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she took her love for to gaze awhile

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When Bernie Wolfe was a little girl, her mother spoke fondly of horseback riding, how it was the pursuit of royalty, how every person of good breeding should be able to ride a horse and ride it well. Bernie made it through one lesson, broke her wrist when she took a tumble as her horse spooked before a jump, and vowed never to get on horseback again.

Bernie remembers her mother’s words when Charlotte looks longingly at pictures of horses, when she says that she wonders what it’s like to ride them. She takes Charlotte to a barn near Holby, watches as she’s lifted into a saddle, sees the beam on her face as she’s led around a small ring. She signs Charlotte up for riding lessons the next day, doesn’t even hear any of Marcus’s arguments, says it’s what Charlotte wants.

She doesn’t get to see Charlotte ride, not really, too often away on tours, only back for long enough to hear that she’s doing well, to buy her a new pair of boots, take her shopping for new riding gear, to spoil her a bit. In Bernie’s absence, Marcus is the one who drives Charlotte to and from her lessons, at a farm a bit outside of Holby, with plenty of grass and open sky, an instructor who knows what she’s doing, and a stable for Charlotte’s horse.

It isn’t until she’s back for good, until they decide to separate, to divorce (though Bernie hates the word, thinks it sounds like quitting), that she makes the drive herself to pick up Charlotte from her weekly lesson. The drive is pleasant, the day is nice, and she’s rolled down the windows, watches the city slip into the countryside. She only makes one wrong turn, gets to the farm eventually, sees a wooden sign at the entrance that says “McKinnie Riding Stables” and knows she’s in the right spot. The path towards the riding ring is unpaved, lightly graveled, and Bernie’s small car makes her feel every bounce and rattle. As she jostles back and forth, she’s reminded of her one foray onto horseback, thinks the bumpy rhythm is as similar as she’ll get without climbing onto the back of a horse.

There are other cars in a small parking area and Bernie pulls alongside, doesn’t know if she should stay in the car and wait, or if she’s allowed to wander the grounds, watch her daughter in action. After a few moments of drumming her fingers against the steering wheel, she decides on finding Charlotte. She sees a few horses in the large ring just behind the stables, sees a few more grazing in a field further in the distance. It all seems a little idyllic, though Bernie still feels a sense of unease at the large beasts, no matter how gentle they look.

There are other parents leaning against the walls of the ring, constructed from logs in a way that’s meant to look homespun, rustic. Some parents are sitting in the stands, huddled, critiquing their children. She joins the assemblage at the fence, leans her arms on the top rung, her chin just able to rest on them. She finally sees her daughter, straight and proud on a large grey horse, blonde hair plaited but still shining in the sun, the beaming smile from her face not dimmed by the black helmet on her head. Bernie sees Charlotte’s wearing the boots Bernie bought the last time she was home, feels her heart warm at that, feels that she’s been a part of this for Charlotte, even when she hasn’t been able to be here.

“Which one’s yours?” The question comes from a Scottish-sounding gentleman, looking at her with an appraising eye.

Bernie squints against the sunlight and tilts her head in the direction of her daughter. “Charlotte Dunn - on the grey horse.”

“Aye, we know Charlotte around here. She’s Serena’s favorite by far.” Bernie thinks he must mean the horse, that Charlotte is the preferred rider for the grey mare. She nods politely and turns away to look once more at her daughter, trotting around the ring, her posture like she’s got a rod at her back. Charlotte circles her horse up to another one, a black beauty with a rider who looks to be much older. She leans over to Charlotte, adjusts her grip on the reins, and Bernie can see that she’s smiling, can see that Charlotte looks pleased too. And then Charlotte turns her head, catches sight of her mother, and waves with an enthusiasm that catches Bernie off-guard. She manages a small wave back, can see the other rider giving her a considering sort of look, then with an affirming nod of the head, turns her attention back to Charlotte and whatever words of wisdom she was in the middle of imparting.

There’s not much time left to go before the lesson is over, so Bernie just enjoys the good weather and watching her daughter look so happy. She holds her breath as Charlotte brings her horse in line to jump over an obstacle, almost has to look away as she’s airborne for a few moments that seem to last a whole lifetime. But she lands safely, easily, her horse’s hooves kicking up a little dust. Bernie thinks she must be white as a sheet when her daughter looks her way but does her best to give Charlotte a pleased smile, feels the strain in her cheeks.

Charlotte dismounts easily from her horse, leads it out of the ring, towards the stables. Other riders are doing the same, until only the older woman on the black horse is left. She takes stock of the practice arena, then, in one fluid and beautiful movement, slides off her horse, her feet barely kicking up dust as they hit the ground. She leads her horse out, following the same path as everyone else, and shuts the gate to the arena behind her.

The parents start milling about - they clearly all know each other. Bernie wonders if Marcus ever socialized with them, if he’s complained about his ex-wife and how he has to bear the brunt of her absence, if they sympathize with him and hate the image of her that he’s conjured. No one really says anything to her, but they aren’t glaring at her either, so Bernie just stands apart, awkwardly, and waits for her daughter to appear.

It doesn’t take long, and when she does emerge from the stables, she’s accompanied by the older woman. Without her helmet on, Bernie can see her beautiful brown hair, her sparkling eyes, no longer shadowed by the visor, her cheeks creased in a smile, dimpled prettily. Gorgeous is the word that comes to Bernie’s mind unbidden, and she shakes her head as if to clear it, unsure from where such an appraisal has risen.

“Mum! This is Serena!” Charlotte is enthusiastic, would no doubt be dragging Serena along behind her if they were holding hands.

“I thought you were a horse,” Bernie says, the first thing out of her mouth, and her cheeks flush a brilliant red, twin spots blooming below her eyes. Serena raises her eyebrows and Charlotte looks embarrassed in the way that only a fifteen year-old can be of their mother. But Serena laughs, full-throated, and again, Bernie thinks gorgeous.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Serena says, “Though I may smell like one at the moment. I’m Serena McKinnie.” She holds out her hand, her eyes still shining. “You must be Berenice Wolfe.”

“Bernie, please,” Bernie says, gripping Serena’s hand in her own, enjoying the sensation of Serena’s smooth skin against her palm. Bernie looks down at their overlapping fingers, sees Serena’s surprisingly clean fingernails, skin slightly freckled from spending time out of doors. She doesn’t see a ring on Serena’s hand, doesn’t even see a tanline to suggest there was ever the presence of one. It’s only when Charlotte coughs that Bernie is roused from her reverie, drops Serena’s hand, doesn’t want to think about how or why their handshake lasted that long.

“It’s good to finally meet the famous Major,” Serena says, and her cheeks look a little pink too, but Bernie supposes that’s just from the sun. “Charlotte talks about you quite a bit.”

Bernie scuffs her toe against the grass, drops her eyes from Serena’s face, doesn’t know what reputation is preceding her: an absent mother or a conquering war hero. She isn’t sure she deserves either. “Only good, Mum,” Charlotte pipes up, her eyes darting between Serena and Bernie.

Bernie huffs out a low chuckle. “Well, that’s a relief,” she says. “There’s probably a lot of bad you could throw in there.” She means to be jocular, self-deprecating, but doesn’t quite manage it, finds herself the target of sympathetic stares from two pairs of brown eyes. She clears her throat. “It was good to meet you, Serena. Nice to know who Charlotte’s been spending all her time with out here.”

“You too, Bernie. I do hope you’ll come back again soon.” The pink is back in Serena’s cheeks and Bernie offers her a small smile in return, a nod. She thinks she’d like to see Serena again, thinks it might be like having dessert, a bit of a treat that doesn’t happen every day. She feels a warm flush in her heart and turns away, towards the car, before she can say something else she’ll be embarrassed about later.

- - -

“Isn’t Serena amazing, Mum?” Charlotte hasn’t stopped gushing about Serena since they fastened their seatbelts and took off down the bumpy gravel path back towards the main road.

“I only met her for a few minutes, Lottie,” Bernie says gently, but underneath it all, she does think Serena is amazing. Amazing, funny, smart, gorgeous. How she’s determined that all from an encounter that didn’t last longer than a sneeze, Bernie isn’t sure, but she feels it all the same.

“She’s clever, and so good at riding. I think she used to compete, but she doesn’t talk about it much. There are medals hanging up in the office, though. And a few photos of her holding championship cups, I think. She’s taught me so much, Mum. And she says I’m really good! She doesn’t say that to everyone, so I think she means it.” Charlotte is rosy in her excitement, words tumbling from her lips with an ease Bernie’s never found. She looks at her daughter, so much like her in appearance, much more like her father in personality. It is strange, sometimes, to see her golden hair, her brown eyes, her drawn mouth, all attached to a person who is expressive, emotional, excitable.

“Will you come to my riding lesson on Thursday, too?” Charlotte’s voice is smaller, more unsure, and Bernie knows she will do whatever Charlotte asks, thinks Charlotte knows that too.

“Of course,” Bernie says. Her heart rattles a little, because her mind says You’ll see Serena again.

She manages to rearrange her schedule, trades shifts with one of the other locums in order to be able to not only take Charlotte to her lesson, but stay through and take her to dinner after. Marcus agrees readily enough, though he grumbles about Bernie’s inability to make time for him in the past, never one to pass up the opportunity to poke at the soft spot of Bernie’s supposed failings as a wife and mother. She bears it all with a false cheer oozing from her every pore, but the sight of Charlotte bounding down the front steps of what used to be Bernie’s cozy family home, smiling so wide it’s like pure sunshine, more than makes up for any discomfort.

Bernie joins the other parents in the viewing area, sits a little apart from them and avoids making the kind of eye contact that invites conversation. A series of low fences are set up around the outside of the arena and Bernie watches as a half dozen young riders, including Charlotte on the grey mare, line up at one end. She can see Serena standing at the head of the group, clearly giving directions. Even from this far away, Bernie can see what a commanding presence she has.

One by one the riders set out, jumping each fence in turn until it looks like a carousel, horses rising and falling in alternating beats. At the center of it all Serena shouts commentary, praising a student for their execution, correcting another’s form and encouraging them to go again. Her heart swells with pride at Charlotte’s evident skill. Novice though Bernie may be, even she can see the steadiness of Charlotte’s stance, the ease with which she guides her mount over the obstacles.

Eventually Serena calls a halt, the students gathering around her as the Scottish man Bernie met previously leads out the elegantly built black horse from before. The group splits up, most of the students following him, while Charlotte and one other stay with Serena in the center of the ring.

Serena swings easily into the saddle, her movements clean and fluid. Bernie swallows, unaccountably warm as she watches Serena settle into place, her strong legs clearly defined against the dark horse in her tight-fitted fawn breeches.

The two students follow her lead and now Bernie’s throat is dry for an entirely different reason as they line up in front of a series of multi-railed fences of increasing height, the last of which seems almost impossibly tall. Serena is speaking to the students, her gestures indicating what she’d like them to do. Then, with a tug of the reins, she turns her horse’s head and sets off, looping the arena once to gain speed before approaching the first fence.

It’s incredible to watch. Serena seems to be a natural extension of her horse; hips held high out of the saddle, face pressed low to its mane, they clear each fence easily, her legs absorbing the shock of the landing. Bernie finds herself holding her breath with each takeoff, eyes taking in the lines of Serena’s perfect form.

She circles back around to where Charlotte and the other student wait. The young man on the chestnut horse rides forward first. He takes the first two fences with relative ease, but after watching Serena’s performance, it’s easy to see the weaknesses in his posture, the uncertainty in his approach. His horse shies at the third fence, digging in its hooves as the young man pulls at the reins. He wheels around and returns to the start, Serena reaching out to pat his shoulder comfortingly as he lines up beside her. She says something quietly, and he nods, watches as Charlotte starts.

Bernie can feel her heart thudding in her chest as she watches her little girl ride her horse around the ring, just like Serena, gaining speed, approaching the first fence. Her posture is clearly far stronger than the boy’s; the long legs she inherited from her mother serving her well as she hovers over the saddle. She clears the first two fences with ease and calm, each jump sending a spike of adrenaline through Bernie’s system.

The third fence looms large before her and Bernie’s hands unconsciously grip the edge of the wooden bench she’s seated on, so hard her fingers go white. Charlotte’s horse picks up speed and without any hesitation launches into the air. They seem to hang there for a frozen eternity - horse and rider free from the pull of gravity. And then they’re over the fence and time resumes normal speed as they land, Charlotte bouncing slightly in the saddle at the jarring motion, her young legs lacking the strength of Serena’s.

Bernie bursts into applause, a wide grin pulling at her cheeks. She sees Charlotte look her way, ducking her head with a pleased flush on her cheeks as she approaches Serena and is greeted with an enthusiastic high five.

The rest of the lesson is spent refining their movements, practicing various jumps and maneuvers around the arena, and before long the students are all leading their horses back to the barn to be unsaddled and brushed. Standing, Bernie stretches her back, limbs slightly sore and stiff from sitting on the hard bench, eyes closed as she turns her face up toward the warm afternoon sun.

The light is suddenly blocked out and she opens her eyes to find Serena looming over her on her midnight black horse, far more intimidating up close than from across the arena. The horse’s height puts Serena’s thigh practically at eye level and it’s a long moment before Bernie realizes she’s been staring. Her cheeks burn as she tears her gaze away, looking up to meet Serena’s eyes, sparkling with humor.

“Do you have a moment, Ms. Wolfe? I’d like to speak to you about Charlotte.”

Bernie stammers out an affirmative, still feeling off-kilter as Serena’s smile widens. She gestures toward a building close to the entrance.

“Why don’t you give me a moment to get settled, then I’ll meet you in the office?”

“Of course.” Serena turns her horse toward the barn, Bernie’s gaze following her for a long moment. She finally shakes her head and heads toward the office. “Get ahold of yourself, Wolfe,” she mutters, kicking at pebbles as she walks.

