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The Twelve Days of (Before) Christmas

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Twelve days before Christmas

“Are you sure?” Bernie blurted out, her chair squeaking as she straightened up in surprise.

Her exclamation was loud enough to catch Serena’s attention and she paused, pen hanging over the page as she glanced across their shared office. Whatever the news was, it wasn’t bad, Serena surmised from the smile on Bernie’s face. She watched as her co-lead relaxed back into her chair, nodding and listening intently to the person on the other end of the line. Serena turned her attention back to the report in front of her when Bernie eventually swivelled her chair round.

“Yes. I really think it’s a great idea,” Bernie said before pausing as she was interrupted. “No, you go. I need to get back to work as well. We’ll speak later, love.”

Ending the call, she dropped her phone onto the desk, a hint of the smile still colouring her expression. Serena gave up any pretense of being interested in paperwork and shoved the report aside.

“Good news?” Serena asked, leaning forward, elbows on her desk.

Bernie’s smile widened again. “Yes. It’s short notice but it seems I might have plans for Christmas.”

“And it involves a special someone whisking you away for the holidays?” Serena couldn’t help asking, even if it meant giving away the fact that she’d been eavesdropping.

A look of confusion crossed Bernie’s face before she realised how Serena might have misunderstood. She shook her head. “I’ve just been told that I’ll be hosting Christmas this year so the only thing that’ll be whisked is double cream for the trifle.” Her remark was met with silence as the joke fell as flat as the imaginary trifle.

Serena finally replied with a pained look. “I wouldn’t give up the day job if I were you.”

The words seemed to fill Bernie with glee because she let loose a loud honk of laughter. “That’s what you get for jumping to conclusions, Campbell.”

She tried to look cross but it was impossible to be annoyed when she was increasingly filled with curiosity. “I wouldn’t have to if you stopped being coy about your mysterious guest.”

It wasn’t quite an adorable pout but the look on Serena’s face was enough to melt Bernie’s resolve. “It’s Charlotte. She’s back in Holby for Christmas this year and wants to spend it with me,” Bernie explained, putting Serena out of her misery.

“That is good news,” Serena replied instantly. The smile on Bernie’s face widened as she nodded again before it flickered briefly. She saw that momentary waver and knew her friend well enough by now to hazard a guess the reason for it. A plan began to form in her head. “Of course it’ll mean planning dinner, decorations and the tree. But there’s still heaps of time, I suppose…,” Serena trailed off.

“There is heaps of time.” Bernie echoed Serena’s words. “ I’ll stick a roast in the oven and maybe put together a trifle for dessert. Surely she’s too old for the whole Christmas thing by now.”

Serena resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. Bernie Wolfe, surgeon extraordinaire, medical whiz, sharpest mind she’s had the privilege to know, could be such a disaster when it came to anything else outside her job. “You know her best, of course. Elinor said she wasn’t bothered by any of the holiday fuss last year until I agreed and went along with her suggestion. No decorations to tidy up or pine needles all over the floor sounded like an ideal Christmas break.”

“Wasn’t it?” Bernie asked, more in hope than expectation.

An ungraceful snort preceded Serena’s answer. “I nearly ruined Christmas by not making an effort and everything was awful. Needless to say we ended up with the biggest tree we’ve ever had. I don’t think anyone ever outgrows Christmas. Especially when it comes to spending it with family.” Serena paused for emphasis and waited for the reaction she knew it would provoke, “But that’s only Elinor, of course. I’m sure that Charlotte will love whatever you decide to do.”

Bernie’s eyes widened, an unfamiliar look of panic colouring her face. “But I didn’t think...I had no idea it’d be so complicated.” She began pacing up and down the small space between the desk and the door. “I can’t do it all in just two weeks! Maybe I should cancel the plans and tell her I’m too busy with work…”

A hand landed on her arm, silencing her ramble. “I think you should take a deep breath before you hyperventilate,” Serena said, resting her backside against Bernie’s desk. “I think cancelling fifteen minutes after you said yes might not be the most sensible thing to do.”

The steadying tone of Serena’s words did wonders and Bernie sank onto the edge of her desk as well. “No, that wouldn’t. I should at least wait till after work, right?” she replied with a shaky smile.

“Bernie…”

Bernie held her hands up apologetically. “Just trying to lighten the mood.” Serena’s hand squeezed and Bernie felt the warmth radiate comfortingly through her body. “Thanks for talking me off the ledge.”

