena was impressed. “Forward thinking - I like it! It can run out of the back door, there’s a spare socket there.”

Bernie opened the back of her van, and Serena saw neatly stacked toolboxes and racks of kit, as well as a dozen or so insulated cool bags - her precious ingredients. They were even labelled - butter, cream, and so on. Bernie picked up a small tool bag and a coiled cable, then locked the van again. She followed Serena through the house to the back door, noting with appreciation the smell of coffee and something baking in the oven. She ran the cable out to the workshop, where Serena unlocked the padlock.

“I can measure up for a door while I’m here if you like - get something more secure than that flimsy thing? Might even be able to fit it in the next few days if it’s a standard size. I’ll give you a quote for it, anyway.”

“That would be marvellous - I was horrified to see how easily you’d been able to break in - though I'm more than glad you did!”

Once inside, Bernie opened the windows again. “The smell isn’t too bad now, is it? I’ll run the cable in though the window, keep the doorway clear, and hopefully airing it today might clear the smell altogether.” She cast an eye around the workshop, seeing in daylight for the first time. “It’s a really nice set up you’ve got here,” she said approvingly. “Looks like pretty high end equipment - but for the life of me, I don’t know what it’s for! Are you a chef? Scientist?”

Serena laughed. “Neither - and both. I’m starting my own business as a chocolatier: somewhere between an art and a science, I’d say. That’s a temperer and conditioner - horribly expensive, and irreplaceable on my budget. You really have saved the day.”

“Sounds like a big venture! Well, let’s see if I can get you back into production by the end of the day. I’m going to measure up and do a few sums - I noticed you didn’t have enough sockets last night. Do you want to add some more in? I’d recommend working out how many you need - then doubling it. I can fit cheap and cheerful standard sockets for now, but of course you can always upgrade to something a bit more aesthetically pleasing later on.”

Serena left Bernie to it, but came back out shortly after with a mug of coffee for her. “I didn’t know how you like it - there’s milk and sugar here if you want them.”

“Strong and hot’s all I care about on a morning like this!” Bernie smiled, and she hugged the mug close to her with both hands to warm them. “Oh - these look good - thank you!” She picked up a biscuit from the plate Serena had brought out on the little tray, and made a little sound of satisfaction as she bit into it. “Still warm, as well! Thank you.”

“I’ve just thought,” Serena said, noting how the other woman was clutching the mug, “I’ve got a little fan heater I could bring out for you - plug it into the extension if you like. It must be awkward work with chilly fingers!”

With a grateful smile, Bernie agreed. “Thank you, that would be great. Oh - listen, good news. I’ve measured up for the door, and it’s a standard size - and I’ve actually got something in the lock-up that would be just right - if you like the look of it, that is.” She passed a trade catalogue over, opened to the right page. It was a plain white UPVC door with the upper half glazed.

“It’s nothing special,” Bernie said, “But it’s a good strong one, and it would mean we could make the place secure for you pretty much straight away, though longer term you might want to upgrade the windows, too.”

Serena did not even need to think about it.

“Yes please - I’m not fussy about what the door looks like - I just want to keep the place safe, and having the window is great - daylight is best for working in. Let’s do it.”

By the time Serena came back with the little fan heater, Bernie was already hard at work. She had stripped out the faulty cables and was busy setting out new sockets on the worktop. She thanked Serena for the heater as she plugged it into the extension lead, and handed her a pencil.

“If you could mark on the wall where you’d like the new sockets to go, I’ll make a start on the installation. I’m going to fit a consumer unit for you so you can isolate different circuits - that means that if one thing fails for any reason, it won’t trip the rest of the place. If this had been in place yesterday, the fridge would still have been running, so it’s worth doing.”

Serena spent the morning preparing what she could in her own kitchen, with the equipment that she and Fleur had washed the previous evening. As she worked, a batch of dough was proving next to the melting kettle, and by the time she was ready to stop for lunch, she had a freshly baked loaf to go with the soup she had reheated. She looked outside and saw Bernie through the smoke dimmed window of the workshop, and making a snap decision, she ladled some soup into a large mug. She took it out to the workshop along with a thick slice of bread.

“I thought you might be able to use this,” she said brightly. “How are you getting on?”

Bernie looked up from where she was working, a screwdriver clamped between her teeth. She put down the socket she held, and removing the screwdriver she smiled.

“It’s going rather well, actually. I’ve laid the cables and cut in for the sockets - I’m just starting to wire them in. Oh, goodness - is that for me? It smells wonderful!”

Serena put the tray down and pushed it towards her.

