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All I want for Christmas...isn't Zoom

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“What?” Serena all but explodes. Wordlessly Bernie hands over the information pack and points to the sentences in question.

In line with our belief in a holistic approach to health and well being, and the inadvisability of drinking alcohol before many Spa treatments, Hamilton Hall is strictly an alcohol free zone. We have a wide variety of fruit juices, herbal teas and mock tails for our guests to enjoy.

Serena’s eyes widen as she reads.

“Did you know this?” she asks Bernie, a certain amount of outrage in her voice.

“No. Of course not. I would have told you if I did.”

“Why would Jason have sent us to a dry Spa?”

“I imagine it never occurred to him it would be an issue.” Serena lets out an annoyed acknowledgement of Bernie’s point.

“Don’t suppose you thought to pack a bottle of Shiraz in that suitcase, did you?” Serena asks with hope, but very little expectation.

“The thought never crossed my mind.” Bernie confirms. They sit silently contemplating – until Serena makes a decision and abruptly launches herself from the bed.

“What?” Bernie asks, bemused. “I don’t think you’re going to find a mini bar.”

“I can find a restaurant though, or a bar. Dinner wasn’t part of the gift There’s no reason we have to stay and eat here. There must be somewhere that serves a decent Shiraz close enough to visit.” Bernie recognizes the determined glint in her partners eye.

“How long will it take you to get ready?” Bernie asks.

“Does it matter?”

“If you want me to have a taxi waiting it does.”

 

In the end it takes Bernie and Serena less than half an hour to shower, get dressed and make their way down to the Reception area. They’ve made it as far as the lift and are almost on the ground floor before Bernie asks

“Where are we going?”

“I thought you had somewhere in mind.”

“No. Why would you think that?”

“Because the cab company must have asked where the cab was to?”

“I jut told them a local restaurant. They didn’t ask me anything else.”

“Oh.” Serena says, punctuated by the ping of the lift announcing it’s arrival on the ground floor.

“I suppose there’s no point in asking if you have any ideas?” Bernie tries as they walk out of the lift and towards reception.

“Afraid not.” Serena confirms as the door swings open in front of them. A smirk works its way across her face as she adds “maybe one idea” and hustles through the now open door, Bernie following close on her heels. It soon becomes clear what has enthused Serena. Emma, the woman who had booked them in, is neatening up the leaflets and brochures on the table on the opposite side of the room. Serena makes a bee line for her.

“Excuse me.” she says and Emma spins round to meet her with a broad smile.

“Hello. How were your treatments?”

“Lovely. Very relaxing.” Serena is quick to reassure Emma, who had looked slightly concerned but visibly relaxes at the confirmation.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Could you recommend somewhere we might get dinner?”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Did I not mention when you checked in that our Restaurant serves a range of meals, both in our Conservatory area or as room service. I do normally remember to do that. I can get you a menu if you wait just a minute.”

“Please don’t apologise. You did mention the Restaurant when we checked in, and we did look up the folders in our room. It’s just that we were looking for somewhere with, shall we say, a wine list.”

“Ah!” Emma says, “The no alcohol policy isn’t universally popular.”

“I’m sure the food in your restaurant is lovely though.” Bernie adds

“Oh. It is. It’s really good!”

“I don’t doubt it.” Serena notes. “But if there was somewhere you could suggest...” she adds a warm and persuasive smile for good measure. Emma looks a little conflicted.

“I’m not really supposed to recommend other places to eat.” The woman says and Serena’s face falls.

“But...” Emma goes on, a conspiratorial tone in her voice. “I did have an amazing time last Friday evening, if you’d like to hear about it.”

“Um. I don’t think ….”

“Oh. You really do want to hear this.” Emma insists. “I went to this amazing bar. Liberation it was called. The food was brilliant. Top notch. Very long wine list. Best part is it was only about a ten minute drive from here. Just go out of the entrance, turn left and head away from Holby. It’s up on your left just after the bridge over the river.” Emma looks intently at Serena, as if willing the woman to get the message. She needn’t have worried. Serena has absolutely got the message. In fact the next thing Emma knew she was all but engulfed by Serena Campbell hugging her so tight she almost squeezed the life out of her. Before she had a chance to regain her breath Bernie was telling Serena that their cab had arrived. There wasn’t a chance for Emma to speak in the flurry of thanks and goodbyes that trailed behind the two women as they rushed out the door.

“But it’s a….” Emma tries as they vanish into the darkness of the car park. Oh well. Emma thinks to herself as she turns back to tidying the leaflets. They’ll figure it out themselves soon enough.

