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A Fairytale of Denmark Street

Chapter Text

Robin was curled under a blanket on the sofa. Gary, her flatmate, was at work, and she was taking the opportunity of an empty house and an up to date work schedule to do some Christmas planning. A battered old address book sat on her left-hand side, a notebook on her lap and she kept realising she was chewing the end of her pen in thought and removing it from her mouth with increasing levels of irritation. A mug of hot chocolate was slowly cooling on the coffee table.

She had reached section ‘C’ of the alphabetised address book, and therefore, something of a quandary. She knew that Christmas missives to her former in-laws were unlikely to be well received, but it seemed weird and wrong to suddenly cross them off her card list after ten years. She was fond of Matthew’s elderly grandma, and a lump caught in her throat when she thought of her soon-to-be-ex sister-in-law’s daughter, who she’d probably never see again unless by accident. Kimberley had never been Robin’s biggest fan, even before she’d walked out on her ‘baby brother’.

It was strange, thought Robin, that this would be the first time she had been single over the festive season in her entire adult life. She had mixed feelings about it if she was honest, even though the one married Christmas she had spent the previous year had been far from idyllic, with her widowed father-in-law being demanding and boorish, Matthew’s endless moaning and sarcastic comments about the slightest impact of her job on their personal life and the tortuous social obligations with Matthew’s friends and colleagues. Underlying it all had been the panic attacks that she was forced to hide and her deep unhappiness at the chasm that had opened up between her Strike, neither of which she was able to discuss with anyone. She had spent the entire festive season feeling as though she was wearing a mask, underneath which she was thoroughly miserable.

A year on, Robin had no regrets about leaving her marriage and was far too busy and too sensible to wallow over her solo status, but she had already noticed slight changes in the way people reacted to her. Longstanding mutual friends of hers and Matthews back in Masham had excluded her from their annual bonfire night celebration, which they’d always returned to their home town for in previous years. She’d received an apologetic text from the wife, for they were newly married, explaining that it was obviously still very raw and might be awkward for other old friends invited. This hadn’t stopped these ‘old friends’ posting photos online, and thus Robin had discovered via Instagram a week later, that Matthew had in fact been in attendance, and she’d just been able to make out a familiar blonde head in the background.

There was no doubt that regardless of her own feelings, other people seemed to prefer their friends to come in pairs.

Robin took a deep breath and turned the page, without adding the Cunliffes to her Christmas card list. She continued as she did every year, checking that she hadn’t missed any distant family members or once close friends that still warranted annual contact. She skipped rapidly over ‘S’, there was only one person in that section and they certainly weren’t getting a card. Strike had never made it into her address book. There was no need to make a written record of the details of the man whose address, date of birth, and even passport number were as deeply etched on her brain as her own. She smiled as she acknowledged how much easier their friendship had become in recent months, now untainted by the spectre of Matthew’s disapproval and anger.

Robin tried not to think too much about Lorelei, whom she’d liked better than any of Strike’s previous girlfriends. Nonetheless she had to admit she was glad was out of the picture. It would have been so much harder going through the split with Matthew whilst simultaneously watching Strike and Lorelei loved-up and happy. She preferred not to question her conscience as to why that might be the case.

Having finished with her address book, she thumbed through the contacts on her phone and jotted down a few new additions to the list - Sam Barclay, a few of the women at her book group and a couple more from April Wardle’s dance class that she and Vanessa now attended regularly.

She glanced up, slightly resentfully, at the newly erected Christmas tree in the corner of the room, twinkling with tasteful bright white lights. It was comprised of six slender feet of silver tinsel and bedecked with expensive and tasteful blue and white decorations. It was undoubtedly beautiful, but a far cry from the warm and colourful mismatch of ornaments on a traditional tree that was Robin’s preference. Gary, however, had very set ideas about he wanted the place to look, and since, however well they got on, she was basically just the lodger, she wasn’t inclined to argue.

With a deep sigh and a somewhat melancholy heart, she switched off the fairy lights, rinsed her mug and headed off to bed.

***

Strike rolled his eyes as he switched from ‘catch up’ where he’d been watching the previous night’s Match of The Day, back to ‘live’ TV and found his senses assaulted by a relay of noisy, garish Christmas adverts.

He didn’t enjoy feeling like the Grinch every December, but honestly, what was there to love about Christmas as a single, childless adult? The city was busier than ever, and the combination of crowds plus cold, wet weather made getting around even more treacherous than usual, which was a pain in the arse and even more annoying when on surveillance, which he had plenty of to look forward to over the coming week.

Then there was the tiresome but inevitable family obligations, and the preparation, shopping and travelling that came with them. At least he would be in Cornwall this year, so he could slope off to the pub with Ted, instead of being a captive audience at Lucy’s dinner table whilst his brother-in-law harangued him about the state of his business and finances and Lucy interrogated him about his love life, or lack thereof.

He’d managed to swerve that the previous year at least, having not long got together with Lorelei. The year before that he’d been with Elin…just, and before that had been the final of his last three Christmases with Charlotte.

The first in 2007 had seen them recently reunited following the loss of his leg. He was still in hospital, undergoing endless rounds of physio and learning to walk again. She’d pulled out all the stops, but his health and lack of freedom had dulled the shine with which she’d tried to imbue that particular festive season.

2008 had been better. They’d been living together by then and enjoying one of the happier and more peaceful periods in their relationship. Even so, the added weight of family and, in Charlotte’s case, material expectations had caused a certain amount of tension.

Their final Christmas together in 2009 had been ghastly. Charlotte had lost her father a few months earlier, exacerbating her already volatile personality. Strike had tried to be supportive and patient but seemed unable to say or do anything right. He wondered if Jago Ross had already been back on the scene at that point, another unseen irritant in their turbulent relationship.

He reflected that the last Christmas he had really enjoyed had been his final one in the army. He was still with Tracy and they were on the same posting. The day had started with gunfire tea and the opening of packages and letters from home, before a cooked breakfast. Any essential jobs were completed and followed by kick about – a tribute to football match held by British and German soldiers during the WW1 festive ceasefire. A Christmas dinner to rival anything he’d eaten at home came next, then a phone call home after which he Tracy had managed to slip away somewhere quiet and enjoy their own, private Christmas celebrations.

The room went quiet for a minute and the gaudy colours and jangling Christmas music was replaced by a snowy country scene as the haunting melody of The Power of Love by Gabrielle Aplin filled the screen. A snowman made his way across the country in search of search of the perfect gift for his snow-wife, braving rivers, busy roads and raucous teenagers, and befriending a robin on the way.

Strike’s thoughts turned immediately to his partner. He smiled and silently thanked God that if nothing else, their relationship was back on track. The tension between them in the wake of her wedding had not dissipated by Christmas of the previous year. They were working different cases, their schedules carefully arranged so they saw one another only when necessary to exchange notes.

He’d been with Lorelei by then, good company and impressive sex providing a welcome distraction from the feelings he’d battled with after Robin’s return from her honeymoon. But those things were never able to completely switch off the part of him that he now recognised was permanently tuned into Robin’s frequency, picking up on the nuances of her moods. When she’d seemed happy, he couldn’t help but feel resentful, when she was unhappy, he was angry at her for making the choice to go ahead and marry that twat after the way he’d behaved. She’d frequently seemed tired and stressed, even when work was going well, and then he felt helpless, unable to support her in the way he wanted because she was keeping him at arm’s length, and he was afraid of treading on Matthew’s toes and inadvertently causing her more grief. On top of it all he felt guilty, for as much as he genuinely liked Lorelei, and had been clear where his boundaries lay as far as their relationship was concerned, he knew that at least a small part of his heart wasn’t really in it.

A year later, he and Robin were closer than ever since her marriage and his relationship with Lorelei had ended, their working relationship the best it had ever been. She was more relaxed now that she was no longer worrying about hiding her panic attacks from Matthew or having to deflect his constant barbed comments about her choice of career.

She confided in him more since their trip to the races during the Chiswell case, and her brief stay at Nick and Ilsa’s had deepened their friendship further. Old feelings, ones that had never entirely gone away, were beginning to stir again, and they unnerved Strike more than he liked to acknowledge.

There had always been a set of unseen boundaries between them, one or both of them in a relationship. Now they were both single but, as he had reasoned to Ilsa when she’d interrogated him about his intentions recently, that didn’t negate the fact that Robin was just three months out of the only relationship she’d ever had and not yet divorced. Nor did it preclude the possibility of catastrophic impact on the business if she didn’t feel the same way, or if she did, but something later went horribly wrong. And then there were Strike's more personal reservations and insecurities - the age difference and the issue of his leg, which he preferred not to share, even with his oldest friend.

Strike went to bed that night telling himself once again that he was happy to enjoy their friendship and working relationship. That it was best he could hope for. That it was enough.

Chapter Text

Strike was finishing his coffee and his second cigarette when he became aware of strange noises echoing up the staircase.

There were footsteps accompanied by a weird swishing sound and the occasional muttered expletive. He looked at his clock, it was barely past 7.30am. He hastily attached his prosthesis, threw on the nearest items of clothing to hand and opened his front door. Looking down the stairs he could see the office door ajar and made his way quietly downstairs to investigate.

As he entered the room and walked around the sofa, he was greeted by the sight of Robin on all fours bolting a modestly sized fir tree into a metal stand. She was so engrossed that she clearly hadn’t noticed his arrival, so he instantly backed up and went round the other side of the sofa into her eyeline, trying hard not to think about the way her backside had looked in her slim fitting navy trousers.

She saw him approach this time and looked up, smiling, as she sat back on her knees and brushed her strawberry blonde hair back from her face.

“Morning! Sorry, I didn’t disturb you, did I?”

“I heard swearing on the staircase and wondered who it was,” he grinned, watching her cheeks colour slightly. He looked from tree to the huge laundry bag on the sofa next to her coat and handbag. “You didn’t lug all that up here on your own in one go?” he said, astonished.

“I told you before,” she smirked, recalling their conversation en route to their respective hotel rooms at the Comfort Inn in Barrow, “It’s all the gymkhanas.”

He raised his eyebrows. “So,” he sighed, “We’re having a Christmas tree then. This is new.”

“You don’t mind, do you?” It hadn’t really occurred to her that he might. “I thought it would be nice and to be honest…” her voice tailed off.

“To be honest...?”

“My flatmate’s a lovely bloke but it would seem he’s a bit of a dictator when it comes to Christmas decorations…mine didn’t pass muster – at all,” she shrugged ruefully.

“Are they that bad?” replied Strike, reaching for the laundry bag.

Robin gently slapped his hand away. “Rude. Make me a coffee and I’ll show you.”

*     *     *

Having made Robin a coffee, Strike headed back upstairs to finish his morning ablutions, leaving her happily to her project. He could hear Christmas music drifting up the stairs from the open office door as he pottered about his tiny flat, and shook his head, but there was small smile on his face regardless.
An hour later he returned to the office, where Robin was sat at her desk, checking her emails in between admiring glances at her handiwork.

Only a small amount of fir was now visible, covered by swathes of silver tinsel, brightly coloured ornaments and twinkling, multi-coloured fairy lights.

“Wow,” he commented drily. “Understated that is definitely not.”

She beamed. “Nope.”

“That fairy is the creepiest thing I have ever seen.”

The item in question, a plastic dolly that appeared to date back to the 1950's sat, six inches tall at the top of the tree, secured by Sellotape around her ancient legs, which were just visible underneath her lacy frock. She regarded the outer office with bright blue eyes set above pink cheeks. Her blonde candy floss hair was topped with a tiny tiara fashioned out of cardboard and tin foil, and she held a similarly constructed wand in her left hand.

“That was my nana’s if you don’t mind,” retorted Robin, feigning offence, “As were most of the decorations – proper retro. They cost a bomb in the shops these days.”

Strike vaguely recalled some similar ornaments in Lorelei’s shop last year. Back then he’d thought them gaudy and tacky, but in the office, on a real tree, with a real history, they seemed quaint and nostalgic. He vaguely recalled Ted and Joan having some similar decoration in his earliest memories of Christmases in Cornwall.

“Well,” he teased, “It’s you that has to sit out here and look at it all day.”

“Not today unfortunately. Couple of research trips this morning, and surveillance this afternoon.” She rose from her desk and began putting her coat and scarf on. “Catch up here at lunchtime?”

“I’ve got a lunch appointment then heading over to Canary Wharf for that office thing…”

“Tomorrow then,” she paused at the door, “Have a good day.”

“You too.”

He waited until Robin’s footsteps almost completely faded and he heard the front door close behind her, before heading over to take a closer look at the tree. The decorations were an eclectic mix of traditional round baubles tightly wrapped in brightly coloured, silky thread, painted pine cones sprinkled with glitter and an assortment of metallic glass figures hanging from red ribbons. Elves, fairies, reindeer, Santa figures and snowmen danced between the branches of the tree, alongside twinkling hearts, and miniature presents.

Strike spent several minutes inspecting the tree but was unable to find what he was looking for. After a few minutes on Google, he made a mental note to take a detour through New Row between appointments during the course of the day, and settled down to the morning’s work.

