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Midnight

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Strike had to heave himself up the final steps to the office. Although it was nearly 11 pm he could see the glow of the office light. Had Robin left it on accidentally or was she working late again? There was no way he was going to make it up to the flat, his knee was bloody killing him. Robin and he were so busy he had missed his last appointment at Queen Mary’s, although he hadn’t told her that. He tried the door to see if it was locked and it opened. As he stepped into the outer office he called out, “I thought I told you, no more late nights this week?”

“I thought I told you no more protective big brother act!” She called back from the inner office.

“Fair point…” He mumbled, putting his bag of takeaway and beer onto the coffee table. He dropped onto the sofa, which made its familiar greeting of a fart noise, closing his eyes and grimacing in pain, “Do you want some takeaway? Or are you going soon?”

“No, I’ve got time for some food before the last train, I’m done here,” Her bodiless voice travelled through to him.

He grumbled to himself because if he complained to her about the dangers of travelling alone on the tube late on a weekday night she would flay him alive.

“What are you doing?”

“Just looking at the shots I got this evening of Fembot,” Robin had finally appeared in the doorway, “Think we’ve got all we need to wrap it up with the husband!” One of their latest quarries was the wife of a client who had started having an affair with a richer man than her current husband. He believed she was lining her lover up as future husband number four so had wanted evidence of her infidelity before he told her he wanted a divorce. Robin had called her Fembot as she reminded her of Tansy Bestigui, all fake boobs, scheming marriages and manipulation. Strike saw her eyes drop down and absorb the fact that he was massaging his knee. He stopped instantly and she sighed almost inaudibly.

“Okay, will you call him tomorrow then?” He watched her as she walked into the kitchenette and she bent over to get something out of a box in one of the cabinets. Before he could stop himself, Strike realised he had zoned out admiring the curves that had returned over the last three months. He mentally chastised himself for the lapse in control and focused on taking out the takeaway cartons.

Robin tried to awkwardly place some cutlery and plates on the table. Once he had helped her unload, she took a plastic pack out from where she had tucked it under her arm, “Take your prosthesis off and put this on your knee.” She stated assertively.

He had become more used to Robin being like this since they had agreed on the terms of her returning to work with him: better communication on both sides; Strike not being overprotective and Robin, well Robin still felt she hadn’t done much wrong in the first place.

“I think sticking cutlery into my knee is a step too far Robin,” he gave her a wry smile.

“I wasn’t talking about the cutlery,”

“What is that?” He groused sceptically.

“A Coolpak, I got some for you, it might help you to at least get upstairs – I’m assuming that’s why you’ve come in here?” she smirked.

“I just thought I’d catch up with you and be kind enough to share my takeaway,” Cormoran feigned modesty.

“I’m sure!”

After more barely muffled grumbling, towards which Robin just responded with laughter, he began to pull up his trouser leg and grunted with pain as he eased the prosthesis off. Robin focused on squeezing the plastic pack until there was a pop, “Here you go!”

Strike took the pack from her without a word or even looking at her and placed it on his knee. Robin felt the waves of barely concealed irritation in his body language but she just got on with heaping some rice onto her plate. She’d learnt just to ignore his occasional thorniness rather than take it to heart, he would always get over it sooner or later.

Instantly he regretted his sullen behaviour, the intense cold gave him quick relief. Deep down he knew she was just being her usual kind and considerate herself, she wasn’t patronising him or babying him like Lucy tried to. He felt the tension ease from his body. Before he could stop it, he thought about what a bloody star Robin was. A small smile escaped him and he allowed himself another admiring glance at her under his lashes. Robin had just finished piling rice on his plate and as she turned to him she asked, “Is this enough?”

She caught his smile, the warm look in his eyes. She beamed back at him, her eyes flickering over the curve of his mouth, memorising it for later. Because right at that moment she forgot how to think or breathe. Strike felt like his chest was a speaker from the downstairs club. His heart felt so loud she must be able to hear it. Suddenly, Robin started as the beep of a notification alert sounded on her phone in the next room and finally, her gaze slipped away.

Strike took his plate from her as she got up to get her mobile from the other office and busied himself heaping curry and naan onto the plate. He focused on trying to look unfazed and reassert an unruffled, friendly air. Robin appeared in the doorway again, swiping her phone to open her message. Strike easily read her clearly annoyed expression.

“Everything alright?” He kept his voice casual.

She looked up at him and her face was paler than usual. There was a crease between her eyebrows and her mouth was almost in a straight line. He’d seen this look before at the wedding when Matthew was shouting in her face that he’d been sleeping with Sarah Shadlock, that they’d never stopped. So, she and Strike could go fuck themselves or each other, he didn’t care anymore. Before Strike had been able to move a bruised muscle towards Matthew, Robin had punched her ‘husband’ square in the face. Strike had been impressed.

“Is it Matthew?”

“What gave you the clue? He’s just texted me that the decree absolute went through three weeks ago! Three weeks he’s kept that to himself – cuntliffe!”

Strike nearly choked as a mouthful of naan stopped his laughter.

“I mean…what the fuck!”

At this Strike gave her a sceptical look.

“I know…I shouldn’t be surprised. Even now he’s still trying to have control over me.” Her voice broke with frustration and Strike’s expression softened.

He took out the cans of beer, snapped one of the ring-pulls and held it up for Robin, grinning, “Seems like the perfect time to me, he’s not your problem anymore and we have a celebratory feast right here. Good luck to Sarah Shadlock!” He said flatly, toasting the air with the can.

Robin took the can but still humphed as she threw herself back on the sofa and slammed the phone onto the coffee table. He caught her eye and tried his usual tactic of getting her out of a bad mood, grinning at her until the corners of her own mouth began to involuntarily twitch upwards and he passed her a full plate.

“I am glad it’s over and done with,” she sounded as if she was reassuring herself rather than him, and this time spoke more assuredly, “I just want to move on but with Stephen's wedding next weekend, I’m going to have to face our friends and my extended family! They’re bound to still be judging me after that tantrum he threw.”

Strike had to admit it had been a spectacular meltdown on Matthew’s part. But, it had been mortifying for Robin who had tried her best to explain why she couldn’t go through one more minute of the wedding. Eventually, she had refused to sign the register with the pen held ready between her fingers. Although Matthew was adamant it was down to Strike’s impromptu entrance, Robin had outright dismissed the accusation. She told Matthew the result would have been the same whether Strike had arrived or not, as it had little to do with him. What it was about was the fact Matthew could not accept the real Robin. Strike’s arrival had just woken Robin from the despondent spell she was under and reminded her of who she was and could be. That was when Matthew’s head had nearly imploded.

“I get it,” Strike mused as he began to shovel food up with his fork. He’d had his fair share of disapproving friends and family when he had been with Charlotte or had made life choices they couldn’t understand. But when he looked at Robin she still looked disconsolate, unshed tears shone in her eyes. He balanced the fork on the edge of the plate, moving it to his right hand. He lifted his left hand and placed it on her scalp stroking her silken hair. She closed her eyes enjoying the relaxing sensation of his tender touch. As he reached the nape of her neck he jolted back into reality, holding his hand frozen in mid-air as if she had burnt him. Eventually, he brought it down again on the crown of her head gently giving her a couple of clumsy pats.

Robin broke into a fit of laughter, “What was that Cormoran? Am I five?”

Strike covered his awkward expression with his hand, “Just eat your curry,” he demanded as he picked up his can to take a quick swig of beer. Then another.

Chapter Text

Robin had fearlessly evicted Strike from what had been his office, “You spend more time at my old desk anyway.” She had reminded him, smiling as she turned away from him.

She was expecting Mr Davies, Fembot’s husband, in half an hour. So, she had gone through the last check of the folder with Strike, making sure that she had all the essentials documented properly. They had also discussed how best to deal with Davies if he cracked. He had been so emotional when he first came in to sign up for their services as he was clearly besotted with his wife and was incredibly hurt, simply from the rumours he had heard of her affair. Seeing the photos and her infidelity in the flesh would, Robin assumed, be even more awful for him. She had been able to hug and soothe their female clients when needed but there were different boundaries and tactics when dealing with a male. Her mind was full of the advice and scenarios she and Strike had deliberated over on how best to deal with Davies’ reaction.

“I’ll see you later then,” Strike stood in the doorway, already in his coat, “Call, text me if you need anything. Oh, I’ve left something on the desk for you.” He said the last point as if an afterthought.

When she looked up from the notes she was perusing he had already disappeared and she heard the door click.

“Tea!” She said to herself, she would welcome a break to stop the nerves and hopefully that was what was waiting for her on her old desk. But instead of a hot cup of tea was a white envelope. Strike had given her one once before and that had been the surveillance course. She rushed over and ripped it open. His familiar and now less indecipherable handwriting stood out in black capitals. This wasn’t a short note but a letter. It was so unexpected she didn’t know what to think.

 

Dear Robin,

I’ve been thinking a lot about how much the thought of your brother’s wedding is upsetting you. This should be a time for you to be happy and celebrate with your family rather than feeling anxious that the fact you didn’t marry Matthew has in some way made you less in people’s eyes.

You are a very special woman Robin and no-one knows that any more than I do. That’s why, only if you feel it would make you feel better, I would like to accompany you to your brother’s wedding. Before you say no, I know you already have an older brother and don’t need a protector (you’ve told me enough). I just thought wouldn’t it be the best way for you to distract everyone with that tall, fat bloke who interrupted the wedding and stole you from Matthew (citation needed).

Rather than speak to you, I thought a letter would give you the chance to give proper consideration to my request, rather than turn me down straight away out of politeness or not wanting to feel vulnerable and in need of ‘saving’. You have supported me so much, even when I have not deserved it and if I can repay that back to you in any way I would be very grateful to you. I just thought to have another friend, standing beside you, couldn’t hurt.

Yours Truly,

C

p.s. Sorry, but I’ve already spoken to your mother. She says it is all arranged if you’re happy for me to come.

 

Robin had to read the letter again and then once more, just to make sure she had understood its contents completely and correctly. The formality of it had been surprising and so unlike Strike but she could tell how serious his words were, how genuine. And then she had examined the weight of certain turns of phrase. Strike could have been an Oxford graduate, he would have chosen his words carefully…you’re special…yours truly…stand beside you…stolen you…I would be very grateful. Then the word that had abruptly given her a stab of disappointment …friend. Up until that last sentence unbidden excitement had bloomed in her chest. ‘Friend’ had jabbed a sharp pin into that elation – she was still being ridiculous..

“Ms Ellacott? Am I early?” said Mr Davies, who had appeared in the office without Robin even hearing the door open.

She quickly folded the letter, placing it carefully in the drawer and stood up, “No, no, Mr Davies. I’ve been waiting for you. Shall we go through? Would you like some tea?”

 

It had been easier than Robin had thought. Davies was clearly in shock and she could understand that herself. That’s why she had the hot sweet tea ready. He had paid his invoice in full immediately and left with the file. She couldn’t have wished for a more neatly tied up case. Strike had told her to ring afterwards and let him know how it went. Feeling nauseous, her heart starting to beat loudly in her chest, she took her mobile from her pocket and sat back in her chair. She placed the phone on the desk in front of it and stared at it. Then took out the letter one more time.

As she read she thought back to her wedding. During every minute that passed on the day she had thought, “Is this the right time? Can I say now I don’t want this?” But everyone else’s excitement and happiness had made her feel trapped in that minute, again and again. During her usual secret google trawl, she had seen the news on the internet that the police had caught Donald Laing. For it to be Laing, Strike had to have something to do with it as Carver would never have doggedly followed up any of Strike suspects. The anger against Strike simply went out of her. All she wanted was to find out what had happened. She had checked her phone all morning hoping that now it was over, Strike would relent and contact her. She had even looked at her phone just before her father had walked her down the aisle.

She had been so in her head during the ceremony, she was only vaguely aware of what the vicar was saying. And then suddenly, there was Cormoran Strike. In the flesh, battered and bruised but actually there. He looked absolutely forlorn. Had travelled hundreds of miles to be forgiven by her. “I’m sorry” as he looked into her eyes, were the best words she had ever heard.

The only reason why would be because he wanted her back at work and that was all she wanted. Happiness had erupted inside of her, warm and heartening. Everyone in the church could see it, which was why people had gossiped that she had been having an affair with her boss. Probably started by Sarah Shadlock. But that was all she wanted. To be back at work with Strike.

Matthew had registered how ecstatic she was, had seen the difference in her pretence of joy and her actual joy. He had been frigid for the rest of the service but Robin was vibrating. All she needed was to be in the sanctuary of the chapel and she would tell the vicar she couldn’t continue. Her maid of honour and the best man had come with them though, she had forgotten that and so it had been, the pen in hand, when she finally said, “I’m sorry Matthew.” They were not the best words he had ever heard.

Once Robin had returned to London, she had met Strike at the Tottenham to discuss how they would move forward in their working relationship. She remembered the ground rules they had both laid down. Her non-negotiable was they had to communicate better. She had not had the confidence to properly talk to him about her feelings about Brockbank and this had been mainly down to his ability to intimidate everyone around him not to cross lines that only he was allowed to draw in the sand. The crushing pain of losing her job was not an experience she ever wanted to repeat. So, they both had reason to agree on this point.

She moved her belongings out of what was now Matthew’s flat. Her essentials were transported to Nick and Ilsa’s who had rented their attic room to her on a short let to give her time to sort herself out. Everything else went back with her mother and father to Yorkshire. Months ago, it had seemed impossible to do but all that had been difficult was just making the decision and sticking to it.

One night Ilsa suggested they watched Muriel’s Wedding together and they had stayed up into the early hours. Without really knowing how Robin had made a firm friend in Ilsa.

Robin had shamed herself by crying when Muriel shouted that no one would ever want to marry her. Ilsa, who understood confidentiality and who knew how to pursue a line of questioning as well as Strike, got the whole story of what had happened to Robin, even down to Sarah Shadlock. Ilsa had asked Robin, had she felt she was damaged goods and that only Matthew would ever want her because he had known her before?

It was like an epiphany for Robin, “I’m ashamed to admit it, Ilsa. Sometimes I’d allow myself to consider whether someone else…” and here she averted her gaze from Ilsa as she thought someone so intuitive would read all over her face that she was thinking of Strike,”…would want to be with me, I told myself it was ridiculous. I was ridiculous. I compared myself to gorgeous girlfriend after gorgeous girlfriend and felt I came up wanting.”

Ilsa had hugged Robin, who had finally faced up to her true feelings, burst into tears.

“Urm…Robin…do we both know this someone else?”

Robin had nodded and Ilsa had hugged her tighter, “I don’t think it is a ridiculous idea Robin and I’ve known him more than thirty years. He’d be lucky to have you. Corm is a difficult bugger.”

They had both laughed almost uncontrollably.

”Robin, be patient with him, I know he cares about you a lot. But he’s bloody terrified.”

 

Robin picked up the mobile and dialled Strike’s number before she could think about it any longer.

“Cormoran? Where are you? Yep, it all went well. Meet me for lunch? Okay…yep. Meet you there at one. No, one!”

Chapter Text

Strike was already sat waiting in the dining room of the Tottenham at a quarter past one. He was the one who was usually late. He’d actually gone to the pub straight from the office, rather than the lie he’d told Robin that he was going to see one of the law firms they freelanced for. He needed a drink after leaving that envelope on Robin’s desk. Instead, he had been good, remembering how, not helped by his weight, his knee had hurt a few nights before and settled for tea after tea. The next day, after their late-night talk, Strike had called Linda Ellacott then written the letter to Robin. The envelope though had sat in his pocket for days. The feeling of anticipation was both in equal measure embarrassingly painful and exquisite. The outcome of this lunch would determine whether their relationship would be back to Strike navigating around Robin, always trying but sometimes failing to maintain a professional distance or move forward to some new stage that he didn’t want to allow himself to picture.

 

When Robin had returned to work, they quickly fell into familiar routines and had entered new territory. Before one weekend she had asked Strike what he was up to, as it had been the first Saturday he had been free in weeks.

“Goin’ with Nick to watch the Spurs-Arsenal game. I’ll be the one sitting in a sea of white and navy wearing a red arsenal shirt!”

That had made her laugh, “So, I’m assuming you’ll be expecting some light-hearted ribbing?”

“Yeah, and most of it will be from Nick!”

“I’ll ask him to take mercy on you,” but her laughter had said otherwise.

After Arsenal had hopefully beaten Spurs, they would move on with some of Nick’s friends to a pub back in central London where Ilsa and a few of her friends would join them. The thought flashed through his mind that Robin might want to go with them. It was a large group, so, he told himself, it wouldn’t seem too weird for him to ask her, “What are you doing?”

Robin’s laughter went silent instantaneously. She looked away from him, busying herself with the paperwork she was organising, “Urm, I’m out with Vanessa again…she’s forced me into a double date with this guy she likes and his friend.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

How long had it been since the wedding? Nearly three months? She had to start dating at some point, he counselled himself. He’d shagged Ciara Porter a few weeks after breaking up with Charlotte. He tried to keep his voice even, “Well, you can always S.O.S me if it goes to crap and I can give you the failsafe emergency phone call.”

She’d smirked at this and was able to look him in the eye again, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” but her face was sceptical.

 

That Saturday Arsenal had lost. But Strike was actually enjoying himself amongst the laughter and chat with the raucous group. Strike had met most of the others before. It had only been Charlotte who looked at his friends with disdain, so he found it was easier to simply avoid social occasions when he’d been with her. But, as time had passed he was gradually re-establishing himself as the man he had been before she chipped pieces of him away.

Between the conversation and laughter, his thoughts still wandered to Robin. Was she enjoying her night? How she’d have found a particular joke hilarious? How she’d have appreciated a particular people watching observation he’d made? The thoughts were so unrelenting that he had taken his mobile out of his pocket and was holding it in his hand when a text had appeared on the screen. It was from Robin.

S.O.S

He’d chuckled to himself and had opened the message immediately.

“Corm? Who’s that?” Ilsa was her usual forthright self, worried he was going to have a Charlotte relapse he supposed after his most recent relationship had expired.

“Robin.”

“I thought she had a date tonight?”

“Ah, you knew about that, did you?”

Ilsa gave him a sheepish smile and Strike showed her the text, “Oh dear!” Ilsa sighed, “Tell her to come here!” suggesting it as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Strike could see how pointless it was to continue to keep the façade of professional boundaries in place when somehow Robin had unwittingly infiltrated his life.

Strike began to tap, firing off a message. Where are you?

Brixton. Just been out for dinner. Can’t get away. Don’t want to seem rude to Vanessa. Came back the reply almost instantly.

Ilsa was watching over his shoulder, “Tell her to ask them all here, we’ll then separate him from her somehow.”

 

Thirty minutes later Strike was trying not to appear to be watching the door. Ilsa caught his eye and grinned at him but he just shook his head dismissively, as if he disapproved of where he knew her thoughts were travelling. Then suddenly, there she was. Strike exhaled slowly, his eyes wide. Course she couldn’t get rid of this guy. There was nothing about her that wasn’t beautiful. Interestingly, she had appeared to be more and more stunning to him now she was without Matthew as an accessory.

By the end of the night, one of Nick’s friends had trapped Robin’s date, who turned out to also be a Spurs fan, into a long drawn out analysis of the afternoon’s game. Vanessa was very busy snogging her date. Robin sat across from Strike at the table joining in with the banter and chat, laughing and smiling. She seemed to emanate happiness. Until finally, a little worse for wear, they had left the pub and had started to walk back to the tube. Nick and Ilsa seemed to be physically supporting each other as they walked clumsily ahead of Strike.

“Wait for me!” Robin had caught up with them after saying her goodbyes to Vanessa. She wasn’t sure when Jamie, her date, had left and Robin hardly gave him a passing thought, “That was fun!”

“Oh yeah?” Strike quirked an eyebrow.

“Eventually…”

“So, the S.O.S worked then?”

“Yep, good thinking! Was that from your wealth of dating experience?” she thought she had made it sound a completely casual question, a smile playing on her lips.

“Disasters would be more appropriate,” then regretted his flippant remark as she looked pensive.

“Does it get any easier?”

“Course it will Robin,” he nudged her arm, " - Right time, right person...” Strike tried to keep his voice light.

“Kind of thought that was Matthew?” she sighed.

“Yep well...for a long time, I considered it to be Charlotte. What really makes it easier, is having good friends around you.” He smiled widely at her before dropping his eyes away from her gaze.

He felt her snake her arm through his. And shutting up the voice in his head telling him he was an idiot, he allowed it, tipsy as he was. Strike dropped his hand into his pocket so her hand rested in the crook of his elbow. They chatted and laughed until they got to the station and Robin had stepped away from his side leaving an absence he couldn't shake. Ilsa and Nick said their goodbyes which involved a loaded look and a quick hug from Ilsa, before they walked into the station leaving Strike and Robin who hesitated, hanging back.

“Good friends,” she smiled up at him shyly.

He returned her smile and they awkwardly stood to wait for the other to walk away. Quickly, as if Robin thought she only had a second of opportunity, she put her hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek, millimetres away from his mouth, so her lips just brushed his own as she withdrew. Strike’s hand had just pressed against her back before Robin was gone, following their friends into the station. Once she got to the barriers she turned to look back over her shoulder. Seeing he was still there, Robin gave him a little wave and that beaming smile before her Oyster beeped her through. How had she known he was still there, frozen like a gormless loon? Yep, bloody highly commended in counter-surveillance training! He had felt a bit colder, feeling as if something was missing as he walked back to the flat.

 

Strike glanced at the empty stairs again. He then took a deep sip of his waiting beer and pressed his lips together to get rid of any residual foam.

“Sorry, I’m late!” Robin sounded breathless as she appeared in front of him.

Strike looked up from his drink, “Usually it’s the other way around, it’s fine!”

“I was getting you something actually.” She said cheerfully.

Strike relaxed, either she hadn’t yet looked inside the envelope or she wasn’t upset by what he had written. Robin picked up the glass of wine he had ordered for her and almost inhaled a mouthful.

“I’m intrigued.”

“Well, I know you love intrigue,” she took a rectangularly shaped present from her handbag and placed it in front of him.

He could tell it was book shaped and he looked quizzically back at her smiling expectant face. He pulled out the hardback, Fordyce’s “CATULLUS”.

“Robin?” then it came back to him, he’d told her he had recited it to Fancourt in Latin.

“Yep. Anyway, you might have it already but I saw it weeks ago and after your note, I just thought it was a good opportunity to give it to you. To say thanks. I had to go and get wrapping paper though.”

“Thank you. I have a paperback from university but this…it must have cost you – I’ll give you the money for it.”

“It wouldn’t be a present then! Anyway, I just hope it’s worthy of a few days with my extended family,” she smiled.

“So, you saw the note? You want me to come with you?”

