Bernie rouses early the next morning and unwillingly forces herself fully awake. The train for Northumberland leaves in four and a half hours; she needs to be ready and fully functional. Serena moans gently as Bernie detangles herself from around her and climbs out of the bed. She stands just watching the brunette sleep for a little while, still not able to believe this incredible woman she loves, loves her back - and only her. Knowing time is not on her side though, she tears herself away and heads for the ensuite and a hot shower.
She emerges from the bathroom a short while later, ready to dress, pack the final necessities, and hopefully avoid waking Serena before she needs to. The women decided last night they want to spend as much time together as possible this morning before Bernie and Dom have to leave, but Bernie can’t bring herself to wake the peacefully sleeping woman before she absolutely has to. She makes short work of dressing and the last of the packing, she wants to be able to give Serena her full attention when she wakes her - and she has a small gift she wants to give Serena before she leaves.
“Serena,” Bernie says quietly as she approaches the bed. “It’s almost seven.”
Serena groans, awake enough to hate the fact it’s morning already, but not awake enough to want to leave the warm cosy bed.
It takes Bernie some persuading to get Serena out of bed and dressed - especially in light of Serena’s must more appealing suggestion that Bernie take off her clothes and get back into bed - but she manages it. An offer of freshly brewed coffee finally persuades Serena up and into the kitchen, The two women savour both the coffee and each other's company as they sit at the kitchen table waiting for Dom and Lofty to arrive. Bernie can’t help but worry about all the things that could go wrong after she’s left Serena. She tries to rationalise her thoughts, knowing that Serena has Lofty on hand if she needs anything. She tries pushing the worries to the back of her mind - she’s done everything she can to make things go smoothly - and focuses on the gift she has for Serena, hoping that she’ll like it. The doorbell chimes, breaking Bernie’s chain of thought. Serena makes her way to answer the door, knowing it’ll only be their friends and it’s safe for her to do so.
It is indeed Dom and Lofty at the door. Bernie greets the pair in the hall as Serena leads them in.
“Fresh coffee in the pot.” she tells them, gesturing towards the kitchen “but you’ll have to drink up.” Dom, taking the heavy hint, leads Lofty into the kitchen so the women can have some privacy.
“ I haven’t got long before we need to leave,” Bernie explains sadly.
“I know. I wouldn’t dream of making you late.” Serena tries to hide her feelings behind a smile but Bernie notices the other woman’s smile does quite reach her eyes as it normally would.
“I have something for you,” Bernie says as she moves to climb the stairs and gestures for Serena to follow her back to their bedroom.
Bernie goes straight to their dresser, routes through the bottom of a drawer for a moment, and pulls out a small gift bag.
“I hope you like it,” Bernie says as she offers it to Serena, Serena smiles wide as she removes a small smartphone box. “Thank you, darling. It’s wonderful.” She hugs Bernie thankfully and is genuinely pleased.
“I’ve gone through the setup process and added all the phone numbers you may need.” She explains further. “It should make it easier for us to keep in touch while I’m away.”
The smartphone isn’t the only gift Bernie is desperate to give Serena, but the second gift is much more significant and she’s afraid it may be too soon, maybe too much for their newfound romance.
“I love you.” Bernie pulls Serena into her arms and opts, regretfully, to resist the temptation to throw caution to the wind and give her the much smaller box she has hidden away. Waiting until Marcus has signed the divorce papers, or better still until it's finalised completely is a much better idea, she knows.
“And, I love you.” Serena replies snuggling her face into the blonde’s hair, breathing in the intoxicating scent she cannot get enough of, that is just ‘Bernie’.
“The next few days will fly by and I’ll be back before you know it,” Bernie says as she holds Serena tight and strokes her hair with one hand.
“I hope so.”
Reluctantly, the women make their way back down the stairs, conscious that they are out of time. Dom and Lofty meet them in the hall, the men have clearly said their own goodbyes, as Lofty is full of puppy dog eyes and Dom looks thoroughly miserable.
“I’ll call you as soon as we arrive, I promise,” Bernie tells Serena as the four of them halt at the front door.
Take care.” Serena replies, managing to smile, if only slightly.
Bernie smiles sadly back at her before she opens the front door and makes her way towards the car on the drive, Dom follows closely behind promising to call Lofty that night too.