 

The taxi driver, it turned out, knew exactly where Liberation was, and the whole journey was simple and fast. The bar was as easy to find and as close as Emma had promised. The bar itself seemed to be some kind of converted barn. It’s dark wooden timbers could have made the place look forbidding, but someone had had the bright idea of suspending a virtual rainbow of coloured lights from every inch of beam. The effect was a little overly colourful for Bernie and Serena’s tastes, but they had to admit the light being thrown off made the place look warm and welcoming.

This time the heavy wood door didn’t open automatically for them and they have to give it quite a significant push. A redeeming feature was the large menu illuminated in a glass display box by the door’s side. An even larger redeeming feature was the even larger wine list in the box next to it.

They step inside to find the inside of the barn is fresh and bright, a welcome contrast from the late December darkness outside. The far side of the barn is lined with intimate booths - their bench seats covered in a soft, dusky rose pink leather. There are a scattering of tables of various shapes and sizes around the booths forming a cosy dining area. Each booth and table has a cluster of night lights in glass holders around a violet plant in a ceramic dish. The ceramic dishes are emblazoned with what must be Liberation’s logo. It looks more than inviting. Bernie and Serena have discovered that being pampered is hungry work and they both seem to have built up quite the appetite. It’s also built up quite the thirst in them too.

Whilst Bernie would have been happy to head for one of the tables. Serena wants to head directly to the bar. There’s never any serious doubt as to where they’ll end up heading first. The bar is long – almost from one end of the barn to the other. Made of similar, but lighter, wood than the beams that criss cross the ceiling it looks inciting and Serena is determined to fully avail herself of it.

They’re served almost as soon as they reach the bar. The place isn’t deserted but it also can’t be said to be busy by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe there aren’t enough people in the area who want to get away from homes and families to make up for those away visiting their families to keep the numbers up. The woman who serves them turns out to be quite knowledgeable about wine. She helps Serena chose a Shiraz that she’s never tried before (and, she informs them, is vastly underpriced for the quality you get). In fact she’s so convincing she persuades Bernie to forgo the glass of white she’d usually have and share a bottle with Serena. Bottle and glasses in hand they are dispatched to the closest of the booths, menu’s thrust into their hands along with promises of a waitress being with them very soon.

The booth is as comfortable as it looks, the wine is just as good as they’d been led to believe – if not better. Their attention turns to the menu’s in front of them. It’s not a large menu, neither is it short. It’s a well balanced assortment of largely Italian inspired dishes. It’s clearly been crafted with some skill, and it’s enticing. After considerable deliberation, Bernie opts for the home made butternut and sage tortellini served with burrata. Serena goes for the champagne risotto served with scallop, langoustine and clams. They agree that one of the anti pasta sharing platters is a much better option than a started each. They’ve barely had time to make their decision before their waitress is at their booth ready to take their order. She’s friendly and efficient and heading off to take their order to the kitchen almost straight away. Bernie and Serena sip contentedly on their wine, relaxing and enjoying the music in the background. They’ve been together long enough now to appreciate the gentle togetherness of companionable silence and not feel the need to fill it with words.

It’s only a few minutes before the waitress returns bearing a wooden charcuterie board bursting with cold meets, cheeses, olives, chunks of bread and oils for dipping. She also has a second bottle of wine in her hand.

“We didn’t order that.” Bernie points out, indicting the bottle she’s carrying.

“I know.” the waitress reassures them as she places everything she’s carrying ton the table. “It was sent to you by the lady in the corner”. The waitress points in the direction of a high table flanked by stools in the opposite corner of the room. Serena and Bernie turn their heads to look where the woman’s indicating. “She’s a regular.” The waitress tells them. “Her name is...”

“Fleur...” Serena finishes for her and waves at the woman.

“What did you wave for?” Bernie asks. “She’ll come over now.” Sure enough, Fleur, glass in hand, is sashaying across the barn. The waitress, sensing that there might be tension brewing has rapidly made her exit.

“I had to.” Serena protests. “She’d think I was ignoring her otherwise.”

“Aren’t you?” Bernie asks, confused.

“Well, yes, after our last night out, I am. But that’s not the point.” Serena manages to get out before she slaps a broad smile on her face. Bernie follows her lead and affixes a smile to her own face, although somewhat less broad, before Fleur arrives at their booth. Fleur wastes no time in greeting Serena with a lingering kiss to the cheek, sliding into the booth next to her – and sitting a little closer to her than absolutely necessary.

