Serena laced herself into her favourite red dress, cut deep at the neck, and put on her stylish French headdress, arranging it so that it showed off her gleaming brown hair. The sixth night of Christmas festivities was approaching, the night of mumming and disguises. Her town house was filled with greenery and decorations and she and the children were thoroughly enjoying their first Christmas without the onerous presence of her now happily deceased husband. She frowned to herself as she contemplated Edward’s memory and then, in a fit of happy but needless rebellion – the man was dead, after all – tugged her bodice just a little lower.
Downstairs, she handed out glasses of spiced wine to Elinor and Jason.
“I don’t want mummers to come,” Jason said as he took a small sip, “They’re scary.”
Elinor tossed her head. “Don’t be silly Jason, they’re just pretend. Can I play dice with them when they come? Please, mother!”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Serena said, not being able to find a good reason to say no.
They were mid-feast when there was a bang at the door.
“They’re here, they’re here,” Elinor squealed, bouncing up and down in her seat, “Can I open the door, please!” Serena nodded and she jumped up, picked up her skirts and dashed to the heavy wooden door. She fumbled with the catch for a moment and then swung it open to reveal a group of very strange characters standing in the fading light.
Serena made her way more slowly to the door, with Jason clinging to her hand, dragging along behind her. As he saw the group at the door he whimpered.
“Mmmm,” they hummed and Jason burst into terrified sobs.
Serena stared at the characters. Now one of them gestured to enter the house, and Elinor opened the door wider. “Come in,” she said, casting a disparaging look at Jason as he clung to Serena. Not for the first time, Serena wished her daughter had a shred of empathy.
One by one, the mummers filed into the house, following Elinor through to the hall, but the last one, a slim figure wearing a blue doublet with a matching blue mask through which Serena could make out sparkling brown eyes, stopped. They pulled a juggling ball from their pocket and tossed it in the air. Jason’s sobs became hiccoughs, and the figure pulled out another ball, added it to the one circling, and then another, until Jason had ventured out from behind Serena’s skirts and was staring up in glee, and clapping his hands.
The figure winked at Serena, darting a quick but lascivious look at her bodice, making her feel warm all over, and then, spectacularly, nearly dropped a ball, fumbling it and retrieving it to Jason’s gasps. Then the balls vanished from the air back into their pocket, and the figure bowed then held out their hand to Jason, who took it happily.
Serena watched them head into the hall, wondering who it was who had saved the night so spectacularly. She usually recognised the men in their costumes, but this one was a mystery to her. She’d have to thank them before they left.
Serena stood back, amused, as Elinor held court and Jason, his fears now utterly abated, even joined in with the dice games. Finally, after sharing a glass of wine, the mummers gestured that they had to leave. Elinor and Jason led them back to the door, but as Jason’s friend in the blue doublet was about to leave the hall Serena grasped their hand.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said, as the brown eyes looked at her queryingly, “For cheering Jason up. We’d have had a rough night otherwise.” Brown eyes softened. “I know you can’t say anything, but I wanted you to know.”
There was a cough at the door and they both looked round to see the chief mummer tapping his foot impatiently. Serena’s friend shook their head, made a shooing gesture, and the others shrugged and left. Elinor and Jason closed the door behind them, and in an unusual display of family unity, held hands and danced around the hall.
Serena put her hands on her hips. “That’s enough of that! There’s plenty of food left to be eaten up and – if you’re good – you can have some marchpane.”
“Marchpane!” Elinor cheered. “Come on Jason.”
They vanished, and Serena turned back to her new friend. “Would you like to stay for dinner? We’re having goose.”
“I’d like that very much.” The mummer’s voice was unexpectedly light, but husky, and the look they gave Serena made her shiver. It had been a long time since Serena had felt anything approaching desire but there was a spark in those warm brown eyes that was calling to something in her.
“Will you take off your mask?” she asked, suddenly desperate to see more of the stranger, “I’d like to be able to see you properly.”
There was a strangled cough, and then, slowly, the mask was removed to display a shy smile, soft eyes, a strong nose – and a distinctly feminine face. “I’m Berenice. Bernie, really” she said, shifting awkwardly, “Nice to meet you.”