“Of course! Even if I was actually looking forward to it," Robin had tried to keep the shyness out of her voice, "Although I appreciate the sacrifice you’re making for me - days with family and they’re not even yours.”

“But you’ll be there,” The words were out before he could stop them. He registered her glowing blush and gestured towards the bar with his eyes to change the subject to less loaded ground, “What food do you want? It’s on me after your first successful case.”

Robin recounted the meeting with Davies to Strike while they waited for their food. When it arrived, Robin pinched some chips from Strike bowl and he donated a slice of bacon to her salad. She held one of the chips over the yolk of his egg and looked at him raising her brows in question.

“Wait!” Strike picked up the glass Heinz tomato ketchup bottle tapping the end until a blob landed on the yolk.

Robin dipped in her chip, mixing both yolk and ketchup then popped it into her mouth.

“God you’re disgusting!” he laughed.

“Yum! You love it!”

Strike smiled but found it hard to hide his awkwardness.

“The ketchup yolk I mean,” Robin mumbled concentrating on her food.

“So,” he took pity on her and changed the subject, “What can I expect in Masham?”

“Well, the night we arrive there’s the Sten do in Harrogate…”

“Wait…Sten? Oh, I’ve got it.”

“Sounds better than a Hag do!”

“Have to agree with you there.”

Robin continued to list the indignities she expected to suffer that would, therefore, involve him. Then something occurred to her, “Where did Mum say you’ll be staying?”

“At yours – I said I could bring the camp bed and then the hotel for the reception, someone can’t come so I can take over their booking.”

“My cousin, she’s just had her baby. Okay, we’re all staying at Swinton Park after the reception there. I have to share a twin room with Martin.”

“Bad luck!”

Chapter Text

“So, I looked at the best route to drive from Wandsworth and then I thought it would just be easier to drive here tomorrow and just sleep in the office. Otherwise, I'll have to come all the way back to pick you up…” Robin’s voice drifted from the kitchenette into the inner office, “Do you mind if I borrow your camp bed, oh, and your shower?”

No wonder she had chosen to mention this when a wall separated her from his reaction. Robin, in his flat, overnight. Well, not exactly in his flat but too bloody close for comfort. He didn’t even think she’d been in his flat since she’d been sent the grotesque present of a leg. But what was he going to say to her? No Robin, you can’t sleep on my uncomfortable camp bed three metres under where I will be sleeping because I won’t be able to stop myself thinking about coming downstairs and…

“Is that alright then?” Robin walked into the room, "I'd have invited you to stay at mine but it's actually quicker to go from here," Although her voice sounded unfazed, she didn’t look at him as she set the mugs on the table.

And the shower – fuck! He couldn’t think of anything to say as an excuse.

“Yeah it'll be fine,” hoping he sounded convincing, “but you’re not sleeping down here – I will. I’m used to it. You have to drive all day.” He was pleased with the gruff tone he had managed although his eyes had darted to every part of the room in order to avoid hers.

She smiled, clearly relieved by his response. This made him feel more able to take a further risk.

“I suppose you’ll expect some dinner -" He got up from his desk to get some biscuits, " I’ll make you something as I’ll be finishing early tomorrow.”

“Bloody Hell, Cormoran! You can cook?” she called out to him as he disappeared into the kitchenette.

When he reappeared in the doorway, he was giving her a dark look from under his raised eyebrow. His lips pursed as he neared her and held a packet out offering Robin a biscuit, then as she reached for one he pulled it out of her reach.

Her eyes dropped downwards, as she laughed, to the files that were neatly arranged across the desk, “Another meeting?”

"Mmm," he confirmed, in fact It was the actual meeting with the law firm tomorrow, he’d been preparing for it all day. It would be very lucrative for the business if he managed to secure a contract with them. Strike relinquished the pack of biscuits.

 

Robin parked the Land Rover virtually outside the office the next evening after she’d collected it from the car park. Loud music, laughter and chatter came from the bar. She was thankful Strike had offered to give up his bed, the noise continuing into the early morning had not occurred to her. She felt a little guilty at the amount she was putting him out. He’d lost a weekend of his life and now his bed. Her hand and overnight bag crashed against her legs as she almost ran up the stairs. She was hungry and couldn’t wait to see Strike at the stove, she’d been ribbing him all day over this. Although, once outside his door the smell drifting from the flat was promising.

He opened the door, stepping backwards as it virtually opened into the bedroom.

“Park alright?”

“Right outside.” She scanned the room for any changes. Apart from the freshly changed bed, it was still pretty utilitarian and impersonal. She left her bags on the bed and followed him into the sitting room-kitchen feeling strangely nervous.

“If you want to sit at the table, I’ll bring dinner through– do you want a drink?”

“Just water,” anything else, Robin thought, would be too date-like.

“You sure – we won the contract so we can celebrate a bit?”

 

“Well, that was a surprise!’ Robin smirked as she placed her cutlery together on the plate and drained the last of the Doom Bar.

“It was Thai Prawn Curry,” Strike said matter-of-factly.

“It was a bit more special than that…let me wash up.”

“I’ll dry.” He said following her retreating back.

Robin began to fill the sink with hot water, “I just never imagined you being so domesticated, it didn’t seem you.”

He shook his head, chuckling, “Not sure whether that’s a compliment or not. Army training. I’ll have to pack when we're done and then I’ll leave you.”

But he hadn’t and she hadn’t wanted him to.

Once everything was cleaned and cleared away until no-one would ever have known cooking had taken place in the kitchen, Strike moved through to the bedroom. Robin went through what they had to do each day and watched as Strike took out neatly folded garments and place them with deft and efficient organisation into his bag. He showed her where she could find a clean blanket with the rest of his bedding if she was cold. While she found something to watch on television, he packed a book and the few toiletries he wouldn’t use in the morning.

“Tea?” she asked, coming up behind him as he stood at the sink. He closed the cabinet guiltily and nodded.

They sat watching “The Killing” on BBC Catch-up. Robin insisted on sitting on the floor using the pillows from the bed and resting her elbow on the ottoman stool next to Strike’s leg. He sat in the armchair sipping his tea. After two episodes and plenty of discussion over who they thought the killer was, it was late considering the time they would have to get up. "Right, so we need to be ready by seven am?" Strike stood carrying the folded up camp bed, sleeping bag and some nightclothes ready to take downstairs. Robin nodded from where she stood by his bed, behind her back she wrung her fingers in her hand, she didn't trust herself to speak. "Goodnight then," he smiled self-consciously at her and turned away.

Once the door closed on Robin, she sat on the bed to take out her nightshirt. It had been such a normal evening, reminding her of the familiar comfort of living with someone when you were not at each other’s throats and sleeping on a hard couch. She had worried it was going to be awfully uncomfortable and tense. Strike had always been so protective of his personal space as if he had wanted to keep her at a distance. Robin had always thought he only saw her as a colleague, then as time went on he had been her only friend in London. The new rules were working in unexpected ways pushing them into more intimate scenarios. Coupled with the nature of their work and how hard he had pushed himself to get out of debt Robin had found it hard to picture him in a domestic situation - if you could the utilitarian flat domestic, but Robin supposed, it suited him.

Robin felt strange undressing in Strike’s otherwise empty bedroom. She pulled back the duvet and climbed under the cover, turning to switch off the lamp. Her skin felt as if it was electrified, if anything but the cotton of the bedding was to brush her she would experience shockwaves. Once Robin had thought about Strike , wondering what he wore in bed if anything at all (which she now knew was nightclothes), she hadn’t thought about it again until after Matthew had been out of her life for weeks.

Strike had been dressed up in his Italian suit and had come down into the office as he had forgotten his mobile. She had been sitting at the desk and he had reached over to get it and she wasn’t sure if it was his aftershave or pheromones but she had frozen in place gripping the mouse until he had swept back out of her personal space. He hadn’t told her where he was going and she had assumed a date. This had made her angry, reminding her of how she had felt when he was seeing Elin. Maybe they were back together. She hadn’t known what to do with herself, for once she couldn’t concentrate or settle left alone in the office. In her own attic room, she hadn’t been able to sleep for most of the night, buzzing from whatever he had woken inside. Strike of all men – pube-like hair, huge hairy body, soft belly, boxer’s face, annoyingly secretive, independent, respectful, trustworthy, supportive, caring. Apart from the now admitted surprising sexual attraction, there was also the ease in which she could spend time with Strike. Sat next to him filling out a boring report made the job feel as if it were done faster, stood next to him she had felt able to successfully question the most intimidating and uncommunicative suspect. She’d had more fun spending time with him at the pub the night of her first blind date, than any other date she had since. He was certainly the only one she had imagined kissing her and most embarrassingly, making love to her. These thoughts tortured her and images flashed in her mind, more so as she lay unsleeping in his bed.

Then she made a decision.

She switched the lamp back on, flapped back the duvet and stood up. She straightened her back and walked back to the bathroom cabinet and opened it. There was the pack of unopened condoms she had seen when she had stood behind Strike.

Once she had put them in her overnight bag – hiding them deep down, she got back into bed. The pre-emptive action had made her feel more pent up and she turned again to lay on her side, huffing in frustration. Under the lamp was the copy of Catullus, she picked it up. Nothing like trying to make sense of Latin poetry to take your mind off of erotic thoughts about a man a short flight of stairs away. Strike had left a postcard in the text as a bookmark. She found the page and read, ignoring the postcard which was back to front. It was a poem numbered 64. She started to read about Ariadne left abandoned by Theseus who she had betrayed her family to help, and the description of the sea leaving her naked. This was not helping her hot and bothered feeling. She flicked to the beginning to read about Catullus life. Clodia, the name of the lover that obsessed him, rang a bell but she couldn’t get a grip on the floating memory. So, she flipped forward to the section on Lesbia that was inspired by Catullus’ Clodia. Again, the poetry stirred up her feelings rather than cooled them.

Charlotte Campbell!

The thought suddenly, and now unwanted, came to her. The email she had accidentally opened that contained the photo of Charlotte on her wedding day that had rendered Strike motionless was from Clodia2. Robin had remembered because it was so unusual. Fuck! She slammed the book shut between her fingers placing it carefully back on the bedside table. She had managed to buy Strike a book of poems that had clearly been a token of his relationship with Charlotte. It was as if she had been drenched in a wave of arctic water. When she had given him the book, she hadn’t seen him flinch as he used to whenever Charlotte had been mentioned to him, he had seemed pleased. But, this didn’t make her feel any better.

 

Downstairs, Cormoran who had slept in the most dangerous places in the world, felt as if he was sleeping on dynamite. His thoughts were certainly more pleasant than Robin’s present ones but equally disturbing to his ability to sleep. This evening when she leant her head on her arm, her hair had fallen across his leg. In his mind, his fingers slipped through her gold hair, he imagined her hot damp skin against his, her soft lips stroking his. All of this had been at arm's length and was still not far away. If she reciprocated his feelings. As his hand fell to the spread of his hairy belly he couldn't believe that it was an actual possibility.

 

In the morning, Robin sent a text to Cormoran to say she was done with the shower. It had woken her up a bit but she had to resort to searching for coffee if they were going to make it to Yorkshire alive.

The door clicked open and Strike cautiously shuffled in, given Robin may not have dressed yet, “Robin?” he wanted to locate her before he walked freely through his own flat.

“Do you want coffee?” She sounded grumpy. Why? He wasn’t late, they were going to leave on time, if not early. Maybe, he thought more leniently, it was the tension of the wedding finally arriving?

“Please,” He replied as he walked past her on the way to the shower, “Oh, have you got your flask?”

“Yes and croissants in the Land Rover!” She called out.

“Robin, you’re amazing!”

“Yes, I get food and I’m amazing,” she virtually snapped, “Coffee’s on the side, I’ll wait for you in the office.” He heard the door bang shut.

So, he had clearly done something. He hated it when she was like this. If it carried on in the car, he would remind her of their partnership agreement and tell her to have her say.

After his shower, he went to the cabinet to brush his teeth. He’d brought his toiletry bag from the shower to make sure he put in his toothbrush and paste once he was done. He opened the cabinet and took the things down and closed its door. Once he started brushing his teeth, he realised something had been missing. Leaving the brush hanging from his mouth, he flipped open the door to check he hadn’t imagined it.

Yep, his condoms were gone. What the fuck was going on?

His head flicked to the side where Robin's path would have been from the bedroom. He trailed her supposed footsteps back to the bed and he scanned the area. She’d taken off all the bedding and left it neatly to wash. She’d even had time to put new bedding on. There was something wrong if she had been up so early. Then he saw the only other possession he had left out. The Catullus. Had she looked in it? Fuck, yes! It wouldn’t have taken someone of Robin’s analytical and intuitive powers to work out what the relevance of it was.

He returned to the basin to spit and checked his face in the mirror for traces of paste. Her spite could be jealousy he thought to himself. Surely that was a good sign? He nodded to himself in the mirror.

On his way out, he found the shopping bag he had hidden in a cupboard the day before and grabbed the Catullus, he wondered if she had looked at the postcard.

Chapter Text

Robin had accepted she was being unreasonably angry with Cormoran, who was giving up the next four days for her benefit. So she made sure her demeanour was overly pleasant as they drove off. As he rolled down the window to have a cigarette, Robin had thought back again to the last time they were in the Land Rover together, how she had been desperate to get to him and away from Matthew when they were tracking down the Shacklewell Ripper. His amiable presence was comforting to her and by the end of the trip, the sharp edge had been rubbed off her grief. Whereas, the last time she had travelled up to Yorkshire in the Land Rover had been with Matthew before their wedding. He had sung the Daniel Beddingfield song, ‘Never Gonna Leave Your Side’. She’d told him to stop, not just because of the terrible time it reminded her of but she was grieving again, but this time for what seemed like the irrevocable loss of her job and admittedly her faceted relationship with Strike. Also, it was a crap song and she should have turned the Land Rover back at the exact moment he started singing it.

When she looked at Strike again, he had lent his curly head against the window and was fast asleep, she could hear his steady breathing. Maybe he hadn’t slept well either? The whole Lesbia/Clodia/Charlotte thing still played on her mind. There was no way she was entering into a situation where she would be competing with Charlotte or any woman. When she really thought about it, she still listened to music and watched films that had reminded her of her relationship with Matthew. Now they had lost that power and she just enjoyed them for their own sake. Wasn’t poetry a lot more meaningful though?

“You’re quiet, are you alright? Do you want some more coffee?”

Robin was startled out of her thoughts, “I just thought you were asleep. Yes please.”

“Time for a croissant as well I think,”

“I think I can hear your stomach rumbling from here,” she laughed.

They chatted easily and Robin warned Cormoran about what her brothers could be like, even though she remarked as an ex-soldier he could probably handle any banter they threw his way.

“Am I going to meet any of your friends when we’re there?”

“Why? Wondering if they’ll be any talent on the singles table?”

“No, just working out whether I’ll be able to get any embarrassing stories about your teenage years,” he teased, before sounding a bit desperate, “Please tell me I’m not on the singles table.”

Robin laughed but also felt a bit of relief, “No, I’ve taken myself off of the top table so we’ll be sitting with my parents, Martin, Jonathan and his girlfriend, who happens to be one of my best friend, Anita.”

“Good, that’ll be easy then and I’ll be able to get all the info.”

Robin glanced at him, “Well, just ask me what you want to know?”

“And you’d tell me?” Strike smirked.

“You tell me yours Cormoran Blue Strike and I’ll tell you mine?” she suggested.

“That’s not the version of the game I know, Robin!”

 

Cormoran found out that Robin’s best childhood memory was having her first marzipan pig from Betty’s of Harrogate, “Sounds good –can we go?” Strike had said. Her worst had been when Stephen's dog had died and she saw the grief on her brother’s face. Her first kiss was also in a game of kiss-chase but it had been Martin, “I think he was confused about the concept!”. Although Strike had barked with laughed he wasn’t happy with that, so wanted to know her first proper kiss. That had been Anita – they were practising on each other! Strike had sat back with a satisfied smirk at that one. “We were twelve!” Robin had asserted through her giggles, “And sexuality is a spectrum!”. Her most embarrassing moment was flying off a water slide when she was eighteen only for her bikini top to have come undone as she had landed with such force. She hadn’t noticed straight away. Strike had raised an eyebrow and a faraway look took over his expression. Painfully embarrassing was walking out of the church on her wedding day and now potentially this weekend. And her virginity – well he could guess it was Matthew and even though she had groaned and blushed prettily, he said at least she had lost it to someone she had loved and who had probably been quite different as a teenage boy. She had given him a sceptical glance before her eyes went back to the road.

So, Robin found out that Strike’s best childhood memory was a hug from his mother, not an exact one but just the feeling itself. His worst was the first time he could remember his Aunt and Uncle coming to get him from the squat his mother had ended up in when she couldn’t afford rent on their flat anymore. He hadn’t realised until only he and Lucy were put in the back of the car, that she wasn’t coming with them. She was staying with her new boyfriend. He was 6. He hadn’t cried because he hadn’t wanted to scare Lucy. His first kiss was Ilsa at school, she’d trapped him in the corner of the playground during a game of kiss chase. That had made him cry. Robin had cried laughing. His most embarrassing moment was being so drunk he had pissed in a wardrobe in a girl’s bedroom as he thought it was the bathroom and he had been unceremoniously chucked out of her house and everyone in the sixth form knew by the next day. Painfully embarrassing was when he had fallen down the stairs at an underground station as his leg went and everyone thought he was drunk and no one helped him. He’d lost his virginity at fifteen to a girl who was seventeen and whose name he struggled to remember was Karen. It was on a beach near St. Mawes, then found his oldest friend Dave had too, two nights earlier, with the same girl. Robin shook her head in disgust.

“Why is Catullus your favourite poet?” Robin almost squeaked.

And Strike knew that he either told Robin everything now or they didn’t stand a chance.

“So, when I was learning Latin we had studied some but I then read Classics at Oxford, that part’s probably obvious, and something about it appealed to me. It’s pretty racy stuff in parts and shockingly funny. Then I met Charlotte when I was nineteen and it put another angle on it.”

Robin had looked surprised at how young he had been and exhaled. She pulled into a service station as they were already halfway. Strike looked at his watch surprised at how quickly the time had passed.

“Why was that?” She pursued but he had not forgotten where he had left off, having intended to go into detail.

“She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and I fell hard for her, couldn’t believe she’d chosen an ugly bugger like me!” He laughed humourlessly, “Suddenly I actually knew what love was and it wasn’t just romantic. But she had a fucked upbringing. So, by the time we met she was so insecure and had such little self-worth, she tested me again and again. Lied, slept with other people. Catullus knows how to put that kind of hurt into words. She relied on me to save her and I suppose I fell easily into that role because I felt grateful and maybe other stuff too. She had broken up with me three times. I mostly excused her behaviour because I loved her so much. But living together made things so much worse.”

“How long had you lived together?

“Only about two years.”

“Wow, I thought much longer…” Robin mused as she gestured over to a hot drink stand.

“Well, I had some self-preservation then but when I left the army…”

And his leg Robin thought.

“…she talked me into it. And I hoped things had changed. That we had changed. It seemed like we had for a while. But then I started the business and all my attention was not on her and it went to shit.”

He stopped talking so they could give their order. Strike asked for a ham and cheese panini and two teas. Then they walked over to an empty part of the seating area.

Robin took a sip from her disposable cup and then said, “I think certain traumatic experiences mean we don’t or we stop seeing ourselves as others do – like the ways in which you are special – if you’re not careful you end up behaving how those people see you and the person who you see yourself as is cancelled out. You’re so busy having to manage everyone else’s perception of you.”

“No doubt. I’ve probably been over-cautious about doing that since breaking up with Charlotte. Lucy’s probably taken the brunt of it but her lifestyle just leaves me cold.”

Robin looked down as if she was really interested in her cardboard cup, “When you got drunk after I told you Charlotte was engaged…” her voice seemed to run out of steam.

“It’s alright Robin, say it.” He pressed.

“Well, you told me she said she was pregnant but then it wasn’t clear what had happened?”

“Yep, I suspected I had let that slip. That’s it really. Perhaps she didn’t know which one of us, me or Ross, was the father, so she hedged her bets. Perhaps, she was lying again. Your first day? Well, the night before I had confronted her with the fact nothing added up about it, we had never even been to the doctors, she’d never shown me a sonogram and she...well, you saw yourself.”

Robin looked him straight in the eye, remembering the scratches on his face and the busted lip. To her, it didn't matter that he was a man. If she had turned up to work like that she was pretty sure Strike would have been tempted to give Matthew a taste of his own medicine but instead would have encouraged her to call the police on him, “I realise now that what happened between Matthew and me when I started to work for you, was emotional abuse. When I told my Mum he had deleted your messages and texts and had been looking at my emails for months she was so upset. She felt guilty she hadn’t packed up all my things when I found out he cheated and taken me home. Not that I would have gone home but…it’s not obvious when it’s happening to you.”

He raised his brows and nodded in agreement, “When you’ve made a hard decision, whether people disapprove or you may even feel broken by it, as long as you know it’s the right thing for you to do you mustn’t beat yourself up about wanting to be free of it.”

Robin nodded and placed her hand over his which was balled into a fist on the table. With his other hand, he took a bite of panini and she waited, sipping her tea until he was ready to speak again.

“That morning, just before I almost accidentally killed you? I told Charlotte I was breaking up with her because I wanted the chance to be happy without her ruining it. Then, we started working together and I don’t think I have ever been happier Robin, well apart from those two weeks where I fucked it up for a while,” His face was serious, his eyes wide and, Robin thought, a bit frightened but he didn’t look away from her gaze and he opened his hand and linked his fingers with her.

“Me too. But Cormoran, do you think not knowing the truth about the baby, about what happened at the end, means you haven’t actually had closure with Charlotte?”

Cormoran stayed quiet and didn’t move, it felt like minutes passed before he said, “To be honest, I never wanted to talk about it to her again. I was too scared, in case I went back to her.”

“Oh.”

Her hand and gaze slipped away from his. Luckily, he could pretend he needed it for the panini. This time they both stayed quiet and deep in thought until they were back in the Land Rover. Cormoran instantly went back to sleep. Or appeared to.

Chapter Text

“Cormoran?” Robin’s gentle voice called to him.

“Robin.” He mumbled.

“We’re here,” Robin had pushed open her door and waited for him to rouse himself before she got out.

Strike opened his eyes to see green rolling hills and a familiar house surrounded by fields, “Shit! Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night -” He raised a hand before Robin could say anything about the fact she had taken his bed. “Nothing to do with the camp bed!”

Luckily, he’d drooled on the left side of his mouth and could use the pretence of rubbing his beard to wipe it off before she noticed. His hand dug into his pockets for the mints he used after a cigarette, then he followed Robin to the boot to retrieve their stuff.

“Ellacott?” Strike tried to gain Robin’s attention again before her mother reached them.