Serena replied with a light chuckle. “Always ready to help. Besides it’s not often anything fazes the unflappable Bernie Wolfe,”

A tinge of pink coloured Bernie’s cheeks. “I might have overreacted a little,” she mumbled sheepishly and started pushing herself upright only to be held back by a firm but gentle grip..

“I won’t tell anyone,” Serena said solemnly, “if you promise me one thing.”

Bernie nodded for her to carry on.

“I know I’ll regret saying this but let me give you a hand with Christmas? I'm pretty sure that we’ll be able to come up with something Charlotte will approve of if we put our heads together. Deal?”

The look of relief and joy on Bernie’s face was all the answer that Serena needed.

***

Ten days before Christmas

“Auntie Serena?”

Serena pulled attention away from the list she was making and turned towards her nephew. “Did you need something, Jason?”

He gave her an impatient look as he repeated his question. “I said, which one do you prefer? ”

She was about to confess that she hadn't a clue what he was on about when he slid a tablet across the kitchen table, its screen displaying a selection of Christmas trees. Serena’s instinct was to say she didn’t mind and would go with whichever one he picked but she knew her nephew well enough by now to know that wouldn’t do. “I quite like this one,” she eventually replied, pointing to a good-sized fir near the top of the page.

Instead of disappearing, the furrow on his brow deepened further when he saw what she chose. “That’s too big for our living room. I’ve been explaining how I worked out the ideal size of tree and you’ve not been listening to me at all!” Jason huffed. “You promised to help me pick a tree today.”

Serena turned towards her nephew, looking contrite. “I’m sorry Jason. Just caught up with this list I’m making but I promise you have my full attention.” She pushed aside the notepad she was writing on. “Why don’t you show me which one you think is the best?”

That seemed to placate the young man. He picked up the tablet and started scrolling down the screen to find what he was looking for. “It’s important we decide today before all the nice trees are taken. You shouldn’t be working on your day off anyway.”

“This isn’t work. It’s a shopping list for Christmas dinner,” Serena explained.

Her answer piqued Jason’s curiosity and he put the tablet down, picking up the notepad she was writing on instead, He scanned down the list with interest, making approving noises until he reached one particular item. “Can we have roast pork instead of turkey? We all like that better - I remember Elinor saying that last year. Also, I think the trifle will be nicer with homemade cake instead of the sponge fingers you have on the list.”

Serena smiled and shook her head. “This isn’t for us Jason. I’m helping Bernie plan Christmas dinner with her daughter.”

“Is it just two of them?” he asked, looking up and down the list again.

“As far as I know.” Serena was fairly certain Bernie hadn’t mentioned any other guests.

Jason had a thoughtful look on his face as he placed the notepad back onto the table. “That’s a lot of food for two people.”

“Well, she said she wanted all the usual trimmings to make it a proper dinner.”

“In that case, they should just join us for dinner,” Jason said matter-of-factly. “That’ll make five of us and it’s easier to cook a proper Christmas feast and finish the food. You and Bernie could share the cooking and preparation so neither of you will have to spend the whole day in the kitchen.”

Serena had her mouth open to explain that Bernie and Charlotte might want some time to themselves before she stopped. His logic was sound and there was no need, really, for both of them to be slaving over a hot stove on Christmas day. If she could convince Bernie…

***

Seven days before Christmas

“The usual?”

Bernie smiled and shook her head. “Better add an extra shot in both drinks. I have a feeling about today.”

The barista smiled and proceeded to make up her order. Bernie glanced round the cafe while waiting and noticed that It wasn’t as busy as it usually was. Then again she was running a little behind this morning, having overslept the snooze on her alarm. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifted across the counter while her drinks were being prepared and the smell of fresh caffeine perked her up a little. Only just. Bernie stifled a yawn and was starting to regret staying up much later than she should have.

“Late night?” A familiar voice piped up next to her.

Bernie turned in its direction as she answered. “Shouldn’t you be at work by now, Dr Copeland?”

Dominic shrugged, the maroon scrubs of Keller peeking out from under his bomber jacket. “The coffee called to me and it’s been quiet on the ward.”

“So Ric’s not in and you’ve left Arthur with all the work while you skived off here for coffee,” Bernie concluded.