Chapter Text

Robin pulled her coat tighter around her as she made her way from Tottenham Court Road tube station to the office. The temperature had been dropping steadily for a few days, and although Robin enjoyed the crisp weather, she couldn’t help but worry about Strike. She knew the cold didn’t do his leg any favours and increased the likelihood of him slipping and injuring himself. She made a mental note to look at the diary and the weather forecast and see if she could make a few subtle tweaks to the surveillance jobs they had on over the coming weeks.

He doesn’t have the monopoly on being protective, she thought to herself, remembering all the times he’d gone out of his way to steer her away from jobs he’d thought ‘too risky’. She determined to ensure that she was a bit more subtle in her approach.

The office was locked when she arrived, giving her a few extra seconds to admire her name, now engraved on the glass below Strike’s. Most days now she didn’t notice it, but every so often it jumped out at her and it still made her heart swell with pride and happiness.

She hung up her coat, scarf and bag, and switched her computer on, but as she turned to head for the kettle, she noticed a small paper bag on her desk, a post-it note attached, covered in familiar spidery hand-writing.

I think there’s something missing from the Christmas tree…

Confused, Robin opened the bag and pulled out a small item wrapped in tissue paper. She gently unwound it and eventually its contents fell out into the palm of her hand.

A vintage style, metallic glass robin, with a tiny clip to attach it to the branches of the Christmas tree.

She was smiling down at it when Strike entered the office, carrying two takeaway coffees, which he set down on her desk.

“You found it then?”

She smiled at him as she made her way around the desk and clipped it onto the tree.

“I did,” she replied, “It’s lovely, thank you.”

She turned around and paused briefly before spontaneously leaning up on her toes and kissing him on the cheek. For a moment they were both taken back to July, a car park rather than an office, the air heady not with pine and coffee but with the scent of stocks and tarmac.

“I did have a Robin,” she spoke quietly, breaking the silence.

Strike didn’t reply but passed her a coffee and sat down on the sofa with his own. She perched next him, and he watched as she removed the lid from her cardboard cup, took a sip of cappuccino and licked the surfeit of froth from the lips that had just momentarily been pressed against his stubbled cheek.

“I left it for Matthew. We were talking when we decorated the tree last year about how robins are supposed to symbolise the presence of lost loved ones. It was the first Christmas after his mum died…” she explained.

“You’re a very kind person, Robin.”

“I’m a sentimental pillock!” she snorted, “Matt was no more keen on my decorations than Gary is.”

Strike chuckled.

“Still…” he replied, looking thoughtful. “You know there are other legends and stories about Robins?”

Robin was so used to Strike the down-to-earth, straight talking detective that she sometimes forgot he was quite the intellectual as well.

“Go on then, Professor Strike,” she teased, “Enlighten me.”

Strike realised that most of the legends he knew about robins regarded how they had got their red breasts, and he flushed as he remembered his first meeting with Robin.

“Well, most of them are about how they got their red…feathers.”

Robin suppressed a smirk. She’d noticed his awkwardness, and now she realised the reason for it.

“…taking water to parched souls in purgatory, comforting Christ on the cross and becoming stained with his blood…”

Robin pulled a face. “It’s all a bit unpleasant, I think I prefer the original idea,” she grimaced.

“The Christmas story isn't so bad. That a robin was in the stables when Jesus was born, and when the fire went out, he fanned the embers back to flame. Mary blessed him and when his scorched feathers grew back, they were red in recognition of his courage.”

“Better,” she acknowledged, swallowing another large mouthful of coffee.

“And then there’s the story of St Kentigern, whose miracles included bringing a robin back to life…”

“St Kentigern?” Robin’s head spun round in surprise, “As in Kentigern Gardens…where Lula Landry…”

“Yeah, Kentigern…our first case together, your introduction to private investigation,” he spoke lightly, but he was watching her, wondering if she would imagine the same parallels between the legend of the saint, and her own life.

She gazed thoughtfully into her empty cup for several long seconds.

“Hmm,” she mused, “I definitely like that story best.”

Strike smiled and was just about to reply when the door burst open.

“Jaysus, are you not having better things to do than sit on your arse drinking coffee boss?”

It was Barclay, bearing a file of paperwork and a camera full of photos of his latest mark.

“Apparently I do now,” Strike agreed, reluctantly heaving himself up from the sofa.

“That’s you told,” laughed Robin, as he followed Barclay into his own office.

And then she went back to her desk, stopping on the way to admire her new ornament, gently stroking its shiny wings as she passed by.

Chapter Text

Andy Hutchins and Sam Barclay were already parked on the office sofa, Strike finishing a call in his office, when Robin arrived back from an afternoon’s surveillance carrying a tray of coffees and a paper bag.

She dashed in, put them on her desk, and threw her coat and bag at the hook by the door.

“Back in a mo, I’m dying for the loo!” she announced as she headed back out to the facilities on the landing.

She arrived back just in time to see Strike pick up the nearest cup and take an enormous mouthful. It took a massive effort and huge a grimace for him to resist spitting it straight back out again.

“What the hell is that?!” he exclaimed, removing the lid to inspect the contents. Robin appeared at his shoulder and peered at the pale, foamy liquid.

“That is Sam’s Eggnog latte,” she grinned, taking it from his hand and passing it Barclay, who was laughing his head off at Strike’s expression.

“Eggnog latte? Seriously?”

“Aye, it’s nothing compared to what I could be vaping mind, you wouldn't believe the combinations you can get these days. You ought to give it a try Strike, pack in the fags…I’ll mix you a nice blend,” he winked.

“I know exactly what that would entail,” replied Strike, “I’ll stick with my standard blend of carcinogens thanks.”

Robin rolled her eyes at him. It was about as disapproving as she got about his smoking habit.

“This is yours Andy,” she handed him a spiced apple tea and turned back to Strike.

“Right…how about a game of Christmas coffee roulette?” she teased, picking up the two remaining cups, lids obscuring their contents.

“How about you tell me one of those is a nice, straightforward double-shot Americano, and we get on with our meeting?” he retorted.

“Alright Grumpy,” she laughed, “You’d best have this one…gingerbread latte.”

“Oh, come on!”

“There’s gingerbread to go with it…”

“Well why didn’t you say so in the first place,” he reached into the proffered paper bag and pulled out a somewhat malevolent looking gingerbread man, resplendent in an iced Christmas jumper. He raised his eyebrows, then vigorously bit his head off as Robin turned and offered the bag to Barclay who accepted a gingerbread Santa enthusiastically, and Hutchins who politely declined.

*     *     *

Just over an hour later, Barclay and Hutchins were headed down the stairs as Strike and Robin tidied up the office after their meeting.

Strike was gathering up the paper cups, but when he came to Robin’s it was still half full.

“You finishing this?”

“Erm…no.”

Strike grinned. “What was it?”

“Peppermint candy cane mochaccino,” she frowned, “Not one of my better experiments.”

Strike swilled the lukewarm liquid round and took a tentative sip, before pulling a face…again.

“Tastes like drinking a coffee when you’ve just cleaned your teeth. I don’t understand the need for all this gimmicky crap,” mused Strike. “It’s not like they do them for other occasions.”

“Pumpkin spice latte?”

“Disgusting! What’ll they come up with next – barbecue frappucino, pigs in blankets mocha, sprout latte?”

Robin giggled.

Strike picked up the paper bag. “There’s still a gingerbread man left – do you fancy going halves?”

“I’ll stick the kettle on and make us a decent cup of Yorkshire tea to go with it.”

“I’ll drink to that!” he laughed.

*     *     *

Later that evening, as he took the last cigarette out of his current packet, Strike was reminded of Robin’s good-natured eye-roll at Barclay when he’d suggested that Strike might attempt to replace smoking with vaping. Not for the first time he pondered Robin’s unquestioning acceptance of who he was, bad habits and all, and began to wonder why, unlike virtually any of the other women who had ever been in his life, she had never made any attempt to change him.

There had been Tracy and Lorelei, always wanting more than he was able or willing to give – more time, more commitment. And of course, Charlotte, enjoying the shock factor of making such a rebellious choice of partner, but tiring rapidly of the reality that involved. Trying to push him into high flying, high earning jobs so they could keep up with a lifestyle and social set he couldn’t give a shit about. Jealous of anything and anyone that took his time and attention away from her.

Robin never mentioned his diet, alcohol consumption or smoking. Never quizzed him about whether he intended to move to a less ramshackle flat now that the business was doing better or update the ten-year old BMW which he still thought of as something of a luxury.

He supposed she felt that as his business partner - even as his friend - she wasn’t in a position to comment. Maybe she doesn’t care, suggested a malevolent voice in his head. But he knew Robin, and even though he didn’t dare believe she cared for him in anything other than the platonic sense, he knew that in some way, she did.

Perhaps, just perhaps, she simply liked him just as he was, and perversely that seemed to make him more inclined to be a better man. Hadn’t he been eating healthier and losing weight for some time now? Taken up swimming regularly over the last few months? Not that that had anything to do with her leaving Matthew, or him trying to impress her, of course, he told himself sternly. She was just a good influence, an inspiration, having come through so many tribulations herself.

He put the last cigarette back in the packet, and headed for bed, before he changed his mind.

Chapter Text

The following afternoon saw Strike seriously devoid of any festive spirit. The agency’s newly hired sub-contractor had let them down at the last minute, and with Hutchins at a hospital appointment and Robin and Barclay already busy for the day, it had fallen to Strike to tail Moneybags from mid-morning onwards.

The accountant was suspected of foul play by his business partner and following him around Belgravia from business meeting to lunch to business meeting had been physically demanding, despite Strike’s weight loss and recent attempts at regular exercise. The weather had only served to exacerbate the problem, with the temperature dropping several degrees overnight to not far off freezing, and a persistent drizzle rendering the smooth, expensive pavements slick and treacherous.

By the time Moneybags returned to his office, Strike was in pain, exhausted and thoroughly fed up. He was also annoyed with himself, as his good intentions of the previous night to cut back on the cigarettes had fallen by the wayside already. Mentally filing the idea under the heading ‘New Year’s Resolutions?’ he ambled slowly in the direction of Hyde Park Corner tube station.

His stomach rumbled as a door nearby opened and a waft of Thai food drifted in his direction. It was gone 4pm and he’d barely managed a cursory attempt at  lunch. Glancing up he saw the expensive looking frontage of the Mango Tree restaurant, with its highly polished glass doors, topiary bushes and trendy orange logo. Somewhere in the back of his mind he seemed to recall someone recommending the place along time ago, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember who.
Limping slightly after the morning’s exertions, Strike hadn’t got far up Grosvernor Place when he heard a shout from behind him.

“Well, bugger me – if it isn’t Detective Loverboy,” came the sarcastic slur from several feet behind him.

Strike paused for the split second it took him to recognise the voice and remember who had told him about Mango Tree.

Matthew Cunliffe.

His jaw clenched and his fingers twitched as after a moment’s hesitation he continued on his way to the tube station without turning around. He wouldn’t give that twat the satisfaction of acknowledging his presence, and he was only too aware of the electric charge of anger that was already rippling though his veins. But he could hear footsteps speeding up behind him and knew that with his leg already pushing it’s limits, there was no way he could avoid the impending confrontation.

“Oi, I’m talking to you,” Matthew’s hand reached for Strike’s shoulder, although he was already turning to face him.

Mustering a calmness he really didn’t feel, Strike gazed at the younger man with a resigned expression.

“What do you want Matthew?”

“Bit fucking late to ask me that Strike. What I wanted was you out of our lives. Robin would still be with me if it wasn’t for you.”

“You think?” replied Strike. “I suspect it had more to do with you screwing your mate’s fiancée behind her back, but you’re welcome to believe what you like.”

“Got what you wanted though didn’t you? Bit rich her divorcing me for infidelity when the two of you have probably been at it for God knows how long.”

“It’s never been like that, as well you know,” contradicted Strike, before giving in to temptation and adding, “Believe it or not, not all men see any attractive woman as just a walking pair of tits.”

Matthew snorted. “Come off it Strike, you’ve got a missing leg, you’re not fucking blind, although I have to wonder about Robin’s eyesight, not to mention her IQ…”

Strike regarded him for several seconds. His usual clean-cut, chiselled good looks seemed distinctly frayed around the edges. He’d lost weight and had dark circles under his eyes, his hair appeared to need cutting. He was still glaring at Strike with undisguised hatred, saying nothing, whilst his friends or colleagues, whoever he had been eating, and most definitely drinking with, watched from a safe distance. Strike simply turned away.

“Don’t you walk away from me you cocky bastard,” Matthew grabbed Strike’s coat this time and yanked him backwards. Caught off guard, he stumbled slightly as he turned back and was unable to avoid the fist that came at him from his left catching his eye socket. It was a weak punch in comparison to many of the blows Strike had been dealt over the years, but the shock, for he hadn’t considered for one moment that Cunliffe would have the balls to actually hit him, threw him.
He adopted a defensive stance, seeing out of the corner of his eye that a couple of Matthew’s associates were running towards them, no doubt to prevent him doing anything even more stupid, rather than to come to Strike’s aid.