She’d just opened the back of the Land Rover. Strike stood beside her, just as he reached out for her bags, so did she and his hand closed over hers. She appeared to flinch. He pulled her round to face him.

“Robin!” Linda called from the door of the house and Robin waved.

”I’m going to call Charlotte, sort it out” Her hand still encompassed by his, slipped away again.

“Whatever you want to do Cormoran,”

There was a slight frostiness to her expression. Strike realised what he had said was too vague, against their rules, implied the exact opposite of what he had meant, “Robin - ”

But she had walked away to meet her mother. While they hugged, Strike brought in their bags from the Rover. As Robin almost ran ahead into the house, Linda called at the door, “Michael! Come and help with the bags?”.

“I can manage.” Strike said as he reached Linda and put the bags down inside the hall.

Since Robin’s wedding Linda had already achieved the level of esteem he had for Robin. Linda hugged him as she asked how the journey was.

When the wedding went pear-shaped, Strike had been impressed with Linda’s tenacity in taking over and sorting out the difficult situation. Her prime concern had been to fully support Robin’s decision. Whereas Lucy and Leda had been complete opposites, Robin had clearly followed the strong and capable role model of her mother. The money and time Linda had spent organising the wedding, when her daughter had abdicated all responsibility, had meant nothing in the face of the misery she had caught on Robin’s face over the weeks she had been without her job. Even though they had never made him feel guilty, Strike had felt he needed to make Linda and Michael feel that their daughter could fully trust him. When he had spoken to Robin at the party after the wedding, he promised her in front of her parents, that sacking her had been a moment of madness that would never happen again, if she decided to return to work with him.

So, when they had come down to London to help Robin move out, Strike had paid for them to stay at Hazlitt’s and treated them all to lunch. Afterwards, he had asked them to come back to the office, he had a surprise for Robin. They reached the office door and Robin asked Strike, “Did the glass pane get broken? It that why there’s brown paper over it?”

“I don’t know, take it off,” He had gruffly mumbled as he waited behind them all on the landing.

Robin had put the key in the lock before she had even touched the paper, she was usually much more perceptive.

“Take the paper off Robin!” Linda who had visited the office before had already gathered what the surprise may have been.

Her parent’s pride made Robin glow as much as the new gold letters that declared this was the office of R.V Ellacott & C.B Strike Private Investigators. Although he had joked it was in alphabetical order not rank order.

 

“How is she doing?’ Linda whispered.

“She was fine until I put my foot in it.”

“Oh dear,” Linda smiled looking warily in the direction Robin had walked in, “Poor you.”

“Think I probably deserved it,” He remarked.

“Well, knowing what I do about you Cormoran Strike, you’ll make it up to her,” she winked at him before leading him to the kitchen.

 

After a lunch of sandwiches and plenty of strong Yorkshire tea, Robin had complained of a migraine and left them to have a lie down in her old room. Stephen was the only brother to be there to meet Robin and it seemed his reason was that he could remind her of everything she was expected to do over the next four days. Strike’s jaw clenched in sympathy, not that she was paying any attention to Strike. Robin’s wedding reception, which had been bought and paid for, had been taken over by all three of her brothers, with their parents’ knowledge and turned into a party for all the Robin supporters. Strike had won their respect by drinking them under the table.

“God, she’s a mardy arse today! Is she on her bloody period?” Stephen complained to his parents and, it seemed, Strike. Probably a leftover habit from Matthew being there in past, ready to agree.

“Shut up Stephen!” Michael told him.

Linda caught Strike’s eye and shared a sly smile with him.

“Corm, I need to ask you a favour mate! She’s scared me since she was able to get me in a headlock at five years old and I don’t fancy being in a neck brace on my wedding day.”

“Well, tell me what it is first, then I’ll decide?”

“You’ve got this one figured out Cormoran!” Michael poked fun at his son.

“Urm…” Stephen looked warily at the others around the table, “Kimberley, Matthew’s sister, had been best friends with my fiancé since school…”

“No Stephen, you haven’t?” Linda cried.

“I didn’t but Caitlyn did.”

Stephen raised his hands as if they would ward off exasperated look and sighs his mother aimed at him, “Look,” his voice still conveyed he was desperate to not take any responsibility for what he was about to say, “Matthew was invited to the wedding anyway and Caitlyn just didn’t…disinvite him,” he shrugged as if it was nothing.

“And he still intends to come?” Strike mused

“Exactly, Corm, the prick should have turned the invitations down!” Stephen was grasping at straws now, “But he’s coming with someone anyway, so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. He and Robin are adults.”

By now Michael’s head was in his hands and Linda just shook her head at her son so rhythmically it looked as if she was winding herself up and any minute she would blow!

“Hold. On. Mate! Yeah, he should have declined but I think we all know that Matthew would take any opportunity to humiliate your sister.” Strike chose his words carefully to remind Stephen of the loyalty he should have had for Robin,

“Who is he bringing?” Linda asked urgently.

“Think she was at his and Rob’s wedding actually – Sarah someone - ”

“Shit!” Linda hissed, interrupting him. Strike fought the urge to laugh at Linda’s unexpected use of the swear word and how much Robin’s expressions were like her mum, “Don’t tell me they’re going tonight Stephen?”

Stephen stood by the sink guiltily staring at the floor.

“Stephen!” with that Michael stood up and walking out, Rowntree waggling behind him. The dog had seemed to leave Stephen the gift of a smelly fart as he left.

“So, what is it you want from me?” Strike asked.

“Can you tell Robin for me?”

Strike and Linda glanced at each other, she raised her eyes to the ceiling.

“What do you think I can do?”

“Calm her down so she doesn’t pull out of the wedding.”

“I’ll tell her but I’m not going to persuade her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.” Strike reasoned. Linda got up to follow her husband and patted Strike on the shoulder as she passed him.

 

Robin still lay on the bed even though the migraine had been killed off by a sleep and some tablets. She heard a gentle tap at the door.

“Come in!”

“It’s me.” Strike shouldered his way through the door carrying their bags and her suitcase, “Can we talk?”

“Thanks,” Robin pushed herself into a seating position, flustered, as these words were the most unexpected words she ever thought Strike would say, “Sure.”

“Stephen’s just told me something about the wedding and I don't think it's a big deal if you just look at it from the right perspective.”

Robin froze, she could tell from his body language this was going to be bad, “What?”

“Matthew and Sarah Shadlock are coming.”

“What?” Robin's face drained of all colour.

“Matthew is related to your future sister-in-law’s best friend?”

“Brother – fuck!”

 

Robin was furious. He could tell because she hadn’t yet said a word. That would come – he knew.

“What are you thinking?” He asked.

“That I know I have to go, otherwise, it seems like I care.”

Strike nodded in agreement.

“But, I fucking want to kill Stephen. He’s supposed to be my fucking brother! And Caitlyn? She’s going to be my sister-in-law and she’s already treating me like shit –taking sides! Who does she think she is? Well, she can wait if she ever needs something from me!”

Strike had thought it would be bad but not this bad, “Robin, you’re always saying you don’t want to be over-protected.”

“Don’t be facetious! It’s not that, it’s bloody men who blindly let women manipulate them until they don’t know their head from their ARSE!” she thumped the bed.

“These ‘men’? You’re not just talking about your brother, are you?”

Robin’s expression suggested she wasn’t aware she had said that aloud.

“In my experience Robin, and I’m sure you know this as well as me, neither gender has a head start on the other when it comes to being manipulated!”

They stared at each other like cats about to pounce. Then Strike brought the hand he had kept behind his back in front of him. He was carrying a shopping bag which he tossed onto Robin’s bed before he turned and walked out of her room. She heard him thump downstairs.

Robin, stared at the space he had occupied. She may have gone too far. She had broken the agreement by being passive aggressive rather than saying what she was on her mind. But it wasn’t as if Strike had told her what was going on in his mind since their earlier conversation about Charlotte.

Shit!

She had wanted the outcome of this weekend to be quite different rather than them not talking to each other. She looked down and glimpsed the shopping bag. She knelt on the bed and looked in the nondescript bag. He hated wrapping presents and this is how her dress had been given to her. There was a shoe-sized box inside. She reached in and pulled it out and there were those immortal words – Jimmy Choo. Robin opened the lid.

On the top was his copy of Catullus and he had left a post-it note on it – Did you look at the postcard? Poking out of the top of the book was the postcard. She flicked the book open and flipped the card over. There was an image of Endymion lying asleep, head hidden beneath Selene’s kiss, as the Goddess of the moon Selene, pale and blond arches over him her breast exposed.

Behind the delicate tissue were the most beautiful nude crystal-studded platform sandals. His memory was unbelievable! But Robin would not be pacified with shoes or a postcard that hinted Cormoran was thinking of her in ways that weren’t innocent. She tossed the box back on the bed before jumping off herself and following him out of the door.

She traced him outside, to the side of the house. With a cigarette in hand, dragging on it like his sanity depended on it, she pushed away the thought of how sexy he looked and tried to focus on her feelings of self-righteous anger. Once he saw her, he grumbled and puffed smoke in the air turning his head to look away.

“No-one manipulated me into getting back together with Matthew!” Her voice forceful but quiet.

Strike sucked out the very last of the nicotine before crushing the butt with the heal of his boot. He looked back at her, lips pursed and scowling as he blew the smoke out of his nostrils.

Focus, Robin told herself, “It was you!”

That made him flinch and she felt a small bloom of satisfaction in her chest.

“The only person who said or did anything to push me back towards him, was you. Not letting me come back to work after I got the toes from Laing and telling me I was ‘just making lists and phone calls’. I felt like you didn’t value me at all!”

Strike was incredulous, “Just because I wanted you safe?”

“You didn’t even stay at the hospital after I’d been attacked. What, did you have a date with Elin to get to?" At this, he shook his head but he let her carry on. If she had thought this he wanted to know what else she had assumed about what he had been thinking then. What he had let her assume. "You treated me like I was still a victim that needed to be kept hidden away. And then when your new toy wouldn’t do as it was told, you put me back into my box. You’d made me miserable for weeks but I didn’t leave - so you got rid of me completely,”

“I’ve already told you, I regretted sacking you, I shouldn’t have done it. I missed you every day.”

Robin shook her head, she wasn’t done, “In a parallel universe, when you knocked into me that day we met, another Robin actually fell down those stairs, you didn’t catch her – the old me. That day I found myself again. You helped me do that!

I felt happy when I was with you, I trusted you and relied on you to trust me too and you let me down. It all evaporated, so, I retreated back into the Robin that disappeared down those stairs, the one who felt safe and happy with marrying Matthew for god’s sake,”

 

The scowl had slackened and had left Strike looking miserable with himself, “I just wanted you to be safe. If you had seen your face every time that bastard sent you a body part or when you’d been knifed - knifed - covered in red dye in that hospital bed – I couldn’t get those images out of my head. You nearly died." "But I didn't die," she stated flatly. His eyes closed as if he needed all his effort to speak, "My mother is dead, Robin. I couldn’t lose anyone else I loved like that.”

Robin’s eyes had become glassy, “You say that but it’s not enough for you to feel these things. You have to decide to do something about it! Why are you so scared? All you do is pat me like a pet dog. I kissed you and you did nothing. I understand that Charlotte’s lies about that baby hurt you but is she so intrinsically hooked into you that you can’t move on. You broke up with Elin, I thought you might have dated someone else but you don’t appear to be.”

Strike shook his head, grumbling, “I can’t understand how you got through so much work when you seem to have been so busy tailing what I have or haven’t been doing – I broke up with Elin not because of Charlotte but because of you. Being with her couldn’t compare to just spending time chatting with you. I did do something about my feelings.”

Robin’s head jerked backwards in surprise.

“Why do you think I came to the wedding? I would never have seen you again otherwise! I never went to Charlotte’s wedding, which would have inevitably been the end of it, even though you saw the tactics she used – again because of you! I just hadn’t realised it then. I don’t fear that seeing her will make me need to be with her anymore because the only person I feel like that about is you.”

He stepped towards Robin, placing his hands on her shoulders as if he wanted to shake her into sense, “Scared? Course I’m bloody scared, I never want to ever lose you again.”

He pulled her towards him and his hand slipped upwards into the back of her hair, she pushed her head back against his fingers while his other hand slipped up her back and she stepped towards him until their lips touched and then slid against each other. Robin pulled back and a small moan escaped her and Strike inhaled, then their mouths bound them together.

When they were both breathless and at a stage where being out in the open was probably risky Cormoran cupped her face in his hands and withdrew his lips from hers to tease her, “So you didn’t like the shoes then?”

Chapter Text

“Robin!”

They had frozen when they heard Linda call. Strike was happy with that. From where his head rested against Robin’s he could breathe in her scent, while his lips travelled down the graceful line of her throat. She let out a gasp between her swollen lips. At the sound of her mother’s voice, she had been taken back to her teenage years – making out with her crush in secret, except Strike was a very experienced kisser. This was probably why they had been still wrapped around each other for half an hour, she didn’t want to let him go.

“Yes, Mum?” she tried to keep her voice even, rather than the husky whisper Strike had reduced her to, encouraging his lips to keep doing whatever was making her feel such an exquisite burn. But it had come out a bit high-pitched and Strike sniggered against her skin.

“Are you alright?”

Strangely, Linda had not appeared and Robin glanced around checking that no open windows were near them that anyone could have heard them through, “Yeah, why?”

“Oh, nothing, it’s just to remind you that time’s getting on Love. If you or Cormoran want to use the bathroom best to do it now before Jon and Anita arrive.”

“I’ll let Cormoran know,” Robin called brightly before stifling a giggle in Strike’s hair as his hand travelled under her t-shirt and up her spine. They heard the door finally click shut, “Cormoran, you can use the shower now if you want to?”

Strike lifted his head, his eyes focused on her mouth, his lips parted, his voice soft, “Will you be coming with me?” His mouth returned to the hollow of her shoulder and he gently sucked. Robin arched into the solidity of the bulk of his body, hoping to soothe the ache he was causing at her core. She slipped her own hands under his jumper to grip the flesh at his waist between her fingers. His mouth covered her next groan.

Pulling away she looked at him coyly, “I think you’ll be okay without me.”

“Agghh!” He groaned pathetically and she reached her cheek up, towards his, enjoying the sensation of his bristles against her skin.

“Urm…Cormoran…don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t want anyone finding out about us this weekend.”

His fingers burrowed into the hair at her nape and he observed her face carefully.

“Although I still want to kill Stephen, it’s still his weekend and I don’t want any of my drama getting in the way.”

“Okay, probably a good idea considering.” Considering all he wanted to do this weekend was take her to bed.

 

 

Michael brought back two beers from the kitchen and handed one to Strike. Michael had an extensive political and historical knowledge so they had been chatting about the conflicts Strike’s army career had taken him to.

Suddenly, there were voices in the hall. They both turned to see Jon and his girlfriend Anita. Michael and Strike stood to greet them.

“Alright mate,” Strike greeted Jon who reached out to shake his hand. When they had met previously, Jon had reminded Strike of an older version of Jack. He was completely enamoured with Strike, who couldn’t work out why. Robin had told him that Jon had taken a lot of teasing about his new bromance.

“Corm, this is my girlfriend Anita,”

Anita had not been at Robin's wedding as she had been travelling but had returned later in the summer.

“Hi!” Anita was very small and beautiful with golden brown skin and dark almond-shaped eyes. Her nose could have been said to be roman, but gave her attractive face interest. She was Robin's age, although Jonathan was only in his early twenties. Robin had told him this had caused a bit of controversy in the family when the couple had first got together only a few months ago after knowing each other most of their lives. Anita gave him a glimmering smile, “At last I get to meet the great Cormoran Strike. Jon hasn’t stopped going on about you!”

“Ha ha!” Jon replied but smirked along with her.

“And I’ve heard a lot about you from Robin.” Strike said.

“Nothing too embarrassing I hope,” Anita laughed

“I can’t promise anything.”

“Where is Robin? I can’t wait to see her.”

“Getting ready in her room I think but she hasn’t materialised for nearly two hours, so who knows?”

 

Finally, fifteen minutes after Nadia and Jon had gone upstairs to see Robin, she appeared at last. She was wearing a black tulle mini dress with a nude corset style bodice decorated on the outside with a black gridwork, her stilettoes tied in a bow around her ankles.

“Are you two alright? Do you need anything?” Robin asked from the doorway.

“Fine, love,” Her father replied and Strike turned to look at her. His eyes quickly scanned her but did not linger for long. Robin felt a bit disappointed after the hours of waxing, brushing and polishing.

“Won’t you be cold?” Strike laughed, “I’m not lending you my jacket again.”

Michael sniggered as he’d spent most of her teenage years warning her she would catch her death, “You look lovely,” Her dad patted her shoulder as he passed her on the way to the kitchen.

Strike was slouched on the sofa, legs stretched out in front of him.

Robin dropped down onto the sofa and sighed, “No need to take it too far!” she whispered to him.

Strike turned his head to check her father wasn’t about to come through the door. He leaned his head towards her so he could whisper conspiratorially with her, “What? Could hardly tell you that you look bloody sexy,” and his fingertips fell to her knee and ran over her thigh. The bottom fell out of her stomach as she looked into his hooded eyes. Then he had turned back to the TV and repositioned himself so they weren’t touching.

 

“Ready?” Anita asked her best friend as they stalked towards the bar’s entrance in their heels. Their companions following them were distracted by their in-depth discussion of the Premier League.

“Feel a bit sick…as long as Matthew doesn’t try to embarrass me in front of everyone this time, I’ll be okay.”

“I’m excited – we haven’t partied like this for ages! We’re going to have a great time, yes?”

“Yep!” Robin tried to sound enthusiastic.

Strike took in the entrance of the bar, which looked out of place in its Harrogate surroundings where Victorian ironwork verandas decorated the shops and restaurants and looked more like a bar in the city area of London. It was the kind of bar he hated. Inside the interior was equally chi-chi as it tried to style itself as if it was an old warehouse more suitable for New York. It annoyed Strike how everything was beginning to look the same by trying to emulate whatever was deemed to be cool. Robin wasn’t looking too comfortable either. He decided the only way both of them would get through tonight was by being very drunk and he suggested they went over to the bar so he could get a round in.

Robin stood close to Strike so as to use him as camouflage as she cased the bar. There was Matthew and Sarah bang in the middle of the area that had been blocked off for the Sten party. Matthew, as usual, looked very handsome and Sarah was talking into his ear. Suddenly, Sarah looked over at them but she wasn’t looking at Robin she was looking at Strike with an assessing stare.

Drinks in hand they went over to the larger crowd. Stephen and Caitlyn were both wearing white outfits, so were easy to spot.

“Right everyone,” Matthew’s sister Kimberley, had stood up on a stool to get the gathering’s attention, now that everyone is finally here, let’s begin the games!”

The people around them cheered and whooped.

“First, no phones allowed apart from taking photos! If you’re caught on your phone you’ll have a message sent by the hen or stag to your entire contacts list.”

Robin’s eyes flicked to Strike’s face – well, she’d warned him what he was getting into! He raised his brow and raised one corner of his mouth so that the crease appeared on his cheek. Okay, so he wasn’t turning and fleeing, although Strike was far from a coward. Actually, Robin thought, this could be quite an interesting night for her.

“So, you've all got Sten nicknames and my little helpers will bring round your labels with them on,”

The bride and groom-to-be with a couple of others took the labels from the Maid of Honour. Stephen, who hadn’t yet said a word to his sister suddenly looked up at her and then at Strike - his face pale. She saw him pass a sheet to his best friend.

“If you forget to call anyone by their nickname, you have to do a dare immediately!” Kimberly continued as the crowd groaned.

Stephen's best friend, Nathan, was handing out stickers to Jonathan and Anita who would now be known as Holden McGroin and Bea O'Problem.

“Robin?” he handed her a curling sticker when she took it she saw it read, ‘Runaway Bride’. She looked up searching for Stephen. when she finally caught his glance she shook her head and treated him to a death stare, pressing the name firmly to her chest.

“Who's Hopalong?” Nathan innocently asked.

Robin froze.

“That would be me!” Strike said matter-of-factly.

She turned to look at him perplexed.

“I’ve had worse in the army – at least it’s not Pubehead.”

“Sorry mate! That was me…” Martin who had come up behind Strike, slapped a hand on the taller man’s shoulder, “Not that I told them to do it though…” He said more to Robin, whose face was reaching boiling point.

“Matthew…” she hissed out.

Strike glanced over to Matthew as he put his sticker on his white shirt so the lapel of his jacket mostly covered it. Matthew was already eyeing him to see his reaction and gave him a smug look. Strike gave him a close-lipped smile as he remembered Robin punching the prick and took a long drink of his beer. He felt something touch his waist, Robin had surreptitiously rubbed the back of her fingers against him and he gave her a small reassuring smile.

“Now we know who we all are, I need all the hens on this side in a line and all the stags on the opposite side. You have 20 seconds; last line ready has to down their drink…20…19…” Kimberley was a primary teacher and was obviously using her skills. The four of them joined the line of people there for Stephen. Robin liked this game as Matthew was on the opposite side. The barmen were bringing over bottles of beer on trays and everyone was handed one whether they needed it or not.

“Hens! I’m afraid you're last, drink up!”

Straight away chanting erupted from those who were more than up for what the night had in store, egging the other group on.

“Now for Boat Race!” When Kimberley had gone over the rules she blew her whistle (Obviously from school too) and one by one, each person in the line downed their bottle, one immediately after the other. As the wave of binge-drinking neared them it was neck and neck. Just as Anita spluttered the end of her bottle, on the other side it was nearly Matthew’s turn and Strike was also next. Fuck it! He turned quickly to grab Robin’s bendy straw from her glass and popped it in the neck. He put the bottle in his mouth, end of the straw poking from the side of his mouth and lifted it and his chin upwards – the liquid seemed to drain immediately down his throat. Not a drop was spilt. The line erupted with cheering and people on the other side were shouting insults at Matthew who was only halfway through his.

Robin grabbed the straw back and was done in seconds too. She gave Strike a wide-eyed look as she lowered the bottle, “That’s not going to go well for me in about five minutes, is it?” She had to raise her voice over the frenzied screams and shouts as the Stags neared beating the Hens.

As everyone was focusing on the game Strike stroked her lower back slowly, “It’s the curse of being a lightweight, although I was impressed if that was your first time,” he turned away to glimpse Matthew, whose expression was a little more subdued.

The Stags at the end of the lines had begun jumping up and down celebrating their victory and medals were brought around for the team to place around their necks. Suddenly, Robin found herself looking into Sarah Shadlock’s face, “Hello Runaway Bride!” her greeting was poisoned by her fake smile, “Here’s your medal,” she held it out to her and Robin took it in the hand still holding the empty bottle.