The office is small but cozy; a desk to one side, a small sofa and a couple of chairs tucked up in one corner. A doorway on the back wall leads through to what looks like a small kitchenette. The wall above the sofa is covered in pictures and articles of what Bernie presumes to be students of the school. Young people of all ages clutching medals and trophies as they smile for the cameras. Some are candid shots from the arena showing Serena working with the students. Even in two dimensions, the care Serena shows toward her charges is palpable.

Bernie wanders the room, following the trail of smiling faces. Behind the desk is a small display of images flanked by a series of medals in varying sizes. The largest, gold on a multicolored ribbon, hangs in the center. She peers at the images, clearly older than the others in the room, featuring what could only be a younger Serena at various events, kitted out in tophat and tails, accepting medals and holding aloft bouquets of flowers. At the center is a picture of a 20-something Serena, if Bernie were to hazard a guess, smiling brightly at the camera as she holds her horse’s bridle. On the other side of the horse stands an elegant older woman, dark hair swept up in a twist, her sparkling eyes and jawline clearly marking her as Serena’s mother.

The office door swings open and Bernie jumps back, startled, feeling like she’s been caught snooping. Serena strides into the room, still in her breeches and tall, shiny riding boots, helmet tucked beneath her arm, her hair mussed and sticking up from its removal. She sets her helmet on the desk and gestures toward the sofa.

“Please, have a seat.” She walks through to the kitchen as Bernie sits, can hear her rustling about. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

“No, thank you.” Bernie already feels jittery and on edge being alone in the office with Serena, the last thing she wants is a reason to stay longer, despite the tiny voice in the back of her mind encouraging her to do just that.

Serena returns to the room, a bottle of water in hand, and drops into the chair opposite Bernie, crossing her legs and leaning forward, an elbow propped on her knee. This close, Bernie can see the lines that crinkle her eyes when she smiles, the shadow of a dimple in the center of her chin. The word gorgeous floats once again through her mind and she forces her eyes away, focuses past Serena’s shoulder as she regains her equilibrium.

“I’m glad you were able to come today, Bernie. I was hoping to speak to you about Charlotte.”

“Is everything all right?” Bernie’s brow furrows in concern, trying to imagine what could possibly be the matter.

“Oh no, nothing like that!” Serena holds out a hand in reassurance, eyes wide. “Quite the opposite, in fact. Your daughter has shown an incredible amount of talent and has picked up almost every aspect of equitation with ease. With your permission, I’d like to speak to her about the possibility of competing.”

“Competing?” Bernie looks up at the walls again, the photographs of winning smiles and bright medals. She sees the elegant gear all the riders wear, thinks it’s an outing she can plan with Charlotte, to make sure she’s well-uniformed.

Serena picks up the book laying on the table between them. “Dressage, specifically.” Bernie thinks her face must look puzzled because Serena gives her an indulgent smile and continues. “Dressage is a rather elite form of riding, a way to accentuate the horse’s natural abilities and showcase a rider’s skill in training. I think Charlotte has the temperament for it, and the talent. There are regional competitions that I think she could be prepared for in the future. If nothing else, competition is a good way to build character.” Serena hands the book to Bernie. “That’s what my mother always told me anyway.” Serena looks sad for a moment, and Bernie thinks about pressing the issue, but holds mum instead, and takes the book. It’s thick, it looks boring, and it’s called “British Dressage Members Hand Book.” Bernie’s hand almost falls from the unexpected weight of it as she pulls the book into her lap.

“Let Charlotte look over that, you can tell her it’s something to think about, and that she and I will talk about it at her next lesson.” Serena leans in close enough to pat Bernie’s knee, her hand warm through the denim of Bernie’s jeans, her eyes warm and happy once more. Her thumb rubs gently, just once, and then Serena pulls her hand back. “Will I be seeing you again soon?” Her eyes are dark, shot through with something Bernie isn’t quite sure how to name.

“Oh, I - yes, probably. Lottie - Charlotte has asked if I can come more.” She looks down at her legs, staring at where Serena’s hand was moments ago, her gaze strong, focused, as if she’s trying to burn a hole through the fabric.

“She loves it when you’re here,” Serena says. “She rides better, too. I think she’s trying to impress you.”

“Charlotte knows whatever she does will make me happy,” Bernie mutters, still unable to look at Serena, and hopes in her heart of hearts that it’s true, that her daughter does know that.

“I can see why she’d want to impress you, Bernie,” Serena says, standing, and Bernie follows suit, thinks she’s being dismissed. “I could be accused of trying to impress you as well.” Her eyebrow is raised, just slightly, and Bernie has to look away because she feels a flood of an unfamiliar feeling rush through her body, taking her heart with it and dropping it in the pit of her stomach.

“Yes, well.” Bernie says, doesn’t know where to look, knows her cheeks are red, thinks her eyes might look a little wild. “I’ll give the book to Charlotte.”

“You do that,” Serena says, and there’s humor to her voice, like she knows she’s unsettled Bernie a bit, like maybe that was part of her plan all along, and Bernie doesn’t know what to do with that either. She stutters out a goodbye, and finds Charlotte waiting by the car, looking at her phone, scrolling through texts.

“What’d Serena want?” she asks, and Bernie hands her the book. She looks at the cover and looks back at Bernie, a question mark written all across her face. “Dressage? Like. Competing?”

“Serena thinks you’re good enough.” That’s the magic phrase and Charlotte’s face almost splits in two with the force of her smile. She can’t get into the car fast enough, buckles her seatbelt and dives into the book. Bernie looks at her, towhead bent over the thick volume, lips mouthing out the words as she reads, and feels an overwhelming sense of fondness, almost reaches out to ruffle Charlotte’s hair, but thinks Charlotte might be too old for that now. So instead she turns the keys in the ignition, and turns the car towards town, towards dinner.

- - -

The next time Bernie finds herself at the stables, it’s all a bit of a mess. Marcus had dropped Charlotte off, asked if Bernie could pick her up, then scheduled a mediation session with their barristers and did his level best to make it run long. She’s seething by the time she pulls onto the gravel path, doing everything in her power to calm down, get control over her emotions. She’s promised herself that she won’t let Charlotte see the cracks, the rifts, the pettiness.

The parking lot is near empty when Bernie gets there and she can see Charlotte talking to Serena in the fading light. They make no move to walk over to her, so Bernie twists the keys, turns the car off and goes over to them. Serena gives her an appraising look, then turns to Charlotte. “Will you check on Dureza? There’s some carrots in the bin by the door, she can have a few. I just want to talk to your mum for a minute.” Charlotte clearly knows she’s being gotten rid of, but goes into the stables without complaint.

“Are you all right?” Serena asks when Charlotte’s out of view, a hand going to Bernie’s elbow, her eyes dark, worried. Bernie drags a hand through her bedraggled curls and then, for some unknown reason, decides that she can talk to Serena about this. Maybe it’s the way she looks, like she’ll really listen to the words coming out of Bernie’s mouth. Or maybe it’s the way Bernie feels a strange mix of calm and on edge when she’s in Serena’s presence. Maybe it’s that she’s thrown off-balance. Whatever the reason, Bernie shakes her head and says, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Right then. I would offer you wine, but you’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of you, and I’ve just got the one bed on site.” Bernie’s heart stutters at the idea of Serena and bed but she manages to pull her attention back to the conversation at hand. “Let’s have a spot of tea. Charlotte’s fine with the horses, and I think Jason and Raf are about - they can find things to keep her occupied.”

Bernie hasn’t met Jason yet, maybe he’s Serena’s boyfriend, her live-in horse groomer. Bernie thinks she might hate him. “Jason?” she says, hoping her voice sounds calm, collected, casual. Instead, she thinks it comes out a bit distraught, a bit high-pitched.

“Oh, my nephew. He usually runs the office side of things, scheduling lessons, handling payments, organizational tasks. He’s quite good at admin. And he’s learning about horses, spends time in the barn with Raf after lessons and everyone’s gone home. I don’t think he’ll ever like them too much - altogether too unpredictable for his taste, even when well-trained.” Bernie admires the way words just spill out of Serena’s mouth, the way she shares things without compunction. She waves her hand in front of her face, as if clearing her own life story from the air. “Enough about that now. What’s wrong?”

Bernie hesitates, doesn’t know how much Charlotte’s said, doesn’t know what Serena’s pieced together on her own. “I assume you know that Charlotte’s father and I are divorcing?” Serena nods and Bernie chews her lip. “I won’t talk to Charlotte about this, but her father seems intent on making it quite a miserable process for me.”

“Ass!” The exclamation comes out as if she spit it, and Bernie thinks she likes the sound of faint vulgarity coming from the lips of someone so - gorgeous her brain supplies. She tries to stuff down the word, thinks “proper,” instead.

“I was just trying to get all my anger out before I spent time in the car alone with Charlotte and it came out accidentally.” She shrugs. They’re standing, awkwardly, in the office, still near the door. Bernie isn’t sure if she should move in further, make her way to the tables and chairs they sat in before, thinks she and Charlotte will have to get on the road soon enough.

“Have you ever tried riding?” Serena is close to Bernie, so close, their arms almost brushing, and Bernie feels alight at the barest suggestion of a touch.

“Ah, just the once. Disastrously. Ended up with a broken wrist and a fear of riding.” Bernie circles her wrist with the fingers of her opposite hand, worries the skin a bit.

“Shame. I find it’s...invigorating. To go out in the fields, nothing around, wind in your hair. It’s the way I work out all my frustrations.” Serena touches Bernie’s shoulder then, flicks a strand of hair back away from her face. “We should go riding together. It’s always best to face your fears.” She says it like she knows Bernie will agree, like she knows she’s persuasive enough to make it happen. Bernie merely proves her point by nodding.

“It’ll be like riding a bicycle. I think you’ll find you enjoy the sensation of just opening your thighs up, straddling a strong beast, riding through the tall grasses, that rhythm against your body.” She’s playing coy, trying to worm a smile out of Bernie, and it works, just like everything else Serena tries with Bernie. They’re moving toward the door now, and Bernie’s glad, doesn’t know quite what to say or do.

“Do you talk to all your students’ parents like this?” It sounds forward, brash, reckless, coming from Bernie’s lips, but she says it with a faint smile and Serena’s answering beam is enough.

“No, just the ones I like.” Serena says this with a wink, brushes a kiss to Bernie’s cheek and ushers her out the door before Bernie can react in any way at all.

- - -

It’s two weeks before Bernie is able to make it back to McKinnie’s. A rash of flu has made work a madhouse and Marcus had stepped in to take Charlotte to her lessons. He had dropped her off today, but when Bernie unexpectedly finishes early, she calls and arranges to pick Charlotte up, hops in her car and drives straight to the barn. Her fingers tap anxiously against the steering wheel and several times she has to check her speed, lighten the press of her foot against the pedal as she passes outside the Holby city limits.

When she pulls into the gravel lot, she’s surprised to see Serena leaning against the arena fence, rather than inside it, a long, soft-looking sweater draped over her usual riding gear. Serena waves as Bernie steps out of the car and Bernie shoves her hands deep in her pockets, balled into fists to keep them from fidgeting.

“There’s a sight for sore eyes.” Serena’s shining eyes crinkle at the corners with the stretch of her smile and it suddenly feels like a flock of butterflies have been set loose in Bernie’s stomach. “We’ve missed you around here.”

“Sorry.” Bernie feels a rush of heat in her face, wonders what it is about this woman that always turns her into a stammering, bashful teenager. “The hospital can be hard to get away from, sometimes.”

“I can only imagine.” Serena reaches out, resting her hand on Bernie’s bicep, the warmth of her skin soaking through Bernie’s thin t-shirt, her thumb lightly rubbing back and forth over the fabric. “It’s just nice to see you, is all.” Their eyes lock, Serena’s wide and dark and closer than Bernie had realized, the hem of her cardigan brushing lightly against Bernie’s leg in the soft afternoon breeze. That feeling floods through her again, filling up her chest until it’s hard to breathe. Bernie takes a half step back, coughing a little to clear the thickness in her throat, her heart still fluttering wildly even as the atmosphere between them eases.

“I, uh, aren’t you teaching today?” She knows the change of topic is sudden, but she needs some way to regain her balance, her distance. Still, Bernie feels a pang at the flash of what looks like disappointment in Serena’s eyes.

“Raf’s running things today. It’s good practice for him and the students and I can focus on some of the things that are easy to miss up close.” She bends down and snags a large flask and a pair of mugs from the ground at her feet. “Coffee?”

They both lean against the fence, a fair distance from the usual parent’s viewing area, observing the lesson as they sip tepid coffee from battered tin cups. Serena keeps up a running commentary, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both the riders and their mounts. Bernie listens in rapt attention as Serena’s husky voice teaches her about posting the trot and how difficult it can be to learn the correct position, how a rider needs to work to overcome a horse’s potential tendency to drift, the different challenges presented by the techniques they’re practicing.

Bernie knows she should be watching her daughter, but more and more she finds she can’t tear her eyes away from Serena, her beautiful features turned nothing less than stunning when she talks about the sport and the students she so clearly loves. Enthusiasm pours from her every word; it’s visible in the sparkle of her eyes, the tone of her voice, the way she punctuates her sentences with the movement of her hands, and Bernie is utterly captivated.

Serena keeps her eyes trained on the practice arena, but her body moves subtly closer to Bernie’s, their arms eventually touching, and Bernie doesn’t feel any compulsion to move away, revels instead at the feeling of Serena so near, the elegance of her hands, her dimpled cheeks, her smooth skin. She feels embarrassed, doesn’t know why she’s looking at Serena like this, why Serena makes her feel this way. It’s new, different, but thrums through her like a jolt of electricity.

