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The River Inside

Chapter Text

“OK, so have you got everything you need, Bernie?”

“Er, yes, I think so.” Dr. Berenice Wolfe looked up at her beaming colleague, Dr. Jean-Alexandre (‘call me Jax’) Bouchard as he stood before her preparing to take his leave.

To tell the truth, Bernie was not a little nervous. She had come to the public hospital in this small French town in the Rhône Valley as a locum replacing obs and gynae consultant Jax Bouchard while he went on a charity cycling tour around Europe.  On arrival, however, she had found that he would be a hard act to follow. The jovial Québécois, who had settled in the town five years ago, was extremely popular among his female patients. Bernie was wondering how they would take to having to switch to a female doctor with imperfect French and a bedside manner more at home on the battlefields of the Middle East than a small rural French town. She had raised this with Jax on their first meeting but he had laughed. Being comfortably bilingual himself, he downplayed the language issue.

“Sylvie will be your nurse and she can translate if you have any problems, but from what I’ve heard, you should be fine. And once the patients learn about your amazing experience in the RAMC, I’m sure they’ll be bowled over.”

Bernie smiled politely but she had no intention of bragging about her experience in the RAMC. How tales of delivering babies in war zones and performing Caesareans in tents would help a nervous patient relax when she brandished her speculum in preparation for a pap smear Bernie couldn’t imagine. She had been accompanying and observing Jax all week and had felt progressively less confident as she watched him effortlessly charm the ladies with his easy manner. There were just two obs-gynae specialists in St. Julien, the other an older man in his early seventies who no longer performed surgery. This placed an additional burden on Jax, who had to manage a growing outpatient list and run an obstetrics unit as well as manage the surgeries in his small department. In the operating theatre, Bernie had no fear. This was the one area where she could best him any day of the week, and he knew it. They had worked together well, however, and before he left, he made it clear that there would be a place for her to work alongside him on his return if he could persuade Jean-Claude to retire. Bernie put this notion on the back burner. First she had to survive the three months of his absence.

The next day was Saturday and although she was on call for emergencies, Bernie had no fixed appointments, so she decided to go for a run and then treat herself to one of the delicious-looking pastries in the café near her apartment. As she turned, flushed and sweating, from the counter, clutching her pains aux raisins in a paper bag in one hand and a cardboard coffee cup in the other, she narrowly escaped colliding with a woman who was looking down at her purse and unaware that she was blocking Bernie’s exit.

Oh pardon!” Bernie exclaimed, stopping so quickly that the lid of the cup fell off and hot coffee sloshed out splashing her vest top and the bare skin of her chest and upper arms.

“Ahhhhh!” she cried, turning blindly to put the cup and bag down on a table so that she could pull the now steaming fabric from her body. The other woman saw instantly what had happened and grabbed a handful of napkins from a dispenser on the table, apologising profusely in French and handing her the napkins to stuff down her vest to absorb the hot liquid. Once she had a layer between her skin and the hot liquid, Bernie looked up to thank the woman and found herself suddenly tongue -tied. Her French, though functional and adequate for medical and general everyday use, completely deserted her, and she stood there with her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, feeling extremely foolish.

 “J’espère que ça ne vous a pas trop blessée”, the woman was saying, as Bernie desperately searched for words of reassurance, but all that came out was the word “Sorry?” The woman suddenly smiled, her face lighting up as she said “English?” in an unmistakeable cut-glass English accent. Bernie nodded, “Yes, what a relief, my French is a bit rusty!”

“Don’t worry”, the woman said, “look, why don’t we sit down and let me get you another coffee?” and she gestured to the tables outside. Bernie nodded, feeling it would be uncharitable now to run away, and besides, the woman had the most attractive dimples and deep brown eyes.

Feeling somewhat self-conscious in her skimpy vest top and sports bra and her figure- hugging running tights, Bernie sat in a corner trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. When the woman came back, she had a tray with two coffees and a plate of pastries.

“I’m so clumsy” the woman said, putting down the tray. “It must be related to the menopause, but I find I sometimes get so distracted I can’t see what’s in front of me.”

“That can happen,” Bernie admitted warmly, “but don’t worry, it’s just a bit of coffee, I’ll live.”

“Well that’s good news! I’m Serena by the way.”

“Right. Um. Bernie,” and she extended her hand which Serena took and shook formally.

“You look as though you could do with a sweet fix,” she said proffering the plate of pastries. Bernie shook her head, then held up her bag containing her own pastries.

“Oh go on,” Serena said, “you can take yours home. These are the best pains au chocolat in the Rhone Valley, you must try one.”

Bernie smiled and gave in, reaching for a pastry. “Wow,” she agreed, chewing, “these are amazing.”

Serena smiled and stirred her coffee. “On holiday?” was her next question. Bernie shook her head through a mouthful of dough and chocolate paste. “You?”

“Oh no, I’m living here at the moment,” Serena said. “Working at the vineyard. A sabbatical of sorts.”

“That must be interesting,” Bernie said. “I’m just here for three months on a work placement,” she explained, taking sips of coffee between mouthfuls of pastry. It really was delicious. As was the woman seated across from her. Bernie hoped she would run into her another time, preferably not when she was all sweaty and covered in coffee.

They chewed and sipped in silence for a few minutes, and Bernie could see Serena trying to formulate another question, but at that moment, Bernie’s phone rang in the belt round her waist.

“Sorry, Serena, I have to take this,” she said, as Serena nodded.  It was Sylvie.

“Bernie,” Sylvie said slowly in French, “I need you to come. It’s Paulette from the toy shop. She’s having a miscarriage. Her husband brought her to the hospital.”

Bon, j’arrive,” Bernie said, hanging up and getting to her feet.

“I have to go, I’m afraid, duty calls,” Bernie said.

“Well, maybe I’ll run into you again,” Serena said with a twinkle in her eye. “Just not literally!”

“Ha, right, well, bye Serena, thanks for the coffee, à la prochaine”, and she sprinted away, clutching her bag of pastries.

2 days later

 Dusk was falling when Serena Campbell left the fields and headed up to the main house hoping to catch Marie-Ange after the working day.

“Serena!” Marie-Ange exclaimed, delighted to think that Serena’s appearance meant she wanted to join the family for dinner.

“Um, I was looking for some local advice,” Serena explained in her very good French. She had made a point of keeping herself to herself in the cottage in the grounds of the vineyard and only joining the family when invited specifically.

 “What I was wondering was whether you could recommend a good gynaecologist. I haven’t had a check up for more than a year so I thought I could do that while I’m here.”

Mais bien sûr, Serena,  I always go to Dr. Jean-Alexandre Bouchard at the local hospital. He’s wonderful- a Québecois, in fact, and so active in the local community. I’ve been going to him for more than five years and I wouldn’t want anyone else now.”

“Right, thank you, Marie-Ange, I’ll see if I can get an appointment.”

“My pleasure, Serena. He speaks English, too, of course, being Canadian, not that there’s anything wrong with your French, but some things can be easier in your own language.”

Ça, c’est vrai,” Serena said with a smile, which faded as she turned around and headed back to her cottage. The fact was, the previous evening, while doing a routine breast examination after her shower, she had discovered what she thought was a lump, so, aside from the fact that she hadn’t seen a gynaecologist in over a year, she also needed this checked out. Urgently.

As a non-permanent resident of St. Julien, Serena had not registered with a GP, so rather than doing battle with some ferocious gatekeeper over the telephone, she thought she would drop into the hospital reception with her documents and try to charm someone into giving her an early appointment. This proved to be a good strategy- the receptionist on the desk turned out to be an old school friend of Marie-Ange and she knew who Serena was.

“But I’m afraid le docteur Bouchard is on leave for three months,” she explained. On seeing Serena’s frown she then added, with a smile, “But we have a very nice English obs and gynae specialist standing in for him. She’s very experienced, I’m sure you’ll be fine with her.’

Given that the alternative was a 70-something French man way past retirement age, Serena decided to go for the British woman. Maybe a woman would be better in this case, anyway. More reassuring.

“Ah, we have a cancellation at 1.30 pm today, if you would like to take that?” Catherine beamed. Serena accepted with alacrity.

Returning for her appointment, Serena had been too nervous to eat lunch, but as she passed the Café de Lyon in the main square she caught a sudden glimpse of blonde hair, and as the woman turned, Serena saw it was the attractive runner she had almost collided with on Saturday. The woman turned to cross the road and saw Serena walking past. She raised a hand and smiled, but Serena was in a hurry so she just replicated the gesture and went on her way.

 

Chapter Text

By the time she was called in to see Dr. B.G. Wolfe, which was the name of the British specialist, Serena was much more nervous than she thought she would usually be. Serena had never met anyone who actually enjoyed pap smears and transvaginal ultrasounds, but this time, they seemed almost mundane compared with the breast lump problem. She followed the nurse down the corridor and was ushered into the consulting room.

As she entered, the Doctor was typing something rapidly into her computer and looking away from the door. The nurse ushered her in and told the doctor that the patient was English and so she wouldn’t need translation. And she left. In her nervousness, Serena didn’t really take in the Doctor’s appearance, and as she seemed very focused on her screen, Serena sat in front of the desk and waited.   However, as the Doctor turned to face her, she let out an involuntary exclamation - “Oh, it’s you. You’re the new locum doctor!”

Bernie recovered more quickly. “Is that a problem?” she asked, taking off her reading glasses and facing Serena across the desk.

“N-nooo,” Serena stammered, “just a surprise, that’s all,”

Bernie smiled, and Serena saw the total transformation that had taken place between nervous runner who spilled coffee over herself, and professional, confident, medical specialist with her hair tied back and some seriously geeky specs.

“So, how can I help you, er, Serena? It IS OK if I call you Serena?”

“Yes, of course,” Serena replied. Then she proceeded to explain her situation, a year without a gynaecogical checkup, and now a lump in the breast.

“And when did you spot this lump exactly?” Bernie asked.

“I think a few days ago but it was only yesterday that I really paid attention to it and realised that it might be something significant.”

“Hmmm, so let’s take a look, shall we?”

Serena felt strangely self-conscious removing her bra in front of Bernie- she supposed she should now think of her as Dr. Wolfe- which she was sure she wouldn’t have been with a male doctor.

She lay down as instructed and tried to remain calm as Dr. Wolfe moved towards her, rubbing antibacterial gel into her hands. Suddenly she stopped. 

“Would you prefer it if I wore gloves?” she asked suddenly. Serena was surprised.

“I …er..no, that is, I don’t think I’ve ever had a doctor wear gloves before for a breast examination. But if you feel more comfortable wearing them, it’s up to you.”

“No, no, actually I prefer not to, but I’m new to this hospital and this is my first breast examination here so I’m not sure what the expected norm might be.”

“Well, a male doctor would probably ask a nurse to be present…” Serena began, but Dr. Wolfe flushed deep red and cut in “I can ask Sylvie to step in if that bothers you.”

Now it was Serena’s turn to be taken aback- “No, that’s not what I meant. Look, I’m sorry, that came out wrong. What I meant was that there would be no hint of impropriety by a male doctor not wearing gloves if an observer was present. In our case, that doesn’t apply. Please carry on.”

Dr Wolfe murmured “right” and stepped towards her, face still pink, rubbing her hands to warm them a little. Serena tried not to look at her face. She didn’t understand why the Doctor had reacted in that way, but maybe she had previously had experience of patients complaining. God knows, you had to be so careful these days, as Serena was only too aware.

Dr. Wolfe then performed a standard manual breast examination. When she reached the lump, she asked “Is this what you felt?”, palpating it.

“Yes,” Serena replied. The Doctor’s face was inscrutable, but she continued pressing and palpating the breast to check for other lumps. Serena felt herself holding her breath. She had tried to avoid looking at the Doctor’s face so as not to unnerve her, but now she looked up. Dr. Wolfe did not make eye contact with her as she completed her examination. Finally she withdrew her hands and straightened up.

“You can get dressed now,” she said, stepping away and heading for the sink to wash her hands.

Serena put her bra and shirt back on and moved back to the chair in front of the Doctor’s desk.

“What do you think it is?” she asked.

“Well we can’t be sure until we’ve run some tests but first some questions, if you don’t mind.”

She opened her computer and put her reading glasses on.

“I see from the initial patient questionnaire that you were born in 1965, so that makes you …..”

“52,” Serena supplied.

“Ha, the same age as me,” Dr. Wolfe remarked, shooting Serena a shy smile.

It was on the tip of Serena’s tongue to comment that she wished she looked as good as Bernie in lycra, but bearing in mind that they were in a in a doctor-patient situation, not a café, she restrained herself and said “Well, you certainly don’t look it.”

“That’s most kind but I can assure you I feel it most of the time. Now, Serena, what’s your occupation. I believe you told me you work in a vineyard?”

“Actually I’m a vascular surgeon, a consultant. The vineyard is a sabbatical I found myself in need of after … a rather stressful period.”

Bernie stopped typing and turned fully to face Serena. “Another doctor? Well why didn’t you say so?”

“Um….well it didn’t come up,” she replied. “Besides, I’m not an ob-gyn specialist”.

“Right, yes, of course. OK just a few more questions then we’ll talk about procedures. When was your last period?”

“Umm…..three months ago. I’m menopausal, but it was stopping and starting for about six months before the last time. Now it seems to have stopped for good.”

“Right,” Bernie murmured, typing in the form.  “Any other symptoms of menopause? Hot flushes? Mood swings? Anxiety attacks?”

"All of the above,” Serena retorted drily.

Bernie looked at her sharply. “Taking anything for it? HRT for example?”

“No, and I know why you’re asking. I have consciously avoided HRT so far, but I use herbal remedies, and I had anti-depressants and tranquillizers for a while.”

Bernie raised her eyebrows. “For the stress? Or the menopause symptoms?”

There was no way round it. “My daughter died six months ago, an accident. I rather …er..went to pieces.”

Bernie sat back in her chair, her brown eyes warm behind her glasses.

“Oh Serena, I’m so sorry. That’s a really terrible burden to bear. Is that why you took a sabbatical?”

“Yes,” to her horror, Serena could feel tears form in her eyes. Stop being nice to me! she thought desperately. As if sensing her mood, Bernie started on another tack.

“Right. So what about sexual partners? I’m sorry if this seems intrusive, but we have to build a picture if you want the whole gynae check. “

Serena waved her hand. “No, it’s fine, really. No recent sexual partner, not since before ……. so let’s say, December last year. I’m divorced, have been for 17 years. No regular sexual partner for any period of time longer than about six months since then.  And then irregular. My job, you know, and bringing up a stroppy teenager…”

Suddenly Bernie was laughing – a most peculiar sound, midway between a bark and a honk- “Ha ha, tell me about it,” she laughed.

“You too?” asked Serena.

“Afraid so,” Bernie said, then, as if pulling herself up, she continued, “And just the one pregnancy?”

“Yes, one was definitely enough. A real handful.”

“They certainly can be,” Bernie agreed.

“What about previous tests and scans? Any irregularities? Any surgeries?”

“No, nothing, thank goodness.”

“STDs?”  

Serena paused. Edward had once given her chlamydia, which was something that had made her burn with shame and embarrassment. Of course, it was fairly routine these days to check for it, and didn’t necessarily imply anything about a person’s sexual behaviour other than that they had caught it from someone else, but old attitudes died hard and Serena found herself giving Bernie the information through gritted teeth. Bernie made no comment but entered the details in her computer. Finally she turned back to Serena.

“Ok, so first up I’ll order a mammogram and we’ll do a breast ultrasound. If you’re free for a few hours this afternoon we can fit it all in. This is a small hospital and I’m sure I can find you a slot in imaging. And if you’re up for it we could do the Pap smear and internal ultrasound after that. I have another patient in five minutes but I have a gap after that before the evening outpatient clinic so it would save you time to get it all done in one go. That’s if…..”

“Yes, yes, quite, let’s do that,” Serena agreed.

By the time she had returned from her mammogram, where a boy not much older than her nephew, Jason, in a loose white coat over baggy jeans and scruffy trainers, had squeezed her ample breasts into the machine, she felt ready to call it a day, but the thought of more time with Dr. Wolfe was not unpleasant. Serena found herself wanting to know more about the attractive but socially awkward gynaecologist.

Dr. Wolfe was alone in her room when she returned, and as Serena entered, the nurse called Sylvie slipped in with her. It seemed Dr. Wolfe needed a chaperone for a more intimate procedure, Serena thought with amusement.

“OK, all done?” She took off her glasses and stood up, stretching her back, offering Serena a clear image of her long, lean frame as she did so.

“Oh Bernie, you spent too long bending over in theatre this morning,” Sylvie said in French in a concerned voice. Serena’s ears pricked up. Bernie clearly understood but she wasn’t about to discuss it.

“Just a twinge,” she said in English, moving round towards the bed and ushering Serena inside as she drew the curtain around.

“Just remove your trousers and underwear,” she instructed her, “and lie on the bed”.

When Serena was ready, Sylvie entered the cubicle and helped Serena arrange her legs in the stirrups. She then spread a cloth over Serena’s abdomen so that only her genital region was exposed. Serena wondered whether the nurse was also there to help Bernie. Like most women of her age, she had had any number of gynaecological examinations and had seen it all, from nervous novices working alone and fumbling to get the sample properly bagged, to overconfident types who started with the largest speculum and lacked sensitivity to any discomfort, so she was mildly intrigued. But she need not have been. Even if the nurse was there to help, Bernie needed no assistance, carrying out the procedure smoothly with the minimum discomfort and great manual dexterity.

“Thank you,” Serena said quietly as Bernie handed the sample to Sylvie who stuck labels on it and carried it off.

“For what?”

“For doing that so efficiently. I mean, it can be unpleasant, but you made it seem just routine.”

Bernie gave a tight smile, then, approaching Serena and putting one gloved hand on her abdomen under the cloth, she said. “Well this might be a bit unpleasant, but I’ll be as quick as I can,” and before Serena could ask why, she felt the Doctor’s long slim fingers sliding inside her and pressing on the outside simultaneously. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, Serena thought. The doctor’s fingers knew exactly where to reach and what to touch with no unnecessary fumbling. Occasionally she would ask “Does this hurt?” and Serena shook her head. “And this?” Again, no. Finally, without meeting her eyes, Bernie withdrew her hand and turned away, stripping off her gloves and going to wash her hands.

“You can get dressed”, she called through the curtain.

“A woman of many talents,” Serena commented later, as Bernie escorted her to the ultrasound room and prepared the machine for the breast examination. This time, Serena felt distinctly more uncomfortable. There was no nurse in attendance and the procedure was strangely intimate, lying with her hands above her head – Serena had a horrible flashback to Robbie, her last boyfriend, trying gauchely to have sex with her by holding her hands above her head like that. Bernie was leaning over her as she reached into her armpits with the probe. Serena could smell her herbal shampoo and examine in detail the small mole on Bernie’s chin. She tried to look away but Bernie was all over her and whichever direction she turned her head in, she got an eyeful of a part of Bernie. The blouse under her white coat, for example, was unbuttoned to the chest and Serena got a glimpse of a lacy border on an ivory coloured bra. She felt like a voyeur so she tried to make conversation instead.

“Are all gynaecologists now trained in ultrasound techniques?” she asked.

“In hospitals, yes, and it’s the norm in clinics, too, nowadays,” Bernie answered. “I’m also a surgeon, in addition to holding an outpatient clinic, so we have to be trained in a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic technologies.”

“Where were you working before you came here?” asked Serena, trying to make this whole thing feel more normal.

“Oh…..here and there as a locum…..but I was a surgeon with the RAMC overseas for 25 years,” she added matter of factly, adding more horrible cold gel to the probe.

Serena was impressed. “Wow! I bet that was interesting.”

“Hmm. I suppose that depends on your point of view. War zones can be very distressing, too.”

“Yes, of course, sorry, I didn’t mean….” Serena stammered, wrong-footed, as Bernie’s attention suddenly hardened and a sound of beeping told Serena that she had found the lump and was measuring it.

“OK Serena, you’re a surgeon so you know what we’re looking at here,” she angled the screen towards Serena and pointed.

“You have a lump about 2 cm by 2.5cm just here, I can’t tell at this point if it’s fluid-filled or more solid.  We’ll need the mammogram results to compare but my instinct is saying cyst. For now. From the feel and the look, I mean. Once we have the imaging results we’ll decide the next step.”

She handed Serena a mass of tissues to wipe off the gel and withdrew as Serena put her bra and shirt back on.

“What about the internal?” Serena asked, seeing that Bernie was sitting back in her chair, as if waiting for something.

“Do you need water?” Bernie asked, knowing that Serena would be aware that the internal ultrasound is usually conducted when the patient has a full bladder.

“Ah, yes, I’d better,” and Serena accepted a full cup of water from the machine behind Bernie  which she tried to drink quickly. Unfortunately, this made her hiccup, so Bernie said “It’s OK, take your time, deep breaths.”

It took three cups of water before Serena felt her bladder become slightly uncomfortable, and if she had been feeling awkward before, she thought the internal ultrasound would be worse, but despite the relative intimacy of having a probe inside her, the fact that the doctor was not looking at her but at the screen reduced her self-consciousness. Nothing of significance was found, so Serena was soon dressed again and back in Bernie’s consulting room via the bathroom to get rid of all the water.

“Well everything looks OK on the ultrasounds, bar that breast lump, so I’ll put a rush on the mammogram results- I’ll try to get them tomorrow then I’ll call you after I’ve looked at them and decided on the next move.  We have got your phone number?”

“Yes, it’s on the form,” Serena replied.

“OK, good, right, well, see you tomorrow hopefully, and try not to worry. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.”

On her way out, Serena paused in the reception area to pick up some leaflets and as she did so, she saw a notice informing patients that consultations were from 11.00- 2.30, then 5.30-8pm. Serena looked at her watch. It was now almost 4pm and the reception area was deserted except for Catherine, the receptionist who had booked her appointment.

“Excuse me?” Serena asked.

“Ah, yes, Serena. How was your appointment?” she asked, smiling.

“It was fine, but I wonder if I could ask you about the schedule? It seems that Dr. Wolfe doesn’t usually have appointments between 2.30 and 5.30pm”.

“That’s right. The schedule is like this because Dr. Bouchard arranged it. The morning is for planned surgeries, the middle of the day and the evening for consultations, and there’s a break in the middle for the doctors to go out, have lunch or whatever, or deal with emergencies, before evening clinic.”

“But I’ve just finished my appointment with Dr. Wolfe. She asked me to come back after the mammogram to do the other things.”

“Yes, she told me,” Catherine said. “She said she would try to do everything for you within one day as she had no other commitments. Did you know her before? It seems as if …”

“No, no, I mean,” Serena stumbled, “I just met her briefly once in the café. But I didn’t know who she was.”

“She must like you,” Catherine stated. “She was operating all morning from 8 till 11, then she had patients until 1pm and she ran out to get a sandwich and then you came along. She must be exhausted, and the day isn’t finished.”

Serena had to agree, although the schedule was hardly comparable to that of a busy consultant in an NHS hospital, who would be pulling 12 hour shifts with scarcely time for a pee or a cup of tea. She imagined the RAMC in a war zone was no picnic either, but she refrained from pointing this out. She also didn’t want to be caught gossiping about Bernie with a receptionist, so she politely said goodbye and left the building.

 

 

Chapter Text

Serena was anxious for the results of her breast scan. Despite Bernie’s apparent confidence that it was just a cyst, Serena knew she wasn’t out of danger yet. Finally, unable to finish her supper, and after three glasses of Shiraz, she sent a message to a former obs-gynae consultant colleague from Holby who might be able to talk her through the possibilities. Fleur Fanshawe was happy to oblige and Face-Timed Serena as soon as she got her message. They hadn’t spoken since Serena had decided to leave on her sabbatical. Fleur had been on secondment in Copenhagen, only returning to Holby the previous week, which Serena had been unaware of, so the first few minutes were spent catching up and exchanging news. Then Serena came to the Lump.

“The consultant is probably right, Serena. If she’s very experienced she will have a gut feeling about it even if she can’t detect fluid in it immediately. Some cysts, especially smaller ones, are quite hard, but if the edges are more regular, it tends to indicate something benign. When she gets the mammogram she’ll be able to compare and get a better idea.”

“What would your next step be?” Serena asked.

“Well, if I thought there was a more than 50% chance it’s a cyst I might try a needle aspiration. If it’s liquid filled, extracting the liquid will collapse it and probably solve the problem for now. If it was harder and I was less sure, I’d do a biopsy. But come, on, you’re a surgeon, you know all this, surely?”

“Yes,” confessed Serena, “but it’s different when it’s you and you have to put yourself in someone else’s hands. I’ve never been good at not being in the driving seat, if you know what I mean.”

“Well who is this consultant? It sounds as if you don‘t trust her.”

“She’s British actually. Her name’s Bernie Wolfe, she used to be in the RAMC apparently.”

“Berenice Wolfe? THE Berenice Wolfe?”

“What do you mean THE? Is she famous?”

“Bloody hell, Serena, if it’s the same one, you’re in the safest possible hands I can think of. Wolfe’s a legend, she’s written God knows how many papers on Obs and Gynae in developing countries. She’s also done a fair bit of Trauma work with the RAMC, too. But what on earth is she doing in rural France I wonder?”

“She’s covering for a doctor on leave, she said. Maybe she fancied a bit of a holiday.”

“She might be still recovering from her injury- she got blown up, as I recall, in Afghanistan I think.”

Before Serena had a chance to comment, Fleur powered on “Is she still drop dead gorgeous?”

“Sorry? What do you mean?”

“Oh come on, Serena, I saw her once at a conference. Blonde, built like a model with legs that go on for days. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”

Serena could feel herself blushing as she protested. “Really, Fleur. This was a patient -doctor type of thing, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Tosh. I know you, Serena Campbell. You might pretend to be straight, but you notice beautiful women, and you can flirt for England!”

“Well I can assure you flirting was the last thing on my mind,” Serena said, trying to inject a bit of outrage into her voice.

“Speak for yourself,” Fleur retorted. “I may be a professional, but that doesn’t mean I don’t clock the gorgeous women who come through my doors.”

They bantered on for a while, then Serena found an opportunity to cut the conversation, having obtained the information she wanted, and more besides. She could still feel her face hot from Fleur’s suggestions. Of course Serena had noticed that Bernie was gorgeous, but it had been during the incident in the café, not in the hospital, that she had noticed. Unable to resist, she Googled Berenice Wolfe and up came all the information Fleur had mentioned. A long list of impressive-sounding papers, a mugshot that barely did her justice but confirmed that it was the same woman. Messy blonde hair and eyes like dark pools looking soulfully into the camera. At this point, the stresses of the day, the conversation with Fleur and three glasses of Shiraz all conspired to make Serena feel sleepy, not to mention a little bit guilty for snooping around her doctor’s background online, so she closed her laptop and headed for bed.

The following morning, after a restless sleep punctuated by dreams of being operated on by a blonde female surgeon not unlike the legendary Berenice Wolfe, Serena pottered around doing her chores, barely capable of swallowing her breakfast, until, a little after 11 her phone jumped on the coffee table and the hospital  number appeared on the screen.

“Serena Campbell,” she barked, never having quite lost the habit of being always on call professionally.

“Good morning, Serena,” came the cheerful voice of Bernie Wolfe, who, without waiting for Serena’s response, continued “I’ve just got your imaging results and I thought I should let you know as soon as possible.”

“Let me know…?”

“That the mammogram confirms my earlier opinion that this is probably a benign cyst, and that I would like to do a needle aspiration, if you agree, to confirm that diagnosis.”

“And if it’s not …a benign cyst, I mean?”

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Would you be free between 3 and 4 this afternoon?”

“Well..yes, I could be, but you don’t have appointments at that time, do you?”

“Not scheduled appointments, but I’m on call so I could do it then. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for a surgery slot on, let me see, Friday?”

“I’d very much appreciate getting this over with as fast as possible,” Serena said, “but I don’t want you to put yourself out for me, or dislodge any other patients.”

Dr. Wolfe chuckled, a rich, warm sound that Serena felt right down to her toes. “Don’t worry about that, Serena. While Dr. Bouchard is on leave I can pretty much fill the time as I wish- outside of the scheduled appointments, that is. I sense you’re anxious to get this over, and I’m free, so don’t feel guilty if you’d like to take me up on the offer.”

“Ok, 3pm it is, then.”

When she arrived for her appointment, having been too nervous to think about lunch, she was amused to see that Bernie was eating something that she shoved into a drawer as soon as the door opened.

Sylvie bustled in with her. “Bernie, tu n’as pas encore dejeuné? ”  she sounded outraged, as indeed would any right-thinking French person, thought Serena, knowing the importance of the lunch hour in this rural backwater.

Bernie flapped her hand “Pas de problème,” she managed through a mouthful of biscuit or whatever it was, while Sylvie brought the patient file and put it on the desk, waiting for further instructions.

