“So she said, ‘Let me take you out. I’ll keep you young.’” Serena cringed at the awkward chat-up line. It was burned into her memory.
Fleur was laughing raucously before Serena’s got most of the words out. Hearing of Serena’s dating foibles never ceased to send the other woman into good-natured hysterics.
“I laughed—probably louder than I should have—and told her, ‘I’m flattered by your interest, but I’ve learned my lesson. No more girls young enough to be my own. It does not keep me young, it keeps me in therapy.”
Fleur dabbed at her makeup, her eyeliner perfect and sharp enough to perform surgery. She was dressed for a night out in all the ways Serena wasn’t. But then, there wasn’t any question they’d come out with separate agendas. “Aww, the poor dear. What’d she say to that?”
“She pouted at me! Nothing could have done less to change my mind.”
“She sounds adorable.”
“Oh, she was. But, really, I’ve had my time as a cougar. It isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” At all. Serena had too many regrets about her actions to go making that a way of life.
Fleur purred, “Speak for yourself, mon coeur.” Fleur blew a kiss at a brunette thirty-something watching them from across the bar. Typical Fleur, Serena thought, her fondness for her irrepressible partner in crime bottomless.
“That looks promising. Don’t let me stand in the way of your letting the good times roll.”
Fleur redirected her attention from her newest prospective entanglement to check in with Serena. Fleur was in many ways a better friend than Serena deserved. “You don’t mind?”
“Mind? Heavens no, one of us should be getting our feet wet tonight.”
“It’s not my feet I plan on getting wet.” Serena sputtered and smacked a giggling Fleur on the arm. She’d known better than to drink while Fleur was on a tear. Her blouse might never recover from the wine. “Now you, try to have some fun tonight.”
“I’m having plenty of fun. Get a move on, before another cougar catches her eye and you miss out.”
Fleur patted her hand and gathered her bag. “Catch you later, mon ami.”
“Call if you need a rescue.”
Fleur fluffed her hair. “I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Serena watched Fleur prance to the younger woman with the confidence of a much taller woman. How does she do it?
Serena was debating whether to send an age-appropriate blonde in leather trousers a martini when her mobile began to vibrate on the cocktail table. Expecting it to be AAU, she picked up on the first ring.
Cameron. “It’s—it’s Mum. She’s home and she’s not herself.”
Serena swirled her drink though it was mostly dregs by now. She’d been contemplating buying herself another or going home when the call had come. Thinking about Bernie always made her too maudlin to trust herself to drink.
“I’m not sure what you want me to do.” Or what Bernie would have wanted. They’d been veritable strangers since December. What right did Serena have to pry in a life she had exiled herself from?
“She won’t talk to me or Charlotte. She’s gone out every night since she got back.” Serena hadn’t even known Bernie was home. “I’m worried about her.”
Serena reached for her necklace, her talisman. “I don’t think she’d want me involved.” She had no idea what Bernie would have wanted anymore.
“The thing, I’m pretty sure you’re the only person she’ll listen to.” There were layers in what Cameron wasn’t saying, things he evidently wanted Serena to ferret out, and Serena wanted to. What if she doesn’t want me to? But when had want had anything to do with them? When Serena wanted to grieve herself into an early grave, Bernie hadn’t let her. Whatever the crisis, she wouldn’t leave Bernie to slog through it on her own.
“Where is she?”
Cameron emitted a sigh that was three parts relief and one part helpless frustration. “The last few nights, at this place she’s been hanging. It’s this lesbian bar called Body Shots.” Serena elected not to comment. Cameron’s grimace was audible over the phone “They’ve called me to come get her at closing every night, totally pissed.”
“I know where that is. I’ll take care of her.”
“Do you think you’ll need a hand? I can bring my car around.”
“No, best you let me handle this. Do you want me to bring her by yours?”
She could practically hear the toe scuffing “I haven’t really got anywhere for her to sleep.”