“It is indeed. Help you keep your strength up. So is it just the sockets to fit now? You’re such a quick worker! Somehow it took my ex husband three weekends to wire it up in the first place - and he still managed to do it wrong, evidently!”

“Well,” Bernie said diplomatically, “I expect I’ve had a bit more practice than he had. And I haven’t had to cut into the brickwork as he’d already done that much properly. I don’t tend to hang around on the job, to be honest - most people want you out of their hair as soon as possible, and I’m not one of those tradesmen who tries to make the job look harder than it is to wring a few extra quid out of you.”

She took a sip of the hot soup. “Mm, that’s so good! I love lentil soup.” She looked round at the workshop, and Serena followed her glance, noticing how clean and tidy Bernie was keeping things.

“I have to say you’re putting my last electrician to shame. I had to do the most almighty clean-up operation after he’d finished. That’s the advantage of using a female electrician, I suppose.”

Bernie had heard this many times before, and usually it irritated her, the idea that men were naturally untidy rather than just careless, but she didn’t mind it from Serena. She was so warm and friendly, and had been so thoughtful bringing her food and drink. She was used to having oversteeped cups of tea in cracked mugs left out for her, but the homemade soup and bread and the very decent cup of coffee this morning made for a novel and very enjoyable change. And Serena herself - well, that was a most welcome change, too. Bernie was only human, and she couldn’t help but notice how very attractive she was, and she had a sudden image of the two of them in Serena’s warm kitchen, sharing a pot of coffee and exchanging careless touches and fond looks.For all that she was a practical woman, Bernie was a hopeless romantic, and the sense of domesticity she had picked up from Serena and her house had given her twinges of yearning for a life she had long since reconciled herself to foregoing.

She hid her face in the steam from the mug as she drank.

“I’ll probably be another hour or two before I can test the circuits and get everything back online for you. Would tomorrow be alright for the door? I’m not sure I’d be able to finish it this afternoon, and I don’t want to leave you without anything overnight.”

“Tomorrow would be wonderful - you’re sure you can spare the time? I know you were expecting to be on holiday by now - I don’t want to encroach on your break.” Serena held her breath. As much as she wanted to make sure the workshop was safe and secure, she couldn’t help hoping that Bernie would be back tomorrow, for she had the oddest feeling of familiarity with the electrician, as though they had met before and established a comfortable intimacy. It was as strange feeling for Serena, who usually took a while to warm up to people, but Bernie’s kindness in stopping to tackle the fire, rescuing her chilled ingredients and now in restoring the power drew Serena to her like a cat to a fireside.

Bernie smiled at her and said easily, “It’s no trouble at all - like I said, I just kept the time free out of habit - I’ve no real plans. Besides, if you keep feeding me like you have done today, I might just string the job out for longer…” She winked at Serena, who couldn’t for the life of her think why it should make her blush.

Bernie got back to work, and Serena returned to her kitchen where she pressed on with her preparations. There was only so much she could do without the temperer and the special table in the workshop that shook any air bubbles out of the melted chocolate, but she was able to make a good start on preparing fillings and decorations. She was deep in concentration when Bernie knocked on the back door to let her know that she had finished for the day, and she went out to the workshop to inspect the work, though in reality she had no idea what she was looking for.

It was a neat job, she could see that much. And finally she had enough sockets for all her equipment - more than enough, in fact.

“People nearly always make the mistake of allowing for exactly as many sockets as they use right now,” Bernie said, “but within weeks they find they want more. You’ve got planets of room for growth here now. Here - let me walk you through what I’ve done.”

She showed her the new consumer unit, carefully labelled to make sure Serena would know exactly which part of the building was without power in the event of a trip.

“And I’ve added an isolation switch here for the fridge - you can’t reach the plug without moving the fridge itself, so this will let you defrost it without having to move it.”

“Thank you,” Serena said, her face a picture of relief and gratitude. “How much do I owe you?”

“I’ll put an invoice together for you, properly itemised - do you mind if I wait until the door’s done? Then I can just give you one invoice - unless you'd rather spread the cost, of course.”

They discussed arrangements for the following day, and Bernie explained that she would be able to put in a temporary dust-proof partition between the doorway and the interior of the workshop, so Serena could get up and running just as soon as she was ready.

“It will be noisy work, and obviously the door will be open, so it won’t be quite as warm as you might like - see what you think. But I think you should be able to work out here tomorrow if you need to use these bits and pieces,” she promised, gesturing at the equipment gleaming softly in the track lighting from the ceiling.

“Thank you. Have you cleaned all of this as well? I’m sure this wasn’t polished this brightly before this morning?”

