Bernie looked over the top of the file she had been reading for the past ten minutes without going past the first paragraph. Serena had a new outfit on today and it had made concentrating on paperwork even more challenging than usual. Serena looked good in most colours but the rich royal blue suited her particularly well. But Bernie had to admit, somewhat pruriently, that it was the way the silky fabric clung to her contours and curves that made the blouse exquisite. As if to prove a point, Serena leaned over to retrieve a file and Bernie was treated to the merits of a plunging neckline.
A wave of heat caught her off guard and she shifted sharply, causing her chair to squeak as it slid across the floor. Bernie straightened herself hastily, dropped the folder she was reading and found amused eyes looking back as she regained her bearings.
“Riveting read is it?” Serena teased.
Bernie shook her head as nonchalantly as she could and stole a look at the folder before answering. “Just results from a clinical trial.”
Bernie shrugged vaguely and quickly changed the subject before Serena started asking for details of a report she hadn’t read because she was too busy ogling the scenery. “It’s almost lunch time,” she said, looking at the clock on the wall before pushing herself up from the chair.
Serena’s face fell a little. “I suppose you’ll be dashing off to an appointment as usual.”
“No. I was just going down to the cafe to get a sandwich. What would you like me to get you?”
Serena seemed to have trouble deciding and when she finally spoke, it was with an atypically nervous look on her face. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. If you’re not in a hurry.”
Bernie rested her backside on the edge of Serena’s desk and waited for her to continue.
“I take it you have a date for the annual gala next week?” Serena said, opting for the blunt and direct route.
“No. I’ve not even decided if I’m going,” Bernie replied, “much less thought of who to drag along.”
“I’m fairly certain Henrik will be expecting all department heads front and centre for the big night.”
“Well, then the answer is no.”
Serena’s face perked up instantly. “In that case, I have a proposition for you.”
* * *
“I told you it would work,” Fleur crowed in delight. “You owe me a large drink.”
Bernie leaned up against the doorway to the changing rooms, taking some weight off her feet. “I think going as each other’s plus ones is a means to an end, Fleur. Although I have to admit she did look very pleased when I said yes to her idea of going to the gala together.”
“I’m sure she was,” Fleur said, pushing Bernie towards a cubicle that had become free. “Which is why you need to make the right impression on the night.”
Bernie sighed as she locked the door behind her, deciding that it would be easier not to argue with the redhead. She undressed, shivering slightly in the cool air conditioning as she sifted through the items that made up the outfit Fleur had chosen. Definitely not what she’d had in mind, she thought, threading arm through a sleeve. Several layers of clothing later, she fastened the last button and pushed the door open, fussing with the waist as she did.
“I still think this is a little too tight. I should try...” Bernie started saying before the look on Fleur’s face stopped her. “It's not that bad is it?” she asked, voice filled with trepidation.
“Au contraire. This suits you to a tee, if you pardon the pun.” Fleur looked her up and down appreciatively. “It’d be a waste to put all that macho army medic vibe into a dress.”
Bernie stood back and looked at herself in the mirror and turned on her ankle to check the back of the outfit. It did accentuate the long lines of her legs, she admitted. And she could pair it with something more comfortable than heels. “I hope you’re right.”
“I’m never wrong when it comes to women,” Fleur answered, her voice silky. “If Serena doesn’t take you home after the gala, I will.”
Serena took a sip of champagne, her stomach fluttering nervously as she checked the foyer for the umpteenth time. Perhaps Bernie had changed her mind and decided not to come after all. The familiar knot in her belly reappeared as she tried not to imagine who Bernie could be with instead or what they might be doing.
She shook her head and emptied her flute, setting it down on the nearest table. Serena was about to hunt down a fresh drink when a familiar blonde head entering the door caught her eye. Bernie saw her almost immediately and began striding towards Serena.
It was testimony to years of practice at looking poised and unruffled when the situation called for it that she reacted with nothing more than an approving smile when Bernie finally reached her. Serena was quite pleased with her choice of dress for the evening - wine coloured and strapless, it traced her curves like a second skin, the hem just stopping past her knees - but Bernie had evidently taken it to a different level.
“You’ve cleaned up nicely.” Her eyes devoured the tailored lines of Bernie’s outfit.
The dark tailored suit fitted her perfectly and made Bernie look even sleeker than she ever had before. Serena knew she was ogling but she was past caring as she gazed appreciatively at the waistcoat and white shirt combination, the open vee of the neckline showing off more than a hint of sculpted collarbone.
“I thought I should make an effort,” Bernie answered, her fingers twiddling with a button on the waistcoat before tugging it into place.
Serena hummed her approval. “Let’s not let it go to waste then. Shall we?” she asked, stretching a hand out to Bernie.
Bernie turned round, cigarette between her fingers. “I haven’t lit it yet.”
Serena raised an eyebrow. “I thought you’d given it up.”
“I have,” Bernie said tossing the cigarette aside, “although there are times I wish I hadn’t. Nothing like a fag to steady the nerves.”
Serena leaned up against the low wall bordering the patio. “A glass of fine Shiraz does the job just as well.”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily the better option. Not when you order by the vat,” Bernie countered smoothly.
A perfect eyebrow rose. “Very droll. At least I’d be warm indoors instead of freezing out here. Who are you hiding from anyway? ”
It was a good thing they were standing in the shadows or Bernie would have had a hard time explaining the sudden flush on her face.