Strike had never in his life felt quite such an intense desire to hit another man as he did at that moment, except perhaps Jeff Whittaker on a couple of occasions. But just as he had in his late twenties with his abhorrent stepfather, he reined himself in through a combination of sheer self-control and tiny voice that whispered in the back of his mind “She wouldn’t like it…”

Matthew took advantage of Strike’s passivity and managed to land another flailing backhanded blow from the opposite direction. Strike felt the cold, metallic sting of the wedding ring that Matthew was still wearing cut into his bottom lip, before his friends caught up with them and dragged him off and away, muttering half arsed apologies as they went.

Strike leaned against a nearby wall and gathered himself for a few minutes, pulling a crumpled tissue from his pocket and applying pressure to his bleeding lip, and then continued up Grosvenor Place to the tube station.

*    *    *

An hour later, Robin was making her way towards Covent Garden when she realised she’d left her phone in the office. She was due to meet Vanessa and a handful of other friends from their book group for pizza and drinks, but they hadn’t finalised which bar they were meeting in first.
“Bollocks,” she muttered under her breath, turning in the opposite direction and walking briskly back to the office.

*     *      *

On reaching Denmark Street, Strike hauled himself painfully up the stairs, grateful that Robin had been scheduled to finish early. He headed into the tiny bathroom on the second-floor landing and squinted in the mirror. Although Matthew’s blows had felt relatively ineffectual, they’d been significant enough to leave a mark. His left eye featured a darkening curve around the outer edge of the socket, and the right-hand side of his lower lip was swollen, a dark stripe of congealed blood indicating where Matthew’s wedding ring had made contact. The best he could do, he realised, was spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening under an ice pack in the hope of achieving enough damage limitation for Robin not to notice his injuries.

He made his way briskly out of the bathroom, registering the sound of footsteps and the tinkling of bells just in time to pull himself up short, and prevent history repeating itself as Robin reached the top step.

“Woooaah, that was a bit too close for comfort,” she laughed as they both stopped dead in their tracks, barely a couple of inches apart. Then, under the dim light of the bare bulb illuminating the stairwell, she caught sight of his face.

“Oh my God, Cormoran, what happened to you? It wasn’t Moneybags was it?”

Whilst she knew the mark was likely to be up to no good financially, they had discovered no history of violence in his past and he’d given them no reason to think that was about to change.

“No, it was…it was nothing.”

“That’s not nothing, let me take a proper look…”

“I said it’s nothing…I’m fine,” he protested.

She looked at him, lips pursed, eyes shining with defiance. He knew that look. It was the one that clearly stated, ‘this will be over much quicker if you just do as you’re told’.

With a heavy sigh he followed her back into the office and sat on her chair as instructed, whilst she peered at his battered face under the light of the anglepoise lamp. It was only then that he noticed she was wearing antlers, made of silver wire, bedecked with tiny round bells in gold, red and green, and co-ordinating earrings which jingled when she moved. She watched him smirk, then wince, as he took in her appearance.

“Christmas book club get together – we’re all wearing ‘festive accessories’…don’t laugh, I thought these were quite tasteful.”

She went to the kitchenette, picked up the first aid kit and a clean tea towel and filled a bowl with warm water. She opened the small green box and took out a self-activating ice pack, snapped the disc, gave it a shake and handed it to Strike, who took it gratefully and held it to his left eye.

“You needn’t let me hold you up,” he admonished, “I’m quite capable of sorting myself out.”

“I know,” she replied simply, soaking a chunk of cotton wool in warm water and dabbing gently at his lip until all the excess dried blood was removed. Strike watched her concentrating fiercely as she tended to the injury and wondered if she could hear his heartbeat, which he was sure was making a noise akin to thundering hooves at the finish line of the Grand National. Her hair was close enough that he could see strands of it fluttering as he exhaled, and he closed the eye that wasn’t covered by an ice pack, the better to avoid thinking about her nearness.

He sensed her move away, and heard her rummaging in her handbag, then he felt her hand on his, the one that was holding the ice pack in place.

“Let’s have another look,” she instructed, pulling his hand gently away and tilting his head gently towards the light. Her expression was grim.

“Who did this to you?”

“Kids,” he replied, having given some thought to his contingency plan before her arrival. “Tried to mug me, probably high on something.”

“Did they take anything?”

“No, someone saw them and shouted and they ran off.”

“Hold still,” she ordered, squeezing a bead of white cream from the small tube she’d extracted from her bag and gently stroking it onto the skin around his eye with a soft, cool fingertip. “Arnica,” she explained, “Good for bruising.”

“Have you finished fussing now?” he said, as she backed away and started to tidy up. In spite of his words he was smiling at her, grateful and somewhat indulgent. They both knew he could have easily dealt with his injuries himself. The fact she'd refused to let him gave him a warm glow in the pit of his stomach, which he tried hard to attribute solely to the sweet tea she'd made him in between her ministrations.

“For now,” she replied, picking up her phone and straightening her antlers with a jingle.

He grinned.

“I’m off, take a couple of paracetamol, and take it easy tonight…okay?”

“Yes, Doctor Ellacott,” he teased back, "Or should that be Doctor Rudolph?"

She shot him a warning look, stuck her tongue out at him cheekily, and left.

As she walked to Covent Garden for the second time that evening, she reflected on the unlikelihood of a couple of teenagers randomly deciding to mug Strike, given his size, solidity and overall demeanour. If they were on something it made slightly more sense, but she’d noticed the moment’s hesitation before he answered, and something in her gut told her that he was lying. The question was, she thought, why?

Chapter Text

Robin sat in the Land Rover on Friday night for several minutes before gathering herself and her bags and heading into the heaving supermarket. A weekly shop was the last thing she felt like doing after a long day, but she had plans for Saturday so her usual early morning trip to get it out of the way before it got too busy was not going to happen.

Unlike Strike, she was a huge fan of online shopping, and had always had her groceries delivered when she’d been with Matthew, but now she was on her own and didn’t have his exacting whims to cater to, she felt it was an unjustified and somewhat lazy indulgence.

At least, she thought, she would be able to take a look at the Christmas section and maybe pick up some small bits and pieces for her family.

She meandered through the first couple of aisles of electronics and household appliances, some still bearing ‘Black Friday’ offers and mused to herself that the sale day seemed to last for a whole bloody month and was completely ridiculous, before realising her internal voice bore a startling resemblance to Strike’s!

She browsed the Christmas cards, and picked out funny ones for her three brothers and a large, sparkly, sentimental one for her parents, before moving onto wrapping paper, none of which appealed.

Scented candles came next, for herself and her mum, then books, before reaching a couple of aisles of gifts and stocking fillers, which she started down with a spark of enthusiasm.

It didn’t take long for it to be extinguished. There was nothing suitable for her brothers that wasn’t basically tat, and every other thing she looked at reminded her of Matthew, who she no longer needed to buy gifts for.

There was a small set of poker chips with a miniature of his favourite bourbon and a glass – he’d taken up playing cards once a month with a group of friends from work a few months before she’d left him. They had a system in place to ensure the bets didn’t get out of hand, but it had still made her uncomfortable. There was little die cast Aston Martin, with a joking slogan about it being the only one the recipient would likely be getting. She’d bought him something similar the previous year…he hadn’t seen the funny side and had implied sulkily that she was casting aspersions on his ambitions. Very few of the items in the stocking she’d carefully put together for him had met his approval, and she’d been slightly disappointed. For Robin it was one of things she’d most enjoyed about Christmas over the years.

Suddenly she found herself engulfed with a huge wave of sadness. As imperfect as her last Christmas had been with Matthew, she had enjoyed having someone to do things with and for. It hadn’t even mattered that much that he’d not appreciated some of it, the pleasure for her had been in the planning and the doing in the first place. The realisation that that pleasure would be denied her this year hit her with a jolt and she had to swallow the lump that had rapidly risen in her throat.

There would be no need to make someone a stocking for Christmas morning. She was no longer able to enjoy picking out a cuddly toy or special board book and pretty outfit for Matthew’s little niece. There was no-one special to cook for and her mum certainly wouldn’t appreciate any significant interference with her own Christmas catering plans. And there was certainly no-one who would appreciate her dressing up in festive lingerie and…actually that was a moot point, she thought. Matthew hadn’t appreciated that anyway. He had been in the middle of another fit of jealousy about Strike as she’d been working – in his opinion – too hard in the run up to Christmas. Desperate to break down the atmosphere permeating their home she’d attempted to bring about a thaw in his attitude with a tastefully sexy chemise she’d bought on her lunch break.
He had merely glared at her as she stood in the sitting room doorway modelling the lacy garment and made a sarcastic comment about whether she’d asked Strike’s opinion on it.
Finding her in tears in their bedroom a few minutes later, he had backtracked and apologised profusely and amorously. Afterwards he jokingly grumbled that it was still a lot of money to spend on something that had only stayed on for half an hour.

“Bugger,” she muttered under her breath, as she felt a hot tear leak out and spill down her cheek. She wiped it away briskly and with a determined sniff pulled out her shopping list and headed for the welcoming the distraction of the fruit and veg aisle.

*     *     *

It was 9pm and Strike was returning to Denmark Street after a late surveillance job. He would have to call his client on Monday and invite her into the office to tell her that her considerably younger husband was indeed cheating on her. Already cold, hungry and out of cigarettes, the thought of breaking such devastating news just a few weeks before Christmas made his mood even bleaker.

He thought of his Uncle Ted and Aunt Joan, who would be celebrating forty-three years of marriage the following year; of his sister Lucy married at twenty-one, desperate to put down the kind of roots that had never truly been part of their childhood, despite Ted and Joan’s best attempts to provide them with some kind of stability, alongside the chaotic love of their mother. He thought of Robin, divorcing after little more than a year of marriage.

Thank God!

He shook the thought from his head and took a detour into a nearby corner shop. He picked up fresh milk, a packet of filled pasta and a tub of sauce from the chiller cabinet, and a bottle of Merlot from the wine aisle – between the chilly temperatures and his gloomy mood he knew that a couple of bottles of Doom Bar simply wasn’t going to cut it that evening.

As he stood in line at the checkout, he scanned the magazine racks. He’d just finished his book and could do with something intelligent but not too long-winded to browse before bed later. Instead his gaze alighted on a well-know celebrity title, a pair of familiar faces.

Staring out at him from the glossy cover were Charlotte and Jago Ross, leaning upright against the back of a faded red sofa in front of a roaring log fire. An enormous Christmas tree twinkled with tasteful gold decorations and warm white lights in the corner. He was in black tie, she was swathed from head to toe in shimmering silver, her slender figure giving no hint of her recent motherhood. She held her immaculately attired infant son in her left arm, a glass of champagne in her right hand. Jago’s pose with their tiny daughter mirrored hers, whilst his two daughters from his first marriage smiled at their feet, the older dressed in scarlet velvet, the younger looking for all the world like a Christmas tree fairy in a confection of sparkly white tulle.

He thought of the conversation that ended their relationship, of the subsequent texts she had sent him. If it had been true, if it had been his, if it had continued their child would have been almost two years old by now. They would have married. They might have been happy. They might, he thought, be currently engaged in an acrimonious divorce, her no doubt using the poor kid as a bargaining chip.

He looked once again at the face of the woman who had been the love of his life. He thought of her words at their last meeting, “Wouldn’t you rather have advance warning that I want you back?” and waited for the familiar dropping sensation in his stomach.

But it didn’t come, instead all he felt was relief.

He headed back to his tiny flat that night, tired but at peace, and despite himself looking forward to the following day.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning dawned crisp and sunny. An indulgent evening of hot bath, chocolate and cheesy Christmas movies followed by a decent night’s sleep had cheered Robin up considerably and she awoke excited about the day ahead at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland with Ilsa, Nick and Strike. Initially she and Ilsa had anticipated it being a girls’ day out, but then Nick had wanted to come and rather than anyone ending up playing gooseberry had suggested Strike come along and they made it a festive get together. She was quite surprised he had been up for it but supposed the promise of a Bavarian style village with beer and bratwurst was probably a significant factor in his agreeing to come along.

In Denmark Street, Strike was not feeling quite as enthusiastic about the day out. The truth was he was going somewhat under duress. Nick had phoned him a couple of weeks previously, bemoaning that the trip to Winter Wonderland he’d planned as a surprise for Ilsa had been usurped by her and Robin planning an identical Christmas visit, on the same day as he had already booked for them to go. He’d told Ilsa of his original plan, but she didn’t want to let Robin down on her first solo Christmas in London and had suggested they make it a foursome.

So it was that Strike found himself pulling on his favourite burgundy jumper over a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans and preparing for a chilly day of traipsing around a crowded park full of over excited small children, taking part in activities he would never have chosen and no doubt spending a small fortune into the bargain.

Still he was looking forward to seeing his friends and Robin, and the food and drink options sounded promising, so he tried to look on the positive side as he headed out to catch the tube.

*     *     *

They had arranged to meet at the entrance to the park, and as was fairly typical, Strike was the last to arrive. He had more or less forgotten his altercation with Matthew a couple of days earlier and was slightly taken aback when Ilsa’s initial reaction on seeing him was a shocked expression followed by a frown.

“Nice to see you too,” he greeted her, leaning down to kiss her on the cheek.