Serena only pulls away when she says the lesson’s come to an end. She sticks her fingers in her mouth and lets out a long, loud whistle. Raf gives her a wave in response and the horses all circle up. “I’ve got to earn my paycheck now,” she says, bumping Bernie’s shoulder gently. “If you take the coffee things into the office, I’ll meet you there and we can wait for Charlotte to finish with Sterling Silver together.” She winks, and climbs through the fence nimbly and Bernie finds her mouth slightly open at the sight of Serena’s flexibility, her agility. It’s a few moments before she remembers she’s been given a job to do and moves into action.

Bernie rinses the cups and the thermos in the small sink, setting them upside down on a dish towel folded on the counter. It’s a long while before Serena joins her, the office door opening to let in a rush of brisk air. “Just giving individual notes. Charlotte will only be a bit.” She walks past Bernie, sits herself on the couch in the corner and pats the seat next to her, invitingly, and Bernie’s moving before she could even think to stop herself.

“Charlotte’s said she’s interested in competing,” Serena says, when Bernie’s settled on the couch, sitting near the edge of the cushion, not quite able to relax.

“She didn’t even have to think about it - she read that manual the whole ride home and I had to make her put it down to go to bed,” Bernie laughs. “She even had it out at dinner.” Serena chuckles too, the movement making the sofa shake slightly.

“It’s a joy when a rider comes along who truly loves the sport.” Serena shifts a little, her thigh alongside Bernie’s. She pats Bernie’s knee, perhaps trying to make her feel more at ease, but that’s the last thing Bernie can feel when all of her nerve-endings are on fire. There’s a knock on the door, and then Charlotte’s head peeks in. “Mum?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” Bernie says, standing, dislodging Serena’s hand. Charlotte comes into the office, her cheeks flushed from the exercise, her face happy. “I was just sitting with Serena while you were finishing up. More comfortable than the outdoors.” She’s all false cheer and joviality, knows she’s acting like there’s something to cover up, something to hide.

She walks to her daughter, doesn’t turn to look at Serena, and it’s only when she feels Serena’s hand on her arm that she realizes Serena’s followed her. “You had a good ride today, Charlotte,” Serena says, and she’s close enough that Bernie can feel the vibration from her voice at her back. Charlotte beams, stands a little straighter. “Don’t get complacent, though.” Serena’s warning lands as it’s meant and Charlotte nods sharply.

There’s a pause because Bernie doesn’t know how to make her exit, and she turns her head to look at Serena over her shoulder, sees that Serena is looking right back at her. “Uh, I’ll wait at the car,” Charlotte says, her voice sounding just like Bernie’s when she’s feeling uncomfortable. Bernie looks at her daughter and sees that she has a strange look on her face, her eyes darting between her mother and her riding instructor. She leaves, closes the door behind her.

“Don’t want to keep her waiting,” Bernie says, turning more fully to face Serena, who just nods, her head cocked slightly, looking at Bernie with an expression Bernie can’t quite name.

“I still think we should go riding together. Whenever you can get away,” Serena says, leans in and kisses Bernie’s cheek, the second time Bernie’s felt those soft lips against her skin. This time, Serena almost brushes the corner of Bernie’s mouth and Bernie doesn’t know how purposeful that is. She just nods, stutters out an agreement, and beats a hasty exit.

Later that evening, when Charlotte’s back at Marcus’s, Bernie’s alone in her flat, her hand touching her cheek, resting where Serena’s lips were only hours earlier, and finds herself thinking something new, finds herself thinking what if.

- - -

It takes long enough for Bernie to have the time to get away to go riding that she’s worried about it, thinks Serena will decide Bernie wasn’t actually interested. But living the life of a trauma surgeon places demands on her that mean she can’t go to every lesson, can’t do everything it is that she wants to do, and she’s accepted that at this point in her life, even if sometimes she struggles with shouldering all the guilt that comes along with it.

There’s a weekend, though, where the sun is shining, clear and bright, and miraculously there’s no rain in the forecast. Charlotte is away with Marcus for the weekend, a father/daughter bonding trip that he’d clearly thought up as a way to curry favor with the courts. She calls up the stables, the number long since programmed into her phone, and smiles when she hears Serena answer on the other end.

“Is today a good day for a ride?” she asks, suddenly nervous that perhaps there are classes she didn’t think of, or that Serena has other plans, or that maybe it was Serena who didn’t want to actually go riding after all.

She worries a thousand things in a single second and Serena takes out all her steam by saying, “How soon can you get here?”

Bernie dithers about what to wear, knows denims will do the job, digs around her closet for any boots with a slight heel - Charlotte’s talked enough about their importance that Bernie thinks she could pick out a good riding boot with her eyes closed.

She drives to the stables with her windows down, the breeze tousling her hair, and all Bernie can think is what a perfect day it is, how nice to have something to do. Her car bumps down the gravel path and she pulls in right up close to the office. She raps smartly on the door, and then opens it, taken aback to see not Serena, but a young man with glasses and a peering sort of face.

“Are you Bernie?” he asks, his tone matter-of-fact, and she nods. “I’m Jason Haynes, Serena’s nephew. She said to send you to the stables when you got here.” He goes back to his task, stapling documents and filing, and Bernie just nods to an uninterested audience and goes in search of Serena.

Bernie hasn’t actually been in the stables yet, has just met Charlotte’s horse, Sterling Silver, from over the practice arena fence, just barely managed to pet her long face before pulling her hand back. She wrinkles her nose at the smell, sees Serena standing in the long aisle in the center, holding the reins to two horses in her hand. She’s smiling, all kitted up in sleek jodhpurs, her helmet balanced jauntily on her head. In her free hand, she’s holding one for Bernie.

Bernie hasn’t seen Serena, not really, since that day in her office. She’s picked up Charlotte, waved in passing, but nothing substantial. To see Serena, standing in front of her, beautiful and beaming, makes Bernie’s heart lurch so hard that she fears it can be seen through her shirt. She trips over nothing as she walks, scuffing her boots on the hay-covered floor.

When Bernie is near enough, Serena places the helmet on her head, standing close, letting the reins drop for just a moment. The horses whicker gently and Bernie looks at them a bit nervously, wonders if they’ll run away, but then Serena’s fingers are under her chin, adjusting the strap, and she’s so close and she smells so clean amid the muck of the stables. Bernie’s eyes flick down to Serena’s lips, pert and pretty, and then back up to Serena’s eyes, dark and glittering.

“All right, this is Arthur. He’s what I start beginners out on, just a big old softie. I’ll help you up, you just have to hold steady while I mount, and then we’ll be off.” Her tone is gentle, encouraging, and Bernie thinks she can do this, quells the feeling of nerves in her gut as Serena’s strong, firm hands help her up and into the saddle. She doesn’t manage it with any of the grace that Serena or Charlotte has mastered, but she doesn’t fall off and she doesn’t make a fool of herself, and sometimes, she thinks, that’s half the battle. Serena hops up on her jet black horse, and offers Bernie some guidance about holding the reins.

“Ready to go?” she asks, her gaze piercing Bernie, as if to make sure Bernie is really all right with this, that she won’t get scared and bolt right away. Bernie nods, swallows, and then Serena nudges her horse forward, and Arthur obediently follows.

They ride for a bit, silence humming between them, and then Serena stops them, slides off her horse and comes to stand next to Bernie. Bernie looks down at her, the field a beautiful backdrop for Serena’s lovely face. And then Serena’s touching Bernie’s hips and Bernie has to expend all her energy not to react, not to jump three feet into the air and spook the horse. Her hands are pushing Bernie’s hips a little, molding her back to a new position, her fingers touching the bare skin from where her shirt has come untucked from her jeans, and Bernie thinks she’s stopped breathing. She walks around Bernie, looking critically from all sides. “I’m not judging, mind,” she says, “but you’ll feel a little less sore tomorrow if you can hold your back straight.”

Riding isn’t as terrifying as she’d built it up to be, Bernie can admit this to herself. They’re going at a steady pace, and it’s pleasant. There’s quiet stretching all around them, the office building, the stables, barely visible, and Bernie almost feels like they’ve ridden into a different world. They get to the back field, where there’s a watering trough, and Serena dismounts, holds out her hands to help Bernie slide down too, and they’re standing close, so close. Serena reaches up to touch Bernie’s helmet gently, straighten it out, and Bernie can feel Serena’s breath against her cheek, tickling her eyelashes. She can see Serena’s eyes, so dark, so pretty, so full of life.

There’s a moment, just before anything happens, where Bernie can see what is going to happen, where she knows what will occur. And she does nothing to avert it, lets herself realize that maybe this is what she’s wanted all along, lets the what if become yes. Serena’s lips touch hers, so carefully, cautiously, as though Bernie is a horse that might get spooked by sudden movements. And then she deepens the pressure, her lips more solid against Bernie’s and Bernie finds herself responding, finds her arms going around Serena, holding her close. Serena’s hands go into Bernie’s hair, and Bernie thinks she loves the pressure, the feel of it. They kiss and kiss and kiss, only stopping when Arthur kicks the water trough as he moves around to the other side of it.

Bernie’s brain is moving a thousand miles a minute as she looks at Serena, a little wide-eyed, a little frantic, and Serena still has that look like she thinks Bernie will bolt at any second. And Bernie proves her right, manages to get out the words to suggest they head back towards the stables, that she has errands to run. Serena looks worried, disbelieving, but doesn’t deny the request.

The ride back to the stables is just as quiet as the ride out, but no longer serene. Bernie can feel Serena’s glances at her, can imagine the worry on Serena’s brow, but doesn’t let herself look at Serena, can’t let herself. She doesn’t know what it means, to have kissed Serena - to have liked kissing Serena. Her body feels strange, weightless, and her mind is a heavy anchor, mired with thoughts and doubts and concerns.

She almost pulls her horse up short when she thinks of Charlotte, of what this means for Charlotte. She bites her lip at the thought, and then immediately is overcome with the memory of Serena’s mouth on hers, of Serena taking her lower lip between her teeth and gently pulling. She thinks she can still taste Serena on her tongue. Bernie closes her eyes, tries to clear the memories from her thoughts, only finds that makes it worse, makes it more clear, emblazoned in her mind.

She dismounts on her own this time, clumsily and with ill-grace, but proud enough to have done it without assistance. “Ah, this was - thanks. Thank you for the ride. And the -” Bernie coughs and lets her sentence trail off. “Right. See you.” She turns on her heel, leaving Serena standing with the two horses near the stables, can imagine the look on her face as she watches Bernie leave.

- - -

Things seem to happen all at once, a house of cards falling. Bernie withdraws from Charlotte’s riding life, uses work as an excuse, can’t hide from the hurt in her daughter’s eyes when another invitation to watch her ride is rebuffed. “Why don’t you come anymore?” Charlotte asks, tears threatening to spill out onto her cheeks and Bernie doesn’t have an answer, not yet.

The divorce is finalized, Marcus no longer having a way to draw it out any further. The settlement is as fair as Bernie would expect it to be, and she’s content to sign the papers, to legally remove him from her life, even if she still has to talk with him about their daughter, make arrangements for their schedule.

And she spends every minute not with patients, not in surgery, not busy, thinking about Serena. She thinks about what it might be like to be with a woman, thinks about their kiss, how good it felt, how right it felt. She thinks it never felt that way with Marcus, feels the familiar chaser of guilt at the thought. She did love him, for a time, she’s sure of it. But it’s all different, and if they met now, she’s not sure they would even be friends.

She finds herself sitting in her office, her fingers delicately tracing her lips, trying to recapture the feeling of Serena McKinnie, but it is a sensation that cannot be duplicated. She takes out her phone one evening, does a search for ‘lesbian,’ because that’s all she knows, really, thinks she’s never really thought about her sexuality, about what she likes, but now the world is open to her once more and she might be something different than what she thought.

She learns new words; she learns bisexual and pansexual and heteronormativity. She lets them roll around her in mind, lets herself feel how they sound, how they sound when they’re about her, tries to find what fits. It’s a bit scary, like standing on the edge of the ocean, not knowing what creatures lie below the surface. She doesn’t know what it might mean, to redefine herself at this age. Bernie wonders if ‘redefinition’ is even appropriate. Maybe ‘unearthing herself’ is what she means.

She came alive when Serena kissed her, a terrifying new reality, but it’s one she isn’t willing to shy away from, not now that she knows what it might be like.

Bernie doesn’t feel obligated to shout anything from the rooftops, to announce anything to the world, but she knows she has to talk to Charlotte, has to be upfront with her about it all. So she picks Charlotte up from her riding lesson, doesn’t get out of the car because she can’t face Serena, not yet, not until she’s talked with her daughter.

Charlotte is happy enough to see her mother, but Bernie can tell she wishes that Bernie could’ve come for the lesson, watched her ride. She turns on the radio, lets a pop song fill the silence, looks at her mother questioningly when Bernie snaps the dial off.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” she says, and Charlotte bites at her lip, a habit she’s no doubt picked up from Bernie. “It’s, well, it’s about why I haven’t come to your lessons these past few weeks.” Charlotte is alert, her posture as straight as when she’s on horseback, and she’s looking at her mother with wide eyes. “So, ah, Serena - your riding instructor-” Charlotte rolls her eyes at Bernie’s apparent need to state the obvious “- she and I, well, we…” Bernie feels a little helpless, almost regrets doing this while driving, though she appreciates a captive audience. “We kissed.” She says the words, lets them out into the open air, thinks it’s the first time she’s actually vocalized the thing that’s been consuming her all this time.

Charlotte blinks, is silent for a moment. “Were you bad at it?” she asks, and Bernie shoots her a look, can’t quite tell if she’s taking the mickey. “Well, why else would you be avoiding her unless you were really bad at it?”

“It doesn’t, ah, bother you that we kissed?” Bernie spares another glance at her daughter, just in time to see another eye roll.

