The blonde haired woman slouched against the back wall of the gallery, her hands shoved into the pockets of her trousers, radiating such an air of bored indifference that it seemed to generate a personal forcefield around her so powerful that people unconsciously avoided going near her. None of the gallery's other patrons could have imagined that this woman, dressed in formal black tailor-made trousers, a mid-blue dress shirt with tiny gold cufflinks shaped like an artist's palette, and a darker blue waistcoat with gold buttons shaped like an artist's easel, was the very artist whose work they were examining, admiring, and critiquing this evening.
Bernie Wolfe knew that if her friend, Alex, the gallery's owner, could see her now she'd be on the receiving end of a proper bollocking. Alex had gone to an immense amount of trouble to put together this twenty five year retrospective for her, the artist known only as Wolfe. But Alex was stuck in London, dealing with her mother, who had grown increasingly difficult thanks to her Alzheimer’s. It was Alex who’d told her she’d have to dress up for the opening of this exhibition, rather than wearing her usual clothing choices (skinny black jeans, a white vest, a red checked flannel shirt, ankle boots with a zip up the side, and thick socks into which she tucked the bottoms of her jeans). She still recalled the terse conversation with Alex from only a few days ago:
“Bern, if you insist on wearing your usual attire everyone will immediately know you’re the artist. But if you dress up a little, you’ll fit right in and no one will guess that you’re Wolfe.”
“Fine. Fine. But I’m not wearing an actual dress.”
Alex had snorted at that and responded with “As if”. Bernie’s only concession to femininity tonight were her Vans: cream coloured canvas baseball boots with flowers printed on. Well them and the fact that her reading glasses, which were hooked into the top of her waistcoat, had a coral pink frame.
Bernie had been standing against the wall for an hour when she spotted her: an attractive brunette of her own age, wearing a sleeveless black cocktail dress with a scalloped, scoop neck, eye-catching dark red lipstick, and black kitten heels. The woman was on the arm of a dull stick of a man in a grey suit and despite her wide smile, the woman looked bored.
Bernie eased herself off the wall and prowled towards the pair, positioning herself less than a foot away as they looked at the introductory piece to the exhibition.
“Is it me or does that woman look familiar?” asked the man.
The woman, whom Bernie only knew as Serena, stared at the painting for a little while, then said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Bernie wasn’t the least bit fooled. The painting had been used by a quite famous rock band for the cover of their most successful album, and its use was what had brought Bernie to greater public attention nearly twenty five years ago. She was sure there could be no doubt in Serena’s mind that the semi nude woman in the painting was herself twenty five years ago. Not that Bernie had ever seen Serena nude or semi nude – the image was drawn from her imagination, as was almost every other image of Serena used in almost every other painting or drawing in this collection.
She discreetly followed the pair around the gallery as they looked at each and every item in the exhibition, which Bernie had entitled ‘Serenity’. The man’s name, she discovered, was Angus, and he was on the board of the local hospital, as was Serena herself. She learned this when Angus mentioned that he’d like to buy one of the paintings to decorate the hospital’s boardroom.
Eventually they reached the final paintings of the collection – a triptych featuring a painting of Serena as Bernie first saw her twenty five years ago when they were both eighteen, then depicting Serena at thirty, then again at fifty – the latter, of course, being an extrapolation since she and Serena were only in their early forties now.
Bernie slipped away from the pair as she heard Angus saying, “I’m sure that’s you, Serena.” She made her way unobtrusively to a particular corner, then set off the fire alarm.
People began milling about and Bernie noticed that Angus and Serena had become separated. She eased her way through the crowd, which was beginning to get itself organised, and slipped a hand under Serena’s elbow.
“Come with me, Serena,” she murmured, and the other woman startled badly but, to Bernie’s immense relief, didn’t object to being steered away from the crowd.
“Where are we going?” asked Serena when it became clear that she was being steered in the opposite direction to everyone else.
Bernie could hear Peggy, Alex’s deputy, directing people to assemble at the checkpoint down the street and felt every muscle in her entire body relax fractionally.
“Where are we going?” repeated Serena, sounding a little less sanguine now.
“Don’t worry, there’s no fire. We’re quite safe,” Bernie said, and led Serena into the lift which whisked them up three floors to the roof where her studio was located.
“Do I know you?”