Bernie stood up, swallowing her last mouthful, “We’ll go to the ultrasound room so that I can reconfirm the exact location of the cyst,” she said, picking up the file and motioning for Sylvie to lead the way. As they walked, Serena was struck with a thought. 

"You're an obs-gynae specialist, should you actually be doing this?" She hadn't meant for it to come out quite as tartly and was about to apologise when Bernie gave a short bark of a laugh.

"Well that's not such a bad question. Ordinarily, an obs-gynae consultant would hand over to a radiologist or ultrasound specialist, but I'm trained to do this and other procedures relating to women's health. We had to have a broad range of skills in the RAMC and in some of the places we worked, they didn't allow male doctors to treat women for intimate procedures."

Bernie had half-turned to answer the question, pushing through the swing doors backwards as she did so, then pivoting to open the door of the ultrasound room. Serena soon saw that her nervousness was unjustified. Despite her apparent disorganisation in eating lunch at her desk, Bernie was focused, careful and very efficient. She gave Serena a little local anaesthetic, but the procedure was relatively painless and took no more than 10 minutes.

“Just stay here and rest a minute, Serena,” she said. “This sample will go to the main lab in Lyon but I want to have a quick look first,” and off she went, sample in hand.

Sylvie remained in the room with Serena. She looked at Bernie’s departing figure and shrugged her shoulders resignedly.

Depuis qu’elle est arrivée, je n’ai presque rien à faire, ” she complained. ("Since she arrived I've had hardly anything to do").

Serena picked up the conversation in French.

“She does seem very efficient,” she remarked, trying to draw Sylvie out a little.

“Oh, she can do everything and that’s the problem,” Sylvie sighed. “I’m used to doctors who expect me to collect samples, take them here and there, explain everything to the patients for them while they just do the necessary things. But this Dr. Wolfe, she does half my job for me.”

“Well, I’d enjoy it if I were you,” Serena laughed.

“I would if I didn’t know that Dr. Wolfe was badly injured in an explosion only 5 months ago, and that she has terrible pain in her back sometimes. One day I found her asleep on the floor of her office. She said the hard surface was better than her bed, which was too soft, so she tried to rest there. But she won’t let anyone touch her, and always pretends she’s fitter than she really is.”

Serena didn’t know quite how to respond so she was relieved when Bernie bustled back in after a few moments.

“As I thought. The fluid drained completely and cyst appears to have collapsed. No nasties I can see in this sample, so while we’ll send it off to Lyon just to be absolutely sure, I think you can relax, Serena, the worst is probably over.”

“For now,” Serena added. “The cyst might come back”.

“That’s true,” conceded Bernie, “but cysts take several months to refill and most of the time they’re also benign. So let’s not be too pessimistic, eh?”

Serena stood to leave, but the sudden movement brought on a wave of vertigo, and she gripped the edge of Bernie’s desk.

“Serena, what is it?” Bernie asked, alarmed by Serena’s pallor, but Serena flapped her hand and stood for a while taking deep breaths until her vision cleared and the nausea receded.

“Low blood sugar most probably. I …I haven’t really eaten today yet.”

“Well, that won’t do. I can’t have my patients fainting all over my consulting room,” Bernie smiled. “I missed lunch too, so why don’t I take you over to the café for a Croque Monsieur ….?”

Serena looked up in surprise, then she found her wits. “Actually, I’d prefer a Croque Madame, but lead on, Doctor Wolfe, if it’s not forbidden to fraternise with the patients,” and she gave Bernie the full benefit of her most flirtatious smile.

Bernie swallowed and, colouring a little, removed her white coat, revealing a pale blue short-sleeved shirt left hanging outside quite possibly the tightest black skinny jeans Serena had ever seen on an actual person. She tried not to stare  and turned to lead the way to the door as Bernie grabbed her handbag and followed her. Serena could see how uncomfortable her flirting was making Bernie, and although it amused her to turn the tables and exercise a little power, she also didn't want to embarrass or alienate someone she was beginning to want to think of as a friend.

The café was almost deserted- the lunch crowd had long departed and the afternoon tea patrons had yet to arrive. The owner, Thierry, greeted Bernie enthusiastically.

“He’s Sylvie’s brother,” Bernie confided to Serena  as Thierry seated them next to the window in a secluded corner. Serena had  been here only two or three times before and didn’t recognise him, but he clearly knew who she was.

“There are no secrets in this  town,” she told Bernie, “you’ll no doubt get used to it.”

They ordered- the  Croque Madame for Serena ("I've had this here before and it's delicious") and a Croque Monsieur for Bernie. Then they sat, feeling a little awkward. Bernie tried to break the silence by sticking to a professional line of conversation.

“You can take that dressing off  tomorrow morning,” she said. “The wound shouldn’t bleed any more, but you may have a little bruising around the puncture site for a few days and it will be tender”.

“Yes, thank you,” Serena supplied as Thierry brought their plates and a waitress followed with a pot of Earl Grey tea and two cups. On the tray was also a bottle containing a fiery red substance bearing the label, “100% Pure Pain” in English. Bernie seized it enthusiastically, saying "Thierry knows what I like". Serena raised an eyebrow.

“Super hot chilli sauce,” Bernie explained, squirting a healthy dollop onto her toasted sandwich. “I er..got rather used to lots of chilli  in the Middle East and this stuff is amazing”, cutting a big chunk of sandwich and putting it in her mouth.

“Well, whatever floats your boat,” Serena murmured, then, changing the subject, she asked, “So, is it acceptable to fraternise with patients, or not?”

Bernie was still chewing so Serena took a bite of her own sandwich.

“I really don’t know,” Bernie replied, after swallowing, “but if in a town this size you don’t socialise with patients, I don’t know who you could  socialise with.”

“Men?” suggested Serena, “Seeing as you’re a gynaecologist.”

“Mmm, yes, I wasn’t thinking about that, but you’re right. Except that, having only fairly recently divorced my husband, the last thing on my mind at the moment is meeting more men.”

“Ah, another member of the embittered ex-wives club,” Serena grinned, holding out her hand. “Welcome, Serena Campbell, I’m a founder member.”

Bernie looked at her hand, then took it tentatively, giving a brief shake. When she let go, Serena could feel the tingle in her palm.

“Bad divorce?” asked Serena, trying to show sympathy.

Bernie winced. “More than,” she agreed. “But the great thing is that it’s final. No shared financial responsibilities, and I never got on with his family, so….”

“Kids?” asked Serena, remembering what Bernie had said during her first appointment.

“Ah yes,” and Bernie looked suddenly sad. She took a sip of tea, then, tracing idle patterns on the tablecloth with her finger, she said. “I have a son and a daughter, both quite grown up, but unfortunately neither is on speaking terms with me right now.”

“Why ever not?” asked Serena, hoping she wasn’t being too intrusive. Bernie sighed.

“Let’s just say that things between Marcus and I were not really all that transparent, and he used that to turn them against me.”

Serena didn’t really see how she could intrude further, so she attempted to deflect the conversation.

“So you wound up here. And I understand from Sylvie that you’re injured?”

“Well, I suppose it’s no secret,” Bernie replied a little tartly, “But I’m recovered, or I wouldn’t be working here. Just a few aches and pains remaining,” and she continued eating her sandwich.

Before Serena could think of a safer topic of conversation, Bernie’s phone rang. She swallowed her last mouthful, wiped her mouth on a napkin and sighed. After a brief conversation, she stood, putting her hand lightly on Serena’s shoulder. 

“I’m sorry, Serena, I’m being called. No-“  as Serena made to rise, “Don’t get up, stay and finish your tea. This is on me. I'll call you when we have your results,” and before Serena could react, Bernie had her purse out and was half way across the café, giving her a little wave as she left. Serena could feel the imprint of her fingers for some time after she withdrew.

Damn, thought Serena, as Bernie disappeared from view, her absence suddenly leaving a hole in Serena’s afternoon. Bernie Wolfe was growing on her, as was her curiosity about Bernie’s current circumstances. She suddenly realised that she had no way of reaching Bernie other than via the hospital switchboard, so she would either have to wait for her results to come back from Lyon or think of something else if she wanted to see her again.

 

 

Chapter Text

As the days went by, Serena’s thoughts were drawn increasingly to Bernie and to whether they could be friends once she was no longer a patient. That depended on the test results, and that was another 10 days off. The winery was gearing up for the harvest, so Serena knew she wouldn’t have much time for socialising while that was going on. Yet popping into the two cafes where they had been together yielded no sight of Bernie, despite Serena’s attempts to plan her visits around what she knew of the doctor’s daily schedule.

Naturally, Serena was completely unaware that Bernie had been doing the same thing- directing her thrice-weekly runs out towards the vineyard in the hope of bumping into Serena.  Which is exactly what happened on the Saturday four days after Serena’s last appointment. With a free morning, Serena had decided to go into St. Julien early to get her hair cut and do some shopping. She had been rather hoping to run into Bernie and persuade her to join her for lunch, but once she had finished her chores and made her coffee and pain au chocolat last for as long as she could decently occupy a table, there was nothing for it but to give up. Lunch was a lot less appealing on her own so at around 12 she found herself heading back in the dusty old Citroen the family let her use as a runabout. 

As she turned off the main road down a narrow lane leading to the vineyard access road, a motorcyclist burst into her rearview, accelerating past her, far too close for comfort, his customised exhaust emitting a loud noise and clouds of diesel fumes. Shocked by the intrusion, she clung tightly to the wheel to keep control of the car, seeing only that the rider was helmetless, his open denim jacket flapping behind as he disappeared round the next bend.  “That will not end well,” she muttered to herself,  and, sure enough, before she rounded the second bend in the road, she heard a noise of wheels skidding on gravel and some sort of impact. Serena drove quickly towards the scene of the accident, her heart beating rapidly. As she rounded the corner, she saw a motorcycle on its side, wheels spinning, but no sign of the rider. Pulling to a halt, Serena jumped out of her car and looked all around. On the opposite side of the road, a familiar blonde, lycra-clad figure was slowly getting to her feet.

“Bernie!” exclaimed Serena, rushing over to her. “Are you hurt?”

“Not nearly as much as him,” gesturing to the other figure in the ditch who was lying still. “You’re a doctor, give me a hand.”

Bernie bent slowly over the prone figure of the rider but it was clear she was in pain.

“I can’t stay bent like that, can you take a look?”

Serena got down on her knees and felt for a pulse. The young man’s trajectory from bike to ditch appeared to have been interrupted by a fence post. He had a head wound that was just beginning to ooze blood.

“He’s unconscious but breathing,” she said. “A bash on the head, no helmet.”

“The bloody idiot,” murmured Bernie, straightening up with a grimace and holding her side.

“We’d better call an ambulance, and, still gritting her teeth, she pulled out her phone and pressed the emergency number.”

“Here, let me,” said Serena, knowing that Bernie’s command of French on the phone might slow things down.

Bernie's attempt at a glare failed as her face contorted with pain. She handed the phone over.

“Dr. Berenice Wolfe here,” Serena snapped when the phone was answered, and proceeded to reel off a list of information about the accident, the rider and their location as Bernie looked on helplessly. She winked at Bernie, who tried to smile.

“OK done. Ten minutes max,” she announced, passing the phone back to Bernie and reaching over to assess the young man’s condition.

“I think it’s best not to move him in case he’s injured his neck or spine,” she said. “He should be OK for ten minutes, but you’re not OK. Did he collide with you?”

“Not really,” Bernie managed, sliding down into the ditch so that she could lie on her uninjured side. “He swerved when he saw me, but I jumped out of the way and he rolled on top of me when he was thrown from the bike. It’s my old injury as much as anything I think.”

“You need an X-ray,” Serena said firmly, “so you’ll go to the hospital with this young man and get treated.”

“Oh I don’t think….” Bernie began, but Serena put her hand on her arm.

“I may be your patient, but now we’re talking about you. I’m a doctor and I insist. I’m coming with you and I’ll stay to check you’re OK.”

“Well, that’s very kind of you Serena, but there’s really no need,” Bernie said.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can see how much pain you’re in and I’m going to make sure you get what you need. No arguments.”

Bernie hung her head. Serena could see in the slump of her shoulders how much she was suffering and she put her hand gently over Bernie’s where it was supporting her on the ground. When the ambulance came, Serena helped supervise the loading of the young man onto a stretcher, then she turned to the paramedic.

“The rider collided with Dr. Wolfe, who was running. She has a previous back injury and is now in a lot of pain. She needs painkillers and an X-ray when she arrives. I’m following in my car- I’m also a doctor, by the way.”

The paramedic nodded and Serena noticed that Bernie had stopped resisting, and had allowed herself to be helped into the ambulance. The ambulance then departed, but Serena knew something had to be done about the bike. She suspected the young man might have been visiting one of Marie-Ange and René’s teenage offspring, so she called the house and asked someone to fetch the bike and find out who it belonged to, realising somewhat belatedly that her preoccupation with Bernie had led to her neglecting the identity of the motorcycle victim.

On arrival at the hospital, Serena was relieved to find Sylvie at the nurse’s station in the ED. She, of course, had witnessed the arrival of the accident victims and as soon as she heard that Serena had been at the scene, she put a hand on her arm.

C’est le fils de Thierry, tu sais. Mon neveu, Eric.” 

 “What? The motorcyclist, your nephew? Oh, Sylvie, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” the other woman replied grimly. “He’s an absolute menace with that bike. I always knew he’d hurt himself one day. And now he’s hurt one of our doctors! La pauvre!

“She’s OK,” Serena said, explaining that she was also a doctor on an emergency ward in the UK and that she was going now to check on Bernie and the boy.

“When Thierry comes, tell him to talk to me first. We have to inform the police and I want him to know everything before we do.”

It wasn’t hard to track down Bernie in the small hospital where she was well known. She was lying on a bed in a cubicle, obviously sedated, but conscious. As Serena came in and closed the curtain around them, she was suddenly aware of the length of Bernie’s legs in the skin tight lycra, and of all the bare skin on display. Fleur’s “drop-dead gorgeous” remark came into her mind, and she felt herself flushing, but hastily pushed the thought away. The woman was injured, for God’s sake!

“Bernie,” she said, taking her hand, “How are you?”

“S-serena?” Bernie murmured drowsily, half opening her eyes, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m checking on you.”

“Well, as you can see I’m still in one piece,” she replied, more sharply than Serena would have expected from someone who should be fuzzy from the pain relief.

“Have they taken you for an X-ray yet?”

“No, just waiting…”  as she spoke, the curtain was suddenly pulled back and a porter entered with a wheelchair, followed by Sylvie.

“Thierry’s here, he wants to speak to you, Bernie,” she said.

“He’ll have to wait – my instructions are to take the Doctor to X-ray,” the porter replied brusquely.

“Look, let me talk to Thierry first. Bernie can fill you in later. I saw more than her anyway,” Serena said.

As Sylvie had predicted, both she and Thierry were as exasperated by Eric’s behaviour as they were worried for his well-being. He had been taken for a head CT and they were preparing to admit him for overnight observation at the very least.

“It was my wife that bought him that motorbike,” Thierry said. “I warned her against it, but Eric talked her round, said all the other kids he knew had them. He took his test but I know he didn’t always wear his helmet.”

Serena confirmed that he had been helmetless and driving recklessly.

“Look Serena, you have to tell the police the truth. It pains me to do this, but the boy has to learn a lesson. Fortunately, my wife has gone to Lyon on business, so she can’t persuade them to go soft on him. I’ll never forgive myself if Eric has injured our beloved Dr. Wolfe!”

It was interesting, thought Serena, how everyone was more concerned about Bernie than the boy with a potential head injury.

The afternoon dragged on and Serena had to call Marie-Ange to warn her that she was held up in St. Julien as a result of the accident, and she and René told Serena not to worry and to take the afternoon off. By the time the police had come and gone and the hospital was ready to discharge Bernie, Serena felt almost like a member of Thierry’s family. And not in a good way.

“Come on, Bernie, I’m taking you home,” Serena said, seeing that she was desperate to escape the claustrophobic small-town fuss and attention, as was Serena.

“But what about Eric?”

“He has his father, his aunt and now his sister and two cousins have shown up, so I think his needs are covered. The head CT showed no serious damage. Just a concussion and some superficial cuts and grazes. He’ll be fine.”

“And so will I,” Bernie replied, clutching her X-Ray to her chest in a manila envelope.

“I just want to make sure you get home and are comfortable. Then I’ll leave you in peace,” Serena surprised herself by being so insistent, but suddenly Bernie’s well -being was the most important thing on her horizon.

Bernie capitulated, exhausted, sore and beyond embarrassment, and Serena took her back to the small flat she lived in, helping her up the two flights of stairs. It was a slow process, and Serena refrained from commenting until she had Bernie safely stretched out on the sofa and she had put the kettle on.

The flat was small but cosy. Serena found herbal tea in the cupboard and made Bernie a soothing mixture of chamomile and lime tree. When she put down the mug, she said “I think it’s time you told me the extent of this previous injury, don’t you?”

Bernie was lying back with her eyes closed and groaned. Then she handed the envelope she had been clutching to Serena.

The X-Ray showed no new fractures, but Serena could clearly see where there had been  previous damage to the top of Bernie’s spine. A metal rod was holding her neck in place.

“Oh Bernie, for goodness sake!”

“Yes, it causes no end of problems at airports,” Bernie said drily.

“So how did it happen?”

“Ah…IED in Afghanistan. I was medi-vac’d to the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham.”

“How long ago?”

“Five months. “

“And were there any other injuries?” asked Serena shrewdly.

“Pseudo-aneurysm of the right ventricle,” Bernie admitted.

“But Bernie that’s…major surgery. And here you are pretending there’s nothing’s wrong!”

“I’m fine,” Bernie replied tightly. “Just stiff and sore. I’m a fast healer and this in no way stops me from doing my job.”

Serena reached over and touched Bernie’s hand.

“I wasn’t suggesting that for a minute,” she said gently.  “But we all need a bit of looking after-and you’re here all alone. Let me help.”

“I’m not sure what you think you can do, Serena, apart from offering soothing company, I mean. I’m grateful for your presence but I just need to take the meds and sleep this off.”

“Do you have a physio?” Serena asked. Bernie shook her head.

“Seems I’m fussy about who puts their hands on me. I’ve managed OK up to now.”

Serena thought hard for a minute. How to break through this prickly barrier Bernie had erected around herself?  She sat down in the armchair next to the sofa and took Bernie’s hand very gently.

“Look, I’m a doctor so I have some idea of what’s going on here. You’re in pain and this may require rather more than just some pills and sleep.”

“What are you suggesting?”  this said in a defensive tone.

“I could offer a massage…I have taken courses.”

There was a silence. Then Bernie said “I need a shower first.”

Serena felt a small stab of triumph but kept her voice neutral. “A bath would be better”.

“If I had a bathtub. It’s OK, I have a stool I put in the shower so I can sit down when my back hurts. I can manage that if you can help me get to my feet.”

Serena helped Bernie up, then went ahead and ran the shower to get the hot water flowing, exiting the bathroom to give Bernie privacy.

“I’m right here if you need,” Serena said. Bernie just nodded and closed the bathroom door.

When she emerged fifteen minutes later, her hair was wrapped in a towel and she had donned a navy terrycloth robe. Without making eye contact with Serena, she went into her bedroom and Serena could hear a drawer being opened and the rustle of fabric against skin. Finally Bernie called her in.

“Do you have anything like  muscle balm  or massage oil?” Serena asked, unwilling to go poking around uninvited.

Bernie nodded “Look in the bathroom cabinet. I think I have some Deep Heat.”

The Deep Heat turned out to be a mangled tube with very little left in it. Besides, the smell alone would stop anyone from sleeping. Serena had been increasingly aware of Bernie’s apparently spartan preferences – plain soap, supermarket generic shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, and, apart from a box of blonde hair dye, nothing really in the cupboards that revealed an interest in self other than the purely utilitarian. Then, moving a four-pack of soap bars, she suddenly came across a small bottle of Lavender Essential Oil. Well, what a surprise!  Serena couldn’t stop the small smirk she wore when she re-entered the bedroom. Bernie was now face down on a towel spread over the bed, her robe undone but still covering her.

“All sorted?”

“Yep. But I think we have to lose this robe. Can I?”

“Go ahead,” Bernie said, holding her arms up for Serena to pull the robe off, then burying her face in them.

As Serena peeled the thick robe from Bernie’s body, she had to suppress  a gasp at the sheer elegant beauty of the toned form laid before her, lightly tanned arms and shoulders with a dusting of freckles, and clad only in a pair of black bikini briefs. Serena warmed her hands and anointed them with lavender oil, then, with a sense of ceremony, she began. At the first touch of her hands, she felt Bernie tense, then, as her hands found their rhythm, release her breath and relax, surrendering to the soothing sensation. Serena started tentatively, standing by the bed, but as her hands massaged deeper she ended up straddling Bernie’s prone form, hands sweeping up and down that beautiful back, kneading the shoulders lightly, digging into the base of the spine, knowing both by instinct and experience where Bernie’s body would tense to accommodate the injured part. She remembered that Bernie had been  holding her left side after the accident, and surveilling the pale flesh she could see a bruise forming, so she made sure to go gently there,  sweeping her hands to the sides and down as far as the top of her knickers. As the lavender oil began to warm and release its calming aroma, Bernie murmured “That’s not Deep Heat”.

“No, better than,” Serena replied, concentrating only on her movements and the tension in the muscles.

Bernie lay inert but the tell-tale inhalations told Serena that her hands were finding their mark. As she swept upwards, her fingers slid to the sides of Bernie’s breasts. Serena was quick to shorten the sweep next time, a little alarmed by the way her hands seemed to be acting of their own accord, and she could swear she felt a reaction in the slight hitch of breath before she swept away again. Finally, after about 40 minutes, Serena felt she had done all she could and Bernie seemed fully relaxed, on the verge of sleep. Finishing with a tap on the shoulder, Serena climbed off the bed and went to the bathroom to wash her hands. Bernie still hadn’t moved, so Serena called her softly.

“Mmm?” was the answer.

“Bernie, I think we’re done here. You need to put something warm on your back and get into bed”, and she reached to cover Bernie’s back with the robe, realising as she did so that there was no way Bernie could get up without giving Serena a free show.

Bernie had obviously come to the same conclusion. “Do me a favour…. turn down the duvet on the other side and help me roll in,” she said.

Serena did as requested, pulling the duvet free of Bernie’s body as she crawled, still face down, across the bed. Finally, Serena got the duvet up and over Bernie, and removed the robe and the damp towel from her hair.  It was a warm afternoon, she should be fine.

Then she got Bernie a glass of water, put the pain medication from the hospital on the bedside table and collected Bernie’s phone from the living room.

“Bernie, before you fall asleep, unlock your phone for me. I’ll put my number in and I’ll get yours.”

Bernie raised her head a little and fumbled with the phone, then handed it to Serena, who quickly called her own number and hung up, entering her name into Bernie’s contacts.

“Ok, I’ll leave you. Your pain meds are here and there’s some water. If there’s anything you need, or if you can’t move when you wake up, call me. I’ll leave your door unlocked in case you need anyone to come in and help you. It's safe enough here.”

“Thanks, Serena, I feel miles better already,” a sleepy voice murmured.

Serena suppressed the sudden urge to kiss her cheek, settling for a gentle shoulder pat.

“Bye, sleep well,” she whispered.

By the time she reached her car, mind still on the play of Bernie’s muscles under her fingers and the softness of her skin, Serena realised she had a bit of a crush on her doctor. More than a bit.

“Dammit,” she muttered to herself.

Chapter Text

When Bernie awoke on Sunday morning she was amazed to find she had slept straight through the night, that must be some kind of record, she thought. She scrutinised the contents of the pain medication she had been prescribed at the hospital- right, well, that would account for some of it. But the internal wellness and calm she felt was surely not only chemically induced. Getting out of bed proved to be much less of an ordeal than usual. She tried bending to touch her toes. Fine. Not a twinge. She practised some slow and careful yoga stretches; there was soreness from the bruise on her side, but otherwise, the natural conclusion was that Serena’s massage had done her the world of good. She didn’t want to push things by going for a run, so she showered and dressed in loose sweats, then, feeling suddenly ravenous, she made coffee and scrambled eggs on toast, she even squeezed a couple of oranges, and read the news on her tablet for a while. 

She was putting off the moment when thoughts of Serena would invade her consciousness. In truth, the beautiful British surgeon with the sad, dark eyes and cute dimples had found her way into Bernie’s constrained, compartmentalised life, threatening to disrupt it. Bernie had come to France, taken this job she didn’t really need, in order to escape. From the hurt she had caused her ex-husband and children, from the shame of being an unfaithful wife, from the grip of a lover who was not after all, she had realised only belatedly, her soul-mate once they had left the battlefield. The black cloud of negativity, brutally overlaid with the real physical pain of her injuries, had threatened to crush Bernie’s soul. She had always been a loner, self-sufficient, able to cope in her domestic life only by seeking the order and discipline of the military she had chosen as a career. Now she was free floating, cut adrift, scrabbling to hold onto a rapidly disintegrating existence. Then her old commanding officer had got in touch- a former colleague of his was now the Medical Director of a public hospital in rural France, desperately seeking an ob-gyn consultant to cover a leave of absence. Was she interested?

She had been in St. Julien a few days short of a month now, settling well into her new life. The climate was pleasant- it was still summer, after all. The work was hardly onerous compared to a battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan, and less stressful than the NHS, or what she had observed of it from her occasional locum postings. She had pulled a few shifts at her ex-husband’s private hospital, St. James’, but the cruelty and scorn Marcus had directed at her since finding out about Alex had made her situation untenable. This was infinitely preferable, and, truth be told, since she had asserted herself after Jax’s departure, she was beginning to think she might take Jax up on his offer after all, if he felt the same way when she returned, that is. Jean-Claude was kind and helpful but made no bones about planning his retirement as a soon as Dr. Bouchard returned. He was 72, his wife had retired, they planned to move to Guadeloupe to be close to their daughter and her growing family. They had invited Bernie to dinner, and she had sat patiently through their many videos of holidays with said daughter, her dentist husband and their three small children and wonderful house in their Caribbean paradise. So Bernie wasn’t too worried about her future. Or hadn’t been, until the woman with the deep chocolate eyes had penetrated her armour and planted her image in Bernie’s thoughts. She really should have refused the massage, but for once, she was weak- the pain had been excruciating, and, she an experienced doctor with extensive trauma experience, knew that by refusing to hire a physiotherapist she was doing her body no favours.  But still. The moment Serena had laid hands on her, Bernie had come face to face with two home truths. One: she needed this. Two: she was in trouble.

As she sat contemplating her phone and wondering how best to send a thank you message to Serena, the device suddenly sprang to life.

Hi, hope you’re feeling better! Is there anything you need? S

 Well that was easy:

I’m feeling wonderful, thank you so much, Serena, you’ve been really helpful. I’m fine today. B.

 And that should be that. Another week of work and focus on practicalities before she had to face Serena again. But Serena had other ideas.

Well if you’re feeling up to it, perhaps you’d like to come out to the vineyard for lunch? It’s a beautiful day. We could have lunch in my cottage. What do you think? I can come and pick you up.

Bernie sat staring at her phone in utter perplexity. She couldn't use work or pain as an excuse. And she didn’t want an excuse-what could be nicer than lunch à deux with Serena Campbell?  But the slowly uncoiling serpent of desire that Serena’s presence had invoked was holding her back.

Pull yourself together, Wolfe. It’s lunch. Not a dirty weekend on the Côte d’Azur! You can do this.

Well thank you, Serena, I’d love to. I’ve always wanted to see a vineyard. You don’t need to pick me up, I have a hire car so I can find my way. What time? And what can I bring?

Bernie arrived at the vineyard at 12.30. She had got the car intending to explore the local area, but the vineyard was her first social outing. Serena was waiting for her at the entrance.

“You look well rested,” she greeted Bernie.

“I slept for thirteen hours,” Bernie replied, “probably for the first time in my adult life!”

“Should do it more often,” twinkled Serena, who was looking especially lovely today in a fuschia sleeveless blouse and white linen trousers. She had fuschia lipstick to match, Bernie noticed, tearing  her eyes hastily from Serena’s lips. Bernie herself, possessing only mostly functional clothes, had opted for light tan cargo pants and a white V-neck T-shirt, but she had swapped her usual trainers for practical black sandals. She had also made a trip to a local Sunday flower market and presented Serena with a colourful bouquet of summer flowers.

“Thank you, Bernie, these are beautiful,” Serena, said, leading the way into her cottage, which was tucked away out of sight of the main house and visitors’ parking area.