His cheeks pinked immediately and he opened his mouth to protest. Bernie silenced him with a wave of her hand. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” she said with a smile. “Besides, good caffeine keeps the wheels of the NHS well-oiled and awake.”

Dominic nodded solemnly, suppressing a small smile. “You’re being awfully generous today. Late and good night?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

Bernie ignored his innuendo and considered briefly before answering. What had started as a short Whatsapp message to Serena about Christmas dinner had turned into an hour long conversation on the merits of pork versus turkey. Before long, they had ventured onto the topic of drinks for the festive table and, soon after, long lists being made accompanied by wine being drunk as they browsed online. Lots of wine, in fact, the dull ache currently residing in her head reminded her. “I was chatting with a friend and time got away from me.”

“A friend, eh?” Dominic pounced on the word eagerly. “Serena must have been quite the conversationalist to have kept you up so late.”

“How did you know…” The words slipped out of Bernie’s mouth before she could stop herself, much to Dominic’s delight. “She was just helping me with Christmas shopping before you get too imaginative for your own good,” she replied primly.

Her stuttered reaction was met with a bark of laughter and a look of glee. “I could just pretend to be clairvoyant but it doesn’t take a psychic to guess who would be occupying your evenings these days, Ms Wolfe.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Bernie frowned in confusion at him for a moment before the pieces fell into place. “You’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting, are you? We’re colleagues. Co-leads and, well, friends, I suppose.”

Instead of agreeing with her summary of their relationship, Dominic sighed heavily. “Can I be candid?”

Bernie nodded for him to continue. It was unlikely that the young man would have been deterred by a refusal anyway. “For someone as clever as you are, you’re not very observant, are you?” Dominic said plainly. “Everyone on AAU, and many of us who are not, know that Serena’s got a thing for you. You’re practically a couple!”

It took a long moment for her brain to process his last word. The first words on her lips were “that’s ridiculous!” but she held them back and allowed the thought to sink in before she answered. “Is that really what people have been saying on the wards?”

Dominic nodded. “The wards, A&E, in fact, practically the whole Wyvern Wing takes it as common knowledge.”

“In that case, I think that the adage about the NHS being a hotbed of rumours is proven yet again.” Bernie pursed her lips and shook her head. “There isn’t an ounce of truth in it. I mean, that would be like putting two and two together and getting a hundred!”

“I’m only telling you what everyone’s thinking and there must be something to be said for majority opinion,” Dominic grinned, unrepentant.

“The majority are idiots. The majority voted for Brexit.” Bernie shrugged. “I think you’ve all been working in the hospital far too long. Something in the air, I imagine.”

Just at that instant, she heard her name called and Bernie turned gratefully towards the sound of it, happy to be rid of this ludicrous topic of conversation.

“Two double lattes to go,” the young woman announced, seating the cardboard cups into their holder. Bernie was about to thank her when she continued. “And oh, if you’re thinking of getting the usual pastries, you don’t have to. Your partner was in earlier and bought some of the croissants you both like.”

Bernie stiffened at the words, knowing that Dominic was within earshot of the barista’s bright voice. She mumurmed her thanks and was reaching out to pick up her drink when he sidled up next to her and announced triumphantly. “I rest my case.”

***

Three days before Christmas

The entryway was thankfully empty when they finally stepped inside, shaking off the snow that had collected on their coats between the car and the garden centre.

“I’d have brought a hat if I’d known it’d be as wild as that,” Serena said, stripping off her gloves and brushing the errant flakes from the top of her head.

Bernie ran a cursory hand through her fringe knowing it would make no difference whatsoever no matter how hard she tried to neaten it. Her hair was unruly at the best of times and virtually untamable when it was soaked with melting snow. She looked at Serena who was still fussing with her hair and couldn’t help but wonder how her friend managed to look so good despite being caught in the same flurry. “You look perfect,” Bernie said before she could stop herself.

“As my Scottish granny would say, aye right,” Serena answered, still distracted by the stray strands that refused to stay tucked behind an ear.

“I mean it,” Bernie added earnestly, “you look like you’ve just stepped out of a salon,not a snowstorm.”

Serena stilled and turned towards Bernie with a smile and an unmistakable blush colouring her cheeks. “Two compliments in a row. Careful now, Ms Wolfe, I might develop a taste for this,” she teased.

It was Bernie’s turn to blush but before she could reply, an arm linked round her elbow and pulled her towards the display area inside the shop. “We’d better get started on the list of things we need to get if I’m to be home in time to get dinner in the oven.”