“I’ll keep her in my guest room, keep watch over her. She’ll be all right, I’m sure of it.” Bernie Wolfe was always all right. That was her default setting. “Cameron, do you know what’s going on?” It was the first question she shouldn’t have asked, but Serena had never done what she should have where Bernie was concerned. It didn’t seem she’d start tonight.
“I don’t. That’s what scares me. Mum doesn’t lose control like this. Whatever it is, you know it’s bad.”
That was precisely what scared her.
Serena texted a thoroughly distracted Fleur to make her excuses and flagged a taxi. Somehow, she didn’t think driving would on the agenda tonight.
Body Shots was everything the name implied but louder and flashier. It trended a touch younger than the club Fleur had dragged Serena to on their latest sojourn on the lash. Serena let herself be carried along by the flow of the patrons rather than fight against. She was more comfortable with how she fit in here than she’d been even a year ago.
Bernie wasn’t hard to pick out. Tall and slender, flaxen-haired and dark-eyed, Serena couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t pick Bernie out of a crowd. She could say something dramatic about Bernie being her True North or opposites attracting; she preferred instead to think it was simply something about Bernie. The eye gravitated toward beauty and Serena couldn’t say she’d ever seen someone more beautiful.
Or more damaged.
Serena paused to watch her former partner dance with someone roughly both their daughters’ age. Though Bernie was anything but an elegant dancer, she was graceful in her own way, and there was that magnetism to speak of. It didn’t hurt that Bernie was sozzled. She was always looser then, freer with her laughter and her touch, the former raspy and inviting where the latter was lingering, full of intent.
Her paramour was pretty, dark-haired, and enchanted, arms snaked around Bernie’s waist and hands edging towards the pockets of Bernie’s sinfully tight jeans. Bernie let her. Bernie let her do much more than Bernie tended be comfortable with in public. Years of repression didn’t disappear easily, not for Bernie.
Perhaps a stranger wouldn’t have noticed the vacant, shell-shocked distance in Bernie’s eyes. They would see the twist of her smile as a challenge or a come-on. They would see a promise of long legs, long fingers and a husky voice and know their night was made. They wouldn’t see the momentary hesitation to reciprocate, the flicker of a glance toward the exit sign Bernie took to be sure she could. Someone who didn’t know Bernie couldn’t read the signs and draw a straight line between Bernie’s ensuing mistake and the inevitable fallout; there weren’t many strangers who’d be interested in that.
Serena was anything but a stranger.
Still, she waited. Bernie could force her hanger-on to let go if she wanted to. She let her stay, and Serena waited as long as her patience would allow. Never mind the green-eyed voice that wanted the other woman away. She’d ceded ground on calling Bernie anything like hers last Christmas. That didn’t mean she didn’t want her beyond any craving she’d ever known.
Bernie swayed toward a kiss on the corner of mouth, her eyes falling closed. Her hands clutched momentarily at the girl’s shoulders. She could push her away any time she wanted.
Serena’s resolve broke.
Bernie wasn’t in danger from anyone but herself. They had that in common.
Stepping swiftly into the mass of gyrating forms populating the dance floor, Serena firmly dislodged the younger woman’s hand from where it had made its home on Bernie’s bum, interrupting what might have become a proper kiss in the process. “That’ll be enough of that.” She pulled Bernie in the opposite direction of the disgruntled woman in a crop top. “There’s a good girl, off you trot.”
Bernie snapped out of her distracted state to glare at Serena. “Oi, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Keeping you from having a very embarrassing wake-up call in four hours.” It had got that late. Serena couldn’t guess how long she’d been watching Bernie be anything but Bernie, be a fading echo of herself at her most self-destructive. Something had knocked Bernie out of orbit; Serena knew the look.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about, there.” She lifted her chin and there it was: a challenge. Serena let the question of how long Bernie had been aware of her presence burn in back of her mind, unasked.
“She’s Charlotte’s age.” Probably. Give or take a few years. It was harder to pinpoint ages for the young the older you got. Serena didn’t care for the reminder.
