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A Christmas Haunting

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25th November

Serena Campbell, consultant vascular surgeon and co-lead of AAU, retrieved a bottle of Shiraz from the bottom drawer of her desk. De-corking the bottle she placed it on the desk leaving it to breathe. Sitting in the consultant’s office she shared with her co-lead, best friend and partner, Berenice Wolfe. Serena contemplated the past four years or so. She had known Bernie for four years and nine months. They had gone through more trials and tribulations than most couples endure during decades together. Glancing at the wall clock noting her shift and Bernie’s ended ten minutes ago. Bernie had been in surgery with a young female cyclist hit by a car who had suffered a serious compound fracture of her right lower tibia and dislocated right ankle. Surgery would take another thirty minutes.

Serena decided tonight she would ask Bernie the question that had been on her mind for the past year. She poured herself a large glass of her favourite beverage hoping it would calm her nerves. Although in the scheme of things this was hardly a crisis. No definitely not a crisis. Serena leaned back in her chair crossing her legs and allowed her mind to wander back to an overcast February day in the staff car park outside Wyvern Wing. That was the day Berenice Griselda Wolfe walked into her life over a cactus alternator and a lucky fag she really didn’t want to smoke but let it hang from the corner of her mouth.

A great deal had happened in the time they had known one another. Bernie had recently been medically discharged from the army, after twenty-five distinguished years’ service, having been injured in the line of duty when they met. The fiercely private and stoic trauma surgeon had been outed as a lesbian when her affair with a woman was revealed by a patient several months later. As a result, divorce quickly followed with the inevitable estrangement from her children due to the affair and said divorce.

Bernie and Serena had become a formidable team at work and set up the trauma unit in AAU together. Their professional relationship quickly evolved into a friendship and before they knew it they were best friends and secretly falling in love with each other. When Serena declared her feelings for Bernie the blonde bolted and ran off to Ukraine under the misguided belief she was protecting Serena, only to return and declare she more than liked her best friend.

Serena, on the other hand, had dealt with the fact she was not the dyed in the wool heterosexual she had always assumed herself to be, and was in fact in love with a woman, that she, Serena Wendy Campbell nee McKinnie, was a lesbian. That had been far easier to deal with than dealing with her emotionally restrained best friend now lover had been. But they had both decided when Bernie returned from Ukraine they wanted to be together and things had gone well, very well, for a while as their relationship developed and strengthened.

Bernie repaired her relationship with her son, Cameron, but her relationship with her daughter, Charlotte, was not so easy to repair and had taken some time for the young woman to communicate by text and eventually by phone. They met up a couple of times for lunch and the ice had definitely thawed to Bernie’s relief and they were on track to repair the damage between them. Serena had suffered the loss of her daughter due to a severe head injury. The marriage of her nephew Jason and the birth of her great-niece Guinevere, who would always be a surrogate granddaughter to her.

The loss of her daughter had sent Serena careening over an emotional cliff of grief dragging her into a dark deep pit of depression fuelled by anger and alcohol. Throughout those dark days, Bernie had remained resolutely loyal and protective taking everything Serena dished out. Eventually feeling suffocated by grief Serena had taken a sabbatical. It was her only option if she was to survive beyond simply functioning and to make sure she didn’t destroy what she had with Bernie.

Serena survived the devastating destructive force that grieving the loss of a child brings and she managed to protect her relationship with Bernie during the process. Unfortunately in Serena's absence, the trauma unit they jointly set up on AAU had been closed. So after an extended visit with Serena, to the vineyard she was renting in the south of France, Bernie had taken her extensive trauma knowledge and skills elsewhere. That elsewhere had taken her to Nairobi and the task of setting up a new trauma centre. A dream job for her.

They contended with a long-distance relationship until Serena agreed it was time for pastures new and to start her life with the greatest love affair of her life. She moved to Nairobi with Bernie and began working at the same hospital. However, CEO Henrik Hanssen called in a favour when he had to take care of urgent family matters back in Sweden and so Serena returned to Holby as acting CEO on a temporary basis with Bernie’s blessing.