She then turned to Strike, “You are very tall aren’t you? And I love your hair,” She purred coquettishly, then she stood on her tiptoes and almost leaning her chest on his. She placed the medal around his neck as she looking up at him with a smile. Sarah turned on her heel, flicking her blonde hair over her shoulder. Strike was looking at her as if he recognised her brand of crazy and looked down at his side to give Robin a knowing smile, she rolled her eyes in response.

The whistle blew again, Kimberley waited for the attention of the group, “You may have noticed our groom and bride-to-be are wearing white tonight?” There were cheers and wolf whistles, “Your job tonight is to draw on them so they have an outfit to remember the night by – who wants to go first?”

“Runaway Bride!” Anita shouted. Robin looked at her and there was a look of pure mischief on her friend’s face. Next to her Strike winked.

Robin walked over to the couple and was given a Sharpie marker, “Wanker!” it was Stephen's nickname but it conveyed her feelings perfectly, “Stand on the stool,” she demanded, wanting to make sure everyone saw this. He looked at her nervously and began whispering to her that he was really sorry, it wasn’t his fault. The more he went on the more desperately he pleaded with her, “Someone's going to do this, so it might as well be your sister!” she told him impassively.

“That somehow makes it worse,” he replied miserably.

She grabbed the waistband of his white jeans to pull the fabric tight as this was somewhere she did not want to accidentally grope. She drew in the thick marker the most grotesque cock and balls on his trousers so it looked as if it was poking out of his fly, “Oh my God!” Her brother whined. The penis itself was very thin, to give the impression of smallness, while still being able to be seen easily, the walnut-sized balls were sagging and wrinkly with thick sprouts of hair. Everyone laughed and shouted insults or words of sympathy for Caitlyn.

“Now I forgive you,” Robin whispered in Stephen’s ear as he got down from his place of public ridicule. As she turned to Caitlyn she caught a flash of fear on her face. Robin turned the young woman around and simply wrote in a speech bubble on her back, “I would have chosen me too!”.

She turned away and walked back.

“Yet again, you impress me Ms Ellacott,” Strike gave her his rare grin, his eyes crinkled and she laughed, at last feeling elated again.

Chapter Text

“And then she had to hide in the wardrobe naked for two hours until our parents finally left again? She nearly wet herself,” Robin gleefully recalled as the four of them sat in their own circle.

“Yes thanks, Runaway Bride!” Anita, with tears of laughter welling in her eyes, playfully slapped Robin’s bare knee.

“What was Jon doing all that time?” Strike asked.

“Playing on his fucking Playstation – he’d bloody well forgotten I was there!”

In their inebriated state, they all laughed until they couldn’t breathe which made them laugh more. Robin squeezed Strike’s arm as she was in so much pain from laughing.

Nadia had taken in the touch and looked at Robin reading her mind and smiled, “Hopalong?” Anita waited until Strike realised she was talking to him, as the drinking had started to take a debilitating effect, “Bad news – you just called me - Anita and Jon – Jon.” She drunkenly explained with a grin.

Jon and Robin’s heads seemed to turn slowly towards him like they were in a horror film, then in unison the three of them were drunk enough to begin their own chant, “Dare! Dare! Dare!”

Kimberley was at their side in seconds, she’d been doing this all night, making people pay for their nickname mistakes. She blew the whistle and Strike slouched in his seat, “Bugger!” he scowled at the table who just fell about laughing. The party had quietened to the point thirty drunk people could be quiet.
“We have a dare for…Hopalong here!” Kimberley called out pointing at Strike and holding the jar of dares out to him.

He dug down deep, he fixed Anita with one of his irked looks but she just laughed in his face. He pulled out a piece of paper. Better to get it over and done with.

Robin’s eyes were horrified but her hand covered her mouth trying to hide her laughter. Thank God, he was drunk!

She just wondered if he would forgive her when he sobered up tomorrow. She watched him unroll the slip and his eyes travel over the words. His eyes flicked straight up at her and he smiled at her wickedly.
Kimberley snatched the dare from where he held it between his fingers, “You must get a friend to swap underwear with you! So Hopalong, who are you going to drag into this dare with you?”

Strike eyes had not moved from Robin and he stood up and held his hand out to her.

“And it’s Robin – fuck!” Everyone cheered at Kimberley’s public mistake. Then they started the chant back up, “Dare! Dare! Dare!”

Pulling a face, she looked at Anita and Jonathan for help but their laughter had deteriorated into crying and wheezing. She grabbed his hand and he pulled her up. The alcohol had gone to her legs and he put his hand on her back to steady Robin, who was a bit more than tipsy in her towering heels. It had clearly begun to affect her brain in other ways as she couldn’t believe either of them were about to do this.

Strike looked around and holding her hand walked towards where the toilets were and the party’s cheers followed them. They went through a door into a small lobby with a small seating area. Luckily there was a disabled toilet and especially luckily for them it was clean. The toilet itself was tucked away in a separate stall – this was a chi-chi place! He stood aside, “Ladies first Robin,”.

“Yeah, right.”

The door closed behind him and he locked it. He pulled her towards him to kiss her hard. She pushed him against the door, her nails carding through his beard and kissed him back with even more ferocity.

“Fuck Robin…” he murmured, “I’ve needed to do that for hours.”

“What are we going to do?”

His confused smile made her laugh, “We’re supposed to be swapping underwear…”

“Oh, I just thought you meant...” She prodded him in the ribs, “My pants are never going to fit you!”

He feigned hurt, “Too much of a fat bastard, am I?” but when she folded her arms in front of her, he placed his hands over her shoulders and moved her back so he could stand up straight again. He brushed the side of his finger down the slope of her breast. His lips parted and his tongue unconsciously licked his lips as it always did when he was concentrating. Robin gave a quick intake of breath as she watched his intent expression and felt her skin pucker and charge. Strike pulled at the seam of her dress until her nipple was uncovered and he breathed out, his face slack.

“I’ve been waiting to touch you again for a long time, maybe a lot less violently though, ” Robin thought how pleased with himself he looked, she swiped his arm but he tweaked the bud in return, eliciting an intake of breath from Robin. “Well you’re definitely not wearing a bra!’

“You’re just checking, are you?” she smiled slowly as he massaged it with his thumb.

There was a seat by the mirror for redoing make-up, so he pulled the fabric back over her and pulling her along, walked towards it.

He sat on the chair, “Come here,” he gestured for her to stand between his legs. His hands fell immediately to the back of her thighs and stroked upwards, pushing her flimsy tulle skirt upwards until he was face to face with her nude knickers.

Robin held her breath as he exhaled raggedly, his lips slightly apart. She felt gratification that the new lingerie she had taken a risk in buying a few days before, had achieved the desired effect. His fingertips traced the barely-there fine mesh over her mound, as her fingers entangled in his hair and she pulled on it. Following where the embroidery skimmed her hip, he turned her as he followed the flowers that seemed to be etched into her skin until she was facing away from him. He groaned now that he finally saw the curved arch of her bottom, in fact, he felt as if his heart had stopped. His hand slipped under the fabric and he gripped her soft flesh. He slipped his other hand between her legs and stroked her over the fabric, she pushed back against his hand, gasping. His mouth gently kissed the curve. Then she felt his teeth nip her flesh and heard a ripping sound, she looked down and he tore her delicate briefs apart with his hands, “Oh, they broke, can’t wear them now,” he stated, putting them into his shirt pocket as if they were a handkerchief. Strike’s eyes had not left her naked flesh but with a look of chagrin, he pulled the frills of her skirt back down. Robin sighed her own disappointment.

Robin grabbed and pulled Strike’s wrists. He pushed himself up from the chair. She dropped his hands and stood with her arms folded, “I need some pants now, Cormoran Blue Strike,” raising her eyebrows as if to say let’s go, “I’ve shown you mine. Your turn.” She nodded her head in encouragement.

His head at a slight angle, from under his brow he pierced her with his eyes. She felt herself tighten and dissolve. His hands grabbed his belt and he unbuckled it. Then he unbuttoned the waistband and undid his fly, “Fuuckk!” he seethed, “I’ve bloody forgotten about my shoes!”

They burst out laughing.

 

 

When they finally re-entered the party, it was like looking at an orgy of crazy dares. Strike and Kimberley’s dares must have prompted everyone else to ‘forget’ nicknames. When they reached Anita and Jonathan, he was sat with his knees tightly together, his hand on his crotch in pain. Anita was as they had left her still cracking up with laughter, her hands holding her sides as if they were literally splitting.

“What happened?” Robin asked, ever the concerned sister.

“He had to ask a friend to put ice down his pants – so I obliged!” Anita jumped up and bounced over, immediately putting her face on Robin’s boobs and rubbing. Once Robin had managed to push Anita off her, she explained, “That was my dare!”

Strike raised his eyebrows at them and Robin glared at him.

“You told him we kissed!” Anita screeched.

Jonathan who now had his hands down his trousers, trying to get a grip on the ice, cried, “You’ve kissed my girlfriend!”

Exasperated, Robin raised her hands, “We were twelve,”

Then she noticed Matthew was standing on a stool surrounded by whistling and chanting girls as they demanded he stripped off his shirt. He obliged with a self-satisfied smirk when they saw his stomach muscles and virtually screamed. “Dear God!” Robin uttered. When she turned to speak to Strike, he had obviously seen it too and he looked pale and a bit hopeless but as she caught his eye he braved it out and his expression changed to awed disgust.

“We all had to write dares,” Anita explained, “And you two also have to write one or you have to drink?”

“I’ve done mine for the night!” Cormoran picked up the beer he hadn’t finished and downed it.

“Have you?” Anita smirked, “Let’s see then?”

“You are drunk - isn’t it obvious?” Robin flashed her the boxer shorts that were longer on her than her actual dress.

Anita snickered and then looked at Strike, who smirked and pulled the panties from his pocket, “She's not wearing a bra!”

Anita turned and nodded in favour of her friend's uncharacteristically daring behaviour, there was a question in her eyes and Robin inconspicuously shook her head.

“You’ve started slurring, so no more alcohol for you,” Robin commented and Strike just raised an eyebrow at her and they were sat so closely she was sure no one would see as she smoothed the foam from his beard and gave him a meaningful look.

“Robin? Dare!” Anita reminded her. She was determined, even though it looked as if everyone else had done their dare.

Robin thought for a moment and just wrote down the first thing that came into her head.

“Give it to me!” Anita demanded and took it from Robin, “Backfire!” Anita shouted making them all jump.

“What?” Robin was confused, then comprehension dawned. Her eyes widened.

“What?” Strike croaked from where he was now beginning to slump slightly in the chair.

“She has to do the dare herself - trust me you’re going to love it!” Anita waggled her eyebrows.

Robin shook her head laughing at her friend, “I’ll do it in a minute – I actually have to go to the loo now.”

She stood up and walked over to where the toilets were. As she entered the lobby she noticed Matthew was sat on the small sofa outside the toilets. He was still shirtless but she was so familiar with it she was immune. Unlike what she had just learnt about Cormoran mere metres away in the disabled toilet. Matthew, on the other hand, was clearly having a very big comedown from his moment of madness stripping in the bar. She had witnessed him become maudlin drunk many times. His elbows rested on his knees and he was staring into space. She had seen that desolate look before. Damn.

He looked up and saw her and readjusted his expression so it was blank, “Robin,”

“Hi…are you okay?”

He looked away, sat silent again and she walked over to sit next to him, trying to shift the shorts out of sight.

“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” the words tumbled out of him.

She let out the breath she had been holding and raised her eyebrows, her expression conveying that this thought was obvious, “Well?”

“I just wanted to annoy you by being here but you're…with him…I feel gutted. Even after you left me…”

She could smell how much he had had to drink and she found that her own drunkenness was making her more willing to get through this awkward conversation, “Look, Matthew – we’ve been together for only eight hours. Unlike, you and Sarah. Anyway, I don’t have to make any excuses for you now. We were never together when I was engaged to you, as I told you, or when we broke up.”

“I know – I’ve always known. I was jealous and…you know…Sarah. You’re too good to do anything like that.”

“No, I’m not – but that wasn’t even a consideration when I decided I couldn’t marry you.”

“Why Robin? In front of all our friends and family. I know I should've listened to you at the time but I was too angry to take it in…what did I do wrong?”

“Do you think you can actually take it if I tell you?" she waited until he looked straight at her and nodded, "You'll just listen and let me say it at least, without shouting at me or accusing me of things I haven’t done?” "Promise," he answered. “I think you’ve got your beer goggles on and aren't remembering how awful it was those last six months between us. We were arguing all of the time over my job and again you and Sarah were still sleeping with one another,”

“But I loved you, Robin,”

“No, you were in love with your idea of me, surely you realise that now? I'd changed so much over that time – we were growing apart all the time - you could see it! Why else do you think you couldn’t be faithful to me? Really, although I’ll always be grateful for your kindness after the rape, I should have broken up with you afterwards and gone back to University.”

He looked at her clearly shocked that she now believed their last six years together had been meaningless.

“I lost my sense of self and at any emergence of the old me, you began to suffocate who I was. I don’t think you realised you were doing it but you were so used to the person who just went along with everything and never had her own wants or needs – that person was an easier woman for you to have a relationship with. You didn’t have to make any compromises until you did and then you couldn’t cope. It was as if you didn’t know how to adjust and it just made you act…badly – controlling.” She looked at him and saw the acceptance on his face that she was telling him a hard truth.

“Like deleting the phone calls,”

“Exactly and more. I think even if I had never gone to work for Strike, the same thing would have happened. I would never have been happy working in an office and I would have found a way back to myself. It just might have meant we wasted ten years of our lives being bloody unhappy.”

“I’m unhappy now,”

“You’ve not moved on Matthew – anyone can see you and Sarah…you might enjoy having sex with her Matthew but she is not the one for you. If she was wouldn’t you have left me for her? She encourages you in your…nastier behaviour. You need to properly start again. Maybe not have a relationship for a while. Figure out what you want out of life and find someone who wants the same things as you.”

“You moved on – with Strike! It’s only been three months!” She was surprised it had taken him this long to start getting upset with her after everything she had said to him.

“I know what I want now Matthew. Strike understands who I am more than anyone else ever has and he’s always encouraged me,”

“You love him,”

Robin shrugged her shoulders in response, it wasn’t something she wanted to say to Matthew before she had a chance to say it to the person it might matter to most. She had realised that in all the kissing she had not responded to the fact Strike had told her he loved her.

“That was hard…but thanks, Robin, for at least not punching me for trying to ruin your night. I’ll probably go back to London, once I’ve got over the killer hangover I’ll have tomorrow,” he got up and almost as if dazed walked back to the bar.

Robin finally went off to the toilet. She wondered if he would remember anything she had said to him tomorrow. She hoped for the sake of the next woman he chose to be with that he did and that he was actually capable of change, otherwise he would never be happy or would never make anyone else happy. She reapplied the lipstick that Strike had kissed off and she remembered her dare. It wouldn’t be hurtful to anyone now and as she walked back into the bar she saw that Matthew and Sarah had left.

Strike was sitting in the chair, alone now, Anita and Jonathan had joined the group on the dance floor. Strike glanced over at her as she walked back to their seats. She recognised the surveillance technique. His concerned expression told her he had probably been doing it since seeing Matthew leave. She laughed to herself and he looked guilty that he had been caught out.

When she sat down next to him she said, “Put your arm around me?”

He adjusted the angle of his head to look down at her, his brow gave away his confusion, although his hand slid around her back and pulled her into the crook of his arm.

“My dare is to kiss the nearest tallest man,” she looked from his eyes to his mouth.

He leaned in to murmur in her ear, “Better help you out then,” and his teeth grazed her earlobe as his hand lifted her chin so he could press his mouth over hers and kiss her slowly, gently savouring every moment.

Chapter Text

As was usual to Strike after a hard night, or even day, of drinking, his dreams played in his mind with the clarity of reality. Reaching the stage of feeling he had been pulled into the dream itself had become less regular the older he got. These dreams usually saved themselves for putting him back into the army truck on the dusty road in Afganistan, unknowingly heading towards a moment that would snatch away an irretrievable part of who he was. In this dream, memory and fantasy intermingled and was laced with the heady mix of emotions he had been through over the last week.

It seemed to be a reoccurring dream at first, as he experienced a sense of deja-vu as the dark gothic cathedral, grey and cold towered above him. Even the white light that glowed from chandeliers which hung grandly but high above, could not penetrate the shadowy nave Strike walked down. As he neared the altar, Charlotte stood in her red gown, now frayed and tattered. In her arms, a baby in a bundle of red silk that trailed to the floor. He walked towards her, knowing he shouldn’t but at last, she was going to let him see the baby, touch it.

Only a few strides away, he looked closer at the bundle, her words echoing in his head that there was something wrong with it and she didn’t want him to see it. But all he could see was more red silk, the bundle was hollow. Charlotte looked up from where she had been murmuring and cooing into her empty swaddle. Her eyes, unnaturally happy, took him in and shifted to glistening sorrow as her features became dejected. She shrieked as if wounded and stretched her hand out for him to take it and join her in her delusion.

He heard a call from the side of the altar, he couldn't tell what the sound was or what was making it. It was a music that he had only half heard as he had not paid attention to it when he should have. As he ran the domineering architecture collapsed around him and was replaced by thousands and thousands of points of candlelight, warming him and comforting until he was closed in. In the centre of the room of ethereal light was a daybed covered with ivory silk. Facing away from him was a naked Robin, pale skin glowing gold light and her hair falling in gilded, gleaming tendrils, the ends of which stroked her back as she turned to look over her shoulder at him. Her cushioned lips parted as if to speak, instead, she smiled until her beauty caused an ache in his chest. Her eyes flickered like blue starlight. Robin turned her body towards him and instinctively he crossed the small space between them, his fingers flexing already, feeling the silken skin. As their hands touched, the luminosity surrounding them pulsated and encompassed them in oblivion.

As the light receded, a curtain of dark hair brushed his cheek which was decades younger, the plump, sun-burnished cheek of a child. Tears streaked his face, confused tears of a child who can’t comprehend why his Daddy doesn’t come to see him, not when his sister and all his friends' daddies did. The familiar scent of his young mother enveloped him as he sat, closeted for a moment in her lap. He felt the comfort of her warm arms around him, as she spoke gently, holding his small palm in her fingers. He felt a love that was limitless and everlasting. He placed his hand on her cheek and she kissed it.

But too soon the light took her away, although the tenderness of her love radiated from him as he lay on the warm sand, his eyes are closed and his skin drank in the warmth of the sun. He could feel the weight of warm soft bodies against both sides of his and both of his arms curled around them, keeping them close to him. He opened his eyes and Robin’s face was close to his, asleep and peaceful. Her eyes fluttered open. She looked into his face, eyes half open and a small smile bloomed on her face. Running his fingers through her precious hair, he smiled back. She closed her eyes again, gratified and her arm tightened around him. He looked down at his naked legs and for the first time in a dream, he actually was as he is now with one and a half legs, his prosthetic missing. Across the other leg was a very little, dainty girl and she had rested her wispy blonde head on his knee as she’s curled against the sand, thumb in mouth. Next to her are a pair of sandy feet and he looks up to the left side of his chest where another little girl lies, older but with long wavy dark hair, she is grasping his forearm and wrist as his arm encircles her. He knew these children, that they trusted him, loved him and looked to him to help them thrive. He felt love, he felt home, he felt whole. And he closed his eyes.

The sunlight was bright against his eyelids but this time it made him flinch in pain and he realised he was awake. But he still felt the weight of someone lying against him. He turned his body to the side towards her, wrapping his arm around her, holding her tight as he breathed in the comforting smell of her skin and opened his eyes. Robin looked back at him, her concern shaping her expression. Had she been watching him sleep?

Robin who had been watching his disturbed sleep ran her fingers through his hair trying to sooth the wrinkles in his forehead.

“I feel like crap…been sick!” she groaned and he shifted to cuddle her in his arms, stroking her back above her dress. They had both crashed in the taxi on the way home and had barely made it into her room. The last think Strike remembered was Robin telling him the room was spinning.

“Have you drunk Alka Seltzer this morning by any chance?”

“Yeah…Mum brought it up for me,”

Strike gently extricated himself from her, moving to the edge of his side of the bed, trying to sit up and put his remaining foot onto the floor, he reached for his prosthetic and put it back on as quickly as he could. As he predicted awful sounds were coming from the other side of the bed, she was gagging and both hands were across her mouth. He quickly dragged her off the bed and helped her get to the toilet across the hall. She dropped to her knees, hugging the bowl as her stomach contracted and she retched before he heard splashing against porcelain and into the water. He gathered her hair out of her face and wrapped it rope like around his hand. He tried to hide the fact he was nearly retching himself from the smell by burying his mouth into the shirt sleeve covering his bicep. He felt the bile at the back of his throat but swallowed it. As her back convulsed he stroked it upwards trying to help her expel the alcohol from her body.

 

Eventually, she lifted her head from the bowl, mortified that he had witnessed her being such a mess. She was just able to collapse next to him on the floor, leaning their backs on the side of the bath Strike leant his arm on the bath rim and she tucked herself under his arm, “Never again.” Robin croaked.

Strike raised his eyebrows at her.

“Robin? There are more paracetamol and Alka-seltzer outside the door!” Linda called and they heard her footsteps retreat.

“So, that’s where you got the hangover cure from that you got for me that time? Have you ever considered that your mother’s Alka-seltzer is actually how she gets you all to vow never to never drink again - by making the morning after so much worse?”

“Mmm…you may have something there.”

 

“Get back to bed and I’ll bring you some water, then I’ll get you the best cure,” his head swung to look down at her, “Coca-cola and chocolate.”

 

“Hah!” she forced a laugh.

 

------

 

After showering, Cormoran left the house and walked along Millgate a small lane that led to the Ellacott’s old farmhouse from the market square. He needed more cigarettes and Michael's diet meant there were no chocolate or sugary drinks in the house.

The hot shower and litre of water he had drunk, as well as the fresh air, was beginning to lift the contaminated cloud of the hangover from his body. As he left the house he felt the absence of the warm feeling from the dream that had even stayed with him as he swallowed down his own sick so he could help Robin.

But as he walked down the lane alone, the paracetamol had eased the pounding in his brain and he felt his mind was cleansed. He hadn’t felt like this for years. Younger and lighter. Robin had helped him to heal after he hit the lowest point in his life and now he finally felt rehabilitated. He told himself he was being an idiot for taking a dream so seriously but simply having Robin’s presence in his life had changed so much for him. Even considering a life that he had never thought he had wanted before, which he had completely dismissed, encouraged to by Charlotte, stayed with him, challenged him. The idea of being loved by her freed him, although he again reminded himself she had not told him she loved him and he had not done the best job in telling her how he felt.

“Fuck it,” the thought of Charlotte again invaded his mind and he was desperate to put an end to the old virus. He would call Charlotte today and arrange to meet her as soon as he would be back in London. Not calling her had been his way of avoiding triggering the replication of the feeling, what he had thought of as love, fearing it would drive him to go back to her. For most people, the back and forth in a relationship would have created some kind of auto-immune response, eventually knowing for sure that the feelings they’d had for someone had died. But Strike had never learnt his lesson.