“Yes, and you but what have you done to yourself this time?”

Nick was also looking at him, waiting expectantly for an answer.

“Run in with some teenagers in Belgravia,” he replied, shortly.

“Attempted mugging…of all the people to pick - idiots,” added Robin, “Shall we go in?”

They started with a wander around the many stalls and attractions, meandering slowly across the park to the ice-skating rink. Ilsa and Robin had pre-booked their tickets and went off to get fitted for skates whilst Nick and Strike picked up coffees and headed to the spectator area, where the latter was relieved to find a recently vacated small table overlooking the rink and sit down.

“Leg playing up?” asked Nick.

“Hmm,” acknowledged Strike with a huff, “Pulled it a bit the other day.”

“When you were ‘mugged’?”

Strike looked at him warily.

“What’s the tone of voice for?”

“Mugged? In Belgravia? Come off it Oggy. And even if you were you could have seen a couple of kids off no problem.” He eyed his old friend suspiciously. “What really happened?”

Strike rubbed a gloved hand over his stubbled chin, took a large mouthful of coffee and stared out at the ice, where Ilsa and Robin were tentatively beginning to skate, hand in hand, giggling.

Nick followed his gaze. “Is it a client? Are you trying to protect Robin from something again? You know she won’t thank you when she finds out.”

Strike took out his cigarettes, realised he couldn’t smoke, fiddled with the packet for a few moments then replaced them in his coat pocket.

“It wasn’t a client,” he sighed. “It was Matthew.”

Nick looked at him, momentarily bewildered.

“Matthew? Robin’s Matthew?”

Strike shot him a tense look. “Not any more, thank fuck, but yes, him.”

“Why didn’t you tell her?”

“No point in involving Robin and upsetting her. He’d obviously been out for lunch and was pissed as a fart. I’m not expecting a repeat performance.”

“He must’ve caught you by surprise to land a couple on you in quick succession,” said Nick, surprised. He’d seen Strike box back in their younger days and knew exactly what he was capable of if necessary.

Strike simply raised an eyebrow in response.

“You didn’t even attempt to fight him off, did you?”

“Like I said, no point upsetting Robin over a minor one-off that’s not likely to happen again.”

Nick smiled knowingly at his friend and shook his head.

“Soft touch.”

“Maybe…just don’t tell anyone.” His face became more serious again, “I mean it, not a word, even to Ilsa. If I’d wanted Robin to know I’d have told her myself.”

*     *     *

By the time Ilsa and Robin had finished skating and got changed back into their normal footwear, it was time for lunch before the next activity they’d planned. They’d already booked a table at a karaoke bar that served raclette for the evening – ladies’ choice again – and wanted something different so they headed for the street food stalls.

Strike, as ever, would have been happy to have stopped at the first stall with a relatively short queue, but his friend’s requirements were a little more exacting. They’d been vacillating for over fifteen minutes, when Nick suddenly pointed a nearby food truck and exclaimed, “Growlers!”

Strike and Ilsa, exchanged a shocked look and promptly burst out laughing.

“What?” asked Strike, when he’d finally managed to regain his composure.

“Growlers,” repeated Nick, “Posh steak sandwiches, get your mind out of the gutter.”

Robin was taking in the whole exchange, totally bemused.

“What’s so funny about growlers?” she asked, “And where does mind in the gutter come in?”

Ilsa snorted.

“Growler is slang for…you know,” she glanced down, “Lady parts.”

Nick and Strike, overhearing, burst out laughing again at the look on Robin’s face.

“Well,” she said, decisively, “I’m not sure about the name, but I could murder a steak sarnie.”

Ten minutes later they were sat at a table, with four Portuguese prego rolls filled with steak dripping in garlic butter and a mound of sweet potato fries.
Robin had eaten with Strike hundreds of times, but for some reason she found herself struggling to take her eyes off him as he tucked enthusiastically into his lunch. From the visceral groan of pleasure at his first bite, to him licking and sucking his fingers clean after the last mouthful she watched him covertly from across the table, desperately trying to concentrate on her own food and not let her mind wander to places where it had no business being.

“You’re very quiet,” commented Ilsa, as she wiped her hands on a napkin and reached for her beer.

“Mmmm, hungry,” replied Robin, hoping that the coloured lighting from the surrounding stalls would hide the blush she could feel flooding her cheeks.

She was grateful when Nick checked his watch and announced they needed to be making a move, or they’d miss the start of their ice carving workshop.

*     *    *

They toured the ice village, filled with Dickensian characters carved from huge blocks of ice, before heading to the workshop, where after a demonstration by an expert, they had to work in pairs to try and copy his creation.

Ilsa quickly bagsied Nick as her partner, leaving Robin and Strike to work together.

Strike used a pointy tool to sketch out a rough shape on the ice before standing aside to allow to Robin to carve it roughly into shape using the small electric saw they’d been provided.

Nick glanced up from his own efforts and caught Strike watching Robin distractedly. She’d tied her hair back, but a few tendrils had escaped and fallen around her face. She was, like the rest of them, wearing distinctly unattractive plastic goggles, and her tongue was poking between her lips in concentration.

Nick nudged Ilsa and nodded in their friends’ direction.

“You engineered this didn’t you, you cheeky minx,” he grinned.

She winked back at him, “Maybe. Now pay attention, I don’t want them doing a better job than us.”

Half an hour later, Nick and Ilsa had managed to create what appeared to be an inebriated duck, whilst Robin and Strike, as per the demonstration, had successfully managed to create a simple swan.

*     *     *

After the ice sculpture workshop, they’d wandered around the fairground rides and games - Strike had thrashed them all on the target shooting stall. They’d ridden the observation wheel, marvelling at the far-reaching views of London bedecked in twinkling lights. Robin and Ilsa, tipsy on mulled wine had serenaded a laughing Strike and Nick with Christmas songs at the karaoke bar, and finally they’d watched a comedy show before heading back to the tube and off in their various directions feeling thoroughly festive.

Much later that evening, Robin slid into bed in her cosy pyjamas, tired but happy, watched over not by the ridiculously huge stuffed toy that Matthew had given her on their first Valentine’s day, which had long since been consigned to a storage box in the garage, but by a small polar bear, previously resident of the target shooting stall at Winter Wonderland.

Chapter Text

Strike was sat at his makeshift kitchen table smoking his second cigarette of the morning, whilst absent-mindedly massaging E45 cream into his aching stump when his mobile rang from the bedroom the following day.

“Bollocks,” he grumbled, automatically making to stand, then realising he’d never make it before the caller rang off. He continued his ministrations in the hope that it was a sales call, but a few seconds later it started ringing again. This time he hauled himself upright and manoeuvred himself awkwardly across the few feet that separated kitchenette from bedroom, landing heavily on the edge of his bed just in time for the ring tone to cease once again, the screen displaying the message:

Lucy
2 missed calls

He braced himself and hit the contacts button to dial her number, but before he managed to scroll that far, she rang again. His irritation rapidly gave way to the sense of having an icy weight in the pit of stomach. Since his nephew Jack had been rushed to hospital with appendicitis a few months earlier, multiple calls from his sister in quick succession had begun to trigger a deeper than usual sense of dread. He answered without further hesitation.

“Lucy, you alright?”

“Stick, thank goodness. Why didn’t you answer, it’s gone eleven?”

“Was in the other room and haven’t got my leg on yet. What do you need?”

“Nothing, I'm fine, I just called to talk to you about Christmas…wait, why haven’t you got your leg on? Is there a problem.”

Strike fought to keep the exasperation out of his voice, “No problems. Long day on my feet yesterday that's all. Just giving the stump a rest.”

“You really need to take it easier Stick,” she replied, voice full of concern. “You’ve a partner and two members of staff now, there’s no need for you to be working yourself so hard of a weekend.”

“I wasn’t,” he replied. There was a pause whilst Lucy processed this information. He could hear the cogs of curiosity turning in her brain, debating whether to ask what he was doing and with whom. After several seconds, he decided to put her out of her misery, “I went to Winter Wonderland,” he thought he heard her snort at the other end of the line, “With Nick and Ilsa...and Robin.”

“Ahhh, Robin,” she replied, as if his willingness to spend a cold Saturday trudging around a crowded, festive theme park could be explained by that one word alone. “How is Robin?”

“She’s fine. Working hard as always.”

“She’s still coming on Tuesday isn’t she?” asked Lucy, her voice slightly panicked. She did not want a disappointed small boy on her hands, much less a grumpy older brother.

“Tuesday?”

“Jack’s school Christmas show…don’t tell me you’ve forgotten, he’ll be so disappointed. And he’s really looking forward to seeing Robin again.”

Jack had heard all about Robin’s visit to his bedside whilst he’d been unconscious following his surgery over the summer, and she’d popped in to see him briefly once he was on the mend. He’d been rather taken with his heroic uncle’s brave and glamorous colleague, and often asked Strike when he’d bring her to see him again. Lucy had suggested he bring her to Jack’s performance as much for her own benefit as her son’s. Greg was away on business and her mother-in-law was babysitting Jack’s brothers so she could attend the event. She was keen for Strike to accompany her and knew very well that inviting Robin along exponentially increased the likelihood that he would both remember, and actually show up.

“No, I’ve not forgotten, it’s just come around quickly. Text me the time and address, we’ll be there.”

“Good,” replied his sister, “Now, I was thinking about Ted and Joan’s Christmas present – they’ve got everything they could possibly need so how about we get them tickets for the Chelsea Flower Show and a voucher for afternoon tea somewhere. They can stay with me and we all can all meet up for dinner or Sunday lunch and…”

“Sounds great – you sort it and let me know what I owe you,” Strike’s patience was ebbing somewhat now he knew there was no emergency, “What do the boys want for Christmas?”

“They’ve got lists – I’ll email you a few ideas. Are you coming down to St Mawes with us on the twenty-second? It’d be much easier than you driving all that way or trying to get the train.”

“No, I’ll still be working,” he lied, the thought of being driven two hundred and fifty miles by his brother-in-law, in the company of his sister and three small boys was enough to make him feel slightly ill. At least once he got there he'd be able to escape to the Victory with his uncle. “I’ll make my own way up on the twenty-third.”

“Really, Stick?” Lucy admonished, her voice dripping with frustration at her brother’s stubborn refusal to capitulate to what was, in her mind, an eminently more sensible suggestion.

“Really. I’ve got to go Luce…send me the boys' lists and I’ll catch up with you Tuesday. Love you.”

“Love you too, Stick,” she sighed, and ended the call, only slightly less exasperated than when it had begun.

***

Having thoroughly enjoyed Saturday’s outing to Winter Wonderland, Robin was disappointed and irritated to wake up with the beginnings of a cold the following morning.

She dragged herself out of bed regardless, put on the load of laundry she hadn’t managed to fit in on Friday evening, dealt with some paperwork and wrote some of her Christmas cards. She tumble dried the washing and put it away, by which time she was feeling decidedly rough.

An inspection of the cupboards revealed that her shopping trip on Friday had included absolutely nothing that she fancied eating, and she’d run out of painkillers. With a miserable groan she pulled on her trainers and coat and headed to the corner shop for cold and flu capsules, lemon cordial, honey, cough sweets and tomato soup.

An hour later, having eaten and washed down some meds with a mug of lemon and honey, Robin was just about to fall asleep on the sofa when she remembered her mum was due to call her that afternoon. They alternated calling each other for a Sunday catch up, a system Robin had subtly put in place in the wake of her separation, when her mum’s incessant calls for updates and to check how she was doing nearly drove her mad.

Robin picked up her mobile and called home instead, thinking that in the nicest possible way, she’d rather get the call out of the way, then have a sleep.
Linda Ellacott answered within a couple of rings, sounding slightly flustered.

“Hello love, everything okay? I’m supposed to be calling you later aren’t I?”

“Yeah I’m fine. Are you alright mum? You sound out of breath.”

“Yes, I’m…get down Rowntree…no, stop it. Your father’s let the dog in the kitchen and he’s after the leftover roast beef…NO! Michael…come and get your bloody dog.”

Robin chuckled. He was always her dad’s ‘bloody dog’ when he misbehaved. In the background she heard his footsteps, followed by a cheery, “Hello love,” shouted in the general direction of the phone before he dragged a whining Rowntree into the sitting room.

“Right, that’s better," Robin heard her mum drop into a chair. "What news have you got for me this week then?”

Robin filled Linda in on the highlights of her current work assignments, the shenanigans of her book club friends, and her trip to Winter Wonderland the previous day.

“Oh yes, you said you were having a girl’s day out with Ilsa, that’s lovely.”

“Actually, Nick came along too…and Cormoran.”

“Did he now?” she could almost hear Linda’s eyebrows lifting.

“Mother!” she berated, “Pack it in, you know we’re just friends.”

“That’s not what Matthew thinks. Jenny had a coffee with Kimberley last week and had chapter and verse on his theories about your leaving him. No mention of any responsibility on his part of course.” 

The thought of her sisters-in-law discussing the break down of her marriage, particularly when they both knew exactly why it had happened, made her seethe.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” she raged, “Matthew can shove his thoughts up his own arse, and so can Kimberley…and frankly if Jenny wants to listen to their crap she can do the same.”