Bernie nodded and quickened her pace to keep up with Serena. “Thursday is cottage pie so that’ll need at least forty five minutes.”

“I see you’ve been listening to Jason,” Serena remarked, impressed. “No wonder he likes you.”

Bernie dodged a determined looking shopper coming the opposite way wheeling a laden trolley, letting him pass safely before answering. “He’s a remarkable young man. Very inquisitive and forthright.”

Serena let out a bark of laughter. “And also incredibly logical and persistent. He wouldn’t stop arguing the case until I promised to ask you about Christmas.”

“Ah yes, my benefactor as well,” Bernie quipped. “Charlotte will have him to thank for the most elaborate Christmas she will have had that I’ve been in charge of.”

“That’ll only be the case if we get everything that we need.” Serena slowed to a halt and nodded towards the shelves in front of them. “I’m sure we can find something appropriate over here.” It was an understatement, of course, because there was no mistaking the theme of Christmas on display in this section of the shop. Bernie scanned the area and every free space on a shelf, tabletop, wall or floor was covered with ornaments and figurines in all shapes and sizes. To her left was a fireplace dressed up in cream and gold and, to her right, a living room mocked up in warm burgundy and tartan highlights. Her eyes darted between the decorations, almost at random, not having the faintest idea where to start.

“Why don’t we split the list?” Serena suggested, picking up on the glazed look in Bernie’s eyes. “You take the food items and I’ll pick up what we need to complete dressing up the living and dining room.”

The look of relief on Bernie’s face alone was worth it, Serena decided as she watched Bernie dash off in the direction of the food hall holding the list she had plucked out of Serena’s hand before she could change her mind. Serena was about to turn her attention to the first item on her list when she heard a familiar voice calling out to her.

“Rena! What a lovely surprise seeing you here.”

Serena turned to find herself smothered into a hug by a petite figure that was almost drowned by the luxurious leopard print fur coat she was bundled in.

“I could say the same for you,” Serena replied when she finally caught her breath again. “I didn’t think that garden centres were your thing, Sian.”

Sian sighed dramatically. “They normally aren't but this is the only place I can get a bottle of the speciality gin that a friend wanted for Christmas.”

“A special gin for a special friend. Do I know this latest paramour?” Serena asked.

“You might do if you’ve been following the news. Poor darling’s finding it hard to avoid the press after that nasty business with the local council. We’re keeping the whole relationship low profile until it all blows over. Which is why I’ve not told you about him.”

Serena raised an eyebrow. All this hush-hush business didn’t bode well but Sian Kors was a woman of many skills and talents and would no doubt come out on top in the end, as she always did. “Man of mystery, eh? I’ll look forward to meeting him once it’s safe for him to come out.”

Her remark earned her a jab on her side. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you had enough Christmas ornaments to decorate your house twice over.”

“It’s not for me. I’m helping a friend decorate this year.”

Sian’s eyes lit up immediately. “A friend? Tell me more, I insist!”

Serena rolled her eyes. “Unlike you, my life isn’t one sordid affair after another. She’s a colleague from work and her daughter’s spending Christmas with her this year. Bernie hasn’t been home much for Christmas so she needed some help putting some decorations together.”

Instead of silencing Sian, the mention of Bernie’s name seemed to pique her interest even further. “Is this the same Bernie that you’ve mentioned every single time we’re spoken for the past year? The hot Army major back from Afghanistan and now saving lives on the mean streets of Holby?”

“I’ve not spoken about her every time,” Serena protested. “I might have mentioned that I now have a co-lead for the ward when you asked.”

Sian dismissed her protestations with a snort. “You have more than just mentioned her, Serena. It’s been Bernie this and Bernie that. Honestly, you’ve not been so engrossed in someone since…” she stopped to think, “...since never. Not even Edward, when you thought that you were in love with him at uni.”

Serena was about to disagree with Sian when something caught her eye. Bernie was heading back in their direction with what looked like a basket full of drinks and the several packets of crackers and cheese. Sian followed her gaze, her quick mind putting two and two together instantly. “I say, she is quite the sight, isn’t she.”

“Behave Sian, I mean it,” Serena warned her firmly. “I won’t have you embarrassing a friend with your overactive imagination.”

