ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

By Aimée


Chapter 1

«Watch out ! We're going to …No! No!" Drenched in sweat, Bernie jerked awake. She wiped her forehead with her hand, trying to dispel the images imprinted in her brain. It had been several years since she had had this particular nightmare. After the IED accident, she had dreamt of it several times – always helpless, always that same terror, the blackness engulfing her. It had stopped, though …but for the last three weeks she had had that nightmare every night. Apparently, she trashed around and yelled in her sleep so much that she had asked Esther to go back to her own flat for the nights. She didn't want to hurt her partner in her sleep – nor did she want to explain exactly what scared her so much in the land of Nod. Their relationship was still quite new, and Bernie was afraid that if she told Esther everything, Esther would run off – who would want someone that damaged? Telling Esther about the nightmare would mean telling her about Alex …and then, obviously, about Marcus …and about Serena… Because there was the twist – the nightmare was no longer her being blown up by the IED… She was driving the jeep, Serena was beside her …Ejected, her body tumbling to the ground …Bruises, blood everywhere…and she was unable to save her. Who knew her unconscious had such a sense of dark humour? Instead of being the victim, she was the one driving the vehicle on the IED…and the powerless bystander as her former love bled to death on the road side. She couldn't explain – couldn't tell Esther that she had had a relationship with Alex while still married …and couldn't tell her that she was still in love with Serena.

They had been introduced by one of her new colleagues from the Hopital Percy. She had spent two more years in Nairobi – until the NTC had been up and running properly. Then, she had gone back to Sudan for a year – she couldn't face going back to England. And she had ended up at Percy, a French military trauma centre on the outskirts of Paris. Her good French had stood her in good stead, and they had ultra-modern facilities as well as a top surgical team . The only thing she wasn't really fond of was the fact that it was a teaching hospital as well – she had no problems with teaching in theatre, but the French liked to impart academic knowledge in crowded amphitheatres too, and she had never really got over her dread of public speaking. But she had no choice, so she did it. In the four years she'd been there, she had made a few friends, and Esther was one of the visceral surgeons' sister. He had introduced them at a dinner party, and the two women had hit it off surprisingly well after a few bumps. The tall and elegant brunette was the epitome of Parisian chic, and at first glance not quite Bernie's type. The first time they'd met, at Esther's brother's home in the opulent 16th part of Paris, Bernie had not been in the best mood. She had dragged herself reluctantly to that pre-Christmas soiree, because Frank, her colleague, had invited her several times and she'd always managed to refuse, but even her could see she would offend him if she went on doing so. She had gone straight to the dinner from the hospital after a four-hours operation, and except for trying to comb her hair into a less wild do, she hadn't made much of an effort – her usual black jeans and a sweater, no make-up, the deep shadows she sported most days under her eyes unconcealed. Her host wore a dark grey suit and a tie, and most of the other guests had primped. Especially the tall dark-haired woman in a short black dress and impressive hair-do, sipping a glass of champagne. When Bernie heard she worked in communication, she immediately categorised her as a "all airs and no brains" kind of person. Her opinion didn't improve when Esther bumped into the table and the contents of her glass went all over Bernie's sleeve.

They didn't get any chance to really talk that first evening – they sat at nearly opposite ends of the table, and Bernie was quite glad of it. She spent the evening talking shop with another colleague, something much less taxing for her than making small talk. However, when her host's children came to say goodnight to the guests, she bit her lips to keep from welling up. She had been crying more and more easily these days. Maybe her year at Holby had really softened her up – or maybe her hormones were playing up… She hadn't known that her colleague's youngest son was autistic, and his mannerisms reminded her so much of Jason's that she thought she wouldn't be able to keep the tears inside. She had had no news since the wedding …Guinevere was …almost five years old… She had wanted to ask Cameron, who'd done a stint at Holby, but she had decided not to – better a clean break than sharp-edged reminders of what might have been. She'd excused herself soon after and had spent the rest of the evening in front of the television, trying to erase the memories with an asinine Christmas movie …it hadn't worked!

When she'd seen Esther for the second time, it had been a few weeks later, again at her colleague's home. This time, he had insisted she came for the galette des rois – the French epiphany cake. This time, the guests were from Frank's family – his sister, and a brother with two teenage children. Frank's wife explained the tradition – the youngest member of the family was supposed to go under the table and say to whom was each slice of cake to go. One of the slices contained a charm, and the person who found it was crowned king or queen for the day. Frank's eldest son, about ten years old, however, deputised for the youngest child, because the little autistic boy flatly refused to participate. He also refused to eat until his father lifted the top part of the slice of cake to show him there was nothing hidden in his slice. The charm was found by the ten-years-old, who planted the cardboard crown firmly on his head with an air of triumph. His father handed him the other crown, telling him that now he got to choose his queen. The boy blushed and rose, going around the table to stand in front of Bernie. He held the crown out and matching him blush for blush, she bent to accept the crown on her head. During the rest of the afternoon, she had time to change her opinion of Esther – she noticed how she didn't mind kicking her shoes off and joining in a game of Twister with the teenagers, and how she made sure the youngest were included. And how pertinent her opinions on the world politics were…and how she got up to help the hostess with the dishes… Bernie thought she must be some years younger than herself and wondered idly why the very pretty woman wasn't married. When the teenagers left and the adults enjoyed coffee, Esther came to sit on the sofa, curling her legs under her. Bernie admired how at ease the brunette seemed to be. Of course, it was her brother's home, but… Esther tried to make her talk about herself, but Bernie managed to divert the attention away and instead asked about Esther's job. She soon realised why the woman was still single, as Frank jokingly added that his sister's schedule was as demanding as a trauma surgeon's. She owned her communication agency, specialising in crisis communication. So when there were emergencies to deal with, like an accident in a factory, or even larger issues like the BSE scandal in the 1990s, Esther had to be on deck almost night and day. At the end of the afternoon, when Bernie was getting ready to leave, Esther put a hand on her arm and told her she'd enjoyed seeing her again, and would she want to have dinner some day. The women exchanged phone numbers, and Bernie wondered why that evening, she had felt as if a little part of her frozen heart had beginning to thaw.


Chapter 2

When almost a month later she had found a message from Esther on her phone, saying that she had tickets for a classical music concert at the Salle Pleyel and she wondered if Bernie would like to accompany her, Bernie had been so busy with work that she'd almost forgotten the afternoon of the galette des rois. Almost, but not enough to ignore the call. She sent a text back, saying she would be delighted to go. At the restaurant after the concert, Esther left no doubt as to her intentions – her hand sought Bernie's on the candlelit table, and Bernie tried very hard to forget that the fingers stroking her palm weren't another brunette's

That had been a year previously, and they were still together. Together, but with tacitly taboo conversation subjects…like their lives before. Together, but in separate flats – they both had manic schedules and needed their own space. As she grabbed her car keys, running late as usual, her mind remained on the nightmare. It had been more than seven years since she'd last seen Serena in real life – more than seven years during which she'd tried very hard to forget all about Holby. A year since she had found a lovely woman, and several months since she had been adopted as one of her family by Frank, his wife Marie and their children. And yet…

Esther jumped in the car and deposited a quick peck on Bernie's cheek: "How are you, darling? Ready to face the family?" Bernie nodded briefly but she didn't trust herself to answer – she concentrated on the road – the now familiar itinerary from Esther's flat to Frank's, where they were going for Christmas lunch. Esther frowned: "What's wrong, love?"

"What? Nothing's wrong. I'm fine."

Esther sighed: "I can see you aren't fine…You're gripping that wheel as if you were in the Paris-Dakar, the skin around your thumb nail has been bitten to the blood and your eyes look haunted."

Bernie sighed too – it hadn't taken Esther long to learn her tells… "I haven't slept too well – you know that."

"Yes – I know that – that's why I've been by myself in my small cold bed these last weeks. What I don't know is why."

Bernie let out an almost laugh – Esther had a vast bedroom with a queen-size bed, rather more comfortable than the double one she had in her own flat.

"Sorry – I don't really want to talk about it."

Esther huffed and Bernie bit her lips. More than once, Esther had told her she hated to be shut out. But retreating into her shell had always been Bernie's defence mechanism, and she couldn't see that changing at her age. As she didn't want a row before Christmas lunch, she tried to find a way to appease her partner: "I'm sorry – I'll try harder, I promise. Just …not now, okay? Have you found what you wanted for Baptiste?"

Esther brightened: "What he wanted, you mean – yes – I found that Star Wars Lego kit; and the new manga Achille wanted – in Japanese."

Bernie knew that although she didn't want any kids herself – "that ship has passed, darling" – Esther doted on her two nephews, and this was a sure way to distract her. However, during the three hours they spent at the table overeating, her mind kept going back to the IED – and the nightmare…And Serena. As much as she tried to concentrate on the foie gras, the escargots – and fiddling with the escargots plier and fork was quite tricky and reminded her a lot of her job – or the chocolate Yule log, her mind kept wandering on flashbacks from Holby. Later on, when she and Esther had come back to her flat and Esther had fallen asleep on the sofa after too much food and champagne, she replayed in her head the last time she had seen Serena…the details as clear as if it had been the day before. She heard her own voice murmuring in the hubbub: "Obviously, if anyone hurts you, I'll be on the first plane home." And she had never been back – not in seven years. She just hadn't been able to face it – especially not after Cameron had told her the new CEO had been quite taken by Ms Campbell, and that according to the hospital grapevine, the attraction was mutual. How could it hurt so much, even now? Now she was beginning to rebuild her life. Why didn't she have the right to forget? Looking at her sleeping partner, she cursed mutely at life and fate. Esther was beautiful, clever, genuinely kind, and very much in love with her…and she couldn't give her that love back one hundred per cent. That hurt too – when she had left Holby that last time, she had locked her heart up in a strongbox – a safe fortress where it withered away. Esther had unlocked some of the padlocks, but most of them remained in place, ensuring she never had to suffer as much as that day she had walked away from Albies'.

She didn't believe in the occult – or at least not much – but there must be a reason why she kept having that dream, again and again… Esther stirred and yawned, and Bernie sat down on the couch next to her and encircled her with her arms. That night, as they made love, Bernie tried very hard not to think of the future, but by the morning, she had decided.

Esther wasn't best pleased Bernie wanted to spend the week's holiday she had in England without her. She herself had a big project to coordinate and couldn't get away, but they had planned on spending as much time as possible together in the evenings. But Bernie could see no other way – an email wouldn't do, and she wouldn't find the words on the phone – not after seven years. Anyway, her hunch was probably wrong – surely Serena was fine and happy in a new relationship with that CEO. She would probably not even see her – she was just going to see her son, and if she had a little time, she might call Fletch or Ric and go for a drink with them. No need to see Serena. No need to dig into old wounds. After paying a fortune for Eurostar tickets for the same day and throwing a few things in a bag, she took a cab to the Gare du Nord. Esther didn't drive and they said their goodbyes in Bernie's flat. The brunette was mollified by Bernie's explanation that she missed her son. Bernie had blushed a little when she'd uttered that whopper – her lying skills hadn't improved much with time, and even if it was true she hadn't seen Cameron for a long time, they skyped quite often and she didn't miss him that much. Luckily, Esther had attributed the blush to the blonde's reluctance to admit any weakness – even if that weakness was only maternal affection. She said jokingly that she would keep a slice of galette des rois for "her queen". The women embraced and as Bernie's lips joined Esther's, the thought came into her head that everything would be different when she returned. She kept the thought to herself, but she clung a little tighter than usual to Esther.


Chapter 3

London hadn't changed much in seven years. Of course, now the Brexit had been enforced, the queues at passport control were much longer than before, but otherwise, as she walked from St Pancras to Euston for the train to Holby, she breathed in the same odours as she remembered – that mix of traffic fumes and fried food with a tinge of tree scent, a smidgen of urine and a trace of popcorn so particular to London and so different from Paris. She found a seat in the crowded train, thankful for it as she had several stations to go before Holby. She tried to immerse herself in the newspaper but the train was so crowded she couldn't unfold it properly and finally let her mind wander… She booked a hotel room for three nights, thinking she could spend the rest of her holiday in London to see Cameron so as not to be a complete liar. Thought about calling Fletcher. Her fingers hovered over the phone, and she finally looked up the once familiar name. Which made her realise that she hadn't that many numbers in her phone…Not after that drunken night a few months after Jason's wedding, when she had deleted all of them... She had forgotten that detail… As no one had a landline anymore …she was stuck! The last thing she wanted to do was walk into the hospital and risk running into Serena or Jason, but she could see any other way. She didn't even know if Fletch and Ric still worked at Holby, for that matter. Seven years were a long time. What she wanted to do was intelligence gathering, not full frontal assault.