“I thought I’d walked in on you two snogging that one day you watched my lesson with Raf,” Charlotte says, her tone matter-of-fact, almost blasé. “I just figured you’d tell me when you were ready.” Bernie once again marvels at her daughter, so accepting of something that it took Bernie weeks to adjust to.

“No, she and I went out riding - yes, your mother went riding,” Bernie interrupts herself to answer the question she can feel is on Charlotte’s lips. “And out in the back field, we just. We kissed.”

“And you ran?” Charlotte is being eerily prescient about it all and Bernie can only nod, because it’s the truth, because she felt she had no other recourse at the time.

“I ran. Well. Rode back to the stables sedately, and then took off in my car, if you must know.” Charlotte’s response is to stick her tongue out at her mother, but Bernie can’t find it in herself to care, can only feel the thumping of her heart, the knowledge that her daughter is fine with the idea of Bernie kissing her riding instructor, with the idea of Bernie kissing Serena. “Is that okay with you?”

“As long as I can still ride at McKinnie’s, and you won’t, like, run away to another country if you get scared again, then I just want you to be happy, Mum,” Charlotte says, her answer so genuine it wrenches something in Bernie’s chest. She hums her response, and flicks the radio back on, just looking at Charlotte with a wide smile on her face, wide enough her cheeks ache, but the hurt can’t even touch her happiness.

She’s early to arrive to pick up Charlotte two days later, determined to talk to Serena, determined to do something. She stands near the other parents, but always a little apart, as usual, and just watches, can’t pull her eyes from Serena, her posture so strong, her voice carrying across the arena.

When the riders have all dismounted, brought their horses into the stables, Bernie makes her way towards Serena, still assessing the practice area, her horse off in one corner, nosing at Raf over the fence, angling for the treats she knows are in Raf’s pockets. Serena catches sight of Bernie and, thankfully, doesn’t pretend she doesn’t see her, doesn’t walk in the opposite direction. Bernie thinks, not for the first time, that Serena is probably braver than she’ll ever be, army career notwithstanding.

“Good to see you, Ms. Wolfe,” Serena says, and the use of her surname stings a bit, but it’s no more than she deserves, perhaps. But Serena swings under the top rung of the fence easily so she’s standing in front of Bernie, face to face, no boundaries between them. “Did you want to talk about Charlotte?”

Bernie shakes her head, wills herself to be strong, holds out a piece of paper to Serena, because it’s the only weapon she has in her arsenal at the moment.

“Ah, here’s my - here’s my number. If you ever, well, if you ever want to use it. For anything.” Bernie summons up every bit of courage she possesses, makes herself be the one to lean forward and brush her lips against Serena’s cheek, revels in the soft warmth of her skin, the faint smell of hay clinging about her clothes. And then she goes back to her car to wait for Charlotte, sparing a glance back at Serena as she’s fastening her seatbelt, sees Serena’s hand on her cheek and a smile on her face.

- - -

Bernie’s normally oft-disregarded cell phone becomes a permanent fixture on her person; never far from hand, checked constantly in quiet moments of the days that follow. Logically she knows Serena likely won’t call, especially so quickly. That she’s offered nothing to make up for her behavior in Serena’s eyes. It doesn’t keep her from glancing at the screen every chance she gets, willing Serena’s name to appear.

So of course, when the phone does finally ring, it’s just as Bernie is stepping out of the shower. Towel barely wrapped around her torso, her hair still dripping in her eyes, she dashes into the kitchen, manages to put a hand on it just in time, jabbing the green answer button before it can go to voicemail.

“Hello?” She’s a little breathless from jogging across her flat, the word coming out on a gasp. Silence comes through the line, and Bernie frowns as she mops some of the water from her face. “Hello? Serena?”

“Uh, yes. Sorry. Is-is this a bad time?”

“No, not at all! I just got out of the shower and had to run for the phone.” There’s another pause, longer this time. “Serena?” Bernie prompts.

“Ah, yes, right.” Her normally confident voice is faint, a little strangled. “I, um, I was hoping that we could find some time to, to talk. About what happened?”

Bernie’s pulse picks up, nerves making her stomach squirm. This was what she wanted, the reason she had given Serena her number, but now that it was here… She forces herself to take a deep breath, reassured somewhat by the uncertainty in Serena’s voice, by the thought that maybe she is just as nervous as Bernie.

“I’d like that.” The words come out softer than she intended, but sincere in their pleasure. She can practically hear the smile in Serena’s response, quickly agrees to come out to the farm in the morning for a cup of coffee before her afternoon shift starts.

They say their goodbyes and Bernie taps disconnect. Stands dripping wet in the middle of her kitchen, staring at the phone in her hand with flushed cheeks and a wide grin. It’s only when her phone buzzes with a text from Marcus that Bernie is jolted from her daze, brought back to reality with the reminder that her ex-husband isn’t able to pick up Charlotte from lessons or school at all next week.

She wakes the next morning at dawn, anxious and excited, goes for a jog in the brisk, foggy streets to burn off some of the excess energy. Tries to remind herself that this may be nothing. Serena may just want to be friends, or may want to give Bernie the telling off she rightly deserves, may decide there won’t be anymore chats after Charlotte’s lessons, anymore weekend rides. The thought of having it all taken away just as she’s realized what she wants makes her chest tight. She runs harder to put the thoughts behind her, focuses instead on the fact that Serena had called, had made the offer of coffee, her voice sounding so pleased over the line. Focuses on the hope that gives her, the excitement of possibility that fizzes through her veins.

By the time she rounds back to her flat, she’s regained a little of her equilibrium, sweaty and filled with that delicious sort of tiredness she only ever gets from a good workout or sex. Her stomach flips and she puts a stop to that train of thought immediately. The last thing she needs to be thinking of before meeting Serena McKinnie is sex.

Bernie ducks into the shower, set as hot as she can stand, scrubs herself until her skin is pink, humming some pop song Charlotte’s been listening to, sings snippets of it only slightly off key. Faces herself in a mirror with a grimace, wrinkling her nose at her reflection, and pulls open the drawer with her limited collection of makeup; rejects most of it, doesn’t want to have to listen to Serena’s potential rejection with a made up face for the first time since they met. Opts for a swipe of mascara, dabs some of the perfume Charlotte bought her for Christmas on her pulse points.

She does try to do something with her hair, manages to twist it up into something presentable, only a few of the more stubborn bits escaping around her face. Walks into her bedroom and surveys the contents of her wardrobe with a frown, can’t remember the last time she went shopping for clothes, or cared about how she dressed for someone, for that matter. She settles on her newest pair of slim black jeans and digs in the back for the jumper Charlotte always tells her brings out her eyes.

On the way out she gives herself one last critical look, hopes that she’s managed a balance between putting in an effort and not presuming too much. The clock catches her eye, shows she has to leave immediately if she’s going to make it to the farm in time. With one final touch at her hair, a tug of her jumper, decides this is as best as it’s going to get and heads out, shutting the door firmly behind her.

By the time she pulls into the gravel drive of McKinnie’s, she’s a nervous wreck, has spun out so many scenarios for their conversation that she’s not even sure what she wants from it anymore. For a moment, she considers turning the car around and driving home, thinks Serena warrants better than a middle-aged disaster who has no earthly idea what she’s doing in most situations outside of a trauma unit, much less with another woman. But she also knows that if she runs now there won’t be another opportunity to make things right and if nothing else, Serena deserves her bravery.

Wiping her sweaty palms on her thighs, she exits the car and walks toward the office, knocking lightly on the door and it’s only a moment before it swings open. Serena stands in the doorway, as lovely as ever but some of the warmth and openness is gone from her eyes, replaced with a wariness, an edge of discomfort that makes Bernie’s stomach twist, knowing that she put it there. She tries to summon a smile of greeting, but it’s barely more than a twitch of her lips, Serena echoing her expression.

The moment drags between them, until Serena shakes her head, grabs the flask and mugs from the nearby table. “It’s a beautiful morning. I thought we could sit outside?” Bernie just nods mutely and follows her around the side of the building. Two brightly painted wooden chairs sit on the porch with a small table between them, overlooking the property. Bernie settles in the nearest chair as Serena pours the coffee, hands fidgeting in her lap. From her vantage she can just see the water trough in the back field, is momentarily overwhelmed by the memory of Serena’s soft lips pressed so sweetly against her own. She pushes down the thought and turns to Serena, sat awkwardly on the edge of her chair, spine rigid and hands clenched.

“Serena--”

“Bernie, I--” Serena says simultaneously. They pause, each chuckling awkwardly. “Please, Bernie. Let me.” Bernie nods, hates how nervous Serena looks, hates that she’s made her feel this way. “I want to apologize for what happened. I’ve clearly made you uncomfortable and that was never my intention.”

“No, Serena, it--” Serena cuts Bernie off again with a wave of her hand.

“We barely know one another and I threw myself at you like a randy teenager. It’s no wonder you ran off.”

“Serena, no,” Bernie says, her firm tone drawing Serena’s eyes from where they’ve been darting across the treeline. “I was startled, yes, but you didn’t do anything wrong.” She smiles, genuinely this time, just a small lift of the lips, but she’s happy to see Serena respond in kind, the worry lines around her eyes softening.

“When you didn’t come back, I was sure I had mucked it all up.”

“I just needed time to work through some things. To make some decisions.”

“And what, pray tell, did you decide?” She can tell Serena is going for humor, but the lingering worry in her eyes keeps her words from hitting the mark.

Bernie takes a moment to breathe, to consider her words; she’s never been the most adept at verbalizing her feelings, and in this moment, it feels so important to get things right.

“I--I like you Serena. Very much.” Some of the sparkle returns to Serena’s eyes at that and it’s hard not to get distracted. “I don’t really know what that means. My life is a mess and none of this is what I expected. But I know I’d like to get to know you better. If you, if you’d like.” Her hands flutter nervously in her lap and she wishes she had brought her cigarettes from the car.

“I’d like.” Serena smiles then, the one that makes her whole face glow and Bernie’s heart stutter in her chest. “I’d like that very much.”

Bernie feels out of practice making friends, doesn’t know how to start sharing, how to make that connection. She opens her mouth once, twice, nothing coming to mind. “This is good coffee,” she says finally. “Strong.”

“Strong and hot is all I care about,” Serena says, drops a wink at Bernie, and she feels a flush suffuse her whole body.

“My divorce is finalized,” Bernie says, the words tumbling out, awkward and blunt as she tries to fumble through this strange phase of getting to know one another. “Signed the papers and everything.”

“How does it feel?” Serena asks, sipping at her mug, holding the porcelain close to her lips, blowing slightly on the hot liquid, the steam disappearing into the air.

“Oh. Good? Strange? It’s good that it’s over, a relief, really. But Marcus was a significant part of my life and to close that chapter after so long, well, it’s just a change.” Bernie looks down at her toes, turns her feet in so the tips of her shoes are touching. “I wasn’t making him happy. And he wasn’t making me happy. It’s for the best.” She shrugs, blinks to find her eyes are slightly, unexpectedly, wet.

“It’s still new,” Serena says, and her hand is soothing on Bernie’s arm, her thumb rubbing back and forth, brushing the fine hairs there. Bernie tries to quell the emotion in her eyes, thinks the worst thing to happen would be to start crying on Serena’s porch. “You’re allowed to feel sad about it, even if it was the right thing,” Serena adds, and she’s so gentle and kind that Bernie thinks she really might weep.

There’s silence for a moment as Bernie wrestles her emotions under control, Serena’s hand still a solid presence on Bernie’s arm, grounding her, like the string to a kite. “I used to compete in dressage,” she says after a moment, a non sequitur that makes Bernie turn to look at her, thinking for the first time that maybe this is unfamiliar to Serena as well.

“Why did you stop?” Bernie asks, remembering the beaming photo of Serena with a bouquet of flowers and a medal around her neck. Serena coughs a little, her gaze skittering away from Bernie’s.

She clears her throat again, fiddles with her necklace. “Family obligations.” That line of conversation seems to be closed, at least for the moment and Bernie lets it lie.

She sips her coffee, casting about for something to say. “What’s the meaning behind Dureza’s name?” she asks, looking towards the fields, seeing the horses out grazing.

“It’s a kind of a grape meant for red wines. But it also means strength, sort of, in Spanish. Seemed fitting for my girl.” The fondness for her horse is evident in Serena’s voice, warmth coming back into her tone, her eyes shining again. Bernie asks after Serena’s favorite wine, learns it’s Shiraz, learns Serena might know as much about wine as she does about horses.

Bernie can’t stay as long as she’d like, has to get to work, and it’s with genuine regret she leaves Serena’s porch, but feels better about today, about her life, than she has in a while. She kisses Serena’s cheek gently in goodbye, leaning down so Serena doesn’t have to get up, and promises to call her soon.

They both have busy schedules, demands on their time that make it difficult to meet up, but manage to cobble together some sort of growing friendship through conversations on the phone and occasional mornings spent drinking coffee at the stables. Bernie finds it easier to talk about her divorce, about why things fell apart, about her lack of interest in Marcus, on any front. She talks about her time in the army, about how sometimes it felt that going away to Afghanistan was more like coming home than when she was on leave.

Serena, for her part, begins to share as well. As Bernie opens up, so does Serena, as if she were waiting to follow Bernie’s lead. She talks about her past in riding, her mother’s support. She lists her medals, her accomplishments, unadorned with pride, just simple facts. And then, one evening, late at night, when Bernie is tucked in bed, phone pressed to her ear, the only light coming from the screen, Serena talks about the pain of her mother’s illness, that she gave up her career as an equestrian to take care of her ailing parent. Bernie wants nothing more than to hold her, to press kisses into her hair, thinks maybe Serena chose to share over the phone to avoid having to be painfully honest in person, to have to look into Bernie’s eyes while she tells her hardest truths. Bernie doesn’t blame her, not in the least.