“Didn’t stop you.” Never mind that Leah had been much older. That had never been the point. This was Serena’s least favorite part of dealing with drunks, the re-airing of old grievances. She was an expert at both sides of the fight.
“On account of your profound drunkenness, I’m going to disregard that.” She had done her own recon on entering and was aware of most of the exits. Now to get Bernie to accompany her out of one without making a scene…
“Don’t do me any favors.”
Serena had known she and Bernie would become contentious if they ever met again, so she’d ensured they wouldn’t. It was easier to love from a distance than be unloved. She hadn’t wanted to learn what no longer being loved by Bernie felt like. It felt like this.
“Bernie, you’re pickled, and you need to go home.”
Bernie dug her heels in. “I’ll go home when I’m good and ready.”
She was remarkably good at being drunk. She was clear-eyed and spoiling for a fight Serena was determined not to give her. Bad enough Serena had surrendered when it counted, there was little use in it anymore.
Bernie softened. Whatever she might think, she was a good mother. She wanted so much to be a good mother. Bernie sniffed and shifted to make way for her former dance partner who was holding someone else by the hand. She sent Bernie a come hither stare that Bernie watched after, contemplative. Serena wasn’t hurt by her response in any way that mattered. “Cameron needs to mind his elders.”
“He’s minding you since you won’t mind yourself. You think that’s fair to him?”
Bernie ran a rough hand through her disheveled hair. Even the mess of her set Serena’s heart to beating fast. “I’ll call him…in the morning, after I’ve had my beauty rest. That all right by you, Campbell?” She cocked her head, daring Serena to push her luck.
“No, it isn’t. I’ll just stay here and keep watch to make sure nobody makes off with you, if it’s all the same to you.” Bernie hadn’t left her back then, it was about time she returned the favor.
“I didn’t see your name on the door. Do you own this establishment? No? Then, I’ll sit.” Serena claimed an unoccupied stool at the end of the bar. She stared directly at Bernie standing awkwardly alone on the dance floor. She drew glances, not only for impeding traffic.
Bernie watched her, ignoring the looks. Bernie might have been in the closet for years, but she’d never wanted for attention.
“Going to stare at me all night? Bit dodgy, Campbell, didn’t think that was your kink.”
“If you were sober, you’d remember anything to do with you is my kink,” Serena said. When everything else was lost, at least she had honesty.
Bernie’s impassivity wavered. “That’s not fair.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we were aiming below the belt tonight, or is that only acceptable when you do it?”
Bernie bucked up. “Go home.”
“Maybe I will. Who should I take with me?”
Serena pretended to contemplate their fellow club patrons. “There are a whole six, maybe seven age-appropriate options. Shall I send them drinks for you? Pick up their numbers?”
Bernie shut down. “What I do, who I take to bed is none of your business.”
“Your being too drunk to consent is my business.” Bernie didn’t do drunk like other people and she could regret for England. Serena wouldn’t be passive for that.
“I can hold my drink!”
“So hold it, don’t slosh it.”
“You have a lot of nerve worrying about how I drink.” Bernie was right and Serena knew it. That didn’t mean she was going to be diverted by another old argument.
“If Cameron is worried, I am worried.”
“Bugger off. I can look after myself.”
“I don’t think I will, because I don’t think you can. I don’t know why, but I will find out. In the meantime, you can deal with me.”
A group of festive university-aged party-goers jostled Bernie out of place in Serena’s direction. It was easier than it would have been if she had her sea legs. She stumbled and Serena was there to keep her upright. Roles reversed, same script. Serena longed to burn the whole play.
Bernie’s mouth twisted at their first touch, her eyes closed. Serena loved her beyond any hope of recovery.
“Why do you care when you couldn’t toss me over fast enough at Christmas?” Of course, Bernie had taken the wrong message from Serena’s words last year. They couldn’t have read each other more broadly if they were speaking entirely separate tongues.