She blinked back tears. She’d always gotten on with her older brother’s wife and couldn’t help but feel betrayed.

“Calm down, sweetheart. It wasn’t a planned thing, and Jenny put her straight in no uncertain terms. From what she said I very much doubt she’ll be seeing Kimberley again.” Her voice was tinged with both amusement and concern.

“Sorry mum, I’m just tired and I’ve got a cold coming. That’s why I called now. I’m going to head off to bed in a minute.”

“Oh darling, I hate not being able to look after you. I wish you were nearer. You know there are private investigators in Yorkshire too…not Masham, but York or Leeds maybe. You’ve got enough experience to change jobs now if you wanted to, move closer to home, put some space between you and Matthew…”

“London’s a big city, mum, I don’t think I need to worry about bumping into Matthew, and I love my job here.”

“I know,” sighed Linda. She’d known even before the words left her mouth that her plea would fall on deaf ears. It didn’t stop her pondering to herself however, with all the wisdom of a woman who has raised four children to adulthood, how much Robin’s refusal to consider moving was down to the love of the job alone. She knew her daughter had been ambivalent about the attractions of London until she’d walked into Cormoran Strike’s office.

“When are we expecting to see you for Christmas then?”

“I’ll drive up on the twenty-third,” replied Robin, sniffing with some difficulty. Getting upset had blocked her nose further, and her head was starting to pound.

“No sooner?”

“We’re closing the office for a week as it is. We’ll need to tie up as many loose ends as possible. Cormoran’s heading down to Cornwall the same day – I’m a partner, it’s only fair I share the workload.”

“I know, love. Your commitment does you credit. We’re all so looking forward to seeing you.”

“Me too Mum, but I really feel rubbish, so I’m going to go now, alright. Catch up next week. Love you.”

“Love you too darling. See you soon…and take care of yourself.”

Robin sat on the sofa for several minutes, willing herself to move. When her flatmate, Gary, came in that evening, he was mystified by the silence, and the fact that her bedroom light was on and she wasn’t answering him. Knocking gently, he peered around the door to find her snoring noisily, a hot water bottle clutched in one hand, a plush polar bear in the other.

Chapter Text

Sat behind his desk on Monday morning, Strike glanced at his watch for the third time and frowned. It was gone a quarter past nine and there was no sign of Robin. He’d texted her once already and had no response and was due to leave for a surveillance job shortly.

Rising from his seat, he went to the window of the outer office which offered a better view of Denmark Street, opened it slightly and lit a cigarette as he scanned the crowds below for a familiar bright, strawberry blonde head. He’d barely taken a drag when he heard the door swing open behind him. He glanced round to see Robin with her back to him, hanging up her coat, scarf and bag as per her usual routine, mumbling apologies about her tardiness, but when she turned to face him, he couldn’t keep the shock from his face.

“Bloody hell Ellacott, you look awful! What’s the matter with you?”

“You really know how to boost a girl’s self-esteem, don’t you? I’m fine, it’s just a cold.”

Strike took in her face which was white apart from a scarlet flush on her cheeks and the tip of her nose. Her eyes were watery and pink-rimmed, her voice thick with congestion.

“You shouldn’t have come in.”

“I’m only doing paperwork today, I’ve taken some cold stuff.”

He looked at her doubtfully but knew better than to argue.

“Right, well, I’ve got to head out in a minute. If you don’t feel up to it go home,” he said firmly. “Just lock up and drop me a text to let me know what you’re doing.”

“Okay,” she was pulling a box of echinacea tea bags and a squeezy bottle of honey from her bag and heading for the kitchen, apparently not paying a great deal of attention.

“I mean it,” he said sternly, “Otherwise I’ll see you at lunchtime with sandwiches.”

She smiled weakly, nodded and went back to her tea making.

*     *     *

Strike spent a thoroughly tedious morning tailing a mark who, much to his intense frustration resolutely refused to do anything incriminating. He found his mind wandering to Robin at regular intervals, checking his phone several times in anticipation of receiving a text to tell him she’d gone home, but none came.
At one o’clock he gave in and messaged her:

Just checking you’re still at the office. Heading back now with lunch, let me know if you’re on your way home. C

By the time he reached Tottenham Court Road tube, Robin still hadn’t replied. He nipped into a nearby deli and picked up sandwiches and two takeout cups of hot soup, then hurried back to Denmark Street, faster that was sensible on his over-taxed leg, expecting to find it locked up. She’d probably gone home and back to bed, he thought.

Strike was wrong. On arrival at the office he found the door unlocked, and Robin slumped over her keyboard, asleep.

He attempted to shut the door quietly but the handle slipped from his grasp and it swung shut with a bang. Robin awoke with a start, attempted a business-like greeting, then, realising it was Strike, dropped her head back onto her folded arms with a muffled ‘bugger’.

“You should not be here,” he stated firmly.

She raised her head and he could see that if anything she looked even worse than she had done that morning. Before he had the chance to give it much consideration, he strode across the office and pressed a cool hand to her forehead.

“You’re burning up Robin,” he scolded, “Come here.” He pulled her to her feet and she let him lead her to the sofa, where she plopped down gratefully, shivering slightly. He passed her a cup of soup and a sandwich.

“Right, don't move. Eat what you can manage, I’m just nipping upstairs for something and I’ll be back in a minute.”

Robin, who felt too dreadful to argue, ignored the food, tucked her feet up beside her on the sofa and closed her eyes.

It was only minutes but felt like hours later when Strike gently shook her awake again and pressed a mug of fragrant liquid into her hand.

“Whatizit?” she mumbled, giving it a dubious sniff.

“My own special cold cure – cold and flu powder, lemon juice, honey, herbal cough syrup and a shot of whisky.”

She wrinkled her nose but took a sip anyway. Looking down she could see that Strike had tucked a duvet - his duvet? - around her.

“S’better than it sounds.”

“I know, drink up,” he instructed.

“Got invoices to finish,” she muttered blearily, between mouthfuls of hot lemon.

“Not today you haven’t. I’m going to stick a Christmas movie on the laptop for you, we’ll have lunch, and when that…” he nodded at the mug in her hands, “…has kicked in, I’m putting you straight in a taxi home.”

“But I can’t afford…”

“Take it out of petty cash – staff well-being and all that. Now what do you fancy…Die Hard?”

She frowned up at him. “That’s not a Christmas movie.”

“It bloody is,” he retorted, “…and I’m not sure I'm up for the usual mushy nonsense.”

“Mushy comedy nonsense with Jack Black…?” Robin suggested, adding, with a tiny smirk “…and Kate Winslet?”

Strike looked at her and grinned. “Oh, go on then.”

He set up the laptop on Robin’s desk and found ‘The Holiday’ on Netflix, rolling his eyes for effect as he clicked play before settling back into the sofa next to Robin and tucking into his lunch. Robin had only managed about half of her soup and sandwich but finished Strike’s hot toddy.

They watched the film in silence, the office growing slowly darker as late afternoon approached. Strike reflected that he should probably be in his office doing something constructive, but he’d done some paperwork the previous afternoon and things were beginning to slow down as Christmas approached. Sitting on the farting sofa, the office lit only by the laptop screen and the coloured fairy lights on the Christmas tree, Robin snuggled under his duvet beside him, Strike found his motivation to move deserting him. The film was not as nauseating as he'd expected, but after a while his tiredness got the better of him and he nodded off.

He awoke as the credits rolled, to the sensation of a warm body next to him. Robin had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder and was snuffling softly in his ear. Ignoring the pang of something he dared not question somewhere around his solar plexus, he brushed her hair out of the way and gently pressed the back of fingers to her forehead to check her temperature. It was definitely more normal he thought, shifting slightly to stretch his legs and back.

His movements woke her up and she smiled up at him sleepily before realisation dawned on her that she was in the office and had fallen asleep on him.

“Oh shit, I’m sorry,” she gabbled, mortified, sitting up rapidly. He felt an instant rush of cold along his right hand side from the loss of her.

“It’s fine, you obviously needed that. How are you feeling?”

“Ropey, but functional,” she answered honestly.

“Good,” he replied, nodding. “Let’s call you a cab.”

Chapter Text

Strike got out of the shower shivering, wrapped a towel around his waist and headed as rapidly as he was able to into the bedroom to get dressed. The boiler had glitched again overnight leaving him with minimal heating and only lukewarm water.

He’d not slept well, two hours dozing on the office sofa the previous afternoon had rendered him wide awake until well past midnight, and when he’d finally turned in memories of Robin's head on his shoulder, her gently snuffling snores and her grateful hug as he’d bundled her into a taxi home kept floating into his mind and upsetting his equilibrium.

When his mobile rang, delaying him getting dried off and dressed, his telephone manner deserted him. He snatched it up without looking at the screen, and assuming it would be Lucy reminding him about Jack's performance answered with a sharp, “I haven’t bloody forgotten!”

“Forgotten what?” came the nasal but distinctive accent at the other end.

“Robin...sorry I’m just out of the shower, it’s freezing cold and I thought you were Lucy nagging me about tonight. What’s up?”

Just out of the shower..?

Robin shook her befuddled head to clear her thoughts and regretted it immediately. “I’m just phoning to let you know I won't be in today. I’m still absolutely full of it and barely slept. What are you doing with Lucy...Oh, bugger, is Jack’s thing tonight?”

“Yep...”

“Oh no...I’ll try and dose myself up and get there.”

“You bloody won’t! I need you fit for the weekend, Jack will survive. I still owe him a day out anyway,” he hesitated, “Maybe you could join us for that instead when I get around to arranging something?”

There was a moment’s pause as Robin processed Strike’s suggestion. It was one thing to be asked along, largely at Lucy’s behest, to a school performance, another entirely for Strike to ask her specifically to come out with him and Jack…wasn’t it? Or was she reading to much into it? Her head was fuzzy, he probably just wanted to stem off any disappointment on his nephew’s part.

“Mmm,” she replied, non-commitally, “Maybe. Let me know when you have a…date?...no…plan.”

“Will do.” Had he imagined her surprise at his asking? She didn’t sound very enthusiastic. But then she wasn’t well…maybe he shouldn’t have said anything? He filed it away to be considered later. “Now go back to bed and get some rest.”

“Yes boss,” he could hear her grinning down the phone despite her cold, “Oh, can you do me a favour?”

“Not if it’s work-related,” he replied firmly.

“It’s not – can you text me the ingredients for that hot toddy you made me yesterday.”

He chuckled, “Roger that. Take care,” and he rung off.

*     *     *

The day passed uneventfully. A couple of new client meetings - another suspicious spouse at Denmark Street, and a possible case of industrial espionage at a tech start up in Canary Wharf. A short surveillance gig for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, then back to the office for emails, voicemails and paperwork.

Hutchins and Barclay both had cause to pop in for various reasons and Strike was glad of their company, joining them for a quick drink in the Cambridge before heading for Jack’s performance.

Barclay looked at him in shock as he returned to table with an orange juice for Hutchins, a pint for Barclay and a half pint for himself.

“Ye feelin’ alright ye big sook?” he asked, nodding at Strike’s glass.

“Off to Bromley after this…nephew’s school play,” he explained, taking a mouthful of Doom Bar.

“Half pints, school plays? Ye must be an imposter…or is there another reason for the new man act,” Barclay teased, “Not that I blame ye, she’s a braw lassie is your Robin.”

“She’s not ‘my Robin’ Barclay, but she is technically your boss, so maybe keep your opinions to yourself, yeah?” Strike’s tone was even but brooked no argument. Barclay changed the subject.

As they watched him head out into the cold evening half an hour later, Barclay and Hutchins turned to one another, grinned and shook their heads.

*     *     *

Lucy was waiting outside the entrance to Jack’s school when Strike arrived, ten minutes late. He’d massively underestimated the difficulty he would have parking anywhere near the school, given that about a hundred sets of parents were in attendance, and was limping and cursing under his breath as he approached. He was expecting to see Lucy pacing up and down and cursing him, but she was completely calm, regarding him with a mildly amused expression as he bent to kiss her cheek whilst muttering apologies.

“It’s fine,” she said, “It doesn’t start until half past.”

“But you told me seven?”

“I know,” she replied drily, “C’mon.”

She looked so pleased with herself he didn’t have the heart to be cross, and then he saw a familiar dark head hurtling towards them.

“Uncle Cormoran!” Jack hurled himself at the giant figure of his uncle.

“Alright, mate.” Strike ruffled the boy’s hair. “Robin sends her apologies, she’d got a really bad cold and had to stay at home.”

“It’s alright, I know. She phoned me on mum’s mobile this afternoon to wish me luck…”

Strike smiled fondly. Of course she had. His mind skipped unwillingly to Charlotte, who had barely registered his nephews as human beings. She certainly wouldn’t have thought of calling to wish one of them good luck in his school play.

“…and she said you’re both going to take me out soon to make up for it.”

Strike’s attention snapped back to Jack.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Robin...she said you and her are going to take me out to make up for her missing my show tonight.”

Not so unenthusiastic after all then...

He beamed down at his nephew. “Yeah…yeah, that’s right. I’ll have to have a chat with your mum about that first though, okay?”