“Well this is a sight for sore eyes,” Fleur declares as she reaches over to grab a particularly succulent looking piece of Serrano ham and a cube of bread. She dips them both, and the tips of the fingers she’s holding them with, into one of the dishes of oil, cheekily popping the whole morsel into her mouth. Serena seems to be about to say something, but is forestalled by the sound that emanates from Fleur. The best way Bernie can think of to describe it as a moan, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s absolutely a moan, but the kind of moan that shouldn’t be heard outside the bedroom. The kind of moan that should be reclining on a nest of pillows in rumpled lingerie smoking a post coital cigarette. Both Bernie and Serena feel abashed at having been included in what seems to have been a fairly intimate moment. Fleur seems to be totally oblivious. So oblivious in fact, that she slips an oil covered finger in her mouth, licks it clean, and lets it fall out of her mouth with a ‘pop’ and a deep hum of satisfaction. She repeats the same process with each of remaining oil covered fingers whilst Bernie and Serena watch as if they’re in some kind of trance. Bernie wonders idly if there is a term for a cross between food porn and finger porn. Before she can decide what that term might be Fleur breaks her chain of thought by speaking.

“Delicious.” she pronounces in low, honeyed and very dirty tones. The way she’s looking at Serena when she say it Bernie can’t quite be sure if she’s referring to the food or the woman next to her. Fleur washes down her pilfered snack with a measured swig of the rose wine in her glass.

“So what brings Holby’s hottest silver vixen and the werewolfe all the way out here?”

“A Christmas present from Jason.” Serena tells her and explains about Hamilton Hall, their alcohol free policy and their search for dinner somewhere with a wine list.

“I knew that being alcohol free would cost them dinner bookings. Dorothy couldn’t be persuaded out of it though.”

“You know the owner?” Bernie asks - at the same time as Serena asks

“You knew it was tea total?”

Fleur grins broadly at the comic look of betrayal on Serena’s face.

“Dorothy and I move in similar circles, shall we say? If I’d had any idea you were going to be visiting I would have made sure to have tipped you off and suggested smuggling some contraband in. Although I have to say that bumping into you here is very much an unexpected pleasure.”

“What brings you so far out of the centre of Holby?” Bernie asks, attempting to shift the topic of conversation to something with fewer potential flirting opportunities. She doesn’t hold out that much hope. Fleur’s default setting is flirtatious, and she doesn’t seem to have an off switch.

“It’s one of my favourite places. It’s nice to be able to go somewhere you can be completely yourself and not have to worry about what other people might think or do.” Bernie and Serena look perplexed. Fleur looks at both of them in a concerned manner, trying to work out why they both seem so confused. A flash of realisation hits her.

“You know this is a gay bar, don’t you? I’m assuming that’s why you chose to come here?” Fleur asks, glancing intently from one woman to the other for some kind of response.

“It is?” Serena obliges.

“Well, yes,” Fleur confirms, trying not to laugh at the expressions of surprise on Bernie and Serena’s faces “I mean, the rainbow lights outside? The pink leather, The violets? Didn’t any of that give it away?”

“Obviously not.” Serena says in a tone that suggests she’s stating the obvious.

“Then how did you end up here? Not that I’m complaining. I’m always happy to be in the company of beautiful and accomplished women.” Bernie rolls her eyes, still not fully comfortable with Fleur’s overt and outrageously flirty manner, which leaves Serena to reply.

“One of the staff at Hamilton Hall told us how close this place was and what a nice time she’d had here. It was the closest she could get to recommending a restaurant other than their own apparently.”

“And she never thought to mention that it was a gay bar?”

“Clearly not. Though we did rush out on her a bit – we may not have given her time to tell us.”

“To be fair she probably thought it wouldn’t mind. She knows us as Jason’s Aunties and we are booked into a suite together.” Bernie offered in mitigation.

 

“A weekend of new experiences for us then.” Serena notes.

“Oh!” Fleur pounces on the opening. “What exactly have you been up to?” The raised eyebrow accompanying the question makes it clear which direction her mind is moving in. Serena almost sighs before explaining.

“We’ve never been to a Spa before, or a gay bar – at least not knowingly.”

“Really?” Fleur asks, seeming genuinely surprised. She makes a quick recovery though. “I have a first of my own tonight. A first date. So, as much as I’d love to stay and help you finish those bottles of wine I’m going to have to love you and leave you. Can’t be responsible for leaving another broken heart in my wake by standing Bea up. She’s far too cute for that.” Fleur sweeps up her glass, slides along the bench and gets to her feet. “I’m very much looking forward to the entertainment later.” she adds with a glint in her eye.

“Entertainment?” Bernie asks.

“Karaoke, starting about 9.30pm. I’m hoping Serena might consider a repeat performance.” she says with a wink at Serena – and makes her exit. Bernie gives Fleur a few moments to get out of ear shot before she asks Serena.