Sian pursed her lips and sighed. “Oh well, I suppose, since you’re asking so nicely. Can I ask you a favour?” she added, a wide smile stretching over her face as Bernie approached them. “Let me ask her out if you’re not interested.”

***

One day before Christmas

“No mum, the ribbons go on the branches. We tie them to the tips, remember?”

Serena gazed at her daughter in equal part fondness and exasperation. “I thought you said that you wanted the baubles on the branches. Or was that last year?”

Elinor was about to say something cheeky in reply when the door bell sounded. “I’ll get that, you finish up the ribbons, mum,” she said, bounding off in the direction of the door.

Serena shook her head and turned back to the task of tying the small and fiddly ribbons. She heard the low murmur of conversation, picking up the familiar sound of Bernie’s voice. “Is that you, Bernie?” she called out from the living room.

The familiar face appeared at the doorway. “The cavalry has arrived bearing gifts,” Bernie announced, waving a bag in the air. “Pastries and cakes for later.”

Serena smiled in gratitude before turning her attention towards the young woman standing next to Elinor. She was roughly Ellie’s age and her features made it easy to guess who this was. “You must be Charlotte,” Serena crossed the living room, smiling. “It’s lovely to meet you at last after all your mum’s told me about you.”

“Not all bad, I hope,” Charlotte leaned in and gave Serena a light hug.

“Not all,” Serena answered solemnly before punctuating it with a wink. “I was especially pleased when she told me you’ve got a good eye for design and decorating.”

Charlotte smiled demurely. “Ready and able to help. This will be more fun than work, I’m sure.”

“Are you an interior designer?” Elinor asked with interest. “That would be such a cool thing to do.”

“Not quite. One day, hopefully. I’m just an apprentice working hard to impress her boss at the moment,” Charlotte said.

“I’m sure you’ll be better at decorating the tree than a certain mother I know,” Elinor brushed aside the details, nodding cheekily in Serena’s direction.

Serena pretended to look hurt and sighed heavily. “I think my services have been superseded and are no longer needed.” She nudged Bernie in the side and tilted her head towards the kitchen. “Why don’t we make ourselves useful and get some refreshments from the kitchen? There should be mince pies and mulled wine to go along with the cakes you brought.”

Bernie followed Serena as she led the way, the girls already busying themselves sorting through the piles of decorations on the living room floor.

“She’s a lovely girl. Takes after her mother,” Serena commented as they entered the kitchen.

Bernie froze for a second before narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “A compliment first thing in the morning. What are you after, Campbell?”

“Nothing at all. I’m hurt that you think I had an ulterior motive.” Serena tried her best to guilt Bernie by looking affronted. It had the desired effect right away and she let her mask drop.

“Besides, you’ve brought help and released me from the task of decorating the tree under Elinor’s supervision.”

Bernie found the kettle on the countertop and brought it to the sink to fill it up. “It can’t be that bad.”

Serena thought for a moment. “It was going reasonably well until she insisted on tying those tiny ribbons on the branches. It’s like trying to catch an oiled pig blindfolded.” Her random analogy made Bernie honk out loud in laughter. Loud enough that it carried into the living room, making both the girls pause in the middle of untangling a string of tinsel.

“My mum tells me that this is your first time back in Holby for Christmas in years,” Elinor said, picking at the knots on her end.

Charlotte nodded. “There wasn’t really much to celebrate after mum and dad divorced and things were pretty grim for a while.”

“I know what you mean,” Elinor agreed. “My dad’s still bitter about the divorce and they’ve been apart for a few years now. It’s not as bad now that he’s remarried and is otherwise occupied. I much prefer spending Christmas here with mum and Jason.”

Charlotte looked around the living room and its warm homely glow. “It’s a lovely house. And from what mum tells me, Serena is really nice. They get on really well together at work.”

“And out of work, from what I hear,” Elinor added. “Mum doesn’t realise it but she talks about Bernie all the time. And most of the time, she has that look on her face.”

All attempts at decorating were now forgotten. Charlotte sat crossed legged and regarded Elinor curiously. “What look is that?”

Elinor sat back on her heels, lips twisted as she tried to find the phrase she was looking for. “If I had to use a cliche, the words ‘heart eyes’ comes to mind…”

Charlotte’s reaction, a vigorous nod of agreement almost caught her by surprise. “That’s exactly what I was thinking when mum kept raving about Serena this and Serena that.” She paused and her eyes lit up as an idea blossomed in her head. “Do you think they realise that they like each other?”