“Okay. Come on, Uncle Cormoran, if we go in now, you’ll get good seats.”

And he led them through to the school hall, whilst Strike studiously ignored the questioning look Lucy was giving him.

The show comprised a traditional nativity, with the addition of several musical numbers. Jack was the narrator, standing at the side of the makeshift stage to tell the story whilst his classmates acted and sang.

Strike, for all his general antithesis towards children was genuinely impressed by his nephew, who read his part clearly and confidently. He and Lucy both had to stifle their giggles at the donkey, who kept stopping en route to Bethlehem to pick his nose, and winced through the Year Four recorder group’s rendition of Once In Royal David’s City.

To avoid any meltdowns, the show was split into two short halves, and once Mary and Joseph were settled in the stable, the interval was announced. Strike stayed in his seat whilst Lucy went to fetch them cups of non-alcoholic mulled wine and mince pies. The latter had been made by some of the children, but having only managed a sandwich on the drive to Bromley, Strike forced his concerns about the food hygiene standards of the average nine year old to the back of his mind and accepted one gratefully.

“So,” said Lucy, “It was really nice of Robin to call. Jack was chuffed to bits. What’s this about the two of you taking him out?” she raised her eyebrows at Strike. Her emphasis had been very much on 'the two of you'.

“I still owe him that trip to the Imperial War Museum,” he replied, “…or maybe a pantomime if we can squeeze it in before Christmas. I was wondering if the twenty-first would be any good?”

“Oh, I don’t know, we’re off to Cornwall really early the next day…”

“S’okay, we can make it an afternoon thing, take him for something to eat and deliver him back to you ready for bath and bed. What do you think?”

Lucy looked at him contemplatively.

“I think you seem like a changed man recently, and I’m wondering what’s behind it. Is it Robin? Have you two finally…”

“No Lucy, just leave it, hmm? Can I not just make an effort to be a decent uncle?”

“Of course you can, it’s just…with the best will in the world you’ve never been that interested before, and you’re not exactly experienced with children.”

“I know, and I’m sorry I’ve been a bit disengaged in the past. The last six months or so have made me reassess a bit, and I really want to spend some more time with Jack. I know the others aren’t so bothered, but maybe eventually…”

Lucy’s eldest son, at twelve and in his first year at secondary school was almost a clone of his father, whom Strike merely tolerated, and interested in little beyond his computer. Her youngest, just seven, was something of a mummy’s boy still and on every occasion they had met had shied away from his giant of an uncle.

Strike caught his sister’s wide-eyed look.

“There’s no need to look so surprised, I seem to remember doing a fairly adequate job in the big brother department when we were growing up,” he reminded her.

Lucy thought of all the times during their childhood when it had seemed liked the two of them against the world. When he’d slept on the floor next to her bed in the commune because she’d been scared of the strange people that would wander about, even into their rooms, at night. The time she’d been bullied at school for being the new girl. Strike, two years above her, had fitted in effortlessly of course, and as soon as he made it very clear that she was his little sister the perpetrators left her alone. She’d known other friends with older brothers who avoided them at all costs and certainly wouldn’t have stood up for them so publicly.

She recalled the Christmas she was ten, when they’d stayed in London rather than returning to Cornwall. Leda had come home happy and loving after an afternoon at the pub with friends, and promptly fallen asleep on the sofa. Lucy had woken in the early hours to see a twelve-year-old Strike, bleary eyed from having forced himself to stay awake, filling her Christmas stocking so she wouldn’t be disappointed when she awoke. She’d never told him that she knew it was him.

Her eyes glistened as she looked at him, and squeezed the large hand that wasn’t clutching a plastic cup. “You did an amazing job of being a big brother, Stick,” she whispered hoarsely, "I couldn't have wished for better."

“Soppy,” he grinned back, and dropped a kiss on her head.

The second half of the performance went smoothly. Baby Jesus was born and visited by shepherds and kings, Calypso Carol was sung with gusto, and the teacher who had put the whole thing together thanked all the children for their commitment and excellent behaviour, and the audience for their support. Finally, she invited Jack back, this time to centre stage to give a last reading, ‘something for us all to think about over the festive season – love, in whatever form it may take'.

Strike was struck anew by the startling resemblance between his nephew and Leda. The dark hair, soulful eyes with their long lashes and the full mouth. As he watched Jack speak the words of Christina Rossetti, word perfect from memory, he fancied that the boy had inherited something of Leda’s spirit too.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

By the time Jack had finished, it wasn’t just Lucy who had tears in her eyes.

Chapter Text

Strike had had a busy Wednesday, leaving the office before Robin, now on the mend after a day of sleep and hot toddies, had arrived.

He and Barclay were working on case in a seedy part of London, which as luck would have it coincided with some interests of Shanker’s. Strike welcomed the opportunity to catch up with his old friend and was pleased from a business point of view too. Although it wasn’t the main purpose of the job, if all worked out as well as he hoped, it would leave Shanker somewhat indebted to him – hopefully enough to get a few freebies next time he needed his skills.

After a morning’s surveillance and enquiries, Strike and Barclay met Shanker for a pub lunch, and filled him in on what details they could from their investigation, whilst he helped them out with a few bits of information they’d have struggled to access themselves. Business dealt with, they indulged in some general catching up and chat. Barclay managed to suppress a smirk as he noticed that Strike didn’t object when Shanker referred to ‘your Robin’.

They parted company just before three, Barclay heading home for the day, Shanker off somewhere he declined to discuss, and Strike heading back to the office.

Tottenham Court tube was closed due to signalling issues, which meant a longer walk back from Leicester Square instead, and Strike swore under his breath as he emerged from the underground into torrential, icy rain, pulling up the collar on his coat and tucking his head down as he battled through the crowds and weather.

By the time he arrived back at Denmark Street, he was soaked though, bitterly cold and not at his most cheerful. He debated going straight up to his flat, but he could hear Robin talking on the phone and thought better of it, pushing open the door and stopping in his tracks at the sight and scent that greeted him.

Scattered around the office were several candles in small, amber glass holders, the farting sofa was almost covered with a butterscotch coloured blanket which appeared to have been knitted out of inconceivably thick yarn. Robin, phone handset tucked her chin, smiled a greeting from over the top of a steaming mug. The air smelled of fruit, spices and chocolate.

“So, we’ll see you in the office next Wednesday at two-thirty then? Yes, great, goodbye.”

She hung up and took in Strike’s bemused expression.

“What’s all this?” he asked, waving a hand around the room.

“Arbejdsglæde,” she replied.

“Bless you!” he grinned, “What the hell is arbe…arbejds…whatever you just said?”

“Arbejdsglæde. It’s basically hygge but for your working environment.”

“Hygge? Isn’t that the weird dance the All Blacks do before their rugby matches?”

“That’s a haka you pillock,” she laughed, “Hygge – it’s Danish, it’s all about making your environment cosy and welcoming, and in the work context, doing fulfilling, rewarding work and having good relationships with your colleagues.”

“Okaaaay, and how’s that working out for you? Are me, Hutchins and Barclay living up to expectations?” he grinned.

“You’ll do,” she retorted, noticing then that he was dripping on the floor. She jumped up and passed him a hand towel from the kitchen. He towelled his hair and hung up his wet coat, careful to make sure it was well away from Robin’s dry one on the stand, which he moved closer to the radiator.

“This is…” he ran his hand over the throw, searching for a suitable adjective. He’d never seen anything quite like it.

“Careful what you say next,” warned Robin, “I knitted that myself.”

Strike’s eyes widened. “You knit?” He couldn’t help it, he was having to stifle his laughter.

“Shut up! It’s trendy these days…even Ryan Gosling and Ashley Olsen do it.”

“Who?”

Robin shook her head, exasperated.

“Do you want a hot chocolate? Warm you up a bit?”

“Go on then,” he agreed, and suppressed a snort of laughter as Robin padded across to the kitchen, her feet clad in soft, pale blue slippers.

Five minutes later, Strike was sat on the sofa with a large mug, topped with squirty cream and tiny pink and white marshmallows, thinking that maybe hygge wasn’t such a bad thing after all as Robin filled him in on the progress of her current caseload.

Robin paused at the end of her update, and Strike was suddenly aware that she was staring him, her lips twitching slightly upward.

“What?”

“You’ve got…” she indicated her own mouth. Strike stuck his tongue out and licked away the smear of cream and melted pink marshmallow, and Robin felt her heart beat just a tiny bit faster and her toes curl involuntarily in her fluffy slippers.

She thought of the article she’d read whilst curled up in bed yesterday, which had inspired her new additions to the office.

“Hygge often happens when you are together with the people closest to you...people with whom you can be open and sincere with, where you don't have to pretend to be anything besides who you are.”

Yes, she thought, he’d definitely do.

Chapter Text

Robin was relieved to wake up almost completely cold-free on Friday morning. She and Strike were working over the weekend and she needed to be on her A-game for their client. Keen to get a head start on the prep they needed to do, she got a slightly earlier tube and was first to arrive at the office.

The kettle was boiling when the door opened and in came Barclay and Hutchins, stopping off for a quick morning catch up rather than their usual Friday late afternoon meeting, which more often than not ended in the Tottenham. Robin had suggested it as a more sensible option as she needed to get away on time to pack. By the time Strike showed up a few minutes later, the Christmas tree and Robin’s new, mulled wine scented candles were lit and his partner and two contractors were laughing in the kitchen.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw the three of them.

“Jesus! Have I just walked into Santa’s workshop?” he exclaimed, at the sight of Barclay and Hutchins' colourful knitwear and Robin’s jingling antlers.

“Aye, it’s Christmas jumper day Mr Grinch,” teased Barclay, registering Strike’s confused expression, “Have ye nae heard of it?”

“Bloody con to make people spend money and dress like idiots,” he retorted, realising as the words left his mouth that Robin actually looked anything but. Barclay was wearing a dark green sweatshirt featuring a highland cow with snow on its head and baubles swinging from its horns, whilst Hutchins was in a grey jumper which at first glance appeared to feature a traditional Scandi pattern, but at closer inspection was bedecked with Darth Vaders wearing Santa hats.

Robin, however, was wearing a fine knit cream jumper with a wide boat neck that exposed glimpses of her collar bone as she moved, and slightly full sleeves that tapered to deep cuffs. The front was embellished with a single, intricate snowflake picked out in iridescent sequins that kept catching the light from the fairy lights and candles dotted around the office and reflecting dots of lights and colour onto her face.

“Coffee?” she held out his favourite old mug to him, and he realised with a slight flush that he’d been staring, just a little bit, mesmerised in much the same way as people tend to be when looking into a fire.

“Thanks,” he smiled. “Yours is very tasteful,” he commented, feeling a bit guilty about his comment, “Just as well given the meeting we’ve got later.”

Robin laughed, “Grayson Hargreaves is a stay-at-home dad of eight-year-old twins. I imagine he’s probably familiar with Christmas Jumper day.”

Strike raised his eyebrows doubtfully as they headed to sofa to join Hutchins and Barclay. “You might want to lose the antlers though,” he quipped.

*     *     *

By two o’clock, Robin had assembled all the paperwork and information they had already gathered for the Hargreaves job, made notes on what she needed to ask him, and given the office a quick but thorough tidy, having banished Strike up to his flat for a cigarette.

Grayson Hargreaves could most accurately be described as something of a silver fox. At fifty-eight years old, he was a little taller even than Strike, but with a more slender, athletic build which he took care to maintain through his hobbies of cycling and skiing, as well as regular use of his home gym and pool. His rugged good looks and greying auburn hair made him look just the right combination of rugged and suave, and Robin hardly dared admit, even to herself, that she couldn’t help but feel a little wobbly in his presence.

Owner of a highly successful marketing agency, Grayson had married for the second time ten years previously. Ariella Burton-Hargreaves was sixteen years his junior and mother of his two youngest children, Nancy and Reuben, as well as his business partner. Keen not to replicate the mistakes he’d made with his three adult children, of whom he’d seen little as he built up his business, once the twins were a year old, he had handed the day to day running of the agency to Ariella, who was as capable as she was creative and delighted with the arrangement.

They were the envy of most of their friends and acquaintances, successful, wealthy, good looking and clearly devoted to one another. Anyone who saw them together couldn’t fail to notice how loving, balanced and supportive their relationship was. Until recently, which was why Grayson had called on the services of Strike and Ellacott.

He was concerned about Ariella’s relationship with their creative director, Dominic Parker. He’d been hired almost a year previously but over the last few months Grayson had noticed Ariella becoming increasingly involved in the creative aspect of the business. She was being cagey about some of the work she was taking on and seemed uncomfortable when Parker’s name cropped up in conversation, and even more so when the three of them were in a room together. Grayson, unlike most men, was not keen to automatically jump to the conclusion that they were having affair, but he knew something was going on, that it involved Parker and that it was impacting his marriage.

For this reason, Robin and Strike would be spending the weekend in Bath, tailing the pair at the company’s extravagant Christmas party, which had been conveniently arranged when Grayson himself was unable to attend due to his parents visiting from overseas.

