“Are you bringing a date to my graduation do, mum?” Elinor’s text read, “Because you know dad will be insufferably smug if you don’t.”
Serena was curled up on her sofa, glass of wine in hand and beautiful new dress hanging neatly in her wardrobe. She’d had several dates with Bernie now, more than enough time to know that the chemistry they’d discovered in Bernie’s shop wasn’t going to go anywhere. They’d kissed – more than once – and Serena’s skin tingled at the memory of Bernie’s lips on hers.
“Yes,” she eventually texted back.
“Oh thank god, took you long enough. One of the blokes from the hospital?”
Serena nibbled her lip thoughtfully. Bernie most definitely wasn’t “one of the blokes”, and she wasn’t quite sure how to break it to Elinor.
“Someone new,” she settled on eventually. Then she took a deep breath and continued, “It’s not a man. She’s called Bernie.”
Her phone vibrated almost instantly. “ ??!!! ”
“I met her a couple of weeks ago, we hit it off and we’ve been out a few times. She’s great, you’ll like her.”
“Okay mum, but can we focus more on the fact that you have a girlfriend? Are you having a mid-life crisis? Like dad with Liberty?”
Serena snorted to herself. Elinor had few illusions about her father. “Not a mid-life crisis.” She didn’t think it was, anyway. “I’ll send you a photo.”
She scrolled through her phone to find one of her favourites from their last night in the pub. Bernie had been wearing her hair up and with the light catching her eyes just so, she’d been positively glowing. She sent it to Elinor and awaited judgement with some trepidation.
“Holy shit mum, she’s gorgeous.” A moment later, Elinor continued, “Dad is going to be pissed!”
“I’m so pleased I get to see you wearing this again,” Bernie murmured as she drew the zip on Serena’s dress gently up.
Serena sighed at the soft touch of Bernie’s fingers against her skin, and when they rested lightly on her shoulders she leant back into Bernie with a smile.
“You look beautiful,” Bernie said, studying Serena’s reflection in the mirror.
“Because you are a very clever dressmaker,” Serena said, turning in her arms. She slipped her arms around Bernie’s neck and drew her in for a slow, lingering kiss.
“Shall we agree it’s a bit of both?” Bernie suggested when they parted. “You are beautiful, and the dress shows it perfectly.”
“You’re not bad yourself,” Serena looked at her appreciatively. Bernie was wearing a neat grey suit, with the sleeves of her jacket rolled up to the elbows to display slim, toned forearms. The tie, which she wore loosely, precisely matched the colour of Serena’s dress. Serena toyed with the buttons of her shirt. “A pity we don’t have longer till Ellie gets here.”
“She is – okay with this, isn’t she?” Bernie said after a moment. “Me, I mean. I don’t want to spoil her big day.”
“She’s happy I’ve found someone,” Serena said. “And she said, and this is a precise quote, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing dad’s face’.”
Bernie smothered a laugh. “Oh dear. What have I got myself into?”
“It’s Edward’s fault for marrying a woman not even ten years older than Ellie who insists on trying to mother her.” Serena laughed. She could laugh, now. At the time it had hurt like hell. The doorbell rang and they both jumped. “That must be her now. Come on.”
Bernie headed into the living room and Serena opened the door, more nervously than she was letting on to Bernie. “Hello darling. You look so grown up.” Elinor, in a closely fitting short black dress, elegant jewellery and low heels, was definitely no longer her baby girl. “I’ve got a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
“Champagne?” Elinor asked, following her to the living room, “How unusual.”
Bernie was hovering awkwardly.
“Elinor, this is Bernie. Bernie, this is Elinor.”
The long, long look that Elinor gave Bernie, surveying her from head to toe, left Bernie bright red and Serena not much better.
“Well done, mum,” Elinor said eventually. “Nice to meet you.” She offered Bernie her hand and Bernie shook it firmly. Elinor sat down in the armchair and Bernie perched on the far end of the sofa.
“I hear you studied Journalism,” Bernie said, as Serena poured their drinks. “It must have been very interesting.”