“I care because this isn’t you.” Bernie didn’t let strangers touch her. Bernie didn’t enjoy being a public spectacle. Bernie didn’t take cheap shots because hurting someone meant they still felt something for you.
“You don't know me anymore.”
“That's where you're wrong.” Bernie was volcanic rock. Nothing short of a natural disaster could shift or change her.
They were still touching. Bernie leaned into Serena’s hands. Miles and inches between them. There wasn’t any difference.
Bernie looked past her. Her throat worked as she searched the room for her lost composure. “I thought you liked me adventurous and macho and exciting.” She smiled like it hurt. “Am I exciting enough for you now?”
“What happened to you?”
“Alex Dawson, again. You.” As if there wasn’t any difference.
Serena found them two seats at the bar and poured Bernie onto one. Against her best judgement, she ordered them drinks. Anything to fill the silence, to still Bernie’s fidgeting hands when she couldn’t hold them.
Serena broke the ice lest they freeze here. “Until Cam called, I thought you were in Mogadishu.”
Bernie drank until Serena guided the tumbler from her mouth. Courage, not a hiding place. They’d done their hiding. “I was in the area.”
“I was seeing to Cameron. He’s—he’s been having trouble.”
Serena’s mouth turned down. Cameron had been teetering on the edge of a breakdown on Darwin, anyone could see that. She’d been tempted to communicate as much to Bernie personally but hadn’t felt it was her place. Perhaps someone else had taken the liberty.
“AAU seems to suit him a bit more at present.”
“That’s what I’ve heard. He’s blossomed under your mentorship, by all accounts.”
“He’s a good doctor. With time and persistence, he might become an exceptional one.”
“I hope I’m around to see that.” Bernie took a cocktail napkin and begin to tear it in strips. The sound was almost soothing under the annoying bass thumping in the background.
“Why wouldn’t you be? Planning to up stakes to someplace new?”
“No. Life is funny, is all.” Bernie shoved the pile of napkin aside to tuck her hands under her crossed arms.
“In what way?” Serena lifted a hand to brush Bernie’s hair from her face on instinct. She dropped it when she remembered she wasn’t allowed.
“You think you have all this time and then things just…go wrong.”
“Bernie, what happened?”
Bernie stared down the bar. Even without touching her Serena sensed how rigid she’d gone beside her.
“There was an explosion at the airport hospital in Somalia where I’m stationed. My…friend, Alex. No, that’s not right. My, erm, yeah, she died.” That answered that. Serena had wondered in a distant part of her mind if the woman who loved Bernie first might reappear if the stars aligned.
Bernie shifted uncomfortably, casting Serena wary glances. “We had sort of taken steps to getting back together, and then this.” Serena had known that would happen. Serena was fine with it. Bernie Wolfe deserved to be loved. Serena rubbed a hand up and down her arm. Bernie would always be loved.
“They gave you bereavement leave, I hope.”
“I requested it. I needed to be home again.”
“I’m so sorry, Bernie.”
“I had to hold my kids and see familiar sights.” There it was, Bernie’s stiff upper lip attempting to assert itself.
“That makes perfect sense.”
“I had gone to Holby to see everyone, and Donna said you were out with Fleur. I’m not sure what possessed me to come out feeling like this.” Serena could guess. Jealousy was their common vice.
“You don’t need a reason.”
“I wanted to see you. Both of you, I suppose, but specifically you. And then I did.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“You seemed to be having a good enough time. I didn’t want to interfere.” Fleur was a ballast to keep Serena afloat, not the anchor to stop her drifting, but Bernie was a soldier, not a sailor; far be it for her to recognize the distinction.
“You’re never interfering. Fleur is my friend and she understands there’ll always be a place for you in my life.”
Bernie loosed a pained laugh. “You say that, Campbell, but…here we are.” Distant as dead and dying stars.
Serena leaned close as their seats would permit till they were in contact from shoulder to elbow. Bernie dropped her head, a soft plea for anything dying when Serena touched her hand. Their fingers entwined on the bar.
“You can see me whenever you need me.”