“Wow! This is gorgeous!” exclaimed Bernie once she got inside. The cottage, usually rented out as a holiday home, had a cosy feel, decorated in timeless chic with wooden beams, plain washed walls and tasteful furniture. Serena moved into the kitchen seeking a vase, and Bernie followed. The kitchen had an Aga stove and beautiful wooden cupboards, and a large window through which the sun was radiating warmth and light. Bernie felt the tension of anticipation leaving her. She could do this.  Serena found a vase and arranged the flowers carefully.

“Would you like the tour? It’s not huge, but it’s comfortable,” and before Bernie could think of a response, she found herself being led back towards the living room and up a steep wooden staircase. From the rear, Bernie was made uncomfortably aware that Serena ascending the staircase looked even sexier than she did from the front.

Stop it, Wolfe!

The bedroom, under the beams of the roof, had a new ensuite bathroom, and although simple in design, it looked supremely comfortable. Bernie nodded her appreciation.

“I suppose it gives you exercise climbing those stairs every time you want to use the bathroom,” she remarked, but Serena laughed. “Oh no, there’s a downstairs loo. This part is quite new. They had to take the roof off and raise it to accommodate the bedroom-bathroom combo. This is a retrofit.”

“I was admiring the bathtub,” Bernie confessed. “I’m amazed they managed to get one in but it must be a luxury being able to have a bath occasionally.”

They had reached the bottom of the stairs and Serena turned to look at her. There was total sincerity in her eyes as she said “Well, you know, you’re always welcome to come and use it.”

Bernie smiled wrily “Well thank you, Serena, but I suspect that by the time I feel the need to use it, I may be unable to climb the stairs!”

“Perhaps you should consider using it for maintenance, you know, as opposed to a damage fix?”

Bernie was saved from having to answer by a knock on the door and a woman’s voice calling

“Serena?”

Serena turned from Bernie and went to answer the door. Marie-Ange popped her head inside.

Bonjour Marie-Ange-  oh, let me present you- this is our new gynécologue, Dr. Berenice Wolfe. Bernie, this is Marie-Ange, co-owner of the vineyard.”

Marie-Ange’s eyes widened in surprise. Then she smiled charmingly and extended her hand.

Enchantée, Docteur Wolfe. We’ve heard so much about you.”

Bernie mumbled back greetings and smiled awkwardly. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed when Marie-Ange absolutely insisted that Bernie and Serena join them for lunch at the main house.

“We are preparing for the harvest in a week or so, so today is a special lunch. After this, everyone will be too busy to come together on Sunday and spend time relaxing.”

Serena looked at Bernie with some concern, but Bernie knew her duty. She was a member of the community and she needed them as much as they needed her. Besides, as Marie-Ange was at pains to point out, le Docteur Bouchard was a frequent guest.

In the event, it was better than Bernie had feared. The family was loud and rambunctious. The husband, René, uncorking bottles of the vineyard’s finest as fast as they were emptied, and their teenage offspring demonstrating a remarkably good command of English. Marie-Ange made sure to seat Marc, their eldest, who had just got his Baccalauréat and would soon be off on a gap year to work in a South Australian winery, opposite Bernie, and so the stress of listening to French and trying to find suitable conversation was greatly reduced. In the gaps in the conversation with Marc, as they applied themselves to the superb roast duck, Bernie heard Serena joking with and being teased by René, and the couple’s sixteen-year old daughter, Lola.

“We’re lucky, Serena, to have got a woman gynaecologist finally,” Marie-Ange broke in. “When Dr. Bouchard first came here, there were some women that didn’t want to go to him because he’s a man.”

“What?” Serena laughed, “really?”

 “Oh we’re still a bit behind the times here – some men, especially in the more religious families, aren’t happy to have their wives seeing a male gynaecologist.”

“But the other doctor is a man, too.”

“But he’s old, that seems to be less of a problem. And he delivered some of the husbands as well as their children so he’s a fixture in the town. Dr. Bouchard is much younger, and a foreigner.”

“But everyone knows Jax is gay,” Lola interjected.

“Lola!” exclaimed her mother, causing Bernie to sit up and pay attention.

Mais c’est évident, maman, il est gay, et tout le monde le sait ! 

Serena shrugged, “It doesn’t matter whether he’s gay, straight, bisexual - he’s a qualified doctor, and that’s all that matters.”

“Well it’s a good thing he’s a gynaecologist and doesn’t have to poke around with the guys’ private parts,” Lola sniggered, pushing her knife and fork aside as her mother shrugged, teenagers, what could you do with them?  and Serena smiled.

Bernie understood all this and could feel her cheeks getting warm. She went to pick up her glass, noticing that it was once again full, and took a healthy swig, thinking she could blame the state of her cheeks on the wine. Marie-Ange reached over and patted her hand.

“Well, I’m very fond of Dr. Bouchard, but it’s really nice to have a woman working here as well. Catherine has told me that you’re very popular with the patients.”

“Oh..um..really? Well, that’s good,” was all Bernie could manage.

“And so nice for Serena to find a friend here,” she gushed.

Serena coughed. “Well, I’m still technically a patient, but not for long I hope. Then we can perhaps socialise a bit more.”

“Oh pfffff,” Marie-Ange said. “This is a small town. No one cares if you’re friends with your doctor.”

Bernie’s nervous gaze suddenly locked with Serena’s. Her warm brown eyes radiated humour and understanding. She winked and Bernie dropped her eyes as Marie-Ange switched the subject to the previous day’s accident, and the recklessness of young people with motorbikes.

By the time they got up from the table and had kissed everyone goodbye, it was well past four pm and Bernie could feel the effects of the wine. She had drunk far more than she was used to in the middle of the day, and, with dismay, realised she would not be able to drive back like this. Serena clearly felt the same, as she said: “Why don’t we go for a walk round the vineyard and I can show you the work we do? Then I’ll make us some strong coffee. You should be fine to drive after that, there are no police around on a Sunday afternoon.”

“Am I so obviously inebriated?”

“No, not at all. But I saw how René was filling your glass every five minutes, and I got the same treatment. I wouldn’t be taking to the roads right now, I can assure you.”

Bernie smiled her agreement and the two women took their leave of the family. It was almost three hours later when Bernie finally said her farewells, and by then she had discovered that, in addition to her physical charms, Serena Campbell was also excellent company.

“This has been a really enjoyable day, Serena. Thank you so much for inviting me. Also interesting to meet the family here.”

“Yes, you need to get the stamp of approval from the community. Everyone will know about it by tomorrow lunchtime, I’m sure,” Serena responded drily.

“I suppose I have to get used to it,” Bernie remarked wistfully.

“And look, Bernie, I know I’m still technically your patient, but if you’d like to be friends, well, once the results come back…”

“Negative,” Bernie said firmly. “I’m obliged to send samples, but I can assure you I know what I saw under the microscope.”

“So there we are. How about lunch on Wednesday? That’s when I’m next in town for shopping.”

“Um, yes, in principle that sounds fine. But let’s confirm later. Lunchtimes  can sometimes be unpredictable.”

“Absolutely.” Serena’s smile warmed Bernie right down to her toes and Bernie had to break her gaze. She was so completely unused to interacting normally around people in a non-professional context that it was hard for her to read Serena’s intentions.

Then Serena leaned over and brushed her lips against Bernie’s cheek. Bernie was taken by surprise and hastily backed away towards the door…

“B-b-bye, Serena. Thanks again. See you next week,” and she shot off like a frightened rabbit, much to Serena’s amusement.

Bernie unlocked her car with shaking hands and collapsed into the driver’s seat. What an idiot she was. A kiss on the cheek. Perfectly normal stuff, the French did it all the time. But she had now learned one more thing about Serena Campbell to add to her growing list: she smelled wonderful.

Chapter Text

Serena told herself she wasn’t really counting the days till Wednesday, but as Monday and Tuesday were full-on preparing for harvest and the influx of seasonal workers, Wednesday was a welcome gap in her schedule. At 11am she texted Bernie:

  Is lunch looking possible? If so, how long do you have?

She had to wait 20 minutes for an answer.

Looks all clear from 1.30 -3.00 at this point.

Serena thought quickly. She didn’t want to go back to one of the cafes where they had met previously, and where the owners and patrons would talk about them (although why that seemed important, she couldn’t say), then she remembered Lola’s friend, Souad, who had given her the card for her parents’ Moroccan restaurant, located just off the main grid. It was no more than a 5 -minute walk from the hospital, so Serena texted back:

Suggest new place for lunch – close to hospital. Chez Naïma, Rue Girard No. 5. I’ll book a table for 1.30.

 Bernie accepted -See you there.

 She told herself that she didn’t need to dress up, this was just lunch with a friend. But she added a squirt more perfume than she would naturally use, changed her earrings for something a little more sparkly, and chose a close-fitting navy camisole under an aqua silk blouse. Serena had intended to arrive a few minutes early, but road works on the high street meant she had to detour to find a parking space and it was 1.35 when she arrived, out of breath from almost jogging from the car.

The restaurant was half-full and Bernie was already seated at a table, talking on her phone, so instead of dashing over, Serena slowed her pace and made for the bar, to give Bernie privacy. She couldn’t help noticing as she passed that Bernie’s face wore a look of deep distress and that her eyes were watery. Concerned, Serena moved past her and sat on a stool. The owner, Naïma it must be, had come to the counter so Serena introduced herself, explaining how she had got the card of the restaurant, and what a nice girl Souad was. Naïma, a vivacious woman in a lime green dress with flashing hazel eyes, was warm and welcoming.

“Oh Souad is always talking about you- the Englishwoman with the beautiful voice, she says.”

“Well, I’m flattered,” Serena smiled. “I practise English with Souad, she’s really very good, she and Lola both.”

Naïma laughed, clearly pleased. “They’re inseparable those two. But it’s good for Souad to have a close friend. Now let me get you a menu to look at while your friend finishes her conversation”, and she ducked out of sight. Serena half-turned to check on Bernie, and in the sudden silence she heard Bernie say “Well I’m sorry, I don’t know how many times I have to say that, but I really, truly am.” Her voice seemed to be breaking and Serena felt a stab of pain.

“And now I must go,” Bernie concluded and jabbed her phone, putting it down on the table just as Naïma returned holding two menus.

“This is today’s lunch menu- items two and four are finished but we have plenty of everything else, so take your time,” clearly referring to Bernie’s obvious distress.

Serena walked slowly to the table, dropping the menus and putting a hand gently on Bernie’s shoulder which was trembling slightly.

“Serena, hi,” Bernie said, trying to smile through waterlogged eyes and swiping at her face with the back of her hand.

Serena drew a pack of tissues from her bag and offered them to Bernie. “Has something happened?” she asked.

“No, well not really. It’s just my daughter. She hates me. I don’t know how we’ll ever get over it.”

Serena smiled sympathetically. “Well, if you want to talk about it….?” she offered, but Bernie shook her head, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

“No, let’s not spoil the day. Let’s order lunch,” and she took up the menu.

From one glance at the menu Serena knew that Chez Naïma could soon become her new favourite place. The daily specials were all light, fresh and featured a range of interesting ingredients.

“Naïma said that number two- the lemon chicken kebabs and number 4- the fish pastilla are finished, but everything else is available.”

“Mmm this does look good,” Bernie observed. “I got quite addicted to Middle Eastern food and this isn’t so different.”

Naïma suddenly appeared by their side. “Have you chosen, ladies?”

“Well I’m having the fish chermoula and salad,” Serena said.

“And I’ll try the lamb mechoui wrap. How spicy is the harissa sauce?”

“As spicy as you like it,” Naïma twinkled. “French people usually prefer the milder version but I keep a batch of the really hot stuff for experts.”

“Oh yes, please,” Bernie said. “And iced mint tea, please. “

“Two?”

“Yes, that’s fine,” Serena said.

“Good choice, ladies,” Naïma said, walking away.

They made small talk until the food came, then they tucked in greedily. It was really excellent. Finally, scooping up the last of the hot sauce with her pitta and wiping her plate, Bernie started to open up.

“My son is planning to visit me soon,” she said, popping in the last mouthful.

“I thought from what you said before that both your children were …having issues with you.”

Bernie swallowed and took a drink of tea. “Well, they did, but my son, Cameron- he’s at medical school- seems to have come round more easily. It helps that he never really got on with his father.”

“Right. Well, that will be great, to have him here,” Serena said warmly.

“Yes. That was him on the phone…at first. He was with Charlotte, and he wanted her to talk to me. Bad idea, it seems.” She sighed.

Serena stayed silent and drank some tea, keeping her eyes on Bernie, knowing that she would eventually talk.

“I…the end of my marriage was…painful,” she admitted, toying with the edge of her cork coaster.

Serena raised her eyebrows. “Whose isn’t?” she asked.

“Well, it needn’t have been if I’d been honest, but I ..well, I was a coward. I told Marcus I wanted a divorce because we’d grown apart, but then he found out I’d had an affair with a …. a fellow officer,  and ..well……,” her voice tailed off.

Serena’s face had darkened. “Yes, I suppose infidelity does hit hard,” she said, “speaking as a wife whose husband shagged everything that moved. The humiliation can be difficult to bear.” This came out much more tartly than she had intended and for a minute, Bernie just looked at Serena with a frozen expression. Then she found her voice.

“It wasn’t ..like that. I didn’t make a habit of having affairs. The other officer was a woman, and it was only then I realised that I was ..had always been ..gay.” She looked down.

Serena silently cursed her sharp tongue. Bernie had gone very pale and was pulling cork bits off the coaster again. Suddenly Naïma appeared at the table.

“Everything OK ladies? Can I tempt you with some dessert?”

Bernie looked up. “No, thank you, Naïma, that was delicious but I have to go,” and she pushed back her chair and pulled out her wallet.

“Bernie, wait,” Serena’s hand shot out to grip Bernie’s arm.

“I’m so sorry I said that,” she said in English, as Naïma stood looking from one to the other. “Je reviens dans cinq minutes,” she said, tactfully moving away.

Bernie’s jaw was working, evidence of her attempt to keep her emotions under control.

“Sit down, Bernie,” Serena said quietly. “Don’t leave like this. Let me apologise properly.”

Not making eye contact, Bernie sat back down, clutching her bag on her knees.

“That was insensitive and unkind of me. I had a very bad divorce and a horrible time with my ex and, well, that experience has made me rather prickly where infidelity is concerned, but in your case, it’s completely different. I’m so sorry you had to spend all those years struggling in a marriage you felt wasn’t right. It must have been very difficult.”

Bernie didn’t answer at first, but put her bag on a chair and went back to torturing the coaster. “The affair wasn’t the reason for the divorce,” she said finally in a tight voice. “And it was over before I decided to end the marriage. It just …clarified things for me.”

Serena reached out to put her hand on Bernie’s. “Please forgive my unkindness and share a dessert with me. The brik is fabulous.”

When Bernie looked up, Serena tried to project as much warmth as she could muster into her smile and was rewarded with a twitch of Bernie’s lips. “I could be tempted,” she said. “I don’t know what it is but I trust your judgement. And apology accepted.”

Serena felt relieved as she called a passing waitress over to clear their plates and order the dessert. They didn’t speak for a few minutes, then Naïma brought the dessert. It looked rather like a millefeuille, but with filo pastry. There were two forks on the plate, which Naïma set down with a twinkle in her eye.

“Enjoy, ladies. This is my homemade invention. I hope you like it.”

“I’ve had it before,” Serena confessed. “Souad brought some to the vineyard when we had an English session. It’s absolutely delicious!”

“Good. And can I offer you some coffee? On the house.”

“That would be lovely,” Bernie said, eyeing the dessert with great interest. To keep the mood positive and get things back on track, Serena explained that ‘brik’ referred to the pastry and that there were many versions of it, from Tunisia and Algeria as well as Morocco. Souad had explained that it was more common to find the savoury versions, but that in Marrakesh, where her parents were from, there was also a sweet tradition.

Bernie had dug in with her fork. “Oh wow this is divine,” she said. Between the light pastry layers there was a fluffy crême patissière and a fresh raspberry puree. The pastry had been dusted in icing sugar and cinnamon and oversprinkled with orange flower water. It was, as Bernie said, divine. By the time Naïma came back with the coffee, the mood had lightened considerably.

“I hope everything was satisfactory,” Naïma said, putting down the little brass tray on which was an engraved silver coffee pot and two small cups, two foil- wrapped chocolates rounding off the presentation.

“It was wonderful,” Serena told her. “I’ll be back for sure.”

“Me, too,” added Bernie. “Do you make everything yourself?”

“Well, not by myself, no,” Naïma laughed. “My partner is the main chef, actually. And he’s not even Moroccan.”

“But I thought Souad said both her parents came from Marrakesh?” Serena was surprised.

“Yes, we do. My ex-husband, her father, works for the Moroccan Consulate in Toulouse. We’ve been divorced for ten years. I’ve been with Philippe, who’s from Belgium, for seven years. It’s a strange coincidence, but he spent ten years in Marrakesh working in hotels and restaurants. “

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Serena smiled. “And what a great restaurant! I’m going to tell everyone I know about it.”

“Well as you’ve been so good to my daughter, who thinks the world of you, by the way, here’s a 20% discount voucher, Serena. It’s valid for a year starting today, so please feel free to bring your friends here and they can also benefit.”

“Are you sure?” Serena was startled. “20% seems high. Won’t you lose a lot of money?”

“Well of course we want to make profit, but we do very well, we run the patisserie next door  as well, and my main aim in life is to have satisfied  customers. A happy daughter is a bonus.  So enjoy, ladies!” and she sauntered off.

Bernie had begun pulling the foil off the chocolate. “Oh..mint crisp! One of my favourites,” and she began munching happily. Serena poured coffee and moved her chocolate to Bernie’s saucer.

“Don’t you want yours?” Bernie asked, astonished.

Serena smiled and shook her head. Bernie unwrapped the second chocolate and held it out to Serena.

“Well at least have a bite!”

Serena looked up into the warmth of Bernie’s gaze and, with a small nod of acceptance, moved her mouth towards the chocolate. Bernie was right. It was exquisite. In fact, Serena almost regretted having given it away, but as Bernie moved the chocolate back into her own mouth, the frisson of sensual delight that ran down Serena’s spine was well worth the sacrifice.

Serena tried to hide her reaction in her coffee cup and by the time the waitress dropped the bill onto the table, she had recovered her composure.

Bernie started hunting in her wallet, but Serena stayed her hand.

“Put that away, Bernie. This is on me. It was my treat from the start, but doubly so since I managed to upset you with my insensitivity. Please, let’s put all that behind us, eh?”

Bernie inclined her head. “Yes, and I hope that means we can come here again. I love this place.”

“And with a 20% discount, what’s not to love?” Serena smiled her best smile, which Bernie returned warmly.

“Well, I’m leaving a tip”, she said, dropping a 5 euro note on the table. “And I really have to dash now,” she said, “there’s paperwork to catch up on. Not that I’m looking forward to it, you understand, but …”

“Oh, I know all about paperwork,” Serena interjected. “You get to it, Dr.  Wolfe….or is it Ms? They don’t seem to use the same forms of address here. What was your rank in the RAMC by the way?”

“Oh.um..Major,” Bernie seemed surprised.

“Right, Major, you run along, and we’ll be in touch,” Serena said.

Suddenly, without warning, Serena felt Bernie’s lips brush her cheek, then she was gathering her bag and pushing her chair back, all long limbs and slightly flushed skin. Serena sat watching her, the faint scent of Bernie’s herbal shampoo in her nostrils and the lingering buzz of her kiss. She hardly noticed when Naima materialised next to her with a credit card reader in her hand.

“Friend of yours from home?” she asked matter of factly.

“Oh no….she’s the new ob-gyn consultant at the hospital,” Serena said distractedly. Naïma’s eyebrows raised a fraction.

“Covering for Docteur  Bouchard?”

Serena nodded, pulling her credit card from her wallet and handing it to the owner. Then a thought struck her.

“Naïma, Dr. Wolfe and I just want to find a place where we can meet and talk away from her patients. It’s difficult being a foreigner in a small town, especially in a job like Dr. Wolfe’s. She needs a private space from time to time, you understand?”

Naïma did not meet Serena’s gaze as she fed the card into the reader and held it out for her to enter her pin, but she said “Oh, believe me, I do.” Then, handing the receipt to Serena, she winked and said “You’re both welcome here any time, and nothing leaves this room.”

***

Bernie found it hard to concentrate on her paperwork that afternoon. The patient round started again at 5.30 and she had barely managed to finish the most urgent of her tasks. Her mind kept replaying the moment when Serena had changed her demeanour and begged her to stay. The preachy sermon on infidelity had hardly been a surprise to Bernie, whose life experience had conditioned her to expect censure more often than praise, but the way Serena had tried so hard to overcome it, to keep her friendship and empathise with her situation was both new and different. Bernie felt flustered when she thought of Serena as a patient. The examinations she had conducted had been purely professional, as a doctor she was able to separate the condition from the person, but now that the boundaries had been eroded by recent experience, she knew for certain that she could not treat Serena again. Once the results came in from the lab in Lyon -results she was 99.9% sure were negative- this would conclude their professional relationship.

The following two days were busy and exhausting- Bernie had elective surgeries every morning and on Friday afternoon, she was pulled into an emergency when a woman who had tried to give birth at home experienced a placental abruption, a condition at first undiagnosed by her midwife, and later denied by her husband, who insisted on attempting a home delivery. The midwife finally  prevailed, but by the time they reached the hospital, Bernie had been unable to save the mother, who bled out despite all the transfusions, and her calling in the hospital’s top general surgeon to assist. Her wretchedness was not helped by the woman’s husband, who insisted on making loud accusatory statements and threatening to call the press. Her one consolation was that she had managed to extract the child during an emergency Caesarean, and he was now in the ICU on an incubator. Yves Charpentier, the head of the surgical team, praised her exceptional skill in saving the child and assured her that he would stand by her in the event of any inquiry. Nevertheless, Bernie felt she had failed, and she had been unable to face those patients still waiting for her in evening surgery, so Sylvie and Catherine arranged for some to be rescheduled and a couple  to be seen by Jean-Claude.

By the time she reached her small apartment, Bernie felt that she was sliding back down to rock bottom. Her back hurt, she had no appetite for food and she had the woman’s last moments running on a loop in her head. When her phone rang and she saw Serena’s name on the screen, she panicked. She cut the call and texted that she was unable to talk because of an emergency surgery. Knowing that Serena was anxious for the results of her test, she added that the report had not yet come in but that she should call back on Monday. Then she had dropped her phone and poured herself a whisky.

Two hours later, Bernie was fuzzy but not yet drunk. At some point between the third and fourth whisky shot she had managed to make herself an omelette, and, once she had eaten it, she had simply collapsed on her sofa staring into space. When her phone buzzed with the message “How did it go? Do you want to talk about it?”, she was sufficiently unwound not to think too hard before calling Serena and pouring out the events of the afternoon. Just the act of talking to someone, another surgeon, in English, was a blessed relief.

“Bernie, from what you’ve told me, you have nothing to reproach yourself for. In fact, you went over and above to save the child. We can’t always put right what others have previously done wrong, and the husband at least has a lot to answer for.”

Bernie was silent.

“Do you want me to come over?”, Serena asked, sensing Bernie’s anguish and her feeling of personal failure.

“No, no, I’ll be fine tomorrow.”  Her reaction was instinctive. Surrendering to a feeling of helplessness was more than she could bear, however much she craved   Serena’s healing touch. In her current state, that could be dangerous.

“OK, but remember, if your back’s hurting, I can help.”

“I know. Serena. And thank you. But this is just a bad day. I’m going to bed now. Tomorrow everything will be different.”

“I hope so, Bernie. But remember I’m here if you need.”

“Thank you, Serena, I really appreciate it. I’ll call you in a few days.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

So caught up was she with the beginning of the harvest, Serena didn’t see or speak to Bernie again until Monday morning, when Bernie called her to say the results had come in and were, as expected, negative. That was a relief, but it also meant that Serena had no reason to meet Bernie unless she engineered it. With her working days stretching from 6am till around 8pm with only short breaks, till the main grape picking and sorting had been achieved, Serena found that she was too exhausted to think about anything else. She had come to St. Julien on a wine tour originally, and after meeting Marie-Ange and explaining her interest in wine, especially the Syrah (Shiraz) grape, the family had persuaded her to stay through the harvest in their cottage and work with the vineyard staff to observe the process. The cottage came with the job, and Serena had considered it an excellent deal at the time. The prospect of another 4-6 weeks of this, however, made her realise that her social horizons would be extremely limited, just when she had wanted to broaden them a little.

By Friday of the first week of the harvest, Serena was seriously wondering if she had the stamina for this. She had rotated jobs from grape picking, to reception and sorting and cleaning. There was so much cleaning! Just before 11am, after 5 hours’ hard work, Serena stopped for a coffee and a bathroom break and had a shock. She was bleeding, heavily it seemed and blood had already soaked through her underwear and capris, which, fortunately, were black. Marie-Ange was in the kitchen supervising the late morning coffee break and Serena quietly took her to one side and explained that she needed to go and deal with this. She was also aware of a nagging pain in her lower back and pelvic area that was sickeningly familiar. She had had no periods for three months and even before that, they had been light and sporadic for some time.

“Tu t’es surmenée, Serena, you’ve overdone it you are not one of the young pickers. Take as much time as you like, rest, and call Dr. Wolfe to make sure there’s nothing serious.”

As Serena made her way back to the cottage, she told herself she was overreacting. This kind of thing was common with the onset of the menopause, yet she had assumed her periods had stopped. As she stripped and showered, she imagined what she might say to a patient complaining of the same thing. Doubtless something along the lines of “Pull yourself together, woman,” she admitted ruefully.  Which is probably what Bernie would say to her if she showed up at the hospital. But being alone in a foreign country, she felt somewhat panicky and in need of advice. Once dressed in comfortable sweats, and fortified with tea and painkillers, Serena did an internet search, which only told her what she already knew, that perimenopause could drag on with irregular periods for quite some time. Then there was a list of conditions on which patients were advised to seek medical advice. Serena snapped her laptop shut. That would never do, imagining the worst. But two hours later she was still bleeding heavily, and the worry worm was gnawing at her insides.  Finally, hoping Bernie’s midday appointments were now over, she sent a text.

Could you give me a call when you’re free? I need a bit of medical advice.

 Within five minutes, her phone was ringing. “Serena, how can I help?”

At the sound of Bernie’s calm voice, Serena felt a rush of relief, her words tumbling out as she explained her concerns.

“I didn’t want to make an appointment and waste your time…but…”

“You’re worried, I understand”, Bernie reassured her. “You know, of course, that if your periods haven’t stopped definitively, it means you’re still in late perimenopause. This sometimes happens- the stopping and starting. You may have other symptoms of menopause but they may also start before the periods stop, so it’s a bit of a game, waiting to see what happens.”

“And what if it’s not normal?” Serena asked. “I may be a doctor, but this seems much heavier than I’ve had in the past, alarming even.”

“Well, as you’re certainly aware, irregular, heavy  bleeding could be a symptom of numerous other conditions, but at this point, given the information you’ve provided to me, and the tests we did two weeks ago, let’s stick with the probability of the menopausal transition period for now. What I’d like to do is run a few blood tests to check some markers so we have a better idea of where we are, and whether you need any supplementation. For that I need you to come in tomorrow before 8.30 am to take a fasting sample, is that OK?

“Yes, sure,” Serena replied.

“And meanwhile, rest, take it easy and let’s see how you progress overnight.”

“Thank you, Bernie, you’ve been a great help. I probably just needed someone to talk to about it,” Serena said, suddenly embarrassed by her own weakness.

“Any time, Serena. Don’t hesitate, you’ve done the same for me, after all,” Bernie chuckled.

“See you in the morning, take care!”

When she put the phone down, Serena felt suddenly lonely. Her cramps had lessened with the painkillers she’d taken, so after a light lunch she decided to go and help Marie-Ange with more cleaning, preferring that to sitting around worrying all afternoon. Marie-Ange clucked and fussed, but it was far better, Serena decided, to be back in the team and trying at least to pull her weight. Her energy lasted all of  three hours; by six pm she was exhausted and Marie-Ange packed her off again to rest. Serena now needed another shower, and, as she loaded the washing machine afterwards, she pushed down the feeling of panic at seeing that the flow was still fairly copious. Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough, she thought, collapsing on her sofa with a cup of chamomile tea. She must have dozed off because she was awakened by the sound of knocking. At first she thought it was in her dream, then the sound repeated, and she was dimly aware that someone was actually outside. She struggled to her feet, glancing at her watch. It was almost 8.30, so she had been asleep for almost 90 minutes. It must be Marie-Ange, coming to check on her, she thought, stumbling to the door. But she was wrong.

***

When Bernie’s last patient had departed at 7.45pm, there was a text from Cameron waiting on her phone. He had arrived the previous Monday evening, and had already started going his own way while she worked. The latest message was an example.

Madre, going to watch the football in the Sports Bar. Don’t wait up!