But as these things often go all the best-laid plans overtime changed along with their priorities. Serena ended up staying in Holby, between her family and the hospital needing her more and more she didn't feel she had a choice. She missed Bernie with a fierce aching pain in her chest and fooled herself into believing she would return to Nairobi and pick-up her life with Bernie again as soon as she could. Then the infidelity happened. She had been a victim of it when Edward, her ex-husband, had had a number of affairs during their marriage. Serena never thought she’d ever fall so low as to behave like that towards a partner, especially the love of her life.

And so their last trial was all Serena’s doing. She would forever feel guilty over her dalliance with a subordinate. Her excuse was hormonal due to the menopause, feeling incredibly lonely without Bernie around, or even in contact with her partner, and succumbing to the seductive lure of a younger woman who definitely stroked her ego at the time.

Bernie had been shocked to learn Serena had cheated on her and was naturally upset at the betrayal. However, she had quickly come to the conclusion that ultimately she was in love with Serena and had her part to play in the whole sordid affair by not only being physically distant but incommunicado for the three weeks leading up to it. Bernie told Serena emphatically they could fix their relationship and work through the issue. She promised to come home and to be better at communicating with Serena.

Serena had deliberated over accepting Bernie’s offer to give up her new trauma centre in Nairobi to return to Holby for her. Bernie had spoken with Connie Beauchamp about the vacancy for a consultant trauma surgeon in the new ED trauma unit. It didn’t seem fair. It felt like she was getting off lightly and should be punished for the pain she had caused Bernie.

Finishing her wine Serena poured out another half a glass making sure to leave enough in the bottle to share with Bernie when she arrived. A shudder ran through her remembering her dilemma throughout Jason and Greta’s wedding day. Processing her feelings and what she should do regarding her relationship with Bernie. Serena desperately wanted to be with her partner and to share adventures with the love of her life. But she also wanted to be there for Jason, Greta and Guinevere.

Holding her great-niece, and surrogate granddaughter, listening to Bernie give her reading at Jason’s wedding, Serena knew with all certainty Berenice Wolfe was the greatest love of her life and she had to do what was right for her, for both of them. Serena’s heart was breaking. She would never love anyone with the depth and passion she loved Bernie with. No future partner would ever come close to how she felt for Bernie, but Holby and her small family needed her and she couldn't hold Bernie back or take her dreams away or deny patients her expertise and brilliance. There was also the fact that Bernie deserved to be with someone who could share her adventures and daring-do.

The memory of the evening inside Albie’s during Jason and Greta’s wedding reception still caused Serena heartache. Stood at the bar she had found herself making up an absurd reason for breaking up with Bernie in order to set her partner free so she could be happy. If Serena remembered correctly she had said something about not seeing Bernie putting the sodding bin out in her slippers? Bernie Wolfe was not a slippers woman!

Serena chuckled at the memory of her stupidity and the lame excuse she had come up with to end her relationship with Bernie. She knew full well Bernie took the bin out in her trainers, and more often than not with a fag hanging out of her mouth, cursing at the one loose brick on the drive the wheelie bin always caught making the bin jar to a halt and Bernie trip falling into it. Serena had also mentioned not envisioning Bernie pushing Guinevere on a swing. This year the blonde had made a point of proving a point and bought the biggest swing and slide set she could find and with Jason and Cameron’s help put it together for the little girls second birthday. To Serena’s delight, Bernie takes great joy pushing Guinevere regularly on the said swing.

Of course, Serena knew exactly where the idea a domestic Bernie Wolfe was not who she had fallen in love with had come from. Jason, her nephew, had made a passing comment about Bernie being adventurous and telling stories of daring-do to Guinevere, but not imagining his Aunty Bernie pushing his daughter on a swing. Of course, Jason would see things in such black and white fashion because that was Jason. However, Serena had no excuse. She knew Bernie on a much deeper level. She had taken Jason’s assumptions and used them unwisely to her misguided advantage pushing Bernie away and convincing her she would be better off out of the relationship. Serena hated doing it but believed at the time she was doing her partner a favour.

What Serena wanted was Bernie, the domestic Bernie she had actually fallen in love with as well as the adventurous Bernie she had gotten to know. She just wanted Bernie in all her forms and on all levels. Initially, Bernie accepted Serena ending their relationship and left the wedding reception with her heartbreaking believing it would always be irreparable. Pausing momentarily in the doorway of Albie’s Bernie regarded Serena with a wink and tapped two fingers to her left temple saluting the brunette a goodbye.