It’s a matter of moments to stow the luggage in the boot, strap themselves in and start the engine. Bernie reverses the vehicle onto the road, offers a last wave to Serena waiting at the door, and speeds off. The sadness in her eyes is evident. She misses Serena already.
The sadness in her eyes is more distracting than she realises, because, despite her army training, Bernie fails to spot the figure standing in the shadows on the other side of the street. From his vantage point, Marcus watches Serena and Lofty step back inside the house and close the front door. He’s been monitoring the movement in and out of his former home for the last few days - ever since he learnt about the affair his soon to be ex-wife had whilst she was in the RAMC.
After Bernie had kicked him out, his relationship with Elaine - the woman who he’d been having an affair with - had turned sour. With nowhere else to go Marcus had no choice but move back into the house he and Bernie had previously lived in; the house he’d inherited from his late Mother. He’d refused flat out to put the property on the market when they moved into the barn conversion, but, after much discussion, he’d eventually agreed to rent out the house temporarily until they could reach a more permanent solution. Fortunately for Marcus the most recent tenants had moved out a couple of weeks ago and the family supposed to be taking over the lease had backed out, leaving the place empty and ready for Marcus to move back in. Not long after he’d unpacked and settled back in a woman had turned up on his doorstep looking for Bernie. It hadn’t taken long before the truth had come out, that Bernie had been having an affair with this Alex. To say Marcus hadn’t taken the news well was something of an understatement. Anger and humiliation had burned hot inside him. He was going to make Bernie pay for this, how he didn’t know yet, but he was.
Realising there probably isn't going to much more to see, for now, Marcus gets back into his car and starts the engine. He'll be back tomorrow ready to move onto the next part of his plan that’s beginning to take shape. He doesn’t want revenge on Bernie anymore - he wants her back, and under his control.
Over the last few weeks, he's noticed a woman is living with Bernie and she seems to have taken his place, judging by some of the kisses he’s seen them share. He knows the woman obviously isn't the same one who had paid him a visit a couple of days ago. He’s determined to learn exactly who the mystery woman living with his wife, usurping his place, is. He’s decided he'll do whatever it takes to fix his marriage to Bernie and make their relationship work. If that means getting rid of the third party, by any means necessary, then so be it. Nobody is going to get the way of his plan to glue his family unit back together - even if that means forgiving Bernie for her wrongdoings. The affair he had, was, of course, he believes, not his fault at all. not. The fault, he believes, was Bernie’s - she pushed him to it; she should’ve been more attentive, more compliant, more like a wife...
Bernie throws her duffle bag on her hotel bed and sighs. With every mile away from Serena her heartaches that little bit more, and her body isn’t appreciating the effects of the long train journey. Dom is busy inspecting the contents of the vastly stocked mini-fridge, Bernie cannot wait any longer to speak to Serena. She shuts herself in the bathroom for some privacy and dials the other woman's number, waiting with a mix of anxiety and excitement for her call to be answered.
"Hello." The rich velvety voice Bernie adores answers.
"Hello you," Bernie replies. Serena can almost hear the woman's smile in her voice. "Are you ok?"
"I'm fine. Missing you though. Lofty is keeping me entertained as we make our way through the Shiraz." Serena chuckles, sounding slightly tipsy. It has been several long hours since she and Dom had been left alone in the barn and the sun was well and truly over the yardarm.
"Try not to drink too much.” Bernie laughs.
"Oh, I'm fine. You underestimate my ability to hold my Shiraz, darling." Serena teases. "Lofty is a bit worse for wear though."
"I think we should've employed a babysitter for both of you." Bernie jokes. "Are you sure you'll be ok with Lofty?"
"Of course. If he gets too drunk I'll just leave him where he falls." Serena laughs before she takes another sip from her wine glass.
"Ha, very funny Campbell." Bernie chuckles. "You know I meant are you both getting along ok?"
"Absolutely, we’re getting along great. Please try not to worry about me too much. I will be perfectly fine until you return.”
"I'll try my very best," Bernie promises. "I have to go. Dom needs to use the bathroom, but I will call you tomorrow."
"I'm looking forward to it already." Serena smiles. "I love you."
"Love you." Bernie hangs up and grins as she imagines the state Serena and Lofty must be in and chuckles at the thought of their hangovers in the morning.
When Bernie opens the bathroom door seconds later it’s to see Dom leaning against the wall and the doorframe, smirking.
