When Strike woke he was alone in the double bed. He stretched, gazing up at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, just visible in the morning light that came through the small windows of the attic flat. What time had Robin left?
He turned his head for a better view of the alarm clock on the bedside table. Just past 8. A slip of paper was pinned beneath the base. Grunting softly, Strike rolled onto his right side and pulled the paper free. In the dim light, he could just make out Robin's neat cursive:
Went out for a walk @ half seven. Needed to think. Rx.
Groaning for real now, Strike sat up in bed and rubbed his hands over his face, staving off what felt like the beginnings of guilt. It had been bound to happen eventually—a night when they had both thrown caution to the wind and drank more than they'd ought, culminating in his reckless invitation up to his flat for tea.
The sounds of waking London reached him through the window he had opened last night. He was unused to the heat generated by two bodies in the cramped space.
In the cold of the empty room, Strike forced himself to reconcile with his conscience. Had he been expecting anything, when he had asked her to stakeout the London Arts gala with him? He had told himself it was perfect—his old partner, a date who could both normalize his out-sized presence and assist his surveillance of the president of the London Arts Foundation, whose wife suspected him of sleeping with the vice president. Inviting Robin, Strike had told himself, made sense.
And yet—they had lingered long after the two-timing president had made his getaway, clambering drunkenly into a limousine, his arm around the VP’s lithe waist. It had been Robin who suggested they stay for another glass of champagne, but it was Strike who had asked her to dance.
They had danced only once before, at her wedding, at least until Matthew had cut in with a tense request for the return of his wife that had clearly irked Robin. The aggrieved accountant had glared at Strike with naked hate in his face, eyes darting from Strike’s face to his hands, which lay conservatively at Robin’s waist.
Strike’s only concession to the absence of Matthew last night had been to allow his thumb to move slowly over the soft jersey that hugged her warm skin.
She had worn the green dress. Not that a woman’s intentions could be discerned with any certainty by what she wore—but that dress, the one that he had bought for her...
Strike was forced to conclude that they had both, on some level, intended for the night to end the way it did.
The slam of the front door heralded Robin’s return. A pause, then the swish of clothing as she removed her coat. Strike had only enough time to wish he’d put on a shirt before she appeared in the doorway to the little bedroom. She hesitated in the doorway at the sight of Strike sat on the edge of the bed in nothing but his boxer shorts, hairy belly no doubt hanging over the waistband. Strike was well aware that he wasn’t Robin’s type. Experience had taught him how women behaved when they were attracted to him, and Robin had been, if anything, repulsed. Strike had met the sort of man to which Robin was attracted: the handsome Matthew, square-jawed and clean-cut. And yet last night had happened. And it had been, undoubtedly, the best sex of his life.
“Morning,” he said finally, which seemed to bring her round. She shook her head. There was a brown paper bag in her hand.
“Morning. I bought pastries.” She indicated the bag. Because of course, she would have known what he had (and didn’t) in the flat. She took a few steps towards the double bed, exuding a defiance so familiar it nearly made him laugh, and placed the bag on the bedside table atop her note. “Two cheese danishes.”
Robin, for her part, felt as thought the pastries represented something momentous. Was it a peace offering? But they hadn’t argued. Why did it feel as though they had?
Strike didn’t seem to notice her awkwardness as he peered into the bag and smiled. “Why couldn’t I have fallen in love with you ten years earlier?”
“Because I was seventeen,” she answered automatically, watching him tear into a danish.
Strike raised his eyebrows. “Oh. Right,” he deadpanned.
Robin watched him finish the danish, letting the implications of his words wash over her.
Fallen in love with you.
He held the second one out to her, but she shook her head.
Why couldn’t I have fallen in love...
He shrugged and tore off a piece of the second. He had begun to gain weight again, after she had left the business to enter the police acedemy. It was especially apparent now that she wasn’t seeing him every day. He was overworked without a partner, and probably eating, she suspected, too much fast food.
...ten years earlier?
Ten years ago, before he’d been blown up, before he’d started the business, before he’d been engaged to Charlotte. Before she had put him through what had been, in the end, too much.
“Is that what I am—the antithesis of her?”
“What?” Strike looked up, visibly startled, and Robin realized her internal monologue was not traceable.
“You said that you wished you’d—” She swallowed and continued very quickly: “—that you wished you’d fallen in love with me ten years earlier. Is that because I’m nothing like her? Like Charlotte?”
Strike took another bite of danish and chewed slowly, surprised by this sudden show of insecurity. Nothing like Charlotte. It was true, Robin was nothing like Charlotte.
