Serena stared into her wardrobe. Elinor’s graduation do was coming up, a black tie event for all the families, and she had nothing to wear. Her dresses were old. They made her feel old, wearing them.
Just buy a new one, mum Elinor texted her. Well – why not. It had been so long since she’d treated herself to something.
A trawl around Holby’s department stores provided no inspiration, and she struck out for the quieter arcades, hoping she’d chance upon something.
Berenice’s was on the top floor of the old arcade. Serena’s eye lit upon a beautiful shiraz red satin draped over the chair in the window and she stepped into the shop before she knew what she was doing. It was bright and welcoming – and quiet.
“Oh, hello.” A woman appeared suddenly from behind a counter. “Can I help you?”
“Oh – um. I don’t know. I’m looking for a dress.” The light was catching in the other woman’s hair and it was ever so distracting.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” the woman laughed softly. “I’m Bernie.”
She held out a hand and Serena shook it. “ Serena.”
“And what sort of dress do you have in mind?”
“Something – something that will make me look young,” Serena blurted out. The presence of Edward’s much younger wife at the do had been preying on her mind.
Bernie laughed again. “That’s a start, what about specifically?”
“What have you got?” Serena glanced around the shop. There were several beautiful dresses on mannequins but nothing that looked like she could try it on.
“I make them to order,” Bernie said. “Why don’t you sit here with me and we’ll brainstorm some ideas?” She gestured Serena to the comfy looking chairs in the corner. “Hang on, I’ll make us some coffee too. How do you take it?”
“Strong and hot,” Serena said as she sank gratefully into a chair. It had been a long morning of trawling around and she was more than happy to take the weight off her feet.
Bernie grinned and Serena knew she would like her.
“Here you go,” Bernie said, a few moments later, popping a large mug in front of her and settling a pad of paper on her lap. “Now, let’s have a chat.”
Serena talked. She talked more than she had done in months, about Elinor, about how proud she was of her for graduating, about how Liberty was twenty years younger than her and made her feel a frump.
Bernie had been sketching as Serena talked but at that she sat upright. “A frump? Never! Now, tell me what sort of style are you looking for? Something long and elegant?”
“Mid length, maybe?”
Bernie nodded. “And your neckline? What are you comfortable with?”
“Low is fine.”
Bernie grinned, “I was hoping you’d say that. Would you mind standing up a moment?” Serena stood, a little uncertainly, but Bernie nodded. “Thank you.” Her pencil was moving busily again before Serena sat back down.
Bernie sketched for a moment longer, before turning her sketching pad and presenting it to Serena. “Now, what do you think about something like this?”
“Oh.” Serena stared at the picture. It was a rough likeness of her – but Bernie had somehow caught her in only a few strokes. The dress was cut in a deep v at the front, tight at the waist and flaring out over her hips. It was absolutely stunning. “Bernie, it’s perfect.”
“I’m glad you like it,” Bernie said with a smile. “Now, do you have a colour in mind?”
“The cloth in the window – the red?” Serena said. “It’s what caught my eye.”
Bernie fetched it and draped it gently over Serena’s shoulders. “It’s nice,” she said, “But – maybe – something lighter?”
Serena glanced at the sketch and knew that she trusted Bernie’s judgement. “Okay,” she said, “What have you got?”
Bernie took the red and disappeared into the back. When she came out she was carrying a fabric in purple that was so light it might almost have been called pink. “Thoughts?”
“I do have a shirt that’s almost that colour,” Serena admitted, reaching out to run the soft fabric through her fingers, “But I’d never thought of it for a dress. I’ve always had darker evening clothes.”
“You’ll stand out in this,” Bernie said.
“I would.” Serena’s fingers brushed against Bernie’s and they stared at each other for a moment.
“Shall I take your measurements?” Bernie asked brightly after a second, “And then I can start working.”
Serena slipped off her jacket and stood still as Bernie wound her tape measure around her and jotted down numbers. Bernie’s fingers were light and Serena felt every touch.
“There we go.”
Serena opened her eyes – she hadn’t realised she’d closed them – as Bernie dropped her notes onto the table.
“You have an absolutely fantastic figure,” Bernie said, staring at Serena through her fringe. “Your ex-husband’s new wife couldn’t possibly hold a candle to you.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Serena said with a small laugh as she put her jacket back on.