In Robin, he felt he had found a potential cure. He had barely thought of Charlotte over the last six months the closer and closer he and Robin had become. She wasn’t a distraction, he had actively tried to stop himself for falling for her, but soon it was her he wanted to speak to and then he couldn’t stop thinking about her, even at the most inconvenient of times. She drove him crazy sometimes, not because she made unreasonable demands of him or tested him beyond the boundaries of normal behaviour but because for her he wanted to be a better person. Her voice was simply in his head and after the mess with Brockbank, he lived to make that voice respect him.

She was inevitable.

It was simply the fear of Charlotte’s return that stayed in the back of his mind. The idea she had the power to take everything from him – she had done before with her lies. He wanted her to tell him the truth about the baby – she owed him that one truth after all the injuries and humiliations she had inflicted on him. Deep down he knew he still may not get it but he was finally seeing her for what she was and where his head had been in wanting her. She was just another crutch.

At Masham Port Office he bought his cigarettes, three family-sized bottles of coke and five large bars of Dairy Milk – which should be enough for five people.

“Kid’s Party?” the lady at the till asked.

“No, just five very hungover adults,” he feigned surprise as if he had nothing to do with it.

He walked back to the Market Place and ordered a bacon roll from a café, then went to sit in the sun of the October heatwave. He closed his eyes for a moment enjoying the last of the warm sun before Autumn turned to Winter. There was no point asking Charlotte over the phone, only a face to face might make her feel guilty enough to tell him the truth. Usually, as time passed she ended up telling him the truth even if he had never needed or wanted to know it. Although, she could also use her final crumbs of honesty to hurt him. As he dialled her number he hoped the hangover would dampen down any anger he may feel if she tried at any histrionics.

She answered after the third ring “Bluey?” her familiar, sexy voice in his ear, urgent and desperate to hear his voice.

“Yes, it’s me – “

She interrupted him, “I hoped I would hear or bump into you, you’ve been doing so well, catching the Shacklewell Ripper. I always knew you’d be a success!”She enthused.

In fact, she had told him the exact opposite but this wasn’t the time, “Yeah Charlotte, I need to see you,” He sounded brusque but choose his words carefully, speaking swiftly, suggesting a restaurant he knew she liked, a day and a time.

“That would be lovely, I’ve missed you so much Bluely, I almost thought – “

A stab of guilt made him speak over her, “Can’t really speak now Charlotte, I’ll see you then,”

“Bluely, I lo…”

He pressed the end-call button, her excited voice reduced to a scratchy echo from the speaker. If she had any inkling of what was happening in his life, she would not meet him. He was already starting to worry if this was fair to do to her but what had Robin said about when you had been manipulated and abused by your partner, ‘…the person who you see yourself as is cancelled out. You’re so busy having to manage everyone else’s perception of you…” It was about time he faced the fact that this is what she had done to him for all those years. That their relationship was not some tumultuous passionate love affair but had been as damaging to him as the loss of his leg.

Chapter Text

“Robin, can you look out of the window? Lovely smile…Great!” The wedding photographer encouraged as if he was in a high fashion studio rather than a slightly outdated room at the Swinton Park Hotel.

The Bride and her maids had been through the same rigmarole, one at a time, of posing and smiling and looking off into the distance romantically. Well, for Caitlyn, Robin thought, it was important she enjoyed this as it was her big day. So, Robin had entered enthusiastically into the spirit. It was certainly easier to do so now it wasn’t her own wedding, when she had been drowned by waves of misery each time she had allowed herself to think of Strike and his last words to her. As the photographer had struggled to capture Robin’s own wedding day bliss, she had felt so detached from it almost like it wasn’t happening to her.

“You look amazing, Robin,” Kimberley had said watching from the side. Robin took the olive branch her would-be-sister-in-law handed her and thanked her, before showing interest in how Kimberley’s toddler, Milly was.

Robin turned again under the photographer’s instructions. The green dress heightened her honey colouring and the curves of her hourglass figure. The crystals encrusted onto her platform stilettoes glimmered in the flash of light. Her gold hair dropped in a waterfall of waves over one shoulder. She looked like a Hollywood Screen Goddess of the 1940s. There was no way she was not going to feel confident walking down that aisle. She felt a shiver of excitement anticipating Strike’s reaction when he saw her.

Finally, the photographer had finished and Robin left Kimberley to have her portrait taken. She walked over to where her purse was, checking her phone to see if the others were at the church yet. Stephen has arrived, Anita’s text read. Robin looked around her, Caitlyn had slipped out of the room. So, she opened the door to find her. She was glad she didn’t have to go far as Caitlyn was sat on a sofa outside holding her skirt to the side. As Robin suspected she looked nervous and pensive.

“Feeling okay?” Robin asked, sitting next to her and rubbing her arm, “Nervous?

Caitlyn gave an embarrassed laugh. The tension in her face did not dissipate.

So, Robin waited.

Robin wanted to think this was just wedding jitters but hers hadn’t been. Perhaps if people hadn’t told her what she was feeling all the time she may have been able to have the confidence to stop it at a more convenient time.

“I know he’s my brother but you can tell me what you’re feeling, I probably understand more than anyone,”

Caitlyn’s laid her fears out, “Everyone will be looking at me,”

“And you look beautiful…”

“But this is it. Me and Steve forever. How did you know you couldn’t marry Matthew, that it wasn’t just nerves?”

“Because a friend was there to remind what I wanted out of life and Matthew couldn’t give it to me. What you have to ask yourself is whether what you feel for my idiot brother is precious - like you share something with him that you don’t have with anyone else in the world.”

“He’s my best friend. I mean I hated him most of the time we were all growing up,” she turned her face towards Robin and laughed, “He was such an arsehole! He flicked a bogie in my face at infants. But now…”

“You don’t want to be without the bogie man?”

“Suppose not!” and they laughed again.

 

 

The pew in the church was unbelievably uncomfortable for a man of such long legs and wide body. Anita and he had kept themselves amused by trying to guess the next person on the Ellacott, and sometimes even the Wilson side, who would point him out to their companions or try to whisper inconspicuously while failing terribly. As the minutes went by there were less and less, instead, other people came up to introduce themselves to the now unwillingly, semi-famous detective. Anita had said he probably wasn’t even on a Z list of celebrities but his appearance at Robin’s wedding had clearly made him more well-known to these people.

“I can’t wait to see how Robin looks,” Anita enthused and gave him a sideways look, “her outfit is stunning. I’d told her that a Cavalli dress was probably a number one sign you were being sexually harassed by your boss, but clearly, she didn’t mind last night,”

Strike raised his brow at her, “I’m not her boss.”

“Anymore - Robin told me to ignore your scowls, that it’s just your…” Anita started to have a fit of giggles about what Robin had said and was unable to form the words for a few seconds.

“My what?” Strike grouched in mock outrage.

“Resting bitch face,” Anita said reluctantly, even though she waited eagerly for his reaction.

“Thank you, Robin,”

“You’ll have to sack her again for gross misconduct!” Anita smirked.

Strike shook his head and laughed quietly, Anita’s love for the edgy joke was limitless, he had come to find over the last few days. He was beginning to suspect that although they had no malice behind them, they were her way of testing him –to see if he was good enough for her best friend. Luckily, they both shared an ability to be self-deprecating. Whereas, he could imagine that Matthew had not faired very well, which explained why he had never met her before now.

“Look!” She grabbed Strike’s arm, “There’s movement!” Anita had almost jumped out of her seat to look over to the entrance.

The music began and everyone stood for the bride. Strike suddenly felt nervous, as he saw the ring bearer and two flower girls start their walk down the aisle. Just over three months ago, if he hadn’t had so harshly turfed her out of his life, would he still have been able to sit on the other side of the church watching Robin’s wedding party walk down the aisle? He’d told Shanker he wasn’t going to stop the wedding, but for weeks before he had begun to rid himself of the constant attempts to fortify his defences against her.

But it had still taken him time to open up to her. Even with their latest revelations and drunken intimacy, the next day Robin had not even tried to perforate any of the lines drawn by him over the time they had known each other concerning his private life. His aim to compel any attacks to those lines had clearly worked too well. He had nothing to fear from her. She made him feel safe and secure. A lorry could skid its way towards them and she would steer them out of harm’s way. Today, had to be his D-Day to show her he wanted to be invaded by her.

The nervous feeling was starting to turn into nausea, just as he had felt as he desperately tried to reach the church service in time, not knowing whether she could even forgive him. Cameras started to flash and Strike’s pulse felt just as random. He followed Anita’s gaze to where her boyfriend stood with his brothers. He and Martin flanked Stephen. Stephen was braving it well, trying to smile in a relaxed away as his brothers made jokes and teased him but Strike could just pick up his nervousness. What had Matthew been thinking that day? Had he had any inkling Robin was about to dump him or had he thought he was on the home run, cockily confident that he had done everything he needed to keep her. Strike didn’t approve of his tactics but and looking over his shoulder as Robin stepped into the church, he fully understood Matthew’s motivation.

It had been over a year since he had seen her in the dress, but time had done nothing to lessen its power.

 

When she stepped into the aisle there was an awed hush that should have been reserved for the bride. Strike himself experienced a helpless inhalation of breath which had made Anita look up at him and smile. Robin was a divine being, the sunlight from the windows illuminated her hair, and the silk wrapped itself around her curves in a very satisfying way. The shoes peeped out occasionally from under her dress and he couldn’t stop himself from imagining how she would look in them, naked. Michael stepped into the aisle to take a photo of his daughter on his camera. Robin dipped her head, averted her eyes and smiled shyly. As she neared them, she looked up and over to Strike and her family, when he was sure her eyes had met him, he smiled widely at her and was met with a full watt beam.

The service was not as interminable as he had feared. Robin occasionally snuck looks at him from over her shoulder and his eyes were always there waiting. As the bride and groom began to walk back down the aisle together, Robin and the other bridesmaids stood to follow them out. She flicked the curtain of her golden hair over her shoulder and Strike’s stomach flipped over as his eyes followed the elongated line of neck to her décolletage. When he looked back at her face she gave him a minute shake of the head and he shrugged smirking boyishly and winked. Robin laughed behind her bouquet and Strike found himself wondering why he didn’t have his phone ready to take a picture of her.

 

Outside, Strike took out his cigarettes and he and Anita sat smoking on a tombstone, ignoring the outraged looks of some of the guests but watching Robin and her family waiting near the photographer for their photo call with the bride and groom.

“You won’t hurt her again, will you?” said Anita earnestly, “I mean after everything she’s been through, she deserves someone who worships her. Matthew was...”

“…a complete bastard.” Strike was no-nonsense in his assessment.

“Exactly.”

“Anita, Robin is as precious to me as she is to you. It’s me you have to worry about.”

Anita, half-smiled, “Just remember she will second guess everything, the littlest criticism will make her feel as if she has failed. She needs reassurance but also your respect, she will never ask you for either but she needs to depend on it being there,”

Strike nodded, “Thanks,” her words made a lot of sense to him.

 

“Hi,” Robin said as Strike walked towards her. He took her in with his assessing stare.

“Hi, Cormoran Strike,” he smiled and his eyes were playful, “I think I noticed you in the church?”

“You did, did you? Robin Ellacott,” she held out her hand for him to shake, trying to not smile.

“Oh! Someone told me it was Sandra,” he teased.

“No, not Sandra, do you wish it was?”

“No, no bloody way,” He replied.

Chapter Text

Robin stifled her laugh behind her hand as her older cousin’s son George, pretended to pour tea from the empty teapot into Strike’s teacup. His huge hand was incongruous with the flowery-patterned, dainty cup as was the image of Strike pretending to eat an invisible sandwich with a four-year-old.

“Corm-ran, you’re not doing it right, you have to stick your little finger out when you drink the tea,” George instructed seriously, grabbing Strike’s finger to ‘help’ put it in the right position.

Robin snorted. Over the top of George’s flaxen hair Strike looked at her with a frown, his mouth curved down on one side. What he was trying to communicate to Robin was of less interest to her than how the expression affected his face in so many ways: she reached out, running the tip of her finger down the crease that appeared by his mouth. George looked up catching her and Strike turned his head quickly, pretending to try and bite it. George giggled, pointing at Robin who was faking a sore finger.

“Georgie, you’re supposed to be my friend!” she said in mock admonishment.

This had been a bad idea, “Corm-ran’s my friend, not yours!” George taunted as he threw himself on Strike’s knees. Robin caught him wince but he quickly gathered George up and resettled him so he was sat on Strike’s long thigh. Seconds later, Strike opened his knees enough for George to slip through slightly, after an initial gasp of shock George laughed, “Again? Again?”

“George?” Izzie, his mum, walked up behind Robin, “What did I say about jumping on people?” she sighed, slightly exasperated, Robin had encouraged George to stay with them to give Izzy, who was looking slightly harassed, a break with her partner.

George pouted and turned to Strike giving his new friend his most genuine apology, “I’m s-o-r-r-y,”

“S’okay George,”

“Thanks for looking after him,” she winked at them, “Come on Georgie, you can see Robin and Corm again later,” his mum held out her hand and he slid down Corm’s legs till he was back on the grass and walked over to his mum with a downcast expression.

“See you later George!” Strike reassured him.

George went quickly back to smiling and began telling his Mum about all the yummy cake he’d eaten with Robin and Corm.

“It was imaginary!” Robin called after them, her cousin smiled so Robin turned back to Strike. He was such an enigma, he didn’t seem to like children, he wouldn’t say as much, just that he didn’t know what to say to them. But, when they were in his company, she hadn’t seen evidence of this. Stop it! She told herself strictly. It was too soon to worry about this- they’d barely been together for two days. “Well! I thought you…”

“Don’t,” he gave her his best disdainful look until he couldn’t keep it up anymore in the face of her amused expression. A half smile flickered on his lips as his fingertips stroked a few inches over the curve of her thigh. It gave Robin a sensation between being tickled and itched. She failed to prevent the shiver that escaped.

“Cold?”

“No”

And his smile widened as he couldn’t help but feel gratified at the effect he had over her.

They were waiting for the wedding lunch. People stood around drinking; catching up with distant family, or playing the lawn games that had been set up by the hotel staff in the unforeseen inclement weather. It had been the first time they had properly had time to themselves since the morning after the party as the preparations for the wedding had ramped up. But any touching was still off-limits, so they had been sneaking these imperceptible caresses. Strike’s phone beeped. He slid it out and looked at the screen, and Robin’s eyes fell to people watching.

‘Really looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday’

He sighed.

Robin looked up at him, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Charlotte, she -”

“You don’t have to tell me!” Robin interrupted.

“I want to tell you … I’m done trying to keep you at arm’s length,” then light-heartedly, “I’ve tried to let you down gently but you’re so persistent!”

“Ha!” Robin pretended to be insulted.

Strike’s eyes searched the other guests to check her parents weren’t able to see, he turned his face so his mouth was at her ear, the closeness of his lips made her skin sing, “Waste of time anyway with your talent for internet searches and befriending my best friends and half-siblings! You probably know everything anyway,” he teased.

She slipped her hand into his jacket to poke him gently in the side, “Yes, it has all been part of my wicked plan to ensnare you!”

He grabbed her hand and held tight so she was caught in his soft-eyed gaze.

“Ahem!” Michael stood behind them looking down where Strike held his daughter’s arm inside his suit jacket, “Mum said to tell you they’re about to do the afternoon tea now, so you can both go in,” he sounded uncomfortable.

Robin looked desperately at Strike who nodded slightly, “Right! I’ll make my way in – what table are we? Six?” and he pushed himself up from the seat.

“Yes, six,” Strike walked away towards the country house as Robin looked up at her father, “Dad? Have you got a minute?”

---

Robin, carried the plates of food from the barbeque towards the seats they had taken over in the garden, it wasn’t much of a distance but her feet were starting to hurt with the strain of their high angle.

“I didn’t think I could be hungry again after that afternoon tea!”

“Mmm!” Anita agreed, finishing the mouthful she had already taken of her Haloumi Burger, “I think this is my third one.”

Fire pits had been lit outside in the darkening evening and their group were circled around, a few old friends of Martin and Jonathan’s, Izzy and Strike. George had been taken off to bed by his other mum.

Strike and Izzy seemed to be talking but the others had fallen into listening to what was being said.

“…my partner was finally pregnant with George and I just wanted to spend time with them but I had to buy myself out. I hadn’t expected any of it,” Izzy was explaining the end of her Navy career to Strike. She had joined up to the navy at sixteen, desperate to leave the small community of Masham and Robin’s uncle’s farm. “What made you join the Red Caps?” she asked Strike.

Robin lowered herself into a chair on the other side of Strike and passed him one of the plates.

“My uncle was a red cap too. So, I was always fascinated with his stories from when I was a kid – travelling the world, the process of investigation, the mystery that has to be unpicked. I was obsessed even as a kid.”

“If only – one more teddy bear’s tea party and I’ll…” Izzy crossed her eyes, then she looked at Robin, “Do you remember when you were about 6 and you went through the phase that in every game you played you were Sherlock Holmes?”

Robin’s eyebrows quirked, “Really?” she deadpanned to avoid the teasing that she knew this story usually garnered from any of her brothers who were around.

“Oh yeah!” Jonathan pointed his finger at her, “We’d be playing Ninja Turtles and you’d be like ‘No! I’m not being Michelangelo, I want to be Miss Marple!” his voice six-year-old-girl-high-pitched.

“Michelangelo was the worse one – no one wanted to be Michelangelo!” Robin shot back, her memory muscle clenching her hands into fists, but everyone was already laughing.

Strike dropped his hand over hers, “You too?” his eyes lifting to hers, intrigued.

“Me too,” she said softly and she opened her fist so their fingers could intertwine.

Jonathan let out a long and loud wolf-whistle.

“The fuck! Are you two together?” Martin exclaimed.

“God! You were always the slow one,” Izzy quipped, she could get away with it because Martin had always been terrified of her.

---

The others had been dragged off to the photo booth with the rest of the family and Robin had promised to go later once she’d rested her feet, “They are wonderful shoes though…” she said as if she still didn’t quite believe she finally owned a pair.

“Here!” Strike held his hands out to her and gave his head a slight jerk upwards to indicate she should lift her feet up.

She turned in the seat, her legs went over the armrest, so Strike’s hands could more easily grasp her platform sandals. He lay her feet across his lap. With one hand around her calf, his large fingers unclasped them, slipping them off one by one to reveal her dark red toenails. He stroked down her leg and she wiggled in her seat. Robin pushed the sole of her foot into his hold as his thumbs circled into the arch. Her other foot wiggled in his lap.

“Robin,” Strike’s voice was gruff, “That’s not fair, they’ll come back in a minute.”

Robin relented for now. She looked thoughtful, head to the side trying to pick up the tune she caught the strain of, playing from the sound system inside – it was one of the most well-known Deadbeats tracks. She looked at Strike from under her lashes, he had shown no sign that he had heard it. But then as if he had read her mind, his eyes lifted from her foot to her gaze and he gave her a shrewd look. She lifted her head and cleared her throat.

“You can ask me whatever you want?” He said with a slight smile, rarely had she seen his face so relaxed.

“It’s just…don’t you feel strange when you hear your father’s music?”

“Not really. It’s the only thing I really know about him apart from what Leda told me growing up. I think that makes me as familiar to him as any stranger on the street,” he exhaled, after holding this all in it wasn’t easy to vocalise, he looked away from her, “When I was a teenager I went through a phase of listening to his music almost compulsively. Reading every interview.”

“Unpicking the mystery? You were trying to find out who he was as a person,”

“Exactly,” His eyes returned to hers, “In those days Robin we didn’t have the internet,”

She gave a small laugh.

“So, I wrote transcripts of all the lyrics, to try and work out if any of them could give me any insights. He wasn’t as interested in me – you know the rest of what little relationship we have,”

“Al told me that Rokeby wants to see you,” she told him hesitantly.

“He said that, did he? Was he hoping you’d convince me?”

Robin’s approachability and openness meant that this kind of thing happened on a regular basis but Robin rarely passed the queries on to Strike.

“Well, as I said he’s never seemed to bother. Al has said that too but I suspect it’s hard for him to reconcile the experience he has with good ole Johnny giving him everything he ever needed and more compared to mine who did nothing for me till I had to ask him with one and half bloody legs!” His voice grew slightly angrier as he went on.

“Would you have had it the other way around?”

“Probably not.”

Again, Robin ventured cautiously, “Sometimes you’ve appeared to be ‘not bothered’?”

“Smoke and mirrors, Robin.”

“So, could it be some leftover genetic code? Perhaps he’s terrified – you are quite intimidating?”

“Me?” Strike said straight-faced.

“Perhaps now, millions of pounds of alimony later, he knows he’s been a shit father to you but doesn’t know how to fix it?”

“Or he’s just not bothered, however kind you want to be about it.”

---

“For fuck’s sake!” Strike blurted as he saw himself in the pirate hat, “No, Robin.”

“Fine – you can have the feather boa and I’ll have the pirate hat!” Robin grabbed it off his head which was too big for it anyway and she looped the magenta boa around his neck.

“Sounds good to me.”

He clambered into the photo booth first and as Robin came in behind him he grabbed her around the waist and yanked her into his lap. She just about closed the curtain as she fell back and put her arm around him to steady herself. Soon they were pulling faces at the camera. Chuckling at Robin, all cross-eyed and sucked-in pout, he turned to face her just as she relaxed her face and looked down at him. His eyes fell to her naturally pouty lips and his hand reached up to hold her cheeks, stroking the pink faint blush that had appeared under his gaze. His head inched closer to hers until his lips closed over hers, tasting them again and again. The light flashed and his lips left hers. She placed her forehead on his and stroked her nose against his as she kept hold of his gaze. The light flashed. They both pulled back and Strike grinned at her. Flash.

“I think that’s it,” Robin said but neither of them moved.

They were interrupted however by the curtain being whisked open and there was Linda in a Nun’s habit, “I’m coming in, you two seem finished to me! Move over Robin and let your mother sit in the middle,”

Robin’s eyes had widened before she slipped off and they moved away from each other.

Linda nestled herself between them linking her arms with them, “So, your Dad told me, thank you, Robin,”

Flash. Two unhappy faces, a worried one.

“I haven’t had a chance Mum, you’ve been run ragged. It’s only just happened,”

“Well, let me tell you both…” She smiled at the camera and Robin and Strike followed her lead. Flash.

“I really couldn’t be happier,” her face had become serious as she moved her arms to put her hands over one of each of theirs. Flash.

“Now for some silly faces, please both of you,” and they complied.