Strike, back from his cigarette break, watched as Robin welcomed the older man into the outer office. She’d re-done her hair, sweeping it into a professional looking chignon, with a couple of wisps of strawberry blonde hair framing her face and highlighting the elegant contours of her neck. Those collar bones were on display again and her cheeks flushed slightly as she greeted Grayson with a warm handshake.

Strike bit his lip and forced down a rising wave of jealously. Notwithstanding Robin’s reaction to the man, he liked him, and he was an amenable and well-paying client. It wouldn’t do…on any level, he reflected…to let his feelings show.

He took two strides across the room and welcomed Grayson likewise, before he shrugged off his coat with a faintly embarrassed grin.

“Christmas Jumper Day,” he shrugged, “I’ve been helping with the kids' Christmas dinner at school…had to look the part.”

He was wearing a jumper which gave the appearance of being a Santa costume, although, thought Robin guiltily, the body underneath was most certainly not Santa-adjacent.

They sat down and went through the information they had gathered so far, which was minimal as the main part of their investigation was to take place over the weekend, the arrangements for which they then got around to discussing.

“This is all the booking details for the hotel,” said Grayson, handing over a sheaf of paperwork, “Your rooms, tickets for Christmas party etc.”

“Thank you,” Robin took the proffered documents and tucked them in the folder she had already set aside for the purpose.

Grayson continued, “I found something else out last night. Ariella must have used my PayPal account by mistake and not realised so I got the confirmation email. She’s booked a session for two at the Thermae Spa tomorrow afternoon – his name was also on the paperwork. If anything…” he hesitated, and Robin felt her heart break slightly at his pained expression, “…romantic is going on between them, I’d have thought it would be obvious in that kind of environment.”

Robin and Strike looked at each other and raised their eyebrows, both thinking it was a more than averagely intimate activity to arrange with a colleague of the opposite sex.

“So, I’ve taken the liberty of booking you both in at the same time as them,” he was holding the paperwork out to Robin, whose brain was refusing to communicate with her hand as she struggled to process what Grayson had just said. Strike’s expression was equally disbelieving, but as caught up as he was in the job in hand, the businessman failed to notice either reaction.

When Robin closed the door behind him a while later, she turned to Strike with a somewhat bemused expression.

“Didn’t see that coming,” she said, hesitantly.

“What?”

“What?! The spa thing. I know we’ve done some weird stuff in the name of investigations, but hanging out a posh spa is a bit different. How do you want to…I mean…we don’t both have to go…”

Strike shrugged. “Well I’m certainly not turning down the opportunity, it’ll do wonders for my leg for a start…”

And I might get to see you in a bikini…no, stop it…

“…and it might be a good opportunity to strike up a conversation with one or both of them. They’ll be surrounded by colleagues in the evening. If we’ve already established contact it’ll make things easier later on.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, in much the same tone as Strike had used when he’d first seen her in Vashti wearing the poison green dress, “You’ve got a point. Spa day it is then,” and she turned away and bustled around the office, washing up and reorganising paperwork, trying to quell the butterflies rampaging in her stomach.

*     *     *

Robin arrived home nearly an hour and a half later than she’d hoped to, having spent an inordinate amount of time trawling Oxford Street for appropriate swimwear for a trip to a spa with her business partner, who she just happened to be in denial about her feelings for.

She was not a regular swimmer and as such had only bikinis from her honeymoon, when she’d been bordering on too thin, the combination of her strict pre-wedding diet compounded by the stress and misery of the fallout from the Laing case. That aside, bikinis didn’t seem an appropriate choice in the circumstances.

After several forays into stores which had left her cursing, sometimes audibly, the lack of swimwear options available to purchase in the middle of the British winter, she eventually found a midnight blue one-piece in John Lewis. It had a high, halter neck that there was no danger of malfunctioning, and a back that was designed to look like a bikini, which was as decorous as possible without being frumpy or looking like she was training for the next Olympics.

By the time she got home, tired and thoroughly stressed, she was looking forward to dinner, a hot bath and an early night…once she’d finished packing.

“Alright love, thought you were planning an early one?” Gary’s voice came from the kitchen.

“I was,” she replied, smiling at the sight of her happily camp flatmate dancing round the kitchen to Taylor Swift, “Bloomin’ client threw us a bit of a curve ball and I had to go shopping for a swimsuit.”

“A swimsuit?!” Gary’s eyes widened, “Bet Strike’ll be looking forward to that,” he smirked. “I made extra pasta by the way…save you cooking. It’s my veggie lasagne – your favourite.”

His offer of food prevented Robin telling him where he could poke his Strike-related teasing. She was just unscrewing the half full bottle of wine when her phone bleeped.

“Oh, for God’s sake what now?” She fell silent and her face blanched as she read the text.

Gary watched her expectantly.

“Buggering hell, that’s the client again…he’s just found out that this do tomorrow night is bloody black tie.”

She plonked her wine glass on the table, threw the lasagne back into the oven to re-heat and headed to her bedroom with a huff.

Gary followed her five minutes later. She had already emptied most of the contents of her wardrobe across the bed and was standing in front of her full-length mirror, frowning at her reflection as she held a little black dress, and the grey bodycon one she’d had for her housewarming at Albury Street up alternately. Virtually the only thing still hanging in the wardrobe was the white dress bag that contained the green dress, unwearable since Matthew’s jealous, aggressive assault on the zip when she’d last worn it.

It took her a few minutes to realise that Gary was leaning on the doorframe, smiling smugly at her quandary.

“You’re not helping!” she remonstrated.

“But maybe I can?” he grinned and waggled his eyebrows mysteriously.

“Gary, I know your dress sense is flamboyant but I wasn’t aware you were into cross-dressing. Anyway, I’m pretty sure you’re not my size.”

“But this is…” he stood upright, whisking a pale grey dress bag from around the edge of the door in front of him and holding it out to her. She took it from him, confused.

“What’s this?”

“Early Christmas present…open it.” He was almost twitching with excitement.

Robin hung the bag on the wardrobe door and carefully pulled down the zip. As it parted, she caught a flash of shimmering poison green fabric and her mouth fell open in surprise.

“What’s…it can’t be…” she pulled it free of the bag and turned it around. There was no jagged rip running alongside the concealed zip fastening. It was, once again, perfect. She felt her eyes filling with tears as she turned to Gary. He was beaming at her.

“I remembered seeing that fabulous Cavalli when you moved in. I mentioned it in passing to Ilsa and she told me what happened. We’ve got an incredible seamstress on the show I’m working on at the moment, so I thought I’d get it fixed for you for Christmas. It was an absolute crime for it to be sat in that bag unworn, although I had to be a bit sneaky about getting it out of the house unnoticed.”

Robin put the dress down carefully before throwing herself across the room and her arms around Gary’s neck, happy tears flowing in earnest now.

“It’s the best Christmas present I could’ve wished for…you’re amazing!” she sniffed.

He laughed back. “Just call me your fairy godfather!”

Chapter Text

They’d agreed to get an early start, although the journey was only a little over a couple of hours. Robin had done her homework as usual and discovered there were two areas of construction work on the M4, and with Christmas traffic it would be more sensible and less stressful to allow extra time.

She was perched on the sofa, when Strike pulled up in the BMW, trying to focus on matters case-related rather than those of a more personal nature, but she hadn’t quite developed her partner’s skills for compartmentalising yet, and to say she had mixed feelings about the weekend ahead was something of an understatement.

She jumped slightly when she heard him the beep of a car horn, got to her feet and headed swiftly out, pulling her pale blue wheeled suitcase behind her, a dress bag and rucksack over her shoulder. She loaded the latter two items carefully into the back of the car and dropped the rucksack into the front footwell. Strike, with his usual instincts and well-established knowledge of Robin’s modus operandi when they took long car journey’s together, noticed it immediately.

“Is that what I think it is?” he grinned.

She laughed and gave a mock sigh. “What are you like? Of course it is, and it’s even Christmas themed.”

Strike’s face fell. “Oh God, not more wanky coffee?”

“Nope, Betty’s tea, fruitcake, mince pies, pigs in blankets and candy canes.”

“Great!” he replied enthusiastically, as he pulled smoothly away from the kerb, “When are we stopping for a picnic?”

“Oh, do shut up,” she retorted, and shoved a candy cane in his mouth.

*     *     *

The construction works at Slough and Reading held them up for somewhat longer than they had anticipated, despite their planning, and by the time they’d got past and were on the move again, Strike could feel his leg beginning to grumble from the enforced sitting in one position. Robin noticed him fidget and wince.

“How about we stop for that picnic, and then swap over? I know Bath well, we can have some Christmas music on instead of the sat nav then.”

He pulled into Chieveley services and they both made use of the facilities before Strike went to find them a table and Robin went to buy coffees – the tea had long since been consumed in the slow-moving traffic. She placed them on the table, sat down and produced the snacks she’d brought from her rucksack. Slices of fruit cake neatly wrapped in tin foil, mince pies in a small Tupperware box, pigs in blankets likewise, layered between two thin cool packs. For a moment, Strike was reminded of his sister. He shook the thought from his head, that was not a correlation he wanted to draw with Robin.

“So how come you know Bath so well?” he asked, snaffling two pigs in blankets.

Robin looked up from where she was carefully detaching a mince pie from its little foil tray.

“It’s where Matt went to uni. I used to visit a fair bit until…”

“Right.” Strike nodded. Several questions popped into his brain, but he had no desire to push the matter.

“…and after, once I was…getting better.”

“So, you’ve been to the Christmas markets there before? I’ve heard they’re really good…if you like that kind of thing.”

“No. The first year he came to visit me in the run up to Christmas. The second year, well, that was a write-off, obviously, and the third year we were both back in Masham. Harrogate’s Christmas market in pretty good. They’re quite similar places really, Georgian spa towns, affluent. I’d love to do one of the European Christmas markets one day. I talked about it with Matt but he always said the point of going abroad was to get away from the cold weather, not end up somewhere even worse.”

She shrugged, took a large swig of coffee and began dismantling her mince pie, nibbling away the fluted edges, before prising the top off, setting it aside and starting on the main bit. Strike, pushing his irritation at yet another story of Matthew Cunliffe treading on Robin’s wishes to the back of his mind, watched her, baffled.

“Are you eating that or making an art installation?”

“Don’t start,” she admonished, but she was smiling, “I like saving the sugary pastry until the end. It’s the best bit.”

Strike regarded his own mince pie thoughtfully, then picked off the top and popped it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.

“You might be right,” he agreed, before eating the rest of the pie. He glanced at his watch. “You ready to get moving?”

Robin nodded as she finished her last mouthful of coffee, and together they tidied up and headed back to the car park.

*     *     *

The Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel was every bit as imposing as it looked on the website. The Georgian façade of the Grade II listed building was made entirely of warm, golden Cotswold stone, a sweeping two-sided ramp leading to the front door.

Having parked the BMW in its pre-booked space, Strike and Robin entered the reception area, resplendent in shades of ivory, black marble and gilt embellishments. The open fire, around which a trio of velvet upholstered Chesterfields sat, was welcoming and fresh flowers on the reception desk had been carefully curated to look seasonal and festive, but beautiful as they were, they well and truly paled into insignificance against the huge Christmas tree that stood at the far end of the hall. It was easily in excess of twelve feet tall, trimmed with tasteful cream and gold decorations and twinkling with hundred of tiny fairy lights, shaped like miniature candles.

Strike caught Robin looking at it, awestruck, as they joined the small queue to book in, and bent down to whisper in her ear, “I like ours better.”

She grinned back at him, feeling her cheeks flush…ours. Stop it, she told herself firmly.

But it was such a perfect venue, and with a trip to the spa and an evening of black tie, good food and wine ahead, Robin was finding it increasingly hard not to let her mind wander, just a tiny bit. She hoped they would meet Ari, as Grayson had told her she preferred to be called, and Dominic soon. Investigating someone else’s working relationship – or otherwise – would provide a very welcome distraction.

They eschewed the offer of a concierge and headed together to their neighbouring rooms on the second floor via the lift.

Strike was relieved to close the door behind him. He needed to adjust his prosthesis, which had come ever so slightly adrift as they’d made their way from car park to hotel on cobbled streets, and he needed some breathing space.

I need, he told himself sternly as he sat heavily on the side of the double bed, to pull myself the fuck together.

He always enjoyed road trips with Robin, and this one had probably been the best yet. A couple of delays aside it had gone smoothly, no accidents to avoid, no inclement weather, no police asking awkward questions or dramatic en route phone calls. Robin’s restful company, excellent driving skills and picnic packing talents only adding to the pleasure. And there was the problem.

He realised their previous overnight trips had either been haunted by the spectre of Matthew, or with Barclay in tow. Boundaries. There were no boundaries this time. In a couple of hours they would be at a spa together, for God’s sake! Then there was the evening ahead, a party night for multiple business, their cover being that they were a couple who ran their own business so it was the best excuse for a Christmas party. It wasn’t playing the role that worried Strike, it was the fact that the idea was starting to seem far too easy.

A glinting amber bottle on the dressing table caught Strike’s eye and he wandered over to inspect it. It was a bottle of expensive single malt whisky, the likes of which hadn’t been anywhere near Strike’s lips since the Charlotte days. There was a thick cream envelope with his name on beside it, and he opened it to find a note, which had clearly been dictated by Grayson Hargeaves to a member of hotel staff.