“I know so,” Bernie said firmly, “And I’ll make sure everybody else knows so too.” She held Serena’s gaze for a moment then ducked away. “I’ll just get the paperwork sorted for you.”
Serena watched her as she hastened across the room. It felt like something had happened between them, but she couldn’t quite think what.
It was a mere week before Bernie rang Serena, inviting her back to the shop for her first fitting. Serena was there like a shot, eager to see her dress, eager to see Bernie again.
“Serena!” Bernie greeted her at the door. “Come in, come in.” She ushered Serena towards the little fitting room. “The dress is in there. Be careful putting it on, it’s still full of pins. Let me know if you need help.”
Serena grinned at Bernie. “You seem as excited for me to try it on as I am.”
In the fitting room she shed her outer clothes swiftly and pulled the dress very carefully over her head. She stared in the mirror as she smoothed it over her hips. It was just as perfect as she’d imagined it. But she couldn’t manage the zip at the back.
“Bernie?” she called, “Can you help me with the zip?”
She watched in the mirror as the curtain behind her opened and Bernie came in. She stood stock still for a second, and her eyes met Serena’s in the mirror.
“Perfect,” she said hoarsely. Serena shivered as she felt a soft touch at the base of her spine and then the zip moved slowly up her back. Bernie’s hands came to rest on her shoulders, and their eyes met in the mirror again. “You look absolutely perfect.”
The air seemed thick around them as they stared at each other. Serena trembled at the gentle weight of Bernie’s hands on her shoulders, and when Bernie’s thumb moved oh so gently she had to bite her lip to stop herself whimpering.
How long they stood like that she didn’t know, when the sound of Bernie’s phone broke the spell.
Bernie dropped her hands and disappeared like a shot. “Got to get that,” she called, and Serena sagged a little, put her hands over her stomach to try and stop the butterflies.
“Sorry about that,” Bernie said when she reappeared. “Would you come out here so I can tweak it?”
Serena stood on the little stool that Bernie produced and tried to breathe slowly as Bernie moved around her, pinning and mumbling to herself.
“All done,” Bernie said eventually. She drew the zip carefully down. “You can get changed now.”
Serena wished it had taken her longer, wished she could have stayed all day in Bernie’s beautiful, light shop while Bernie gave her all her attention. “Thank you,” she said instead.
“Same time next week?” Bernie said when Serena emerged from the dressing room in her normal clothes. “You’ll be able to take it home.”
“Thank you,” Serena said again. “Well, until next week then?”
Bernie nodded, and Serena forced herself to walk out of the shop. She turned in the doorway to raise a hand and Bernie was stood still by the counter, watching her. Serena smiled and when Bernie smiled back her whole face lit up.
The dress that Serena drew on, a week later, was no longer full of pins. It was sleek and elegant and neatly pressed. “Bernie?” she called as she fumbled to find the zip.
“Here,” Bernie said, and once again Serena felt gentle hands at her waist, a soft touch at the base of her spine, and a shiver run through her as Bernie drew the zip slowly up her back. “Let’s see it in the light,” Bernie murmured, and Serena didn’t question the hand that slipped into hers to lead her out into the room.
Bernie walked around her, studying the way the dress fell. “It’s good,” Bernie said eventually. She stopped in front of Serena and Serena held her breath as Bernie tweaked the shoulders of the dress minutely. “That’s a lovely pendant,” Bernie said. Her fingers traced the length of the delicate chain, her touch feather light on Serena’s skin. “Beautiful,” she whispered as she looked up into Serena’s eyes.
“Bernie,” Serena managed, lips dry, “I -”
Her words were stopped as Bernie’s lips met hers, and she wound her arms around Bernie’s neck and pulled her in tight.
“Wait, wait,” Bernie mumbled, and pulled away a little. “The dress. I don’t want to crush it.”
“Kiss me more carefully then,” Serena retorted and Bernie grinned.
A while later they stood, breathless, leaning in to each other, foreheads touching.
“Sorry about that,” Bernie murmured. “About this thing you’re going to. Do you have a date?”
Serena grinned. “I do if you’ll say yes.”
Bernie twined her fingers in Serena’s dark hair and smiled at her. “Yes, Serena.”