Bernie’s thoughts went immediately to Serena, alone in her cottage, worried and maybe in pain. She was also a very long way from a supermarket or a pharmacy. Before she could start questioning her own motives, Bernie was in her car heading out of St. Julien, stopping briefly at a late night Carrefour Express to pick up night-grade sanitary pads and a half bottle of whisky, then hitting the long country road towards the vineyard. The momentum took her all the way to Serena’s front door, then, as she saw the light on inside, reality struck. What would Serena think, her coming all this way so late, when they had already arranged to meet in the morning? Quelling the urge to run away, Bernie knocked firmly on the door. If Serena wasn’t happy to see her, she wouldn’t stay. She told herself she was just dropping in on a patient…

“Bernie!” Serena exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

“Thought I’d drop off some provisions and check on my patient,” she said, holding up her parcels and forcing some joviality into her voice.

Serena seemed stunned. Her face was red on one side and her hair was sticking up in adorable little tufts. She was also free of make-up and dressed in a loose top and cotton joggers. Bernie thought she looked even more beautiful. As she stood aside for Bernie to enter, her breasts swung gently beneath the top. Bernie felt her face getting hot.

“I’m sorry, were you sleeping?” she asked, to cover her confusion.

“I must have dozed off on the sofa,” Serena said, rubbing her face, “but thank you, thank you for coming. Do make yourself comfortable, I’ll be right back,” and she went into the downstairs bathroom while Bernie put her parcels on the coffee table and removed her jacket before sitting on the sofa. When Serena returned, she had obviously splashed her face with cold water because she looked more focused, and her hair was no longer sticking up.

“Can I get you some tea…or wine….or something?” she asked.

“No, I’m fine, just sit here and tell me how you are,” Bernie said, patting the space next to her. So Serena did, and Bernie listened, relieved that things had not worsened since their earlier conversation.

“So it seems to be slowing a little now,” Serena concluded, then, spotting Bernie’s parcel, she added “Oh, Bernie that’s so thoughtful, thank you. I was about to run out as I had just a small stock with me. The supermarket would have been my first stop tomorrow.” Then she saw the other item in the bag. “And what’s this? Whisky?”

“I was thinking you might like a hot toddy…..or something,” Bernie ended lamely.

Serena smiled warmly. “You’re such a sweetie, and actually I had been thinking about that, but hey, you’ve just come from work and haven’t eaten. And neither have I….we can’t drink whisky on an empty stomach.”

“Oh I’m OK….” Bernie started to say, but Serena silenced her. “Nonsense. Now you’re here, I’ll make us something to eat. Then you can join me in a whisky afterwards.” She got to her feet and moved towards the kitchen, opening the fridge and pulling out drawers.”

“Don’t go to any trouble for me,” Bernie said.

“I wasn't planning to. Come and give me a hand,” Serena said.

So Bernie found herself standing at Serena’s worktop chopping radishes, cucumbers, spring onions and tomatoes while Serena expertly cracked and separated four eggs, whisking the whites to soft peaks, then folding them into the yolks, seasoning with salt, black pepper and mixed herbs and slipping the mixture into a hot buttered pan. While the bottom cooked, she grated Gruyère over the top, then folded the whole thing in half, flipped it over to make sure it was properly cooked and cut it into two parts, sliding them onto two plates, adding a handful of rocket to each plate. Then she turned to Bernie, who was watching her in amazement.

“Salad done?” she asked, as Bernie indicated her chopping board. Serena scooped the chopped salad into small bowls and put them on the table with a small jar of homemade French dressing, adding half a fresh, crusty baguette, and indicated for Bernie to sit. Watching Serena so effortlessly produce a simple but beautiful meal made Bernie all too aware of her own culinary shortcomings. The omelette, of course, was perfect- light, fluffy and very tasty. A far cry from the limp, plain thing Bernie had made the previous week.

“I would normally have wine, but tonight, after taking painkillers, I’ll pass,” Serena said. “A whisky later will be fine.”

“No problem,” Bernie said. “I have to drive anyway. And this is just delicious, Serena. I never thought of whisking the eggs like that.”

“It’s something my mother taught me,” Serena admitted, scooping up salad and dressing with the baguette. “She was French, although she had lived most of her life in England. She was a very fussy cook, so I guess some of that has rubbed off.”

They chatted about mothers for a few minutes as they finished the food, then a thought struck Serena.

“Has your son arrived yet? You said he was coming.”

“Oh yes. But he’s already fed up hanging around waiting for me. He’s out sampling the nightlife of St. Julien.”

“Such as it is,” Serena observed drily.

“Yes, it seems to consist of bars where groups of young people go to play pool and watch football on giant screens.”

“And he came all this way to do that?”

“Well, he supposedly came to see me, but I’m working and I’m sure he’s bored with me already. The thing is he has this one month break between finishing his exams at medical school and starting his F1 year. I can’t imagine he’ll stick around here too long but he doesn’t want to be in England, or near his father. Marcus has an unfortunate tendency to interfere. He’s trying to get Cameron a place at St. James- that’s the hospital he works at in Holby. But Cam has his heart set on London.”

“Holby?” Serena asked, startled. “But that’s where I’m from. Or rather, where I worked-still work I suppose. Holby City hospital. What a coincidence!”

“That’s amazing!” Bernie said, sitting back in her chair. “I mean what are the odds of meeting another surgeon from Holby in rural France?”

“Have you ever worked there?”

“I’ve pulled a few shifts at St. James’, but working with Marcus was never a good idea. When I was with the RAMC I only used to go there for leave periods, when Marcus got the job at St. James, and moved into his mother’s house after she died, about five years ago. But I’ve never been to Holby City hospital.”

“Marcus- that wouldn’t be Marcus Dunn by any chance? Orthopaedic surgeon?”

“Yes, that’s him. Have you met?”

“Mm..once or twice. Hospital functions and what have you,” Serena answered vaguely, remembering a fairly nondescript man who got over-animated about prosthetic limbs after a few glasses of wine.

“So what do you think Cameron will do to pass the time?” Serena tried to change the subject.

“Oh, I don’t know. Move on, backpack around, whatever it is that twenty-somethings do these days.”

“Do you think he’d fancy working in a vineyard?” asked Serena, an idea forming slowly in her head.

“He might. Why not?”

“It comes with a bunk in the seasonal worker’s dorm. All fun and games from what I hear.”

“Are there spaces available?” Bernie asked, beginning to see that Serena was serious.

“Oh yes, there’s me for starters. I can’t keep up this pace for four or more weeks. Goodness, this last week nearly killed me. Besides, I’d quite like some time to myself as well. I was planning to tell Marie-Ange I’d prefer to work three days per week and pay her 50% of the cottage rental. I’m sure she’d rather have a fit young man in her team and I know there’s space in the dorm. Look,” Serena said, seeing Bernie’s hesitation and taking her hand, “why don’t you bring Cameron out here to meet everyone and see how he feels? Tomorrow’s Saturday- the young people have some sort of party – crates of beer, from what I’m told, and a barbecue. Bring him over and let him join in,” and she gave Bernie’s hand a little squeeze of encouragement.

Bernie was trying to keep her mind on Cameron rather than the tingle in her hand, but she could see no flaws in the idea. “OK I’ll ask him,” she said, pulling her hand away. “Now let’s get cleared up. I’ll wash, you wipe.”

Bernie knew she should go home, but when Serena made them each a hot whisky with honey and lemon, she didn’t refuse. She was so unused to this feeling of comfort and ease that she didn’t take much persuading to stay a little longer.

“Would you like to watch a film or something?” Serena asked. “I have a few DVDs and there’s a player.”

Bernie just shrugged, having no idea about films. “Whatever you’d like,” she said. So Serena chose an old romcom with Hugh Grant, and they settled down to watch, content with the warmth of the whisky in their bellies and the soothing presence of the other. Bernie realised somewhat belatedly that she was more tired than she had thought and at some point, the film blurred before her eyes and she could feel herself drifting away. When she suddenly jerked awake, it was with a heavy weight on her shoulder, and she realised that Serena was fast asleep, her soft hair tickling Bernie’s nostrils. Bernie wriggled experimentally to see whether Serena would move, but then an arm snaked round her waist and Serena snuggled in deeper. Bernie gave in and closed her eyes, the feel of another warm body against hers unexpectedly luxurious. Serena fitted perfectly, her soft curves moulding to Bernie’s sharper angles. Bernie knew her back wouldn’t thank her for the position, but she had no energy or will to move, or to think too hard about what this might mean.

The next time she opened her eyes, the TV screen was black and Serena had somehow slipped down and was balanced on Bernie’s hip, having snared a cushion that she was using as a pillow. A dull pain in her back told Bernie that she was half-lying at an awkward angle, so she carefully extricated herself and lowered Serena’s cushion to the sofa without waking her. Spotting a blanket on the back of a chair, she then raised Serena’s legs so that she was lying curled on the sofa, and covered her with the blanket before stretching and looking at her watch. It was 2.15 am. They had been asleep for hours. Good God, what would Cameron think if she stayed out all night? Flustered, Bernie switched off the TV and DVD player, grabbed her car keys and, as an afterthought, went to the kitchen area where she drank down a glass of water and got one for Serena, to leave on the coffee table. She decided to leave and call Serena at 7.30 to wake her if necessary. Then she turned off the light and tiptoed out of the cottage to her car.

Chapter Text

Serena woke with the first rays of light filtering through the blinds, puzzled at first as to why she was lying on her sofa, then, as she stretched, registering the nagging pain in her lower belly, snapshots of the previous evening came back to her. Groaning, she dragged herself up the stairs to her ensuite, then took some painkillers and got into bed. But sleep wouldn’t come. Her anxious mind searched for any hint of when Bernie must have left. How rude of her to fall asleep and leave her guest alone. Worse, what if she had fallen asleep on Bernie? How embarrassing would that be? Yet while she lay there trying to decide how best to greet her new friend this morning, she felt a sudden, deep stab of affection as she recalled Bernie’s kindness in coming to her, her comforting presence and smell, a mixture of something citrussy and something medical, which made sense, since she had come straight from the hospital. She saw in her mind’s eye those long legs in the tight skinny jeans and the taut muscles of her forearms as she had washed dishes with Serena. And now Serena was going to consult her again as a professional, and although she knew they were reaching a point at which it would not be appropriate, she didn’t care.

Realising that sleep was now impossible, she cancelled her alarm and got up, remembering just in time about the fasting blood test and foregoing her usual milky coffee for a pot of herbal tea, then sitting at the kitchen table with her phone, wondering whether she should call Bernie. Finally, at 7.20 she took the coward’s way out and texted:

Woke up on the sofa. Whoops! Sorry for abandoning you, but thank you so much for coming.  Hope you got back OK and got some sleep. I’ll be there for the bloods by 8.30. x

Bernie was obviously up because the reply came quickly. No worries! See you soon. x

Serena didn’t think it odd that they had started putting kisses on their texts, but as she drove to the hospital it suddenly struck her that it was Saturday, and consultants didn’t work Saturdays unless there was an emergency or they were on call. So once again, Bernie was putting herself out for Serena. As she parked the car and headed for the main doors, Bernie came jogging up from the other side. She had a long T-shirt over her crop top for the sake of decency, but in her lycra running tights, hair tied back, face slightly flushed, she was still a sight to behold. Her appearance reinforced the idea that she was only coming in to do this one test for Serena, something a nurse could easily have done.

“Hi, how are you feeling?” were Bernie’s first words, while Serena groped for a response, momentarily overwhelmed both by Bernie’s solicitousness and by the jolt in her belly  at the sight of Bernie in her jogging gear.

“Um..better, I think. It’s probably just wasting your time…” she started to say.

“Nonsense,” Bernie said, pushing open the door and heading for her office.

Once inside, she got Serena seated, then washed her hands and put on surgical gloves before getting out the blood testing kit, wrapping the strap around Serena’s arm and tapping to find a suitable vein.

“I hope you weren’t too uncomfortable last night,” she said shyly, looking up through her fringe.

“Gosh no, I was out for the count…thanks for covering me with the blanket and leaving some water, by the way. I’m just embarrassed that I was such poor company. What time did you leave?”

Bernie had swabbed the inside of Serena’s elbow and was now inserting the needle into a vein so she didn’t look up.

“It must have been after midnight. I think I dropped off myself after a while.”

“What a useless pair we are,” Serena laughed. Then, as Bernie pulled the needle out and asked Serena to press on the puncture site while she sealed and labelled the blood vials, Serena took advantage of her looking the other way to say with studied casualness, “I hope I ..er..didn’t fall asleep on you.”

Bernie said nothing for a minute, then, taking a Band Aid from her drawer, she gently covered the puncture wound and looked up briefly.

“Well if you did, I probably didn’t notice. I was pretty tired, too. In fact, I was worried about Cameron, if he had gone back to my flat and not found me there. But he didn’t show up till this morning, so I assume he found a more ..er comfortable bed than my sofa!”

“Good to know there actually IS nightlife in St. Julien,” Serena laughed, relieved.

“Apparently so. Now we’re done here- I’m dropping this at the lab with the paperwork I prepared yesterday, then I suggest we grab some coffee and breakfast. You must be starving, and so am I after that run.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Serena agreed, getting up.

“Wait for me by the lifts over there, I’ll be quick,” and they left the office together before going their separate ways.

The hospital corridors were almost deserted on this early Saturday morning and Bernie was soon back, ushering Serena through another door that she swiped with her pass. “It’s quicker to get out via the ED,” she said, “instead of going all the way back round to main reception”. However, as they rounded the corner into the ‘Urgences” reception area, there was a sudden commotion. A terrified-looking teenage boy was shouting for help, supporting a middle-aged man with a towel wrapped round his neck. Blood was pumping from a wound in his throat, it was all over the front of his shirt, and on the boy’s T-Shirt. The man was sagging, plainly on the verge of losing consciousness. The nurse on duty ran over to them in horror.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know..he’s my father..I found him like this..” the boy sobbed.

“Call Dr. Charpentier,” she yelled to her colleague, helping the boy to half-carry the man into a cubicle. Bernie and Serena stopped, transfixed. Serena could feel Bernie vibrating with energy, but waiting to see who would attend to the man. The second nurse returned.

“He’ll be 30 minutes,” she said. “He’s on the tennis court.”

“So who do we have?” the Senior nurse asked brusquely.

“Dr. Fonseca is on duty- but he’s fixing a broken leg,” the nurse said.

Merde,” muttered the Senior Nurse, when Bernie burst in, “I’m a surgeon and I’m Trauma trained. Can I help?” she held out her lanyard ID showing that she was a doctor on the hospital staff.

The Senior Nurse looked up, surprised. “Dr. Wolfe! Mais vous êtes gynécologue“.      

 Serena cut in “Dr. Wolfe is a highly trained specialist in all kinds of surgery- she used to work for the British Army in war zones. Let her help you.”

The woman looked surprised, but she nodded, and Bernie moved immediately to the bed, lifting off the towel and examining a large cut in the man’s neck.

“Oh Christ, he’s tried – or someone’s tried to cut his throat. We need to get him to theatre and repair this. Right now, or he’ll bleed out.”

Serena translated this for the nurse, and in seconds, she had dragged the on-duty doctor from the patient with the broken leg and wheeled in a trolley full of instruments, telling the other nurse to take the boy out of the way and find out more about what had happened.

“Prep for surgery,” Bernie instructed as soon as Dr. Maury Fonseca appeared. He hesitated. He was a young man clearly not long out of medical school. He looked terrified.

“But I can’t do this kind of surgery,” he protested.

“No, but Dr. Wolfe can,” Serena told him. “You just do as she says.”

“Serena, I need you, too,” Bernie said, as she and the Senior Nurse began attaching the man up to various kinds of equipment, and getting an IV line in.

“But I’m not licensed here…I can’t do anything.”

“No, but you’re a vascular surgeon, which we appear not to have at this moment. I’d like you in the observation room. I’ll take full responsibility. Help Dr. Fonseca and I to stabilise the patient until Dr. Charpentier gets here at least. And an interpreter might be useful”, she added.

So that’s how Serena found herself, before breakfast on a Saturday morning, standing in an observation room communicating with Bernie in the operating theatre over an intercom while Bernie commanded all those around her. Her calm and authority were deeply impressive. She was immediately focused and efficient. Serena could see how well the staff responded to her instructions and how they instinctively trusted her. Between them they got the patient stabilised and, with Serena’s instructions guiding Bernie, they started an interim  repair to the severed artery. By the time Yves Charpentier had dropped his tennis racquet off and scrubbed in, the patient was stable.

Mon Dieu,” Yves exclaimed, looking around the theatre. A gynaecologist, a junior doctor, an anaesthetist and one theatre nurse. Then he heard Serena’s voice on the intercom and looked up at the observation window. “Et c’est qui, ça?”

“A vascular consultant from the UK,” Bernie replied, knowing he could speak English. “She was here for a test with me and we stepped in. If we hadn’t, this man would probably be dead by now. OK, Yves, he’s all yours,” and she stepped back to let him replace her.

Yves Charpentier looked down at the work done by the team so far and was very impressed.

“Not bad for a gynéco,” he remarked. “But then, I ‘ve had previous experience of your surgical skills, when we had that placental abruption last week. You have trauma training, you say?”

“I do. Twenty-five years mostly in war zones.”

“Then stay and help me with this repair,” he said. “I’m a General Surgeon, not a vascular specialist. We haven’t got one today so we have to do our best.”

“Why not let Serena scrub in? She could be more useful if she could actually see what we’re doing at close quarters.”

Yves hesitated. “I could get in big trouble for this, you know.”

“I’ll take full responsibility,” Bernie replied calmly. “Serena Campbell is surgical lead on an Acute Admissions Ward at a leading UK hospital and we can get all the proofs as soon as this is over. She doesn’t need to touch the patient, but I’d like her vascular expertise.”  He nodded.

And so Serena found her sabbatical from surgery coming to a sudden and dramatic end as she was drafted in to assist in an emergency operation. An operation that was a resounding success, no less. As they were scrubbing out, leaving Dr. Fonseca to tidy up, Yves asked “How long have you two worked together? That was an amazing bit of team work, by the way.”

“Oh we've never worked together. We met here,” Serena replied. “I was a patient.”

Yves stood stock still, water dripping from his hands as he looked from Bernie to Serena.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” said Bernie.

“Which hospital do you work at in the UK, Serena?” he asked, now drying his hands.

“Holby City, she replied, to which he nodded.  “Henrik Hanssen?”

“You know him?” Serena was astonished.

“He and I did a specialism together in Liverpool, oh, twenty years ago. We were in the same surgical team for that course and we stayed in touch. We’ve met occasionally at conferences- in the US, France, Sweden, the UK. He’s a good man.”

“Yes, he is,” she agreed. “So if you need paperwork for the medical board here, to explain my presence, just give Henrik a call and he’ll send whatever you require.”

They had by now moved into the corridor, heading for the locker room. Yves suddenly stopped and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed.

“Oh I’ll give him a call alright. I’m going to ask him if I can borrow you !”

Serena was shocked. “But I’m here on a sabbatical, I’m not working as a doctor. “

Yves grinned. “A shame. I’m going to ask him nonetheless, and then it’s up to you. I hope you change your mind,” and he pushed off the wall and headed off down the corridor.

“The arrogant arsehole!”, Serena fumed as she and Bernie got changed side by side, Serena trying not to look at Bernie’s toned body as she shimmied into her sinfully tight runners and hoping Bernie didn’t catch sight of her flabby bits. Bernie laughed as she pulled on her T shirt. “I know he’s out of order, but would you consider it? Working here for a bit, I mean?”

Serena was still in shock “I’ll have to give it a lot more thought.”

***

By the time Bernie and Cameron made it to the vineyard, Bernie was more concerned about her son’s reaction to the idea of picking grapes than of Serena working in the hospital. Cameron had said little about his night on the tiles, but she sensed in him a reluctance to move on, as if he had found something in St. Julien, apart from a mostly absent mother, that held his interest. It had been easy enough to get him to accompany her to the party. It seems he had already run into some of the young vineyard workers in the bars and cafes of the town.

As soon as they arrived at the outdoor area where the young seasonal workers and the regular vineyard staff were firing up a giant barbecue, Cameron had a beer thrust into his hand and a friendly arm slung round his shoulders.

“Ramón, hey man! “

The owner of the friendly arm turned out to be a third year Venezuelan medical student studying in Lyon, with whom Cameron had already bonded over a game of pool. Or so Bernie gathered. She politely allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks, then let them wander off. Serena drew her aside, eyes twinkling mischievously. “I’m guessing this isn’t really your scene, and nor is it mine. Let’s leave them to it. The grown-ups have a table over here with wine. The staff will bring us food, no need to get down and dirty with the children!”

Bernie nodded and followed Serena to the table. She noticed that Serena was wearing a navy camisole that clung seductively to her curves, and an open, loose chiffon blouse in swirling shades of blue and violet. She had tiny violet crystal earrings to match. Bernie felt her insides churn with anticipation as she thought that there was a possibility – faint but not hopeless, that soon she might be seeing Serena every day at work.  

“You look better than you did this morning,” she commented.

“Well that’s what catching up on a bit of beauty sleep will do! No, actually, apart from my afternoon nap, I feel much better now. I haven’t taken any painkillers recently, so let’s hope it continues that way.”

As they sat chatting, the staff began putting bowls of salad, dishes of olives and plates of bread on the table, then Marie-Ange came over bearing a huge platter of grilled meats.

“Here we are, ladies, tuck in,” and she sat with them and let Serena pour her some red wine.

“Bernie I am happy to see your son here. It would be great if he could join us for at least three weeks, we have a few spaces left in the dormitory.”

“I think it would be very good for him”, Bernie replied in her careful French, stuffing chunks of grilled pork and onions and green peppers into a mini baguette and topping it with a long drizzle of harissa. “He has free time but he doesn’t know what to do with himself and he doesn’t have much money of his own. This way, he earns and meets new people.”

Marie-Ange nodded, and then Serena began to engage her in a discussion in rapid French that Bernie understood related to Serena working as a surgeon instead of at the vineyard. Her heart began to beat faster. She couldn’t catch all the finer nuances but when they clinked glasses, Bernie knew some sort of deal had been struck. She was about to ask, but Serena winked and mouthed “later”.

It surprised no one that before the end of the evening, a rather animated Cameron came to tell his mother that he would not be returning to her flat. He had brought a few things in an overnight backpack and said he would collect the rest of his stuff later. Tomorrow was Sunday, he would stay with the young people here and find out more about the work. If it appealed to him he would start on Monday. Bernie and Serena exchanged smiles.  Once the food had been eaten and several glasses of wine drunk, Serena proposed a walk and a nightcap at her cottage. They got up from the table and said their goodbyes, then walked slowly back towards the cottage.

“So what was that all about?” Bernie wanted to know.

Serena wore a mischievous smile, the dimples in her cheeks irresistible in the moonlight as she suddenly took Bernie’s arm. Bernie’s first instinct was to stiffen, but then she forced herself to relax.  It felt rather cosy walking arm in arm in the soft dark, insects chirping and humming all around, breathing in the aromatic scent of the countryside, and Serena.

“You know I was kind of annoyed at Dr. Charpentier this morning, but when I think about it, I realise I really miss surgery. And do you know what the best part of this morning’s operation was?”

“Seeing the artery perfectly fixed thanks to your expertise?” ventured Bernie.

Serena hugged her arm tighter. ‘Well, that was good, yes. But it was working with you. Charpentier was right- we make a great team!”

Bernie couldn’t find words for a few seconds, her brain just shut down.

“Bernie, is something wrong?”  Serena suddenly stopped walking. “Don’t you want me to work with you?”

“No..I..no, of course nothing’s wrong,” Bernie stammered. In fact, she was so overwhelmed by the idea of working with Serena Campbell, seeing her every day, having someone to talk to, have lunch with, that she just couldn’t get her head around the fact that it might be real.

“No, Serena, I’d love to work with you!” she said emphatically. “I was just surprised, that’s all”.

“Really?” Serena’s joy was unmistakeable as they stood facing each other, then without warning, she threw her arms round Bernie’s neck and hugged her tight, kissing her on the cheek. Bernie was caught off guard and off-balance, her arms coming automatically around Serena. It was no more than a few seconds, but time enough for Bernie to feel Serena’s breasts pressing against hers, to get a lungful of her sweet perfume, and a hint of that luscious bottom where Bernie’s hand rested below Serena’s hip. And was it her imagination, or was Serena holding on tighter and for longer than friends usually did? When Serena finally let go and pulled back, Bernie found her heart racing and her cheeks unnaturally warm. Serena didn’t seem to notice, and took her arm again to resume walking.

“So if I do go to work at the hospital, Marie-Ange says I can stay in the cottage at least until the end of the harvest, and use the spare car. I offered to pay the rent, but she won’t take more than 50% and she wants me to keep tutoring the girls in English. Fair deal, eh?”

“Um…yes, absolutely,” said Bernie distractedly, still mentally feeling the way the curve of Serena’s hip fit her hand, and the soft velvet of the skin on her neck. By the time they reached the cottage, she was decidedly uncomfortable.

“So, nightcap?” asked Serena.

“Thank you, Serena, but I..um..I should be going. I don’t want to drink any more, I have to  drive.”

“We could have tea,” Serena suggested, “or you could stay over?”

Bernie’s brain went into overdrive at that thought. “No, really, I need to go home, but …”  seeing the disappointment on Serena's face,  “maybe some tea?” 

“Then tea it will be, Major,” unlocking the door and standing aside. “After you.”

Chapter Text

While Serena was mulling over her decision to work at the hospital, news of her activities had travelled fast. She was washing up after a light Sunday lunch when the ringing of her phone shattered the peace and quiet of the cottage. Serena smiled when she saw the name flashing up on the screen.  It was predictable really.

“Henrik! What can I do for you?”

“How are you Ms Campbell?”

“I’m fine. Is there something wrong?”

“I hadn’t planned to interrupt your sabbatical, but it seems your surgical talents have come to the attention of a certain Yves Charpentier, the head of Surgery at your local hospital.”

“So it would seem. And I take it he called you, he said he knows you, after all?”

“Yes, he does. He asks if he can – I think his term was ‘borrow’ you. I said that that was entirely up to you.”

“I see.”  Serena sensed there was more to come. “And what else did Monsieur Charpentier say?”

“That you appear to have teamed up with a certain Obs-Gynae consultant called Berenice Wolfe.” 

“So?” Serena prompted.

“And that having the two of you in one place – how did he put it? Il n’est pas chance qu’il ne retourne.”

Serena laughed. “Really? Opportunity knocks only once? Well, I’m not sure quite what opportunity he senses. Honestly, Henrik, it was pure fluke. I know Ms Wolfe, of course, actually I consulted her for er …female issues, then we kept bumping into each other and yesterday we happened to be crossing the same stretch of floor when a man with a cut throat collapsed in front of us. That sounds rather dramatic, but it’s true. And there was no other specialist available at that moment.”

“And Ms Wolfe, being multi-skilled, stepped into the breach taking you with her, I understand.”

“Do you know her?” Serena was beginning to feel she was missing something here.

“Of her,” was all Hanssen would say.

“Her ex-husband, Marcus Dunn?”

“Yes, we have met, although what I know about her is from her publications- she’s quite the authority, you know, on complicated obstetric procedures in under-resourced areas.”

“That doesn’t sound like your kind of bedtime reading, Henrik.”

“Well, one does occasionally like to stretch one’s surgical horizons, as it were, and I did see her at a conference in the US a couple of years ago on Trauma and Surgical Emergencies in the Military Operational Environment. She was impressive. Very.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it, Henrik, but she’s recovering from major injuries and I’m on a sabbatical, so I don’t know quite what Yves Charpentier thinks he’s going to do with us.”

“I gather he’s short-staffed, and that he’s been told he has to upgrade most of the medical staff over the next 2 years or lose some of his government funding. He sees you both as being qualified and experienced to assist with that.”

“Teaching?”

“Possibly. I’m not sure. That’s the extent of my knowledge. But just one thing, Serena…”

“Yes?”

“Your current sabbatical from Holby has a 12 month deadline. After that we can’t guarantee your consultant’s position and you may be forced to compete for any vacant positions.  Just to make that clear.”

“Oh don’t worry, Henrik, I’m sure things here will resolve themselves well within that deadline,” Serena sounded supremely confident.

“Well, then, we’ll leave it there. As far as I’m concerned, while you are not on an active contract with us, you can lend your expertise to whomsoever you like.”

“Well, thank, you Henrik. I haven’t quite decided yet.”

“And Ms Wolfe would be an ideal, er, surgical partner, I would think.”

“Partner?”

“A clumsy turn of phrase- I mean, from what I have observed of her, your skills would complement hers well. She’s also quite …..”

“Quite what, Henrik?” Serena’s tone is impatient.