For once, luck was almost with her as she ran smack into Donna in Pulses. The large tea the younger woman was carrying didn't even show that much on Bernie's black coat… She could see that the nurse was uncomfortable, but she attributed it to the awkwardness that must have followed her departure from Holby seven years before. Bernie asked about Mia and learnt that she was studying for her A-Levels. She didn't want to ask about Serena directly, so she asked about all the others – Henrik, Ric, Sasha, Fletch …She sensed Donna was hiding something, but she couldn't bring herself to utter the once-loved name. Donna uttered an audible sigh of relief when Henrik Hanssen's tall lanky frame appeared in the corridor. A little more stooped, a little more grey-haired, he still looked the same. Although he smiled when he saw Bernie, she saw the slight furrowing of his brow and her heart sank – maybe she wasn't welcome anymore. Who knew what Serena had told her colleagues about their separation? Henrik Hanssen wasn't one to listen to gossip, but he was fond of Serena and Jason, and if he believed she had hurt them…

"Ms Wolfe."

His handshake was firm, hers a little less – suddenly she wondered why she had come back – the past was an unknown country, where one should proceed with caution, and she felt very unprepared. All this on a whim – for the sake of a nightmare. Usually she was only impulsive on the battlefield or in theatre, when it was a matter of life and death. Not to satisfy her own curiosity.

"Can I offer you a cup of tea in my office, Ms Wolfe?"

Suddenly she felt her heart constrict, and a shiver of fear ran down her back – such a formal invitation could only mean bad news. Or was it only Henrik's Swedish formality coming to the fore? She managed a small smile: "If you'll allow me to bring a tall black coffee with me, I'll come with pleasure."

Once in Henrik's familiar office – she noted that he was once again CEO – they sat on the sofas and surveilled each other in silence. The memories assailed her – she remembered bursting in that office – twice – the first time when she begged him to stay as a locum or more, the second time … "You closed my unit …You closed my unit…"

"So …How are you, Ms Wolfe?"

"I'm fine, thank you. More than fine…." She went on for a while extolling the virtues of her current job, and finally fell silent again. She looked into Henrik's eyes, hoping to find the answer to her questions in them. She didn't want to ask. She couldn't.

Henrik cleared his throat: "I assume you are aware of Ms Campbell's condition, and that's the reason of your visit?"

Bernie reeled as if she'd been struck and her heart leapt in her throat. Condition – Serena was ill and she hadn't known. Get a grip, you stupid idiot – you're a bloody trauma surgeon, for God's sake! She took a deep breath which stopped at mid-lungs and murmured: "I …I didn't know, Mr Hanssen. Could you – Could you tell me what happened?"

"She had an acute heart attack eighteen days ago. The cardio and neurosurgical teams managed to save her life, but she's still in a coma."

Bernie wanted to scream as Hanssen's empathetic tone penetrated her brain, but she found she had no voice left. No breath left. Instinctively, she straightened up, back rigid as he extended a hand to her arm. Not again – suddenly she was in the women's toilet again, bending over Elinor, yelling at Jasmine Barrow to get help… And then explaining to the AAU team that Elinor's prognosis was serious…Holding Serena's hand, handing her her mobile…Suddenly it seemed as if one death had segued into another. She saw herself fighting for Jasmine's life in theatre, shocking her once, then twice, and finally calling the time of death of the young doctor, feeling the weight of Jac Naylor's distraught and reproachful eyes on her. She couldn't have saved Elinor – she wasn't a neurosurgeon – but maybe she could have done more for Jasmine…No one had said anything – not Naylor, nor Serena when she had told her the news, nor Hanssen …but that was a death she kept on her conscience. Who was she kidding – each patient she had lost along the years added a sliver of lead to her already heavy heart…When some surgeons liked to remember their successes, to define themselves by their survival rate, she had never been able to adopt that perspective. Saving a patient was doing one's job – losing one was failing. Suddenly she crumpled and put her head in her hands.

"Have some water, please." The words dimly penetrated her conscience, and she lifted her eyes to see the glass Hanssen was handing her. She took it and lifted it to her lips but she strangled on the liquid and began to cough.

"Could I – could I see her?"

"Of course – I'll take you to her."


Chapter 4

Her eyes went immediately to the ashen face in the bed, but she forced herself to look at the instruments surrounding the bed – steady heart rate, low pulse – everything looked as well as could be, except that Serena was not asleep but in a coma. When she turned back towards Henrik Hanssen, he had disappeared and she was alone. She went to the chair at the side of the bed and sat down. She gently caressed the hand which laid on the sheet, focusing not on Serena's face but on the fingers which had so often tried to tame her unruly hair.

"Serena …It's me – you're probably the last person you want beside you, but …" And then she fell silent, because she had no words for what she wanted to say. How could she say that she had regretted her departure since the minute she had left Albie's? That she should have fought for their relationship, but she had been too hurt at Serena's apparent dismissal to insist? That once again she'd been a coward – she ought to have ranted and raved at Serena's betrayal, and then maybe Serena would have understood that eternity hadn't been a vain promise of hers.

"Serena – I'm sorry – so sorry – please …Please forgive me…"

She finally found the courage to look at the face framed with short grey hair. Serena hadn't changed much – a bandage covered part of her skull, and she was as white as the pillowcase, but otherwise…The eerie stillness of the ITU room, with the steady beeps and hums of the various machines, unnerved her. She started as the door was pushed opened and she felt another presence in the room. She turned her head and her heart sank further when she saw Jason's confused expression.

"Jason – how – how are you?"

"Bernie? What are you doing here?"

"I – I came to see Serena."

He frowned: "You shouldn't be here. She said you were never coming back. You were not the right sort of animals. And you made her sick. You shouldn't be here!"

"I made her sick?"

Jason didn't answer – he balled his hands into fists and left the room.

Whatever could he have meant? She felt close to tears – the young man's obvious anger cut deeply. She couldn't stay – her breath suddenly became shallow, and she gulped several times, desperately seeking air. Her head hurt, her heart pounded, bile rose in her throat – she rushed out of the room, staggered and sat down on the floor in the corridor, where Ric Griffin found her.

"Well well …Look who the cat's dragged in …"

Bernie lifted her eyes to look at her old friend: "Ric – it's …It's lovely to…" The rest of the sentence disappeared in a sob. Ric lowered himself to the floor to sit beside her and she buried her head in his shoulder. He held her until the tears subsided, and helped her up. Bernie looked at him with horrified eyes: "Oh crikey! Your suit – I'm so sorry."

Ric looked at the damp patch on the sleeve of his smart grey suit: "T's all right, Bernie – it's only salted water after all. It will dry. And anyway, I'm done with the hospital board meeting for today." Then, more seriously, he held her at arms' length and studied her: "You haven't changed at all, Major …I would say you look amazing, but …"

"Yes, I know – runny mascara, red eyes and tears – not a great look."

"Henrik told me you were here – he thought you might need some support."

"Oh …Ric…" Bernie fell into his arms again and hugged him fiercely. Then she let go and studied him too – he looked as if he hadn't slept in days. He looked older – very much older.

"Shall we take this somewhere else? Drink?"

"Yes, please. Just let me dip into the loo first, will you?"

Ten minutes later, they had found a dark corner at Albies'. While Ric went to get the drinks, she glanced at her mobile – three texts messages and two missed calls. She realised she had promised to call Esther to say she had arrived safely in London. She hastily typed a text back: "All ok – weather cold but nice. Talk later Bxx." Her phone rang immediately, and she answered automatically:

"Esther …Yes, I'm sorry …I forgot – yes, having a great time – meeting Cameron for drinks, actually – yes – I wish you were here too…Yes …me too. Good night."

The lies left a bitter taste in her mouth and she took a large swill of wine, hoping to dispel it. Esther's "I love you" also made her feel uneasy. She loved her too …at least she thought she did – but she'd never been able to say the words.

"So …How did you know about Serena?"

"I didn't, Ric – it was …" She couldn't say it was a dream. She lowered her eyes and admitted: "We haven't been in contact – not for seven years. I …I couldn't."

Ric whistled softly.

"I know, I know – Ric …Jason said: "You've made her sick". Why? What did he mean?"

Ric sighed: "I'm sorry, Bernie – he shouldn't have said that. You know how he understands things…"

"I know – but what did he mean?"

Ric sighed again. He could remember the hospital Christmas party seven years previously. How happy Serena had seemed – and how many glasses of wine she had drunk. And shots – she had entered into a drinking game with some of the younger members of the staff, and she had won… When he'd tried to tell her she'd had enough, she had glared at him with reproach: "I'm off duty, Ric – loosen up! Now that Bernie isn't nagging me about my drinking anymore, you're not going to start, I hope." He had left her alone after that, but he'd had to enlist Fletch's help to carry her to one of the on-call rooms for the night.

In the following days, Serena's buoyant mood had held. The gossips were divided – some people thought she was right to enjoy herself after having been dumped by her lover, others were shocked she was so light-hearted after having lost "the love of her life". No one knew exactly what had happened – Serena had been seen dancing with Bernie, and then catching the bouquet, and then Bernie had disappeared. The case had been left open for speculations. Fletch remembered the aftermath of Adrienne's death – how Serena had smiled and joked around with her mother's urn on her desk. He waited for a breakdown. He and Ric waited in the wings, expecting to have to pick up the pieces. However, they didn't notice that she was drinking more and more, and that she had written herself a prescription for little magic pills that shouldn't be mixed with alcohol. She and Ric never operated together, Fletch didn't assist in theatre anymore and if Serena's team noticed that her hands sometimes shook, they never said.

Meanwhile, if her own heart appeared intact, she was breaking others. She had never had to do much chasing – men – and women – had always been drawn to her. The new cardio-thoracic consultant… A visiting surgeon from the States – a lovely redhead Ric would have liked for himself…A patient's father… Some said there had even been a brief dalliance with Guy Self, back at Holby for a few months, although Ric doubted that was true.

As she listened to Ric's narrative, Bernie felt as he stabbed her in the ribs repeatedly. And yet …She couldn't have expected Serena to live as a nun … She was with Esther – she loved Esther – or did she? She had never been able to say the words. But why was she surprised? At least Serena wasn't in a long-term relationship, but …

She jolted back to what Ric was saying: "The day she had her cardiac arrest, she had been operating for several hours – I saw her after theatre – she looked tired, but … Jason was dropping something of at her house and he found her, feeling sick and barely coherent. He called 999 and she arrested a second time in the ambulance. I …I was on call that night – I managed to stabilise her while we waited for neurochir and cardio. Jac Naylor did a terrific job, and so did the neuro team - pupillary light response, corneal reflexes, motor responses to pain, myoclonic status, NSE levels and SSEP all good. She showed signs of waking up, but …still no actual awakening. We did the tracheo and the gastrostomy two days ago."

Bernie put her head in her hands – she knew all too well the likely consequences of a prolonged coma. That all the parameters for a positive outcome were present did nothing to reassure her. Only one irrational thought prevailed: "If I'd been there, this wouldn't have happened."

"You weren't to know, Bernie – you can't blame yourself."

She realised she'd said it aloud: "I'm not …Not exactly, but …But Jason blames me, doesn't he?"

"Well – You know Jason …Apparently, Serena wasn't expecting him that night, and she hadn't tidied up…He found several empty bottles, and the boxes of clorazepate and citalopram…he put two and two together and made it six."

"He blames me for leaving."

Ric looked away and nodded reluctantly: "Yes – I don't know what Serena said to him at the time, but…He thinks it's all your fault, I'm afraid."

Bernie bit her lips and said nothing. Ric went on: "It hasn't been easy for him either. Serena helped a lot with Guinevere, but – when they found out that she was on the spectrum too …It was hard for her – between trying not to interfere too much, not making her a replacement for Elinor, and yet getting the kid the help she needed… I think it was easier for Jason to make you the scapegoat – he needed Serena to be there for him and his family. And this …well, of course, he needed someone to blame and …"

"And he chose me."

Bernie drained the rest of her wine and stood up.

"Can I drop you at your hotel?"

Bernie shook her head: "I'm not going to the hotel. I'm going back to Serena's room."

Ric tried to protest but Bernie looked daggers at him, daring him to stop her.