---

---

Strike stood at the bar waiting for his pint of Doom Bar and Robin’s white wine. Robin glanced up at him to check his progress. While she waited she picked up the photo’s he had given her – the top half of him laughing at her silly face rather than pulling a face of his own. He’d said he was ugly enough. And the photo of that slow kiss. He’d ripped the strip in half and placed the other two in his pocket. Linda had taken the strip of the three of them. Robin turned the strip over between her fingers and noticed some writing on the back in his familiar scrawl. “Meet me at midnight. Bradford suite.” She’d seen him writing on it but had unthinkingly assumed it was the date.

She looked back up at him to find him studying her and their eyes radiated a shared understanding.

Chapter Text

Half dance circle, half mosh pit, Robin danced with Anita, in an assortment of friends and family, to The White Stripes. There was more frenetic jumping up and down and pushing each other than there was dancing on the males’ part. The thought of it made Strike squirm, he could almost feel the shoots of pain that would be caused by the prosthesis, which meant that he was going to sit this out. He felt fine with that as he finally got to enjoy the view of Robin’s elated face, honey waves bouncing over the rise and fall of her chest and the way her body swivelled in the clingy dress, as she crumbled into laughter with Anita.

The song ended on an aggressive last chord but another song did not start up. Instead, Stephen was standing at the DJ booth with the microphone in his hand.

“How do?” Stephen's greeting led to laughter and shouts back from the still almost full room, his voice was a bit unsteady as he was a drunk again, “Hope you’r’ll still enjoyin’ y’rselves…but…I just wanted to…take a min-ute to talk about…s’meone else who has s’methin’ to celebrate this weekend.”

Robin’s eyes began to widen.

“My sister, Robin, the gorgeous bridesmaid whose given up on wearing her shoes,” he held his arm out to point her, “’s her birthday in ‘xactly fifteen minutes - she’ll be 27!” shouts and applause, “Dad? C’you, please?” he had started to sway a bit.

Michael shook his head from where he was sat next to Linda, but his wife, laughing, pushed him up, and he walked over to take the microphone

“Robin,” he looked down at his daughter, “…your family would just like to say, we hope you have a very happy birthday – you’ve made us all very proud of you with your success and even though at times this year has been very hard for you,” at this a petal pink blush bloomed on her cheeks, “you’ve faced it all with determination and bravery. Robin this is your birthday dance.”

The soaring strains of guitars began from “Heroes” by her dad’s favourite rock idol, David Bowie, and all those around paired off and those who were single and hadn’t got lucky at the wedding left the dance floor. Robin turned back to where Anita had been standing behind her. But Strike stood there instead, his head tilted, lips pulled back in a humble smile with his hands held in the air, an eyebrow was held aloft in question.

She stepped into his orbit and he took one of her hands, slipping the other splayed hand around her waist as she placed her hand on his shoulder. Strike pulled Robin closer to him, holding their entwined hands between them until he lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles. People danced around them as they spun around to the almost-croon of Bowie. His eyes mapped Robin’s beatific features and she occasionally looked away, to flee the building feeling his intense gaze elicited. As the song meandered, she felt as if time was slowing down as the clock ticked languidly to midnight.

Robin wasn’t sure if she wanted time to go faster or slow down or stop entirely.

Strike’s arms fell away from her as the music blended into a new song and she turned as she felt a tap on her shoulder, her aunt had come to give her a birthday kiss on the cheek. Then Stephen was at her shoulder grabbing her hand for another wild dance to Lady Gaga. By the time he let her go with sweat glowing from his forehead, she couldn’t see Strike anywhere.

Her head whipped to check the time, she had two minutes.

Quickly giving Jon and Caitlyn her own kisses and words of congratulations, she then walked over to her parents to hug them goodnight. Her shoes and clutch were gone and she drifted out of the reception room and towards the lifts.

She clicked the button, and her heart stuttered until the numbers went down to G and the doors glided open. She stepped in, head down and nearly walked into Anita.

“Oof! Where have you been?”

“Mmm, wouldn’t you like to know?” Anita teased.

Then she caught the expression on her best friend’s face and placed her hands on Robin’s elbows, leaning her head towards Robin’s and said covertly, “He’s waiting for you. Remember there is nothing to worry about. He loves you, Robin.”

Although her voice had been light, the first four words Anita had said undermined the work her reassurances were trying to do. Anita tripped away and Robin stood in the lift alone. It was probably gone midnight now.

---

Leaning against the corridor wall, jacket tucked under his arm, Strike massaged his brow with his fingertips. His new watch showed it was well past midnight. Robin was just caught up in making her goodbyes, he told himself. Or had she decided she wasn’t ready? That they had made a mistake?

He pushed himself from the wall and strode a little way from the door, whipping his jacket through the air. The same crawling feeling flooding his stomach had reappeared from when he had laid on that sandy bloody floor realising, yes, he was alive but half his leg was missing.

Perhaps…

Shut up you bloody idiot, she’s just a few minutes late.

He recognised his mind spiralling, uncharacteristically. But, this was it for them. After tonight, everything that was good about his life would be tightly tethered to Robin.

He sighed deeply.

His eyes were pulled slightly to the edge of his vision before they reverted ahead of him back to his point of focus.

His brain slowly made sense of the sliver of lush green. His head turned to see her standing in her ruby-toed bare feet, outside the room.

Robin was confused why Strike was about four doors away from the room. And as he watched her carefully, her heart skipped as she remembered how he had waited for her to go into her room at the Travelodge over six months ago. Fantasizing about a moment like this then had seemed dangerous and implausible.

Now. It was happening.

Her eyes travelled over his contracted lips, the way his eyebrows were raised and recognised his expression as his fear. This made her own vulnerabilities wane. Remembering to breathe, she gave him a small wave.

Every step he took towards her was interminable, and his brow grew tenser with frustration, his lips parted, “Happy Birthday Robin,”.

The key card was already in his hand and he reached across to open the door for her. Robin's eyes narrowed with curiosity, she sensed a new surprise as she searched the neutral mask of his face which waited for her reaction

“Oh!” Robin took an intake of breath as she walked around him and saw that the room was beautiful.

It was the largest hotel room she had ever seen. There was a large, cushion-bedecked double bed with a canopy overhanging the headboard, a sofa at the foot of the bed. Her shoes and clutch were on a coffee table in front of a long loveseat, which framed the bottom of a wide picture window looking out to the dark parkland.

Robin continued to walk through the second open door into the adjoining room, where a large bath sat in the bay window. It was full. Waiting. Steam rising from the newly drawn water, small candles glinting on the window sill. She walked towards it, deep pink rose petals floated lazily on the surface.

Anita!

She must have helped Strike. Robin couldn’t help but remember, had she gone through with the wedding, she would have spent her wedding night in a room like this with Matthew. Although, he would have been passed out drunk, taking up most of the bed.

She turned to look at Strike standing in the doorway and her heart stuttered again. She had never felt anything comparable to the almost-painful longing she had for the man that knew her better than anyone, who had to dip his head in the doorway - his body filling the space.

“Do you want a drink?” Strike asked gruffly, his eyes shadowed in the dark of the candlelit room.

“Yes, please” she smiled demurely.

They had been literally ripping each other’s clothes off two nights earlier, fuelled by too much alcohol and lots of ensuing silliness. Now both of them seemed to be stalling. Strike turned and walked back into the bedroom and she followed him.

A soft soulful, rock ballad played on a sound system somewhere. Strike opened the bottle with a pop…Champagne. He brought the full glass over to where Robin waited on the sofa. She noticed the minute shake of his hand as she took the stem glass from him. Taking a gulp, almost immediately, she was aware of him sitting down next to her. His suit brushing against her arm, her thigh. She drained her glass. A size 14 shoe tapped the floor.

Robin’s eyes crept back to Strike’s. Stifling a smile, she slipped from the sofa and onto her knees at his feet. He looked intrigued before her fingers found his shoelaces. He laughed settling into a slightly abashed quirk of a smile, thinking of their previous antics. She joined in, which took away some of the expectant tension in the air.

She quickly pulled at the thin laces, so they were loose. He allowed her to lift his remaining foot and she slipped off his shoe and sock. Then she moved to the prosthetic. She felt him hesitate slightly before his knee relaxed so she could slip off the shoe. She placed them next to her shoes, noting the huge difference in size and turned back to him, slightly perturbed.

Strike’s glass was also already empty - his eyes dark pools of green prescience.

When she sat back down next to him, his hand quickly found her hair and he ran his fingers through the spun gold, draping it over her shoulder before leaning closer to her, his forehead almost level with hers, “I love you,” he had not expected his voice to shake like a warped record.

Robin turned to him, “Cormoran Blue Strike, did you really just do that?” half-laughing.

His eyes slid from hers and he tried to repress his smile at himself. Strike cleared his throat “I don’t know what happened?”.

Robin was giggling now, her hand reached for his cheek, smoothing the short, coarse hairs of his beard over the creases oh his smile, he moved his chin slightly to press his lips against her hand.

She stared into his eyes, flushed, “That’s exactly why I am so in love with you,’

Robin felt his jaw drop open a little and he tilted his head forward so he had to look up at her, “You do?”

She pinched her lips in disapproval and he laughed. The fingers of her other hand combed through the curls at the back of his head as she pulled him closer to her, pressing her lips against his.

“Robin, we’ll take it slow okay. Anytime you want to stop, we’ll stop – at any time,” Strike gently reassured her, his hand stroking her back.

She gave him a small nod. And there was nothing else to say.

She moaned at the back of her throat as he responded to the renewal of her kiss and her mouth parted. The tip of her tongue stroked against the sensitive edge of his and he held her head to slowly savour the soft, yielding sensations as their lips synchronised with each other.

Eventually breaking contact after some time, Robin murmured, “I’d like to have a bath with you,”

Strike imagined her skin wet from the water, warm and slippery as he had accidentally envisioned it months ago. To stifle his groan, he pressed his mouth against her cushioned lips in acceptance. Releasing her, he leant back so he could access the back of her dress. His hands went to unclasp the hook and eyes at the top of her zip, fingers dusting her skin and she held her breath. Slowly he undid the zip, grazing his knuckles down the curve of her spine which started a warm, tingling throb between her thighs. Hands splayed on her hips, he pushed her gently off the sofa until she stood in front of him. Lips replaced his fingers, brushing soft kisses between the grooves below her bra strap then swirling the tip of his tongue against her sensitive shoulders. Her skin a minefield of tingles. His hands turned her to face him.

Robin looked at him from under her lashes. She took his large hand in hers and he stroked his thumb across her palm. Then, she led him into the other room.

Chapter Text

Strike had caught her by the hand as she reached the bath. Robin spun to face him, her hair settling around her before he pulled her into his arms, almost as if he was relishing the ease at which he could now be close to her. He pulled her to him, cupping her face in his large hands, almost lifting her off her feet as he kissed her. Robin sighed against his lips. He shifted his arms to hold her, hands sliding on the curves shrouded by the green silk. In the flickering candlelight, the shadows of his crooked face had created a darkly intense magnetism as he looked down at her and she shivered.

She ran her fingers up his chest, feeling the curve of his square shoulders under his white cotton shirt. She loosened his tie, running her finger through each knot to unravel it. Her fingers slid through the gaps in his shirt and she began unbuttoning it at the curve of his belly. His laughter broke the pent-up silence, as she stroked the almost-fur of his black stomach hair.

“Like that, do you Robin?” he quipped in a husky whisper.

“Well, you will keep flashing me with it,’ she said playfully, twisting each button open until she could trace the map of his chest. Partially curious about how it would feel but soon with fascination, as with each stroke, her inner walls clenched at his palpable masculinity.

Robin swallowed. Strike nodding in mock curiosity at her outward reaction, “Thank god I didn’t get that bloody full body wax then,” Strike said matter-of-factly.

Laughingly tracing light kisses at the hollow of his throat, Robin occasionally flickered her tongue over areas that seemed particularly sensitive for him as Strike’s hands tightened against Robin’s waist. Her hand covered the reverberating beat in his chest.

Strike brushed the back of his fingers over the curve of Robin’s breast as she moved back to undo Strike’s cuffs. Then she stretched herself upwards to feel the combination of the soft skin and the tickling bristles of his top lip against hers. His shirt drifted down his back. As he hummed another small moan into her ear, Robin moved her mouth to cover it. Her hands fell to Strike’s belt buckle, biting her lip, she slipped the leather from where it was tucked, pulled the prong from its hole and slid the belt off.

Their kisses became deeper and quickened as she made slow work of undoing Strike’s trousers. She slipped the waistband from his hips and down his hairy thighs. Once they had fallen to his ankle, he freed himself of them, kicking them away.

Robin’s hands gripped the elastic waistband of his boxer shorts. He brought his fingertips to her chin and pulled his mouth away, lazily trailing kisses down her throat. As the kisses soothed her, she felt her hands relax and she inched her fingertips down to where the tip of Strike’s penis lay under the thin fabric.

Breathing in the fresh scent of Strike’s aftershave, she stretched her fingers under the elastic, circling the silky-smooth skin which evoked a more insistent line of kisses and her own breath escaped her hard. Robin drew a soft line down the long, hard length with the back of one finger, up and down. He pushed himself against her opening hand as she retraced her lines. She felt her own frisson of excitement as he kissed her below the ear and decided she was more than ready to see him naked.

Robin slid down to her knees and ran her finger around the inside of the waistband teasing him, she heard Strike exhale hard. She brought it down an inch and kissed the space before pulling it away from his body and down to the floor. Her eyes stayed watching as his erection responded to the sensation of the air. She dragged her nails along it and smiled up at him when he groaned loudly.

“Robin, come here,” Strike grasped her fingers as she stood, pulling her over to him as he sat on the edge of the bath, so she faced away from him.

His hands stroked the sleeves of her dress over the precipice of her shoulders, sliding them down her arms. Strike slipped his hands under Robin’s arms and brushed them over the lace of her bra covering the tightened nipples before gently pulling the bodice down to her waist, so the dress clung to her hips and then sliding it down over her hips and bottom.

“I fucking love all these knickers, Robin,” Strike murmured next to her ear.

She smiled to herself. She had thought of the underwear like one of the many disguises she had worn on undercover cases. It would turn her into a woman who felt, once again, self-confident in bed. Robin was surprised how much she felt it now naturally, without the need to play act or force it. The difference was, she thought, that she undoubtedly trusted this man who allowed her to be herself, stand up for herself. By choosing their work together and him she had empowered herself to truly let go of her self-consciousness.

He thought to himself that this side of Robin shouldn’t have been a surprise to him – that she was prim and proper, was just one of the ways Strike had misread her when she started working for him. For a man who was so perceptive, Robin had confused and discomforted him at every turn. He decided to see if he had imagined one thing correctly.

Strike pushed the fabric easily down her thighs until it pooled at her feet.

She turned to face him and he sat back to take in the silk of her skin, her creamy curves, rise and falls. His heart thrummed faster and combusted.

He splayed one hand on her stomach, while his other hand gingerly fingered the delicate bow at the top of the keyhole opening at the back of her briefs. But, he found, it was only for show. Slightly disappointed, Strike focused on the peeping top half of her bottom, revealed by the lace window. He began to circle the outline of the cut-out panel on her skin before an agonising stroke of the peach cleft of her smooth buttocks. His fingertips tickled, making Robin squirm in his arms.

His almost-black eyes glinted at her as they continued to rake over Robin’s body and he began to remove the sleeve that covered his knee. She stroked the tops of Strike’s shoulders while he dropped both hands to pull the end of his leg from the vacuum socket with an imperceptible sigh, laying it on the ground and slid off the gel liner. Robin looked at the amputated end of the leg impassively, his erection disturbed her equilibrium much more and she reached out to touch the scarring. She gently scratched her nails along the inside of his leg, testing where his nerve ending responded and soon a groan began its rumble in his throat.

Her hand slid over Strike’s back as he turned and lifted his legs over the edge and into the water first, lowering himself into the warmth of the bath. He rarely had this luxury but the stump was the only part of him that relaxed immediately.

Strike looked up at Robin, ethereally beautiful in the candlelight but her expression was more that of Lilith’s than Eve’s.

“I want to kiss you,” Strike breathed.

Robin’s hands reached behind her to undo the clasp of her bra, then she pulled down each strap before shrugging it off. His eyes took in her full breasts as they arched towards him and his lips parted expectantly. But she pulled back not allowing him close enough.

In retaliation, Strike reached out, hooking his fingers into the elastic of her briefs and began to edge them down, pressing bruising kisses over the thin skin over her hipbone. Robin craved to feel his fingers inside her and bent down and eased them off. He held her hand as she stepped into the welcomingly warm water of the bath and supported her as she lowered herself to lie in his arms.

As they adjusted themselves to fit, Strike’s chin cracked off of Robin’s head, “Ow! Fuck!’

Robin gave a half-laugh as she rubbed his chin, “it won’t be out of action for the foreseeable future, will it?” and he laughed with her.

But the sensation of the warm water and their skin sliding against one another soon had Strike turning to pick up the sponge and soap from the table next to the bath and passed it to her. Robin wet both and worked the sponge into a lather, as Strike kissed the curve leading from her shoulder to her throat his fingers trailing underneath her arms, along the side of her bottom.

Stroking water over Robin’s flawless ivory back and shoulders made Strike feel like the sculptor of a marble statue. Then her breasts were finally in his hands, and he savoured their weight, rubbing his thumbs over her nipples coaxing them into hard buds. She wiggled in his lap and he groaned into her ear reaching around her to take the sponge.

Strike began stroking her arms and shoulders with the sponge, leaving a trail of foam as she leant her head back into the crook of his neck turning her head to feel his lips on hers, his tongue running against the edge of her lips. He traced along her clavicle and she her eyes fluttered closed in pleasure as he neared her peaking breasts. But he didn’t return to them, instead, he circled her belly, sweeping away the rose petals that clung to her skin, again and again, just grazing the top of her mound. Every nerve ending sparked in response as he soaped her body and his kisses became deeper. She felt as if, secure in his arms, he was anchoring her from floating away.

As he rocked his pelvis against the cleft of Robin’s bottom, he pressed a kiss to her shoulder and the water shifted around them, her rose-pink nipples lifting out of the water like two volcanic islands. As the water settled over them, a petal floated to cling to her right nipple and Strike bent over and lifted her so he could lick it off in swirling sweeps.
He slid the sponge further down lifting Robin’s leg with his own thigh, so he could stroke the sponge over her leg and up her inner thigh. His wrist just tickling her opening. Robin put her hand over his and guided him as he circled the sponge over her breasts. Then she moved it down over her stomach again as he continued to massage her but it wasn’t enough – she needed the touch of his long fingers.

Robin pulled the sponge from his hand leaving the sponge to float and guided Strike towards her opening. She stroked his fingers up and down until the rhythm she desired was achieved. Her hand left his there, as she reached her arms up and looped them around his neck as his other hand combed the back of her hair. Then the tip of his finger slid inside her, curving and massaging her outer wall as she tightened around him and murmured his name.

Strike eyes roamed over the ivory and gold woman writhing in his arms. This was a new Robin. A secret Robin. She had been his secretary, his friend and partner and now his lover. Matthew had sensed in him a threat and he hadn’t been wrong. From the first moment, they had met this was what he had wanted to see. Strike felt utterly unashamed about it now that he could admit to himself how much he loved her.

Desperate to prolong the consuming burn, Robin stopped his hand and pushed herself up to sit on the edge of the bath and slide along until she was behind Strike. Once back in the water, he held her feet in his lap so she could continue what she had started doing to him earlier that evening.

Soaping the sponge again, she circled it over the upper half of Strike’s back, across the still red line of the scar on his back. Then she found the one on his hand. Scars that had bonded them together. His hands gripped the edge as one of Robin’s hands massaged his scalp and the other dragged the sponge down his chest, circling his soft belly. Then as he arched against her, she stroked it lower, gently sliding it up and down his erection until he groaned, grabbed her wrist and twisting his body to put his arm around her and drag her onto his lap.

The water swirled around them and slopped over the side, splashing onto the tiling below.

Robin’s legs wrapped around Strike’s back. She dipped her hand in the water behind her, cupping the weight of his testicles in her palm and gently grazing them with her fingertips. His hands on her hips slid her up and down his errction until he grimaced.

“Robin? Can we move out of the bath?” he said repressively, kissing her cheek as she nodded.

She reached backwards, pulling the plug. Climbing out of the water, she found her legs trembled. Robin sat on the edge of the bath till she could safely rely on them again. Strike watched transfixed as the rivulets of water trailed down over her skin and combined until Robin pulled a white cotton towel around herself.

He lay back in the bath eyes closed as she traced the thick lashes framing his eyes. Calmed by the pull of the water as it drained, Strike began to push himself to sit on the side and Robin stood.

She picked up a towel and while he was focusing on not killing himself getting out, she flicked his arse with it.

He went still and looked down at her from under his brow, eyes shadowed, a smile almost touching his lips, “Oh, that’s how it is, is it Robin? Taking advantage of a man at his weakest moment.”

“Please!” she rolled her eyes and threw it to him.

While Robin brought him his crutches, Strike tucked the towel at his waist. He pulled her into another time-obliterating kiss, striping her of the towel he dried her body and she returned the favour. Once he was only damp from the warm steam that still hung in the air, Robin dropped the towel and walked ahead into the bedroom.

Chapter Text

Following her into the bedroom, Strike saw she was already laying on the bed, her skin planes of porcelain, watching him swing his body across the floor, a mock-lascivious look on her face.

He raised his eyebrows at her, “Want to take a picture?” he said smirking, his eyes doing plenty of leering of their own.

“Maybe next time,”

“Well, will you do something for me?” He took her sauciness as a sign she wouldn’t be horrified by this request.

Robin raised her eyebrows.

“Can you stand putting your shoes back on?”

She laughed, nodding, “Makes a lot of sense now about why they were my present!”

“Your present?” he murmured as he stood over her.

But Robin’s laughter was cut short as she watched the reverence on his face after Strike secured each buckle and stroked upwards from her ankle.

He clambered onto the bed to sit facing her and Robin crawled into his lap wrapping her legs behind him. She held his chin between her thumb and finger and traced over the little creases at his eyes and forehead with her other hand. His hands ran up and down the plains of her back, the curve of her bottom and back along her legs to her shoes.

“Are you starting to realise that you’re about to make love to an old man?” his eyes smiling.

Robin’s laughter was so hard it rocked them both as her hands went to his shoulders so she didn’t fall and the more she tried to stop the worse it became.

“Well, you’re doing wonders for my self-confidence right now,” Strike only half-grumbled.

“No…no…it’s just…” she struggled to catch her breath, “…you said…‘make love’,” she could not stop giggling, especially as he looked momentarily grumpy.

“Yeah?”

“But, you are Cormoran-fucking-Strike!”

He nodded, finally understanding, treating her with a crooked smile “Oh, so you like my bad language do you, Miss Ellacott,” he put an emphasis on the miss.