Serena gave them each a glass and then sat listening, fascinated, as Elinor told Bernie all the little details about her degree and the work that she’d been doing that she’d never shared with Serena. Bernie was an excellent listener, asking interested questions and nodding intently, and Serena found herself falling for her even more. And it was a shock to see that her daughter wasn’t only grown up in looks.
“So how did you two meet?” Elinor asked eventually. “Mum didn’t tell me much.”
“I’m a dressmaker,” Bernie said, slightly shy now that she was talking about herself. “Your mum came in one day, looking for a dress and we… had a connection.”
“Did you make mum a dress?”
“The one she’s wearing now,” Bernie said with a smile, “some of my best work.”
Serena watched in gratification as Elinor’s jaw dropped. “It’s beautiful. You’re very talented.”
“Thank you,” Bernie murmured, flushing, “but it’s easy to make your mum look good.”
Serena’s heart swelled as Bernie smiled at her, reached out to squeeze her hand. For a moment as they sat hand in hand, gazing at each other, she forgot the presence of her daughter.
Then Elinor snorted. “Dad is going to be so mad.”
Elinor had to collect her robes and mortar board, and they waited for her in the foyer of the big building where the graduation drinks were being held. Edward was meeting them there too, and a small part of Serena was worried.
“Hey,” Bernie squeezed her hand, “Are you okay?”
Serena smiled faintly. “Just overthinking.”
“Oh my god, Serena?” A loud, overly enthusiastic voice made Serena wince.
“Ah,” she said, “Here we go.”
“Serena, darling.” Serena was overwhelmed as arms were thrown around her and both her cheeks kissed airily. “Don’t you look divine!”
“Bernie,” Serena said, when she had regained her breath, “This is Liberty.”
Bernie’s eyes widened but she extended a hand politely, keeping Liberty firmly at a safe distance. “Nice to meet you.”
“Serena, darling, you didn’t say you had a girlfriend! How modern of you!”
“And where is Edward?” Serena questioned.
“He’s just parking the car. We’re so excited to see darling Elinor on her big day.”
“Are you excited, darling?” Bernie whispered mischievously in Serena’s ear. Serena elbowed her surreptitiously.
“Here he is,” Liberty announced.
Bernie surveyed the plain, thin man coming towards them and wondered that Serena had ever been involved with, let alone married to, somebody so dull. Then she looked at Liberty and wondered the same thing.
“Serena,” Edward said shortly. His eyes widened as he looked Serena over incredulously and lingeringly.
Bernie could see the tension that Serena was holding, stepped closer to her and put a gently supportive hand to her waist.
“I was just telling Serena how lovely she looks, don’t you think Edward?” Liberty said.
“Very nice,” Edward said, through gritted teeth. “And this is?” He looked at Bernie as though he’d only just noticed her and frowned at the hand she had on Serena’s waist.
“Bernie Wolfe.” Bernie didn’t want to shake his hand particularly but it was polite and so she offered her free hand and grimaced her way through the wet fish handshake that he returned.
Edward’s expression was not pleasant as he looked at them standing together. Liberty glanced at him, then at Bernie and Serena, and back again, and frowned. “Edward darling, shall we go and find some drinks?” She tugged his elbow and he followed her slowly.
As they left, Serena sighed a deep sigh of relief. “Thank god that’s over.”
“Liberty is – she’s –” Bernie faltered, unable to put into words quite what she thought of Liberty.
“I know.” Serena leant into Bernie. “She means well. I have no idea what she sees in Edward.”
“I suppose it’s not money?” Bernie suggested.
“No. And it’s definitely not his prowess in bed. You know that saying, it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it? Well Edward didn’t have the size or know what to do with it.”
Bernie spluttered hopelessly. “Serena!”
“Oh what, nobody’s close enough to hear.” Serena grinned cheekily. “And I have to say things have been looking up in that department recently.”