When they meet for coffee three days later, Serena is shy, tentative, as if she’s unsure how Bernie has accepted her revelations. Wordlessly, Bernie just enfolds Serena into a hug, holds her close, doesn’t count the seconds as time passes. “Let’s drink up before the coffee gets cold,” Serena says when several minutes have passed, her face pressed into Bernie’s shoulder, her voice slightly muffled.

They sit on the porch, just like the very first time, and Bernie holds her mug between her hands, smiles over the rim, her eyes crinkling up at the corners. “This is nice,” she says, her voice soft, and Serena’s answering smile echoes her words.

- - -

Serena invites Bernie to come riding again, after chatting and coffee and phone calls and really and truly getting to know each other. Bernie almost declines, isn’t sure if it’s too soon to revisit the place where it all started, has just gotten used to the low feeling of desire that curls around her whenever she’s in Serena’s presence, only tempered by the fact that it’s all still new, unfamiliar, but not unwanted. In the end, she agrees, thinks she’ll have to do this sooner or later, and might as well choose sooner.

She tells Charlotte that she’s going for a ride with Serena and her daughter’s only response is to say, “Don’t give me any details.” With a blushing face, Bernie goes to her car and drives the distance to the stables. She feels a fluttering in her stomach, a sense that something significant is about to happen. Serena is waiting outside when Bernie parks her car, her face so pretty in the sunshine, happy at the sight of her.

“I thought you could help me saddle up,” Serena says, when Bernie is close, close enough to be greeted with a kiss on the cheek. She smells wonderful, like warm hay and something floral, and Bernie wants to breathe it in forever. She sucks in her breath at the sight of Serena walking in front of her, jodhpurs framing her body beautifully, sinfully.

Serena walks Bernie through the need for a saddle blanket, through belting a saddle around Arthur, the same horse from before, shows her how to fit the bit in his mouth, guide the reins over his head. She grins at Bernie when she succeeds, makes Bernie feel like she’s performed some difficult and rare procedure, instead of the same sort of thing her daughter does all the time.

Serena saddles her own horse quickly and efficiently and they lead their horses out into the field, Serena handing Bernie a helmet as they go. “Safety first,” she says as she mounts up, and Bernie nods, chasing away the ridiculous feeling of the riding helmet with the comfort that at least Serena has one on too. She’s able to get astride her horse with minimal embarrassment, her body already remembering the way to move from before. She turns to look at Serena, to see which way they’ll be headed, and sees a glint in Serena’s eye.

“Race you to the watering trough,” she says, giving a push to Bernie’s horse as she takes off on Dureza. Arthur starts into a gallop and Bernie clings to the reins with her hands, tucks her knees in, just holds on for dear life. She gets used to the feeling after a bit, her body adjusting to the jostling, finding the rhythm in it. She can see Serena ahead, the thick black tail of her horse flying, Serena’s body held close to his neck. Bernie tries to mimic the posture, could swear that Arthur neighs out a mocking sort of sound.

Serena easily beats Bernie to the watering trough; it was never a competition. She’s dismounted and is leaning against her horse when Bernie trots into the back field, laughing at the sight of her, and Bernie can only find inside of her an answering laugh. She’s flushed from the ride, her hair in disarray under the helmet, slowing her horse as she nears Serena, dismounts easily, it all coming more naturally now. But when she lands, she stumbles a little, falls into Serena, their faces so close. She can’t resist it, that feeling of warm want, not now, and leans in closer.

But Serena pulls back, her eyes searching Bernie’s face. “What’s going on, Bernie?” she asks, her voice soft and gentle. Her hand brushes against Bernie’s, a touch of fingers, a reassurance.

“You told me the best way to get over a fear is to face it,” she says, looking back at Serena with more bravery than she feels, lets their fingers tangle more certainly.

“You’re afraid of me?” Serena’s voice is breathy, soft, and she’s letting Bernie move in more closely, not leaning back now.

“I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t kiss you now.” And with that, Bernie closes the gap between them, places her lips squarely on Serena’s, finds she remembers the feeling of kissing Serena just as surely as her body has started to remember how to ride a horse. Serena hums at the sensation, a small vibration at the back of her throat, and Bernie chases the sound, slips her tongue between Serena’s lips, her hand going up into Serena’s hair, dislodging the helmet.

When they finally part, Bernie gasping slightly for breath, Serena touches her forehead to Bernie’s, strokes her cheek gently. “You aren’t planning on running away again, are you?” she asks, and though there’s humor in her voice, Bernie knows there’s an underlying fear there as well.

“I know what I want,” Bernie says, her voice voice firm and unshaking. She kisses Serena again, soft and sweet, a gentle punctuation to her statement. Serena follows Bernie’s lips as she pulls back, her breath against Bernie’s cheek. Bernie can feel Serena’s smile, the dimpling of her cheeks, the creases beside her mouth. She nuzzles Serena, breathes her in again, can’t believe she’s lucky enough to be this close.

“And what is that?” Serena’s voice is low, and Bernie can feel the words just as much as she can hear them. Bernie has never been very good at vocalizing her feelings, never one for sharing, though she’s worked on it where Serena is concerned, knows how important it is.

She opts for simplicity, for a one-word answer, the syllable coming out on a breath: “You.”

It’s the right answer, and earns her another kiss, long, deep, unbroken even at the whinnying of Dureza, loosely tied by the watering trough. Bernie’s hands are bolder than her mind, her fingers skimming at Serena’s shirt, pulling it up from where it’s been tucked into her trousers. She swallows Serena’s gasp at the touch of Bernie’s palm to her bare skin, revels in the fact that she’s elicited this reaction, that she can make Serena feel this way.

“I’ve been wanting to do that for weeks,” Bernie says, when they part again, her lips wet from saliva, her palms sweaty with desire. Serena smiles, a beautiful crooked smile and reaches out to grasp Bernie’s hand, holds it against her heart.

“I’m glad you did it now,” she says, giving their joined fingers a squeeze.

The ride back to the stables has none of the stilted awkwardness of before. Bernie can hardly contain her joy, sneaking glances at Serena, smiling when their eyes meet, knowing she’s caught Serena looking too.

“We might have to try riding bareback sometime,” Serena says, with an arched brow and Bernie almost chokes on her spit, doing nothing to lessen Serena’s amusement. “Come on, let’s get the saddles off these horses, and then you can brush down Arthur, since you left...him in the lurch the last time.” There’s no bite to the words, and Bernie kisses the smile that’s creasing Serena’s cheeks. “I trust that won’t happen in the future,” she says in between Bernie’s light pecks.

“Not if I can help it, Ms. McKinnie,” Bernie says, pulling Serena into an embrace, hands finding their now-favorite home in Serena’s beautiful brown hair, her tongue slipping into Serena’s welcoming mouth, and it all feels so right, so familiar, Bernie’s heart beats wildly at it all. She tries to think if it ever felt this way with Marcus, but all thoughts of her ex-husband are chased from her mind as Serena’s tongue tangles with her own, a new sensation that Bernie can’t wait to experience again and again.

“You know,” Serena says while brushing out Dureza’s mane as Bernie leans her arms on the door to the stall, “with Charlotte deciding to compete, that means she’ll need to up the amount of time she spends riding. More lessons, more time out here. Does that - is that all right?” She looks at Bernie, her gaze carefully neutral.

“If it’s what Charlotte wants, I’ll be here as much as needed. If that’s all right.” Bernie holds her hand out to Dureza’s nose, lets the huge animal sniff her hand, lightly nipping with her lips, then pats her nose, earning a happy whickering noise.

Serena rolls her eyes, putting the brush down, rubbing Dureza’s flank. “I think it’s safe to say we’re both fine with the other one being around more.” Bernie has to appreciate Serena’s willingness to cut through the bullshit. She laughs, a barking sort of noise that makes Serena stare.

“I don’t want to - I don’t want to rush things. We’re just finding our footing-” Bernie can see Serena’s gaze hardening slightly and rushes her words out to assuage her, “-and I don’t want to mess us up. I want to enjoy this, and you, and to take my time. This is all - it’s all new.” She’s hinted at this before, in their conversations over coffee, but she’s trying to make herself be open and honest, not only with Serena, but with herself. “I’ve never been more than friends with a woman. But Serena, I want you, I want this, so much. So much.” Her hands are a bit fluttery above the wood stall door, and Serena moves closer to her, captures her fingers, slides them together next to hers. “I just don’t want to muck it up.”

Serena kisses Bernie, sweet and soft, so warm. “The only mucking I think you’ll be doing will be in Arthur’s stable.” Her laughter is just as sunny as her smile, and it’s like a cozy jumper that settles around Bernie’s shoulders. “Now, let’s make some coffee and start scheduling some of Charlotte’s upcoming instruction.”

- - -

Bernie and Marcus still share the responsibility of taking Charlotte to her lessons, but whenever Bernie goes, she knows she’s always in for a cup of coffee and lingering kisses in Serena’s office before heading home with her daughter. She’s shouldering much of Charlotte’s extra competition training, doesn’t find it all that much of a hardship when it’s accompanied by the feel of Serena in her arms.

Occasionally, Charlotte’s supplementary lessons fall on a weekend, when Serena can fully devote her time and attention to the little details that matter so much in dressage competition. Bernie’s negotiated her schedule, talked with the hospital director to allow her some more freedom with her shifts, and is able to come more often than not. Serena’s bright smile every time they pull into the parking lot of McKinnie’s is more than enough repayment.

Still, for all she treasures the moments they have together, it’s hard not to crave more, especially when Serena’s tongue is in her mouth, their bodies pressed tightly together. They haven’t gone further than kissing, have agreed to take things slow, for both of their sakes, and time hasn’t been on their side. Bernie can hardly make her teenaged daughter wait while she snogs her riding instructor senseless, but that can be difficult to remember when Serena’s strong thigh is pressed between her legs.

Bernie feels like a teenager again, finds herself thinking about Serena all the time, wishing they had more time together. She knows Serena feels it too, can see it in her dark eyes and short breath, the way her hands linger against Bernie when they say their goodbyes. But she hasn’t pressed, hasn’t asked for anything more than Bernie is comfortable with, always makes Bernie feel cherished and understood in a way that’s new and precious.

When she’s alone at night in her too quiet flat, in her too large bed, Bernie begins to think about what it would be like to go further. To have Serena there with her, to be able to feel every inch of her incredible curves, the softness of her skin, to learn how Serena likes to be touched and to have Serena touch her in return. The train of thought always leads to Bernie gasping in the darkness with a hand down her knickers, making her more and more certain that this, that Serena, is what she wants.

On this particular Saturday, most of Charlotte’s lesson has been didactic, Serena talking her through the finer points of the sport, showing her tapes of old competitions in the office, settled on the couch, Charlotte settled in between Bernie and Serena. Occasionally Serena will pause to talk about mistakes or moments of perfection. It’s would be boring Bernie to tears if Serena wasn’t also pinning her with heated gazes every time Charlotte’s attention is held by the screen.

Tucked into the corner of the couch, Bernie pretends to play an inane game on her phone, trying to feign some degree of normalcy when Serena’s dark eyes are making her skin tingle.

When Serena’s decided enough is enough, she tells Charlotte to take Sterling Silver out for a ride, just around the fields, to not think about anything but how it feels to be with her horse. “Posture doesn’t matter right now, not how you hold your legs. Don’t worry about speed or grace, just be with your horse. The relationship you two have is as much a part of success in dressage as anything else.” Charlotte smiles, pats her mother’s knee as she stands, and leaves the two women alone.

Bernie and Serena sit in silence for a few moments, the atmosphere thick and heavy between them, and then Serena suggests they take a jaunt to the stables for feeding time. Bewildered at the change in direction, Bernie dutifully follows Serena outside, always kitted out in some slapped together riding gear just in case. No one else is in sight; Raf has a group out on a trail ride and Jason doesn’t work on the weekends, and only the soft whickers of the horses accompany them as Serena leads Bernie up the ladder to the hayloft.

The loft is warm, golden sunlight streaming through the high windows, the air sweet and pungent with the smell of hay and alfalfa. As soon as she clears the ladder Bernie reaches out, snags Serena’s hand and pulls her into her arms so eagerly that Serena stumbles a little, her surprised laugh trailing off into a moan as Bernie kisses her. Serena’s hands thread into Bernie’s hair, securing their mouths together as they stumble together across the hay-strewn floor, legs tangling.

The backs of Bernie’s knees bump against something and she over balances, dropping to sit on what turns out to be a bale of hay, tugging Serena down with her so she’s straddling Bernie’s lap. Their lips barely part through the entire process, teasing and tasting each other with tongues and teeth. Serena pulls away, gasping for air as Bernie moves to trail kisses along the line of her jaw, her skin tasting like salt and sunshine and Serena.

“As much as I appreciate your initiative, darling,” Serena’s voice is breathless and husky above her as Bernie works her way down along the column of her neck, “I know from experience that a ‘roll in the hay’ isn’t as romantic as it sounds. The damned stuff gets everywhere, at the most inconvenient times.”

Bernie hums in vague acknowledgement, nosing aside the opening of Serena’s polo shirt so she can suck softly against her pulse point. Her hands slide down Serena’s back, lower across her hips, the backs of her thighs, as Serena claims her mouth once again. She opens eagerly to Serena’s questing tongue, sinking deeper into the delicious softness of the kiss.

A gentle hand settles on her breast and Bernie stills, a storm of sensation thrumming through her despite the lightness of the touch. Serena pulls back at the hesitation, hand and mouth hovering a hairsbreadth away, eyes intense and searching. Bernie nods once, moans as Serena kisses her slow and deep, hand returning to its previous position, palming Bernie’s breast through her jumper.