“Oh,” Serena said, gazing at her, “Not what I expected. Serena,” she said, belatedly remembering her manners. She dipped a polite curtsey and Bernie gave her a little jerky bow.
“I should explain,” Bernie said, then after a moment of hesitation, continued, “I just wanted to see what it would be like, for one night.”
“What would be like?”
“Wearing breeches, doing the mumming...”
Serena stared at her. It had never once occurred to her to want to go mumming, and breeches had only ever seemed an inconvenience. “And has it lived up to your expectations?”
“Well, this is only the second house we’ve called at, actually,” Bernie said, “But, on balance, I think so. After all, it’s not every day you meet a beautiful woman who invites you to dinner.” She finished with a wink and Serena’s stomach fluttered. It had been a very, very long time since anybody called her beautiful.
“Mother!” Elinor called, “Where are you?!”
Serena realised with a jump that she was gazing wordlessly at Bernie. “Well, we’d better get there before they devour the lot,” she said with a little laugh, “Come on.”
Jason grinned as he saw Bernie, and quickly pulled up another chair for her next to him. “Will you do some more juggling for me please?” he begged as she sat down.
Bernie smiled at him, “Perhaps after we’ve eaten?” she said, glancing at Serena, who nodded.
Serena watched, amused, as Jason plied Bernie with dish after dish. He hadn’t asked her name, might not even have noticed that she was, in fact, a woman, and only cared about the fact that she was the best juggler he’d seen in ages.
“Sorry,” Serena mouthed across the table, but Bernie just shook her head and smiled.
When the dishes were almost empty and Elinor was slumped in a way that would have called the wrath of her father down on her, if he’d been there, Bernie picked up a knife. “May I?” she asked Jason, as she picked his up and wiped it on the cloth. “And yours?” she asked Serena, casting her the glance that had been making Serena feel hot and bothered for the past half an hour.
“Be my guest,” Serena said, and Bernie darted a quick smile at her.
Bernie stood, made a quick bow, and then tossed the knives into the air. Jason watched, jaw dropping, as she juggled them expertly, silver flashing in the candlelight.
“More, more!” he cried as she finished.
“One more,” Serena said firmly, “If that’s alright, of course?” she raised an eyebrow at Bernie, who nodded, “Then marchpane, then bed. Elinor looks as though she might go to sleep where she is.” She smiled at her daughter, who was nodding wearily.
“I’m not! I won’t!” Elinor cried, stung, and pulled herself upright with an effort.
“Well, Bernie?” Serena folded her arms and grinned, “What other tricks do you have?”
Bernie looked at her for a moment, and Serena was sure she caught her eyes darting downwards. Well, it was nice to know she could still have an effect. “Plates,” she announced. She set one spinning on the point of a knife, juggled three more in one hand.
Serena bit her lip for her best pewter, but Bernie set it all down safely in the end and then, finally, it was time for what the children considered the big treat of the night.
Serena brought out the large plate with the beautiful marchpane swan on it. She’d spent all afternoon constructing it, while the children were busy playing, and she was very proud of it.
“That looks spectacular,” Bernie said as she placed it carefully down, “I can’t wait to eat it.” Was it Serena’s imagination, or was there a wink and a flicker of Bernie’s gaze, there?
The children didn’t wait at all, snapping off wings and beak with delight. Bernie took a small piece, nibbling it delicately. “It’s delicious,” she said, without looking away from Serena.
Finally, the children trudged wearily upstairs and Serena was left alone with Bernie.
“You know, there’s another mumming tradition I’ve always wanted to try,” Bernie remarked, casually, as they moved to the chairs by the fire.
“Oh, what’s that?”
Bernie stopped Serena with a gentle hand, traced down her arm to circle her wrists with delicate fingers. “The mummers always seem to take advantage of their disguises to have a bit of fun.”
Serena’s skin was tingling at Bernie’s touch. Her mouth was dry. “You’re not disguised,” she said, eventually, finding her voice.
Bernie pulled her closer and Serena moved willingly. “Do you want me to put the mask back on?” Bernie’s eyes danced with merriment and she held Serena tightly.