Bernie turned to face Serena and slipped her arms around her waist, holding her closely and carefully. “I’m certainly glad to hear that.” She ran her thumb along Serena’s waistline, delighting in the feel of her. “Do you have plans this evening? Because I thought it was about time that I took full advantage of helping you out of this. Graduate to the next level of our relationship, you might say,” she added with a wink. They were standing close enough that she felt the tremble that ran through Serena.
“No plans,” Serena murmured. “I’m all yours.”
The look in her eyes made Bernie tingle. “Glad to hear it.”
“For god’s sake.”
Edward’s voice made Serena jump, and Bernie’s hands were a comforting pressure on her waist.
“What is it, Edward?” she said, as unnervingly calmly as she could manage.
“This is Ellie’s big day, and you turn up looking like that,” he spat, “and with her. Can’t stand the attention being on somebody else, can you?”
Liberty, eyes wide and startled, tugged on Bernie’s arm. “Bernie, shall we go and get a drink?”
Serena glanced at the drink in Liberty’s hand and answered the questioning look in Bernie’s eyes. “It’s okay Bernie, I can handle him.”
Bernie nodded. “Shout if you need me.”
“Really, Edward,” Serena said when they were alone. “How very insecure of you.”
“You’re far too old to wear a neckline that low,” Edward grunted.
“Luckily, your opinion means nothing to me.”
“And coming with a woman. Since when were you gay? I know a mid-life crisis when I see one.”
“I’m looking forward to that one,” Serena murmured under her breath, and swallowed a laugh at her own joke. “Again, your opinion means nothing to me. I met someone, I like her, and it has less than nothing to do with you.”
“It does,” Edward spluttered. “You using Ellie’s big day to make some sort of statement about yourself. What’s she going to think? That her mum can’t have one day out of the spotlight?”
“She thinks,” a new voice interrupted, “that Bernie seems very nice and mum is lucky to have found her. Hello mum,” Elinor said, “Hello dad. Isn’t this a lovely family reunion.”
Despite Edward’s irritating existence, Serena’s heart swelled with pride as she looked at her daughter in mortar board and gown, every inch the grown up young lady ready to make her way in the world.
“Dad, I know you’re jealous that mum looks hot and she’s got a girlfriend, but can we try to have a nice day?” Elinor slipped one arm through Serena’s and one through Edward’s. “Now, come and talk to my lecturers. They’ll have lots of nice things to say about me.”
Elinor towed them across the room. Serena cast a searching look for Bernie, found her at the bar talking to Liberty – or being talked at by Liberty. Bernie smiled and nodded, so Serena presumed she was fairly safe for the moment.
Talking to Ellie’s lecturers, Serena forget all about Edward. She listened with pleasure as Ellie chatted away and they discussed concepts that Serena had never heard of, let alone thought about. She glowed as she heard about the bright future that Ellie undoubtedly had ahead of her and as they left one conversation, she squeezed Elinor’s arm tightly. “I’m so proud of you, Ellie. You know that, don’t you?”
“So am I,” Edward interrupted. Their eyes met, and for the first time in what felt like decades, they were on the same page, sharing heartfelt pride in their daughter.
“Here you are,” Bernie said as they found her and Liberty. “Here’s your shiraz.” She handed the glass over with a purposeful brush of Serena’s fingers that made her blush. She lowered her voice, “Not a moment too soon, I can feel my brains dribbling out of my ears.”
Serena grinned and gave into the temptation to reach up, tuck one loose curl behind Bernie’s ears. “They look okay to me,” she murmured. She brushed her lips briefly against Bernie’s cheek and savoured her sharp inhalation of breath.
“A toast,” Liberty broke in. “To darling Elinor, and the rewards of her hard work.”
Serena knew her daughter well enough to know that she was mentally rolling her eyes and as their eyes met they both grinned. “To Elinor,” she said, raising her glass.
“Thanks everybody.” Elinor drained her glass. “I’m going to find some of my friends. Catch you in a bit, alright?” And then she was gone and the four were left eyeing each other.
“Edward darling,” Liberty said brightly. “Did you know that darling Bernie is a dress maker? She owns Berenice’s – you know, the darling shop in the arcade with the huge waiting list?”