Then she was gone.

Closing her eyes taking a long sip of wine to wash the painful memories away Serena swallowed the burgundy alcoholic beverage and continued her train of thought knowing the most painful part was now dealt with and what lay ahead was pure joy…

Memories of being rooted to the spot with people dancing around her and the dawning realisation she had just made the absolute biggest mistake of her life and that included marrying Edward Campbell. Because marrying him had an exit option, divorce, which she inevitably took. Losing Bernie Wolfe would result in a lifetime of guilt and pain from which there was no escape. Serena no longer believed she could survive losing Bernie. Her noble attempt to let her go now seemed incredibly stupid and self-destructive.

It had always been Bernie’s decision whether to stay or whether to go and she had made her choice wanting to stay with Serena in Holby. Resigning from her trauma centre in Nairobi Bernie took up the consultant trauma surgeon vacancy in the new ED trauma unit, thus proving her desire to be with Serena and her absolute commitment to their relationship.

So why, Serena wondered, was she throwing away her chance of happiness? Her heart pounded in her chest and with each beat a second past. With each second Bernie took another step. With each step, Bernie took she moved a step further away from Serena and a step closer to leaving for good. Suddenly realising she was letting the love of her life go Serena threw the bridal flowers she had caught over her head and rushed toward the door grabbing her coat on the way out desperately hoping against hope that Bernie hadn’t already got in a taxi and left.

Fortunately for Serena's sake, Bernie was competitive, stubborn and no body’s fool. Which is why she didn’t take no for an answer once she had made her mind up and set a course of action. Standing on the pavement outside Albie’s with her back to the door a cigarette hanging from her mouth and both hands pushed into her coat pockets desperately fishing for her lighter.

A pair of hands landed on Bernie's shoulders and before she had a chance to react was spun around. Serena Campbell stood in front of her a little out of breath, cheeks flushed pink and unshed tears in her eyes. Serena gushed, “I lied! I didn’t mean a word of what I said in there!”

Bernie removed her cigarette from her mouth and grinned, “I know.”

Slightly caught off guard Serena looked a little bemused raising her right eyebrow, “You knew?”

Bernie looked rather smug, “I was sure you were attempting to punish yourself for the affair.”

Shaking her head Serena dropped her gaze away from Bernie feeling embarrassed and guilty, “Nothing I wouldn’t deserve.”

Bernie brought her hands up and wrapped them around her partner’s waist, “Stop! We’re adults and I’m not blameless in setting you on the road to infidelity…”

Serena leaned her head against Bernie’s shoulder and moaned, “Could we perhaps draw a line over that… Definitely not my finest moment.”

Unable to hold back a chuckle Bernie agreed, “As I said yesterday. I’m hurt by the infidelity. Do I think it’s insurmountable? No, I don’t. Do I think it’s solvable, yes I do? But we have to work on this together, Serena… And, and maybe I have to make a bit more of an effort.”

Lifting her head to stare into Bernie’s eyes Serena asked, “How, how did I get so lucky to be with you?”

“We're still together then?” Bernie teased raising her right eyebrow in question.

With a huff, Serena had to admit, “I suppose I deserve that.” Looking at Bernie’s lips and back up into her brown eyes full of love and happiness Serena grinned, “We never really broke up did we?”

Bernie shook her head laughing. The sound resembled a honking goose and Serena loved it and would never tire of the sound, “I don’t believe we did.”

Serena looked at her partner’s lips and huffed, “Well are you going to kiss me then?”

There was no more talking for a good few minutes when Bernie leaned in capturing Serena’s lips in a passionate and heated kiss. Her arms tightened around her partner’s waist and Serena pushed her hands into Bernie’s hair. Both women loved it when Serena played with the soft blonde locks. The kiss was a calming and healing balm to both their souls. Serena revelled in Bernie’s unique taste of honeycomb and chocolate with a strong hint of whisky tonight. For Bernie, the taste of her partner would always be a mix of Shiraz and pain au chocolat, but right now it was all Shiraz. The difficulties they had faced recently hadn’t suddenly disappeared but a veil had definitely been drawn and this was their first step forward together.