Her thumb circles Bernie’s nipple, an electric shock of sensation even through layers of fabric, making her throb. She can’t get enough of Serena, hands hungrily mapping the softness layered over the strong muscles of her thighs, the curve of her hips. One hand comes to rest on the swell of her backside, the other slipping under the hem of Serena’s top, the skin of her lower back warm and impossibly soft beneath Bernie’s fingertips.

Serena’s lips disappear from her own, her hand ceasing its pleasurable ministrations and Bernie frowns as her eyes blink open. Serena is still close, so close, her cheeks flushed, lips glistening and kiss swollen, pupils so wide her eyes are practically black, but when Bernie makes to lean forward, Serena’s hand presses against her sternum, stopping her motion.

“Bernie, wait.” She sits up straighter, putting a few inches of space between their bodies. “As much as I want this,” a spark of humor and lust tug up the corner of her mouth in a grin, “and I do very much want this, I did mean it that a hayloft isn’t quite the place I had in mind.”

“Oh? Been thinking about me, McKinnie?” Bernie quirks an eyebrow, treasuring Serena’s laugh at the tease, glad that she recognizes the thanks in it even if Bernie can’t quite express it.

“Let’s just say running to the shop to buy batteries is the first item on my to-do list.” Her grin is positively wicked and the image she conjures almost overloads Bernie’s already hormone-saturated brain. She groans and tugs Serena down for another kiss, missing the taste of her.

They finally break apart, breathing heavily as they rest their foreheads together. Bernie’s hands scribe long, soothing strokes along the length of Serena’s back, enjoying the warmth of her, the fit of their bodies.

“The fact of the matter is, I’ve become inordinately fond of you, Bernie Wolfe.” Serena brushes aside Bernie’s unruly fringe, tucking the golden locks behind her ear, expression gone serious and a little shy. “I...I want things to be perfect for you. For us.”

Even though she knows they’re meant well, the words twist something in Bernie’s stomach. She knows the weight of perfection, of expectation, of holding yourself and others to an impossible standard. Can acknowledge now how much pain it can cause, the damage that hiding from one’s true self can inflict, and knows she can’t accept the sentiment, no matter how romantic.

“I don’t want perfection, Serena.” Bernie’s eyes are dark and intense, trying to project the full force of her intention behind her words. “I just want you.”

Serena doesn’t reply, doesn’t claim to know what’s best in the situation or offer empty platitudes. She simply studies Bernie with no pretense between them and for the first time Bernie feels truly understood, truly seen. Knows that Serena is listening to her needs and taking them to heart in a way no one has ever bothered to before. That understanding, the care behind it, fills Bernie with warmth, with a bravery that melts away the last of her fears.

“You know, Charlotte’s away at Marcus’s for the weekend.” Her voice comes out low, laden with meaning and she sees Serena swallow heavily, the pulse fluttering at her throat. “Dinner?”

“Tomorrow?”

“My place?”

“Okay.”

- - -

What had felt brave and sensible with Serena perched in her lap, wrapped in her arms, is quite another matter when Bernie surveys her flat over coffee the next morning. She’s never made much of an effort to make it homey, only purchasing throw pillows and a few pieces of hanging art at Charlotte’s suggestion. Her fridge is mostly empty, apart from a leftover box of pizza and some frozen vegetables in her freeze.

The cold light of dawn brings with it harsh realities and Bernie wonders if there’s anything she can do in ten hours’ time to make this little hole in the wall seem like a place worthy of Serena McKinnie. She thinks about texting Charlotte, can’t imagine what the response would be to that. She wishes she had a friend she could ask this sort of question, wonders what her old army compatriots would say if she called them up to ask for advice on wooing a woman.

In the end, she decides to get new sheets, something that actually has a thread count. She buys groceries, things to stock her refrigerator and make it look like someone actually spends time in the flat. She makes herself knock on her neighbor’s door, ask to borrow a broom and a vacuum, makes an effort to clean away the dust that’s collected on the back of the toilet seat. By the time the sun starts to set, Bernie has water on the stove for pasta and has started chopping tomatoes.

Serena’s knock on the door comes sooner than Bernie expects. She’s stirring the sauce on the stove, and almost drops the spoon, managing to splatter a little tomato on the backsplash, on her apron. She rubs her hands on her thighs, turns the heat down to a simmer and peers through the peephole, sees a slightly warped version of Serena looking back, and Bernie would almost say she looks nervous.

She opens the door and regrets not taking the apron off. Serena looks so nice wearing a soft jumper that looks almost ethereal, the fibers making a glowing halo around in the evening light. There’s an awkward moment where they try to negotiate whether to hug or kiss and finally Bernie takes control, pulls Serena into her arms, kisses her cheek. “Come in,” she says. “I hope you like pasta.”

“What’s not to like?” Serena asks. “I can only hope you’ve got a nice wine to pair it with.”

“I wouldn’t make the mistake of inviting you over without a bottle or two in the house,” Bernie says, congratulating herself on not embarrassing herself, saying something that earns her a smile from Serena, her cheeks dimpling prettily. She shuts the door to her flat, and tries to see it with Serena’s eyes, wishes she’d maybe bought some candles, done more to set some kind of mood.

But when Serena turns back around, her eyes look a little wet, a dopey sort of grin on her face. “You’re cooking for me?” she says and moves into Bernie’s orbit, her arms going around Bernie’s neck, hands linking just under the curtain of blonde hair.

“Mmm,” is Bernie’s succinct response and Serena kisses her, right there in the middle of the kitchen, sauce on Bernie’s apron and all.

“Can’t remember the last time I had a meal I didn’t cook or call for from a takeaway,” Serena says, her eyes shining and clear. She pulls Bernie in for another kiss, her tongue just teasing at the seam of Bernie’s lips, an appetizer for what’s to come. Bernie lingers over Serena, tasting her, enjoying the sensation of it, the softness of it, so different from Marcus, so different from anything. There’s an electricity that comes with kissing Serena that she’s never felt before, she feels it from her skull to her toes, a jolt of pure joy to her system.

“We have to stop,” Bernie says after a bit, though she never wants to, “or we’ll smell burning tomatoes at any moment.” Serena pulls back enough that Bernie can see the considering look on her face, as though she’s weighing the pros and cons of a burnt dinner. “Just a temporary cessation,” she promises, and Serena makes a false moue of protest, but moves away, leans against the opposite wall as Bernie turns back to the stove.

It doesn’t take long for water to boil, for the pasta to cook. Bernie gives Serena the responsibility of uncorking the wine, filling the glasses. They sit next to each other at the round table, just close enough that their knees can touch. Serena is effusive in her praise, almost indecent in her enjoyment of the wine.

Bernie looks at Serena, really looks at her, thinks this is the first time they’ve been together away from the stables. Serena is dressed differently, nicer. Her jumper is cut lower, clings to her sides, there’s makeup on her face, red lips and pink cheeks, and the smell of hay is gone from her clothes. “This is nice,” she says, when Serena looks at her with a question in her expression, knows she’s said the words before, wishes she was better at saying what’s on her mind, wishes it didn’t sound so trite.

“It is,” Serena says, lightly touching the rim of her glass to Bernie’s, sounding a gentle clink into the air. She sips her wine, her throat undulating as she swallows and Bernie’s tongue darts out to wet her lips unconsciously. “But I think I’ve had enough pasta for the time being.” She sets down her glass, pushes her plate forward.

“Done eating?” Bernie asks, standing to clear the dishes, makes the mistake of looking down into Serena’s eyes, dark with want, desire, emotions that are at once intoxicating and terrifying.

“I didn’t say that,” Serena says, an eyebrow raised, and Bernie almost lets the plate slip from her hands, only well-trained army reflexes keeping her grip on the dish. Serena stands too, pushes her chair back, picks up the cutlery from the table, leaving a stunned Bernie behind as she moves into the kitchen.

Shaking off her shock and the heavy pulse of desire between her thighs, Bernie forces her legs to move, follows Serena into the kitchen where she’s rinsing the dishes in the chipped sink. Bernie steps close behind Serena, close enough to feel the warmth of her, and gives in to the urge to nuzzle her nose into the soft wisps of hair behind Serena’s ear, inhaling deeply the scent of her shampoo, the spice of her perfume.

Water is still running in the sink, but Serena’s hands have stopped their task, move instead to the edge of the sink, gripping it tight. The air leaves Bernie’s lungs in a shuddering gasp as Serena presses back, closes the scant amount of space between them. They fit together like they were made to, the press of Serena’s hips against her own makes Bernie’s eyes flutter shut, her hands bracing beside Serena’s on the sink as she darts her tongue out to taste the velvet soft skin of Serena’s neck.

 

Bernie frowns as Serena pulls away, has only a moment to realize she’s turning in her arms before Serena’s lips are once again claiming her own. She fumbles for the handle to the faucet with one hand, splitting her concentration, only just manages to shut off the water as sure hands tangle in Bernie’s hair, keeping her close as Serena presses her back against the small island, deepens the kiss. Bernie’s hands fall instinctively to Serena’s hips, pulling their bodies flush. Even with clothing between them, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever get used to this, to the incredible softness of Serena’s body, the feel of curves beneath her hands, the delicious friction as their breasts press together. It’s all so different, but feels so right, it takes Bernie’s breath away.

Breaking their kiss, Serena pats the counter top with a mischievous grin. It takes a moment for her meaning sink in, before Bernie pushes herself up to sit on the butcher block. Serena moves between her legs, rests her hands on Bernie’s thighs, rubs the muscles there.

“Need to ride a bit more, build up your strength,” she says, her mouth so close to Bernie’s ear, her teeth just grazing the lobe. Bernie enjoys her higher vantage point, looking down into Serena’s lovely face, revels in the feel of her so close, her knees just at the dip in Serena’s waist, squeezing slightly because, as she learns, it elicits the most delicious noise from Serena’s throat. Kissing from this angle is revelatory, another new experience.

As much as she would like, Bernie can’t keep the posture for long, finds her back stiffening as she has to crane down slightly to keep her lips on Serena’s. Without breaking their contact, she slides off the counter, slides her body against Serena’s as she stands, her pelvis hitting against Serena’s thigh just so and she almost gasps at the sensation, at how wet she feels already, at how much she wants Serena to take her to bed.

Serena seems to be of a similar mindset. Takes Bernie’s hand and leads her down the short hall, through the open door, keeps hold of her hand as they walk into Bernie’s bedroom.

Again Bernie wishes she had thought of candles, had made the bed more neatly, catches sight of a pair of jeans still flung across the chair in the corner. Fortunately Serena doesn’t seem to notice, seems only concerned with kissing Bernie senseless, and Bernie slips easily into the sensation, lets the world around her fade away.

The touch of Serena’s hand on her stomach, beneath the barrier of fabric, just skin on skin, brings Bernie back to reality. Though they’ve kissed and kissed, and their detour in the hayloft certainly was invigorating, this is something else, and the certainty of what they’re about to do hits Bernie in the chest, makes her gasp. Serena pulls away, her hand dropping and she looks at Bernie with a brow furrowed in concern.

“Are you all right?” she asks. Bernie’s hand comes up to cup Serena’s face, her thumb reaching up to ease the wrinkles from Serena’s forehead.

“I’m very much all right. I just...need a moment?” She kisses Serena gently, softly, a counterpoint to the fervent snogging they’ve been doing up to this point, a gesture to ensure Serena that her interest is still very much alive. “I’m just going to - I’ll be right back. Right back,” she promises. Bernie leaves the bedroom, closes the door behind her and leans against it, tilting her head back against the painted wood. She goes back to the kitchen, gulps down a glass of water, takes a deep breath.

She’s excited by this, and has been anticipating it for far too long. She rubs at her face, tells herself that no matter what happens, it will be good, it will be wonderful, and there’s no way she can screw it all up. She keeps telling herself that as she walks back down the hallway.

When she opens the door to the bedroom, she sees Serena laying on the bed, trousers and jumper in a pile on the floor. Bernie gulps, scared, nervous, excited, and wildly turned on all at once. She forces her gaze to the ground, has to look away from all that pale skin clad in wine red satin, glowing in the lamplight.

“The trousers are off, Major, and they’re not going back on, so you might as well keep looking.” The desire evident in Serena’s voice does almost as much as the humor to ease Bernie’s nerves. “In fact, I’d rather have you more than look, if you think you’re up for it.”

Heart pounding, Bernie crosses the room slowly, comes to stand beside the bed, wills her legs to continue supporting her as Serena rises to her knees before her. Serena reaches out to trail her hands up along Bernie’s arms, across her shoulders, her movements careful but sure, and Bernie can’t help but think of the way Serena works with her horses, thinks she’s using some of the same techniques now to help put Bernie at ease. The thought settles her somewhat, reminds her that while this is all new and overwhelming, this is Serena.

Nimble fingers trace the collar of her shirt, skim across her collarbones, coming to rest at the top button. Serena pauses, raises an eyebrow in query, the moment hanging between them. Bernie nods sharply, hands clenched, her breath already coming fast and short, as Serena smiles and slips free the first button. The others follow quickly after and Bernie shivers as Serena pushes the fabric off her shoulders, whether from the cool air of the room or the look of unabashed want in Serena’s eyes is impossible to say.

Serena’s lips are hot and gentle against Bernie’s sternum, the brush of her fingers fumbling with the button of her jeans makes the muscles of Bernie’s stomach twitch and jump. In the blink of an eye she’s standing in nothing more than her bra and knickers, holding her breath as Serena’s gaze travels over her. Her time in the military made undressing around others a commonplace occurrence and she’s always been fairly comfortable with her body, but in this moment she feels more exposed, more naked than she can ever remember.

“Oh Bernie.” Serena’s voice is hushed, reverent, her eyes deep and shining as she reaches out to caress Bernie’s cheek. “You are so beautiful.” Bernie thinks she must be flushed from head to toe, unused to such brazen adoration.