“No,” Serena murmured, and her gaze dropped to Bernie’s lips, red and inviting.
“It’s sixth night, let’s take advantage of it.” And Bernie closed the remaining gap between them, pressed her lips against Serena’s.
Serena had only ever kissed Edward before, and this was nothing like kissing him. Bernie tasted sweet, of marchpane and spices, her touch sent fire thundering through Serena’s veins, made her clutch at her, pull her impossibly closer until there wasn’t even a breath of space between their bodies. Bernie’s hands found the neckline of her dress and Serena shivered at the feel.
“Beautiful dress,” Bernie whispered in between kisses, “You’re beautiful. I wanted you the moment I saw you.”
Serena gasped as Bernie’s lips moved to her neck, felt her knees tremble. “I’ve never done this before.”
“It’s sixth night. Anything goes, if you want it to.” Bernie drew back for a moment, studied Serena with gentle eyes. “Do you want it to?”
“Oh, I do,” Serena said. She put a hesitant hand to the laces of Bernie’s doublet, “Will you show me?”
Bernie caught her hand and stilled it. “Where do the children sleep?”
“They have their own room.”
“Well then, lead the way to yours,” Bernie said, with a smile and a squeeze of Serena’s hand.
Since Edward’s not-at-all-lamented demise, Serena’s bed had felt vast. But now, as she lay side-by-side with Bernie, it seemed tiny.
Bernie shrugged off her doublet, lay back in shirt and breeches. “This is a very comfy bed,” she said lightly, as she traced her fingers along Serena’s arm. “A proper treat.”
Serena’s brain scrambled to come up with a sensible response. “Edward didn’t see the point in making it too comfortable, but after he died I thought I’d spent long enough catering to his points of view.”
“Your husband was Edward Campbell?” Bernie asked. Serena nodded and Bernie chuckled. “I met him a few times. Always thought he was a whey faced poltroon. But enough about him. I want to concentrate on you.”
Bernie’s fingers ran the length of Serena’s legs, her touch seeming feather-light through the layers of skirts, reached her ankle and slipped under her petticoats. At the first feel of Bernie’s skin against hers, Serena gasped, clenched her fingers around her pillow.
“Do you want me to stop?”
Serena opened her eyes to see Bernie watching her carefully. “No. It’s just so – new.”
Bernie pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “And fun.”
She kissed her again and Serena shivered with delight as Bernie’s hand ran up her leg, over her knee, to her thigh. Without thinking, Serena grasped at Bernie, pulled her shirt open to touch the soft skin beneath.
Bernie chuckled. “You’re a quick learner.”
“Too many layers,” Serena breathed as Bernie’s hand traced ever further upwards, “Take my skirts off.”
“Absolutely not,” Bernie said, nibbling Serena’s ear, “You’re gorgeous like this. I have an idea.” Grasping Serena around the waist, she rolled them swiftly so that Serena was lying on top of her.
“What?” Serena asked, as Bernie smiled up at her. “How does this help?”
“Sit up,” Bernie urged, and as Serena did so she pulled her skirts out, surrounding them.
“Ohhh,” Serena sighed as Bernie’s hand resumed its previous path, “Oh, I see. Bernie!” she said as Bernie’s fingers moved into damp curls.
“I’ve got you,” Bernie murmured, as her free hand found Serena’s chest. “God, this dress. You have no idea what this bodice does to me.”
“I think I have some idea,” Serena gasped as Bernie’s fingers slipped carefully inside her.
“You feel amazing,” Bernie said, smiling up at her. Her hand slid down from Serena’s bodice to her hip, holding her tightly. “Move for me, darling.” With Bernie’s touch guiding her on, Serena reacted intuitively.
“Bernie,” she said again, and met Bernie’s grin.
“Good?” she asked cockily as her fingers worked busily.
“So – good,” Serena managed, overwhelmed by the sensations that Bernie was coaxing from her.
“I – Bernie – I.”
“Just let go,” Bernie said softly, “Don’t think.”
As her orgasm crashed through her she collapsed onto Bernie. She barely registered Bernie withdrawing, or her gentle touch as she stroked the sweaty hair back from her forehead. After long moments, Serena raised her head.