Over the past two years since that night, Bernie and Serena’s relationship had deepened and grown beyond their own expectations. Even Bernie’s relationship with Charlotte had eventually improved. Mother and daughter spent time talking on the phone regularly, having lunch when possible and Charlotte would visit for the odd weekend here and there. The young woman had warmed to Serena seeing the benefit her mother’s relationship was having on her communication and ability to express her emotions. Serena for her part was grateful she got on well with both Cameron and Charlotte.

Now Serena wanted to take her relationship with Bernie to the next natural level. They had tentatively skated around talk of marriage but neither had asked outright if it was something the other woman wanted. Serena felt as they were usually in step and on the same page with just about everything else, and with their private and professional lives stabilised, the time was as right as it would ever be to broach the subject of marriage with her girlfriend.

For a good year, she had accepted the one doing the asking would have to be her. Serena believed having been unfaithful she should be the one to ask. And hoped by asking Bernie to marry her that would demonstrate she was serious about committing to her partner legally and for life. Of course, there was a chance Bernie would ask her but Serena was fed up of waiting believing Bernie was reluctant to rock their happy boat now everything was working for them. She also knew the blonde believed a piece of paper wouldn’t change her love or commitment towards Serena, and yes Serena agreed but wanted to give them the legal protection only being married would afford them where remaining unmarried partners wouldn’t. Plus she wanted the world to know Bernie Wolfe was hers and only hers.

Her thoughts were interrupted a moment or two later when the door opened abruptly and Bernie walked in. Dressed in sinfully tight black jeans and a figure-hugging white shirt, its top two buttons open and the sleeves rolled back to mid-forearm. Rushing to her desk she leaned across it switching her computer off, “Sorry surgery took longer than expected. I’ll be ready to go in a sec…”

Serena felt relaxed having drunk two glasses of wine for Dutch courage and currently enjoyed the view of Bernie. The tight shirt offered a lovely view of the curve of Bernie’s right breast as the blonde leaned over her desk. Realising Serena hadn’t said a word Bernie stood and folded her arms over her chest, “How many of those have you had, Campbell?”

Lifting the bottle Serena held it against the desk light gaging how much remained and put the bottle down waving her hand in the air dismissively, “Two glasses.”

Bernie snorted, “Decided to start without me?”

Tilting her head to the right giving the woman she loved more than anything a lazy smile Serena explained, “Dutch courage, but you can join me now you’re here.”

Bernie pushed her desk chair up beside Serena’s desk and took a seat. Finished pouring her partner a large glass of Shiraz Serena slid the glass towards Bernie. Reaching out Bernie took the glass by its stem and carefully rolled the red liquid around regarding Serena with a twinkle in her eyes and a smirk gracing her lips, “The last time I recall you wanting to tell me something over a bottle of wine in this office you botched it and I jumped to conclusions and confined us to theatre!”

Serena snorted at the memory swallowing the wine she had just taken a sip of, “Yes, well, perhaps it would be better this time if you did not jump to bloody conclusions and waited for me to explain myself!”

Bernie’s grin widened and her expression became distinctively mischievous. Putting her glass down she placed her hands on Serena’s knees pulling herself towards her partner and in a husky voice asked, “Oh so have you been a naughty girl? Do you need Major Wolfe to discipline you?”

Serena’s face, neck and chest flushed red with combined arousal and embarrassment. Bernie knew what to say to hit that switch which turned her on in an instant. But they were at work and the blinds were open, “Berenice! We’re at work!”

Bernie pushed her body forward and husked against Serena’s lips, “Never bothered you before… besides our shifts finished twenty minutes ago.” Not waiting any longer Bernie claimed her girlfriend’s lips. There was no hesitation from Serena, opening her mouth she granted Bernie instant access and slid her tongue past Bernie’s to swipe back and forth across her partner's mouth. Serena moaned intensifying the kiss and Bernie whimpered revelling in the bliss kisses from Serena Campbell always brought her.

Not wanting to be spotted necking with her girlfriend at work like a pair of hormonal teenage girls Serena reluctantly, but for the required necessity of breathing, broke the kiss and rested her forehead against Bernie’s. Both women were somewhat breathless and flushed.

Sitting back in her chair taking a sip of wine Bernie finally asked, “So, what umm, what was it you wanted to talk about that couldn’t wait till we got home?”