Chapter 5

Once again she sat beside Serena's bed, wondering what exactly she was doing – why she was there. She had another life now – another love… And yet she felt anchored to this bed, as firmly as if she was the one hooked on the perfusion and gastrostomy tubes. Somehow, she had to make things right – with Jason, and with Serena. She had seen too many casualties to believe in fairy tales – only in Mills & Boon romances did the heroine wake up at the sound of her prince – or her princess voice – let alone the voice of a love probably long-forgotten. And yet she remained at Serena's bedside all night. She told her about Nairobi, about going back to Sudan, about Paris. "Do you remember, we said we would go together, and we never managed it…" And then she stopped, unwillingly to talk about Esther. Instead, she began reminiscing aloud about their time together. The morning nurse found her asleep by the bed, still holding Serena's hand.

Even though the nurse tried to be as silent as possible, endeavouring not to disturb the handsome blonde whose exhaustion was etched in every line of her face, Bernie woke up with a start and apologised for her presence. Reluctantly, she left the room and went to get her suitcase where she had left it the day before. She took a cab to the hotel and stepped under a hot shower. Every one of her muscles was screaming in pain, both from the awkward position she had fallen asleep in and from tension. The hot water helped a little, and so did a change of clothes and carefully applied concealer under her eyes. Little more than an hour after her arrival, she was out again, just taking the time to grab a coffee at the nearest Costa before hailing another cab to go back to the hospital. This time she made straight for Serena's room. She wasn't expecting a miracle – of course she didn't – but all the same she felt disappointed when she saw that nothing had changed. She looked at the nursing notes – no evolution. She lowered herself gingerly on the chair – her back protested, letting her know its protests against the uncomfortable position, but she paid no heed. She started on the reminiscing again – she reminded Serena about Fletch's accident, and how he had recovered – how they'd saved him.

A few people came and went during the day – Henrik came in and sat for a few minutes on the other side of the bed. He didn't say anything but just took Serena's hand in his own and massaged it. Then he left again. Five minutes later, he came back and handed a cup of hot liquid to Bernie, put briefly his hand on her shoulder and went out. She opened the lid and smelled the liquid – not coffee but tea – something spicy and a little sweet. She wrapped her hands around the cup – the aroma and the warmth somehow felt out of place in the white sterile room. Sometime during the day, she heard the door open again – she turned her head to see Jason, but when he saw her, he didn't come in. Ric came by too, bringing her a blueberry muffin she left untouched. Fletcher dropped by too – he enveloped her in a much needed bear hug, and talked to Serena about the ward, just as if she had been conscious.

She didn't spend the night – she left around 8.00, exhausted by inaction. She wasn't used to sitting around, doing nothing – she needed to move, to act. She needed to be in charge, and that was probably the most painful – that feeling of total helplessness. She forced herself to call Esther – she must have been at a PR event, for Bernie got her voice mail. She mustered up as much cheer as she could to leave an upbeat message. And then she curled up on the bed and tried to sleep. It didn't work, so she got up to get her Kindle, and she read a whole book – finally, around four in the morning, she fell asleep. Those few short hours of oblivion took her to a strange place, where she flew from an unseen monster in a labyrinthic building…She woke up tripping and falling down stairs… A formulaic nightmare, less unsettling than the ones she'd had in Paris and seemed to have left behind.

She tried to force herself to eat the leftover muffin she had kept from the day before, but its sticky sweet taste and its dampness were too much for her. She stopped at the hotel's breakfast buffet for a coffee and two slices of buttered toast – her stomach rebelled at the bitterness of the double-shot expresso she'd required. In Paris, she'd got used to drinking expressos rather than the usual drowned English coffees, but apparently her digestive system had got the memo that she was back in the UK.

For the third consecutive day, she sat at Serena's bedside. She knew every inch of the room by then, and also every line on Serena's face. She remained silent at first, having exhausted her reservoir of back stories – the ones that didn't contain anything about her new romantic relationship. Maybe the sympathetic smiles of the nurses got to her – maybe it was just the powerlessness – but by the end of the afternoon, she got angry. She would have shaken Serena if she could, but she still retained a modicum of reason. But what she couldn't do with her hands she did with her voice. The words that she had kept inside for so long, the words that usually didn't come that easily to her flowed out: "Damn you, Campbell! How could you do that to me? Just wake up, I need to talk to you! Why did you tell me to go? Why did you let me go? I was ready to give up everything for you, and you didn't want a suburban Bernie? What the fuck? What the fuck??" All the anger she had accumulated for seven years spilt out in hisses and harsh tones. "You ruined everything for me, Campbell – all because you were too proud to accept I could forgive you, that we could go on! That's not fair – that's not fair." She laid her head on Serena's bust and her last words disappeared in a storm of tears. The sound of Serena's beating heart comforted her, reassuring her that there was still a human being inside the impassive shell. Ashamed of her outburst, and afraid a nurse would come in before she had time to hide the traces of her tears, she finally straightened up and reached in her pocket for a tissue, finding only the shreds of one she had destroyed the day before. She wiped her eyes with her hand and prepared to got to the loo to make herself more presentable when she thought…


Chapter 6

"Serena? Serena, can you hear me?"

No, still nothing. And yet …Bernie's eyes remained fixed on Serena's face, and she knew she hadn't imagined it – only for one or two seconds, then maybe five, but Serena had opened her eyes. She sat back down again and grasped Serena's hand. It occurred to her that she should call someone, the neurosurgeon maybe, but…This felt like her own private moment, her own private reward. Not that Serena was out of the woods yet, but there was a glimmer of hope.

She stayed again that night, dozing on and off. By the morning, when Ric came in, he was able to confirm what she'd seen – Serena's eyes remained open for as long as a minute, although her gaze remained unfocused, and her fingers gripped around an invisible shape. Bernie and Ric looked at each other, and mutely fell into each other's arms.

"I need to tell Jason", murmured Ric. Bernie nodded: "Yes – he ought to know. I'll – I'll make myself scarce – go down to Pulses – so he can visit."

"Bernie – you can stay – he'll get over his anger, I'm sure he will."

Bernie shook her head: "I hope so, but – this isn't the place for a confrontation. Just come and find me when he leaves, okay?"

Ric's eyes were full of pity, but he nodded.

By the end of the day, the neurosurgeon had confirmed Serena was up five points on the Glasgow Scale, and even he was hopeful.

Two more days passed – Bernie scarcely left Serena's side. Although the latter still gave no sign that she recognised the people in the room, she'd started visually tracking their movements, and she was able to follow commands. Bernie was supposed to go back to work. She'd received her operating and lectures schedule, and Esther had promised her a home-cooked meal for her return. She ought to go back – it was the right thing to do. Serena would get better – she had no need to know she'd ever been there. Maybe Henrik would tell her – or Ric. She swept the hotel room with her eyes, checking she hadn't forgotten anything. Only one hour before her train. Her phone rang – she looked at the number on the screen – a name she had added to her contact list again recently – Ric.

"Bernie – could you come?"

"Why? What happened?"

Immediately she felt terror paralyse her body again – and she knew she would have to stay. She barely heard the words: "Nothing – I mean – it's just that – I think it's good news, but Serena is …agitated."

"I'm on my way."

Fifteen minutes later, she burst into Serena's room and immediately understood why Ric had called her. Her former partner was agitated and in tears – she tried ineffectively to pull at the IV in her arm, and her eyes roamed around, disorientated. Ric looked at her: "I've tried to talk to her, but I can't reach her – maybe…"

Bernie took a deep breath and wondered what approach would work better. She tried the professional one first, adding a touch of trauma surgeon sternness in her voice: "Serena? Ms Campbell? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, will you raise your hand for me please?" When she saw she couldn't reach the patient that way, she tried something else. She sat and took Serena's right hand in hers, stroking her forehead with her other hand: "Sshh – you're all right – you're safe. I'm right here, love. Everything's going to be all right."

The term of endearment had escaped naturally …she hadn't used it in years …She spoke mostly French with Esther, and she didn't have a pet name for her.

"I thought she'd recognised me earlier," murmured Ric. "But now I'm not so sure."

Serena stopped flailing but the tears kept running on her cheeks. Bernie gently wiped them away with her fingers, and finally with a kiss on the damp cheek. When she felt Serena's fingers press on hers in response, she kissed her again, and again the fingers answered. By then the tears in her own eyes mirrored Serena's and she turned to Ric, who was smiling down at them: "You did it, Major!"

A murmur made them both turn back to the bed: "Where …I…What …"

Ric came nearer the bed: "You're in ITU, Serena. You had a heart attack. You're going to be just fine. Could you …could you press my hand if you understand?"

Serena frowned, but after about a minute she squeezed Ric's hand. Bernie threw herself in Ric's arms and they hugged. Serena's eyes still seemed unseeing, and she closed them again, but she was definitely more responsive. Ric left Bernie in the room and went to find Jason. By the time they got both back, Serena had relapsed into what looked more like sleep than the deep coma she had been in. Bernie looked at Jason and even though he refused to look back, he murmured: "Ric told me Auntie Serena woke up. You are here. I don't think you should be here, but maybe it's good for her."

Bernie whispered to Ric: "I'll leave you two here – I've got a phone call to make – I've got to phone my …" She was actually going to say "my CO" – but she wasn't in the army anymore – she didn't have orders to obey – just a job she was paid to do, and a girlfriend waiting for her. She did call the Hopital Percy, and she explained to her boss that she needed one more week for personal reasons. Then she steeled herself and called Esther. Once more, she got her voice mail: "Esther – c'est moi. Je …je vais rentrer plus tard que prévu – je veux dire – en fait, la semaine prochaine. J'espère que tu n'as pas encore fait les courses pour le dîner. Je – je suis désolée. Je …je t'expliquerai, ne t'inquiète pas – tout va bien. Je t'embrasse. » Esther – it's me – I'm going to come home later than planned – I mean – actually, next week. I hope you haven't bought anything for that dinner yet. I'm …I'm sorry – I'll explain, don't worry – everything's all right xx.

Serena was terrified. She couldn't move, she couldn't breathe – all she remembered was a room full of light, and then darkness. She didn't know where she was – she heard voices but saw no one, recognised no one. She tried to fight and claw against the implements she felt invading her body, but it made no difference – something blocked her throat, her limbs refused to cooperate, her head felt full of fog and noises. When the something was finally removed from her throat, she thought she could speak – she tried to, but nothing came out – and when she managed to make a noise, she couldn't think of the words anymore – how did one talk?

Bernie stayed one more week. Serena made steady progress, although she still didn't seem to recognise anyone. She breathed on her own now, the tracheotomy tube had been removed, and so had the gastrosnomy. She came up with words, and even full short sentences. One day, as Jason and Bernie were both in the room – Jason now managed to tolerate her, Serena tried to say something …It came out as "..nie …gnie." Immediately, both of them lit up. Bernie was ecstatic – she turned hopeful eyes towards Ric, who'd just come into the room and whispered: " I think she recognised me!". Jason heard her and shook his head: "Auntie Serena said Gwinnie – that's my daughter. Don't worry, Auntie Serena – Gwinnie is all right. You can see her soon." When a few minutes later Serena spoke again, the words were clearer: "Gui -nie – where Guinie." The light in Bernie's eyes died out. She stood up and motioned for Ric to follow her out of the room.

"Ric – I'm leaving. I can't …I can't stay any longer."

"But – she'll want to see you. I've been in touch with the rehab unit – they're ready for her. I'm sure she will…"

"If she gets better …Ric, will you do something for me?"

Ric gave her a knowing look: "Do you really need to ask?"

Bernie stared at the floor for a minute, and then looked at him again, crossing her arms as if to steel herself for what she was going to say: "I need you to do two things for me, actually – the first is to send me emails, or texts to tell me about Serena's progresses…Like maybe in a month or two?"

Ric nodded and opened his mouth but she held out a hand: "Let me finish – then I need you to promise me something – Serena mustn't know I was there. You have to tell Fletch, and Henrik, and Jason – specially Jason – not to say anything. It's …it will be better that way."

"And if she already knows? You know as well as I do that we have no certainties about the memories people have in that condition. She might well remember you. Do you really want us to tell her she was hallucinating?"

Bernie bit her lips and bent her head again. "No – no, of course not", she whispered. "Please, Ric – don't make this harder than it already is. You know I can't stay – you know …"

"Actually, I don't – you haven't said much about your life now. You've talked about how wonderful your work is, but otherwise …Have you got someone?"

Bernie nodded mutely and sighed: "Yes – yes …there's someone."

"And yet you're here…"

"For goodness' sake, Ric! Just leave it, will you? If Serena remembers I was there… Just tell the truth. If not – will you promise?"