“You mean like like,” Elinor said, stressing the first word. “Possibly not, knowing what my mum is like.”

“Mine isn’t much better,” Charlotte replied, glumly. “It’ll take some Christmas miracle for them both to see what’s obvious. Since they’re generally oblivious.” She grimaced at her own bad wordplay. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” Elinor said. “Your idea of a Christmas miracle has given me an idea.” She leaned closer to Charlotte, a glint of excitement in her eyes. “What do you think of this as a plan for some festive intervention?”

The look on Charlotte’s face quickly changed from curiosity to excited approval as Elinor started explaining the details for her scheme. The girls were so enraptured in their conversation that they failed to notice the figure that slowed down and stopped as it passed the doorway. Serena stood quietly and listened in with interest, the bottle of Shiraz in her hand dangling forgotten.

***

Hours before Christmas

“Remind me again why I thought this was a good idea?”

Bernie turned her head towards the driver’s seat, stretching the kink out of her neck as she did. “Because you’re as mad as I am?”

The tongue in cheek answer earned her the expected response. Fortunately for her, the traffic started moving just that instant and Serena’s glare was brief as she turned her attention back to the business of getting the car going again.

Bernie pondered thoughtfully as she stared into the steady flurry of white pattering against the windscreen. At least they were moving again. Serena turned off the main road, leaving the traffic behind them. The sat nav chirped up at this point, reminding them that they were nearly at their destination.

“It should be just along your side of the road,” Serena said, peering into the weather, grateful for the visible lane of tarmac still visible on the road which had evidently been gritted in anticipation.

Bernie nodded and kept her eyes peeled. It wasn’t long before they found the low building sitting on the far end of a pathway leading off the road. Serena pulled the car into an empty spot next to a tractor and they both sighed in relief when it was clear the sign on the door read ‘open’. They made their way as quickly as they could and was greeted by a young man who was clearly expecting them, judging from the large packed bags sitting by the till.

“Thank you again for waiting. You’re a star,” Serena said, flashing the shopkeeper her trademark smile as she picked up both bags off the counter, passing one to Bernie.

The man smiled and shook his head sheepishly. “It was no trouble at all. I couldn’t let you come all the way here and leave empty-handed after all. Your daughter would have been so disappointed.”

Bernie glanced into the large shopping bag she was handed. From the weight of it, the girls had ordered enough cheese to feed them for a week. Why it had to be from this out of way cheesery and this late on Christmas Eve, she didn’t know. She posed the question to Serena and received a vague shrug that Bernie took to mean it was equally puzzling to her. Must be really good cheese.

“Elinor and Charlotte will be delighted that our trip has not been in vain,” Serena replied, tucking her purse back into her bag. “Have a lovely Christmas!”

They were soon trudging through wet snow across the car park, walking as quickly as they safely could without slipping. It was freezing and dark and Bernie couldn’t have been happier to slide into the heated passenger seat when they finally got to the car.

“That was the only thing on the list, right?” Bernie asked as Serena started reversing out of the parking space.

“Yes, and thank goodness too. It was a long list judging from the amount of food we’ve just collected. Elinor hasn’t changed a bit, not when mummy’s paying,” Serena remarked wryly.

Bernie nodded in empathy. “Charlotte and Cam haven’t really had the chance to do that with me but I must admit that their pocket money was far more generous than it should have been back in the day. My way of compensating for not being there in person.”

Her remark was met with silence, which Bernie automatically took to be disapproval of her parenting technique. It shouldn’t matter and it didn’t anymore - that was ancient history - but even the mere possibility that Serena thought poorly of her made her heart sink. “Not exactly mother of the year, huh?” She added self-deprecatingly, stealing a glance at Serena and realising straightaway that she was having a conversation with herself. Serena’s brows were furrowed deep in concentration as she regarded the road ahead of them. Bernie sat up straighter and peered over the top of the bonnet. The tarmac, which was just about visible when they arrived, was now a featureless blanket of white.

“It must have snowed heavily while we were in the shop,” Serena said. “I’m not sure how deep this is or if we’ll get anywhere in it. I can’t decide whether I should turn onto the road.”

“There’s one way to find out,” Bernie replied, unbuckling her seatbelt and exiting the car in one swift motion. Serena watched as her friend made her way towards the middle of the road and started kicking away some of the snow from one spot on the ground. Bernie leaned forward and examined her handiwork before making her way back to the car.