Serena suddenly felt very nervous and went quiet. Staring at her glass and turning it around by the stem she was lost to her thoughts. Suddenly full of self-doubt, she wondered how wise it was to proceed. What if Bernie wasn’t keen? What if Bernie bolted for the door? And what if said bolting Wolfe found a secondment to the Mongolian steps next time. Definitely, no mobile phone towers or internet connection there Serena was sure of that.

Bernie slowly put her glass down licking the residue wine from her lips. The silence was actually deafening. Well apart from the quickening thrum of her heartbeat, her pulse loud in her ears. Fearing the worst and no longer able to stand the suspense any longer Bernie broke the silence, “Serena, you’re worrying me!”

“Sorry? What?” Bernie’s voice broke Serena from her thoughts and she looked at her partner a little confused not having actually heard what Bernie said.

“What is it you want to talk about? You’re worrying me.” Bernie repeated what she had just said. Her expression was clearly troubled.

Serena realised her sudden silence was the cause of the problem and huffed at her girlfriend for jumping the gun and making assumptions again, “Darling, you said you wouldn’t jump to assumptions!” Bernie smiled and relaxed sipping her wine she waved her right hand in the air indicating Serena should carry on. Serena leaned forward and took both of Bernie’s hands in her own and looked into her partner's warm brown eyes that were searching Serena’s features for any hint this was going to be bad news.

Serena gave Bernie a broad smile pouring all the love she had for this woman into her expression and waited a moment for signs Bernie had taken on board there was nothing to worry about. Tilting her head to the side Serena decided to just bloody well get on with it and pop the question, “We haven’t properly talked about this. But it’s something that’s been on my mind for at least a year now... if not longer.”

Bernie’s brows furrowed attempting to figure out where Serena was going with this. Serena noticed the figurative cogs turning behind Bernie’s eyes but was grateful her partner remained quiet allowing Serena to say whatever it was she needed to get off her chest. Squeezing Bernie’s hands and holding her gaze Serena took a steadying breath and went for it, “How do you feel about marriage?” Well kind of went for it...

Bernie snorted thinking it was a light-hearted question, “Bloody expensive. Usually an unequal balance of power. Too easy to get into. Far too difficult to get out of and completely unnecessary and overrated!”

The room fell deathly silent and Serena felt foolish. She really should have tested the waters on this and broached the subject well before now. If that’s how Bernie felt about marriage Serena would drop the topic and accept her relationship with Bernie as it was. After all, a piece of paper didn’t make them more of a couple or more committed to each other. No, it afforded legal protection and some tax relief but it certainly was not necessary or essential for them and their future as a couple.

“Right well that was all it was.” Offering Bernie a sad smile, unable to keep the disappointment from showing on her face, Serena pointed at Bernie's wine glass, “Why don’t you drink up and we’ll head home?”

For all of Serena’s efforts to keep her tone neutral and upbeat and not give the game away she was disappointed, she failed miserably. Bernie saw straight through the hastily erected facade. Tilting her head to the right and then the left Bernie studied Serena and sighed realising Serena wanted to talk seriously about marriage and she had just closed the conversation down with sarcasm. But she thought Serena would be the last person to want to remarry. After her first go at it with Edward Campbell who could blame her.

Bernie had considered broaching the subject to gage Serena’s opinion but always ended up bottling out of it. Bernie was more than grateful to be in a monogamous relationship with the love of her life and didn't want to be greedy and ask for more. Bernie feared she would ruin everything and tempt fate to pull the preverbal rug from under her. So Bernie kept her thoughts on marrying Serena to herself.

However glancing to the wine, the fact only one desk lamp was on giving the room a subdued and warm ambience, well as much as an office on a hospital ward could have a warm ambience. Serena had seemed on edge from the moment Bernie had entered the office. The realisation began to dawn on her and she groaned rubbing her right hand up her face pushing her fingers into her fringe. With an apologetic expression painted across her face, Bernie apologised, “So-sorry… I did it again.”

Looking up at her partner Serena wasn’t quite following what Bernie was driving at, “Did what again?”