“No, but I’m about to explain.” She unlocked the door to the workshop, then ushered Serena inside. “Can I offer you a drink? I’ve got tea, coffee, whisky, and wine.”
“Shiraz?” asked Serena.
“One second. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable, while I check?” She gestured at the sofa that was positioned against the far wall beneath one of the smaller banks of windows.
“Any red wine will do, but I prefer a Shiraz.”
Bernie directed a smile at her, then crossed the main room of her studio into the kitchen, poking through the bottles on the wine rack that Alex kept stocked more for her own sake than Bernie’s since she much preferred a single malt to the grape. She found a bottle of red wine that declared itself to be Shiraz, then grabbed two wine glasses and carried them over to the sofa where Serena had perched herself.
“I promise, I’m not an axe murderer,” Bernie said as she set the wine glasses down on the coffee table in front of the sofa, then proffered the bottle of wine to Serena. “Is this okay?”
The brunette’s eyebrows went up. “It’s more than okay.” She gave a quick nod, then settled against the back of the sofa, apparently relaxing now that she knew she was being offered a good wine.
Bernie twisted the cap off the bottle, then poured two glasses, before moving around the other end of the coffee table to sit next to Serena, although she was careful to leave a good six inches between them.
“I know who you are,” Serena said as she gathered up one of the wine glasses and sniffed appreciatively. “You’re the artist, Wolfe. I had no idea the Wolfe was a woman.”
Bernie chuckled. “Were you expecting some six foot tall hairy bloke?”
Serena chuckled too. “I suppose I was.”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“Oh, you definitely don’t disappoint.”
The words were uttered in a low purr and Bernie felt the effect of them go straight down her spine, like an electric shock. She grabbed the second glass of wine and did her best not to gulp it all down at once.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“So, are you going to tell me how it is you’ve been using me as a model for your art?” Serena asked. “I’m assuming you haven’t actually been stalking me?”
Bernie shook her head. “This is the first time I’ve seen you since the summer we did our A-levels. You spent ten days in the same coffeeshop where I used to go and sit to sketch people. You came in every afternoon around two o’clock and met up with one or more friends – I figured you were saying goodbye to people before going away to university.”
“I was,” Serena said, looking startled by Bernie’s words.
The blonde nodded. “I drew sketch after sketch after sketch of you during those ten days. I drew sketches of some of your friends, too, but you were the one I kept coming back to. And kept coming back to throughout the whole of my time at the Slade. You inadvertently became my Muse.” She chuckled weakly. “I had no idea who you were, aside from knowing your first name was Serena, because I heard some of your friends calling you that. I’ve been drawing and painting you ever since.”
Serena finished her glass of wine, then got to her feet. “Show me.”
Bernie set aside her half drunk glass of wine, then got up too. She held out her hand and to her delight Serena slid her own hand into it without demur. She led the way across the studio to where a number of wooden cabinets were set against the wall beneath another bank of windows.
She released Serena’s hand long enough to open and rifle through the very bottom drawer in the left hand cabinet. She pulled out a thick portfolio, then opened it on top of the cabinet which was roughly chest high.
“Here. This was the summer of ’73.”
Serena stepped in closer, their shoulders and arms brushing as she leaned in close to look through the portfolio. Bernie let her page through it at her own pace, watching from underneath her perpetually messy fringe as Serena took in the different sketches, some of them nude or semi-nude, and the fully realised watercolours as well.
“You’ve got an incredible eye,” she said softly, looking at a watercolour painting of herself lying sprawled on her back on a messy bed. There was a fold of sheet over her belly, but her full breasts were uncovered as was the apex of her thighs, where her skin and hair glistened with moisture. “It’s as if you took a post-coital photo of me, then painted it.”
“Do you – are you mad at me?” Bernie asked quietly.
“Mad? Good grief, no. I’m hugely flattered that you turned me into your Muse. And maybe a bit aroused, too.” She glanced sideways at Bernie, who couldn’t help flushing pink at the latter comment. “You make me feel sexy in a way that no one has for years.”
“Whyever not?” asked Bernie indignantly. “You’re a gorgeous woman. You’ve grown even more gorgeous over the last quarter of a century.”
They spend the next half an hour looking through more of Bernie’s paintings and drawings, Serena lingering longest over the more erotic ones.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course. Though I might refuse to answer.”
Serena snorted at this. “Fair enough. Are you a lesbian?”
“Yes. Does that bother you?”