"That was a long 'I've arrived chat'." Dom teases. "Were you sneaking in some phone sex?"
"No, I wasn't. I was hearing all about your Boyfriend's antics. Apparently, he’s been a little enthusiastic with the Shiraz."
"Oh, I know. I’ve just called him. Could hardly understand a word of our conversation" Dom laughs. "Ready to go downstairs for dinner?"
"Yep, ready when you are."
As they make their way down to the hotel restaurant, Bernie feels herself starting to relax a little. She thinks, maybe it will all be fine. Serena hasn't disappeared just because she's not at home. She knows all the fears are irrational - they’re sure the curse is broken. Serena isn't going to suddenly disappear back into the painting.
She decides instead to envision Serena at the barn, waiting for her with open arms. Quickly her thoughts wander and she smirks as her mind catalogues various ways she and Serena could make up for lost time on her return. She’s thankful that Dom is walking in front of her and can’t see her face, because she is sure what she’s thinking is written all over it.
Serena, meanwhile, is sitting on the sofa in the living room of the barn she now shares with Bernie. Tears of laughter are rolling down her cheeks as she watches Lofty dancing, hideously, to the music playing on the stereo. When the song finishes he flops down on the sofa, feeling rather drunk - to say the least.
"How many bottles have we worked our way through?" He asks with a noticeable slur.
"3 between us. This is my last glass though." Serena smiles merrily.
"Sounds sensible." Lofty agrees, sagely, with an over-exaggerated nod. “Who'd have known you could put so much wine away."
"Oh, I've quite a bit of practice. My Friend, Fleur, and I used to steal bottles from my Mother’s extraordinarily well-stocked wine cellar all the time without anyone noticing. We spent more hours than I care to count drinking in a secluded barn." Serena smiles fondly, but with a hint of sadness at her memories. She turns her head to Lofty and notices he’s fallen asleep whilst she was speaking
Deciding it's time for her to head to bed, Serena removes the almost empty wine glass from Lofty's hand and puts it safely on the coffee table. She pulls the blanket off the back of the sofa, pushes him gently down onto the cushions and covers him with it. Satisfied that he’s safe and comfortable, she turns the lights off and heads towards the stairs.
The next morning, Lofty and Serena are sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast together before Lofty heads into work. Well, Serena was eating breakfast after the amount of shiraz Lofty put away the previous night he has quite the hangover to nurse. He’s making a valiant effort but finding food tough to handle.
"Are you sure you'll be alright on your own while I'm at work? Lofty asks, unsure.
"I'll be perfectly fine here on my own." Serena smiles "The real question is, are you feeling better than you were last night? You do look rather worse for wear."
"I’ve felt better." Lofty replies, "There won't be a repeat performance anytime soon. I’ll survive. Well, I should go before I'm late. Are you sure you'll be alright here on your own?”
"I'll be perfectly fine."
"Well I've saved my mobile number in your contacts, call if you need to.” Lofty finishes the remainder of his coffee with a gulp before heading to the hall to grab his belongings and leaving the house in a rush.
Sitting in his car parked carefully tucked away just down the road, Marcus watches Lofty leaving the house. When he deems it’s safe, and there’s no chance of Lofty returning, he gets out of the vehicle. Crossing the road he walks down the path leading to the front door and rings the bell.
Serena is loading the final piece of dirty crockery into the dishwasher when the doorbell chimes. As she heads towards the front door to answer it, she mentally prepares herself for who might be behind it. She’s not expecting anybody and she’s going to have to be on the ball to handle whoever presents themselves.
Pasting on her most gracious and disarming smile she opens the door
"Marcus Dunn. We need to have a little chat." The man standing on her doorstep says with a smug, nasty, expression on his face.
Serena's smile disappears as Marcus introduces himself.
"We've absolutely nothing to say to each other." She attempts to shut the front door on him but is stopped by Marcus’s foot wedging itself between the frame and the door.
"Oh, I'm certain you'll be very interested in what I have to say." He insists, far too sure of himself for Serena’s liking.
"I very much doubt that. Bernie has told me all I need to know about you. She won't be too pleased when I tell her you've been here.”
"I don’t imagine she will, but then again, she isn't going to want her new ‘bit on the side’ knowing all her sordid little secrets," Marcus says bitterly. "Give me five minutes, hear me out, then I'II leave. No trouble at all. It’ll be up to you what you do then."