“You don’t mind that this is a gay bar, do you?”

“No. Not at all. I’m proud to be seen anywhere with you.” Serena replies and reaches across the table to cover Bernie’s hand with her own. Bernie tries to suppress the red stain that’s creeping up her neck and onto her face, fails, and instead pops a cube of gorgonzola into mouth. It doesn’t do much to mitigate the effects of Serena’s words though, or the compliments behind them.

“Different question. Why exactly are you trying to avoid Fleur?” she tries “and what has karaoke got to do with it?”

“What makes you think that karaoke has got anything to do with it?

“Oh, you know, the way you blanched when Fleur mentioned it, little things like that….” Serena swallows heavily.

“It’s not directly linked to karaoke.” she says, admitting at least that karaoke is somewhere in the mix.

“You sing really well. There’s no reason you should be this embarrassed by karaoke.”

“It’s not really the singing that’s the issue.”

“Are you going to tell me or are you going to make me guess?” Bernie asks, giving Serena a fierce look, spoiled only by the olive she slipped into her mouth at the same time – which fails to stop the grin she’s trying to stifle from covering her face. Serena offers a raised eyebrow in return.

“You don’t have to tell me. I’m not going to make you. I doubt it’s as bad as you think though. It can’t be any worse than what I’m imagining – whatever it is.”

“It’s embarrassing.” Serena confides, twirling the stem of her wine glass between her fingers.

“Obviously, or you wouldn’t be avoiding Fleur – but what could be bad enough that you’d feel embarrassed in front of Fleur? She has no shame.”

“She took me to a club. They had karaoke. I sang.” Bernie says nothing, just waits for Serena to continue. She does.

“I sang ‘Sisters are doing it for themselves’. Fleur’s idea. Celebrating my sapphic awakening.”

“Go on.” Serena tries to look blank but fails.

“There’s more to it than that.” Bernie states.

“I may have accompanied my singing with a dance routine. On the table.”

“That’s not so bad.”

“It was inspired by my foray into pole dancing in my younger days”.”

“And...”

“Isn’t that bad enough?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen you pole dance. I’d like to though. I’d absolutely like to. As I’ve not yet had the pleasure then I couldn’t possibly say. That’s still not it though, is it?” Bernie knows Serena well enough to know when she’s holding something back. Serena admits defeat and steels herself to ‘fess up.

“I’d had one or two drinks by that point. For some reason I decided that the top I was wearing wasn’t right for pole dancing, so I took it off.”

“You danced on a table in your bra? Well it’s not that bad. I’m sure Fleur’s done worse. I’m sure she enjoyed the view too.”

“Oh she did very much enjoy the view. I was wearing the camo print bra you gave me. Ever since she saw it she’s been insisting that I have uniform kink.”

“But you do have a uniform kink.”

“I know I do. I just don’t really want Fleur to know that I do. You know what she’s like.”

“Relentless?”

“Exactly,”

“And that’s why you’ve been ‘not’ avoiding her ever since?”

“Mmhmm.” Serena mutters into her wine as she takes a gulp.

“Do you want me to have a word?”

“No, no, it’s fine. She’ll lose interest eventually, and, in the meantime….”

“You’ll keep avoiding her?” Bernie interjects.

“Exactly.” Serena confirms.

“I don’t think you’ll have to wait long.”

“What do you mean?”

“For her to lose interest. See for yourself.” Bernie tells Serena, gesturing subtly towards the booth on the far side of the barn that Fleur was now sitting in. Their line of sight was far from ideal but it was clear enough for both of them to see that Fleur had been joined by a slender woman with a riot of red hair flowing freely down her back. It was also clear that Fleur was sitting a lot closer to the woman than was strictly necessary. The woman didn’t seem to be complaining. In fact she seemed to be leaning into Fleur.

“It looks like Fleur’s attention is going to be diverted in a very particular direction.” Serena concurs.

“There’s still one thing I’m not sure of though.”

“Oh?”

“Why didn’t I know that you could pole dance?”

“I didn’t think it was very relevant, or that you’d be very interested.” Serena replies coyly.

“Then you’d be wrong. I think it’s very relevant and I’m very interested. Very interested indeed.” Bernie looks intently at Serena, who takes a slow and deliberate sip of wine, clearly considering her response carefully.

“Would you be interested in a private performance?” Bernie looks up at Serena from underneath her fringe.

“Very much so.”

“It’s not ideal, but I could show you a couple of moves on one of the four posters on our bed. What do you think?” Bernie grins back at her.

“I think we should see if we can change our minds and make our order a take away.”