"I promise, but I'm not happy about it."

"Believe me, I'm not happy about it either – but it's the only way."

She hugged him and walked away without a backward glance.


Chapter 7

The tears threatened several times during her journey back to France. She managed to keep them at bay, but only at great cost to her already frayed nerves. When she saw a driver holding a sign with her name at the Gare du Nord, she sighed. She had told Esther she was coming back by that late train, but only to explain why she would go straight home and not to Esther's. She hadn't expected a lift. However, she didn't want to let the man hanging, so she walked wearily towards him and followed him to the car.

When she turned her key into her door, she found it already opened. Esther was waiting for her in the corridor with an expectant smile. Although every fibre of her body wanted to turn tails and flee, Bernie forced a smile on her own lips and walked to her partner. She let herself be enveloped in Esther's arms, the scent of Chanel N5 almost cloying after the asepticised smells of the ICU. Her lips responded to the eager pressure, and she kissed Esther back with as much fervour as she could muster. Just pretend, Bernie – just play the game. However, all too soon the kiss broke up and Esther held her at arm's length, inspecting her.

"For someone who had two weeks' holiday, you look awfully tired darling! I know England isn't exactly the Bahamas but…"

Bernie shrugged.

"So how was Cameron? Did he give you any news of Charlotte?"

"No…I mean, no, he was all right, but he didn't give me any news."

That, at least, was the truth, except that she hadn't seen her son – just talked to him on the phone once. As for her daughter... She hadn't seen her in more than eight years now, and she still didn't know what she'd done to deserve such treatment. The last time she had seen her was at Serena's – that last Christmas before Elinor's death – where her darling daughter had rivalled Elinor in moodiness and almost-rudeness, only directed towards Serena. And then she'd had news by Cameron – after finishing her degree in Modern Languages, she had apparently gone travelling in Europe for six months, doing bar work and other odd jobs to finance the trip. Then she had fancied herself as a jewel designer, and she'd tried to sell her products in various arts-and-crafts fair. And finally, she had apparently decided she ought to go in for acting – Marcus had financed an acting program in London, but as far as she knew she was still doing more hours behind a Caffe Nero bars in Covent Garden than on the West End stages, or indeed on any stage. Bernie would do anything to reunite with her daughter, and yet she had no clue how…Sometimes she thought things had gone wrong from the beginning…

She remembered what she had felt the first time she'd held her, after she'd given birth. It had been mostly wonder that she could have such a beautiful daughter, but wonder tinged with fear, because she'd become responsible for another human being. And she wasn't sure she was very happy about that. She was relieved when she was told she wouldn't be able to breastfeed, and she was glad to get back to work. It was easier than being a mother. Her mother-in-law had been more than happy to step in and take charge. During her daughter's first years, she'd not been at home much – and when she was, her daughter was usually asleep, having been fed, changed, and cuddled by Granny. Her mother-in-law even slept at their house sometimes and made Bernie feel like a useless spare part. Moreover, whenever she was home and tried to take care of her daughter, she never seemed to do it in the right way. There were times when she wished her mother in law would go to hell, and even whispered angry words exchanged. Of course, Marcus always took his mother's part, and it did not make things easier.

It certainly was not ideal, but she had no choice if she wanted to finish med school, and surely her mother-in-law was better to help with the baby than a stranger? Although…it had hurt be told her daughter had taken her first steps with Grandma, to be the last one to hear her daughter's first words, not to be there for her first day at Nursery School, because by then she was in the RMC, and on a mission.

And then, three years later, Cameron had arrived – by then she was beginning her specialization as trauma surgeon, and once again, the timing could have been better. Marcus was earning good money, and they were able to afford a full-time au pair. He had also found a position at Cheltenham Hospital, and so was able to be home more often. The birth had been more difficult, she'd had to have a caesarean, and to stop work for three months. Bernie reflected that all this might be why Charlotte did not want to talk to her anymore, while Cameron had been magnanimous enough to accept working with her and offered a few phone calls now and then. The bonding process with her son had been easier, she'd had more time with him, more oxytocin-forming days.

She refocused on what Esther was saying: "Did you have a good time in London? I did wonder why you stayed longer, but I figured you were overdue to let your hair down for a while. Did you manage a few shows?"

"Err – no – not really."

"You don't know how to have fun, darling. Pity I wasn't with you – but I've been swamped with that Les Demoiselles crisis – you know, with the designer gone rogue – damage control and so forth. But why are you so tired, then? If you haven't been partying night and day?"

"I'm not tired – I'm just… Look, I just need a shower and to go to bed – do you mind?"

Esther pouted a little – she knew there was something her partner wasn't telling her, but if she insisted, she knew the blond would clam up. They made love that night – Bernie found a second wind after all, and let Esther find her pleasure in making her do her biding. When Esther climaxed, Bernie almost sighed in relief – she was very far from coming, but she knew her partner would fall asleep almost instantly. She had submitted to Esther's demands partly because it was easier than to comply than to resist, partly because she felt that she deserved it after having fled from Holby – an apt chastisement from having once again taken the coward's way, for having refused to face the past fully. Part of her had hoped for a swift and encompassing orgasmic release, but that it had been denied to her somehow felt right. She finally fell asleep too in the early morning hours and woke up only when she heard the coffee machine. Throwing on jeans and a jumper, she went to join Esther in the kitchen.

"Hello, sleepyhead – I made coffee."

Depositing a kiss on the brunette's cheek, Bernie took one of the cups and sat down on one of the kitchen stools: "I thought you would be in your office."

"It's Sunday, darling. Even I draw the line at being in the office 7/7. I'll probably have a few phone calls to make, but otherwise – all yours."

Esther sat down too and took Bernie's hand in hers over the table. Then, in a more serious tone, she asked gently: "Bernie – I'm not a fool – I can see something bothers you. Please – will you tell me what happened? I can see you're hurting, and I can't stand it."

Bernie sighed, but she could see no way out. Trying to find a way to say as little as possible, she began: "When I arrived in England, I learnt that a – a former colleague had had a heart attack. So I went to see her – she's in a coma. But I really don't want to talk about it, all right? Please, Esther."

Esther knew there was something more – was the former colleague just that? Or a good friend? Or even an old flame? Bernie had never talked much about her years in Holby. She had explained how the IED accident had put paid to her full-time military career, and how when she'd come back to England then she had known she couldn't live with Marcus any longer. Bernie had told her how proud she was of her son, and a little about her daughter. Nothing else – as far as she was aware, Bernie had no other family than her children, her past love life was a closed book, and she had very few friends, most of them scattered across the globe. She had once told her how Esther's autistic nephew Baptiste reminded her of a young man who'd worked at the hospital in Holby, but that had been one of the rare snippets of her life she'd been willing to share. She had talked a little about her parents – her mother had died when Bernie was a child, from a heart attack, and her father had been in the military. However, she had confided very little about her life in the field, although Esther had caught a glimpse of at least three military medals in one of Bernie's tallboy drawers. And as for the years she had spent in Holby – nothing. She had fallen in love with a lone wolf with a secret past, and she didn't usually mind that much, except when it became obvious that that past had the power to hurt her lover. Like now.


Chapter 8

Serena groaned. She was fed up of it all. More than four months after her cardiac arrest, and the resulting coma, she was still in the rehab unit. If she had had someone living with her at home, she would have been discharged earlier, but… Of course she knew she had been very very lucky. She had seen too many patients going through the same thing to know that she could have remained in a vegetative state or never woken up at all. The fact that she was mostly cognitively intact and learning to walk again was nothing short of a miracle.

She felt desperately tired most of the time, and after most physiotherapy sessions she had to rest several hours. Her nights, though, were restless and the few hours of sleep she got inhabited with nightmares. However, she was now able to walk with a stick, and her muscle strength was improving. Just being able to wash and dress herself without assistance again was a major bonus. After many hours of speech therapy, she had almost regained her natural pattern of speech, and except for mild dysarthia, she was back to her usual incisive self. Except when she struggled to find the right word, but this happened less and less often. The most painful and the most frightening, apart from thinking she might have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, had been the memory gaps and the disorientation. When she had woken up, she had had no idea where she was, or when. For many days she had hallucinations, and she couldn't remember what people told her. Something she thought she was still married to Edward. Sometimes she believed she was in hospital after the car accident she had had when doing her MBA in the States. Then she would remember Elinor's death and the grief would engulf her all over again. She didn't really remember anything about the coma – she felt as if her memory had crashed at the time her heart had stopped and had been rebooted when she'd arrived at the rehab facility. She remembered all too well having to be spoon-fed, the pain of the urinary catheter and the pain when she finally was able to take her first steps. But the weeks in ICU had remained a blank. She just knew that several people had visited her – Ric had told her he'd come, so had Jason and Fletch. She sort of remembered voices, but she had no idea whom they belonged to.

As well as physiotherapy, she had had a few counselling sessions – only a few, because those she could refuse. The psychotherapist, a nice young man, had tried to get her to talk about the coma, but she had stuck to her version – she didn't remember anything except hearing a few voices. The whole truth – that she had seen a tunnel, and a vibrant light at the end, and felt an overwhelming sensation of peace and joy – just wouldn't come out. She wanted to keep it to herself – she was afraid that if she shared the feeling of pure bliss and love she had experienced, she would lose it. And then she'd heard Elinor's voice, telling her that it wasn't time yet, drawing her away from that perfect sensation, back towards the voices, back towards a warmth a little less warm, but a loving presence all the same. Her awakening had held no trace of that warmth and love, though – she had woken up confused, terrified and cold, and even now she had that feeling of never being able to get warm. As for being loved …her friends and colleagues visited, and so did Jason and Greta. But it wasn't the same – mostly, she felt alone. And she had felt alone for a long time, but at least she'd been able to pretend. And she'd had her work. She didn't have that now – with too much time on her hand, and that feeling of having holes in her mind she needed to fill, she took to reminiscing. The past years had been hard. When Bernie had left, she had thought that was what she wanted – she'd thought she was doing the right thing, letting her go – pushing her to go. She had thought that after what had happened with Leah, she had no right to ask Bernie to stay. She had said Bernie wasn't responsible for her dalliance – and of course, she wasn't, but she had been feeling lonely and neglected. Less desirable and less desired. Her body had been letting her know she was getting old, too – and it had scared her. Seeing Adrienne slowly losing her mind had terrified her – and now that she really knew how it felt to be lost and confused, it terrified her even more. Bernie had offered to come back, had let her glimpse a future where they would grow old together, in a comfy domestic relationship, and for a brief moment it had felt right. Only for a moment, though, because her former partner's resigned acceptance of her liaison with Leah had both saddened and infuriated her. She had expected reproaches and anger, she had got forgiveness and calm, and it had thrown her. She had read a subtext in Bernie's attitude that she wish she hadn't deciphered – "you were alone, you cheated – I hadn't expected otherwise". Bernie's attitude had left her no way to assuage her guilt, and the only way out she had found was to let her go. And then, she had done her best to pretend she was all right. Thrown herself into work, partied like there was no tomorrow, and flirted her way to oblivion. The rumour mill had helped her to keep up the pretence – she hadn't had half as many lovers as she had been suspected of. And none of them had made her feel as much as the blonde major…Sometimes she'd thought of giving up everything, of going to Nairobi. But she hadn't, because there was Guinevere – helping Jason and Greta deal with the toddler, and then getting her diagnosed, and getting her the necessary help so she could go to a normal school. And then, when things had calmed down a little, she had tried to find Bernie, but she wasn't in Nairobi anymore; and no one knew exactly where she was. She could have asked Cameron, but after his stint at Holby at the beginning of 2019, they hadn't parted on the best terms. And now …now more than seven years had passed, she was alone, damaged and afraid – she had no right to try and find her.

Serena checked the time – nearly noon. She ought to get ready – it still took her a while to put her make-up on and walk, and Ric was coming to take her out at 12.30. He had been a tower of strength these last months. She knew he had been one of the team operating on her the day of the attack, and he had also told her that he blamed himself for not having noticed any signs that day when he'd seen her a few hours before. Even though she had told him several time that it was ridiculous, and that she had had no warnings, Ric always appeared a little uneasy – not his usual self. Or maybe it was just because she herself wasn't 100% yet. She carefully applied her lipstick, thankful that her hand nearly didn't shake anymore. She seized the leopard-print walking stick which Fletch had brought her from the AAU staff and walked to the door – time to get a little fresh air.