“Quite charismatic, I was going to say. Something of an enigma, perhaps, although not necessarily to someone with your considerable psychological perspicacity.”

Hanssen didn’t do chuckling, but Serena heard it all the same.

“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” she said haughtily. “Now I really must go, Henrik, so goodbye and thank you for giving me a heads up.”

Whatever was all that about? Serena wondered.

***

Bernie went to work on Monday morning with a sense of anticipation. Would Serena accept Charpentier’s offer?  Imagining her new friend in various hospital scenarios, she was totally unprepared for what was waiting for her in her office.

“Jax!” she gasped, as, entering the room, she saw her previously absent colleague sitting at her desk. “What are you doing here?”

Jax gave her a rueful grin and, pushing his hands against the desk, manoeuvred himself into plain view. He was dressed in a tracksuit, sitting in a wheelchair, his left leg encased in plaster up to the thigh.

“An early end to my hopes of cycling round Europe.”

“What happened?” Bernie asked, perching against the desk.

“Oh, a three-way disagreement between a truck, a sports car and me somewhere in the Dolomites. I lost. As you can see.”

“But …don't you need time off to recover?”

“I suppose some people would see it that way, but you know I’m a workaholic right?  I thought we could divide the tasks between us and then we could cover more ground, so to speak.”

“I see,” Bernie folded her arms across her chest. “Well, relieved though I am to see you in one piece, Jax, I think we have some planning to do now. Do the hospital governors know you’re back?

“Oh, sure. And Charpentier, of course. He’s desperate to get more names on the surgical rota.”

“Right,” an image of Serena in the hospital’s royal blue scrubs floated across the surface of her consciousness.

At that moment the phone rang on the desk. Jax was nearest.

“Bouchard?  Mais bien sûr, Yves, on arrive. Bernie, there’s a good coffee stand just opened over the road, could you …..? Then join us in the conference room on the 3rd floor?”

Bernie glared at him.

“Hey, come on, I’m on two wheels, you’re on two legs. I’ll repay the favour. And mine’s a triple shot latte, OK?”

“What about Charpentier?”

“Just get him an espresso.”

Jaw clenched, Bernie grabbed her bag and stomped out. The new coffee stand that seemed to have appeared overnight was staffed by a good -looking man in his thirties with designer stubble and startling green eyes with long, dark lashes.

“This is new,” she said, fishing out her purse and looking for a name. The man gave her a cheeky smile and pointed to a sign above his head. “Café Naïma”, it said.

“Oh, like the restaurant!” she exclaimed.

The man grinned and said “She’s my aunt. I’m Sami. This is our first day. Normally I run the patisserie, but we thought we’d give this a go, so I’m setting it up. Croissants and stuff coming tomorrow.”

“Great,” enthused Bernie, who now had less far to walk for a shot of caffeine in drinkable format and a quality pastry. But how to say “triple shot latte” in French? She had just started constructing the sentence when Sami interrupted.

“It’s for Jax?”

“Um..yes..do you know him?”

“Of course. Leave it with me,” and he set about grinding beans and making espressos and frothing milk. By the time Bernie collected her tray, they were quite friendly.

“I’ll see you again soon, Sami, no doubt,” Bernie smiled as she picked up her tray.

Entering the conference room where Charpentier and Jax were waiting, Bernie had a sudden jolt of pleasure when she saw that Serena had joined them.

“Serena, hi, I’m so sorry….” she began, indicating the drinks.

“No worries…”, Serena brandished her takeaway cup. “I got mine on the way in.”

“OK, we’re all caffeinated,” Jax began in English. “So what’s your plan, Yves?”

The morning was a whirl and Bernie found herself struggling to keep up. Not just the language, which switched from English to French and back, something that taxed her brain more than she would have liked, but the fact that Yves Charpentier seemed to have the power to make decisions that, anywhere else, Bernie was sure, would require rubber stamping by at least three other officials. Serena said little, but it was clear that there was already an understanding between her and Charpentier that she was at their disposal. The surgical rota, Bernie’s main area of interest, was fairly straightforward, and when the meeting ended, Bernie asked “Does that mean you’re on our Team?”

“Yes, I rather think it does. I’ll be based in the ED but will assist with General Surgery and anyone else who needs a hand.”

“Right. OK yes, I see. Well,” looking at her watch, “in thirty minutes I have an abdominal hysterectomy with complications. There may be excessive bleeding. I could use your help, if you’re up for that?”

“Absolutely,” Serena was happy to get out of meeting mode and into action. “I’m just going to HR to sign some papers and I’ll be back.”

The surgery went well and Serena effectively second-guessed Bernie to make the operation go smoothly throughout.

As they were scrubbing out, Bernie said “I could get used to this.”

“To what exactly?” Serena turned to look at her.

“To having someone support me in surgery, to help me make the difficult decisions. Especially when they speak English.”

Serena’s eyes were warm as she replied “Well, it seems that’s what Charpentier wants, and as far as I can see, he represents the Powers That Be. And that’s fine with me. “

She turned to dry her hands, then put one hand on Bernie’s shoulder.

“And you’re a brilliant surgeon, Ms Wolfe, it’s a pleasure to be your partner….in surgery, I mean.”

Bernie felt her cheeks get hot, a counterpart to the burning of her shoulder through her scrubs. Serena’s eyes were like warm chocolate and Bernie had to look away for a second.” 

“I ..er.. yes, thank you, Ms Campbell. Your presence is much appreciated. Partners, hmmm?” Bernie couldn’t resist. “I have no objection to that.”

“Well, in that case, partner, it’s one o’clock and we need to get lunch. Naïma’s?”

Bernie nodded happily and Serena phoned ahead to get a table. This proved to be a wise decision as, when they arrived, the restaurant was full. Naïma caught Serena’s eye across the room and gestured them to go to the counter.

“I’ve got a more private room in the back”, she said, “among the plants. I’ve put you there.”

Serena nodded and Bernie followed her through a side door and into a small, glass-fronted conservatory, with four tables discreetly spaced between tall plants.

“Well this is nice,” Bernie said, taking up the menu. It was a warm day and the doors were open, standing fans gently swishing cooler air around. The combination of sounds, and the denseness of the foliage created a far more intimate space for conversation than the main restaurant.

“I’ll say,” Serena remarked, raising her eyebrows as she saw what the Daily Special was. She sniffed- “Well I know what I’m having.”

“Me too,” and Bernie, led by her nose, got up and went to the open door which gave onto a courtyard. Outside, in a brightly striped apron, fanning a long line of fresh sardines over charcoal, was a familiar face.

“Sami? I thought you were on the coffee stand oday?”

“Oh, hi Bernie, nice to see you here.  One of our employees has taken over the coffee stand now. I’m on barbecue duties, as you can see.”

“Smells delicious,” Bernie winked at him as she turned back to rejoin Serena.

***

Serena groaned. “If I eat like this every day I won’t be able to work in the afternoon.” She sat back, a small stack of sardine bones piled on her plate. “That salsa with the grilled peppers and mint was fabulous.” 

Bernie had scooped the last of her sardines and salsa into a pitta and was busy anointing it with harissa. She beamed at Serena as she levered it towards her mouth.

“And if I stuffed myself with carbs like you do, I’d be as fat as a house,” she remarked, having noted Bernie’s habit of adding bread to everything.

Bernie chewed, swallowed and chased the food with a slug of iced mint tea. “Sometimes I forget to eat,” she confessed. “A lifetime of irregular mealtimes and high octane  working environments. So when I have the chance, I fuel up.”

Serena sighed. “It sits very well on you,” she said almost grudgingly, “whereas I put on five kilos every time I look at a pastry!”

“You look perfect,” Bernie said. “I mean it. A few curves trumps skinny and bony any day. Certainly with men, I would think.”

Serena stared at her. Was she serious? She broke off her gaze, stunned by the warmth and sincerity in Bernie’s eyes.

“Well, I don’t know about that…… I’m having a bit of a rest from relationships,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Men, I mean. It’s just all too complicated and I’m rapidly reaching the point where I can’t be bothered. Sometimes one is better off on one’s own, don’t you think?”

“Oh…quite..yes,” stammered Bernie.

“Although I would think the ladies would be beating a path to your door,” Serena took a sip of tea as she said this, with a twinkle in her eye.

Bernie looked distinctly uneasy. “Why…why would you say that?”

“Well, look at you!  How was it I heard someone describe you when I said I had met you in France? Tall, blonde and gorgeous, I believe. From what I hear, you’re quite the lesbian pin-up, Major Wolfe.”

Bernie had flushed a dull red and dropped her head.

“I’m sorry, was that too much?”  Serena appeared contrite although she was secretly enjoying watching Bernie squirm.

“I…I just, I’m not used to this. I haven’t even really got my head around it myself,” she admitted, lifting her head. The mixture of fear and confusion in her eyes snapped Serena out of her jokey mood immediately. She reached over to cover one of Bernie’s hands with her own.

“I know it must be hard, and you’ve suffered a lot on this journey. But now is the time to build your confidence, Bernie. You’re single, times have changed for the better and you’re a beautiful, intelligent woman with many years ahead of her.  Lots to celebrate, I’d say!”

“Thank you, Serena. If only it were really that easy. To build confidence, I mean.”

“Well, I’ve got your back, and any time you want me to ride shotgun to help you get back out there, I’m game!”

Bernie smiled at the image. “I hardly think there’s a need for riding shotgun in St. Julien.”

“Oh no? Well, let’s start going out more and you’ll see. I bet you can turn a few female heads even in this sleepy little backwater.”

Bernie snorted. “Well, I’m not averse to having a more active social life, but you’re probably the one who’ll be turning the heads, Campbell.”

Were those male or female heads she was referring to, Serena wondered, as Bernie turned back to the menu.

"Did I see chocolate almond tart for dessert ?"

"You did indeed," Naïma had appeared at the table and began stacking their used plates. 

Bernie caught Serena's eye. "With crème fraîche?"

Naïma inclined her head.

"Then that will be two," Bernie said, closing the menu, a satisfied smirk on her face.

Serena frowned. "No, that will be one. And two spoons."

"Spoilsport."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bernie was finding that, with Jax back at work and Serena present every day in the hospital, her life was becoming more rewarding in a way she could not have predicted.  With his leg in plaster up to the thigh, Jax could not stand for long to operate, so he took over most of Bernie’s patient rota, leaving her all the surgeries and also some availability for Charpentier, who was inclined to call her in every time he had a difficult situation within her field of expertise. This brought her into regular contact in the operating theatre with Serena, who had been designated Acting Deputy Head of Surgery. She found that they worked so perfectly in harmony that Charpentier’s half-joking comment that they were ‘The Dream Team’ stuck.  When they managed to save a woman’s life after a near fatal road accident, delivering her premature baby by emergency Caesarean in the process, Junior Doctor Maury Fonseca told the nurses in the ED how he had observed them high-fiving once the baby had been safely taken to Paediatrics. Thereafter, whenever a particularly difficult case showed up in the ED, Charge Nurse Marie-O (Marie-Odile), would shout “Send for the Dream Team”.

“Do you know what they call us?” asked Serena one day as they were sharing their regular Friday lunch at Naïma’s.

“Yes” Bernie admitted. “But they’re not far wrong, Campbell. “How many small French towns can have a team like this, eh?”

“Very true. But how long can it last?”

Bernie did not answer, carefully cutting her merguez sausages into bite-sized pieces and dipping one in hot sauce before popping it into her mouth. Serena watched her intently, but before she could answer, there was a commotion at the other end of the plant room and Jax rolled into view, Naïma pushing, moving chairs aside so that he could park his wheelchair at a table. Bernie saw him come in, but she was facing the other way and out of sight of  his table.

“Should we ask him to join us?” she asked, but Serena held up a hand “Ssh”, then after a few seconds watching Jax, she turned to Bernie, her eyes wide, and murmured “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Bernie frowned and twisted round in her seat. Peering past a tall plant that was obscuring them from view, she saw that Jax was not alone. Sitting opposite him was Sami. And they were holding hands across the table. Bernie felt her cheeks getting warm.

“Er..right. Well I didn’t see that coming.”

“No, I suppose I didn’t either. But it makes sense after what Lola said that day at the vineyard. She and Souad must have been aware of this for some time. And Naïma too.”

“Well, it’s none of our business, anyway,” said Bernie, turning back to her sausages, although she noticed that Serena was paying particularly careful attention to that corner of the room.

When Naïma came to collect their plates and take their dessert order, Serena commented

“Quite the hospital social club you’ve got here, Naïma.” 

Naïma laughed, tossing her hair back from her face. “Or the LGBT club, some might say,” she replied.

There was a moment of silence as Bernie tried to compute the meaning of her words, but Serena was quicker off the mark.

“Are you including us?” she asked mildly.

“If you want me to,” Naïma replied. “I’m the soul of discretion, that’s why people come here,” she winked.

Bernie could hold in her dismay no longer. “Oh no, Naïma, no, Serena and I, we’re just work colleagues.”

“I think what Bernie is trying to say," interjected Serena, "is that we do come here for discretion, but so that we can socialise in English and avoid being recognised by patients. Not because we have anything to hide,” raising one eyebrow and looking Naïma in the eye, “or declare.”

“That’s fine,” Naïma smiled. “And I didn’t mean to suggest anything – your lives are none of my business. I just wanted you to know that this is a safe place for everyone.”

“Well thank you,” Serena responded smoothly while Bernie sat, cheeks still burning, unable to find the right words. “And we’ll have the tarte au citron, two forks as usual and two coffees”.

“Coming right up,” Naïma said as she gathered the dishes and made her way back to the kitchen.

“Don’t look so shocked,” Serena said. “And don’t let it bother you. I couldn’t care less what people think, and, in fact, I was going to suggest that we go out tonight, barring any emergencies. Time you got back in the saddle, Wolfe.”

Bernie felt her insides lurch. “Go out? Where?”

“There’s a bar I found on a Pink website. It’s not a gay bar as such but is LGBTQ+ friendly by all accounts. You never know. There might be an attractive woman or two passing through.”

“I don’t do one-night stands,” Bernie declared hotly.

“No? Well, I would think that might be one way of finding out whether there’s anything worth continuing. Get in some practice, ready for the Real Thing when it comes along.”

“Serena! Please! I can barely say the word ….you know…”

“Lesbian?” Serena asked as a waitress appeared with their dessert. “Mmm, this looks good,” handing Bernie a fork, a twinkle in her eye.

Bernie took the fork but hesitated until the girl was out of earshot.

“This isn’t easy for me,” she said finally. “I’ve only ever had two relationships in my life. Marcus, then Alex. And that was hardly, well, I mean, it was clandestine, and hurried, not …” she tailed off.

Serena paused with a forkful of lemon tart halfway to her mouth.

“Not very sexually adventurous?” she asked, popping the fork into her mouth.

Bernie dropped her head in humiliation. “Something like that.”

“Eat your dessert, it’s delicious, and you need to keep your strength up, after all. There’s lots of information about lesbian sex on the internet. It doesn’t look too difficult.”

Bernie could hardly believe her ears, and she definitely didn’t want to look at Serena, beautiful Serena with those irresistible dimples, and the way that shirt clung to her curves. So she ate her lemon tart, agreeing that it was, in fact, every bit as delicious as Serena had said, and tried to change the subject.

As they were paying the bill and preparing to leave, Jax rolled by, Sami pushing.

“Aha, so you two found a discreet corner here, too,” he remarked.

“Don’t you start,” muttered Bernie. But Serena was unperturbed. “The dense foliage makes it ideal for us to sit here and gossip about our work colleagues,” she said, snapping her handbag shut and pushing her chair in. “Now, do you need a push back to the hospital? We’re going that way.”

“That would be lovely,” Jax said in an imitation British accent. Then switching back to French, “Sami, go back to work and don’t waste any more of your aunt’s time.”

“Yessir,” and Sami saluted and departed with a little wave at the women.

“I’ll uh..join you in a minute,” Bernie said, unable to take any more teasing.

In the Ladies room, she splashed her face with cold water and looked at herself critically in the mirror. Would anyone really be interested in her? A washed up, late in life lesbian with a scarred and broken body and a messy divorce? She ran her fingers through her hair and reapplied her lipstick. Back to work, she told herself.

***

Serena silently congratulated herself later that evening as she unscrewed the top of a rather nice bottle of local Syrah and poured some for Bernie, whose resistance had finally crumbled before Serena’s charm and persuasion. For once, there were no emergencies to deal with, and both had left the hospital at five, Bernie to go for a run and Serena to drive back to her cottage to get ready for the evening. Realising that Syrah and driving was a spectacularly bad combination, she had also packed an overnight bag in case she needed to crash at Bernie’s. Now here they were in a very nice  bar sitting on tall stools surrounded by wooden barrels and bottles of wine. It was still early and the bar was half empty, just one or two couples having an after-work drink.

“How’s Cameron getting on?” asked Serena, still trying to get over how amazing Bernie looked in a simple white shirt over her black skinny jeans, skin glowing from her run, her hair tousled and gleaming under the lights of the bar.

“Well I’ve hardly heard from him so it seems he’s fine and enjoying himself. He’s got another three weeks to go, then he’ll be heading back. “

“Has he got his F1 rotation sorted?”

“Well yes and no. He wanted London but Marcus made such a huge fuss that the compromise was Holby City, your own hospital. It seems Marcus knows Hanssen, so when Cam refused point blank to go to St. James’, that was the best alternative.”

“Well, that sounds like a fair compromise. I’m sure he’ll enjoy it. They’re a great bunch.”

“And what about you, Serena? When are you planning to return? You can’t be thinking of staying here forever, surely?”

“I really don’t know,” Serena replied thoughfully. “I took an undetermined leave of absence, but I have until spring next year before my job is advertised. “

“I’m so sorry, I never thought to ask you how you’ve been coping all this time with the grieving….”

“…when we’ve been so focused on the menopause, I know,” Serena said grimly.

“Yes, and that, too. Since you’ve been working at the hospital we haven’t talked about that either, not since your blood tests came back OK.”

“Well fortunately, everything seems to have stopped again,” Serena said, toying with the stem of her glass. “So let’s hope it stays that way. And I must say, working with you, well, working as a surgeon again is doing me good. I’ve been feeling a lot better. I know grieving  goes in cycles, so I don’t imagine it’s going to be all plain sailing, but,” tapping her fingers on the table, “touch wood, so far things are a lot calmer.”

Bernie reached across and squeezed her hand. Serena felt the warmth of it all down her spine.

“I’m so glad,” Bernie said sincerely, her dark eyes radiating understanding and empathy.

Serena felt her breath catch in her throat. How could this woman be so unaware of how devastatingly attractive she was? Serena had never believed herself attracted to women other than in a passing sort of way, but Bernie touched something in her she had previously been unaware of. Serena felt comfortable teasing her, powerful even, watching Bernie squirm and get so hung up about being gay, and part of her wished she could just lean in and kiss her and try out some of those fascinating techniques she had read about on the internet. She had to admit that she had only been interested in them when she imagined it was Bernie she was doing it with. But Bernie was clearly struggling with her new identity, and Serena knew she couldn’t get away with the teasing unless Bernie felt totally safe in their friendship. And that friendship was increasingly important to her, it was what got her through every day and every lonely evening, knowing Bernie was a few steps or a phone call away, knowing she could tell her anything. Well, almost anything.  She sighed and took another swig of her wine.

An hour later, both women were more than a little fuzzy and on their second bottle. Serena had called for the bar menu and ordered them a selection of toasted open sandwiches to soak up the alcohol. The bar was more crowded and they were having to talk a little louder over the chat and the background music. Serena excused herself to go to the bathroom and on her way back she noticed that a recently vacated table had now been taken by a young couple, the man some years older than the woman. There was something familiar about the woman but Serena couldn’t see her clearly from the front so she brushed past and returned to her seat.

“Think I should go, too,” Bernie said, slurring her words slightly and sliding off her barstool. Serena took another sip of her wine and squinted over the top of her glass at the newcomers. The waitress was at their table, the man talking animatedly –narrow face, designer stubble, shoulder length mid-brown hair, arrogance off the charts, thought Serena. The woman was looking down. She seemed to be late teens, dark wavy hair, heavily made up, in a black leather miniskirt and a low cut top. Suddenly she looked up and Serena gasped.

“What’s wrong?” asked Bernie, who had just returned to her seat and was pouring more wine.

“It’s Souad,” Serena said in a low voice.

Bernie craned her neck to look. She had never met Souad, but she knew she was only 16.

“Are you sure?” she asked Serena. “This girl looks to be at least 19 or 20.”

“I’m sure. Souad is a very mature 16, believe me, and she’s wearing a ton of make- up.”

“Well if it is her, what’s she doing here? She’s underage to be drinking, surely.”

“Don’t let them see you looking,” murmured Serena, shifting her stool towards Bernie and out of Souad’s direct line of vision.

“Well shouldn’t we tell Naïma?” asked Bernie.

“I can’t do that, Bernie. We don’t know that this is anything other than a harmless evening out with a friend. And she is drinking Coke, I can see the bottle. Oh she’s looking this way,” and without thinking, Serena suddenly flung her arms round Bernie’s neck and buried her head in her shirt. Bernie sat rigidly unmoving. She smelled of clean cotton and a light, citrussy cologne. Serena breathed her in. After about thirty seconds she felt Bernie’s hand on her back.

“It’s OK, she’s gone to the bathroom,” she murmured. Serena drew back reluctantly from the embrace, missing the warmth immediately.

“What shall we do? I don’t want her to see me.”

The waiter had returned to remove their plates and held up the empty bottle. “Encore une bouteille?” he asked.

Non, merci, ” Bernie said firmly, “l’addition s’il vous plait.  Then, turning to Serena, “Go on outside and wait for me, before she comes back.”

“Well, that was a bit of a damp squib,” Serena said as they walked away from the bar. Bernie had seemed tipsy earlier on but the fresh air and the situation with Souad had clearly sobered her up. Serena herself felt fine, but deflated. They had gone out ostensibly hunting potential girlfriends for Bernie but aside from one obviously gay male couple, all the other patrons had been in mixed sex couples or groups.

Bernie did not appear to share Serena’s disappointment. “Oh I don’t know, it was good to get out and relax, even if we did have to leave rather abruptly,” she said cheerfully.

“It’s only ten fifteen, what shall we do now?” Serena asked.

“Well, I’m quite tired,” Bernie admitted, yawning, and slowing her pace to match Serena’s shorter stride. “Why don’t we go back to mine and have a nightcap? You’re not driving are you?”

“Good God, no, after a whole bottle of wine? That would be extremely foolish. No, I brought an overnight bag. It’s a long way to taxi so I thought maybe I could borrow your couch?” Serena suggested somewhat tentatively.

“Absolutely, yes,” Bernie nodded, “but there’ll be no couch for you. You can take the bed. The couch is hard and lumpy.”

“Bernie,” Serena protested, “your back would never forgive you.”

“Nonsense, I prefer hard,” Bernie said firmly.

“Well, if you put it like that ….” Serena said. Bernie looked at her for a few seconds then they both burst out laughing. Serena took her arm.

“Come on, Major, we’ll sort it out when we get there.”

She was sorry in a way that the journey home was so short. It was pleasant and comforting walking arm in arm with her best friend- which was how she was beginning to think of Bernie. She unlocked her car and retrieved the bag and they went up to Bernie’s flat. Serena put the bag down and flopped onto the much maligned couch.

“Hey this is OK- didn’t Cameron sleep here anyway?”

“He’s a young man in his mid-twenties, they can sleep standing up. And I very much doubt he was sober on any of the occasions when he passed out here,” she said with a grimace. “Whisky?”

“Why not?”

Bernie poured them both whiskies and Serena shifted along to make room for her on the couch. There was something very familiar and domestic about it that Serena couldn’t quite put her finger on. They talked about Souad, and whether they should tell Naïma about seeing her in a bar with a man. Neither really wanted to tell tales but both were uneasy, having daughters themselves.

“I could have a quiet word with Souad on Tuesday when we have an English session”, Serena mused. “Or we could……whatever is the matter, Bernie?” noticing that Bernie was shifting uncomfortably on the couch.

“It’s my back, sitting on this thing. I think I need to lie down. Let’s go into the bedroom.”

Serena raised an eyebrow flirtatiously and Bernie, true to form, immediately  got flustered “I didn’t mean……I just thought you could as well sit there as here…”

Serena got to her feet and held a hand out to Bernie. “You’re so easy to wind up,” she said, “of course I know what you mean,” pulling Bernie to her feet and heading for the bedroom, taking their glasses and the whisky bottle with her.

“Maybe we should have some tea instead,” Bernie suggested.

“Tea? And ruin a good girls’ chat over a nightcap?” Serena was scornful, so Bernie fell silent and went to the bed where she gathered some pillows and cushions and threw a couple at Serena before gingerly lowering herself to the mattress and lying flat, propping her neck up on the pillows.

“There, that’s better,” she said, taking a sip of her drink and turning to look at Serena who had arranged herself similarly by her side.

“Well, congratulations, Major. First night out and you manage to get a woman in your bed,” Serena remarked, unable to resist teasing her friend.

“Ha ha, very funny.” 

“No, but seriously, Bernie, you need to figure out a way to get into the gay scene, make it possible to meet ..er..like-minded people.”

“Well what about you?” Bernie retorted defensively. “You’re always going on about me, but do you plan to spend the rest of your life alone?” There was a silence, then Serena’s eyes filled with tears and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

“Oh……I’m so sorry, Serena,” Bernie gasped, “I didn’t think, of course I didn’t mean that …”

Serena was past the point of being able to articulate words. A ball of pain had risen in her throat and was threatening to overwhelm her. Not here, please, she begged silently, trying to force the tears back, but Bernie, in her horror at having inadvertently touched on Serena’s sorrow, did the only thing she thought  appropriate. She turned and wrapped her arms round Serena, pulling her into her chest, and Serena’s defences collapsed like a wall of cards. She began sobbing, her tears leaking onto Bernie’s white shirt, her hands gripping Bernie’s shoulders, as the world crashed around her. She was dimly aware of Bernie murmuring soothing words, and of her hand gently stroking Serena’s hair. Serena hung on for dear life, letting the grief rise up and out of her as she inhaled Bernie’s familiar smell and felt the softness of her skin on her cheek. At some point, Bernie’s back must have given out because when Serena  came to, she found herself draped over Bernie’s chest, lying flat on the bed, their legs entwined. Despite her embarrassment at having given in to her grief in front of Bernie, Serena was almost too comfortable to move.There was a firm arm  around her back and Serena could feel their breasts pressed together as she rested her head on Bernie’s shoulder, one arm flung across Bernie’s flat stomach. She began slowly and reluctantly to disentangle herself, and felt the arm release its hold.

“Are you OK, Serena? I’m so, so sorry, I never intended to upset you.”

“It’s fine, Bernie. Well, not fine, obviously. Sometimes it’s just the slightest thing that sets me off. But it’s not your fault in any way.”

“Are you tired? Would you like to go to sleep now?” moving off the bed.

“No, Bernie, stay. Let’s not argue about beds or couches, eh? This one is big enough for both of us……that’s if you don't object, naturally.”

“Of course not,” Bernie said.  “Look, you take the bathroom first. I’ll make us some tisane." And she disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.

Serena found her bag and took out her pyjamas and toothbrush.

“There are clean towels on the shelf,” Bernie called.

By the time Serena had settled into bed, sipping her tea, the grief had crawled back into its hiding place and she wanted nothing more than to sleep. Bernie came out of the bathroom and turned down the duvet on her side of the bed. Serena had to hold in a gasp at the sight of her friend in a skimpy vest and loose shorts, her legs seemingly going on for days. Serena gulped some tea, trying to quell the jolt of desire that had taken her by surprise. Whatever was wrong with her? She had never reacted like this with any of her other female friends. It was not the first time, but perturbing, nonetheless. Bernie seemed to find it equally awkward, pulling the duvet up and over herself quickly, as if she wanted to hide. They lay separately, neither one moving for a few minutes, the distance between them a yawning crevice. Serena finally couldn’t bear it. “Bernie", she began hesitantly, " I sometimes have trouble falling asleep. And back there, I felt so safe with your arms around me. Do you think we could …um…snuggle?”

There was a silence, then Bernie said, in a faint voice “Snuggle?” as if this was a concept she was unfamiliar with.

“Yes, like spooning. If I turn over this way, you lie behind me, close to me, just so that I know you’re there.”

“To make you feel safe?” Bernie asked in a strangled voice. Serena couldn’t imagine why Bernie seemed to be having trouble imagining this, but then, she wasn’t a very tactile kind of person.

“That’s if it’s OK with you, of course. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. You can let go once I’m asleep.”