Before long it’s more than just Serena’s eyes on Bernie as Serena’s hands begin to travel over her body, exploring, learning. Skimming across the plane of her stomach, the dip of her waist, tracing the curve of her breast at the edge of her bra. The touches are so gentle, so sure, it makes Bernie’s head spin.

“Breathe, darling.” Bernie forces herself to take a deep, shuddering breath, then another, honestly not realizing until Serena spoke that she had stopped, Serena’s smile alleviating her immediate embarrassment. “We don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with. I’m more than happy just to be here with you.”

“What?” Bernie huffs out a disbelieving chuckle. “Serena, no. That, that’s not…” She ducks her head, resting her forehead against Serena’s, her voice barely more than a low rumble between them. “The problem is I want to do everything with you.”

Serena’s tongue flicks out to wet her bottom lip, the look on her face no less than lascivious. “Mmmmm, I think that can be arranged.” She takes Bernie’s hands, guides her down onto the bed so they’re lying face to face, kissing slow and deep, their legs tangling. Pulling back slightly, Bernie props her head on one hand, the other reaching out, hovering over Serena’s side, close enough to feel the warmth pouring off of her.

“Can, can I touch you?” Bernie wishes she sounded more confident, more seductive, but she has thought about this so often, wants Serena so badly, it’s hard to speak when it feels like her heart is going to pound out of her chest.

“I very much wish you would,” Serena purrs, her eyes hooded, and that’s all the encouragement Bernie needs.

Years of performing delicate surgery in the worst of conditions is the only thing that keeps Bernie’s hands from trembling as she explores Serena for the first time. Her skin is even softer than Bernie had imagined, warm and velvet smooth, so perfect beneath Bernie’s hand she thinks she’s never going to want to stop touching Serena now she’s started. As she maps the dips and curves of Serena’s body, she catalogs her reactions; the way she stretches into Bernie’s touch against her neck, giving her more access, the flinch when she ghosts her fingers too lightly over her side, the breathy moan when she lightly drags her nails down Serena’s spine. The generous curve of Serena’s hip is a perfect fit beneath her palm, her hand lingering on the length of Serena’s thigh, enjoying the play of softness over hard muscle. Serena’s chuckle draws her attention from where her eyes are following the movements of her hand.

“What?”

“That’s what made me first suspect, you know.”

“Suspect what?” Bernie’s hand continues its movements unconsciously, making Serena squirm.

“That you might be interested in me.” Serena’s lips quirk at Bernie’s quizzical frown, as she leans in to kiss her gently. “Most of the mothers don’t spend quite so much time staring at my thighs.”

“I do not!” Bernie sputters, making Serena laugh outright as she pouts. “It’s not my fault. You’re the one walking around in those tight trousers all the time,” Bernie grumbles, keeping up the pretense of offence as long as she can as Serena peppers her face with kisses, finally breaking down and catching Serena in a kiss, rolling her back onto the mattress.

“I do like your thighs,” Bernie murmurs between kisses. “In fact, I rather like all of you, Serena McKinnie.” Her hands slide upward as she speaks, cupping Serena’s breasts through the thin, warm satin, watching as her eyes flutter shut. She can feel the press of Serena’s nipples against her palms, circles them gently, catching them lightly between thumb and forefinger.

Serena’s hands fumble behind her own back, loosening her bra and sliding it down her arms, tossing it to the floor. Bernie had never thought much about her own breasts, had seen plenty in a medical context through her career. Seeing Serena like this, all ivory skin and luscious curves, nipples pebbled and dusky pink, takes Bernie’s breath away.

The sound Serena makes at Bernie’s touch spurs her on, has her lean down to press a kiss against the slope of Serena’s breast, nuzzling against the soft skin as her fingers tease Serena’s nipples to stiff peaks. She quickly finds that Serena likes a little pressure, pulls and pinches until she’s moaning and writhing beneath her. Can no longer resist the temptation to duck her head, flicks her tongue across one nipple before taking it between her lips, her fingers continuing their ministrations on the other.

Serena is unbelievably responsive, vocal in her pleasure, certain of what she enjoys, the sounds she makes, the words that spill from her mouth encouraging Bernie in her exploration and setting her nerves alight with desire. As she tugs lightly with her teeth, drawing a keening whine from Serena’s throat, her hand slides lower, fingertips teasing along the waist of Serena’s satin knickers, slipping just beneath the elastic.

Impatient in her need, Serena’s hips press up beneath her, and Bernie catches the smooth fabric, tugging it down Serena’s legs and dropping it to join the rest of her clothes on the bedroom floor. She pulls back, breath catching and heart full at the sight of Serena McKinnie in all her glory, stretched out in her bed like a goddess deserving of worship, wants to imprint this moment in her memory, from the naked want in Serena’s eyes to the dark curls between her thighs.

“You’re incredible,” Bernie breathes, momentarily overwhelmed that this is really happening, that she could ever be so indescribably lucky. Her confidence flags slightly, wanting so badly to be good for Serena she hardly knows where to start. It must show on her face, because Serena take her hand, presses a soft kiss to her palm.

“What is it it, darling?”

Bernie swallows, nervous arousal making the words stick in her throat. “I want to, that is...will you teach me what you like?”

Serena inhales sharply, eyes wide and almost black. She presses another long kiss to Bernie’s palm before guiding her hand lower, over the swell of her stomach, settles it between her thighs. The tangible evidence of Serena’s arousal makes Bernie groan, her own body clenching in sympathetic desire.

She pays close attention as Serena guides her movements, trying to take in everything at once. Quickly learns the spots that make Serena moan and buck, finds the rhythm that makes her fist a hand in the sheets to anchor herself. Serena’s hand falls away as Bernie sinks first one finger, then another into her, intoxicated by the feel of Serena, hot, slick and velvety around her fingers. She settles into a pace that soon has Serena babbling, hips matching Bernie’s movement as her fingers plunge in and out, the heel of her hand providing delicious pressure against Serena’s clit.

Bernie keeps her eyes on Serena’s face the entire time, taking in every gasp, every cry, the way she squeezes her eyes shut in a grimace of pleasure as her body tenses. She sees the exact moment Serena falls over the edge, crying out into the room as she pulses around Bernie’s fingers, so stunningly beautiful it makes Bernie’s heart clench and she knows it’s a moment she’ll never forget.

Afterward, when Serena collapses back against the sheets, boneless and panting, Bernie gathers her into her arms, pressing soft kisses anywhere she can reach as Serena comes back to herself. Smiles as Serena blinks up at her, a little bleary eyed.

“You, Bernie Wolfe, are an excellent student.”

Bernie sputters out a laugh, kisses Serena’s smiling mouth. “What can I say. I have an amazing teacher.”

That hungry glint is back in Serena’s eyes and Bernie feels her heart rate pick up in response. “Amazing, hmm?” Bernie can only nod, eyes fluttering shut on a moan as Serena kisses her deeply, tongue delving between her lips, her hands sliding eagerly over Bernie’s skin.

She feels fingers fumble briefly with the clasp of her bra before it’s pulled down her arms and discarded, replaced by Serena’s soft, strong hands, dextrous fingers stroking her nipples, sending lightning bolts of sensation to her core. Serena discards Bernie’s knickers just as quickly, tugs Bernie’s leg up over her hip, guiding her until she’s astride Serena’s lap, leaning over her with her hands braced against the mattress above Serena’s shoulders.

Serena smiles up at her, eyes following her hands as she traces the lines of Bernie’s torso, the muscles in her arms, the curve of her shoulders. “I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to touch you like this.” Her hands cup Bernie’s breasts once again, thumbs brushing her hard nipples and pulling a gasp from Bernie. “Do have any idea how gorgeous you are?”

Leaning up she captures a nipple between her lips, the response stolen from Bernie’s mouth in a cascade of sensation. It’s as if Serena is touching her everywhere at once, hands and mouth coordinating in an assault of pure pleasure that leaves Bernie moaning and desperate.

Her hips jerk, clit skidding against the soft skin of Serena’s abdomen, the feeling so intense she practically sobs. Serena looks up at her, a feral grin on her face as her hand slides between them, finds Bernie drenched and sensitive. She shudders at the first touch, already on edge, every sensation amplified by newness, by the fact that it’s Serena making her feel like this.

Serena stills her fingers, strokes soothingly along Bernie’s spine as she adjusts. “You’re all right, darling. I’m going to take such good care of you.” Serena’s voice washes over her like warm honey, sweet and rich.

She encourages Bernie to sit upright, dark eyes glittering up at her as she strokes gently through her folds, oh so lightly brushing across her clit until her hips are circling, seeking out more of Serena’s touch. The first press of Serena’s fingers inside her takes Bernie’s breath away, has her grinding down against Serena’s hand as she adjusts to the delicious stretch.

Serena is holding onto Bernie’s hip with one hand, guiding her into a rhythm and murmuring encouragement and praise, words of desire that set Bernie’s brain alight as intensely as Serena’s hands stoke the burning in her body.

“You know,” she says, between thrusts of her fingers, drawing Bernie’s attention, “you remind me of something my riding coach used to say.” Bernie’s brow furrows, confused how Serena could possibly be thinking about riding while she’s drawing so much pleasure from Bernie’s body.

“The mark of a good rider,” she continues, her fingers hitting just so and making Bernie gasp, “is that they have shoulders like a queen.” Bernie doesn’t think she could do anything about her posture at this moment, even if she wanted to. “And,” Serena’s voice gets low, breathy and her fingers are moving faster, “hips like a whore.”

The word sounds so delicious, so dirty, spilling from Serena’s beautiful mouth and Bernie practically comes just from the sound of it. Then Serena’s fingers curl forward, pressing just right as she thrusts harder, her thumb circling Bernie’s throbbing clit as she murmurs how beautiful Bernie is, how good she feels, how much Serena wants to see her come.

It’s those last words that break her tenuous restraint, have her flinging her head back with a long, low groan, her hips bucking a broken rhythm against Serena’s hand as she comes. As if a string has been pulled from her spine she falls forward, just managing to move to the side, an arm and a leg still flung across Serena as she nestles her head against the side of her neck. Serena’s fingers stroke through her hair, separating the tangled strands, soothing against her scalp.

“You all right?” Bernie looks up at Serena, her head thick with bliss, a smile spreading across her face as she nods.

“More than.” Serena maneuvers Bernie off her body, nudges her so she flops onto her back, looking up at the white ceiling, spots still forming in front of her eyes.

“I hope you didn’t think we were done, Bernie,” Serena says, her voice low and delicious, wrapping itself around Bernie’s stomach and tugging. “Every good dinner requires dessert, don’t you agree? And I believe something about ‘doing everything’ was mentioned.” Bernie gulps, audibly, shuts her eyes tightly at the sensation of Serena moving over her body, still so sensitive, so raw, in the very best way.

But Serena doesn’t kiss at Bernie’s mouth, rather she begins mouthing a trail down Bernie’s chest, sucking slightly at each breast, laving the red spots with her tongue, swirling a circle around her navel, her hands holding Bernie’s hips, to check her writhing body. Her breath is warm at the apex of Bernie’s thighs; she imagines a windowpane fogging as Serena exhales, looks down to see dark, glittering eyes, waiting for Bernie’s nod of approval, and she can do nothing but give it.

The feeling of Serena’s fingers was wonderful, beautiful, eloquent in their simple efficiency, but the feeling of Serena’s mouth is - Bernie hasn’t the words for it, just an inarticulate noise falling from her lips as Serena’s tongue teases at her already throbbing clit, her teeth scraping gently, so gently, at her soft flesh. Bernie’s hands fist once more in the sheets as Serena nibbles, sucks, teases. Marcus never did this, not once in all their years of marriage, but even if he had, Bernie thinks, he wouldn’t have been one ounce as good.

Serena’s tongue is relentless, her mouth as quick in this as it is with a witty remark, and Bernie comes, faster than before, like a train without brakes, hurtling towards a cliff. She comes with a groan easing from her throat as Serena eases from between her thighs, slinks up Bernie’s body, kisses her deeply, and Bernie knows, for the first time, what she tastes like, musky on Serena’s tongue. She arches into the contact, can’t get enough of it, still has her lips against Serena’s when her eyes close, the corners of her mouth tilted up into a smile.

- - -

Bernie wakes from her post-coital doze, a feeling of warmth and calm bolstered by the sight of Serena’s head pillowed on her chest, her hair tickling the underside of Bernie’s chin. She can feel Serena blink against her bare skin, knows she’s awake too. She places a kiss to Serena’s scalp, hears a small sleepy murmur of pleasure.

“All right?” Serena asks, pulling away slightly, only enough so she can look Bernie in the eyes. Her lipstick has vanished, her mascara a bit smeared, and Bernie can only think she’s never looked prettier.

“You keep asking me that,” Bernie says, smiling, brushing hair back from Serena’s forehead, her hand trailing down Serena’s face, resting along her collarbone. “I don’t think you realize just how all right I am.” It’s such an understatement. Bernie feels more alive than she has in years, feels happier, feels like she’s shed her old skin and has been reborn into someone new, someone who is allowed to feel this kind of joy.

Serena smiles, leans up to touch her lips to Bernie’s, her breath slightly stale, but she makes up for it in other ways. Bernie enjoys the press of their bodies, the feeling of skin to skin, slightly sticky, her body deliciously sore. She only pulls away when the need for the bathroom overwhelms her need to keep kissing Serena. Her legs are shaky as she walks across the room, the air slightly chilly against her bare body, she feels the goosebumps erupt along her arms.

She looks at herself in the mirror of the bathroom, sees a contented look that is almost unfamiliar on her face, a sated happiness that has long been absent. As she relieves herself, she drags a hand through her hair, snagging on the tangles, rubs at her arms to warm them. When she returns to the bedroom, Serena is sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at her phone, looks up at Bernie, a sorry on her lips. “Just had a text from Jason, letting me know he’s doing all right. He likes it if I can respond quickly, so he doesn’t have to worry.”