Bernie’s breath came in short bursts. A fine tremor ran through her, through Serena. “I had to know you were all right.” She studied their hands laced together. “Is it awful that when she died, all I could think about was getting back to you?” Serena couldn’t berate her, wouldn’t. Since learning the news, all she’d thought about was Bernie and Bernie was here in front of her, physically if not emotionally intact. When did a casualty become a loss? When she loved them. “It felt like my world was crashing down and the only way it could be all right…was if I came home.” She looked longingly toward the glass Serena had relieved her of. “You don’t have to tell me how insane that sounds.”
“There’s nothing insane about going home again or seeking comfort where you know it can be found. You must have known on some level I’d look after you.” Serena gave in to another impulse. Bernie’s silken hair slipped through her fingers as she tucked it behind her ear. Bernie swayed toward her like some yearning thing, her eyes dark as pitch, lips parted. It was Serena’s turn to want who she shouldn’t have.
“Nobody looks after me.”
She thumbed the apple of Bernie’s cheek. “It’s about time for that to change, don’t you think?”
In the time it took Serena to blink, Bernie’s lips were on hers. The shock of first sensual contact sent a shudder through Serena. Kissing Bernie was nothing like memory recalled. Memory was limited and ever-changing. This was real. Even now, after all they’d endured, Bernie kissed her like forgiveness. Soft but insistent, desperate but sure. Serena never wanted to kiss anyone else on any night, and on any other night, she’d give her left arm to kiss this woman.
Bernie’s slender fingers twined into the short hairs at the nape of Serena’s neck. Serena sighed into her, soaking in the taste of her lips, her tongue. She’d missed every bit of Bernie there was to miss, but this was singular. She’d missed Bernie’s kiss most of all. That’s why it hurt to end it now, to break away when all she wanted was more.
Serena brushed Bernie’s hand from the side of her neck where it had found its home.
“You can have me for whatever you need, later, not tonight.” Bernie made to withdraw, stung. Serena refused to let her disappear, not now she’d found her “Right now, you are drunk, and you are grieving. This”—Serena kissed the hand she still held—"will have to wait until one of those is no longer true.”
“I could find someone else.”
“I’m sure you could, looking like you do.” Bernie had never looked more beautiful, or more heartsick. “Another twentysomething to lead you into the dingy loos to get you off while you try not to cry. When you stumble out smelling of some other woman, unable to look at your reflection, I’ll be waiting to take you home. I’ll clean the mess when you sick up on my floor. I’ll give you water before I put you to bed. I’ll do all that for as many sleepless nights as you need until at last you hate yourself slightly less than you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you. That’s not…I never hated you. That’s why I’m so...” Bernie wrested her hand free to cover her welling eyes. “When I saw her on the ground after the bombing, I covered her body with a piece of debris. I kept working.”
Serena rubbed her back. She was all knots, hunched over the bar as if sitting upright was an impossible feat. Maybe it was.
“You did your job, Bernie.”
“If it had been you, Serena—if it had been you, they would have needed three men to pry me away. But it was Alex, and I just kept working.” She clutched her hair between her hands.
“You’re trained to do what needs doing at any time, to compartmentalize your reactions until your patients are taken care of and the situation improves.” As she said the words, she knew they wouldn’t be enough to redeem Bernie in her own eyes.
“She told me she loved me. It wasn’t the first time she’d said that to me. She said we were soulmates, that she’d thought I would come back to her and I had and she…wanted to spend the rest of her life with me.” Bernie covered her mouth to suppress a wounded, broken sound. “I guess she did.” She cast her eyes to Serena in search of solace. “I couldn’t even tell her I loved her.” Her voice began to shake. “I slept with her and I slept next to her, but I didn’t love her anymore. What kind of person does that make me?”
“I feel subhuman. Wretched and horrible. Unworthy.” Bernie collapsed in on herself like a dying star. Serena hugged her close, murmuring soft nothings against her shoulder. “She died loving me and all I could think when I saw her was, ‘Thank god it wasn’t Serena. Thank god she wasn’t here with me.’ What did you do to me?”