“Right…er…OK,” and she shifted closer to Serena, who turned on her side. After a few seconds she felt Bernie’s arm come to lock round her middle, and the warmth of her against her back. Serena relaxed into the embrace, the arm tightening reflexively around her, and as she drifted off to sleep she felt warm lips brush her forehead, and heard Bernie whisper “It’s OK, you’re safe now”.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Bernie made sure her morning run took her past the café with best pains au chocolat. Her soldier’s body clock, conditioned to short sleeps, wake- up calls at ungodly hours and the need to be constantly alert, had not really settled into the more sedate pace of life in a rural French town, so if she got six hours’ sleep she felt lucky indeed. And lucky she was, because they had fallen asleep at around midnight and she had awakened at six fifteen, so, not wanting to disturb Serena, she had gone for a run.

Well, that’s what she would tell Serena, and anyone else who might ask, but the reality of  waking to find herself  still holding a fragrant, sleeping Serena Campbell was so close to her idea of heaven that Bernie could not bring herself to believe in it. Serena had been grief-stricken, then exhausted, and Bernie had just done what any good friend would have done. That’s bollocks and you know it, she told herself as she ran into the courtyard of her building. The deep -down truth is that you took advantage of her. If Serena had had any idea of how desperately Bernie had been trying to hold onto her self-control, she would be horrified. This was a glum thought, but Bernie had managed to hang on without self-combusting until Serena had fallen asleep. Then, soothed by the warmth and softness of another body, she had fallen asleep herself, pretending that this was real, that Serena was hers. Of course, that illusion had quickly been shattered in the cold light of day, but no one else needed to know.

Opening her door, she was greeted by silence, but no sooner had she kicked off her trainers in the hallway than a familiar voice said “Madre! Finally!”

“Cam? What are you ....?”

“I dropped in to pick up the last of my stuff. One of the guys was coming into town on an errand so I got a ride.  So, tell me, Mum, who’s the strange woman in your shower?”

“What? I ..oh..”  the sound of the shower running now penetrated Bernie’s consciousness, as did the realisation of how this must look to Cameron.

“How do you know it’s a woman?” she asked.

Cam grinned “No man spends…” he looked at his watch “over fifteen minutes in the shower. And certainly not you. So I guess you got lucky, eh?”

“No, no,” she protested, feeling her cheeks burning. “It’s my friend, Serena, the one who lives in the cottage at the vineyard. We went out for a drink last night and she didn’t feel like driving back. You didn’t go in the bedroom, did you?”

“No, Mum, relax. I thought at first it was just you so I waited. Didn’t know you had company…oh hello!”

Serena had opened the door from the bedroom. Luckily she had thrown on the robe that hung in the bathroom, but her wet hair was sticking up in all directions from being towel-dried.

“Er, hi…you must be Cameron. I think we did meet briefly once at the barbecue,” Serena said, but her eyes were hunting for Bernie.

“You don’t have a hair dryer do you by any chance? “

Cameron burst out laughing. “Bernie Wolfe… a hair dryer? Does my mother look like a woman who spends time on her hair?”

Bernie kicked him crossly. “Of course I do, Serena, sorry, it’s er… um… I don’t use it very often, so it might be under some clothes on that chair in the bedroom.”

Serena smiled and retreated into the bedroom.

“So I take it you slept on the couch? I mean, if she’s just a friend…”

Bernie’s face gave her away. She felt her cheeks burning again under her son’s scrutiny and couldn’t quite meet his gaze.

“No, we shared the bed,” she said quietly. “Platonically. You yourself must know how uncomfortable that couch is.”

“Well I can’t say I took much notice,” he said, grinning. “So I’ll take your word for it. But she’s pretty hot anyway for someone in your age group so I don’t blame you.”

Bernie was relieved to hear the sound of the hair dryer, which meant Serena could not have overheard the conversation. She dropped her bag of pastries on the kitchen countertop and turned towards the coffee-maker.

“Well seeing as you’re here, would you like some breakfast?”

Bernie had been looking forward to having a leisurely one on one with Serena, but Cameron’s presence was an unexpected bonus. Having only had the odd text in the last couple of weeks she was keen to catch up with him. If she had worried about Serena finding it an intrusion she needn’t have. Serena was charm personified and she and Cameron hit it off immediately, the jokes mostly at Bernie’s expense. But she could live with that. While they chatted over pastries, Bernie excused herself to shower and change.

“Have you got a ride back to the vineyard?” asked Serena, once Cameron had polished off the last pain au chocolat.

“No, but I’ll hitch or something,” he said.

“Well I’m going that way so I could give you a lift.”

“All sorted?” asked Bernie, running a hand through her tousled, still damp hair as she reappeared in her skinny jeans and a loose T-shirt.

“So it would seem,” said Serena, getting to her feet. “I really should be getting back anyway.”

Bernie tried to hide her disappointment, but as Serena gathered her bag and jacket, her pager went off.

“Or perhaps not,” she said, glancing down at it.  “I’m sorry Cameron, I’ve been paged to the ED.”

“Something serious?” asked Bernie.

“Looks like an RTC – serious injuries. You might need to stick around, Major.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Cameron said. “I can find my own way back. “You two go and do what you do best.”

Bernie decided to go in with Serena. It was Saturday, and fewer specialists were available. St. Julien was not large enough to merit a full-time team of consultants, so about half came in part-time on weekdays from larger hospitals in the area. At weekends the population was at the mercy of a team of junior doctors and whichever consultants were on call.

At the entrance, Bernie hesitated.

“Look..um..why don’t you go and see what’s what and call me if you need me.”

“Why? Oh, I see -  afraid of the rumour mill are we ?”

Bernie looked caught out, but Serena took pity on her. “You’re right. No need to set tongues pointlessly wagging – we do have to work here after all,” and she headed rapidly in the direction of the ED. Five minutes later, Bernie’s phone rang.

“Get in here now,” Serena said urgently.

***

Maury Fonseca, the promising junior doctor who also happened to be the son of two Cuban doctors, was making huge progress under Serena’s mentorship. This was evident from what he had already managed to do before Serena arrived. As he reeled off the list of possible internal injuries, he led Serena to the bay where one look at the patient stopped Serena in her tracks.

“Souad!” she said in horror.

“Do you know her?” Maury asked.

“Yes, she’s the daughter of Naïma Tahiri, the restaurant owner. I teach her English. Look she’s only 16 for God’s sake, we need to call her mother. Urgently.”

“I’ll do it,” Marie-O volunteered. “I know Naïma.”

Serena moved to the patient. She was still wearing the clothes Serena had seen her in the previous evening but her pretty face was smashed on one side, the cheekbone broken, thought Serena, she was covered in what looked like impact injuries from falling on or being dragged on gravel. And she was unconscious and hooked up to oxygen and various tubes.

Serena had started examining her face and chest, listening for internal injuries, feeling for broken bones when Maury said quietly. “Doctor Campbell.”

Serena turned her head, alerted by something in his tone. He had been examining a cut on her bare leg and had raised her skirt a little. The inside of her thighs was covered in blood that was trickling down and pooling on the sheet below.

Bernie arrived within a few minutes of the call, already in scrubs. She took one look and ordered “Prep her for theatre”.

Serena wasn’t sure what happened to the rest of that day except that saving Souad was their sole mission. At some point, she went out to talk to Naïma, who was in the waiting room with Sami, her face pale and tear-stained.

“Serena, thank God,” she said. “What happened? Souad didn’t come home last night but I didn’t know that until this morning.”

“Apparently, she was found by a motorist, lying by the side of the road about two kilometres out of St. Julien. It looks as though she was thrown from a car, and maybe beaten before that.”  Serena paused.

“How badly is she injured?” Naïma asked. “I have to call her father, but I need more information first.”

Serena reached over and took Naïma’s hand in her own. “She has a broken cheekbone, but that will heal and she can have cosmetic surgery later if necessary. There was damage to her spleen, and her liver. We’ve saved the spleen and repaired whatever we can but she’s very weak. She lost a lot of blood….”

“Oh my God!” Naïma said, grasping tightly onto Serena’s hand. “Who did this to her?”

“I’ll kill him!” growled Sami.

Serena hesitated but could not put it off any longer. “And she was six weeks pregnant but has lost the child.”

“What? Pregnant? How could she be pregnant?”

“I’m so sorry, Naïma. Bernie is trying to fix the damage, but there’s a tear in the uterus …”

Naïma stood up. “We need to take her to Lyon, immediately. They have better specialists there.…..”

At that moment there was a whirring noise and Jax rolled into view.

“Naïma, believe me, she couldn’t be in a better place. Bernie Wolfe is the finest obstetric surgeon in France if not the whole of Europe. And Serena here is a pretty damned hot vascular surgeon. Do you know they call them ‘The Dream Team?’”

Naïma sat down, shamefaced. “I’m sorry, Serena, I didn’t mean to insult you or Bernie.”

“It’s fine,” Serena said gently. “I totally understand. But please believe we will do everything in our power to save her. In the meantime,” glancing up at the window to the visitors’ room, “I believe the police are here.”

Serena stood up as Marie-O brought in two detectives, a man and a woman. She caught Sami’s eye and indicated the hallway.

“Did you know she had a boyfriend?” asked Serena.

“I knew she and Lola went out sometimes with friends, including older boys, to bars and clubs. I try to keep an eye on them, but I’m sure they’re not drinking or taking drugs, and they usually come back on time. Souad’s a good girl on the whole. But I have no idea who could have made her pregnant and if I get my hands on the person who did this to her, I’ll kill them. If it’s the same guy, I’ll kill him twice!”

Serena quickly explained what she had seen the previous evening. “I need to tell the police what I saw. But before I do, please talk to Naïma, see what she knows, prepare her. “I have to go, but tell the police that Bernie and I will make a statement once we get out of theatre.”

Sami pulled her into a hug. “Thank you, Serena, and tell Bernie thank you from us.”

“How did it go? Badly, judging by the look on your face,” Bernie said, watching Maury Fonseca start to close the liver incision.

“I’m sure you can guess,” Serena began, but was interrupted by a loud beeping.

“BP’s dropping, we have a bleed,” Maury said, reopening the incision. Serena took over and didn’t raise her head for another forty minutes, until she was sure there was nothing more they could do, and the internal repairs were stable. Bernie meanwhile had had her own battle to finish the repair of the uterus.

“Right,” Bernie said finally, standing up straight and leaning back to relieve the pressure on her spine. “I think we’re good to close. Dr. Fonseca, please do the honours. Serena, call the ITU and get her  a bed. This girl will need monitoring for at least 24 hours. And we should request a neuro consult when she  wakes up in case there’s brain damage associated with the facial injury.”

It was past three pm when Bernie and Serena stripped off their theatre gowns and gloves and scrubbed out, walking silently side by side to where Naïma, Sami, and Souad’s father, Driss, who had just arrived by helicopter from Toulouse, were waiting with the female police detective.

It was past four pm when Bernie and Serena left the Visitor’s room after giving the police and the family all the information they could, then leading the family up to the ITU where they could see Souad through the window, still unconscious, intubated and wired up to various machines.

“We’ll be within reach,” Bernie  promised. “You can stay here with her or we'll call you as soon as she regains consciousness.”

“What a fucking mess!” Serena groaned,  collapsing onto a bench in the locker room.

Bernie said nothing, but exhaustion lined her features. She sat down carefully on the bench next to Serena and hung her head, resting her arms on her thighs.

“How bad was the uterine rupture?” asked Serena, who had been focused on the other internal organs.

“Worse than I wanted to tell them at this stage,” Bernie replied dully. “She had a massive trauma to the abdomen which is what caused it. It might heal with time. Or she might never be able to carry a child full term. Assuming she wakes up, that is.” 

Serena felt suddenly utterly exhausted, completely bereft. She slumped against Bernie’s shoulder. The night before, she had cried to release her own personal pain, but now she was drained of emotion, dry and empty. 

“What do you mean- assuming she wakes up? Of course she will.”

“This feels like that placental abruption situation all over again. We got to her too late, Serena! She must have been lying there for hours before anyone found her.”

Bernie’s tone was so despondent that Serena sat up and said in a fierce tone, “Look at me, Bernie. That girl has a chance. We gave her a chance. She’s weak but she’s fighting. She’s going to pull through.”

“I wish I could believe that,” Bernie said, her eyes deep pools of misery before dropping her head once again. Serena could feel the confidence draining out of her.  

“I don’t believe this,” Serena said, shaking her head.  “Berenice Wolfe, obstetric surgeon extraordinaire, doubting her abilities?  What will it take for you to understand how amazingly brilliant and fearless you are, the ultimate role model for every junior doctor in this hospital?”

Bernie raised her head again, fear and uncertainty reflected in her eyes until, in response to the warmth and sincerity she saw in Serena's, the look faded and was replaced by something Serena was slow to identify- before her brain could kick in, she felt soft lips swooping down on her own,  a hand coming to rest on her neck, holding her in place. Yet no sooner had she processed this pleasurable sensation than Bernie withdrew, eyes signalling alarm. But Serena was having none of it. Hooking an arm round Bernie’s neck she pulled them back together, this time initiating the kiss and leaving no doubt as to her intentions, until Bernie relaxed into it and they were tangling tongues, Serena’s hand in Bernie’s hair, pulling it free of the little pony tail, fingers gripping the soft locks as their mouths moved irresistibly against each other. When, eventually, they came up for air, Serena knew instantly from Bernie’s shell-shocked expression that she was panicking. She grabbed the arm that was trying to disentangle itself and push her body away-

“It’s OK, Bernie, really, it’s OK, don’t run away.”

“God, I don’t know what came over me…”

“I wanted you to do that.  I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, but I just wasn’t sure that you …wanted the same thing.”

Bernie looked at her incredulously, and, overwhelmed by a rush of feeling, Serena leaned back in and kissed her again briefly on the lips, rubbing their noses together affectionately. But then the sound of the door opening had Bernie jerking away, standing and trying to put as much space between their bodies as possible.

“Are you both going home?” called Marie-O from the doorway.

“Yes…er..no, what do you mean?” asked Serena. “Do we need to stay?”

“No, everything’s stable, but I need to know where you’ll be in case of emergencies.”

“Um….I’ll stay with Bernie, her place is closer to the hospital,” Serena called. “We can get back in less than ten minutes if paged. What about Dr. Fonseca?”

“His shift finishes at 8, but he’s offered to stay overnight in an on-call room,” the charge nurse replied.

“That’s fine,” Serena said. “Just call us if you need us, OK?”

As the door closed and silence once again settled on the room, Bernie said in a tight voice:

“It’s fine for you to stay with me of course. But we need to talk. This is so…..”

“Unexpected?” Serena asked, picking up the waves of anxiety radiating from the other woman.

“Yes. Exactly,” Bernie was pulling her scrub top over her head as she spoke, hurriedly wriggling into her T-shirt. Serena kept her eyes on her own locker as she also began to change.

“You’re right, Bernie, we need to talk. But not on an empty stomach. Let’s go and pick up some food, shall we?”

As Serena dropped her scrubs in the laundry hamper and grabbed her handbag from her locker, Bernie was doing the same. They stood and looked at each other for a minute. Then Serena took Bernie’s hand and, slotting their fingers together, pulled her towards the door.

“How about some lamb kebabs and salad with extra hot sauce from that Tunisian place round the corner? And maybe a nice bottle of Shiraz to go with it hmm?” she smiled reassuringly. Bernie’s expression relaxed a fraction and she nodded as they moved towards the foyer.

"If we can have frites as well," but she dropped Serena's hand as she said this. Serena laughed and, taking her arm for the journey to the car, she said "Oh I think we can manage that, Major!"

Chapter Text

Serena yawned discreetly as she tried to focus on the pictures the police officer had put in front of her. It was 3am and she had had less than three hours’ sleep. Beside her, Souad’s father, Driss Alaoui, was doing his best impersonation of a Very Important Man, ordering the junior officers around, making them fetch coffee for Serena in between interrogating her over every picture in the book.

“Monsieur Alaoui,” Serena said patiently, “I saw the young man briefly for maybe a minute, as I walked past them and from a distance. I will do my best with these pictures, but please be patient.”

“Driss,” he said, in English, “call me Driss.”  Serena just smiled at him politely.

Driss pushed back the office chair he had occupied, tapping his hand on the arm rest. Serena didn’t know how much coffee he’d drunk, but she thought he would have an aneurysm if he didn’t calm down. He was a handsome man around  Serena's age, toned and well groomed- she could smell his expensive cologne from where she sat- in hand-made shoes and designer label jeans and shirt. His rolled-up sleeves and open shirt buttons at the collar revealed a fine covering of dark hair and a gold Rolex on the left wrist. The only thing missing, thought Serena, was a chunky gold chain around the neck.

Serena tried to zone him out and concentrate on the pictures. Maury Fonseca had called her in at 2am at Driss’s insistence, while Bernie had gone to support Maury in The ED. Jax had been on duty until midnight, then Maury was alone with just the night shift nurses. Driss had not wanted to wait until morning or for Souad to wake up in order to search for the man she had been with, so, as Serena had had the clearest view of him, she had been escorted to the police station to look at the local Rogue’s Gallery. Naïma had stayed in the ITU lounge,  sleeping on a camp bed Sami and Jax had set up for her.

After two hours and three huge books of pictures, the faces were swimming before Serena’s eyes, and she could no longer distinguish one from another. She sighed. “I’m really sorry, Driss,” he said, “but I don’t think our man is here. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a criminal.”

“No, I agree,” he said, “but we had to try.” For a moment he looked so forlorn that Serena felt a stab of empathy. She thought about what she would have done if it was Elinor lying in that hospital bed, and she understood his need to act, even if there was not much they could do.

“Look,” she said, “I have an idea. It’s not possible that Souad was seeing this man without someone knowing. OK so she didn’t tell her mother or Sami, I can understand that. But I bet she told Lola, her best friend. I teach them both English and I know Lola very well. Let me talk to her this morning, when she’s awake.”

Driss jerked his head upwards- a new avenue of enquiry had opened. “I’m coming with you,” he said firmly.

“No, you’re not,” Serena said gently. “With all due respect, teenage girls are not good at communicating with parents or anyone in authority. I know Lola and she knows me. I have no reason to be checking up on her, so she may talk to me where she wouldn’t talk to her or Souad’s parents.”

He looked at her, considering. “Do you have children?” he asked.

“I do, or rather, I did. I had a daughter who, believe me, was a handful for many years.”

“You said ‘did’, past tense. What happened?” his tone was softer.

“She ..unfortunately passed away. An accident,” Serena said, rather abruptly, willing her tear ducts to stay closed. Driss scooted closer and covered her hand with one of his own.

“I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “That must have been terrible.”

Serena pulled her hand free. “Yes. But now it’s your daughter we need to focus on. My gut feeling is that this is someone known in the local community, hence her intention to keep it hidden. Maybe someone the family would disapprove of. So let me go home and grab some sleep and I’ll talk to Lola. I’m living in a cottage in the grounds of her parents’ vineyard, so I’ll be right there when she wakes up.”

“We’ll drive you,” Driss said firmly.

“No, I have my car here,” Serena said, but Driss was pulling out his phone and snapping orders  in Arabic to someone. He held up his hand to silence her.

“You’re exhausted,” he said, switching back to English “We’ll take you and pick you up tomorrow when you’re ready,” and he produced his gold embossed card which Serena duly pocketed.

In truth, Serena was far too tired to resist, so she got into the sleek black Mercedes and Driss climbed in after her. The uniformed chauffeur closed the doors and off they went.

“You speak excellent English,” Serena said, to make conversation.

“Thank you. I did my Masters in Diplomacy in the UK,” he replied. “Nottingham”.

“A lovely city,” Serena replied politely.

“And where are you from, Serena,” he asked, Serena was about to reply when her phone started beeping with messages.

“Sorry..er..excuse me..”

It was Bernie.

Have you finished with the police?

  Yes, why? Do you need me?

  No, just wondered where you’ll go next.

  I’m in a chauffeured limousine going back to the cottage. Need to talk to Lola asap. No luck with the pictures. Get some sleep, Bernie, I’ll be back tomorrow.

 The phone fell silent.

“Was that about Souad?” Driss asked.

“No, she’s stable. Just my colleague asking me what’s going on.”

“OK. I see”. Silence, then “Are you married, Serena?”

Serena gritted her teeth. “Not any more. Once was enough, believe me!”

“Yes, I understand. Naïma and I were ..how do you say? A very toxic combination.”

Serena surprised herself by laughing. “I think that goes for my ex-husband and me as well.”

At this point, the car pulled up at the entrance to the vineyard, so Serena guided the driver to the parking space near her cottage.

“Thank, you, Driss,” Serena, said, desperate to get out of the car and into bed. She opened the door.

“I’ll call you tomorrow when I’ve spoken to Lola.” And she closed the door quickly, and jogged to her cottage.

***

There was nothing Bernie could do in the ED in the middle of the night. Souad was still unconscious, Naïma and the night duty nurses were monitoring her and Maury was back on duty. Finally she opted to go home and catch up on her interrupted sleep. Serena had left her car keys in case Bernie needed them while she was with the police, so she took Serena’s car and within forty- five minutes she had showered quickly and fallen into bed. But sleep evaded her. She thought back to the previous evening, when she and Serena had finished dinner and before Maury called them out. Bernie knew they had to talk about the Kiss; she was terrified that Serena would be angry, or express distaste or displeasure. Yet so far Serena had been nothing but kind, warm and comforting. Somewhere in the recesses of her otherwise brilliant brain, Bernie had registered that Serena had returned her kiss- with some urgency, but her memory was somehow reading the signals all wrong. Bernie was still convinced that she had made a move on Serena that was most probably unwelcome.

As they finished stacking the dishwasher and clearing the takeaway containers, Serena had leaned back against the countertop saying, “I think we should do something to take our minds off Souad for a while, don’t you? What about a film?”

Bernie stared at her for a moment in disbelief. “Film? Er… I haven’t got any, but there’s Netflix, if you’d like to find something.”

Serena smiled and gestured for Bernie to follow her into the living room, where she flicked on the TV and found the Netflix button on the remote.

“Is there anything you’d like to watch? Anything you’ve been following?” Serena asked.

“I..um..I started watching Orange Is The New Black, but I didn’t get very far. Two episodes, I think.”

“OK, that’s a good idea. I’ve seen a bit more but I don’t mind rewatching if we start at episode three,” Serena suggested. Bernie nodded. She was in a daze. How could Serena sit and blithely watch TV when they had this massive elephant in the room with them?

They sat on the couch, Bernie sitting stiffly at one end while Serena surreptitiously inched closer. The episode was only ten minutes in when Bernie could stand it no longer.

“Um..would you like some tea?” she asked Serena.

“Yes, that would be nice. Something herbal?”

“Right,” and Bernie escaped to the kitchen, puzzled and confused. Why was Serena so calm? She banged and clattered in the little kitchenette, taking her time to drop two tea bags into mugs and fill them with hot water. When she re-entered the living room, Serena was looking at her with concern. As Bernie deposited the mugs, Serena paused the remote.

“Bernie…is there something wrong? You seem, I don’t know..upset?”

Bernie sat gripping her mug, struggling to find a response. “Well I don’t go around kissing my work colleagues as a matter of habit,” she murmured.

Serena gave a little smile. “Oh, so that’s what’s bothering you, is it?”

“Well, isn’t it bothering you?” Bernie retorted.

Serena looked down into her cup for a second. “Well, no, not really, I mean, I’m not shocked or anything. And I did kiss you back, if you recall.”

Bernie flushed. “I’m so sorry, Serena. I don’t know what came over me. It was the intensity of the moment- I kissed you but beyond that I wasn’t really thinking.”

Serena paused, as if a little taken aback, then countered with “Well, I suppose I wasn’t either. But I have kissed a woman before. Or rather she kissed me. A colleague in Holby.”

“And?” despite herself, Bernie was fascinated. Serena shrugged.

“Nothing. We were-still are- friends, and it wasn’t going anywhere.”

“I see,” Bernie looked down.

“But that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily against the idea,” Serena added. “It just takes a bit of adjusting to.”

“Ha, yes, you can say that again,” Bernie forced a short laugh.

There was a silence. Then Serena said tentatively, “Bernie …I”

“It’s OK, Serena.”

“What?”

“It’s OK, we can forget about it. It was just .. in the heat of the moment I suppose.”

“Is that what you want?” Serena asked. If Bernie had looked at Serena in that moment she would have read the hurt and disappointment mirrored there, but she just flicked her eyes up then lowered them again.

“Well, I think it’s wise, don’t you?”  Bernie’s whole body was straining against what she was saying, but she carried on. “You’re still grieving for Elinor, and I’m in recovery from major surgery. Hardly appropriate, is it?”

Serena appeared lost for words. Then she shook her head slowly and this time, Bernie saw her eyes fill with tears, which she interpreted as evidence of her reference to grieving.

“If that’s …if that’s what you really want,” Serena said, fighting to keep the tears at bay.

“I can see how uncomfortable it’s making you,” Bernie said, trying to convince herself. “I never want to make you feel uncomfortable, Serena. You’ve become such a close friend- maybe my best friend.”

Now the tears began to run down Serena’s face as she scrabbled for a tissue and began to sniffle.

“Sorry, sorry, just getting a little emotional here. You’re my best friend, too, Bernie. Oh, come here!” and she launched herself at Bernie and clung tightly to her for a few minutes as Bernie held her gently and patted her back.

“It’s OK, it’s OK, Serena. I’ve got you. I’ll always be here for you.”

Serena raised her head and through the curtain of tears looked into Bernie’s eyes. For one panic-stricken second Bernie thought Serena was about to kiss her, and she froze. But then Serena murmured “Thank you”, and subsided back against Bernie’s shoulder.

To restore the atmosphere of normality, Bernie restarted the TV show and they sat through another episode, drinking tea and sitting close together. At one point, Serena took Bernie’s hand and squeezed tight and Bernie squeezed back, relieved that the tension of earlier seemed to have gone. By eleven, Serena was drooping against Bernie’s shoulder, so Bernie switched off the TV and suggested they go to bed. She helped Serena into the bedroom and left her to use the ensuite and change into her nightclothes. When Serena called her, Bernie went into the bathroom to change into her own nightclothes, and came out, snapping off the light, leaving just the bedside lamp on. She crawled into bed and stayed on the far side, away from Serena before extinguishing the light.

“Bernie,” murmured Serena. “Can you hold me like you did last night?”

Unable to refuse, Bernie rolled over wordlessly and spooned Serena gently from behind, making sure not to press too tightly. She gritted her teeth against the surge of desire that accompanied the proximity and waited for Serena’s breathing to even out. Eventually, when she thought she was asleep, Bernie carefully extricated herself and crept out to the living room, grabbing a blanket from the hallway cupboard. Rolling herself Army-style in the blanket and using one of the sofa cushions as a pillow, she tried to relax her tense and confused mind and find unconsciousness. She tossed and turned for a few hours, then was startled into full wakefulness by the sound of Serena’s pager beeping close to her ear. Grappling around in the darkness she found her phone and used the flashlight to locate Serena’s bag on the floor, and the pager within. Reading the message she rolled off the couch and stumbled into the bedroom.

“Serena, Serena,” reaching for her friend’s shoulder with one hand while turning on the bedside light with the other. Serena mumbled “What?”

“It’s the ED, you’re being paged.”

Serena sat up blearily. “Let me see. You’re right, it’s Dr. Fonseca. Let me call him.”

While Serena talked to Maury, Bernie switched on lights and went into the bathroom to put cold water on her face and get dressed. When she emerged, Serena had already got her trousers on and was struggling with her bra. Averting her eyes, Bernie said

“Is it Souad?”

“Not exactly. It’s her father. Seems he’s causing a fuss over at the ITU, trying to force them to wake her up so that he can find out about the man she was with. Naïma told him it was we who saw him, so when he was told  that they had to wait for Souad to wake up naturally, he insisted on calling me to go with him to the police so that they can start looking for him.”

Bernie grimaced but said “Well, it’s unfortunate, but I suppose I can see where he’s coming from. If that was my daughter…..”

“Quite. I can hardly refuse,” Serena said. “But I might need some coffee before I start on that.”

“I’ll make up a flask,” Bernie said, going back to the kitchen.

They took Serena’s car, Bernie driving while Serena sipped black coffee in silence. If Serena had noticed the cold space in the bed or the rolled up blanket on the couch, she said nothing, and Bernie was not minded to explain. The focus today had to be on Souad.

Now, lying sleepless as she thought over these events, and the fact that Serena had not called her after departing with Driss to the police station, and had gone straight back to her cottage afterwards, Bernie wondered miserably whether she had damaged their relationship permanently.

***

The sudden burst of activity during the night had distracted Serena from dwelling on the hurt she had felt when Bernie seemed to be rejecting her, but when she awoke from another too-short sleep, a black cloud of depression descended on her. She was aware that Bernie was still coping with pain and discomfort from her physical injuries, and the realisation that she was gay may have been a shock to her, but Serena had had no idea of the mental torment Bernie must have been suffering. She had at least tried not to make a big thing out of the kiss, to prevent Bernie from panicking, but she just seemed to have made things worse. Bernie leaving the bed to sleep on the couch just proved the point. Serena felt a lump of self-pity rise in her throat and tears start to ooze out of her eyes. As she scrabbled for a tissue, she heard her phone ringing, so she quickly blew her nose and wiped the tears away, muttering Pull yourself together Campbell.