“What’s the verdict, Ms Wolfe?”

Bernie stuck her hands in front of the heating vent and rubbed them together vigorously. “It’s only a thin layer lying so I think we should be okay if you go slow,”

Serena nodded and set the car into motion as slowly as she could. Bernie was right but the grip was still precarious and it took them nearly forty five minutes of slow and careful maneuvering to finally see lights of the motorway in front of them. Serena relaxed her grip on the steering wheel and leaned back into her seat in visible relief. “That was not a drive I’m eager to repeat anytime soon,” she muttered. “We could have gotten stuck anywhere along that road for god knows how long.”

“We weren’t, thanks to your driving. And even if we were, it wouldn’t have been so bad.”

The car now making steady speed on a well gritted motorway, Serena turned and gave Bernie a look. “I think you’ve been out in the cold too long.”

“We’ve got a warm car. Cheese…” Bernie said, rummaging in the bag at her feet, “... in fact lots of cheese. And crackers as well.”

“I think I saw a bottle of wine somewhere,” Serena added, returning her attention to the road. “So we wouldn’t have starved.”

“Good food, good company. I could think of worse ways to spend an evening,” Bernie said, bringing home her point.

Serena’s expression softened at Bernie’s words. “I supposed I’ve grown on you after all. It’s reassuring to know that the feeling is mutual.”

Bernie stiffened, her brain frozen on that last sentence. Surely her increasingly non-platonic soft spot for her colleague and friend hadn’t been discovered. Not after she worked so hard to keep it professional. Confined to the theatre, so to speak.

“It’s always been mutual,” Bernie replied, careful not to let her hopes get the better of her.

Serena’s warm smile was her reward. “Good. Friends and equal partners in every way.”

When Serena reached over and squeezed her hand, Bernie had to try very hard to keep the calm expression on her face and smile back without grinning like a fool.

“Now, I think there should be a mobile signal now so why don’t you call the girls and tell them we’re alive and on the way home.”

***

Five minutes before Christmas

“Do you think everything is alright?” Bernie asked for the umpteenth time.

The light in the living room was still on although the drawn curtains meant they couldn’t see if anyone was in. Bernie had called several times as they approached Holby but neither Elinor or Charlotte were answering their phones. A call to Serena’s home number rang out and on to the automated answering machine.

“I’m sure they’re both fine,” Serena said, fumbling for her keys before finding and inserting the correct one into the lock. “Probably having too much fun to notice the phone ringing.”

Bernie thought of how the girls seemed attached to their mobiles, checking them almost constantly. Serena’s suggestion seemed unlikely. Still they were about to find out soon so she chose not to disagree.

They entered the front hall and shrugged out of their coats before locking the door behind them. There was the sound of the television playing in the background coming from the living room, drawing them both to it. Serena entered first, Bernie following close behind and bumping into the back of her friend when she stopped abruptly. She scanned the living room and realised what had made Serena stop and stare.

Charlotte was stretched out on the sofa, clutching onto a cushion as a pillow while Elinor snored gently, curled up on the armchair.

“That’s why they weren’t answering the phone,” Serena noted with a smile, tilting her head towards the two, no three empty bottles of wine on the coffee table.

Bernie nodded, all worry and anxiety replaced with a sense of relief and sudden fatigue. She yawned and stretched before she had a chance to close her mouth. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “it’s been a long day.”

Serena nodded in agreement and ran a soothing hand up and down Bernie’s back. The gentle motion did quite the opposite of relaxing her tired muscles and sent a thrum of electricity up her spine before pooling into a pleasant ball of heat low in her belly. As hard as she tried, she couldn't help a soft moan escaping her lips at the sensation.

“Glad to see I haven’t lost my touch,” Serena murmured, moving a little closer.

“Definitely not,” Bernie sighed contentedly, eyes closed, leaning in further, bringing their faces only inches apart.

“Good, considering I’ve just realised where we are standing.”

Warm breath tickled Bernie’s cheek and her eyes snapped open, gasping involuntarily when she realised how close Serena was standing. “Oh?” she croaked out, the single syllable was all she could manage under the circumstances.

Serena pointed upwards and their eyes looked up in unison at the sprig of greenery hanging on the doorframe.

“I wonder how that got there?” Serena said, the question clearly facetious. “You know what they say the tradition is, don’t you?”