“I suspect the same thing you did to me. I loved you, Bernie, and everything changed.”
They looked at each other for the longest moment in Serena’s memory.
“I’m so relieved it wasn’t you.”
“I’m overjoyed it wasn’t you. More than you’ll ever known.”
Bernie staggered off her bar seat. “I need a smoke.” She was unsteady, a testament to how much she’d had to drink and how thoroughly unsettled her state of mind. Serena kept a hand on her back to reinforce her shaky center of gravity. Where Bernie went, Serena went. That’s how it was to be from now.
Serena took a cigarette from Bernie’s pack after Bernie had smoked her first one. If she was going to be exposed to secondhand smoke, she meant to enjoy it.
Bernie regarded the dim stars with wary hostility. “She was pretty.”
Bernie shrugged as though it were self-explanatory. “I told you I wouldn’t be alone.”
“I knew you wouldn’t be.”
“Don’t you care?”
“All I do is care. I care so much I make myself sick caring.”
“You could have had me. She wanted me.” Who ‘she’ was, was neither entirely clear, nor necessarily important.
“You didn’t want me.” A wounded confession.
“I wanted you more than was good for either of us. I didn’t know the first thing about what it was going to take to keep you, so I let you leave.” Sent her packing to avoid sending her running. Bernie wasn’t the only person in their relationship capable of strategic self-destruction.
“And I left.”
“People do that, I’ve found. The only permanent things in life are death, taxes, and inevitable abandonment. If you say that enough, it ceases to sound like deep-seated cynicism and begins to resemble basic reason.”
“You left me, too.”
“My decision. I could leave and call it grace instead of resounding defeat. History-1; Serena-0.” She didn’t mean to laugh. There wasn’t anything funny in all this. “Hurting you wasn’t in my plans.”
“You still did.”
“And I hurt Alex, too.”
“There were plenty of mistakes made, all ‘round.”
“But some of us aren’t alive to make amends.”
“The mistakes weren’t only yours, Bernie.” She tried for gentle. “The lies we tell ourselves to prolong an affair that isn’t meant to last are mistakes, too.”
Bernie bristled. “You don’t know our history.”
“I know it was history before I knew you, and it was history when you got back together. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know things never added up to the romance Alex wanted it to be.”
Bernie firmed her mouth when it seemed it might falter, shored up her resolve when it might shatter. Bernie, as ever, battening down the hatches for a storm she would survive nominally unharmed.
“She called me her soulmate.”
“I hope you were.”
Bernie cast her a reproachful, hopeful look. “I have you.”
“And I have you. But if she had to die, better that she spent the rest of her life with the woman she’d rather never be without than find that out.” Serena couldn’t have stood for it. She couldn’t stand the idea of their last goodbye being their last anything, their final everything.
“I suspect she knew.” Guilt warred with resignation in Bernie’s voice.
“Then she chose to love you anyway, and there’s no honor for her in acting as though she was too foolish to know better.” Serena took Bernie’s cigarette and stubbed it out with her own. “We each make our own choices.” Serena decided it was her turn to make one. For once, a good one.
“You’ve picked a fine time to be wise.”
“I think you’ll find I left it a little late.” She caressed Bernie’s warm cheek. She was sad and guilty and so full of love she might burst from it. She would weather the first, live with the second, and never be anything but the last. “I love you. I still love you. Come home to me.”
Bernie dropped her brow to rest against Serena’s. She held onto Serena as fiercely as Serena wished they had clung to one another. “I’m already home.”
Serena kissed her, gently, chastely, a promise and no more. Bernie smiled. Hurt and grief lurked behind it, but there was love too. Serena would see to it that love conquered all.
“Does this mean I don’t have to sleep in the guest room tonight?”
Serena laughed and swatted Bernie’s backside because she could and because it was a marvelous backside, if she did say so herself.
“Don’t push your luck, Major.”