 The phone call was from Lola, asking about Souad, and she sounded desperately worried.

“They told me you were with her in the hospital, Serena, and I need to know how she is. Her Mum won’t tell me a thing, nor will Sami. They just say she had an accident and she’s unconscious. But I need to know ….I think.. I think it may be all my fault.”

“Lola, I was planning to have a talk to you today in any case. I was working most of the night so I’ve just woken up. Could you be here in half an hour?”

Serena dragged herself out of bed and into the shower, hoping the hot water would revive her. By the time Lola arrived, Serena had managed to throw on the first pair of jeans and clean blouse she could find, and blow dry her hair. 

“Come in, Lola, the door’s open”, she called, from where she was refilling the coffee machine with water.

She heard the door close, and footsteps, but when she turned round, Lola burst into tears. Serena hastened across the room and took the girl in her arms.

“I’ve been so ..worried, all yesterday, since maman told me what happened,” she sobbed.

“It’s OK,” Serena murmured, “Souad is going to be fine, really.”

“But they say she’s still in a ..a..coma. That’s serious, right? She might never wake up.”

Serena had a sudden flashback to Elinor lying wired up to machines, but pushed the thought  away.

“It’s what we call an induced coma, Lola. We’ve given her sedatives to keep her asleep for a while so that her injuries can heal a bit first and we can run some tests. It’s true that she was seriously injured, but Bernie and I have repaired all the damage. There’s no reason why she won’t make a full recovery.”

“Oh I’m so glad you were there, Serena, but why Bernie? She’s not an emergency doctor like you, she’s a …….”

“Gynaecologist?” suggested Serena to see Lola’s reaction. As she had suspected, Lola looked immediately shifty and dropped her eyes.

“Well, you see, Lola, I needed Bernie’s help because Souad had a specific gynaecological problem. She had a miscarriage. And as for how she got pregnant, well, I think you know all about it. So why don’t you tell me the story, and let’s see if I can help to put things right for Souad.”

***

Unable to stay in bed, Bernie got up at eight and headed back into the hospital. Maury Fonseca was just coming off the night shift and reported that Souad was stable and that the ITU staff had eased off on the sedatives and expected her to be waking up shortly. Naïma was stretching her legs in the corridor and Bernie fetched coffee for her and passed on the information.

“I hope she’ll be able to tell us how this happened,” said Naïma. “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”  Bernie knew what she meant.

“Do you have children, Bernie?” she asked and Bernie nodded and they talked for a while about the problems of raising daughters.

At nine fifteen, Naïma took a phone call in Arabic and hung up rolling her eyes. “ Souad’s father. He's on his way.” She didn’t elaborate but her expression said it all.

At nine forty, an ITU nurse came out and beckoned to Bernie. “She’s waking up”.

***

Driss sent his driver to collect Serena, explaining that Souad had woken up, and Lola begged to accompany her. Serena agreed but made it clear that she would have to relay the information Lola had given her to Souad’s parents and the police. Lola looked scared but she nodded, and held Serena's hand tightly all the way to the hospital.

On arrival at the ITU, Serena saw Naïma and Driss through the viewing panel and beckoned to them to come out. Naïma kissed Lola and introduced her to Driss, who had a look on his face that Serena recognised all too well. Stepping forward, she gave him a warning glance to let Lola go in and talk to Souad. Then she took both parents  to the visitors’ room and told them what she had found out.

“The boyfriend is called Jérémie, he’s a student at the Fine Art Faculty in Lyon. They met when  he came to Lola and Souad’s school as an Art teaching assistant. Lola doesn’t know his surname, but the school will. Apparently, he was going out with another girl, but dropped her for Souad. According to Lola this Jérémie is not a very nice person. Souad was afraid to tell him she was pregnant, but Lola pushed her to tell him. She said he needed to know and to help her make a decision. That was on Friday evening, when Bernie and I saw them in the bar. So we assume that she was with him after that when she sustained her injuries.”

Driss had his phone out and was about to run for the door, but Serena blocked his way. “Driss, please remember that Lola and Souad will only cooperate with the enquiry if the police handle them sensitively. Don’t go charging in like a bull at a red rag. While you notify the police and get someone to come and take statements from the girls, I’ll talk to them again and try to find out more.”

Driss hesitated, then, seeing the look of determination on Serena’s face, he patted her arm and said “You’re right. What a wise woman you are! I’ll go myself and talk to the police first.” Then he kissed her on both cheeks and  turned to leave, pulling open the glass panelled swing door and almost colliding with a tall, blonde doctor standing outside, waiting to enter.

 

Chapter Text

Bernie found that her services were not really required once she had checked Souad over. The patient was rapidly regaining cheerfulness once the pain killers kicked in and people were coming to see her. She really was a lovely girl, thought Bernie, seeing her bright, animated smile at the sight of Lola, her best friend, and the way she thanked Bernie for helping her after the miscarriage. Bernie left any talk about the pregnancy to Naïma, Lola and Serena, who seemed to have formed a protective bubble around Souad, fending off awkward questions.

Bernie would have been blind not to notice Souad’s good-looking but self-important father, Driss the Diplomat, who seemed to have commandeered Serena’s attention and kept coming in and going out all day, usually barking into his phone and racing off on urgent missions. She noticed that Naïma especially kept him at arm’s length, doubtless to prevent him from haranguing his daughter, and that Serena seemed to be the appointed go-between, feeding information to Driss while keeping him away from Souad.

It was with a heavy heart that, by lunchtime, Bernie could see she had no more to do and should go and enjoy- if that was the word- her day of rest. Seeing Serena so connected to the drama playing out between Souad, Lola, Souad’s father and the police, Bernie opted to leave them to get on with it, and to go and do some laundry and other domestic chores. But by four thirty, everything urgent long since accomplished, and at a complete loose end, Bernie found herself lying on her sofa wondering why she had kissed Serena and where she had really wanted it to go. And more importantly, if Serena had really kissed her back, why Bernie had told her to forget about it.

***

Serena’s cover shift on ITU ended at 5 and, with Souad stable, and with visits from a carefully regulated group of visitors supervised by Naïma, she decided to head home for a rest. Bernie had been in and out and they hadn’t had much chance to talk, but Serena felt a certain coldness in her behaviour. She couldn’t imagine what might have caused it, unless Bernie was still upset about having kissed her, but so preoccupied had she been in ensuring that Driss stayed focused on the police enquiry while she and NaÏma attended to Souad, she had not had much time to think about anything else. As she was preparing to leave the hospital, however, she had the sudden realisation that she hadn’t seen Bernie all afternoon, and she wondered what she could be doing. She also remembered that Bernie had taken her car keys, which she now needed.  She stopped in the corridor, suddenly aware that Lola might also need a lift home, and called Bernie.

“Hey,” she said softly, as the phone was answered. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing much. Are you calling about your car keys?” was the response.

“Well, yes, and no. I’ve hardly seen you all day. I thought you might want to know the latest developments and have a catch up… yes, what is it, Lola?” in response to a tug on her arm from an impatient teenager holding a phone of her own and apparently in a heated conversation with someone.

“It’s maman- she wants you and Bernie to come to dinner.”

“Did you hear that, Bernie? Marie-Ange is inviting us to dinner. Will you join us?”

There was a pause while Bernie seemed to be thinking about it, then she said “OK that sounds good. Your car keys are in an envelope at reception, and the car is outside. I can bring my own car. I’ll be there by seven, OK?”

“Join me in the cottage and we’ll walk over to the house together,” Serena said, ending the call and not giving Bernie a chance to disagree.

By six-thirty, Bernie was showered and on her way out. She realised that she was actually looking forward to joining the family and seeing if she could find out any more about the mysterious Jérémie. She was also looking forward to seeing Serena again, but it was safer in company than alone.

Serena was just putting on make-up when Bernie arrived at the cottage. She held up two lipsticks and smeared a little of each onto her hand. “Which one?” she asked. Bernie couldn’t see much difference between them. One was pink, the other pinker. She indicated the brighter of the two. “More dramatic,” she commented. Serena winked and applied the brighter one.

She looked so lovely, apparently none the worse for the long day and interrupted sleep, and Bernie felt her heart leap with every traitorous glance she gave her.

“Right, all done. Shall we?” and Serena rose and moved towards the door, Bernie stumbling behind, almost too lost in her thoughts to keep up.

“You’re looking very spruce, I must say, Major,” Serena commented as they started the walk towards the house.

“Spruce?” Bernie said, looking down at her perfectly ordinary black skinny jeans and pale green linen shirt. “Like a tree, you mean? Green and black?”

“No, silly, like someone who just ironed her shirt and brushed her hair,” Serena came back with.

“Ah,” Bernie said. “You noticed.”

“Well let’s put it this way, anyone who hides their hair dryer under a pile of clothes obviously doesn’t use it much, but I can see you‘ve made an effort this evening. And it’s paid off,” she winked again and Bernie felt her cheeks get warm.

“It’s not often I have time to iron anything,” she said, as Serena laughed and linked arms with her as they walked companionably to the house.

Marie-Ange was at the door as they approached and welcomed them in. She explained that her husband and son had gone to a stock car racing event and would not be joining them, but that she had felt like company.

It was obvious to Bernie that the topic of conversation would be Souad’s misadventure, and equally clear that Marie-Ange wanted to discuss it among women in front of Lola to keep channels open with her teenage daughter and to warn her off similar behaviour. Having two medical professionals at the table was clearly a major factor in impressing on Lola the seriousness of what had happened.

“Do we know any more about this mysterious boyfriend?” Marie-Ange asked Serena.

“Well, Souad’s father, Driss, took the information Lola gave us to the police and they contacted the headmaster of the school and made him go in and open the office to get the personnel records of the art intern, Jérémie. When they saw his surname- Falconier, they knew who he was. It seems his father is mayor of a town further up the Rhone Valley, and very active in local politics. He’s also very ..er..right-wing and anti-immigrant, so….”

“…….so he wouldn’t want his son associating with a ……..”  Lola began, interrupted by her mother before she pronounced the derogatory slang word for a person of North African heritage.

“Lola! You know we don’t use that kind of language in this house!”

“Of course, maman, but that’s what they say. You can’t pretend it’s not true … and besides, Falconier and his cronies have been down here marching at election time. We know they exist and what their feelings are about immigrants. It’s just lucky for us that they’ve never been voted in here.”

“Did you know who Jérémie was when he came to the school as an assistant?” asked Bernie, curious.

“He never said his last name,” Lola replied. “And he was nice to all the students so we never had any idea of who he was related to.”

“So why do you think he picked on Souad?” asked her mother.

“Pffff…it’s obvious, she’s the most beautiful girl in the senior school.”

“And the most mature,” put in Marie-Ange. “That’s a real problem. Souad is a lovely girl but she must be aware that she’s a magnet for older men.”

“So what did she see in Jérémie?” asked Bernie.

“Well, at first all the girls fancied him, but he kept asking Souad to go out with him and she said no. So then he started going out with Laure from the year above us, and Souad was jealous. So finally he asked her again and so she said yes.”

“And did you know that she was in a sexual relationship with this man?” asked Marie-Ange.

Lola rolled her eyes and Bernie caught the hint of a smile on Serena’s face.

“Well I didn’t think they got together to play ping-pong,” Lola said in exasperation. Serena reached over and caught her hand.

“I think what your Mum means is, do you think Souad really wanted this kind of relationship so soon, or did he push her into it?” Serena said gently. It occurred to Bernie that she must have had similar conversations with Elinor a few years ago.

Lola looked down. Then she said, quietly, “I think she knew what she was getting into. But he was impatient, and she told me she wasn’t comfortable getting so intimate with him so soon, but that she was scared to lose him if she didn’t.”

No one had anything to add to that.

“But do we know that it was Jérémie who hurt Souad?” asked Bernie, who was as out of the loop as Marie-Ange.

“Yes, when she woke up, she told us it was him,” Serena said. “It seems that when we saw them in the bar on Friday night, Souad was telling him about her pregnancy.”

“I told her to tell him,” Lola burst in. “It was all my fault.” Her lip trembled and her mother put her hand over Lola’s, shaking her head.

“No, Lola, that’s not true,” Serena said firmly, looking at Marie-Ange as well as she said this. “Even if Souad had not told him at that point, it would have come out eventually if she continued seeing him. The baby was his. There’s no doubt. He would have had to acknowledge it.”

“But he might not have hit her and pushed her out of the car to try to make her miscarry!” Lola said.

“He did what?” Bernie was outraged, as was Marie-Ange who was staring at Serena and Lola with horror.

"Maybe not. But he would almost certainly have forced her to have an abortion. Which would also have been very traumatic,” Serena said.

“How badly injured is Souad?” Marie-Ange asked Bernie quietly. “Will she be able still to have children in the future?”

“There was a tear to the uterus, but she’s healing well and I see no reason why she shouldn’t make a full recovery. Of course, we’ll keep a close eye on her to make sure there’s nothing we missed, but so far it seems OK. I got Jax to check as well, and he agrees.”

“Souad is in the best hands, Marie-Ange,” Serena said. “We have one of the finest surgeons in Europe here in Bernie. Souad was a very lucky girl. In any other country hospital in the middle of a weekend night she might not have been so fortunate.”

“So what about Jérémie….will he go to prison?” asked Lola.

“He’s been arrested, yes. They made Souad identify him via a video link. Driss told me that his father is trying to get him off the hook by hiring a fancy defence lawyer.”

“And how is Driss reacting to all this?” Bernie asked Serena.

“Oh he’ll be in that courtroom giving evidence and he will make sure no stone is unturned in the police investigation to nail the bastard. Sometimes there are benefits to being a VIP,” she smiled knowingly.

Dinner, excellent as always, finished quite early and Bernie and Serena walked slowly back towards the cottage and Bernie’s car.

“That duck was delicious,” Bernie said appreciatively, having accepted seconds, as well as a big portion of her favourite tarte tatin. “It tastes sort of exotic, more spiced than one would usually find in France.”

“Yes, magret de canard usually has soy sauce and star anise in the sauce. It’s one of my favourite things- Lola found out one day when I was teaching her so I guess she told her mother.”

“I wish I had paid more attention to Home Economics in school,” Bernie sighed. Serena burst out laughing.

“Well, even if you had, you wouldn't have learned anything about classic French cooking. My memories sort of run out after pineapple upside down cake and toad in the hole. And besides, you’re a world class surgeon. You don’t have to be a gourmet cook as well!”

“My mother wasn’t great either,” confessed Bernie. “I didn’t learn much at home apart from how to boil an egg and make beans on toast! Yuk! Can’t stand baked beans now!”

“Well, I admit I was very fortunate to be brought up by a French mother who took her food seriously. Even if she was very hard to please most of the time. But if you’re so keen to learn, I’m happy to teach you a few standard dishes. “

“Really? Do you mean that?” Bernie asked.

“Of course I do. I don’t say things I don’t mean.”  She looked pointedly at Bernie, who couldn’t meet her gaze. They had reached the door of the cottage.

“Well are you coming in for a nightcap?” Serena asked brightly. Bernie hesitated. While her body was screaming yes, her mind was warning her off. She needed more time to observe Serena to see whether the kiss had been deliberate or just a reflex.

“Umm, I think I’ll pass tonight,” she replied. “You must be very tired, and it’s been a traumatic few days.”

An unmistakeable look of disappointment flashed in Serena’s eyes, but she capitulated immediately.

“Yes, you’re probably right. A good night’s sleep is definitely in order. But I’m booking you for lunch tomorrow, Major. I’ve missed your company.” She smiled warmly and Bernie felt her insides jolt. Maybe Serena had been serious after all?  She smiled back just as warmly.

“I’d be delighted, Dr. Campbell,” she said, reaching over to kiss Serena lightly on the cheek, which was warm and soft, with an all-enveloping scent of vanilla.

“Well goodnight, then,” Serena said, opening her door and going inside.

Hmmm, could I have made a mistake? wondered Bernie as she drove home, a twinge of excitement in her belly and the scent of vanilla still in her nostrils.

 ***

When she arrived at work the following day, Serena was delighted to see Souad up and walking slowly round the private room she had been moved to once she was out of intensive care. Between them, Serena and Jax had persuaded the sister of the General ward that Souad needed privacy, away from intrusive questions and undue stress. The arrest of Jérémie Falconier was now news all over the town and someone was bound to put two and two together sooner or later.

Sami was sitting in the room when Serena arrived and greeted her with the news that staff had told them Souad could be discharged the following day, so Naïma had gone back to the restaurant.

“She wants you and Bernie to join them for lunch today,” Sami said. “To say thank you. Driss will be here shortly, and I’ll be heading back to work.”

Thanks for the heads up, thought Serena, smiling at Sami and telling him she would be glad to accept the invitation and would accept for Bernie as well, provided nothing else came up.

Then she made her way swiftly to the locker room where Maury Fonseca was standing in his jeans and T shirt, stowing his jacket and motorcycle helmet before changing into scrubs.

“Maury, just the man,” Serena exclaimed in relief. “I need you to brief me on what’s happening in the ED now that I’m no longer needed upstairs.” She opened her purse and whipped out a 20 euro note. “But before you get changed, could you just run out to that coffee stand and get three coffees and pastries? One double shot latte, one Americano and whatever you’re having. Oh and pains au chocolat  if they have them.”

Maury looked as if he was about to protest, then he gave a cheeky grin and said “Yes, Mum,” taking the money and heading outside. Serena changed slowly into scrubs and sauntered out to the ED, looking around her carefully. As soon as Maury returned, having procured the biggest pain au raisin Serena had ever seen for himself, Serena took the Americano and a pastry round to Obs and Gynae where Bernie was alone in her office catching up on paperwork.

“Good morning Dr. Wolfe. Breakfast is here,” she announced, closing the door and swiftly depositing the items on Bernie’s desk. Bernie pushed her glasses up onto her head.

“Hey, thank you , Serena, that’s very kind,” she said, obviously surprised.

“Can’t stop to chat, but just to let you know, we’ve been invited to Chez Naïma today for a thank you lunch. I’ve accepted for you, but if anything comes up, just text me.”

“That sounds wonderful,” said Bernie, who loved her North African food.

“I’ll meet you by this entrance at 1pm, OK?”

Bernie took a sip of coffee and nodded. “Ah just what the doctor ordered!”

Serena then took the back corridors to the ED, avoiding the public areas, and slid back into the staff room to rejoin Maury. It was a busy morning. They were both called to theatre several times, and during one break between operations, Marie-O came and whispered that a M. Driss Alaoui was looking for Serena.

“Tell him I’m busy,” Serena said brusquely, then she winked at Marie-O who winked back.

By 1.15, both Bernie and Serena had managed to get to the restaurant and were shown to a special table in the conservatory, where Jax was already installed, and Sami was waiting at table. Serena looked at him and raised her eyebrows.

“Really?”

“Today, the doctors are the guests of the Tahiri family,” he smiled, bowing.

Naïma suddenly appeared carrying a small blackboard and easel where the special menu was chalked. Sami helped her to set it up next to the table, then vanished to the kitchen.

“Right. There is only one menu today. It’s all the best things we offer in this restaurant, made specially for you to say thank you for saving the life of my daughter, and for being so kind and understanding in this difficult situation. I’ve tried to remember what each of you likes most, to make sure we have something for everyone. For the entrée, Jax’ favourite vegetarian stuffed peppers,” Jax gave a thumbs up, “ then for the main, Serena’s favourite chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives,” Serena groaned in pleasure,  “and our homemade khoubz – flat bread- that Bernie loves so much, with some zalouk- aubergine dip, and for the  dessert, well, what else but the raspberry brik you all seem to appreciate.”

“That’s amazing ,” Bernie said, “what a pity we have to work this afternoon. “

“Yes, a glass or three of shiraz would go so nicely….” Serena said, but they all sighed and laughed and Jax poured them glasses of iced mint tea.

When the food came, they fell on it hungrily, and Sami and Naïma joined them briefly for the main course. The atmosphere was pleasant and filled with laughter.

Finally, Serena pushed her dessert plate away and rubbed her stomach. Coffee had been served and she was just reaching for her cup, when there was a commotion and suddenly, Driss appeared, his arm round a handsome young man in his early twenties who bore a remarkable resemblance to Souad.

“Rachid-what are you doing here?” Naïma exclaimed, moving forward to embrace the young man.

Bonjour maman,” Rachid said, while Driss proudly announced that this was Souad’s older brother, who had just arrived from Casablanca, where he worked.

Rachid greeted the guests and sat down, accepting a coffee, while Driss pulled up a chair and sat opposite Serena.

“Serena this is my – and Naïma’s son, Rachid. He grew up in France like Souad, but he’s working for an international company in Casablanca at the moment,” Driss  said in English.

“Nice to meet you, Rachid,” Serena said politely, not sure what the young man had been told about his sister. She was aware of Bernie listening in on her left, and of Naïma looking – amused, astonished, annoyed- she wasn’t quite sure. Possibly a mixture of all three. In any event, she couldn’t help herself from coming over to find out what was going on.

“Rachid and I are taking Souad back to Morocco for a little holiday, when she feels able to travel,” Driss said.

“And Souad agreed to this?” asked Naïma, her eyes glittering dangerously.

“It’s OK maman”, Rachid said. “She can stay with us for a week in Casablanca to recover. Célie’s sister is staying with us, and she ‘ll keep Souad company while we work.”

“And then I’ll take her to Marrakech,” said Driss, “to the villa, and I’ll take her out and go on some excursions to the High Atlas. I know she loves that.”

Naïma looked doubtful, then she said “Well, this is only if Souad agrees. But I do think it might be better to get her out of this area at least until all the fuss has died down.”

Driss clapped his hands. “Well then, sorted!” Then he leaned across to Serena. “And I’d really like you to join us in Marrakech, Serena. It would be excellent for Souad, but also a very nice break for you. I’m sure I can arrange things with your boss!” and he winked.

Serena felt the colour coming to her cheeks and the ground opening beneath her. She had no desire to embarrass or insult Naïma, or to seem to be uninterested in Souad, but the invitation from Driss was both unexpected and not exactly welcome. She took a breath, conscious of an audience.

“Thank you, Driss, I’m most grateful for such an invitation I’m sure Marrakech is ..er..delightful.   But before making any kind of decision, I need to talk to my boss and my colleagues to check work rotas. We’re very busy at the moment, so if I can get back to you….?”

Much to her relief, Driss nodded. Serena excused herself then to go to the bathroom, feeling her cheeks still burning. As she got up from the table, Sami suddenly materialised at her side and began murmuring in her ear.

“Marrakesh is lovely, but there are much better ways of seeing it, if you get my meaning.”

Serena gave him a grateful smile and half turned to walk away. As she did so, she got a glimpse of Bernie’s face, which was strangely expressionless, her eyes dead, and staring fixedly at the tablecloth.  

 

Chapter Text

It was two days after the lunch at the restaurant before Serena saw Bernie again. The ED was busy with tourists and vineyard workers who had managed to get themselves into a variety of painful scrapes and Serena found herself busy until late in the evenings. She had sent Bernie a couple of friendly texts but had received only brief answers. She assumed that Bernie was just as busy as she was, so she was prepared to let it go at first, but by Wednesday evening and still no word from her, Serena was a little puzzled and, yes, hurt. She had assumed that their friendship was one in which regular contact would be a feature, and she had also assumed that Bernie’s withdrawal from initiating anything more than a platonic friendship was born of a desire to protect that friendship. The radio silence was, therefore, disturbing.

Serena was also trying desperately to avoid Driss and thinking of a way to refuse his offer of a trip to Morocco. Sami’s whispered aside had confirmed her suspicions that Driss may have designs on her, something she had no desire to encourage by placing herself alone with him on his home territory. She knew time was running out and that he would soon be coming to renew his offer, not taking no for an answer, but it wasn’t something she felt she could ask any of her colleagues or friends to help her with. So she opted for the only strategy she could think of which was to wait and say nothing in the hope that he might not follow up, and if he did, throw herself on Yves Charpentier’s mercy and beg him to insist he couldn’t spare her. She could imagine his withering look already.

On Wednesday, Serena was packing up her belongings preparing to leave when it occurred to her that Bernie’s evening clinic should be finishing at about that time. She navigated the corridors to the Gynaecology Department and was gratified to see Bernie’s office door open and a light on. Tapping softly, Serena poked her head around the door. Jax was at the filing cabinet and looked up, a brilliant smile lighting up his face.

“Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the ED come to visit,” he quipped in his affected British accent. Serena laughed and looked across him to where Bernie was frowning at her computer screen.

“Hi, Serena,” Bernie mumbled, looking briefly in her direction.

“Hi yourself, Major. I saw your light on and wondered if you fancied joining me for dinner? I’m too shattered to cook. All those RTC’s and artery repairs- how DO people manage to get themselves into such messes I’ll never know!”  She finally stopped talking, aware that Bernie’s reaction was not exactly encouraging. Serena felt unaccountably nervous, as if she had done something wrong but she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what it might be.

Bernie finally turned to face her, eyes partially masked by her glasses so that Serena could not read her expression.

“Oh, I..um..I’ve still got rather a lot to get through,” she said.

Serena could see Jax’s eyebrows raise.

“Hey, Bernie, you go right on and take a break. There’s nothing here that won’t wait till morning, right? Your first surgery isn’t till 10.30, plenty of time to get a bit of admin done first thing.”

“Well, it’s not just admin,” Bernie said, getting up from her desk and moving around to where a scan of a woman’s pelvic area was displayed on a screen.

 “Tricky adnexal adhesiolysis tomorrow,” Bernie said, not making eye contact with Serena. “I need a bit of time to think that one through.”

“Come on Bernie, you can do a laparoscopic adhesiolysis in your sleep,” Jax said. “And I can come in with you on that one if you need a second pair of eyes.”

“Well, we may need to discuss this further- I’m not sure we can get it all with a laparoscopy, that’s why I want to spend a bit of time going through these scans.”

Jax shrugged and turned to Serena. “Well I’m meeting Sami at Café Bleu in ten minutes. They have a great menu on Wednesdays, you’re welcome to join us, both of you.”

“Well, thank you,” said Serena warmly, “I’d love to. Are you sure we can’t entice you Bernie?”

Bernie flapped her hand. “No, no, you go on without me. I really need to concentrate.”

“Well, stop by for a drink when you finish? Or we could order some food for you to take away?”

“No, it’s fine, really. Another day maybe,” and she went back to peering at her screen.

Serena held up her hands as if to say “I give up”, then turning to Jax, she said “Well come on then, Bouchard, I’ll race you!”

***

Alone in her office, Bernie took a deep breath and leaned her arms miserably against the desk. She dared not let Serena see how unhappy she was that her friend might be moving on after Bernie had backed away from taking their kiss any further. In the back of her mind, Bernie had been close to reversing that decision, but the last few days had shown her that Serena would almost certainly not welcome it now that things were heading in a more exciting direction for her. Wearily she gathered up her jacket and handbag and made her way out of the hospital. Tomorrow she would take back her hire car. No need for that any more either. For the final month of her stay she would stick to focusing on her work.

***

Jax had been right, the menu at Café Bleu, a traditional establishment that had recently undergone refurbishment under new owners, was excellent for the price, a fact borne out by the lack of vacant tables. When Serena arrived with Jax, Sami was trying to keep a table for them that would only just seat 3 people.

“Where’s Bernie?” asked Sami, who had grown very fond of the shy, awkward gynaecological surgeon.

“Said she was too busy to come,” answered Serena, looking meaningfully at Jax. He shrugged.

“I don't get it. She’s a genius in surgery and always on top of her cases. I don’t see why she couldn’t take an evening off for God’s sake.”

“Hey, is something up between you?” Sami asked in alarm.

“What do you mean, ‘between us’?”  Serena asked, taking her first sip of the excellent Syrah Sami had ordered.

“Well, you two always seem pretty close…I thought maybe you were….together?”

“No, no, we’re friends, but nothing else,” Serena said, trying to keep her face expressionless.

At that moment the waiter came to take their order, so they switched to discussing the menu.

“I’ll have the pork medallions,” Jax said, but Sami interceded “No, you can’t, because then I can’t taste yours.”

“Oh, right, OK, so hold that, I’ll have the ….what are you having, then? So I can choose something different.”

Serena rolled her eyes and, ignoring them, leaned forward and said “I’ll have the steack au poivre, dauphinoise potatoes and a side salad, no starter.”

“Me too,” Sami said, snapping the menu shut.

“OK so I’ll take the marinated mushrooms followed by the grilled swordfish,” Jax said.