"Fine." Serena opens the door wider and allows him to step over the threshold. She only has to endure his company for a few minutes then he'll leave. She thinks it’s preferable to a stand-up row on the doorstep - but only just. Marcus follows Serena into the kitchen and helps himself to a seat at the table while Serena stands opposite him, leaning back against the work surface, arms crossed.
"What is it you've come to say? I've got quite a busy day." Serena pushes, impatiently.
"I just thought you'd like to know Bernie asked me to attend the conference with her."
"Bernie asked me to go with her to Northumberland. I said no, of course, knowing that she's in a new relationship. I'm assuming you're the woman in question?"
"I don't see how that is any of your business, but yes, Bernie and I are romantically involved."
Marcus nods sympathetically.
"I thought you had the right to know the truth. I know I would want to know if I were in your situation, Bernie called me the day before she left. She said he wants to rekindle our relationship and make a go of our marriage. She said that we should spend some time together." He searches Serena's face for reaction and doesn’t find what he’s looking for/ Marcus realises she doesn't believe a word of what he’s just said.
"I don't quite understand what you thought you were going to achieve by coming here sprouting your ridiculous lies? Do you really think I’m that gullible? I trust Bernie, she wouldn't do such a thing." Serena starts, "Bernie is finally living the life she has always wanted. A life without you. Wild horses couldn't drag her back to your sham of a marriage. If it wasn't for the divorce and your children you wouldn't be in her life at all."
"If that's what you want to believe, then more fool you. I admit I've made mistakes, you've no doubt heard all about them, but I'm not the only guilty party here. Bernie is no saint. She left me to raise our children almost single-handedly every time she went on tour. Recently I learned exactly what she’d been doing while she was supposedly working. She had an affair with a fellow officer. A woman. It only ended because she was injured and flown home. Who knows how many affairs she had before that? How many other women are going to come knocking on my door looking for her? I'm willing to forgive all her all that, all the affairs, all wrongdoing. I'm sure, in time, she'll forgive me mine. I have to warn you, Bernie may stray, but she will always come crawling back to her family. When she's had her fun and gets bored of you, I'II be waiting to take her back.”
"I've never heard anything more ludicrous. Your time is up. You need to leave. Now." Serena tries to keep as calm as she possibly can despite the anger she can feel starting to bubble within her.
"If it's evidence you need, then listen to this.” Marcus pulls out his phone and dials the voicemail service. He begins playing a recording of a message clearly from the day Bernie left for the conference.
"I'm about to leave for Northumberland. I need an answer, Marcus. Call me back as soon as you can."
Serena listens intently. The voice is unmistakably Bernie’s. A huge wave of nausea washes over her.
"I know this is difficult for you and it's clear to see how much Bernie means to you, but, you'd save yourself a lot of heartache If you left sooner rather than later.” Marcus pauses for a few seconds. "Bernie has a habit of running when things get tricky. Actually, she's very good at it. It's what she does best. Bernie will break your heart whether you stay or leave."
"Get out," Serena shouts, no longer able to curb her anger and upset. Marcus smirks as he leaves, pleased his words have had the desired effect.
Serena slams the door firmly on Marcus’ smug face and makes her way somewhat shakily to sit on the sofa. Her hands are shaking in despair and she’s taking deep steadying breaths. She doesn't want to believe any of what Marcus had said. Her first instinct is to trust Bernie - but there’s a nagging doubt eating away at her. When Serena really thinks the situation over she realises that she doesn't know Bernie as well as she should. They’ve not known each other long and there is still so much they have to learn about each other. What if Bernie is lying to her? She couldn’t bear to have her heart broken further down the line, not when Bernie has come to mean so much to her already. The more she thinks about the situation the more feels she has no choice but to leave. It would be best for everyone. She doesn't want to come between a family reconciling, even if it seems like only the remotest of possibilities.
Decision made, Serena reluctantly throws her newly acquired items of clothing into a suitcase Bernie had left out in their bedroom after she decided to take a smaller one to the conference. Carefully Serena writes a note for Bernie and leaves it on the kitchen table for her to find, along with the mobile phone she’d given her.
Serena knows exactly where she is going and has a plan to get there. There‘s really only place she can go, the one place she thinks she can truly call home now.