Bernie nodded wordlessly at first. She was now very aware of how close Serena’s lips were to hers and the perfect point to which her friend - and soon, more than friend, she hoped - had led the conversation. She decided she could not pass up the opportunity so kindly gifted. “Shame to let it go to waste,” she murmured before taking the final leap of faith.

The first touch was so light that neither women believed it even happened. The second was less subtle, Bernie leaning forward just as Serena tilted her head up. Their lips met again, molding perfectly against each other this time. An arm snaked around Bernie’s waist to pull their bodies closer and she responded by deepening the kiss, brushing her tongue against the seam of Serena’s lips.

Just at that moment, the clock on the mantle started signaling the start of a new hour. The low chimes broke them out of their pleasurable haze and the women pulled apart, but only far away enough that their forehead still touched, neither quite willing to lose the sensation of the other’s touch. They stood in embrace listening to the chimes ringing, Serena finally breaking the silence after the last one echoed out. “Merry Christmas.”

Bernie pulled away just far enough that she could look Serena in the eye, both relieved and delighted to see them smiling back at her. “Merry Christmas, Serena.” She stole a glance at the mistletoe above them before continuing. “Was this there all the time?”

Serena shook her head. “I suspect the girls have been busier than we thought while we were out. To our good fortune,” she added, letting the hand on Bernie’s back slide lower, edging below her waist.

“I, uhm.. I better wake Charlotte up and take her home,” Bernie said as evenly as her pounding heart allowed her to. As much as she liked where Serena’s hand was heading, it wasn’t an experience she intended to discover while their daughters were in the same room.

The hand pulled away leaving a warm print tingling on the small of Bernie’s back. Serena stared thoughtfully at the slumbering figures before speaking. “No, let her sleep. The sofa folds out into a bed if she wakes up later but she looks comfortable enough. Elinor will drag herself upstairs at some point if I know her. And I suspect Jason is, as usual, the sensible one and is already fast asleep in bed.”

Bernie couldn’t argue with logic of this magnificence. “I guess I’ll come round first thing in the morning to collect her.”

Serena shook her head, a curious look on her face. “I’ve got a better idea - save you the trouble of coming back in the morning. Why don’t you spend the night here as well?”

Her brain was still lucid enough to do basic arithmetic and Serena’s offer didn’t add up. “I didn’t think you’d have any room to spare. Unless there’s a camp bed somewhere. Although I don’t know how much my back will thank me…”

A hand landed on her arm stopping her mid-ramble. “Actually I have a perfectly good king-sized bed that would be very good for your back.”

Bernie blinked and almost pinched herself to make sure that her tired mind wasn’t playing tricks on her. “You mean, your bed.” The words came out in a strange mixture of her usual voice and a strangled squeak.

“Yes, Bernie. My bed. Good for sore backs and sleep. Among other things,” Serena said smoothly.

The words were equally innocent and loaded with meaning at the same time. There was a distinct glint in Serena’s eyes that more than hinted it was the latter not the former. Bernie swallowed hard and allowed herself to be brave. “I suppose there’s plenty of room for two. It’s probably so big that we could both lie in it and not even touch,” she murmured as smoothly as her pounding heart allowed her to.

A deep throated chuckle signalled Serena’s approval of her reaction and she leaned in to whisper her response. “Or we could cosy up in the middle of the bed and touch a lot.” She brushed her lips against Bernie’s cheek before pulling back, smiling in satisfaction at the soft gasp of pleasure it elicited.

“Coming?” she asked, linking her hand with Bernie’s. Her question broke Bernie out of the pleasant haze she was in and she nodded, letting Serena lead the way towards the stairs.

The living room fell quiet again as they made their way upstairs. Charlotte shifted onto her side slowly, cracking her eyes open and let them adjust to the muted glow of the fireplace. “You’re not really asleep, are you?”

“And miss all of that? Not a chance,” Elinor answered, pulling herself upright in the armchair. “I can’t believe that actually worked!”

Charlotte, who was clearly wide awake as well, grinned. “Mission accomplished! We make a good team. Which will be useful if things,” she waved a hand vaguely in the direction of upstairs, “go as planned.”

The smile on Elinor’s face froze as a thought crossed her mind. “In that case, team-mate, why don’t you give me a hand turning the sofa into a bed and we can share. My room is right next to mum’s and I think it’ll be safer if I sleep down here.”