“So you don’t eat pork but you drink wine?” Serena teased Sami.

He sighed. “I’m not religious, but we never had pork in Morocco growing up, and when I moved to France, I just went on avoiding it. People in Morocco think it’s dirty- it’s a kind of mindset it’s hard to get out of.”

“OK, OK,” said Jax, brandishing his fork as a steaming plate of mushrooms in garlic and parsley was put down in front of him, “let’s not do the food taboos right now. I’d rather talk about Bernie.”

Serena’s heart sank. Picking up her fork she stabbed one of Jax’s mushrooms and squashed it onto a piece of bread.

“What about her?   Mmmmm, this is excellent!”

Sami picked up a piece of bread and did the same. “You’re right,” he agreed.

“Hey!” Jax said, protecting his plate with his arms. “Actually, Serena I’m glad we’ve got you alone, I need to tell you that woman is pining like crazy.”

“Who? Bernie? Pining for whom?”

“Well, that’s the thing,” Jax said between mouthfuls. He took a swig of wine. “At first I thought it was her kids, you know, Cameron coming over but the daughter not wanting to talk to her. Then I thought it might be someone she’d met outside. But I only had to spend five minutes in surgery or in the office with the two of you to realise who it is. Don’t tell me you’re not aware, Serena?”

Serena groaned. “I didn’t want to talk about this.”

“Well you must be the only one,” Sami said. “Souad and Naïma have both commented on what an attractive pair you make, and I have to say I agree. And I know Bernie’s gay.”

“How did you know that?” she asked, surprised.

Sami tapped his nose. “Call it my gaydar,” he winked.  “And in fact everyone seems to have put you two together, except…..”

“Driss!” said Serena, and they all started laughing. “If only! That would be the perfect get-out clause.”

“So tell,” ordered Jax, waving his fork at her.

Serena sighed. “It’s true we were attracted to one another. And I knew she was gay, but I’ve never had a relationship with a woman so maybe I was slow to make the connection. Anyway, that day we operated on Souad, when we didn’t know if she would recover, she kissed me. In the locker room. And I kissed her back. And I thought, well, OK let’s do this. But then she decided it was, well, too complicated, and that was that. We stayed just friends. Only now, I’m not so sure. She seems to have lost interest in being even friends.”

Jax snorted. “For a remarkably clever woman you’re incredibly thick sometimes, Serena.”

“What do you mean?” she asked indignantly.

“Well, it’s obvious………ever since Driss issued his very public invitation to you to go to Morocco with him, she’s shut down. She’s jealous, you idiot. She thinks you’re about to run off to Marrakesh with Mr. Smooth!”

Serena looked at him open-mouthed. “But…she can’t possibly think….I mean, give me some credit for taste, oh sorry, Sami, no offence intended!”

Sami laughed. “He may be related to me through Souad, and I adore her, and my aunt, but he’s very much not my favourite person. He hates gay people for one! Mr. Alpha male with his Rolex and his fancy cars. He and Naima were at each other’s throats for years, he drove her crazy. OK so he’s better now, and he’s kind to Souad, but being a diplomat has given him a real superiority complex. I’d never think a woman like you would go for a guy like him, Serena.”

“But a jealous lover would think like that,” Jax put in.

The second course arrived and Serena busied herself for a moment sorting cutlery and laying her napkin across her lap. What Jax had said had suddenly turned on a light in her head. What if it was true? What if they were both idiots pining for each other?

“So what do you suggest?” Serena asked, cutting into her steak.

“Let me ponder a little,” Jax said, winking, and pouring her more wine.

***

When Jax arrived in the morning, Bernie was already there. Pale, expressionless, but going methodically through her case files before the first surgery.

“So what did you decide about the adnexal adhesiolysis?” Jax asked her.

“It’s risky, very risky to do it laparoscopically,” she answered, having the details clear in her mind. “We need to have a plan B in case we have  to open her up.”

“Can you run through it with me?”

Five minutes later he had to concur. They would be extremely lucky to complete the operation in a way that was minimally invasive.

“Look, I know you can cope if something goes wrong and we nick an artery,” he said, “but I can’t help you if I can’t stand for long enough. I think we should have Serena on standby, what do you say?”

“Mmm. Let’s reserve judgement on that, but just call the ED and ask them to be prepared to send someone senior if we run into trouble.”

Jax looked hard at her but she wouldn’t meet his gaze so he picked up the phone and asked to speak to Marie-O. The brief conversation was in rapid French; Bernie didn’t detect anything unusual, certainly not that Jax had casually slipped in a reference to “the standard  arrangement” which he knew Marie-O would interpret as meaning “send Serena”.

However, as it happened, Bernie’s use of the laparoscope was so flawless that she managed to remove the most dangerously placed adhesion without further invasion, and Serena was not needed. Jax was impressed.

“God, that was good, Wolfe!” he said. “I never would have been able to do that last one as deftly as you did. In fact, it would have been me calling for Serena!”

“Well, just as well it wasn’t you then,” was all she would say, but he could see she was very pleased with herself. It had been a stunning piece of digital surgery and Jax seriously believed there was hardly a surgeon in the whole area who could have performed it as well as Bernie Wolfe.

But it left him with another dilemma.

***

Serena had been fully expecting to have to go and assist Bernie and Jax with an open adnexal adhesiolysis, but when the time passed and no call came, she simply carried on with her usual duties of seeing to the walking wounded coming into the ED. By midday she was sitting in the doctors' office with Maury Fonseca, door open, when she caught the flash of wheels passing her door. Looking up and peering through the window, she saw Marie-O at the nurse’s station bending to talk to a doctor in a wheelchair. She was nodding and seemed to glance in Serena’s direction. Jax then turned around and wheeled himself off the ward without talking to Serena. She felt suddenly exposed, as though everyone was looking at her, but carried on as if nothing had happened.

The rest of the day seemed to drag. Maury offered to go out to pick up some food, and Serena agreed, not feeling much like getting changed and going out on her own. The ED was quiet for a change, and at 6pm, she was just starting to feel hungry again as Maury described his grandmother’s Cuban roast pork, when suddenly the phones started ringing and voices were raised. They both looked up as Marie-O stuck her head round the door.

“Ambulance crew picking up victims of an RTC. ETA eight minutes. Let’s get briefed.”

They both rose and went to the nurse’s station where one of the other nurses was writing on a notepad and Marie-O was reading from it.

“OK, pregnant woman driver involved in collision with a van. The van driver seems to be having a heart attack. The crew are stabilising him, but we need to get him up to CT as soon as they arrive. Maury, you take the man up to CT and brief them, then get back down here.  Serena, the woman has possible multiple fractures in her arm and shoulder and she is almost eight months pregnant. We need Obs and Gynae for this. I’ll call.”

By the time the ambulance arrived, Bernie had joined the team waiting in the ED reception. Maury went in first with a porter and they got the van driver out of the ambulance and on his way to CT. The woman came next. She was clearly in a lot of pain and holding her very swollen stomach. Serena and Marie-O got her into a bay and Bernie started her checklist while Serena checked the arms and shoulders.

“We have a multiple fracture of the ulna- she must have been hit side on, and a broken clavicle, at the very least, but we need X-Rays to determine the exact damage,” she announced in French.

Bernie was shouting “bring me a portable ultrasound” as she tried to determine if the woman was in pain from her stomach or just the other injuries. She was clearly stunned and her responses were far from clear, so Bernie slapped gel on the probe and studied the screen intensely.

“I can’t see any damage to the baby,” she said finally, wiping the gel off the woman’s stomach.

“My baby, is my baby OK?” the woman was crying.

Serena took her hand. “Your baby is fine. We’re going to X-Ray your shoulder and arm and try to fix them in surgery, but I have this wonderful obstetric specialist here with me. She’ll be with you the whole time, and she’ll take care of the baby, OK?”

The woman nodded, then her head fell back as the painkillers kicked in.

Forty-five minutes later, Bernie, Serena and Maury were scrubbed in ready to operate, having checked the X-Rays and planned the repairs needed. The patient was calm and the baby stable, but Bernie was taking no chances.

Allocating the simple clavicle repair to Maury, Serena asked Bernie to help her with the ulna, and as they worked closely, side by side, Serena said quietly in English.

“Anyone would say you’ve been avoiding me. Have I done something wrong?”

Bernie kept her eyes down. “No. Why would you say that?”

“Well, you never seem to be available for lunch or dinner or even coffee any more. I‘ve missed you.”

“Really?” Bernie replied in a low voice. “Well I just thought you’d be busy planning your trip to Morocco with ..what’s his name? Driss.”

Serena nearly laughed aloud, but conscious of Maury nearby and knowing he spoke good English, she swallowed the giggle that rose in her chest. When she had regained control of herself, she said, “You surely don’t think I’d go off on holiday with him?”

“Why not? Rich, attractive man,” Bernie murmured back as she skilfully threaded a pin through the bone.

“And that’s what you think of me, is it?” Serena asked, her eyes above her mask flashing  dangerously. “That I’d run off to Marrakech with the first good looking guy with money that rocks up?”

"No, but you seemed, how shall I say? not averse to his charms,” Bernie mumbled, still not making eye contact.

“Well, Berenice Wolfe, that just goes to show that you don’t know me at all. If I was planning a romantic escape to Marrakech I know exactly who I’d want to go with. And it wouldn’t be Driss Alaoui.”

She raised her eyes to meet Bernie’s shocked and puzzled gaze, then an alarm went off and Serena looked down.

“We have a bleed. Bernie swap places with Maury and keep your eye on her stats.”

While Serena and Maury fixed the bleed, Bernie stood monitoring the patient, her face blank but her mind reeling.

When they had finished and were scrubbing out, the patient being closely monitored in Recovery, Bernie asked.
“What did you mean, you know exactly who you’d want to go with?”

“I think you’d better come into the office. We need to have little talk,” Serena replied.

When they emerged onto the ward, heading for the office, Serena saw Marie-O suddenly put down the telephone and drop her eyes. And as Serena ushered Bernie into the office and turned to close the door, she saw Maury behind them intercepted by Marie-O and diverted to the nurse’s station.

Serena closed the door and stood with her back to it. Bernie fidgeted nervously in front of her.

“Bernie, who did you think I meant?” she asked.

“I..I don’t know,” Bernie stammered.

“Yes, you do,” Serena replied calmly. “We’ve been idiots. Both of us. There’s only one person I want to go with and that’s you, Bernie. “

“You..want to go with ? You mean…you’re planning…?” Bernie could hardly string her words together.

Serena stepped forward and looked into Bernie’s eyes. “If you’re game, Bernie. Because I know I am,” and, grasping Bernie’s upper arms she launched herself at her lips. Bernie staggered backwards until her back hit the wall, and Serena pinned her there with her body weight, reaching her hands up to Bernie’s messy little pony tail and pulling that soft, glorious hair free as she deepened the kiss, hearing Bernie moan as she opened her mouth to let her in, her hands coming automatically to Serena’s hips as she relaxed into the kiss.

Serena didn’t know how long she stood kissing Bernie against the wall, and quite frankly she didn’t care as long as Bernie kept kissing her back like this. When she heard the noise outside the office it took her a while to identify it as the sound of people cheering, and suddenly, the world came in. Serena pulled back, conscious of the spectacle they were offering their colleagues, in a glass-fronted office with the blinds open. She looked up. Bernie was panting slightly, her eyes still wide in amazement, a flush on her cheeks, her lips pink and swollen. Serena thought she had never seen anything so beautiful. She smiled as reassuringly as possible, then turned and went to the door.

“Thank you for the audience,” she said, “you can all go back to work now.”

Turning back into the room from her grinning, delighted colleagues, she said. “Well, Major, was that convincing enough for you? “

Bernie shook her head a little as if in disbelief, her hair flopping over her eyes as she did so.

“I never thought…..”

“No, that’s your problem. You tried to think for me. To imagine that kissing you made me feel uncomfortable. Well you were wrong. There’s nothing I want to do more…lots more. So let’s get out of these scrubs and go home, shall we? “

“B-but what about the pregnant patient?”

“Oh I think your colleague has that covered,” smiled Serena, collecting her things and flinging open the door, where she saw Jax deep in conversation with Marie-O, and Maury slouching against the desk nodding.

“You’re now officially off-duty, ladies,” said Jax. “The night shift is coming on and I’ll be in an on-call room for the pregnant patient if needed. Dr. Fonseca has also offered to do a double shift and will take tomorrow off. So we’re all good, I think.”

Serena smiled and took Bernie firmly by the hand. “Thank you all very much, and good night. See you tomorrow.”

***

When Serena and Bernie had rounded the corner leading off the ward, Jax asked.

“Was that Driss Alaoui I saw leaving as I was coming in?”

Marie-O nodded, a wicked smile lighting up her usually stern face. “He came looking for Serena again, something about arranging to go with her to Marrakech. I pointed him in the direction of the office. We had a great view. “

Jax started laughing. “What did he say?”

“Nothing. I said ‘well, Monsieur Alaoui,  I think that’s your answer right there’. He just stomped off!”

“Well done, Marie-O! I owe you a drink or two for helping me out today.”

“Don’t mention it Dr. Bouchard. We can’t have a Dream Team without a dream, now, can we?”

Chapter Text

“Serena Ballerina! What a surprise! “

“Hello Siân, and do drop that silly nickname. I’ve come begging a favour, I’m afraid.”

“Well that doesn’t surprise me. But where on God’s earth are you? I was told you’d dropped off the planet!”

Not quite- I’m in France. And who told you that? Oh, let me guess- Fleur!”

“Right, yes, most mysterious she was. Anyway, how are things? Are you having any little adventures?”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. Do you still have that place in Morocco?”

“The fuckpad?” Siân chuckled. “Oh yes, and very useful it is, too. What? Don’t tell me you want to borrow it?  Who IS he, Serena?”

“Slow down Siân. Can you just tell me where it is and something about it?” 

“Well as you know, I got it in my last but one divorce settlement. From Ricky, the banker who buggered off back to Boston. It was that or he lost his mansion in Scotland near the golf course, and that would never do! So I kept it, and I’ve done it up. It’s what they call a “riad”, a sort of traditional house converted to a guest house. Very tasteful, very discreet. And I have this   gorgeous couple managing it – Hassan, he’s the driver cum pool attendant cum gardener, I’ve pinched his bum a few times I don’t mind telling you, and his lovely wife, Salma, she’s the housekeeper but she also has her own graphic design company, so when we’re busy she gets her cousin to come in and do some cooking and cleaning …..”

“Thank you, Siân!” Serena interrupted her. “I don’t need the family history. Just where is it?”

“Ah..just south of Essaouira. You can fly to either Agadir or Marrakech and I can send Hassan  to pick you up.”

“Could I borrow it, do you think, the weekend after next?”

"Let me check- yes, that’s fine. You crafty mare, Serena, you must tell me everything!”

 Serena sighed. “Well, you see, I had to go to the gynaecologist in France…….”

***

Bernie’s head was in a whirl. In fact, her whole existence had been sucked into a tornado   since Serena Campbell had surprised her with that move in the office. Now she was being asked to pack for a long weekend somewhere in Morocco. That she should be the one going with Serena was amazing in itself, but what amazed her more was the conspiracy among her colleagues to make it happen.

Nothing more had been seen of Driss Alaoui. Sami had reported Naima, Souad and their friends crying with laughter at the thought of Driss getting such an eyeful of Serena in a clinch with Bernie. Meanwhile, Maury Fonseca had somehow insinuated himself into the family by befriending Sami and Souad while she was in hospital, and offering to tutor Souad (who wanted to become a doctor) in Sciences. Lola soon joined the classes and the three had become as thick as thieves, with Souad now insisting on going to her father’s villa for the Christmas break and taking her two closest friends with her. Rachid departed smirking to Casablanca, not at all unhappy to see his father’s plans thwarted. In fact, if observers were to be believed, he could actually be seen high fiving with Maury before leaving for the airport.

Meanwhile, a few days after the office kiss, Bernie found her duty rota being taken over by Jax and other colleagues, to give her four clear days the following week. To her embarrassment, she found, on calling her son, that even he had heard about the hospital romance of the decade. So she gave in. Gracefully.

Now she found herself at the airport in Lyon waiting to board their flight to Agadir.

“So tell me again why we’re flying to Agadir and not Marrakech, if that’s nearer?” Bernie asked.

“The difference is minimal,” Serena replied. Besides, the coast road is much nicer than the inland one. Or so Siân says.”

Bernie had nothing to say to that, so they proceeded to check in and get to their gate. Once the flight was airborne, Serena picked up the French language airline magazine and began reading it, and Bernie reclined her seat and let her mind go back to all that had happened to bring her here.

Once Serena had made her intentions clear, Bernie had surrendered all too willingly to the force of her desire- finding an equal force in Serena, one that also never stopped surprising her. Of course, Serena Campbell liked sex, and was confident in exploring the new territory. She had been shy about her body at first – until she had seen the expression on Bernie’s face, one of complete adoration and desire, then she had relaxed.

“Of course, you’ve seen it all before,” she had laughed nervously, as Bernie had feverishly helped her remove the last piece of clothing.

“Through the eyes of a doctor,” Bernie had retorted. “You don’t think I eye up my female patients, do you?”

Serena had said nothing but gave a little smirk, thinking of Fleur, and Bernie then set to proving how very much she liked what she was seeing for the first time through the eyes of a lover. As she mentally reviewed what had happened after that conversation, Bernie began to feel hot and a very uncomfortable sensation warned her that she was in a public place, on a plane, and could hardly ravish Serena in the current situation.

Serena must have detected her discomfort because she put down her magazine and, turning to Bernie, said “You’re not thinking of dragging me into the toilet are you?”

“How did you ….?” Bernie spluttered.

“How did I know that’s where your thoughts were leading? I can read your mind, of course,” then, as Bernie looked indignant she added “or it might have been all the squirming and the red cheeks.”

Bernie just looked at her, the blush deepening.

“You know people do actually have sex in the toilet on planes,” winking. “Do you remember that hoo-ha some years ago about Ralph Fiennes and the Australian cabin crew member caught having sex in the toilet on a flight?”

“What? Really?” Bernie was astonished.

“Oh yes, but it was in Business Class and in the middle of the night.”

“Where it was much less likely that six people would be queueing outside.”

“Yes,” chuckled Serena, “talk about walk of shame. That would really take the biscuit. So don’t worry, darling, I promise to more than make up for it when I get you to the ‘fuckpad’, as Siân so charmingly calls it!”

Bernie closed her eyes, and sank back in her seat, grabbing a magazine distractedly from the seat pocket in front of her. And spent the rest of the flight looking at microwaveable snacks and duty free gifts.

Once on the ground, Hassan was there, as promised and the drive along the coast was spectacular. Bernie could feel a strong sense of anticipation in her belly as the journey progressed, and when they finally pulled up in front of the villa, she practically leapt out of the car, anxious to get inside and be alone with Serena. But that wasn’t quite how things turned out.

As Bernie was lifting her holdall and Serena’s trolley from the boot of the car, she heard a woman’s voice cry “Serena darling!” Surprised, she turned to see Serena being embraced by a busty blonde in a low cut, multicoloured kaftan, split up the sides to reveal her long, toned legs. Bernie felt her hackles rise. Slamming the boot, she walked towards them, just as another, much shorter figure appeared.

“Well, well,” came a low, cultured voice, “Serena, you devious minx. Bagging the most sought -after lesbian on the entire medical conference circuit.” Then, to Bernie’s complete outrage, she then proceeded to kiss a very surprised Serena on the mouth.

Recognising her as a fellow medical colleague, but too stunned even to blush, all Bernie could do was stammer “Fleur Fanshawe? What are you doing here?”

Pushing Fleur away, Serena recovered her wits more quickly. “Siân, what is this? Why are you and Fleur here at all?”

“Sorry, darling, but when I told Fleur about your romantic getaway, she just HAD to come and see for herself!  But don’t worry, we’re just the welcome committee- Hassan’s taking us back to Marrakech in an hour for our flight home. I just came to make sure all was ready for your love nest.”

Serena’s cheeks had coloured sharply, and she avoided looking directly at Bernie as she replied. “Well, in that case, Siân Kors, meet Bernie Wolfe, and vice versa. Fleur, you and Bernie are already acquainted, I believe?”

“Indeed we are, if only fleetingly, much to my regret,” came the amused voice.

Bernie had remained silent throughout the entire scene, just reaching forward to shake hands very stiffly with Siân, who was openly looking her up and down. Bernie wiped her sweaty palms on her skinny denims and crossed her arms protectively across her chest as she waited for someone to make a move. Finally, much to Bernie’s relief, Hassan ushered them inside, out of the glare of the midday sun.

“So this is the master bedroom,” Siân said, opening a door and revealing a large, airy room with a huge king sized bed under the window and pillows all over.

“Convenient ensuite bathroom, as you can see, oh and a rather handy mirror,” she grinned, pointing to a full length, gilt-framed affair positioned directly in front of the bed. Serena merely raised an eyebrow and wandered into the bathroom to take a look, but Bernie had had enough, and, mumbling an excuse, wandered blindly back through the villa until she glimpsed a rear door open and the comforting sight of Hassan smoking peacefully outside, contemplating the  rose garden.

When Fleur came out to see where she had gone, Hassan had departed, and Bernie was just finishing the cigarette he had offered her.

“Am I sensing just the tiniest bit of hostility?” she asked, in a good-humoured voice.

"Well, you have to admit, this is not quite what I was expecting,” Bernie replied, dragging deeply on the cigarette before stubbing it out under the toe of her sneaker.

“Look, Major, don’t get the wrong idea. Serena’s one of my best friends, I only have her interests at heart, as does Siân.”

“So I see,” replied Bernie coolly.

“And if you’re wondering whether there’s anything between us, the answer is ‘no’. As far as I’m aware, Serena always confined her interest to the male sex. Until you came along, that is!”

“And what about that kiss, then?” Bernie asked, trying to keep her competitive instincts in check. Fleur chuckled.

“Well, can you blame me? I’ve been after Serena for ages, but no luck there. So you shouldn’t be surprised to find I’m just a tad excited by this new development.”

“I’d watch your step if I were you,” Bernie warned her. “I’ve been in the Army. I could curtail your amorous advances with one flick of my wrist and you wouldn’t know what had hit you!”

Fleur winced exaggeratedly. “Ouch! Well just so you know, Major, Serena’s one of my best friends and all I want is for her to be happy and satisfied. If you can provide that, I’ll stay well out of your reach.” And she patted Bernie’s arm and moved swiftly away, leaving Bernie feeling foolish in the extreme.

***

Relieved though she was to see Siân and Fleur depart, and worried about Bernie’s reaction to the intrusion into their love bubble, nevertheless Serena couldn’t help being amused by the whole thing. And certainly not at all ashamed to show off her new partner, for once putting Fleur at a loss, and getting a covert thumbs up from Siân.

“She’s hotness personified,” Siân had whispered as they kissed goodbye. “Make the most of the bed, darling! I’m so happy for you. And I want ALL the details next week!”

Bernie had still not appeared when Hassan drove the villa’s owner and her friend away, but the instant Serena stepped back inside, she saw Bernie standing at the entrance to the bedroom, waiting. Conscious of the vast empty space of the villa, Serena nervously patted her hair and began walking  towards her lover.

“I’m so sorry, Bernie, I had no idea those two would pull a stunt like that…” but she didn’t finish her sentence before she felt strong arms pull her in and her back slammed against the wall of the bedroom.

“Shut up, Campbell,” were the words growled in her ear as one leg pushed insistently between her own, and a hand began unbuttoning her silk blouse, fingers searching for the front clasp of her bra, while her breath was dramatically cut off  by Bernie’s mouth capturing hers, and she felt the familiar, instant jolt of arousal, a melting sweetness that pushed her to tangle her hands in that glorious riot of blonde curls while the Major made short work of reducing her to a puddle of jelly, holding her up against the wall as her expert surgeon’s fingers found their way to exactly where Serena wanted them.

Trying to catch her breath moments later, Serena was conscious of how strong were the arms holding her up, because without that support, she would have slid down to the floor.

“Nice work, Major,” she whispered, still tingling from the none too gentle onslaught of passion.

“Oh that was just the aperitif, my darling,” Bernie said, a determined look in her eye. “Now get into that bathroom and strip. I think we need a shower after that journey, don’t you?”

Several hours and four orgasms later, interrupted only by a picnic dinner of flatbread, salads and cheeses, and a rather nice bottle of Shiraz that Siân had left, Serena regarded a sleeping Bernie, sprawled starfish-style, across the bed, hugging a pillow, now completely exhausted. Pressing a kiss to her cheek, Serena pulled the lightweight quilt over them and lay for a moment reflecting on this unexpected but welcome new chapter in her life.  If she had ever marvelled at the transformation of Bernie, social wallflower extraordinaire, into the brave and fearless surgeon Serena had assisted so many times in theatre, her final transformation into the Major was all the more thrilling for its capacity to leave Serena- always an admirer of a man in uniform- completely undone.

From the first evening, when Serena had pulled Bernie from her office out to the car and into her apartment, and had seen in Bernie’s eyes the shock of knowing Serena’s desire was real, Serena had felt she was surrendering to a force much greater than her own. And she had gone along, willingly, her lack of experience at first allowing Bernie to lead, then curiosity driving her to reciprocate. If Bernie zipped up, holding in her desire was adorable, her openness once the masks were off was breathtaking. Serena had never felt anything like this. Even now, sore and exhausted, just looking at Bernie sleeping set her pulse racing, and a surge of love sent her burrowing into Bernie ‘s warmth. When she awoke she would have a surprise for her.

***

Bernie came awake shortly before dawn, conscious of a pleasant, rested feeling. She wasn’t sure what had awakened her – it was early. The grey light was filtering through the blinds, and the air was still. Then, in the silence and stillness came the voice of the muezzin in the nearby mosque, calling the faithful to dawn prayers. 

Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,

Ashhadu anna la ila ill Allah

Ashhadu anna la ila ill Allah

Ashhadu anna Muhammadan rasul Allah

The sound was so familiar to Bernie from her years of service in Iraq and Afghanistan that it was immediately comforting, a reminder that she was alive, that she had lived to breathe another day, that life continued. Now, with the unfamiliar weight of Serena Campbell’s arms around her, Bernie relaxed into their security, lulled back into a soothing slumber by the hypnotic rhythm of the voice.

When she awoke again, the sun was up and birds were chirping loudly. Bernie sighed, focusing in on her body, remembering quite a lot of activity the previous night. As her thoughts travelled, so they became aware of a very specific sensation right at her core. She gasped reflexively. Serena was holding the tip of one finger against Bernie’s clit. Bernie had no idea how long it had been there but the rush of desire as her brain processed the signals being sent told her what should come next. Serena must have sensed the change in her breathing for Bernie felt the finger withdraw and Serena’s weight shift in the bed. She cried out at the loss of sensation, but this was soon replaced by a new and totally different sensation as Serena used the element of surprise to pin Bernie’s hips to the bed and move in with her mouth.

Bernie’s marriage had been long, and sex had been predictable and perfunctory. Her affair with Alex Dawson had also been clandestine, involving sprints to orgasm in the fastest possible way in all sorts of inconvenient locations. The time and space to explore her sexuality in a leisurely way had never been within Bernie’s grasp, and while she was more than prepared to give Serena everything she hoped she would enjoy, the idea that Serena might invest the same amount of care had not really crossed Bernie’s mind. So far, Serena had managed to reciprocate using her fingers and the slide of their bodies against each other, which Bernie had found more than satisfying, but this was something else. As the wave prepared to crest, Bernie arched her back and cried Serena’s name into the quiet room, while Serena sucked on her clit in short, sharp succession, and Bernie broke, all her inner tension spilling out until she lay panting, wondering why, at the age of 52, she had never discovered this feeling before.

***

Four days later, Bernie and Serena made their way back to the airport in Agadir for the return flight  to France.  Bernie was aware that Serena seemed to be spending a lot of time texting  on the journey to the airport, but when she asked who she was texting, Serena mumbled something about Jax and Sami inviting them to a party, and left it at that. Bernie was not too concerned. The four days had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that her life had changed completely. Now, confident in her new love affair, Bernie was ready to face the world as Serena Campbell’s partner.

Once on the ground in Lyon, Bernie pulled out her phone to call a taxi, but Serena stopped her.

“I think transport may have been arranged,” was all she would say. Frowning, Bernie followed her out into the arrivals area where she saw Serena suddenly grabbed in a bear hug by Sami, Jax in his wheelchair by his side. Before Bernie could utter a word, another figure materialised by her side and she felt arms go around her neck.

“Madre,” her son said in her ear.

“Cam! What are you doing here -oh!”

“Surprise,” he murmured as another set of young arms wound their way round her neck and he withdrew.

“Hello Mum, !” said Charlotte, hugging her mother tightly. "I've missed you so much!"