“God, no. I’m bisexual.”
“Ah.” Bernie felt the tension she hadn’t been aware was still filling her deflate. “I had sex with a man once when I was nineteen.”
“Not a fan?”
It was Bernie’s turn to snort. “God, no. Too much hair and no softness or curves.” She glanced away. “I’d already had sex a few times with other women by then. There was this guy at the Slade who was quite a good friend during my first year. I naively thought friendship was all he wanted, but he got me tipsy, then talked me into having sex with him. I just lay there, letting him fuck me, until he was done – which didn’t take long, thankfully. The minute he fell asleep, which was almost as soon as he’d finished, I slipped out of bed, pulled on my clothes, then fled. We didn’t speak to each other again and he quit before Easter of our second year. Last I heard, he’d switched to medicine and is now an orthopaedic surgeon at St James’ here in Holby.”
“Oh god, you’re not talking about Marcus Dunn, are you?” asked Serena, sounding thoroughly appalled.
“Um, yes. How’d you know that?”
Well, I’m on the board of Holby City General and I’ve met him at the NHS Trust fundraisers a couple of times. He makes me think of a potato.”
Bernie couldn’t help laughing at this and after a moment of staring in disbelief – probably at Bernie’s laugh, which she’d heard described as a goose honk – Serena joined in her laughter.
“Are you married?” Bernie asked.
“Not anymore. I had a brief marriage to a chap called Edward Campbell. It didn’t last because he was a philanderer and an alcoholic. He’s an anaesthetist and I met him at a Trust fundraiser – he was working as a locum at Holby City at the time.” Serena shook her head. “It’s as well that I divorced him when I did because he was caught drinking at work a short time later – he nearly killed a patient because he was too pissed to do his job properly.”
“I’m sorry you had to put up with that,” Bernie said. “You deserve to be with someone who treats you like a queen, not someone who’s screwing around on you.”
Serena gave her a smile. “Thank you. And what about you? Are you in a relationship?”
Bernie shook her head. “I was in a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Alex, who owns the gallery downstairs, but we’re back to being friends now. She’s found a younger woman, Leah, who’s about 28, and they want to start a family together.”
“Dare I ask what a ‘friends-with-benefits’ arrangement is?” asked Serena in a curious tone.
Bernie couldn’t help blushing, which she knew was a ridiculous response, before she answered. “It’s basically a friendship that includes casual sex. I’m not very good at relationships as I tend to get caught up in my work to the exclusion of everything else.” She chuckled weakly. “I’ve got an inflatable airbed that I frequently use here when I don’t want to go back to my poky flat.”
“So you’re married to your work?”
“More or less. If I get an itch I cannot scratch for myself I go to one of the lesbian and gay bars in the city and find someone to spend the night with. Well–” She cut herself off with a grimace. “This is going to sound awful.”
Bernie sighed. “I’ll go home with someone – to their home, that is – and then while she’s sleeping, I slip out and usually come back to the studio. I never give them any personal information, so they have no idea who I am. And of course, I’ve never given interviews as an artist so none of these women know I’m the Wolfe.”
“Don’t you find that lonely?” Serena asked, and Bernie felt grateful for the lack of judgement in her tone.
“A bit, I suppose. To be honest, I don’t give it a lot of thought. The only truly important thing in my life over the last twenty five years has been my work.”
Serena opened her mouth but whatever she might have been about to say was cut off by the sound of Bernie’s mobile phone ringing. She pulled it from her pocket, then grimaced.
“That’s Peggy, Alex’s deputy. She’s probably going to be mad that I snuck away.” She gave Serena an apologetic smile, then answered the call, heading into the kitchen.
When she returned Serena had a number of Bernie’s paintings and drawings spread across the top of the cabinets and she realised the brunette had been raiding more of her portfolios. She couldn’t pretend to be surprised when she saw that Serena had dug out all the most erotic pictures. When she approached Serena captured Bernie’s hand in her own and squeezed. “Would you like to draw me?” she asked. “Nude?”
“Oh god,” she breathed. “Yes, I would. Please Serena.” Then her face fell. “But I can’t, not now.” She grimaced. “That was Peggy on the phone, she called to tell me that the fire brigade had found no sign of a fire so she lied to them and said she thought it had been set off by someone who’d come for the exhibition and got drunk, then set it off. She has ordered me to ‘get my arse in gear and get down here’, that is downstairs to the gallery, where I have to ‘make nice’ with anyone who’s not left already.”