With a grin, Bernie simply said, “All part of the service,” and she carried on packing her kit away. “I wanted you to be able to crack straight on with your work. I know what it’s like, starting your own business - you need every little bit of good luck and good will you can get. You’ve had a stroke of bad luck with the fire, so consider this a bit of good will to compensate.”

“How long have you been self-employed?” Serena asked her one she had thanked her.

Bernie considered. “Hmm, it must be coming on for three years now. It was very slow to start with - I had a few months where I thought I wasn’t going to make it - but then I had a bit of good luck. I did a fairly big bit of work for someone who recommended me to absolutely everyone she knew, and I got so many new customers through word of mouth. Then it all sort of snowballed from there - but it took making a key contact and impressing them.”

Serena gave a short laugh. “That’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now - impressing someone with my big break. But I’ll be lucky to fulfil the order at this rate. It’s going to be a long couple of nights, I’m afraid!”

“It looks like a heck of an order, looking at what you had in the fridge! I can’t think who would be ordering chocolates in that sort of quantity - is it for a shop or a restaurant?”

“Good guess - it’s a restaurant. Well, a hotel, actually: the Royal Grange. I’ve won the contract to supply them with all their confectionery for the next six months - this Christmas week is a sort of probation period, though, so while it’s not exactly life or death, it sort of is for the business. It’s a terrific opportunity, but terrifying at the same time.”

Bernie was impressed at the mention of the Grange, but winced in sympathy at Serena’s plight.

“Well, I’d better let you get on with it now, then. Can I give you a hand taking these back to the workshop, or will you wait until tomorrow to set up out there?”

Serena didn't like to ask anything more of Bernie - she had gone so far out of her way to help her already, but she was anxious about catching up, and with only a moment’s hesitation, she accepted the offer, and with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the workshop was all set up again.

“Thank you so much,” Serena said, a hand on Bernie’s arm. “I can’t tell you how much all this means. Once I’ve got all of this done and delivered, I’ll find a way to thank you properly. There's certainly a box of your favourite chocolates with your name on it!”

Her blonde hair danced as Bernie shook her head. “It’s an absolute pleasure, honestly. I’ll be back in the morning, then - eight o’clock again?”

***

Serena was already hard at it in the workshop when Bernie arrived in the morning. Indeed, Bernie wondered if she had been to bed at all: the woman looked exhausted.

“How are you getting on?” she asked.

Serena ran a hand through her hair, obliviously streaking it white with icing sugar.

“Getting there, I think,” she said, “but lord, I’m going to sleep for a week after this!”

Bernie chuckled. “Well, I’ll be keeping you awake today with the noise I’ll be making. Tell you what, why don’t I make a pot of coffee first? I think we could both do with one.”

With only the very feeblest of protestations, Serena told her where she would find the coffee pot and mugs, and when she took her fist sip, she gave a deep purring sound that brought the colour to Bernie’s cheeks.

“God, that’s good! Actually, that’s really good! You've put something in that, haven’t you? What is that - oh, it’s cardamom - what a genius idea! It’s divine!”

“I hope you don't mind,” Bernie said. “I saw it in your spice rack and thought you might like it. It’s something I treat myself to now and then - I just crack a couple of pods into the pot while it’s brewing. A cardamom martini’s good too - but it’s a bit early in the day for that!”

“Well, you’re full of good ideas, aren’t you? I’ll have to try that some time.”

Bernie got on with the business in hand, tapping up a couple of heavy polythene sheets between the door and the kitchen area to prevent the dust drifting through. The sheets overlapped so that Serena could come and go: “Just give me a couple of minutes warning if you need to come through.”

As she had promised, the work was noisy and dusty. Once she had taken the door off its hinges, she crowbarred the old doorframe out, and used a heavy circular saw to trim back some ragged brickwork. She had given Serena some ear defenders for this part, and she was glad of them against the screaming of the blade on brick. It went quiet for a while then, as Bernie measured and marked various points on the brickwork. She brought out the new UPVC frame from her van, and double checked her measurements before she drilled into the doorway to start fixing it in place.

When Bernie went back to her van to bring the door out, Serena took the opportunity to nip back into the house to make another pot of coffee, and she handed a cup to the electrician when she came back.

“Nothing fancy this time, I’m afraid. But it should do the trick. Same biscuits as yesterday, I’m afraid - I haven’t had time to think about anything that isn’t chocolate based since yesterday!”

“Goodness, don’t apologise, they’re delicious! Thank you. How late did you stay out here last night, then? Tell me you have been to bed at some point!”