Chapter 9

"Serena's improving by leaps and bounds. We went out today – I took her to the Café Rouge on East Road. Her appetite still hasn't come back fully, but at least she can have wine now she's off most of the drugs. I wish you would reconsider, Bernie – I know she doesn't remember anything, but … You know you're both bloody stubborn, and…You came, you can't tell me she doesn't mean anything to you anymore… This is such a waste…"

Bernie sighed as she read Ric's latest email. Those four months had been as hard as the first ones after Jason's wedding. Maybe harder, because then she had been alone, and she hadn't had to pretend. Thank goodness for work – Esther's and hers. It made things easier – both of them existed in a state of constant exhaustion which made it easier to fall in bed only for sleeping. When they did make love, Bernie tried to shut her mind off, to concentrate on the here and now, to see only Esther's still beautiful body, to smell only the delicate perfume of her skin, to hear only her voice asking her "Prends moi, là, maintenant- oui, chérie oui…" And yet, more often than not, Bernie's mind wandered on forbidden paths, heard those same words – take me, now, yes, love, yes – in another voice, in another language. She would have been mortified if she had known that once or twice, in the paroxysm of orgasm, she had called out Serena's name. Esther hadn't told her… The Frenchwoman was all too aware that her partner had left part of herself in England during her latest trip. When the blonde's eyes took a faraway look, Esther knew she was thinking of somewhere else, or somebody else. And yet she never said a word. If anything, she was trying harder. If she hadn't known Bernie better, Esther would have thought she was cheating on her. Unexpected attentions such as roses or dinners out usually meant one had done wrong. But Esther believed herself to be a good judge of character, and she didn't think Bernie had strayed. It was something else – something which brought deep pain in the brown eyes.

They had managed to get away for the weekend for Valentine's Day – two nights in a Relais et Châteaux – a luxury hotel near Deauville. They had walked along the deserted beach under the rain and eaten sea food in a brasserie. They had gone shopping too, when the weather had proven unrelenting, buying matching navy blue sailor sweaters. And they had taken refuge in the big Napoleonian tea shop on the Place Morny, where they had drunk hot chocolate and eaten croissants and pains au raisins. For the first time in several weeks, Bernie had seemed almost relaxed. Her usual wry sense of humour had resurfaced, and they had even spent one of the evening in the casino, where Bernie had shown herself to be quite proficient at poker. They had made love very tenderly on those nights and they had fallen asleep in each other's arms, something which hadn't happened for a long time. Before they'd driven back to Paris, they'd gone to the market and bought oysters for themselves, cider for Frank's family and chocolates in mussels shape for Esther's nephews. On the whole, they had had a good time. For once, they had both agreed not to look at their emails during the two days.

When they had arrived back in Paris, the spell had been broken and they had both jumped on their mailboxes. And Bernie had found a mail from Ric, telling her Serena had been transferred to the rehab facility, and was making good progress – still confused, but mostly getting her memory back. Somehow the good news had made her blood run cold- what if Serena remembered? More than two months later, she still hadn't, but Ric's latest email made her wonder, not for the first time, if she had done the right thing. Asking him and the others to keep her visit secret… Jason must have been even more angry with her afterwards. Ric hadn't said anything about that, but…One way or another, she was trapped in her silence now – the only thing she could do was try not to hurt anyone anymore than she already had. Even though Esther was very patient with her, Bernie knew her partner was aware she was hiding something, and she really didn't want to cause her pain. Alex had left her because she couldn't commit one hundred per cent to her, and she was doing the same thing to Esther.

Anyway… Why would Serena want her back? By all accounts she had had a full life before her heart attack – there was no reason why there would be space for her in it when she recovered completely. Even if she had to slow down a little at work, it would give her more time to spend with her grand-niece. It was better that way…She wrote a brief reply to Ric: "Thank you for this. I know I can be a little pig-headed, and that I had no right to ask you not to say anything. But please? I can't hurt her – what I feel doesn't matter. I should have fought for her years ago – but I left. It's too late. I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

She jumped as she felt a presence behind her.

"I'm making coffee -want one?"

Bernie acquiesced and sent the email. Then she sank deeper into her chair and put her head in her hands. She would have to come clean – she wasn't made for a double life, even if half of that double life was mostly in her head. When Esther came back with the coffee, she took a deep breath and prepared the words in her head. However, before she had time to think, her phone rang. She glanced at the screen – Cameron. He didn't call very often – please don't let it be bad news.


"Mom – hi – glad I caught you."

"What is it, Cam?"

The tone was a little sharper than she would have liked, and she bit her lips.


"And you're calling me about nothing?"

She heard him sigh.

"Not exactly nothing – I meant, nothing wrong – no need to fly off the handle!"

"With your track record, Cam, I've got the right to worry…"

"Right – like you were worried when you left us for months to go and play soldiers …"

"Cam! I … I didn't have a choice! And it's not like I abandoned you – you were with your father and your grand-mother!"

As she spoke, she knew it wasn't quite true – of course she'd had a choice – she could have settled for a normal, civilian practice in Cheltenham. But the scholarship offered by the army to specialise in Trauma Surgery had been so very tempting that she hadn't thought very long about it. She had hated army life when she was a child – moving every two or three years, not being able to make friends, but as an adult it would be different. With one child to support and her own students loans to pay off as well as Marcus' , if she wanted to specialise, the army was a good option. But it had probably been harder on her kids than on her.

"Right – anyway – I'm calling about Charlotte."

Bernie's heart stopped for a millisecond. "Just tell me, Cameron", she almost barked.

"She didn't want me to tell you, but …She's pregnant."

Bernie stopped pacing and sat down abruptly on the couch. Both things registered at once – her daughter was expecting a baby, and she didn't want her to know.

"How long?"

"Hmm – she said about five months."

"And she told you not to tell me?"

"Well …Her exact words were – 'if you tell Mom, she'll say I'm irresponsible as usual, ruining my life, stupid, and I don't need her fucking judgement!'. Then she asked me not to tell you."

"Right...Sorry, Cam – I didn't mean to snap at you. Thank you – for telling me. Have you met her boyfriend?"

"Her boyfriend?"

"Well, yes, her boyfriend – I assume she didn't make that baby on her own."



"Not exactly on her own, But …"

Bernie's anger was mounting as she was beginning to guess at what was coming.

"But what?"

"There's no father, Mom – she went to a clinic in Denmark to get inseminated. She said she wanted to go for it alone."

Bernie groaned – she supposed it was marginally better than if Charlotte had counted on a quick fuck with a stranger, but…

"How did she get the money?" she wondered aloud. "I guess her tips at Starbucks don't quite cover the fees of a private clinic…"

"Granny's money …"

Bernie groaned again – even from beyond the grave, her mother-in-law managed to wreak havoc in her life. Without the lump sum Charlotte had inherited from her grand-mother, she would never have been able to pursue this ludicrous idea.

"Okay …Thanks for telling me, Cam …I – I love you; take care."

"Love you too, Mom. Bye."

When Bernie hung up, she saw Esther's eyes on her. She mustered up a small smile: "I guess you gathered I'm going to be a grand-mother in a few months…"

"Yes – congratulations!"

Bernie's smile faded as she sank into the couch. Esther sat beside her and took her in her arms, and Bernie let her head drop on her partner's shoulder.

"Congratulations may not be the right word…"

As she processed to recount the conversation, she knew that what bothered her most was Charlotte asking Cameron not to tell her. That hurt – a lot. And of course, it reminded her of her own behaviour – the secrets she was keeping from Esther – and from Serena. She could imagine how hard it had been for Cameron to break his word to his sister – and how hard it would have been for him to keep the secret. It wasn't fair to ask Ric and the others to shoulder her own burden.


Chapter 10

"So – any plans for your 60th birthday, Serena?"

"Ric! Please – the last thing I want to thing about to talk about is my birthday. Anyway, age doesn't matter, unless you're a bottle of wine or cheese."

"I know, but the Serena I know would jump at a chance for a party."

Serena looked at Ric with a mix of fondness, exasperation and a little sadness: "I'm not sure I'm still the Serena you know, Ric."

"Of course you are!"

Serena sighed – six months after her accident, she had at last come home. Ric, Donna, Jason, Greta and Guinevere had come to dinner to celebrate, and Fletch had promised he would drop by as soon as her shift was over. They had brought the food, and although she wanted things to go back to normal as soon as possible, she was glad she hadn't had to cook. Although she had regained her fine motor skills, she still had to walk with a cane, and navigating the stairs in her house used up most of her energy. Actually, just standing and pottering about drained her. And although she should be happy just to be alive, she had more dark days than rainbow ones. At least, after Elinor's death, and after the split with Bernie, she had been able to rely on little white – or blue, or pink – pills. And alcohol. But antidepressants after a heart attack were not recommended, and of course alcohol even less. She had also been advised to lower her coffee consumption and to wave goodbye to sweet snacks and greasy food. Moreover, she didn't trust herself to resume her operating schedule. So all in all, she felt like the pre-attack Serena had all but disappeared.

"No, Ric, I'm not. I'm a new woman – several pounds lighter, actually, and much more prettier – I'm surprised you haven't notice…" Banter always worked to skirt difficult issues.

In reality, the weight she had lost gave her a fragile appearance, and although like nearly every woman on earth she was glad to have slimmed down, she wasn't completely comfortable with her new appearance.

Donna chimed in: "Come on, Serena – you should celebrate. Actually, maybe you could have a joint celebration? Your 60th and Ric's 70th ? Oi! What's that for?" She glared at Ric, who'd just punched her lightly on the shoulder.

Greta decided to join in: "That's a good idea, Serena. Your chance of having people come for your birthday party increases by 70% if you celebrate two birthdays at once. Moreover, if you make the guest list together, you have a 25% better chance of not forgetting anyone."

"Thank you, Greta – but it's not like Ric and I have that many people to invite. You and Jason and Guinevere are my family, and Ric's daughter is still in Australia…"

"Well, Ric can invite his son and his grand-daughter. And you can both invite your colleagues. And you ought to ask Ms Wolfe. Jason said she helped you get better."

"I'm sorry?"

Greta frowned but decided to explain: "At first Jason was angry with her because he thought she had made you sick. You know, because when she left you drank too much and drinking too brings a 2.3-fold increased risk of congestive heart. Alcohol directly contributes to a 1.4-fold increase in suffering a heart attack. And you took pills too, and anti-depressants increase blood pressure, and people with high blood pressure have a two in third chance of …"

"Yes, thank you Greta…"

Undeterred, Greta went on: "That's why Ms Wolfe leaving made you sick. But when she came to see you when you were in ICU, Jason said that because she was there and she talked to you you woke up from the coma. So we think you should invite her to your birthday."

Ric's eyes darkened and Donna bit on her thumbnail, both helpless to stop the cat being let out of the bag …Meanwhile, Serena had gone a paler shade of green. "She was here? Bernie was here?", she murmured.

Ric nodded reluctantly: "Yes. I'm sorry, Serena – she asked us not to tell you if you didn't remember. I didn't think it was right but…"

"But you did it anyway," replied Serena bitterly. "And I thought you were on my side."

"That's not fair, Serena – of course I'm on your side. But I didn't want to break my word. And frankly …I was afraid it would do more harm than good."

Serena stood up suddenly and left the room, cursing the cane which prevented her from storming out as quickly as she wanted to.

Jason looked at Ric: "Has Greta said something wrong?"

Ric sighed: "I don't know, Jason – I just don't know."

Donna stood up too and hesitated: "Should I go after her?"

Ric shook his head: "Better not – give her a chance to digest the news and calm down."

In a way, he was relieved that the secret was finally out, but he hoped the shock hadn't been too much for Serena. When she hadn't reappeared a quarter of an hour later he got up and went to look for her. He found her huddled up in the conservatory, shivering from cold and staring at the floor. He seized a blanket folded up on a chair and covered her with it.

"I don't want you to catch pneumonia – we want you back in Holby, but as a consultant, not as a patient…"

Serena didn't bother to answer.

"All right, all right – I know you're pissed off with me. But what's really bothering you? That she came, or that she asked us not to tell? If it makes things any better … She didn't come because you were ill – she had no clue. I think she …I think she wanted to get back in touch…"

Serena lifted her eyes towards him and he saw she'd been crying: "Oh really – so that's why she didn't want me to know, is it? Because she wanted to get back in touch? Convenient for her that I was in a coma, then! Cut the crap, Ric!"