“Want me to come with you?”
“Are you sure you want to? You might find yourself outed as my Muse in the same way that I’m about to be outed as the artist.”
“Well, I’d say we’re in this together.”
“Thank you.” On an impulse Bernie leaned in and pressed a brief, chaste kiss to Serena’s mouth, then found herself being kissed back a lot less chastely. “Oh,” she breathed, delighted. “We’ll have to continue this later.”
Serena nodded and they made their way to the lift, heading back down to the gallery.
“What about your date?” Bernie asked suddenly.
“Angus? He’s gone home already. I texted him once you took me up to the studio and told him that I’d bumped into an old acquaintance with whom I’d gone for a drink. He wasn’t really my date. We just agreed that we might as well come together. I wouldn’t date Angus for any kind of money – too dull by half.”
Bernie snorted. “A very dull stick.”
They made their way back into the exhibition and began circulating through the patrons still present. Bernie felt distinctly uncomfortable with making herself known as ‘the Wolfe’, but found that Serena’s presence made it less agonising than she’d anticipated.
A handful of people recognised Serena as the woman in Bernie’s works and while she did confirm that she was Bernie’s Muse she made a point of deflecting any further questions regarding the nature of their relationship.
Eventually nine o’clock rolled around and the last stragglers departed. Peggy waved off Bernie when she offered to help clear up the empty wine glasses and plates.
“No, go do your thing. I know you want to – you’ve got that air about you.”
“What air?” Bernie asked, baffled.
“Sort of abstracted and thoughtful, like you can’t wait to get a paintbrush, a pencil, or a stick of charcoal between your fingers.” Peggy squeezed her forearm and said, in an undertone, “I won’t tell Alex about that stunt you pulled with the fire alarm because I can’t blame you.” She looked over at where Serena was gazing at one of Bernie’s drawings: an almost life size depiction of Serena as an angel with a bloody sword in one hand and a man’s severed head, held by his hair, in the other hand. “She’s amazing.”
“Thanks, Peggy, you’re a pal.”
Peggy smiled, brushed her lips against Bernie’s cheek, then moved across the room to begin rounding up glasses, plates, and napkins.
Bernie moved over to stand behind Serena, daring to slide her arms around the other woman. “Ready to head upstairs?” she asked softly, then nuzzled her nose behind Serena’s ear, feeling a flood of heat and moisture between her legs when Serena moaned and shivered.
“Yes,” Serena said, then turned around and kissed Bernie full on the mouth, easily sliding her tongue inside when Bernie’s lips parted on a gasp of pleasure.
“Get a room, you two!” called Peggy, making them blush and pull apart as peals of laughter echoed across the room.
“She’s right,” Bernie says, sliding the back of her hand against Serena’s until she tangled their fingers together. “Let’s head back upstairs.”
Once upstairs they moved into the centre of the studio where Bernie had more than one easel set up, along with a tall stool to perch on.
“Where do you want me?” asked Serena.
“I was thinking on the bed,” Bernie said with a slight blush. “If that’s okay with you? And if you’re sure you’re not too tired.”
“Not right now, I’m not,” Serena said promptly. She perched on the stool with some difficulty as her legs didn’t seem to be long enough, and watched as Bernie hauled out the self-inflating airbed, then made it up with a sheet, several pillows, and a duvet, all in a striking red that now reminded her of Serena’s favourite wine.
“Madam, would you care to make yourself comfortable?” Bernie asked, with a low flourishing bow that made Serena laugh even as she walked over to join her.
“You’ll have to unzip me,” Serena said, gesturing at the invisible zip that ran down her side.
Bernie slid the zipper down with a feeling of mingled desire and reverence, then she peeled the dress from Serena’s body, before staring in hunger at the woman its removal revealed. The dress had clung to Serena’s curves in a suggestive manner but seeing her now in nothing but a few scraps of silk and lace, and a pair of stockings sent Bernie’s desire into overdrive. She wanted nothing more, at this minute, than to lay this woman down on her bed and make love to her until she was boneless and satiated.
“Later,” Serena purred, apparently reading Bernie’s mind, or perhaps just her expression. “I promise you that I cannot wait for you to get your long, talented fingers on my body, but I think you should do some sketches first.”
“Of course,” Bernie said, her teeth gritted a little at the mental image of getting her long talented fingers on, or indeed in, Serena’s body.