Her smile was embarrassed but the flicker of her eyes away from him and then their return told him what he needed to know.
Strike’s face lit up in surprise at her and he looked almost boyish, but his eyes were almost black, “So shall I tell you how I’m going to fuck you then?” he murmured to Robin.

She laughed in a more controlled way now, until her head darted forward to kiss his scar and run her tongue along his bottom lip, “Mmmhmm,’ she encouraged.

Strike stroked her hair back, exposing her throat again and kissed, licked and nibbled the sensitive spots he had memorised in the bath. He dropped his mouth to her ear to tell her, in no uncertain terms, what was coming next and Anita’s words came back to her in a rush.

“I love you so much,” she whispered back to him.

“I’ve not done it yet!” He murmured as he kissed her.

He’d seen that look before. Strike knew she meant it, there didn’t have to be any tests or trials. Robin was his and his heart warmed so completely, in a way it had never done before. His whispers turned to terms of endearments, mixed with promises of what was to come.

When he reached her earlobe, Strike sucked it into his mouth and Robin fisted her hands through the curls of his hair. His lips travelled downwards, caressing her throat with his fingers and lips, his kisses turned to gentle bites as his hand drifted between them and he stroked the side of his finger fleetingly against her fold, as she palmed his non-existent pec. Before she could tell him not to stop, his hand was massaging her thighs as they strained around him, drawing him closer. She lifted her feet, dragging them down his lower back and buttocks and he drew his mouth away to let out a gasping moan.

Strike whispered in her ear and she lifted herself onto her knees, his fingertips skimmed the lower curve of her breast and breathed in the scent of her skin. He kissed along her clavicle to the crease of her arm. Then he dropped his head trailing his tongue over her ribcage.

She felt liquid in his arms but before the teasing became too much Strike lent towards her breast again. He sucked the cream and pale pink flesh and kissed it, Robin whimpered as waves of tension began a slow course through her core. He took the nipple into his mouth and circling it, blowing on the saliva, which caused a chill to run through her. She pushed the back of his head closer, urging him for more and he began to alternately suck hard and nibble at the bud, mirroring his movement with his hand at Robin’s other breast. Soon, she was squirming and writhing again as his hands reached behind him to stroke the feet encased in the leather straps. Their damp foreheads touching. Their breathing synchronised.

Once he’d finished whispering his next intention, with a moan, she ground her clit against the hard wetness of his cock.

He helped her off of his lap and she laid back on the bed as he lent over her, kissing her mouth, his tongue darting to lick hers. He slowly moved his lips away and travelled down her body kissing his favourite parts as he went. His head hovered over her folds and he clamped his elbow on the other side forcing her legs shut. He bent down and licked her clit, she wiggled to free herself from the clamp of his elbow and open her legs for more. Strike could tell from the way she clawed at his buttocks just how much she was enjoying his touch and he chuckled against her skin, refusing to let her go, giving Robin two…three more firm licks.

“Fuck!” Robin hissed, thinking how Strike had always had a knack for frustrating her, as he lifted his mouth from her. Strike moved back to her other nipple. His hand slipped to caress Robin’s bottom and squeeze. He picked up a pillow to support his knee and moved his legs on each side of her, using them to still keep her legs shut. He slid his hand between her legs and teased her opening with his fingers, she rocked her hips, until she found the best rhythm. Finally, he moved his leg to separate her limbs with his knee, using his whole leg to balance. He placed his knee between her legs and she ground against it as he sucked her nipple again.

Strike moved his leg away and crawled down her body again using his strongest knee and hip, he lay on his side and pulled her towards him. Her legs, now free went either side of his head. He licked her, with the flat rasp of his tongue before varying into swirls and soon she was riding his face, his tongue pushing inside of her, then returning to her clit. Robin gasped as he pushed his finger into her, stroking the nerve endings of her walls, finding the perfect combination with his tongue. She gripped the cushions, the duvet, his hair and rocked her hips to edge the torment inside of her to its end. Suddenly her orgasm began with a shuddering wave and Strike held her twisting thighs but he wouldn’t stop until each turbulent wave crashed through her body.

His head lay against her thigh, fingers still inside her, while his other hand stroked her body gently. Robin’s blissed-out state fascinated him, her hair slightly mussed Bardot-like, Strike thought. Pink flushes glowed on her cheeks like the inside of the Erigon daisies that grew from cracks in walls at his childhood home. Her bright eyes watched him back, just as awed. He couldn’t stop himself from wondering whether she had been like this with Matthew. He wasn’t naïve – he himself had had mind-altering sex before. He hated himself for even thinking of drawing comparisons right now. There were things Strike did not want to think of right now.

“You look so beautiful, I can’t pick a part of you to love the most,” he murmured.

She had seen that look before, admiring the different ways she had impressed him over the last year and a half and now she saw he may have loved her for quite a while, perhaps even before he realised himself. She crawled over to him so she could lay her head on his thigh and he linked his fingers through hers, stroking her palm with his thumb again.

But, feeling more in her body than Robin had been before, she let go to swirl her nails over Strike’s lower belly, gently scratching through his hair. She felt gratified as his erection jumped in response.

“You don’t have to reciprocate at all Robin,”

In answer, she lifted Strike’s knee and stroked underneath with her fingertips, his leg tensed and Robin moved upwards towards his inner thighs, she bent over his open legs, replacing her fingers with her mouth as she kissed and grazed his skin with her teeth until she heard him hiss out a breath and his fingers were in her hair. She felt his fingers start to very slowly stroke inside of her to see if she was ready for more. As she blew the wetness on his tip, which elicited a heavy sigh from him, she couldn’t believe that she was beginning to become wet again.

Robin continued the slow pace when her mouth grazed his erection, she gripped the base with her hand. She began to gradually thrust her hand up and down Strike’s unyielding shaft, taking over the motion with her tongue, as she ran the nails of her other hand along the side of his hips. She moved her own legs wider apart, showing him he had massaged her past the point of hyper-sensitivity. And as she felt her own rising tension again, she covered him with her mouth, her lips around the base of his head and her tongue playing with his tip as he arched from the bed. Her own need caused her to fully take him into her mouth, her tongue running along the shaft. But she only managed a few strokes before he lifted her head with his hand at the back of her neck.

Strike still worked her with his hand, as he propped himself up on his elbow, ‘Robin, pass me your bag?’

He was looking over the edge of the bed. Robin followed him and saw the packet of condoms she had taken from his flat when this had just seemed only a faint possibility. Rather than remaining buried inside, they were lying on the top of her open bag. He had known she had taken them!

Her flush was now an outright blush.

“So, you were intending to ravish me from the moment we left the flat, hey?”

“No,” she giggled, “Long before that!”

“Better get on with it then,”

As Robin climbed over him to get them, he licked her opening and swirled the tip around her clit, which throbbed again for release. She tore the packet open and moving down over him, handed it to him as she stroked the soft skinned globes below his erection. He gasped and stretched the condom over his girth. Robin put her hand on his chest to still him for a moment and looked him meaningfully in the eye as she swung her leg over him. He nodded, leaning back on his elbows as she moved the cushion behind him.

She took Strike’s erection in her hand and rubbed the end against her until he was straining. Robin positioned herself over him and slowly pushed down onto him. His hips lifted as she stretched around him. As she began to grind against him, his fingers drifted down her back and round to trace the outline of her waist before stroking her buttocks. Strike’s head at her breast, he sucked and grazed the nipple with his teeth until she couldn’t hold her moans inside of her any longer. He responded excitedly to her, rocking his hips to rub her outer wall.

“I can’t last much longer like this Robin, can we move?”

She nodded as she was beyond speech and Strike guided her back gently so she lay down on the hillock of cushions and pillows they had made which propped her up slightly. As he slid into her folds, he ground into her, Robin felt as if she could feel Strike everywhere inside her. Her hands ran down his sides and gripped his arse again.

To make himself last longer Strike gently put his weight on his knees and lifted Robin’s legs, holding them against him so her feet dangled over his shoulder. He thrust into her and thumbed her clit again. She squeezed her eyes shut as her orgasm detonated around him and she felt the shockwaves hit and Strike felt Robin clench around him. He drove through her orgasm, sliding himself upwards so that the base of his cock replaced his thumb rubbing her clit. It was as if he drew her orgasm into himself and he was there with her, lifting her slightly to press against every part of him for a few more explosive strokes, before collapsing onto his elbows so he didn’t crush Robin as he shuddered in her arms from the aftershocks.

Exhausted they stayed tangled in each other arms, Strike traced the features of her face with his fingertips and she tilted her chin upwards to kiss him. As they parted he murmured, “That was...’.

“I know…”, she giggled, “All I can compare it to is being nearly pushed to my death – you know, like down a flight of stairs - then miraculously being pulled back from the brink at the last minute.”

Strike laughed, placing his forehead against hers, he was so glad he had.

Chapter Text

There were no soft blue-grey eyes watching over Strike when he awoke. For the first time in three nights, he was alone in bed. He had experienced many different emotions on achieving consciousness throughout his life. The expanding black hole in his chest as the reality of heartbreak, from love, from grief, bleached all other thought and feeling. The stirring hunger of arousal needing satiation. The landslide of tiredness that kept him buried under sleep for a few more hours even when he had a good twelve-hour day in front of him. After just fourteen hours, he missed Robin’s voice and missed her face, but the hollow feeling of a cold sharp breath in his chest had been consumed. Robin loved him. And that love didn’t come with a dose of pain, recrimination or guilt.

Robin had been out with Al during the evening at Shoreditch House. He’d agreed to take her the week before as one of his friends was a new client. Another world-famous rock star, whose ex-wife had accused him of not being a fit father in order to gain back full custody of their two children. The rock star wanted proof that she was spending every night of the week coked up and drunk, which is how he had ended up with full custody in the first place. Her evidence was weak, some ranting emails he had sent her but his love for his children meant he wanted to be sure they were safe. Afterwards, Robin had stayed the night back in her room at Nick and Ilsa’s. Strike had waited for her to text to say she was back safe while he had done some work on his own case. He had fallen asleep at his desk before dragging himself to bed at about half past one in the morning.

He reached over to find his mobile. As his hand felt the bare bedside table a sudden flash of it still on the desk appeared in his mind. He sighed. Finally, a feeling he was used to. He felt the crush of a regret. He remembered he was supposed to see Charlotte today. He did not want to see her.

She had been like a spectre lurking in the back of his mind for months but it was as if the lights had been switched on and the horror had been revealed to be the corrupted shadow of some innocuous thing. Texting her had been a mistake. Extracting himself now from the arrangement could cause more disruption than just going. It would have been better to catch her off guard but the combination of his urge to take action and being hundreds of miles away had made him fuck up.

Strike squeezed his eyes shut under the poor water pressure of the shower, letting the warm water wash away the gooseflesh that had sprung up on his skin as he had hopped across the flat to the bathroom. The October weather had cooled overnight. As he ran the sponge over himself he missed Robin’s touch and wondered if she would get to the office early. Maybe she would come and see him in the flat beforehand. Perhaps while he was still in the shower.

“Fuck!” Strike had lost concentration and his foot had slipped. Luckily the narrowness of the walls of the shower meant he couldn’t bend enough to fall. Better to just get ready quickly, he thought to himself before his imagination got him in trouble.

Completely oblivious to the near accident she had caused upstairs, Robin sat at her old desk typing up her notes and transferring the photos from the glasses she had taken with her the night before. Shoreditch House had been an experience, she felt like she was in an episode of Sex and the City as she and Al had sat on a lounger around the rooftop swimming pool while the Supermodel ex-wife, who Robin called Red due to her iconic deep auburn hair, cavorted in the water. Robin herself, and many of the other people on the loungers had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Al had been good company, although he’d asked her again if she thought it was likely Strike would come around to meeting his father again. Focusing on the computer screen, Robin switched between photos that she had taken near the toilets and changing rooms, trying to judge which was the better for showing the residue of white powder around the woman’s perfect nostril.

With the stiff silence of the room only broken by Robin’s occasional clicking of the mouse or keys, her eyes were inevitably drawn back towards the sofa where a woman sat. Robin knew the woman was a decade older than herself, although she looked a lot younger. She was clearly well-bred by the way she had floated in, expecting Robin’s attention immediately while the woman noticed the change to the office door and paused to examine the name above Strike’s. She had then looked at Robin in assessment. Robin had not shrunk from under her scrutiny but had smiled and brightly asked, “Hi, Robin Ellacott how may I help you?”

Even though Robin was pretty clear about what she would want.

Robin had remembered well that husky voice as she spoke, “Oh, I’m here to see Cormoran Strike, shall I just go through?”

And then Robin registered the irritation, which did nothing to impair the woman’s beauty, when Robin informed her, “Apologies, Mr Strike won’t be here until nine thirty and I don’t think you have an appointment. Can I help?”

“No, Bluey is an old friend. It’s only a few minutes, I’ll wait here shall I? I’m Charlotte Campbell-Ross.”

I know, Robin had thought. But what was she doing here? Strike was supposed to be meeting her later today.

Robin saved her notes, closing down the computer and began to pack her bag for the day, hoping to make it upstairs to warn Strike before she went out. However, she heard Strike’s steady, slow steps on the stairs. She hoped Charlotte couldn’t register which direction the footsteps were coming from. Robin stood up, grabbing her back.

Before she got to the coat stand she said, “Here he is, it was nice to meet you,” and she came face to face with Strike as he opened the door. From where he was standing he would have no idea who sat
waiting for him on the sofa.

“Morning,” was her curt, professional greeting, and she gave him an expression of warning as her head jerked towards the sofa.

He looked curiously at her.

“Mrs Charlotte Campbell-Ross waiting to see you, I couldn’t call you as your mobile was on the desk in the other office. I’ll be back this evening.” As she passed him, he nodded in understanding. She knew from his sigh, he wasn’t looking forward to this. Robin didn’t know why she had said Mrs. She squeezed his arm discreetly before she walked away.

As the door clicked shut she stopped on the stairs remembering what had happened to Strike the last time he’d been anywhere near Charlotte’s. Frustratingly, he wouldn’t thank her for sitting right here on the stairs and waiting to check that Charlotte left and Strike remained unharmed. She listened to check their voices were still low before she forced her way down, step by step by step.

 

“Charlotte. What are you doing here?” He tried to sound more surprised than exasperated, more with himself than her. She was just doing what she always did.

“I thought we could go for a coffee – I told you Bluey, I couldn’t wait to see you,”

Her voice. Her face. Strike flinched as he looked at the woman whose love had interrupted his life, had corrupted his friendships, his family, the way he even saw himself. She was beautiful. He felt the stir of infected cells caused by the sweetness of her beauty but he had not forgotten the sour aftertaste.

He let out a sigh, rubbing his forehead with his hand, “It isn’t a good time. I’ve got work. Actually…”

“I left Jago. A month ago…he was…well…you know what he was like…” Her voice lost impetus as she went on and her hazel eyes became pools of self-pity where Strike had once seen misery, as they glanced away from him.

He could have predicted the way the conversation was going as she progressed through the usual switches and triggers. But he felt the pushback of his newfound immunity and wished himself in this office with the woman who had just fled the scene.

“Look, I’ve fucked up by not being clear on the phone,” his voice was wary as he took in all the objects that could possibly be thrown at him. The unpredictability of her behaviour, which had once fascinated him, now posed a larger threat as he has an appointment with a new client in the next 45 minutes.

She knew what was coming, so Charlotte doubled her attack but her voice was now bordering on cloying, “Look Bluey, we haven’t seen each other for over a year and a half and you called me weeks after I was free again. I know I was awful to you those weeks before we broke up and I’m so sorry, I really am. But, you know you love me!”

A deep breath cleansed him, “No Charlotte. Nothing is different. I had no idea you’d broken up with Ross. I didn’t contact you because I wanted us to get back together - sorry.”

He wasn’t sorry. He was actually happy for the first time in a very long time. Then he saw the almost imperceptible change in her face that he had learnt to watch for over the years.

“What? Because you’re a ‘famous’ detective now you don’t need me to get you into the papers anymore?”

“What are you talking about Charlotte?” He tried really hard not to scowl, to keep his features even and calm, “Have you completely forgotten what happened between us. You told me you were pregnant, then you weren’t. I broke up with you because I have no idea what the truth was. Weeks later your engaged and months later married.”

“Well, some people don’t take 16 years!” She threw back at him.

“You think I haven’t worked out you were fucking Ross behind my back!” That at least got the response of an arched eyebrow, confirmation she actually believed he was good for nothing but picking her up and dusting her off when she was crawling on the floor of her life, “You tormented me with that baby Charlotte, even afterwards you used it to get me to come back!”

“Because you still lo–“

“No, I really don’t,” there was a touch of surprise as he said it aloud and then came the avalanche of words he had kept locked away in a dark place of his mind, “What I care about is that there might have been a child that was mine. If there was, something happened to it either, yes, you miscarried it or you aborted or it never existed in the first place. I thought you may be ready to tell me the truth.” The disgust he had for her had not dissipated.

When he finally looked at her, she gazed at him as she had done in their best moments. Her eyes concerned, full of what he’d thought of as love. He waited for the answer that deep down he had always known. Her voice was small, “There was no baby. You’re right I was sleeping with Jago at the same time. I was so scared Bluey, of losing you, I couldn’t face checking with the doctor. I knew it would be the end.” But then came the usual words, twisting it around, so it was Strike’s fault, “You know what I need better than anyone but you neglected me, I was living in the shadow of your job! If you had at least not been working so hard, I would never have–“

“Don’t!” His eyes scanned the emptiness of Robin’s old desk, “You’re not putting that on me. I hoped you had changed after I lost my leg – I thought you’d been given some perspective on our relationship, on me. A lie I told myself. But you never change Charlotte. You can’t! But it has changed me. I can’t go back to that.”

“Who the fuck is Robin Ellacott?”

His head whipped around at the sound of the snarl in her voice, “She’s my partner.”

“Partner?” he heard from her tone that Charlotte knew the full implications of the word he had used.

“Partner.”

“So that’s it! You’re fucking some twenty-year-old. You’re a fucking fool Cormoran, fucking your secretary! I remember - that’s what she was before you put her on top of you on your door and probably in your bed. You fucking cliché! You think you’re better than me – you’re as fucking pathetic!”

Strike had turned away from her after her first three words and opened the door to the office. Either she left or he did. She could smash the office to bits. He just wanted her gone. He agreed with her - he was a fucking fool for thinking this could be any different.

“I’ll go, don’t be scared, I won’t hit you,” her voice girlishly cruel. As she faced him, she spat in his face.

Chapter Text

Barely having touched for over thirty hours and both having waited months to be able to do so whenever they wanted, Robin and Strike had fallen into bed moments after she had opened his flat door to him late that evening. He had texted her soon after Charlotte had left, saying she had left and he would tell her what happened when they saw each other but Charlotte had certainly not dominated each other's thoughts once they were in close proximity.

"She did what?" Robin looked up at him from where her head had lain over his still accelerated heartbeat while she listened to what had happened between Strike and Charlotte. Her face, already flushed, was nearly bright red with anger.

"Spat in my face…lucky that was all," Strike's arm was thrown back against the pillow, his fingers rubbed his forehead. The thought of his clash with Charlotte already bringing back any tension that may have just been relieved.

Pulling herself up to lean on one elbow, she linked her fingers in his and rested his hand on her bare hip, she took over the massaging of his temple with her thumb, "What did you do?"

"I was just glad she left." Strike sighed, his arms tightened around her back drawing her closer until she moulded herself against the side of his body as they lay on the bed, "I must've still been drunk to text her in the first place."

Robin's eyes slipped away from him and she exhaled shakily.

"What's wrong?" He asked softly, pushing errant stands of rose-gold hair from the damp skin on her forehead and shoulder.

She bit her bottom lip then pursed them together, "I feel like it's my fault - I stirred it all up again for you. And then, she did that to you!" Robin stroked Strike's face, smoothing the lines in his forehead, feeling the rough and smooth of his beard where she imagined the spittle of Charlotte's bitterness to have landed. She kissed the crease on his cheek and he turned his head to feel her kiss on his lips.

"You didn't do anything wrong.'

No, she thought as anger took over from guilt, that bitch did. What she was partly stunned by was Strike's calmness. He seemed to be resigned to the fact that Charlotte would treat him like this.

Strike noticed the way her eyelids blinked just a little faster and the way her mouth lost it natural pout and flattened out. He arched his back to jog her from her fixed stare into nothing. Her eyes flicked back to his. Robin traced the thick arch of his eyebrow and the creases around his eyes as she thought how to say what was on her mind.

"Well?"

"You just don't seem as angry as I would have imagined you to be…how angry you should be. What if I had turned up to work with a cut black eye and scratches on my face when I was with Matthew? If I had told you Matthew spat on my face?

He tried to make light of her words, "I did imagine punching him a couple of times just for making you cry."

"But then it's not the same that she did that to you?" She cupped his face in her hand as she looked down at him. Her eyes glassy, "Did you really love her that much?"

"I thought so. I didn't just put up with it. I've been angry…the day we met, you must have heard us?"

"I'll never forget it. You sounded furious…but then you ran after her?"

"Because…I thought she'd do something stupid - I've had to talk her down from a roof ledge before now."

For all of Strike's gruffness, his intimidatingly large height and boxer's face, he could be one of the kindest and caring men Robin had known, especially for a needy case. Robin thought that Charlotte had probably sensed this too, especially when Strike was young and probably far from naïve but impressionable when it had come to beauty and first love. Robin believed Charlotte had taken advantage of his nature. Something she knew Strike would never actually admit. But she felt she should tell him something that would make him feel less at fault.

"…at University we did the different personality disorders, like schizophrenia," Robin ventured

"Okay?"

"Well, one of them is Histrionic - people with low self-esteem, who put themselves in a situation where they create a vicious cycle with their own emotional wellbeing. So, for instance, did she put herself in dangerous situations? Did she do it to get your attention? Her relationships with friends and family would not have been very sincere, therefore making her feel more and more insecure,"

Strike listened, the sinking feeling in his gut at the ring of truth of her words but also partly in awe of Robin's intuitive reading of Charlotte. One day, he wondered, she could surpass his own abilities.

" - as rejection makes them feel even worse. What provoked her in the first place?"

He looked away struggling with whether to tell her. However much it wasn't, she'd still feel like it was her fault in some way. Her eyes were still watching him, waiting.

Strike's voice was low and tender, "I told her about you,"

"You did?"

"Well to be fair, she had worked it out. Didn't you tell Matthew about me?"

She lifted her eyebrows in recognition.

He stroked her long hair, fanning it so that against the light it was the colour of a flame, "And it took you long enough - cost me a grand getting up to Masham in time to stop that bloody wedding!"

Her eyes widened, "It didn't, did it? Not that you stopped the wedding,"

Strike pulled a face as if he knew better.

"Shanker did it for half price as you didn't marry the twat… his words."