“Very nice,” Edward muttered, looking like he would rather be anywhere else.
“She made Serena’s dress. Isn’t she clever?” Liberty linked her arm through Bernie’s. Serena choked down a laugh at the look on her face. “And now you’re practically family, I’m sure you’ll find room for me in your books, won’t you? Do say you will.”
“Practically… family?” Edward went purple. He glanced around frantically. “Oh look, there’s Cyril. We must say hello to him.” He grabbed Liberty’s hand and pulled her away from Bernie and Serena.
They were left, thankfully, alone. “Practically family, are you?” Serena purred, tracing one long finger down Bernie’s shirt.
“Very much Liberty’s interpretation,” Bernie said, her voice husky.
“I didn’t realise you were such a big name in the dressmaking world,” Serena admitted, twirling a button between her fingers. “Exactly how lucky am I to be wearing one of your dresses?”
“I had an unexpected free slot the day you came in,” Bernie’s eyes swept over her, “and after we’d spoken I knew I had to make you a dress, even if meant working stupidly long days.”
“Sorry,” Serena murmured.
“I’m not. You’re more than worth it, even if I hadn’t ended up here with you.”
“Bernie...” Serena tugged on the lapels of her jacket, scanned her eyes longingly. “Bernie, I think I’m falling for you.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it.” Bernie’s fingers on her shoulders, caressing her bare skin, made Serena faint with want. “The feeling is mutual.” She lowered her voice. “Can I kiss you?”
Serena didn’t reply, just leaned forward, pulled Bernie closer and pressed her lips slowly and gently to Bernie’s. It was just a brief kiss but it left Serena beaming and Bernie flushed. “More later,” Serena promised, palm over Bernie’s chest to feel the thrumming of her heart.
“Mum?” Serena jumped at Elinor’s unexpected appearance. “We’ve got to go to the ceremony now. I’ll see you after, okay?”
“Enjoy it,” Bernie said, and Elinor grinned at her.
The ceremony wasn’t too long, for which Bernie was grateful as the glares she was getting from Edward were icy in the extreme. She and Liberty had coordinated silently and swiftly to ensure that Serena and Edward were either ends of their row of four seats. Liberty, despite the frosty attitude of her husband, was spending every available moment detailing to Bernie the dress that she wanted Bernie to make for her. It sounded hideous. Bernie focussed on the feel of Serena’s hand in hers, made thoughtful nods every so often, and attempted to ignore both Liberty and Edward as much as possible.
They all clapped loudly as Elinor’s name was announced and Serena squeezed Bernie’s hand so tightly she thought she might lose circulation.
“Sorry,” she whispered after Elinor left the stage.
“I understand,” Bernie whispered back, and smiled as Serena leant her head on her shoulder.
They all waited for Elinor at the end of the ceremony and she came bounding up to them, all smiles. “We’re going out for drinks,” she said to her parents. “I’ll see you soon, okay?” And she was gone before they could manage a reply.
“Well, that’s that, I suppose,” Serena said as Elinor vanished. She looked at Edward. “We’ll see you another time, I’m regrettably certain.”
“Humph,” he snarled, “Come on Liberty.”
“Bye Serena, bye Bernie darling. I’ll pop along to the shop soon.”
Bernie managed a very polite nod and when they’d gone she turned to Serena with a smile. “Now, I think we talked about about a private graduation party?” Her heart thrilled as Serena gave her a long, thirsty look.
“Let’s go home, Bernie.”
“What a day,” Serena murmured as the front door closed behind them.
“It was lovely. You must be a very proud mum.”
“Oh, I am. I’m sorry about Edward.” Serena undid her shoes and left them by the door and Bernie followed suit.
“He wasn’t that awful.” Serena raised an eyebrow and Bernie laughed. “Okay, he was quite awful. Liberty is funny, isn’t she. She seems far too nice to be married to him.”
“I don’t understand it at all. But I don’t think we should spend any more time thinking about them today.” Serena caught Bernie’s hand and tangled their fingers together. “Glass of wine?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Bernie said, and her soft smile made Serena’s heart turn over.