Bernie nods, doesn’t mind, comes to sit next to Serena, leans back on her elbows, takes in the long line of her spine, the arch in her neck as she types out a message to her nephew. She sees little pockmarks, little silvering scars, things her fingers noticed earlier, things her eyes are just seeing now. She reaches out to touch them, almost reverently, her nails just skimming the skin.

Serena twists at the touch, frowns a little as she sees what has drawn Bernie’s attention. “My mother,” she says by way of explanation. Bernie doesn’t know what to say to that, knows only what Serena has deigned to share about Adrienne, but she lifts herself up and kneels behind Serena, pressing her chest to Serena’s warm back, her arms wrapping around Serena, holding her close.

“She just - she forgot things, people. She forgot me, sometimes. And she’d get angry.” Serena’s voice cracks as she talks about the unintentional wounds Adrienne inflicted, leaving scars on her body and on her heart, and even though they’re naked, pressed tight together after spending the past hours learning each others’ bodies completely, this feels somehow more intimate. Bernie noses against Serena’s neck, kisses her right there at the nape, leaves a wet stamp of her affection. She still isn’t sure what to say, doesn’t know what’s right to say, can’t imagine the pain of it all.

Serena breathes out a ragged sigh and Bernie wonders when the last time she talked about her mother was. She wraps her arms more firmly around Serena, holding her even closer, wants to swallow her sadness. And then Serena stiffens in Bernie’s arms. “Sometimes - sometimes I get so angry. I gave up everything for her, and what did I get in return?” There’s a bitterness to her tone that Bernie’s not heard before. She sags, then, the fight gone out of her. “I know I have a good life, that things wouldn’t be much different if I had medals and accolades. And I like where I am now.” Her hand comes up to squeeze at Bernie’s wrist, voice thick with emotion. “I know she gave up things for me too. That’s what made everything so hard with us, it was all built on sacrifice.”

Bernie has no answer, no cure, just keeps Serena near, kisses into her hair. Her silence was always a problem with Marcus, her inability to say the words he wanted to hear, but Serena seems content to sit in the stillness, to let Bernie’s presence be enough.

Her knees protest after some time. “Not as young as I used to be,” she murmurs to Serena as she moves away, but then pulls Serena with her, back onto the bed, facing each other again, a cocoon built from their bodies, a chapel for their secrets.

“With age comes wisdom,” Serena says, touching Bernie’s nose gently with her forefinger, tracing a line down her face, using her thumb to encourage Bernie to move her face forward for a kiss, simple and sweet.

“I don’t think I would’ve believed this was possible in my youth,” Bernie says, gesturing between them. She grasps Serena’s hand, holds their joined fingers up, moving them back and forth, considering it like a museum-goer looking at art. She straightens her fingers, keeps their hands palm to palm, as if measuring the difference in size, her fingers longer, almost able to curve over top of Serena’s at the first knuckle. Serena watches Bernie, her eyes dark, content to be malleable to Bernie’s ministrations.

“Would you have wanted this in your youth?” Serena asks after the quiet has stretched for long enough, bringing their hands back down to the mattress, resting between them, her thumb rubbing back and forth across Bernie’s skin, an instinctual, comforting gesture that occurs any time she wants to make Bernie talk.

Bernie rolls onto her back, not away from Serena, but just giving herself the space to breathe. “I think...I think I would’ve,” Bernie says, thinking of her track coach, the way Bernie noticed her long legs when she ran. She thinks about the girl in her sixth form math class with a long sheet of brown hair that caught the sunlight from the windows every time she tossed it over her shoulder. She can think of the girls, the women in her life who made an impact, who took her breath away, and can’t really think of any men.

“Was it ever like this - when you were with Marcus, was that…” Serena trails off, but Bernie thinks she knows the question Serena wants to ask, makes herself roll back to her side, to look at Serena’s open, beautiful face.

“Marcus was what I was supposed to have, what I was supposed to want,” Bernie says, honest and true. “But I think I only ever wanted you.” Serena’s eyes look wet and Bernie’s thumb moves to brush at her lashes, wetting the pad of her finger and then it’s as if Serena can’t hold herself apart from Bernie any longer and she moves against her, hands grasping Bernie’s face, lips wet and warm and gentle on Bernie’s mouth.

“That’s a very good answer, Ms. Wolfe,” she says, emotion clogging her throat, and all Bernie can think is how wonderful it is when a happy ending comes along earlier than expected.

- - -

By the time Charlotte is ready to enter her first competition, she’s grown accustomed to Serena’s presence in her life outside of the stables. It becomes a common occurrence for the three of them to go to dinner after her lessons, laughing and chatting together, Serena’s hand tangled together with Bernie’s on the tabletop.

Schedules are always a challenge, but they make it work as best they can, try to see one another outside of Charlotte’s lessons as often as possible. Weekends usually find Bernie sliding between the sheets, pressing a kiss to the cheek of a sleeping Serena, snuggled up tight in her bed, and it becomes habit for Bernie to spend the nights when she’s not on early the next day in Serena’s cozy flat above the office. When Charlotte stays with Bernie overnight, they often go on outings together on Saturdays; seeing a movie at the cinema or taking a trip to the farm for a leisurely ride on the trails.

It’s idyllic, in its own way, a crystalline bubble of happiness Bernie can scarcely believe is real, is sometimes scared of popping, breaking open, the joy escaping into the ether. She thinks she might be wasting time with all her worrying, with waiting for the other shoe to drop, unable to just accept the idea that happiness has taken root.

The night before the competition they go to Charlotte’s favorite restaurant, just the three of them. Bernie is proud of how collected her daughter seems, nervous but confident, thinks she would have been far more of a wreck at that age. She knows she has Serena to thank for it, can see how much Charlotte has blossomed under her tutelage, not just as a rider but as a self-assured young woman. Not for the first time, sitting across from the two most important people in her life, she feels her heart swell with emotion so vast she wonders how her body can contain it.

She knows a flash of consternation must show on her face; this idea of love feels foreign, like a stranger in her mind. It’s petrifying, in its own way, to look at Serena and see a person she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She’d thought that once, with Marcus, though when confronted with her feelings for Serena, it’s hard to imagine she was once naive enough to think that what she felt for Marcus was a deep, abiding love.

“Bernie?” Serena’s hand on her arm pulls her back to the conversation. She can see the question in Serena’s eyes, just shakes her head with a reassuring smile.

Across from them, Charlotte is going a mile a minute. They’ve picked up her uniform today, crisp white breeches and a navy tailcoat that makes her look at least five years older, much to the chagrin of her mother. She’s describing it in detail to Serena, who is smiling back at her with indescribable fondness, her hand resting lightly on Bernie’s knee beneath the table.

“I just can’t wait for tomorrow,” Charlotte gushes. “Can you imagine if we win?”

“Sweetheart,” Bernie says, “you know it doesn’t matter if you win. It’s your first competition; what matters is that you do your best and have fun.” It’s wonderful to see Charlotte so excited, to see that competitive fire in her, but a part of Bernie worries about the outcome, can’t bear the thought of seeing Charlotte crushed with disappointment if she doesn’t get a good result.

“Your mother’s right, Charlotte. It won’t help anything to get cocky.” Serena falls into what Bernie and Charlotte teasingly call her “teacher voice” and the two of them can’t help but share a grin. “Dressage is about your relationship with Sterling Silver and showing all the hard work you’ve done. It’s not so much a competition as a demonstration of your skills.” She shoots a glance at Bernie before leaning in conspiratorially. “But winning is half the fun.”

Bernie narrows her eyes, lightly pinches Serena’s arm with a glare, making her squawk indignantly. She sticks out her tongue at Bernie before pouting behind her menu, pulling it down just enough to give Charlotte an exaggerated wink over the top.

Charlotte starts to giggle as she looks between them and Bernie can no longer maintain her false offence; laughs along with her daughter as she intertwines her fingers with Serena’s.

- - -

Bernie could make the drive to McKinnie’s Stables with her eyes closed. Charlotte’s sitting next to her, window rolled down, her hand floating along, buffeted by the breeze, fingers dancing to the song on the radio.

It’s a Saturday, no lessons to be had, no competitions on the docket. “Can we all go out riding together?” Charlotte asked, knowing her mother rarely says no to her where horses and Serena are concerned.

They pull into the parking lot, drive through it to pull onto the grass right next to the office, next to Serena’s car. Special privileges, Bernie’s told, premiere parking.

Bernie has a key to the office, to the building where Serena lives, lets herself in, Charlotte following behind. The office is so similar to the very first time Bernie entered, but it feels homey, comfortable in a way she didn’t feel that first day all those months ago. There is something new, a framed photo hanging below the black and white one of Serena and Adrienne. Bernie stops to look at it, so loves this particular picture: Charlotte beaming with pride, holding the reins to Sterling Silver, Serena standing on the other side of the horse, smile just as wide. My girls, Bernie thinks, her fingers just touching the glass protecting the print.

Her heart thumps in her chest every time she sees it, a jumble of emotions swelling inside her at the memories. Her fierce pride at how well Charlotte had performed, at her remarkable composure when she and Sterling Silver hadn’t even placed in the field. Instead of being upset, she immediately wanted to review her marks with Serena, to discuss the judges’ comments and come up with a plan for improvement. It was only with the promise of ice cream, a gentle tug to Charlotte’s elbow, that Bernie was able to pull them away.

And then that night, lying in bed with Serena warm and soft in her arms, overwhelmed with everything she has done for Charlotte, for Bernie herself, how immeasurably Serena has enriched their lives, Bernie finally found the courage to admit the feelings that have been growing in her for months, spoke them hesitantly into the darkness between them, the moonlight just bright enough for her to see Serena’s brilliant smile, the tears sparkling in her eyes as she kissed her, whispered softly against Bernie’s mouth.

“I love you, too”

“Serena!” Charlotte’s voice stirs Bernie from her reverie, calling up the steps to the room Serena keeps over her office and Bernie can hear movement from above. Charlotte has found a comfort level with her riding instructor, when she’s not in lessons, treats her like an aunt or an older cousin. Bernie rubs her hands on her new jodhpurs, tight-fitting and tan, bought on her daughter’s suggestion, with the implication that Serena might like to see Bernie in riding gear. She feels like she’s pretending, faking, that she can’t live up to what the quasi-uniform implies.

Serena comes down the stairs, dressed fully in riding gear, though she’s wearing a pair of jodhpurs Bernie hasn’t seen before, leopard spots lining her thighs. She itches to touch it, her fingers twitching slightly. “I didn’t know they came in leopard print,” she says, her voice slightly strangled, thinking of Charlotte’s wardrobe of tan and black.

“You’ll find that quite a lot can come in leopard print, I imagine,” Serena says, a smile on her lips and Bernie can see Charlotte roll her eyes, mime gagging, though she knows her daughter is pleased, knows she often can’t contain her glee about her mother and her beloved riding instructor practically living together. “I like your trousers as well, Ms. Wolfe,” Serena adds, and Bernie blushes, doesn’t know if she’ll be able to stand walking in front of Serena, knowing where her eyes will be trained.

Bernie clears her throat, stops herself from a flirtatious response out of deference to the presence of her child. “I believe we came out here for a ride?” Serena raises an eyebrow but apparently decides to behave herself as well and leads them out to the stables.

Bernie goes to Arthur’s stall, he’s her regular horse by this point, though Serena has offered more than once to let Bernie ride Dureza with her, intimates how nice it can feel to ride a horse, pressed up next to someone. Bernie thinks, someday, she’ll take Serena up on that suggestion. She’s slow to put on his saddle, doesn’t yet have the comfort with it that Serena and Charlotte have. But she’s able to swing herself up into the saddle on her own. Serena trots up next to her, Dureza whickering at Arthur.

“Posture, Berenice,” she says haughtily. “You know what they say: shoulders like a queen, hips like a -“

“Serena,” Bernie interjects warningly as Charlotte nears and Serena just winks, a flush rising to Bernie’s cheeks.

“Lead the way, Charlotte,” Serena says, nodding at Charlotte, who’s kitted out in Serena’s old helmet, her favorite piece of gear, a gift entrusted to her after the competition. Charlotte grins at Serena, practically splits her face in two beaming at her mother, always at her happiest when they’re on horses together.

“Let’s see where the afternoon takes us,” she says, trotting Sterling Silver forward, and Bernie urges Arthur to follow, Dureza coming up alongside them. Bernie’s sandwiched by her two favorite people, the sun warm at her back, a solid horse beneath her, and she relaxes into the gentle rhythm of Arthur’s pace.

It’s lovely and peaceful and something Bernie would never have expected for herself. She pats Arthur’s flank as she rides, his coat smooth against her fingers, feels her foot just brush against Serena’s leg as they ride, their horses’ gait bringing their bodies close.

“Riding is supposed to be a sign of good breeding,” Bernie says, thinking of her mother in this moment, wondering if she’d be proud of her daughter, her granddaughter.

“You’re speaking very highly of your own genetics, then,” Serena says, surprising a laugh from Charlotte. Bernie sniffs, feigns a wounded air, gets a gentle swat at her shoulder for her trouble.

She wishes she could capture this moment forever, Charlotte’s soft laughter floating on the air, the swish of the tall grasses in the field, the sun gilding everything in gold, the look on Serena’s face when she gazes at Bernie, this halcyon day.

Bernie sits tall in her saddle, the rhythm of Arthur’s hooves echoing the tattoo of her heart and she thinks not about everything that might go wrong, not about her worries for the future or about how she could ruin this. Instead, for the first time, she thinks that this, this life she’s found, this life she’s made, she might get to keep.