"I don't know why she didn't want you to know. I think she – no, I know she was hurting, Serena. She stayed almost night and day by your side for more than a week, for God's sake! She was desperate. Once you got better, I wanted to tell you, but …" He shrugged: "You know what they say, damned if I do, damned if I don't …"

Serena's anger suddenly deflated: "Yes …and you wanted to keep your word to her. I understand…But …Ric – I don't know what to do! It hurt so much when she left, and …I don't think I can bear it again if…"

"And can you bear it if you let that chance pass you by? Everyone deserves another chance, Serena – I should know. And everyone deserves to be happy too. You know …I understand. When Leo died – and Diane…I thought I'd failed them, and that I would have to pay for that for the rest of my life. How could my own son do drugs? How come I couldn't save him? So I know what you've been through – with Elinor… But – you can't live your life rueing the past – because it's not a life anymore. And …I can be mistaken, but I think that's why you let Bernie go – because you were scared you might be happy again. And because you thought you didn't deserve her. And that's just plain bollocks! Now you're both unhappy on your own side of the Channel."

Serena began to cry again: "Maybe you're right. But what makes you think she still wants to be with me?"

Ric hesitated – after all, Bernie had told him she had found someone else. But he couldn't stand to see his two friends suffering.

"Listen – I can't say anything for certain, of course, but …give her a chance?"

Serena remained silent for a moment. Then she whispered: "All right – I will. Do you know where she is?"

"I don't know where she lives – I know where she works, I have her email address – but I know someone who knows."

Seeing Serena's interrogative face, he added: "Cameron. I've stayed in touch with him. Last time I saw him, he was the Senior Registrar of an old colleague. He wanted a few pointers on how to manage his rather irascible temper… I'll call him and ask."


Chapter 11

Bernie's sleepless nights had returned. Her nightmares were no longer about the IED, though, but about a child – always a child, crying out for her. Sometimes the child – always a little girl – stood in a familiar landscape, on a dirt path near Camp Bastion, or in the Parisian street where she now lived. Sometimes she couldn't even see the child, she could only hear her wail, a piercing, demanding wail which went straight to her heart like the cries of a new-born. After a fortnight of these night-time ordeals, she couldn't take it anymore. She decided to phone her son. Of course, he didn't answer – as a junior consultant at University College Hospital in London, his free time was severely restricted. She could remember those years… She left a message, asking him to call her back. Meanwhile, during dinner, she asked Esther if she could possibly get away for an extended weekend.

"I suppose so, darling. Where do you want to go? The seaside? The South of France? Want to exercise your amazing poker skills in Monaco?"

Bernie bit her lips: "Not exactly – I was thinking about less sunny climates – like London?"


"Yes … You could meet Cameron – it would be a good opportunity. And we could walk around a bit – London's quite nice in summer."

Esther scrunched her face: "Hmm – yes, busloads of Chinese tourists, troops of language schools students, pollution…You have the best ideas…"

"Well, if you don't want to come, I'll go on my own…"

Esther softened instantly: "No – course not! I want to come with you. We don't have so much time together as it is. And I'd like to meet your son – I mean, you know my family, but…"

"All right then – as soon as he phones me back, we can make plans."

Cameron phoned back at 11.15 pm – he knew her mother wouldn't mind.

"Hi Cam, did you get my message?"

"Well – that's why I'm calling you back, Mom…But I'm not sure. I'd love to see you, of course, but I don't know if I can get Charlotte to agree."

"I know I shouldn't ask you, Cam – but… I have to try. Anyway, I'd like to see you too, if you can make time for me in your busy schedule."

"Would be good to see you too, Mom. Do you want to stay at my place? I've got a sofa bed…"

"Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll pass. I'll find a hotel room, and if you let me know when you're free for diner?"

They talked a few minutes longer, mostly about Cameron's job, and when Bernie hung up, she sighed. She just hoped Charlotte would agree to see her – it would give her daughter a chance to tell her about the pregnancy herself. She hated to put Cameron in that position, but she couldn't see another way. Maybe she should have told him she was coming with Esther. The trouble was that she hadn't exactly told him about her newish relationship. After a year and a half, though, she really ought to. She had no idea how her son would take the presence of another woman in her life. That was why she hadn't told him she wouldn't be alone.

Once he'd hung up, Cameron sighed – he didn't really enjoy the role of go-between, but he was willing to give it a go. Both with his sister and with Serena. When Ric had phoned him three weeks before to ask him for his mother's address, he had wondered at first what it was about. Then Ric had explained – Serena wanted to get in touch – to try again. Cameron had realised he had never actually asked for his mother's address – he had been so used to her moving around that it hadn't seemed that important. And so since Ric's phone call, he'd been working on finding a good reason to ask her. But now he wouldn't have to. And Serena wouldn't have to go to Paris either. He could just engineer a kind of blind date in London…

When Serena got Cameron's email telling her about Bernie's impending visit to London, she felt both relieved and apprehensive. Relieved, because she hadn't felt up to travelling to France just then, and yet she had to do something – she had to try. Apprehensive …well, that was easy – there was no reason why Bernie would want to start again.

It took Bernie and Esther two weeks to arrange for time off and to book the train tickets, but on the first Friday of September, they finally boarded the Eurostar. They would be meeting Cameron at 7pm at Rules in Covent Garden. Bernie wondered fleetingly whether Esther would dare to sample the traditional delicacies like jugged hare, steak & kidney pie or smoked eels. Cameron had chosen the place – he liked the atmosphere, apparently, and he'd said the sticky toffee pudding was to die for. Moreover, it wasn't far from UCLH and from his small flat in Drury Lane. They dropped their luggage off at their hotel on the Strand and walked around, enjoying the balmy weather and the opportunity to wander aimlessly.

At 6.45, Cameron texted his mother to tell her he was running a little late but was on his way. He had already warned her that Charlotte wouldn't join them, but that she had agreed to have coffee on the Sunday afternoon. Bernie guessed her daughter didn't want to be stuck at a restaurant's table if things got heated… It saddened her, but at least she would get to see Charlotte again. Bernie and Esther arrived at the restaurant on time, and decided to wait for Cameron with something alcoholic. Cameron jumped on the bus and while it made its way through the busy London evening traffic, he suddenly wondered exactly what he'd got himself into. Serena had been cautiously thrilled when he'd suggested to her she could arrive at the restaurant around 8pm. He had heard hope and fear in her voice, disguised behind a polite thank you for his suggestion and subsequent acceptance. But what if his mother was angry at his meddling? What if the encounter didn't go as planned?

Bernie and Esther toasted their first time in London together with champagne. Esther must have been more nervous than she had though at the idea of meeting her partner's son because in rummaging in her handbag to look for a tissue, she managed to knock her champagne flute over and the contents spilt all over her shirt.


Bernie sniggered at the involuntary pun but offered to accompany Esther to the loo.

"No, no – I can manage – just stay here and wait for Cameron, otherwise he'll think you've stood him up."

Bernie reclined in her seat and let her eyes wander over the restaurant. The red seats and golden and red patterned carpet would have clashed with the green leather on the walls in any other place, but somehow it added to the quintessential englishness of the place. The drawings and art all over the décor reminded the diners of the restaurant's illustrious past. She absorbed the atmosphere, wondering why she had felt more at home in Camp Bastion than in that in that stronghold of British traditionalism. Only the snippets of conversation in various languages somehow felt familiar. She spotted Cameron being led to the table by the maître d'hôtel and couldn't help admiring her son. Luckily, he looked more like her own father than like Marcus. Still tall and thin, he had at last lost his gangly teenage looks and become a rather handsome young man.

"Hello, Mom!"

Bernie stood up and they embraced a little awkwardly. When Cameron sat down, he noticed the third setting at the table, but before he had the time to wonder, Esther made her way back. Bernie cleared her throat, suddenly wondering why she'd ever though this was a good idea: "Cam …This is Esther Cohen – my …my partner." She had almost said "girlfriend", but it always brought to mind a teenage couple, and she would be sixty in a few days. Cameron's eyes bulged, and he gulped.

"Esther – this is my son Cameron, as you've probably guessed."

Bernie wondered at the look of utter panic she saw in Cameron's eyes – he might not be pleased to learn she had a new partner, but there was no need for him to look as if he'd just met a Zygon in lizard form. Cameron found enough voice back to choke out: "Pleased to meet you, Ms Cohen – my mother …My mother didn't tell me you were coming. This is …This is a nice surprise."

Esther turned a reproachful gaze towards Bernie; "You didn't tell him?"

It was Bernie's turn to gulp and to mutter: "I thought it would be better that way." She didn't dare tell Esther that she actually hadn't said anything to Cameron about her. At all. Somehow the topic had never come up. At the beginning, about a year after Jason's wedding and when Cameron had gone back to work at Holby, he had sometimes asked about her love life, and she'd always replied she hadn't got one. And then he had stopped asking, and she'd never been one to volunteer any details about herself.

Cameron gamely went on: "So …how long have you been together then?"

"About a year and a half now", replied Esther. "I'm very happy to meet you too, Cameron – I've heard a lot about you."

Cameron thought of several things he wanted to say … like "Did you tell her how disappointed in me you've been, Mom?" or "Yeah, well …First time I hear about you", but he finally decided on the more neutral "all good, I hope." He couldn't do sarcasm while trying frantically to find a way to avoid Serena dropping in on them. As the waiter came to take the orders, he gabbled his and excused himself to make a phone call.

Serena had forgotten to charge her mobile. She had also forgotten to take the cable with her, so she couldn't charge it on the train. She had one in her car, but it was parked at Holby Station. Before her attack, she would have driven to London, but she didn't feel up to it yet. She almost bought another cable at Euston but she decided she could do without it a while longer. After all, she knew where she was going, and at what time she had to be there. At 7.55, she alighted from a cab in front of Rules, and stepped inside.


Chapter 12

 Bernie couldn't understand what made her son so uncomfortable. Small talk would probably help, but it had never been her forte. So she asked him - or grilled him, rather - about his current job, while knowing it must bore Esther terribly. Moreover, as she could feel his tension and absorb it, she knew she was overly critical of him, but she couldn't help it. The arrival of the food helped a little to calm the atmosphere. Esther had played it safe with the grilled Dover sole, and Bernie had chosen the scallops with celeriac, apples and hazelnuts while Cameron had decided on the breast of pheasant in a Calvados cream sauce. The wine, a nice Sauvignon blanc, helped too. 

Because the conversation didn't flow easily, they finished their main courses rather quickly and went on to order dessert. Cameron excused himself once more, and while he was away, Esther's hand crept under the table cloth and squeezed Bernie's. 

"Are you all right, darling?"

Bernie managed a weak smile: "Yes - yes, I'm fine, how about you? I'm sorry Cameron isn't more ...more agreeable."

"He's all right - I mean ... You haven't told him anything about me, have you?"

"Well ...Not exactly, no..." admitted Bernie sheepishly.

"It's okay – I understand."

"No - it's not okay - I should have. I mean - it happened before, and ... I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Bernie. Don't worry. He needs time, that's all."

Cameron returned to the table, frowning.

"Something wrong, Cam?"

"No - nothing, I'm fine. So ...Ms Cohen ..."

"You can call me Esther, you know."

"Esther then - what do you do?"

Esther launched in a explanation of her job, and the desserts arrived at this juncture. The English cheese plate for Cameron, the dark chocolate fondant for Bernie and the burnt Cambridge cream with orange snaps for Esther. Esther dipped her spoon in the cream and closed her eyes as she tasted the first bite: "Mmm - hope you've planned on walking several miles tomorrow, darling. This is positively sinful..." She dipped her spoon again and brought it to Bernie's lips. Bernie swallowed obediently and dug into her own dessert to retaliate. Esther puckered her lips and almost purred: "Oh God...Death by chocolate." Bernie laughed: "Now you've got chocolate all around your mouth - maybe we should stick to feeding ourselves..." Esther handed her her napkin: "Please?"

Bernie gently dabbed Esther's lips with the napkin and dropped a quick kiss on her cheek. Hearing a strangled gasp, she turned around...

"Could you show me to Mr. Dunn's table, please?"

"Certainly, Madam. Please come with me."

Serena took a deep breath and asking the maître d'hôtel to wait for just a second, she dug out a compact and her lipstick and applied another coat to her already fire-engine red lips. Make-up was her war-paint, and her armour - she felt like she needed both. Her heart was beating a tattoo and she had gone cold all over, almost shivering. Eight years... Would Bernie have changed?

The maître d'hôtel escorted her in the dining room and pointed her towards a table in a corner. "Here is your party, Madam." Serena saw familiar blonde tousled hair, and she recognised Cameron's face too. There was another person at the table with her back to her. Long black hair in a neat chignon... Cameron hadn't mentioned there would be a stranger. Probably his girlfriend. As she walked very slowly towards the table, she saw Bernie lean over and wipe the brunette's mouth tenderly with a napkin. The kiss robbed her of breath. She gasped and for a millisecond her eyes met Bernie's. Then she turned tails and fled.