Serena yawned. “I don’ know what time it was. I went to bed once I started making too many mistakes - which means you have come seconds to sample. Here, try these.” And she took a plastic tub from the fridge, offering it to Bernie. There were a dozen or so chocolates which looked almost perfect to Bernie, with just the occasional smudge or pining gone astray. Evidently, almost perfect wasn’t good enough for Serena - or for the Royal Grange.

“These are wonderful! I can see why they gave you the contract. I’m going to have to try and talk you into having the full security overhaul so I can stick around and be fed, I think!”

Serena smiled warmly at her, thinking that it sounded rather nice, the idea of Bernie sticking around. “I’ll have to see what other treats I can rustle up for you, then, make it worth your staying.”

Picking another chocolate, Bernie examined it closely. “What 'twas wrong with this one? I mean, why didn’t it pass muster? It looks perfect to me.”

“Look at the scrollwork - you wouldn’t know without seeing the rest of them, but for some reason known only to my subconscious, I did this one backwards - it’s a mirror image of what it should be. It is perfect - but it’s still wrong.”

An hour later, the door was hanging evenly in place, and Bernie carefully sealed in the window section. Serena was impressed with the way she worked, so calm and thoughtful. She could tell from her expression and her body language that she was pausing to work things out as she went along, but did it so unobtrusively. She was used to workmen who huffed and puffed and sucked their teeth as though they were heroically overcoming astounding odds on her behalf, but Bernie just got on with the job in the least disruptive manner possible.

Serena was disappointed when Bernie started taking down the polythene screen, and before she stuck think better of it, she said quickly, “You’ll stay for lunch?”

Bernie was folding up the big sheets outside, and she paused just a moment before replying. “That’s very kind of you, but I know how busy you are. I’d better let you get on - I’ll just finish tidying up and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

Serena was unaccountably disappointed, and the oddest thought came into her head: I’d love to have you in my hair. She pushed the thought aside, and she blithely lied: “Nonsense! I’m going to be stopping for lunch anyway. I’ve got plenty of that soup left over from yesterday, it will only take a few minutes to reheat it.” She knew for a fact that if Bernie were not here, she would forego lunch and work straight through, but as tight was her deadline was, she couldn’t quite bring herself to say goodbye to her yet.

“The lentil soup?” Bernie asked hopefully, her resolve wavering. “Well, it’s hard to turn that down - if you're sure you’ve got time. I’ll get everything tidied away and packed up in the van, then if it’s a good stopping point for you, I’d love some soup.”

Over lunch at the kitchen table, Bernie asked Serena more about the business, and about what she still had to do today and tomorrow to fill the order for the Grange.

“It’s mostly the decorative stuff now: assembling things, dipping the ones that need an extra finish, and a heck of a lot of piping. That’s the bit that’s taking the time: I need fairly frequent breaks from it to avoid the kind of mistakes I was making last night. I don’t know why I made the designs so complicated!” she said, rolling her eyes at herself as she flipped though a sketch book full of patterns and designs.

“May I see?” Bernie asked. She leafed through the book, a smiling her face. “These are gorgeous! I can see they must be fiddly to do in chocolate, but really, Serena, they’re beautiful.”

“Thanks. Don’t suppose you’re any good at piping, are you?” Serena deadpanned.

Bernie looked back at the sketches, and although Serena had obviously been joking, a though began to form.

“Well, I don’t know about piping, but I could definitely make a neat job of this in solder. If there’s one thing you want as an electrician, it’s a steady hand.” She picked up a pencil and her portfolio pad that lay on the table, and glancing at the sketch on the page that lay open before her, she reproduced it in one fluid stroke. She turned to another, then another, and with each, spent a moment seeing how the whorls and lines were arranged, then confidently copied them as neatly as though she had traced them.

“Let me have a go,” she said firmly. “I get that this is a matter of professional pride, and if I cant do it, tell me so and I’ll stop wasting your time, but I think I might be able to help with this - and I’d like to, if you’ll let me?”

Serena stared at her, slack jawed. She looked back down at Bernie’s pad, where her own intricate designs were perfectly replicated, apparently without effort.

“I don’t think you’re real,” she said at last. “I think you must be an actual Christmas angel, sent to save me! Are you really, truly serious? You’d do that - give up another day to help me out?”

Bernie shrugged bashfully. “It’s the kind of thing I quite like doing,” she said. “It’s creative; it’s the kind of thing I’m good at picking up - and I always love to learn a new skill. A friend of mine calls it my ‘growth mindset’ - I thought she was taking the mickey, but apparently it’s a thing. Just - let me have a go and decide if would help or hinder you.”