Unsure if Serena was being kind or simply not grasping what Bernie had done the blonde trauma surgeon elaborated, “Can we start this conversation again?” When Serena bit her lip and nodded Bernie pushed on attempting to undo her mistake, “You asked me what I thought about marriage.” Serena nodded and Bernie continued, “I shouldn’t have given such a flippant response to a serious question.”

Serena interrupted mumbling, “No need to apologise. If that’s your opinion of marriage then-”

It was Bernie’s turn to interrupt Serena, “It’s not though.”

Confused Serena asked, “Then why on earth say that?”

“I thought you were disinterested in marriage. I wanted to make things easier for you,” Bernie answered sincerely.

Shaking her head Serena hoped the action would clear her confusion and wondered briefly if drinking wine before Bernie arrived had been a wise idea after all, “Why would that make it easier for me?”

“Well you, you wouldn’t have to explain to me why you didn’t want to get married again,” Bernie dropped her gaze to her lap and sighed.

Wrapped up in her own thoughts and trying to crack this particular puzzle but deciding only Bernie could enlighten her on where that idea had come from Serena sighed, “Why on earth would you think I wouldn’t want to get married again?”

Feeling a little foolish for yet again making assumptions Bernie stuttered out her reason, “I-I… Umm… Well, I-I thought after Edward-”

Serena finally lost her patience snapping with a frustrated snort, “Oh for goodness sake, Berenice! That was Edward, not you!”

Silence.

The answer wasn’t what Bernie had expected, hoped for definitely yes but expected no, slowly the information sunk in replacing assumption with solid fact, “Oh…” She mumbled. When the preverbal penny finally dropped into the preverbal slot Bernie lifted her head and regarded Serena wide-eyed from under her messy fringe, “OOH!”

“Quite!” Serena huffed. Honestly what the hell was she going to do with her gay mess, Bernie Wolfe?

Bernie waved her right hand in the air and glanced to her right, “But that sounds like…That you’re-”

Finding her partner’s wide-eyed expression, which made her resemble a deer caught in headlights, amusing a chuckle escaped Serena. But watching Bernie join the dots Serena huffed and losing patience, blaming it on the wine she had imbibed, “For an intelligent woman you can be pretty dense at times!”

Bernie was a little frustrated now, “Perhaps if you were more direct it would help instead of the infernal dancing around conversations?”

That was the red rag that broke Serena’s will and she snapped harsher than she ever intended, “MARRY ME?”

Silence.

Serena wasn’t sure how to gage Bernie’s reaction. The expression on her partner’s face difficult to read. Serena could usually read Bernie like a book unless they were playing poker, but right now it was hard to decipher what Bernie was thinking. Was she displeased with the proposal? Hadn’t she said she was open to the idea of getting married again? Was she open to the idea of marriage with anyone but Serena? Was she planning her exit strategy and about to bolt any minute. Serena considered with Bernie's track record of running why she hadn’t locked the bloody door!

Not able to stand the silence any longer Serena tentatively asked, “What… What are you thinking?”

“…Thinking as romantic gestures and proposals go you could work on the venue and the delivery darling!” Bernie smirked winking at Serena.

Exasperated and realising Bernie had been teasing her Serena was exasperated waiting for an answer to her proposal and shouted, “BERNIE!”

Bernie snorted, “Yes, yes, yes… I’ll marry you, Campbell!” The blonde leaned forward sealing her acceptance to Serena’s proposal with a passionate kiss. The action drew moans, groans and whimpers from both women filling the space around them.

Needing air they pulled back from their kiss resting their foreheads together. Bernie stared at Serena’s lips and let out a happy sigh admitting, “I’ve wanted to propose to you for months…”

Serena wasn’t cross, she wasn’t disappointed she had had to be the one to propose, one of them had to ask and one of them had to answer. The only thing that truly mattered was they were engaged and would get married. Letting that admission go Serena asked, “So, long or short engagement?”

Bernie sat deep in thought. Taking Serena’s hands in her own, rubbing her thumbs across her fiancée’s knuckles, regarding her with a loving smile offering her opinion, “I think, I think we’ve waited far too long to be happy to drag our engagement out for months or even years… But if you’d rather wait-”

Serena shook her head, “I don’t. I’ve waited long enough. Let’s get married as soon as we can,” Serena leaned forward sealing their decision by initiating a soft and sensual kiss.