The truth was, yes, she was the antithesis; the antidote to the virus, the cure. But it was a tonic he craved for its own sake. She was the only woman to have ever called him Cormoran in bed, and how it had tasted when she'd moaned it into his open mouth.
“You have nothing to do with her,” he said finally.
She looked chagrined. “Sorry.” She looked down at her hands. “It’s just...I don’t know how to feel. I've cheated on Matthew.”
Strike snorted. He supposed it was technically true, although he didn't think it should count as cheating, when the partner in question had been estranged for five months.
"Sorry," he grunted when he realized his snort had failed to ameliorate her anxiety. She was biting her thumb nail, which she rarely did. "I never liked Matthew, much."
That got a smile from her. Strike was briefly overtaken by the memories of last night, of Robin straddling him and laughing—laughing!—at the feeling of his hairy chest beneath her fingers. Strike had known women to pick a persona in bed and stick to it. Charlotte had played the devastating vixen, Elin had preferred the role of helpless female. But Robin had gone from playful and laughing on his lap, to shy and bashful when he'd laid her down on the bed, to seductive and wicked when she'd reached for him below the bed covers. She had been five different women, each of them uniquely appealing and every one of them herself.
The Robin in front of him rubbed absently at the scar, now faded to pink, that ran along the tender side of her forearm, and he remembered pinning her arms gently over her head and kissing that scar along its eight inch length.
Strike forced himself to distract his attention. She was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and simple flats. She had arrived at his flat last night in nothing but the green dress, of which he had quickly divested her. He frowned, chewing the last of the second danish. “Where’d the jeans come from?”
She looked down at herself as though surprised. “Oh—I had a change of clothes stashed in my—in the desk in the office. In case I ever needed them for surveillance. I’d never taken them home.”
Leave it to Robin to be that prepared, Strike thought. He watched as her eyes wandered self-consciously towards the corner of the room, where the dress lay slung carefully over a chair. Even in their tipsy haste, Robin had not wanted to leave the expensive gown crumpled on the floor. His own dress shirt, which had been tossed aside last night without a second thought, was now neatly laid atop the gown, and Strike had a sudden vision of a naked Robin, clad in nothing but his button down, sneaking down the steps to the office below to acquire her backup clothes.
"Do you regret it?" He was suddenly aware that his heart was pounding. Christ, he was fucked if she regretted it. What if it drove her back to Matthew?
"Nooo," she said slowly, shaking her head. "I—no. I don’t."
The truth was, Robin had never had sex quite like it. She had never found Strike attractive, exactly. He was not handsome like Matthew, nor cheerful like so many of the police officers who had vied for her attention after she and Matthew had split up. And yet last night had been a long time coming. She felt her face heat again, remembering the way her whole body had lit like a lamp when she straddled him.
Just now, his knees were spread wide where he sat on the bed, and he took her gently by the forearm and drew her between them. She settled herself onto his good leg, hyper-aware of their closeness in a way she hadn't been in the heat of last night. Sobriety had a way of doing to that you, of making things seem weighted down with importance. “Cormoran,” she said, tentatively sliding her hands around his neck. His jaw was unshaven and scratchy. “I don’t think I can—that is, I’m not sure I’m ready...” She trailed off, feeling ridiculous, and Strike slid a responding hand into her red-gold hair.
“Robin,” he said softly, “what do you want?”
“What do you want?” She suddenly hated that things were all on her own terms, that she was the one expected to decide everything, all of the time. She had come to him engaged—had he been attracted to her, then? Had he been imagining a scene like last night, when he had danced with her at her wedding? Let him say what he meant for once.
The hand at the back of her head slid to her shoulder, tracing the length of her arm to her free hand, which he lifted to his mouth. “I'd like to give this a try.”
Robin looked down into his solemn face, as surly as ever, even now. “This?”
“Us,” he said simply. “Whatever you're ready for us to be.”
The thought of calling Strike her boyfriend made Robin wince. Matthew had been a boyfriend, and then a fiance. Applying the word to Strike, who had alternately been her boss, her best friend, and her mentor, was absurd. But the rest of the thought was drowned out when Strike pulled her face down to his, and she felt the fire overtake her body again.
Strike moved his legs together, deftly pulling her knee over himself so that she was astride him again. His hands rested on her hips as he looked up at her, patiently waiting for her answer.
“Partners,” she said. For a moment Robin thought he might be disappointed. Then he began to smile.