"Yeah!" She looked disbelieving at him for a moment before she moved her lips closer to his, his lips parted and she kissed each one before their tongues rasped against each other.

"What did you tell her?" She tried to sound neutral.

"That you were my partner," He watched her from underneath his lashes.

"Is that all…" and then as she looked into his face, realisation dawned, "Oh!"

"Is that alright?"

Her reply was to kiss him again and neither of them wanted to think of Charlotte for quite a while.

 

Later, with Strike's limbs tangled in hers, his head tucked underneath her chin, Robin said, "Looking back the whole knocking into each other…"

"And you stopping me?"

"It's a bit weird,"

"…considering," he looked up at her to admire the way her face was aglow again and he tried to conceal the pride in his smile.

"Makes a good story though…"

"For?" He raised an eyebrow at her and she laughed knowing how tight-lipped he could be.

She trailed her fingertips along his arm, her mind back on the events of the morning, "So when Charlotte told you she'd lied to you about the baby,"

"Mmm…"

"What did it feel like, her telling you finally?"

"Relief,"

She thought she understand what he meant but she wanted to hear it from him. After the rows with Matthew, she needed to be sure they wanted the same things from each other. It wasn't just their romantic relationship that depended on it but their working partnership too - all the ways in which they had tied themselves to one another. It was better they talked about it now and avoided the kind of hurt that she had already had a taste of when he'd walked out of her flat months before, "Because?"

Strike could feel her pulse had quickened, "Me and Charlotte didn't have children because we couldn't, we weren't like Nick and Ilsa. Both of us agreed we didn't want them and Charlotte could be…spiteful about other people's children," When Robin gave him a knowing look, he added, "Not that I'm keen to spend time with them either. When she said she was pregnant it was a shock, but I didn't want her to get an abortion. I mostly felt scared." His lips curved upwards at one side of his mouth.

Robin gave only a half-laugh, "Were you relieved when she said she had lost it?"

"No. I was upset. But the more she asked me how I could still love her, the more it felt like every other time she had needed me to give her reassurance. She didn't seem distraught enough. By that time, I was already suspicious of her, so it compounded the doubt. But underneath it all there was definitely sadness there."

Robin nodded but she wasn't finished, "Did you just not want children with Charlotte?"

He sighed but he had always known being with Robin would come down to this. He had acted only when he was sure he could commit to her and consider trying to think of himself in a different way.

"I had another long-term girlfriend, Tracey, she was in the SIB with me years ago."

"Oh," Robin tried to not show her surprise, tried not to draw any parallels between herself.

"We broke up because she wanted kids and I didn't."

And there it was the cold, ice in her stomach. Exactly what she had feared.

Her fingers stopped their movement. She carefully breathed out not wanting Strike to be aware of her distress. Robin had always wanted children, just not as immediately as Matthew had talked about. She had just assumed that when she felt ready when she had started on her path and had finally had achievements of her own, she would be a have-it-all woman. Now her children were grown up, Robin's mother was even pursuing her own goals. Children weren't a box to be ticked or an accessory of achievement with an Audi A3 Cabriolet. They were something else Robin could give her love to and nurture. She had a happy childhood with lots of wonderful memories of family. It was not something she could miss out on. For anyone.

But Strike had felt her shock and looked up at her. He pushed himself up on his elbow and leant his head on his hand, "Shit, Robin,"

Robin had turned white.

He stroked her hair, trying to comfort her, he put his arm around her, pulling her into him, "Robin?" He waited until she would look at him, "I didn't mean to upset you. I've always known you're going to want a family and I couldn't be without you over something like that, okay? I only need some time, alright?"

Robin just looked at him, "I don't want you to do something you can't stand the thought of Cormoran. It wouldn't be right."

"That's not it at all. This is hard for me, just let me try and explain," Strike said honestly "I just wasn't brought up like you, bloody far from it,"

"I know…"

"No, I don't think you do…I think you can empathise with it but you can't know what it's like to not be your parents' first priority, ever - I don't know what it means to be a dad. I mean can you truly see me as a domesticated father of three like Greg?"

She'd met Greg once when Lucy brought him to the office. He was cut from the same cloth as Matthew. The image made her laugh even if she didn't want to, "I wouldn't want a Greg, I'm not a Lucy either!"

"I know that. But I have to get used to the idea. I feel I can - with you. Just give me some time, you're not in any rush, are you?"

"Absolutely not, I've only just found this - the job, you, I just want to enjoy it but I don't want us to end up like Matthew and me,"

"Do you really think that could happen?" His hand clasped her chin and he stroked her cheek, "I promise I'll get there."

Chapter Text

Robin couldn't catch her breath. Ilsa and Vanessa looked just as bad off as they screeched with laughter around the table with her. Robin had just finished telling them about most of the Sten party, keeping the most outrageous parts to herself.

"I don't think I'll be able to look Strike in the eye again - who'd have known!" Vanessa looked especially shocked. She hadn't spent enough time with him to see completely past the gruff exterior yet.

"You'd be surprised - when we were teenagers…well, I'm not going to say anything," Ilsa dipped her hand in the bowl for another samosa. I'll end up incriminating myself," she laughed.

The veranda in Dishoom had tried it's best to transport them to a recreation of an Irani café in Bombay but the hipsters, office workers and the persistent drizzle of London had made it hard to forget that they were just in Shoreditch on another Thursday night. Robin's mobile began to incessantly beep on the table. She hated it when people answered their phone at dinner.

"It's okay," Ilsa reassured her, "It sounds urgent,"

She frowned at it and turned it over, "Actually, it's not a message - it's loads of emails."

"Spam?" Vanessa suggested.

Robin had looked at the screen and saw who the email was from immediately. She didn't think she would ever forget that email address.

"What's wrong?" Ilsa was concerned about the pinched look on Robin's face.

"They're from Charlotte,"

While Ilsa filled Vanessa in with who Charlotte was, Robin swiped her screen through to her inbox.

"What's wrong with her?" Ilsa was immediately cross, "First Corm, now you, what is she playing at?"

"Should I open them?" Even though Robin could control her curiosity with Strike, given the bravado of being giggly with two new friends made the thought of opening them irresistible to Robin, "I'm going to open them." Before any of them could stop her, she had opened the first email, "Fuck!"

"You've been spending too much time with Corm!" Ilsa pretended to be disapproving.

"Sorry! Accident. It's just…" Strike's bare body had flashed on the screen. He lay chest down in bed, his face turned to the side, the sheet was just about covering his lower body. The photo was clearly from before he had lost his leg. Taken while he was sleeping, his smooth face looked much younger as the cigarettes hadn't yet taken a toll on his skin. His limbs and torso were tanned muscle, so it must have been from his boxing days, "They're photos of Cormoran - this one's not indecent but…" her emphasis on the last word made it clear this was not for their eyes, she'd save Strike his blushes.

"Charlotte has sent you naked photos of Corm?" Ilsa was disgusted.

"Not exactly naked- she's scanned at least one letter too…" Robin ran her eyes over Strike's handwriting, words of love and longing were woven together by his heavy, spiky handwriting. She stopped reading, "Love letters," her voice sounded flat even to herself.

Robin had thought Ilsa couldn't have reached another level of anger, but she found she could, "Does Charlotte think she can provoke you into a jealous rage? That's more her style!"

Robin rolled her eyes, "Doesn't surprise me, she's the kind of woman who sees everyone else as competition,"

"That's why she hates me, I hugged Corm once - a little too long in her estimation - she had some choice words for me when we were alone,"

Robin's brow shot up in surprise that Charlotte had gone so far, "Did you tell Cormoran?"

"She'd already tried her best to isolate him from us, any other conflict between them and she would have made sure we would have never seen him again,"

Robin felt a little disappointed in Strike until she remembered these were her friends of mere months. She had none in London before the wedding apart from Strike, the people she spent her free time with had been Matthew's friends. She could see how easily it could happen.

"What will Strike say?" Vanessa looked concerned.

"Are you going to tell him?" Ilsa interjected, "Just remember she'll have sent these to you because she expects you to have a certain response,"

"You don't think she would have thought through both scenarios?"

"Mmm…suppose so."

"It's more than likely if I tell him, he'll just tell me to ignore her."

 

"Ignore her."

Robin tried to hide her smile at Strike's response

Strike's eyes had narrowed as he swiped through the photos and scans, his face becoming increasingly surly. He was assuming Charlotte had meant to make Robin feel insecure, but the more he looked through these and saw the way he had aged, the more insecure he felt that Robin could have seen his downward slide into near middle-age. He inwardly cursed Charlotte.

The love letters had made him scowl more intensely than the candid shots of him. His words seemed vacuous and anaemic as Strike thought of the intensity of his feelings towards Robin. He and Charlotte had shared their scars of traumatic childhoods which had drawn them towards one another. Robin, on the other hand, shared his excitement and sometimes blind focus on their work, her similar sense of humour, generous and caring personality seemed to lighten his and frankly, there was no one he felt understood and accepted him more. He hadn't ever bought into the idea of finding one perfect love until Robin.

You're being a fucking soppy idiot.

She looked at him quizzically as Robin had noticed his eyes lifting to look at her, "You didn't open them all?" he handed her back the phone and she wondered why he was smiling softly in the circumstances.

"No, I'm not going to give her the satisfaction and that's not fair to you I just thought I should tell you before I deleted them," Robin looked up at him from deleting the emails, emptying the trash folder and finally blocked Charlotte's email address, "Aren't you worried that she could use them against you in another way? Give them to the press to embarrass you?"

He stood up from where he was leaning against the desk, "I don't think my naked body will warrant a lot of press coverage, Robin,"

She smiled and her grey-blue eyes twinkled with mischief, "I'd buy a copy,"

Strike's brow wrinkled, "You don't need it - you're the lucky one who's got all this on tap," he patted his stomach and gave her a warm grin.

Robin reached up and cupped his face in her hand, "Sod off!" she laughed.

He winked at her before asking "Tea?" and he was gone, walking off into the other room.

 

That afternoon Robin had tracked Red to the Langham hotel. She had arrived alone, and Robin observed the main entrance for her to come back out, sat on the sand-coloured, curved steps of All Souls camouflaged by the chattering tourists she could sit with her camera ready. Her mobile dinged and she saw a text from Ilsa.

Is it all organised for tomorrow?.

Robin texted back, She's agreed to meet at 13:00

Okay, are you coming back tonight, or shall we meet a bit earlier to discuss?

No - I'll meet you at Bond Street Station at the ticket gates at 12:00.

For the rest of the afternoon, she tried to fight the sickly churning in her stomach. How was she going to tell Cormoran?

 

"You've got work on tomorrow haven't you?" She asked Strike casually. The credits rolled on the episode of 'The Killing' they had missed while away at the wedding. They had spent most of the episode arguing who the murderer was. Strike had threatened to buy her a Faroe Island jumper because perhaps it would make Robin more like Lund and she'd finally agree with him that the murderer was the sycophantic friend of the father's. She knew it was too but she it was too easy to torment him. And he let her, Matthew never had. Her lips trailed down his throat.

"Have to do some surveillance for the Alam case, catch up after last weekend. Why?" His voice became low and husky.

Robin's lips found the hollow of his throat and Strike breathed in raggedly, tightening his arm around her. His fingers undone the buttons of her shirt, one by one, just revealing a hint of a white lacy bra against the incandescence of her creamy skin.

"Lifting her head she explained, "As you weren't around, I arranged to meet up with Ilsa. Go shopping. Nick has a weekend shift," She tried to make it sound casual but the memory of what had happened last time she hadn't been honest with him tormented her.

Strike absorbed the tension lines in her face and mistook it for disappointment, apart from being desperate for sleep he hadn't wished he could have a day off for a long time so he could just enjoy being with Robin alone for the whole day, "We're both free on Sunday - do something special? I've not even taken you out for dinner yet," he stroked his fingertips along her petal-soft skin through the opening he had made.

Robin's guilt swelled at his words and the thrill of his touch as she leant her forehead against Strike's cheek, "We've been to the pub for lunch twice this week?" to show that she had appreciated every moment they managed to spend together during the last week.

His other hand ran through her hair, untangling the tousles he'd made. He lifted an eyebrow, "You think that's the extent of my dating prowess?" Strike shook his head in mock-outrage.

She giggled and dipped her eyes down.

"I clearly need to raise your expectations," and his lips grazed against hers.

 

Once their plan had been properly formulated, Robin and Ilsa mounted the escalators that would take them to street level through the shopping centre at Bond Street Station. After Strike had risen early to start work, Robin had missed the warmth that radiated from him. Robin had shivered alone in Strike's bed because he couldn't sleep with the heating on too high. Now the unseasonably warm weather was back again by the afternoon. Ilsa and Robin had removed their jackets in the bright sunlit street.

They waited for the lights to change standing on the edge of the curb at the crossing, leaning into the road to get across as soon as possible. Both were feeling a little jittery about whether their plan would work. Ilsa, who had grown accustomed to London ways over the last ten years, stepped out suddenly into a small gap in the traffic. Robin, who was running through the different scenarios that their meeting could take, stepped out to follow her.

But a second too late.

The shrill, furious ringing of a cycle bell demanded her attention as a bike cut across her path. When she turned to step back onto the pavement, another courier, about to cycle behind her, swore an insult as he flew past. She froze hoping the whisk of air either side of her meant that she was still alive and had just missed being run over by two of London's riders of the apocalypse.

Finally, the green man appeared, and she jogged across the street to catch up with Ilsa, who stood with her hand over her mouth, face drained of colour, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry!"

"It was my fault," Robin shook her head at her near miss and patted Ilsa on the shoulder, "I wasn't paying proper attention,"

Ilsa took her hand and squeezed it. Robin recognised the reassuring smile of a lawyer who was intuitive to people's fears.

They weaved their way through the busy crowds and gilt doors of the famous store. An immediate hush descended as they entered the sleek sanctuary of Selfridges. People moved around in silent awe of the designer handbags and accessories. They were early to make sure they had been given the seating they wanted in Hix. Escalators took them up far too quickly to the restaurant for Robin. Dread sat unhappily in her stomach. But she was still convinced this had to be done fro Strike's sake rather than her own.

At the entrance, the pretence that they did not know each other began. Robin was taken to sit at a table for three, while Ilsa was given a table which was not in the direct view of the entrance, but so she could see Robin and anyone else who joined her at the table.

Robin ordered a glass of water from the waiter. Still not being able to stem her nervousness, she took out her phone and noticed a text from Strike.

I'm having one of those days where I don't know what I'd do without you C X

What happened?

Did you leave a Twix in my pocket last night?

Yep!

Thanks, you saved my life. Stakeout is a waste of time and nowhere to get any lunch.

I'm surprised it lasted till now! Talk l8r gotta go - at till Rx

Robin had just turned her phone face down when the tall, dark-haired woman arrived at her table.

"Charlotte, hello," she tried desperately to keep her unwilling tone calm and impersonal.

"Robin," she flicked her long, chocolate-brown hair over her shoulder.

Charlotte looked at Robin warily as the flustered male waiter pulled the chair out for Charlotte. This gave Robin a boost in confidence. She clearly had not expected Robin to ask her to meet.

"Does Bluey, I mean Cormoran, know you're meeting me here?" Charlotte's eyebrows were raised but she tried to sound as if she wasn't desperate to know the answer.

"Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't realise I had to ask him permission - you sent it to me," Robin fixed Charlotte with an unwavering look.

Charlotte's almond eyes narrowed, their spirited attractiveness enhanced by her smoky eyeshadow.

The waiter took their order for drinks, his voice almost a mumble. Robin didn't plan to be here long enough for food and frankly having less around that Charlotte could attack her with, the better.

"So, you wanted to meet?" Charlotte's voice was almost languid.

"I'm not the one who sent the email, Charlotte," Robin countered and waited for her to speak.

Charlotte sighed in unrepressed irritation, "Clearly from what I sent, you can see that Bluey will never stay with you. You're just another of his rebounds,"

Robin said nothing. She waited.

"So, I am trying to save you the heartbreak of being let down. Has he told you about his other relationships? I've left him time and time again but he always came back to me. We have a connection that no-one else has ever been able to break, so it's only a matter of time that he remembers that," she leant towards Robin her tone obliging, "If you break up with him now, I promise you, I won't interfere with your role in the business - if of course you even wanted to stay,"

Robin was quiet still because she was fighting the stunned feeling that Charlotte's words had engendered. She picked up her glass of water and took a sip, this was the sign for Ilsa to join them. The arrogance of this woman. Her under-estimation of the man Strike was.

"The problem with that Charlotte is it's the last thing Cormoran wants. He made that very clear to you over a year and a half ago - when he left you. I wanted you to come here today to make it clear to you, that you need to stay out of our lives."

She watched as the corners of Charlotte's mouth lifted into a smile, the way her lip curled turned it into a sour sneer.

"Who the hell do you think you are? You think you know him. Were you there when he point-blank refused to go to physical therapy when he lost his leg? Or what about when he would wake up and couldn't comprehend that it was gone? Then there are the anti-depressants - has he told you about that,"

"Charlotte, what are you talking about?" Ilsa was standing at Charlotte's shoulder, she had heard everything the woman had said, "You and I know that the idea of you playing Florence Nightingale is pure fantasy - I don't remember any of that happening. It didn't take you long to get bored and start treating him like absolute shit again," Ilsa's angry words were delivered in a tone of calm self-assuredness.

Charlotte had pushed her chair back fractionally as if she were readying herself to stand. Ilsa placed a hand on her shoulder, "No, no Charlotte. You can't leave yet, I have to tell you something else. It won't take a minute," Ilsa did not break contact with Charlotte. From afar it looked like a tender greeting from a long-lost friend. But, Robin could see why Ilsa was such an amazing lawyer. She had always been warm, open and sisterly to Robin. But the forceful determination emanating from her, had Charlotte looking from the corners of her eyes, assessing the damage of causing a scene. Both Ilsa and Robin could give her a good run for her money.

Ilsa's cultured voice, with just a hint of a Cornish accent, making her sound even more righteous, called Charlotte's attention back to her, "You and I know the truth of what you've done to Cormoran over the years. Robin here witnessed what you did to his face. So, we already have evidence of emotional and physical abuse."

"You really think Bluey would prosecute me, are you - " Charlotte was outraged and she employed an exaggeratedly incredulous tone to try to cut through Ilsa's threats like a knife.

 

"No, you're probably right," Ilsa spoke as if considering her defeat, "But Robin can: that email you sent is tantamount to harassment,"

Before Charlotte could respond Robin made her stance clear, "And I'm more than willing to collect every piece of evidence of any further harassment to get a restraining order against you."

"Corm supports Robin in anything she decides. You know how protective he is of someone he loves, better than anyone. Trust me when I tell you, he loves her more than he ever loved you. Do you know he stopped Robin's wedding to someone else? Which, I don't remember him doing for you - he let you go a long time ago," Ilsa's voice was heavy with quiet threat. She was relishing this. Ilsa had clearly wanted to do this for a long time, Robin thought.

Robin looked the beautiful woman in the eye and any inferiority she may have ever felt before had evaporated under the heat of Ilsa's words, whether they were completely true or not, she'd known how to hurt Charlotte, who looked back at her in consternation,"As you advised me Charlotte, try to keep a little dignity, walk away and never contact either of us again. Get some help,"

 

Robin finished licking her fork clean of the chocolate dessert she had allowed herself as a treat. Ilsa had treated her to lunch as a late birthday present and was retrieving her card from the waiter as they wanted to get on with their shopping.

"Is that the sweet taste of vanquishing Charlotte that you're experiencing?"

Robin laughed, "Mmm…Thanks so much Ilsa, for doing this with me. At least when Cormoran finds out he can't dump me and you, would he have to include Nick too"

"That's never going to happen, Robin, silly twit has been in love with you longer than he'd admit. But, as you know, he gets ideas into his head and stubbornly sticks to it. He forgets, I know all his tells," she tapped her finger against her nose.

"I didn't think he would sack me when I went after Brockbank - I thought he would understand after Whittaker. I'm telling him when I get back anyway. I'll just say we saw her by chance,"

"Sometimes men need managing, their innate sense of privilege, that what they say goes, means they bring it on themselves. If they were more open to our ideas in the first place, we could be honest with them all of the time,"

Both women laughed as they rose and were collected their coats and bags.

"Where first?" Robin asked. Her parents had given her some money for her birthday and she wanted to get some new underwear to replace the ones destroyed by Strike. It was really an exchange of the money she had given them this month to begin to pay them back for the failed wedding.

Ilsa wanted to look at some of the designer franchises as the mid-season sale had started and she encouraged Robin to try on whatever she wanted for the fun of it. Robin hadn't been able to do something so frivolous in the whole time she'd lived in London with Matthew. In fact, the first and last time she had done so had been with Strike.

After an hour or so they left the changing room for the final time: Robin excited about the discounted dress she had found and Ilsa with a new suit for work and a dress of her own, for all the Christmas parties she would be expected to attend as part of her job. As she followed the shop assistant to the nearest till, Robin noticed a man who was standing almost hidden to the side, in the shadow of a large sculpture. He appeared to be watching them.

He was fidgeting from foot to foot. His features were soft and his ears stuck out slightly from his head giving him a slightly dopey, babyface but the darkness of his brown eyes under his heavy brow was menacing. Occasionally, his head darted to the side to look either side of him from under his brow but most of the time, his eyes were fixed on a place over Robin's shoulder. She caught the reflection of the shop assistant carrying the clothes Ilsa and she were to buy in a mirror. Robin's head flicked back to the man, who was talking under his breath to himself, his slight smile disturbing. She scanned the area trying to spot a security guard but there was no one.

Robin had no choice but to act.

With the immediacy and concentration of a big cat he darted towards them. He moved soundlessly, his hand tucked inside the zip-up tracksuit top he wore. A silver glint caught her eye from inside the jacket. Instinctively, she pushed Ilsa backwards. Robin barely heard Ilsa's yelp of surprise. The man pulled his hand from his jacket. He blatantly wielded the knife she had glimpsed and he was headed toward the shop assistant.

Robin didn't wait to see what happened.

As soon as he drew level with her she grabbed underneath his wrist and quickly turned it outwards. His focus now left the terrified shop-assistant and fell on Robin. His face was twisted with frustration and pain. As he struggled to right himself, he grabbed her hair with his other hand. Robin grimaced but pressed her lips together to trap the scream that tried to pry her mouth open. As her hand struggled to continue twisting back his knife hand, it meant she could only grab his hand with one of hers. She had been taught to use both. She was locked in a struggle with him as she tried to twist away from him, hoping that the security guards would be here any second. Ilsa's scream echoed through the open space and finally, security came running.

But it was too late.

The knife was on the floor away from the man who was groaning on his side his hands between his legs. But Robin was also slumped on the floor, blood blooming outwards on the sterile-white of her t-shirt.