About ninety minutes later Bernie set aside her sticks of charcoal, then stretched her back, hearing it crack. She grabbed the rag she used for cleaning her fingers and wiped them off, then slipped off the stool.
“Would you like to see?” she asked diffidently.
“I would.” Serena slid off the bed, then sauntered over to Bernie, completely unselfconscious in her nudity, as far as Bernie could tell. She rounded the easel that Bernie had been using, then pressed herself against Bernie’s side while gazing at the charcoal drawing. Bernie had drawn Serena in a somewhat similar pose to the one she’d shown her earlier: she lay sprawled on her back, her head supported by three pillows, her legs spread wide and her curls glistening. She was still wearing her stockings and heels, although Bernie had exaggerated the height of the heels from kitten to stilettos. With her knees bent and spread open, Serena looked to Bernie like a feast wating to be devoured.
“Oh Bernie,” Serena breathed against her cheek. “I look – actually I’m not sure I have the words.
“You look like a goddess,” Bernie said, pressing her lips to the other woman’s. “You look like you’ve just been fucked or are about to be.”
“You should draw me masturbating,” Serena said. “Would you like that?”
“Yes.” Bernie kissed her again. “I’d also like to draw me fucking you, if that’s okay?”
“God, yes.” Serena moaned as Bernie drew her into her arms, then dropped her right hand and slid it between their bodies, teasing Serena’s labia with firm pressure, then light gliding slides.
“I’ve got a harness and a toy,” Bernie murmurs against her ear as she slides her fingers into Serena’s slick heat. “I’d like to fuck you like that some time, then draw it. Would you like that?”
Serena moaned deeply, her muscles tightening around the invading fingers. “Yes,” she breathed. “Yes, I would.”
“Good.” She guided the brunette backwards to the bed, then eased her down onto her back, her fingers working faster and deeper.
Serena’s moans became louder, her breath growing shorter and more rapid as Bernie worked her closer and closer to the edge.
When she came it was with a scream that cut off abruptly when Bernie lowered her mouth over Serena’s and began kissing her.
“You’re wearing far too many clothes,” Serena said once she’d regained her breath.
“Mmhmm.” Bernie’s right hand drifted down to cup her lover’s breast, while she used her left hand to unbutton her waistcoat. She let go of Serena just long enough to slide the waistcoat off, then she unfastened her cufflinks and tucked them into the money pocket on her trousers. She had soon stripped off her clothes as far as her bra and the boxer shorts she preferred instead of knickers.
“C’mere, you.” Serena’s two words of command were enough for Bernie to lower herself half on top of her, half between her legs. They kissed and kissed as Serena unfastened her bra, then slid her fingers inside her boxer shorts and began to touch her in earnest, eliciting a delightful moan of pleasure.
Bernie was a little embarrassed at how quickly she climaxed, her body putty in Serena’s hands, but her lover didn’t see to care, she just continued putting her fingers to good use until Bernie came a second time.
They dozed for a little while after that, until they each realised that they were feeling chilly, whereupon Bernie guided Serena into the bathroom that adjoined the kitchen and they took a quick shower together, then grabbed jogging trousers and t-shirts from the cupboard in the bathroom.
“I know you’re not as slim as I am, but I think these should fit you,” Bernie said, “because the waist is elasticated.”
She watched as Serena slid them on and felt some satisfaction when they did, in fact, fit reasonably well.
“Thank you,” Serena said, her gratitude obvious. “It may not be sexy, but it is necessary.”
Bernie shook her head as she pulled on her t-shirt, before she grabbed a clean sheet from the cupboard as well.
They made swift work of changing the sheet, then climbed into bed together and after a few moments of shifting around, got themselves settled comfortably, Bernie spooning Serena, and the duvet pulled up high.
“I’m so glad Angus invited you to come to my exhibition,” Bernie said sleepily.
Serena chuckled softly. “I’m not sure he is. But I definitely am.”
Bernie nuzzled her nose under Serena’s ear, breathing in the scent of the woman lying in her arms. She rather thought she could easily get used to this: to having Serena Campbell in her arms and in her bed.
She’d have to properly thank Alex for setting up the exhibition – she’d been fairly reluctant about having a retrospective exhibition, but since it’d brought Serena to her, she couldn’t complain.
But she’d wait another twenty five years to have another one.