They sat side by side on the sofa, Serena savouring the touch of Bernie’s leg against hers. Bernie’s fingers fell to her thigh, drawing small circles gently over her dress, just above her knee. Serena hummed and shifted so that she could lean her arm behind Bernie, draw her fingers carefully through her hair. She loved the feel of it, silken strands in her fingers, and the little murmurs of pleasure that Bernie made. She wanted to pull it, wondered what sort of noises Bernie would make if she did so, imagined leaning over her in bed…
Bernie’s fingers trailed higher up her thigh.
“How are you doing with that wine?” Serena asked, with forced casualness.
Bernie met her eyes. “I think I’ve had enough for the moment,” she said, and leant forward to place her glass on the table, then removed Serena’s from her grasp and put it down too.
“I want to kiss you,” Bernie said, shifting on the sofa that she was facing Serena.
The kiss started as chastely as their kiss earlier had been, but Bernie didn’t move away and Serena drank in the taste of shiraz on her lips, kissed her more deeply, slipped her tongue into Bernie’s mouth to chase the taste further. Bernie groaned and the sound sent sparks through Serena. She tangled one hand in Bernie’s hair, put the other around her shoulder to pull her closer until there wasn’t a millimetre of space between them and the only sounds in the room were of murmured sighs.
Eventually Bernie drew away, stared at Serena with desperate eyes. “May I take you to bed?” She trailed her fingers along the neckline of Serena’s dress, tracing along the low shoulders, lingering over the swell of Serena’s breasts.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Serena stood, held out her hands to Bernie and pulled her carefully off the sofa. Hand in hand, they made their way up the stairs and into Serena’s room.
“Oh god, you’re beautiful,” Bernie said as she closed the door behind them. “Come here.” She pressed kisses over Serena’s lips as her fingers slipped around her body, finally reaching the zip at the back of the dress. “I’ve dreamed about taking this off you since the first time I saw you in it.”
Under the gentle exploration of Bernie’s fingers, Serena trembled. “I’ve thought about it a lot too.”
Bernie thought she was in heaven as she drew the dress carefully down Serena’s body and helped her step out of it. She let go of her reluctantly to drape the dress neatly over a chair then returned to run wondering fingers over Serena’s pale skin.
“You have me at a disadvantage.” Serena’s voice was unsteady and Bernie tingled as Serena slipped a hand to her shirt buttons.
“Please, level the playing field,” she murmured. She stood still as Serena drew her jacket down her arms and threw it over her own dress, then loosened her tie, which followed the jacket in one swift movement.
“That’s a start,” Serena said, and kissed her.
Bernie couldn’t keep her hands still as Serena undid her buttons one by one, let herself trace the edge of Serena’s bra, down to her soft waist, trying to concentrate on the feel of Serena under her fingers even while every soft touch of Serena’s fingers left traces of fire on her skin. It seemed an age before her shirt joined her jacket and then Serena’s hands were in her hair and she couldn’t hold herself back, drew Serena closer and kissed her neck, into her beautifully inviting pulse point, found herself undoing her bra without even thinking about it.
“Is this okay?” she mumbled as she kissed along her shoulder and dropped the bra to the floor.
“It’s perfect, Bernie.”
Serena’s fingers were pulling her hair and she’d never wanted anybody more in her life.
Serena gasped as Bernie cupped her breasts. “Take me to bed please.”
“With all my pleasure.”
“You’re the most beautiful woman,” Bernie said, a long while later. She was leaning on her elbow, studying Serena, trailing her fingers up and down her flushed body. “When you came in my shop that day and said you felt like a frump, I couldn’t believe it. I’d never have let you go without a dress that made you feel amazing.”
“I’m so glad I found your shop.” The smile that Serena gave Bernie sent thrills running through her all over again. “I’m so glad I found you.”
“You’ve got me,” Bernie murmured. She leant over Serena and brushed a kiss to her lips, and another after that.
“Don’t stop,” Serena said, pressing herself closer to Bernie, their bodies fitting together perfectly.
“Oh, I won’t.”