“But your holiday?” Serena asked helplessly.

“Would be spent helping a friend.” Bernie replied. “Come on - let’s do it.” She jumped up, bounding with energy and excitement, and Serena followed her rather more sedately, shaking her head and laughing.

“You’re like a puppy!” She said. “A puppy who’s just seen a squirrel - and wants to make friends with it. Come on then, let’s see if you’re as neat with a piping bag as you are with a soldering iron.”

It had taken Serena months to get to grips with fine piping work, and it was with equal parts delight and frustration that she saw how easily Bernie took to the work. She practiced on a sheet of waxed paper at first, and it soon became evident that she had the knack and the eye for it.

“Right. If you’re sure you're sure, I’d be more than happy for you to help - your work is so infuriatingly neat! If I can put you to work on these four,” she said, selecting a few designs from the pack she kept in the workshop, “That leaves me free to carry on with the ones that need filling and enrobing. These two you can do onto paper - once they’re set, I sort of glue them on with a spot of melted chocolate - and these two go straight onto the chocolates. Does that sound all right to you?”

Bernie gave a little mock salute. “Aye aye,” she said. “Chocks away!”

Serena groaned. “You’ve been planning that joke all day, haven’t you? Just for that, you get to wear this.” She opened a drawer and passed Bernie a little bundle of white mesh that turned out to be a hairnet. “Hair like yours, I’m not risking it.” She watched as Bernie put it on, then leaned over to tuck away a few stray wisps of hair.

“There - you’ll do. Happy with what you’re doing?”

Bernie nodded enthusiastically, and Serena was reminded again of a friendly, excitable puppy. A Labrador with that hair, surely, she thought, and a little giggle escaped her.

With the noise of Bernie’s drill gone, Serena put the radio on, and they sang along to Christmas tunes, and they settled into a comfortable rhythm of making and decorating the chocolates, stopping for the occasion cup of coffee. Bernie’s work rate was something to behold, and she kept producing perfect swirls and flourishes of finely piped chocolate without compromising the quality of her work.

“I once spent a year working in a circuitry manufacturers,” she said when Serena commented. “When you paid piece work, you learn to work quickly and accurately - it was a terrible job, but it did teach me patience and focus.”

“Whereas my former career as a teacher taught me not to be a teacher,” Serena said with a grimace. “This is definitely preferable to marking thirty suspiciously identical essays.”

They worked on into the early evening, until Serena announced with elation and astonishment that they had all but met the order.

“There are a few things I can only do tomorrow morning - I’ll need to pop in every morning with the fresh ones, but this is the lion’s share of it. I can’t believe we’ve done it! Just think what this place looked like forty eight hours ago…” She put her hands to her cheek at the awful memory, and was almost offended when Bernie started laughing. It really hadn’t been funny, she thought; it had been awful.

But Bernie shook her head. “Sorry, no - it’s just that -” she said. Reaching over to Serena’s flushed face, she used a thumb to wipe away the chocolate that Serena had just liberally smeared across her cheek. “And you should have worn a hairnet too,” she said, and in a movement that was somehow tentative and bold at at the same time, she ran her fingers though Serena’s hair, a puff of icing sugar catching in the light.

Serena laughed, a little nervous, breathy laugh, and the silence hung for a heartbeat too long.

“You don’t need to wear the hairnet any longer,” she said, and she brought both hands up to tug the elastic free. Bernie’s curls spilled loose across her hands, and she let her fingers drift through the gold strands. “You have such beautiful hair,” she said thickly. “So soft.”

Her hand came down to stroke against Bernie’s cheek. “It this alright?” She asked, her lips millimetres from Bernie’s own.

“So much more than alright,” Bernie whispered as she let her lips touch Serena’s. They kissed slow and languorous, senses ablaze in the warm little workshop.

“You taste of chocolate,” Serena murmured between kisses. “Chocolate and… is that honeycomb?”

Bernie really laughed then, an extraordinary sound that filled the workshop with the sound of seven geese a-laying.

“I… I may have been sampling the wares as I worked,” she confessed.

Serena swatted her playfully. “Eating the profits? I’ll sample your wares,” she muttered darkly, then realising what she had implied, she looked at Bernie like a rabbit in headlights.

Bernie laughed, and kissed her again. “You can sample as many of my wares as you like - but let me have a shower first,” she said, and pausing only to lock the door behind them, they ran back to the house, and soon the only sound was the running of a shower, and the radio that they had left playing in the workshop.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas indeed!