Stunned, Bernie jumped up a second later and ran out on Serena's tail, but that second allowed the latter to disappear in Covent Garden's twilight crowds. Bernie took a few steps outside the restaurant but she knew very well it was hopeless. Her shoulders sagged and she put a hand on the wall to steady herself. The look of utter incredulity in Serena's eyes had gone straight to her heart.

Serena didn't run for long – she had nowhere to be anymore. No reason to stay in London either. She hailed a cab and had the driver take her to Euston.

"Are you all right, luv?"

She knew she must look a fright – she was sobbing in a tissue and couldn't seem to stop.

"I'm fine, really – just …hay fever, you know?"

The cabbie nodded – hay fever, yah, sure, pull the other one…More likely the lady had had a fight with her husband, or had been stood up…

Bernie went back inside the restaurant and took a deep breath before seating down at the table again. First, she turned towards Esther, who looked completely bemused.

"I …I'm so sorry, Esther. I – I apologise for making a scene. I'll explain later, all right?"

Esther nodded and Bernie turned towards Cameron, who wished himself anywhere but there. He had incurred his mother's wrath before, and he didn't fancy bearing the brunt of it again. He just hoped that Esther's presence and the fact that they were in public would stop her from blowing her top completely. Bernie's eyes were full of pain, but her voice became almost detached, as it tended to when she tried to control her emotions: "You shouldn't have meddled, Cameron. Surprises rarely end well." She didn't add anything more, but didn't take another bite of her dessert, and she and Esther left soon afterwards.

In their hotel room, Bernie sank in one of the armchairs and put her head in her hands. She had had migraines before, but since the onset of menopause they had worsened and multiplied, and that one promised to be a corker. Esther had learnt to decipher the signs, and she silently proffered a glass of water and a pill. When Bernie lifted her head to take the glass, her hazel eyes reflected the physical as well as the emotional pain she was in. She would have liked nothing more than to go to bed in a dark cool room, but she couldn't delay anymore. The guilt was eating at her, although if she tried to think logically, she had done nothing wrong. But maybe she should have been honest with Esther from the start – maybe she should have told her about Serena. But what would she have said? That once she had fallen madly, desperately and unconditionally in love with someone, and that their passionate relationship had petered out like a damp squib? That she was still in love with someone who had effectively rejected her?

Bernie caught Esther's hand, one of the hands which were around her neck, massaging her aching skull and deposited a light kiss on it. Then she drew the brunette to her and made room for her in the armchair. And then she tried to forget the headache and began to talk. About everything…About Alex and the IED, about Marcus, about falling in love with Serena, about escaping to Ukraine… She bared her heart and soul, hoping to find solace. And she ended up by begging Esther for forgiveness.

Esther remained silent for a while and the two women sat there in each other's arms, both aching, both together and yet lonely. Then the brunette spoke softly: "You have to go, Bernie – you have to go and find her. Whatever the outcome for us – you need to talk to her, darling." Bernie sealed her lips with a kiss and began to cry.


Chapter 13

Serena wondered how she'd managed to get home. When she finally unlocked her front door, she stumbled in the hall and almost didn't make it to the bedroom. She didn't even bother to undress, just fell on the bed and buried her head in the pillow. She was so exhausted she couldn't think anymore, and yet her brain refused to stop playing the scene at the restaurant on a loop. She didn't understand – she just didn't understand.

The next day, she remained at home, except for a quick trip to the off-licence – she conveniently forgot to recharge her phone, too. She didn't want to talk to anyone. Certainly not to Ric or Cameron, not even to Jason. And she proceeded to drink herself into oblivion with a bottle of single malt – with a little luck, the next heart attack would prove fatal.

She must have fallen asleep sometimes during the early evening, because when she opened her eyes, the only light in the room came from the street lamps. She got up to close the blinds and to use the loo and slumped down on the couch again, suddenly feeling light-headed. Her whisky binged had apparently not killed her, but her resistance to alcohol had obviously shrunk. She vaguely heard someone pounding on her door but she couldn't be bothered to stand up again. When Ric came into the room, she groaned and turned to face the wall. She had forgotten she'd given him a key in case she needed help again.

"Serena! How are you? You didn't answer your phone! I was getting frantic! Serena! Serena?"

Seeing he probably wouldn't leave, she growled: "Leave – me – alone! I don't – want – to see you! You – bastard!"

"Serena – look, I'm sorry it went wrong – this was not what we had planned – of course it wasn't."

Since she refused to say anything else, however much he pleaded his case, he finally sighed and left. Of course, since she had slept during nearly a whole day, she found herself wide awake during the night, if a little nauseous and hungover. She couldn't believe Ric had betrayed her like that. Or maybe it had been Cameron's idea, but she doubted that – more likely than not he had just been an accessory. And she didn't understand the point – Ric had supported her when she'd said she wanted to get back in touch with Bernie – encouraged her, even. So why the U-turn? And why be so cruel as to show her how happy Bernie was with someone else? She just couldn't get her head round it. But trying to decipher his motives kept her from dwelling on the pain she had felt when she'd seen Bernie kiss the brunette. No wonder that a broken heart could trigger a heart attack – her own had hurt much less, and at least she had fallen into unconsciousness afterwards.

Her next visitor also let himself in, and she cursed Ric for having given Henrik Hanssen the keys. Maybe all the fight had gone out of her during the night, or maybe she was just too tired to care anymore, but she just couldn't muster the energy to throw him out. Instead, she motioned him towards the living-room and went to the kitchen to make tea and coffee. Then she sat down in one of the armchairs. Seeing Henrik Hanssen's sitting ramrod straight and as usual impeccably turned out in a grey suit and immaculate white shirt almost drove her to the bathroom to freshen up and change. Almost, but not quite. She figured that if he wanted to confront her in her own home, he could do with seeing her rumpled and make-up less.

He studied her silently with his usual unnerving calmness. Then, as she couldn't bear the silence any longer, she blurted out: "She's with someone else! Ric should have told me!"

His eyes reflected pity and compassion, and she suddenly felt completely stupid. She was sixty years old, for goodness' sake – not a lovestruck starry-eyed teenager who'd just learnt her boyfriend had cheated on her with the class bimbo. She and Bernie had broken up seven years before – why wouldn't the blonde major have a new girlfriend? In fact, she'd been the one to tell her to leave…so why did she feel as if it was the end of the world? She tried to focus on what Hanssen was saying:

"Serena – I am sorry your meeting with Berenice was not more propitious. I would like nothing more than for both of you to be happy. But I cannot believe Ric wanted to hurt you. The way he explained it to me, it was all a terrible turn of events. Cameron had no idea his mother would come accompanied. Nor had Ric. All they wanted was to give you a chance to talk to her. From what I've gathered, Berenice wasn't in the best fettle afterwards. I think you should try and talk to her. You and I know better than anyone what it is to live with regrets. To leave things unsaid. Don't do that to yourself, Serena. And please …"

He glanced towards the empty whisky bottle on the floor, and Serena reddened.

"I know – that was stupid. No need to chastise me."

"You're important to us, Serena – please believe me. We don't want you to destroy yourself."

At his kind words, Serena teared up and Henrik stood up to put his arms around her shoulders. When she calmed down a little, he left her to go and forage in the kitchen, from which he emerged ten minutes later carrying a tray with two plates of scrambled eggs and two bowls of soup. He deposited the tray carefully on the table: "Have something to eat – you'll feel better."

"Doctor's orders?"

"Doctor's order", nodded Henrik seriously, but with the bare hint of a smile. When he left at the end of the afternoon, she did feel better – a little. Less hungover at least. But she still had no idea what to do to repair her twice-broken heart.


Chapter 14

Neither Bernie nor Esther got much sleep that night, despite the comfortable king-sized bed. Actually, Bernie had offered to book another room or to sleep in the armchair, but Esther had opened her arms and lifted the sheets, and she had finally joined her. She would have given anything to go back in time – to the time when she had asked Esther to come with her to London, for instance, or maybe even long before that. Before she'd had time to hurt so many innocent people. It didn't matter that most of these people had been willing victims. It was all her fault. If she hadn't let Alex's demanding lips reach hers that night in Camp Bastion …If she hadn't listened to her heart and kissed Serena that day after theatre…If she had held on to her resolve and not yielded to Esther's charm… Her son wouldn't have tried to play matchmaker, and she wouldn't have done so much damage.

Esther couldn't fall asleep – she knew the woman lying beside her all too well. She knew how uncompromising she was, how honest. And she knew she had lost her. She wondered whether she could fight. She wanted to, because since the first time she had seen Bernie, she had been smitten. Of course, at first, she had dismissed that ludicrous idea – she couldn't be so lucky. And there was no way the blonde surgeon could love her in return. For all she knew, she was into men. So when slowly but surely their relationship had grown and their bond had strengthened, she had marvelled each day at her luck, all the time fearing it would end. And although Bernie's body was in her bed and not in that Serena's …her heart was not, or at least not wholly. And she loved Bernie too much not to know that not being able to commit wholly would eventually destroy her partner.

The next morning, both women sported red-rimmed eyes and deep shadows underneath. Esther concealed hers under carefully applied make-up, but Bernie just didn't bother. She was too nervous at the perspective of seeing her daughter again. Cameron had sent her a text asking if she wanted to cancel the meeting, and she had sent just one word back; "No". She knew she had no right to be mad at him, but her sorrow remained mixed with anger, and she needed someone to direct that anger at. Esther had offered to go with her, but Bernie had told her she had to do that on her own. At 10am, she sat down in the café where Charlotte was supposed to meet her, cradling a cup of coffee in her hands, almost welcoming the burning sensation of the scalding liquid in the too-thin paper cup. She had bought the Times with the coffee, but as she stared at the pages, she knew she wasn't actually taking anything in. She was afraid. This fear had nothing to do with trying to resuscitate a wounded soldier under enemy fire or being in a chopper hit by a storm. It was more profound, more primal, and no amount of courage or reassurance could quell it. Because if her daughter didn't come, or if that meeting didn't go well, she might lose her forever. She had got so lost in her thoughts that she didn't hear the steps approach. When she lifted her eyes to look at her daughter, she tried very hard to school her face in a happy expression and to conceal her shock. When she'd seen Charlotte that last time, at Serena's, her daughter had been as blonde as she was. Now her long raven locks framed a much slimmer face, with three earrings in each lobe and a nose ring. A shapeless black top attempted to hid her breasts. The young woman's thin body didn't show any trace of pregnancy, but Bernie remembered that no one had guessed she herself had been pregnant until nearly the end of the nine months. Charlotte slid in her chair without any sign of wanting to hug her and Bernie didn't dare try. She tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible: "So - how are you, Charlie?"


Bernie racked her brains frantically for something to say. She settled on: "So - do you work around here?"


Bernie couldn't quite bring herself to say she liked her daughter's new hair colour, so she went for: "So ...You changed your hair..."

"Great powers of observation, Mother. Do you like it?"

Bernie flinched - her daughter used to call her "mum". She decided it didn't matter that much, in the long run.

"It's's different, love. I can't say I like it, but..."

"Of course. But then, it's my hair, and I don't care if you like it or not..."

Unable to find a safe conversation topic, Bernie decided she might as well go for broke: "So... The baby..."

"I should have known Cam wouldn't hold his tongue." replied Charlotte bitterly. "I guess that's to what I owe the pleasure of your visit. Well, you shouldn't have bothered. There's no baby."

"I'm sorry?"

"You're too late."

Bernie looked at her daughter uncomprehendingly. "What?"

"Placenta abruption. Three weeks ago. The foetus didn't survive."

"Oh - I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

She stood up and went to hug her daughter, who stiffened and finally yielded to the embrace, before disengaging herself.

"I'll survive, Mother. And please don't pretend you care."

"Charlie - please! Why do you hate me so much?"

"I don't hate you, Mother. That would actually mean I care. But I don't care anymore - just as you've never cared about me."

"Charlotte! That's not - that's not fair!"

Bernie fought to keep her emotions in check, but each word reached its target, and each word left a bruise.

"But life isn't fair, is it? Just like it wasn't fair I was the only little girl whose mother wasn't there for her dance recital. Who had to wish her merry Christmas on the phone because she was saving the world instead of with her kids. Who had to buy her first bra alone. And all the other things! Those weren't fair either. So just stop pretending, Mother!"