“There you are,” Bernie said, and pressed a kiss to her lips. “How are you feeling?”
Serena breathed out deeply, rolled off Bernie and slipped an arm around her waist. “Incredible,” she admitted.
“You looked incredible,” Bernie said, as she traced the embroidery around Serena’s bodice, “I feel very lucky.”
“I think I’m the lucky one,” Serena retorted, then bit her lips as Bernie’s exploring fingers brushed briefly against her bare skin. “Would you – I mean – you are staying? Aren’t you?”
Bernie honked a laugh. “I’ll stay all night if you’ll let me.” Deft fingers unlaced Serena’s bodice. “Are you ready for a second round already?”
Serena tugged at Bernie’s shirt, “Will you show me what to do? Please?”
Bernie grinned, sat up and pulled her shirt off. “I will, but I don’t think you’ll need much tuition.” Serena followed her, reaching out to explore all the newly uncovered skin, which was warm and soft to Serena’s tentative touch. For a moment Bernie sat still, letting her fingers wander, and then she turned her attention back to the final lacings holding Serena’s bodice on. Serena’s fingers halted in their path and she held her breath as Bernie threw the bodice onto the chair by the bed, leaving her only in her thin undershirt and skirts.
“So beautiful,” Bernie said, leaning in to press a kiss to Serena’s newly bare shoulder. “Couldn’t ask for more at Christmas.”
“You’re not bad yourself,” Serena said, with a laugh that turned to a moan as Bernie nipped at her neck.
With practised ease, Bernie laid her back on the bed and pulled her skirts and petticoats off, before ridding herself of her breeches. She smiled as they finally came together, skin against skin. “You were quite something in that dress,” she said as she traced patterns over Serena’s chest with fingers and tongue, “But like this, you are exquisite.”
Serena pushed aside the need that was growing in her at Bernie’s touch and concentrated on the slim, toned body beside her. Her fingers resumed their exploration, this time drifting down Bernie’s body to her thighs, warm and supple to touch. She looked up as Bernie’s breath hitched, amazed to find that she was creating such a reaction. “Show me, then?” she murmured. She smiled at Bernie as Bernie’s hand covered her own, guided her between her legs.
“Like this,” Bernie said hoarsely, as Serena’s fingers met silky damp heat. Serena watched, entranced, as a flush spread over Bernie’s chest and face as their fingers worked rhythmically together. And then Bernie’s hand fell away and her eyes closed and Serena smiled to herself, picked up her pace a little, until Bernie gave a cry and slumped back into the bedcovers.
“Well, how did I do?” she asked when Bernie finally blinked her eyes blearily open.
Bernie rubbed her face, then laughed and rolled over, catching Serena around the waist. “Was that really your first time?” she asked as she pulled Serena in for a kiss. Serena nodded shyly and Bernie laughed again. “You’re a natural. What a treat.”
Serena smiled at her, ran her fingers through Bernie’s tousled blonde locks. “Are there other things?” she asked, suddenly feeling that there was a whole world of enjoyment she’d missed out on, that she wanted to share with Bernie.
Bernie’s eyes lit up. “So many. It’s a pity we only have one night.” She traced a delicate circle around Serena’s breast, nibbled gently on her stiffening nipple.
Serena felt desire roll through her again. “What if we didn’t?” She tightened her grip in Bernie’s hair and Bernie hummed. “We don’t have to say goodbye in the morning. We can share all our nights. And days, too, if you want. After all, I have been looking for a companion since Edward died.”
Bernie raised herself on her elbows and looked down at her. “You have, have you? And what credentials are you looking for in such a companion?”
Serena laughed as Bernie raised her eyebrows. “Dexterity,” she said, breath hitching as Bernie’s fingers tickled her inner thigh, “For juggling, of course, to entertain the children.”
“Naturally,” Bernie said, seriously. “Anything else?”
“Good at helping me dress.”
“What about undressing?”
Bernie’s leg slipped between Serena’s and she grinned. “Even more important.”
“Is the job mine?”
“All yours,” Serena gasped, as Bernie’s fingers found exactly where she needed her.