“Just needed a breath of air and a break from the crowd.” Bernie said instead, hoping her voice came out as evenly as she wished in her head.
Serena nodded in empathy. “I think I’ve pulled a muscle in my cheek from all that smiling.”
“You looked like you were enjoying the wine and dancing,” Bernie replied.
“Oh?” Serena turned, her eyes finding Bernie’s in the dim light. “I didn’t realise you were watching.”
They could hardly see each other but Bernie had to pull her gaze away after mere seconds. “Couldn’t help noticing, the way you were cutting up the rug,” she said, as nonchalantly as she could. The truth was that she couldn’t keep her eyes off Serena since the moment she arrived. The woman was a vision, all silk and plunging neckline and Bernie had lost count of the number of times she’d had to remind herself not to stare lest she got caught.
Serena laughed throatily. “I find that it’s less boring than shop talk or, worse, offers to check out my equipment.”
“Charming,” Bernie mumbled, her faculties very much preoccupied with thoughts of said equipment.
Serena snorted. “I suspect copious amounts of wine had something to do with the offer. Fortunately for him it was all talk, or your services might have been required.”
“I would have been more than happy to show him a thing or two from my Army days.”
The fierce defensiveness in her tone made Serena’s heart ache with hope. “I meant as a trauma surgeon but I appreciate the chivalry.”
Bernie smiled softly. “There’s very little I won’t do for you, Serena. You only have to ask.”
This was the moment she was waiting for. Her chance to take a leap into the crack Bernie had left open and Serena faltered. “I couldn’t ask for a better friend and co-lead.”
Just at that moment, a sharp breeze blew and Serena shivered, the silk of her dress doing very little to keep out the chill. Bernie had to resist the overwhelming urge to pull her close and warm her up.
“Maybe you should go back inside,” she suggested jamming her hands deep into her pockets to stop herself from reaching out.
Serena felt a weight in her stomach. “I, I suppose I should,” she replied with an over-bright smile on her face. “Let you get back to...” she waved a hand vaguely in the air.
“Serena, wait,” Bernie said and waited until Serena turned to face her. “I…” The words stuck in her throat and she swallowed hard before trying again. “Did you mean that - friends and co-leads?”
“Of course,” Serena’s reply was instant but her next words wavered as self-doubt sank in. “Well, I assume we’re more than just acquaintances but perhaps it’s presumptuous…”
“No,” Bernie cut her off. “I meant, just friends?”
There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other, slowly realising that they had both been hoping against all hope for the same thing. It seemed to stretch forever, Bernie almost gathering enough courage to speak before she was beaten to it.
“What else did you have in mind?” Serena murmured, closing the gap between them, the intensity of Bernie’s eyes reeling her in.
Bernie mirrored her action and they now stood inches apart. “I like you. No,” she shook her head, “I more than like you. And it’s been driving me mad trying not…”
The rest of her words were drowned out by a pair of lips covering her own. They tasted of wine and something sweeter. Heady and distinctly Serena. An arm wrapped firmly around her back, heat searing through the layers of clothing like they weren’t there, and she groaned. Every ounce of her being wanted to give in to the kiss, her fingers desperate to touch Serena’s bare skin, but an alarm bell started ringing in her head.
“Wait,” Bernie gasped, pulling back a fraction.
The look on Serena’s face turned from arousal to mortification in an instant. She was about to pull away, apologies at the ready when Bernie stopped her, laying a hand on her waist. “I want this as much as you do but I need to be sure.”
“Sure of what?” Serena asked, confused.
Bernie held out a hand. “Pinch me.”
Serena narrowed her eyes. “I’m all up for being adventurous but I don’t think this,” she glanced round, “is the right place for it.”
“I’ll explain it all later, trust me,” Bernie said, taking and placing Serena’s hand on her wrist.
The sharp jolt of pain was enough to make Bernie’s eyes water and she had to blink to clear her vision.“You’re still here.”
“Yes,” Serena replied, tightening the arm around Bernie’s waist. “And assuming you haven’t changed your mind about wanting this.”
Bernie shook her head. “Not a chance in hell.”
A shiver ran up her spine as Serena stroked the skin on the inside of her wrist, the pad of her thumb skimming over the reddened skin to soothe it. The thin scratch mark next to it caught her eye and apprehension bubbled anew.
“What about this?” Serena asked, rubbing gently along the line on Bernie’s skin, the one that had been driving her to distraction the entire week. “Are you sure this isn’t going to be a problem?”
Bernie blinked, confused. “Just a scratch. Xena has some pretty sharp claws.”
“Oh.” The movement stopped completely. “That’s an interesting name. Have you known her long?”
“She’s tiny, feisty. And,” Bernie took Serena”a hand, lifting it up and brushing her lips against the back of it, “a very cute black and white kitten.”
Serena blinked, confused and elated at the same time. “You have a kitten.”
“No, Charlotte adopted her a couple of weeks ago and ’ve been in charge of lunch time feeds while she was away for work last week.” Bernie explained, smiling at the look of relief on Serena’s face and dropped her tone to a low hum. “And if that’s satisfied your curiosity, I’m keen to continue what you started.”
“In that case,” Serena murmured, leaning in for another quick kiss. “I suggest that we adjourn to somewhere more suitable.”
“My place?” Bernie suggested.
“Mine’s closer,” Serena purred, slipping her hand downward to take Bernie’s. “And Jason isn’t back till Thursday.”