"I was working - it was my job!"

"Yeah - your job always came first! Before your family. No wonder Dad divorced you - oh, wait - that might be because you were shagging someone else..."

"Whatever you feel about me, Charlotte, you have no right to lecture me. This was between your father and I… I'm...I ... I can't say how sorry I am you feel that way. But I didn't abandon you - I left you with your father and your grand-mother. And... I've always, and I will always love you. I know I don't say it enough, but ..." Bernie's voice was breaking and she struggled to maintain a semblance of composure. She tried to go back on safer grounds and fell back on her professional skills, desperate to re-establish a link with her daughter: "So... The abruption. Did they find a cause?"

"No. Just bad luck. But doctors are never very talkative, are you? They didn't really bother explaining anything. Just that the baby was dead - oh, and they had to take out my uterus, too. So no grand-kids for you from me."

"Oh, Charlotte ..."

Then, although she knew she shouldn't ask, Bernie couldn't resist: "Did you - I mean, were you - smoking, or ...using?"

Charlotte threw her a scornful look: "I should have known you would think that. That somehow you'd find a way to say it was my fault. Actually, you were the smoker in the family, Mother. Not I."

Bernie bit her lips: "That wasn't what I was saying - of course it wasn't your fault. I just tried to..."

Charlotte stood up abruptly: "This is going nowhere fast. I have to go back to work. Goodbye."


Before she could add anything, her daughter had disappeared through the cafe's door. She sank her face in her hands and tried to breathe. Tried not to think that she might have lost her daughter forever.


Chapter 15

Bernie's face immediately told Esther the meeting had been as taxing as her partner had feared. Even though she knew Bernie didn't like public displays of affection, she drew her into her arms and for a minute, Bernie clung to her as if she was drowning.

"Come on - let's get coffee!"

Bernie followed Esther to a coffee shop, reflecting wryly that if the English thought tea was always the solution, many French people thought coffee was the panacea.

"Tell me about it?" prodded Esther gently.

Bernie sighed: "There's nothing to tell, really. She is angry with me because I wasn't there for her during her childhood. And I can't blame her. But …I just wish she would talk to me. And forgive me."

She sipped her coffee and wished she hadn't stopped smoking…She would have given anything for a cigarette.

"Bernie – I don't want to tell you what to do, but … Don't you think you should talk to Serena now? We can't just go back home like that…"

"Right – you really think I need to hear someone else telling me how much I've hurt her and how she hates me? As for going home …You can go home – I don't have one."


"I'm sorry, Esther – I'm sorry – I have no right to take it out on you. It's not fair…"

Bernie could hear the hurt in Esther's voice and she hated herself for causing her pain. But she meant what she said – she didn't know where home was anymore. And she also resented the brunette for telling her what to do. Because she knew Esther was right, she had to talk to Serena. Only she didn't know if she could. Oddly enough, she felt both fragile and unbreakable. She was afraid seeing Serena would tear her into shreds, smash the remaining of her heart in pieces, and yet she felt strangely detached, oddly unreachable. She reached out for Esther's hand: "You need to go home. But you're right. I've got to talk to her. Let's enjoy our last evening together here and tomorrow you can take the train back and I'll take another one on Tuesday."

Esther didn't hear the end of the sentence – in her heart she heard only "our last evening together." She nodded, found a smile and they left the coffee shop together.

They didn't sleep much that night either, but they remained awake together. They made love slowly, softly, as if they were discovering each other and it stunned them into gentleness. Their bodies united in adagio and their caresses reached the most sensitive spots with certainty while their skin both welcomed and shied from the contact. Every sense was awake, every touch reciprocated, every fibre of their bodies responded to their moderato cantabile song of desire. It was not their first time, it may have been their last, and the night shielded them. They came in unison, with tears in their eyes.

In the train to Holby, Bernie experienced a now familiar feeling of déjà vu. She remembered her trip nearly a year before – the trip which had brought her to stand vigil in ICU. And once again she wondered why she was going back – what she was looking for – why she couldn't be happy with Esther. Before telling the cab driver where to go, she had a moment of hesitation, but she decided she should try Serena's house first – if she could avoid the hospital altogether, it would make a painful discussion a little easier; Fifteen minutes later, the cab left her on the pavement in front of Serena's home – the place she had thought she would consider home too, seven years previously. Automatically, she reached in her pocket for the keys she had once had before pressing the bell, hoping the door would open, and hoping it would remain closed…

Serena heard the doorbell and groaned – not another intervention! When Henrik Hanssen had gone, Ric had phoned her, and the day before he had sent Donna with groceries and cakes. She was still half-undressed, with her hair all over the place and no make-up. She quickly slipped her trousers on, did up a few buttons of her blouse and went down the stairs. She threw the door open without looking first and almost slammed the door back. Almost, because her arm didn't obey her and she just stood there, speechless.

"Surprise", murmured Bernie.

As Serena was still blocking the doorway, she went on: "Could I come in?" Serena stepped aside to let her pass and Bernie hovered in the hallway, wishing herself a thousand miles away. She hadn't really expected Serena to fall in her arms, not after seeing her with Esther at the restaurant, but… She went automatically to her familiar resting place, perching on the arm of the sofa rather than sitting on the cushions and waited. Serena joined her, mutely handed her a cup of coffee and sat down in an armchair. Bernie almost dropped the mug – one they had bought together from pottery works in the South of France. They had joked then about the weight of the cups, but they had liked their roundness and their soft pastel hues. Her hands shook slightly from tension and she concentrated on the scalding liquid, casting furtive glances at Serena. Even without make-up, she looked far better than she had in the ICU. Anyone would, of course, but it was unbelievably good to see the brunette with a little colour in her cheeks and dark eyes flashing, albeit dangerously.

"What are you doing here?" The tone was harsh, and Bernie flinched.

"I had to talk to you, Serena. There are so many things I have to tell you. Actually, I told you a few of them already, but you weren't really conscious at the time…"

"Why didn't you want me to know you came?"

Bernie lowered her eyes and focused on her hands: "I don't know. It was …It was rubbish. I was afraid. Serena – when I left… I should never have left – I should have fought – for you…for us. I was angry – oh, God – I was so angry…"

As she said the words, the memories rushed back and she clenched her fists. All those nights when the image of Serena and the blonde F1 had imprinted itself on her dreams… The rage she had suppressed in fear of scaring Serena away. And the pain she had hid, because to express it would have been to acknowledge it. The words wouldn't come and she suddenly felt desperate to establish a physical contact with Serena, as if she could convey her feelings by touch only. She got up and settled on the floor, reaching for Serena's hand. She couldn't see Serena's face anymore, but the fingers in hers told her enough.

"I need you, Serena. I thought I could forget – I thought I could escape, but I couldn't."

"What about the other woman? Your "friend"?"

Serena could only see the mop of blonde hair, in which she could now see several grey strands, and their entwined hands. Hands with a few more lines, hands which had worked together to save lives, hands that fitted in each other so well… She asked the question, but she feared the answer. She still couldn't believe Bernie was there, or why she was.

Bernie bit her lips and tried to find the right words – she had sought them for so long and yet had never thought she would get to say them aloud: "When I left…I tried to convince myself it was over. That our relationship was dead, and that I would be able to survive alone. That I didn't need anyone else. And then, two years ago, I met Esther. She's a wonderful woman – gentle, clever, compassionate – she loves me, and I love her. But she doesn't make me whole, and she knows it. The only one who ever did that was you. Because even though our relationship was dead, our love wasn't. It isn't. At least …it isn't for me. You're the one I want to be with….Serena? Say something?"

Serena ran her hand through the blonde hair and bent to kiss the top of Bernie's hair. Her former partner was pouring out her heart to her and she seemed to be struck dumb. She longed to just yield to what her heart was telling her to do, and yet … Their relationship had been punctuated by exits, and each one of them was burnt in her memory. Each one had left scars. She saw herself begging Bernie not to go to Ukraine. She saw herself running away to the South of France when grief had made Holby unbearable. And she saw Bernie crying in the corridor on the day of Guinivere's birth. And the last exit – the one she had thought final. They had both hurt each other repeatedly, and yet imagining Bernie leaving one more time was unthinkable. And so she slid to the floor next to her and embraced her fiercely. Words weren't needed, because eternity had been broken once. Love would have to be enough.



They went back to Paris together, and they revisited old haunts and memories. Places Serena had gone to with Adrienne. Cafés and bars they had frequented during the holiday weekend they had spent in Paris together and where Bernie had forbidden herself to go alone. Serena met Esther – an awkward meeting at first, but it felt right. And then Serena went back to Holby, resuming her duties as AAU lead, while Bernie worked out her notice at the French hospital. She also looked for another job in England, and with her stellar credentials, she found one quite easily. She ended up at Queen Elisabeth Hospital – one of the country's top-range military hospital, a short commute from Holby. She could still get home at night most nights. Home wasn't, after all, Serena's leafy detached. Serena had decided to sell the house – too many memories haunted it. She had found a smaller one in another part of the town, with a minute garden. Bernie had bought a basement flat two streets away – that way they could each have their own space – which didn't mean that they ended up at each other's places most of the time – they shared good times and bad times, but they could also retreat in their lairs if they wanted time alone.

Bernie was also in great demand for seminars and congressed on Trauma Care, and although with the years her dread of public speaking never really got any better, she found that once she was engrossed in her specialist subject the butterflies flew away.

About six months after their disastrous meeting, Bernie received a text from Charlotte: "Sorry I was such a bitch. Can we talk again? Cxx." The hair was still jet-black, but the nose ring had gone. This time, they fell in each other's arms and apologies were shared. Charlotte told her mother she had decided to go back to university – she wanted to become a psychologist.

Bernie and Serena celebrated not their 60th but their 65th birthday together, in a joint birthday party for Ric's 75th. They didn't have seventy-five guests, nor even sixty, but between the three of them they had gathered about forty dear friends and family members. While Serena serenaded Bernie with Etta James' song At Last, the latter hid away in a corner, watching the woman she loved with pride. Then Guinivere read a poem she had written – she had done amazingly well, and she was now attending a mainstream girls' school, where she was developing her gift for writing. Bernie would have been content to remain in the background but Cameron and Charlotte came to drag her out, and all but forced her to come forward. She blushed but let herself be dragged to the makeshift stage at the end of the room. Thrusting her hands into her tuxedo trousers' pockets, she cleared her throat and faced her audience: "My children are ruthless…"

"Chip of the old block, then, Major!" came from somewhere in the room, followed by peals of laughter.

"Thank you, Fletch", she said drily. "But anyway, I love them despite that – or maybe because of that."

More laughter. When it died down, Bernie cleared her throat again: "Anyway – they know I hate to make speeches – well – you all know that. I'll make it brief – I'd like to quote one of our times' best philosopher – Winnie the Pooh. "If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart… I'll always be with you." All of you here in this room …you've made me braver, stronger, and smarter. I – I …. Thank you!"

She fled from the stage under a thunder of applause. Serena found her a few minutes later in the garden of the hotel where the reception was held, nervously puffing on a cigarette. She glanced at Bernie reproachfully: "Darling!"

"It's just one," pleaded Bernie, " I haven't even bought a pack- I bummed it from one of the waiters." She took one last long drag and crushed it under her heel. "There – satisfied?"

Serena took her in her arms: "Yes – you know I don't want anything to shorten the time we have together. We've already wasted so much…"

Bernie didn't answer. Instead, she sealed Serena's lips with a long and tender kiss.

"Serena's" serenade (At Last – Etty James)

At last my love has come along
My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah
At last the skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up clover the night I looked at you
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill I've never known, oh yeah
You smiled, you smiled oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in Heaven
For you are mine at last

 "Love reckons hours for months, and days for years; and every little absence is an age."

John Dryden

 "How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard?" 

— A.A. Milne

Winnie the Pooh

I've seen it on your face
Tells me more than any worn out old phrase
So now we'll go separate ways
Never again we two
Never again, nothing I can do

Like an image passing by, my love, my life
In the mirror of your eyes, my love, my life
I can see it all so clearly
Answer me sincerely
Was it a dream, a lie
Like reflections of your mind, my love, my life
Are the words you try to find, my love, my life
But I know I don't possess you
So go away, God bless you
You are still my love and my life
Still my one and only

I've watched you look away
Tell me is it really so hard to say
Oh, this has been my longest day
Sitting here close to you
Knowing that maybe tonight we're through

Like an image passing by, my love, my life
In the mirror of your eyes, my love, my life


The End

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