Just a small token of my appreciation. I know you’re doing the job I’m paying you for, but I wanted to say an extra thanks for your willingness to give up your weekend so close to Christmas. GH

Next door, Robin was reading an identical note, which in her case had accompanied a sizeable box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates and a stunning bouquet of deep purple and red flowers.

She jumped visibly when she heard a sound behind her.

“Robin!? God, I’m so sorry…” Strike had appeared in her bedroom, looking confused and horrified, “I thought it was a cupboard.”

She laughed weakly, but Strike had seen the colour drain from her face, the tremor in her hand as she dropped the card she’d been holding.

“Welcome to Narnia. It appears we have interconnecting rooms,” she gave him a wryly amused look, cursing herself inwardly as she heard how breathless she sounded, painfully aware that her heart was racing. So much for the CBT exercises.

“Never mind that,” said Strike brusquely, “Are you ok?”

Her eyes met his, defiant, even though she knew he would've seen her reaction. Even though he knew why. “I’ll be fine,” she said, then giggled. “Better we found about that now rather than later when one of us is half dressed.”

Oh, good God, where had that come from, she thought, mortified, that's exactly what we're going to be a in couple of hours anyway.

“Yeah,” muttered Strike, averting his gaze from her eyes. Was she imagining it, or were his cheeks as flushed as her own? “Well, we’ll just keep it shut. I’ll see you in an hour and a half, formulate an action plan for this spa thing?”

“Great,” she replied. See you later…and don’t forget to knock next time!”

She dropped onto the bed as he retreated back into his own room, feeling a sudden wave of tiredness wash over her, and drifted into a restless sleep, full of bizarre dreams.

Chapter Text

Strike had never gotten changed and into a pool so fast in his life. Robin had seen him on one leg before, seen him struggling. He had no intention of adding one-legged, struggling and half-naked to the mix.

He was deeply grateful for his decision when Robin came into view a few minutes later. She clearly hadn’t seen him, positioned as he was slightly hidden by a gently curving pillar, and she headed to the side of the pool, slipped off the fluffy white robe all guests were provided with and draped it over an available lounger.

Strike tried very hard not to pay too much notice to the sight of Robin in her carefully chosen swimsuit, whilst simultaneously attempting to catch her eye and get her attention. For a heart-stopping moment when she’d had her back to him as she disrobed, he’d thought she was actually wearing a bikini. The jolt to his libido had made him doubly grateful that he was already in the water, and he quickly mustered his self-control. As pleasant as the brief thought of her in a bikini had been the previous day, it was not something he wanted to dwell on in her company, much less whilst working and with them sleeping either side of an interconnecting door.

He was still lost in his thoughts when he registered her slipping into the water next to him.

“Alright?”

“Yeah…fine. No sign of them yet.”

“They’re here…at least, she is. She came into the changing room just as I was coming out here.”

“Right, good.”

“You sure you’re ok?”

They watched in silence for a few minutes as Ari and Dominic entered the pool from their respective changing room, conferring briefly at the side of the water, before heading to the submerged whirlpool area.

Robin pushed herself away from the side of the pool, almost into Strike’s eye-line of the whirlpool, so he could keep an eye on the couple whilst appearing to be talking to her.

“If they are having an affair, they don’t look very happy about it,” said Strike, quietly.

“We don’t know that’s what’s happening,” insisted Robin, once again.

He raised his eyebrows. “Look I know Hargreaves is a nice guy, and the fact that he places so much faith in his wife does him credit, but honestly in cases like this, the most obvious answer is usually the right one.”

“I’m not saying they’re not having an affair, just that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I’m heading over there – join me in a minute? If you go first you’re bound to scare them off,” she teased.

He shot her a look and rather than watch her as she swam away, headed off himself to a water jet where he stood and let the powerful stream of water massage his shoulders, hoping it would also wash the images of Robin's gentle curves, tightly wrapped in shimmering midnight blue Lycra, out of his imagination.

Robin noticed as she approached Ari and Dominic that they were no longer talking. He was positioned right in the centre of the curved centre, facing the entrance, with his head back against the side of the pool, eyes closed, relaxed. She was gazing around the rest of the baths, looking tense and distracted. Robin smiled and nodded at her as she joined them.

After getting settled she managed to catch Ari’s eye.

“It’s lovely isn’t it. Have you been here before?”

“A couple of times, with my…” she stopped. Robin wondered if Dominic knew she was married. He had to, unless he lived under a rock. Perhaps she’d told him her and Grayson were finished. She mentally chastised herself for doing exactly what she’d told Strike not to.

Dominic remained in his zen like position as he listened to the two women make small talk. Eventually they got around to talking about their careers, and as Ari began talking about some of their recently acquired clients, he opened his eyes, glancing sideways at Ari, and then briefly at Robin, before sitting up and looking at her properly.

Strike was watching him as he approached and did not appreciate the very thorough once-over he appeared to be giving her. Pushing his reservations and desire to give Parker a filthy look aside, he manoeuvred himself onto the stone seat next to Robin, slightly closer than was strictly necessary, slid his arm along the ledge behind her and dropped a brief kiss on her temple.

“Okay, love?” he asked, brushing his thumb against her shoulder. He was certain her felt her shiver, although the water was heated to bath-like temperatures.

“Yes,” she replied, apparently unflustered. He must’ve imagined that shiver, he thought, mentally chastising himself for being so foolish as to think his touch would cause her to react that way. “I was just telling Ari and Dominic here that we’re also at the Gainsborough Christmas party tonight.”

“That’s right,” he smiled disarmingly at Parker, “It’s just the two of us working together, Christmas party would be a bit tame otherwise.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Robin shot back with a cheeky wink. Strike smiled back and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, but he could feel his heart thumping at the base of his throat. He’d forgotten how much she enjoyed playing a character, and how bloody good she was at it.

Robin had turned her attention back to their new acquaintances.

“Is it just the two of you in the office?” she asked, remembering Sarah Shadlock once asking her exactly the same leading question in front of Matthew. Bitch.

“No,” replied Dominic, looking somewhat disgruntled at the arrival of Strike, “We run a marketing agency, well, Ari does. I’m the creative genius,” he gave a laugh which did nothing to diminish Robin's impression of him as an arrogant tosser. “Don’t know what I’d do without her though.”

Ari gave him a thin smile but said nothing.

The conversation became more stilted, and Strike and Robin made their excuses and moved to one of the smaller, quieter pools at the complex.

“Lover’s tiff?” Strike was curious to see what Robin thought. He had already begun to draw his own conclusions now that he had met them both.

Robin shook her head. “No. There’s something else going on. There is some kind of intimacy between them, but that’s not what this is about. I really don’t think they’re having an affair.”

Strike looked at her contemplatively.

“I think you’re absolutely right,” he replied. “So what the bloody hell is going on?”

Chapter Text

On returning to the Gainsborough, Robin handed Strike her sports bag to take up to their rooms and headed into the cavernous banqueting hall that had been prepared for the evening’s party.

Four long tables were set at one end with immaculate cutlery, crockery and crystal glasses, lavish floral arrangements embellished with tiny gold baubles and sparkling crystals surrounded ivory candles at regular intervals. Across a large dance floor stood another enormous Christmas tree bedecked with red and gold stood in the corner at the opposite end of the room. The stage next to it was set up with instruments and an extensive selection of DJing equipment and lights.

Robin glanced through the glass panelled double doors before slipping into the room and scanning the tables for place cards. She found Ari and Dominic’s at one end of the second table, and much to her relief, she and Strike were placed further down, which made the switch easier. She picked up the cards bearing their pseudonyms – Cameron Marrack and Rose Crosby, Blue Door Architects - and had just swapped them with a couple nearer their marks when she heard footsteps. She dropped swiftly into a crouch, her hand going to her pocket for the item she had brought with her for just this eventuality,

“Can I help you madam?” said the approaching voice, heavy with suspicion.

“No, thank you,” she rose to her feet, beaming, her voice slightly breathy, “I’ve found it now. Diamond earring…this was the only place I hadn’t checked,” she held out her palm giving him a very brief glimpse of what was in fact a cheap zirconia stud from Claire’s Accessories.

“Well, this area is off limits to guests until this evening.”

“Oh, of course, I’m done now,” she broke out a slightly stronger Yorkshire accent, knowing it was one that people tended to trust, “Looks stunning by the way.”

And she returned to her room, fighting the urge to giggle until she reached the lift.

*     *     *

On arrival she realised that Strike still had her bag. She’d expected him to pop it through the interconnecting door, but she guessed he’d maybe not felt comfortable doing so. She knocked on it now, calling as she did so “OK if I pop in? You’ve still got my bag.”

“Yep, come in…leg’s off,” he added, as if to explain why he wasn’t opening the door to her personally.

She found him laying back on his bed, remote control in hand, watching the football results, and gave him an exasperated look.

“Are you not even thinking about getting ready?”

“Getting ready?” he looked at her in astonishment. “We’ve got over two hours, and I’ve already showered at the spa. I’ve only got to get dressed!”

“Bloody men! You have it far too easy,” Robin grumbled good-naturedly as she retrieved her bag and closed the door behind her.

Strike returned his attention to the football highlights or tried to. He could hear the bath running in Robin’s neighbouring room, and before he was able wrestle his overactive imagination into submission found himself picturing her going about the business of getting ready, slipping out of her clothes and into the scented water, soft white bubbles sliding over even softer, creamy skin.

A rush of blood to his groin brought his thoughts sharply back into focus.

For fuck’s sake, not now!

He’d been fighting his feelings for so long, it had become second nature, but this weekend, her proximity, the banter, the lack of obstacles, the fact they were play acting these characters that were in a relationship…

Perhaps that was one way of looking at, he thought, a dark, crafty corner of his mind aching to give him an excuse to continue thinking about Robin in ways he knew he had no business doing. They were characters, it wasn’t really him thinking about Robin, it was Cameron thinking about Rose, which he was perfectly entitled to do.

The temptation to give into his fantasies almost got the better of him, then he remembered the unlocked interconnecting door, thought better of it and with a not insignificant effort of will, returned his attentions to Match of the Day.

*     *     *

Robin was reclining in the bath, thinking about their trip to the spa earlier. Strike was such a big, confident man, yet increasingly she was seeing his vulnerable side, and she wondered if it was just that she was getting to know him better after three years, or if he was letting his guard down more.

She’d noticed his subtle discomfort at the spa, the way he was always in the water first and out last, whilst she was busy with robe and flip flops. She had seen him without his prosthesis often enough, but always, of course, fully clothed and she supposed it wasn’t surprising that he might feel uncomfortable in this new context.

She wondered if he was self-conscious about the scars that patterned his back and chest, or at least what was visible of his chest under that thick pelt of dark hair. Many were from his time in the army, visible reminders of events she knew nothing about. The peppering of small marks down his back she knew though were from his altercation with John Bristow, when he’d been dragged across an office floor covered in broken glass.

She recalled him almost catching her gazing at them earlier, she’d flushed as he’d turned around to say something, silently praying that he hadn’t noticed. That he couldn’t possibly have guessed that she’d been thinking about how those scars might feel beneath her lips.

She sighed and reached for the Calvin Klein body wash which was her preference for special occasions, then mentally chastised herself. This wasn’t a special occasion, it was work. Besides, it was too soon and anyway he didn’t see her like that, she told herself. She wasn’t quirky or beautiful or exotic like his previous girlfriends, she was just reliable, professional, girl-next-door Robin, and that, she thought regretfully, was no doubt the way it was going to stay.

*     *     *

A couple of hours later, Robin found herself laughing as an emphatic “Bollocks!” travelled through from the next room.

“You ok?” she called back.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had to do a bow tie,” Strike responded.

She’d been so preoccupied with the whole dress debacle and resolution she realised it hadn’t occurred to her that Strike would also be in black tie. Her stomach flipped.

“I’ve never had to do one so I can’t help I’m afraid. Why didn’t you get one ready tied on elastic or something?”

“Because I already had this one...and it’s a cop out,” he replied firmly.

Robin’s eyebrows twitched, as she remembered the elasticated bow tie Matthew had purchased for his graduation ball.

“You ready?” he continued, “I’ll meet you out front in a minute.”

“You’d best come through and we’ll go out together. We’re Rose and Cameron now, if anyone sees us leaving separate rooms it’ll look weird.”

“Good thinking. Okay...I’m coming in.”

The door opened and he would have been gratified to have noticed how Robin’s eyes widened in appreciation, but he was too transfixed by her to register her obvious reaction to his own appearance.

He had spent most of the time he was getting ready wondering what she would be wearing. He’d longed to see her in the green dress again, having been unable to spend any time in her company at the Paralympic reception, an evening that had in any case been tainted with fights and later, the presence of Charlotte. Ilsa, however had let it slip a while back that there had been a wardrobe malfunction which had rendered it unwearable, so he had resigned himself to the anticipation of something else, which Robin would no doubt look equally good in.

To see her there, in the dress, for his – no, for Cameron’s – benefit, rendered him almost completely speechless. Even after the adjustments made by Gary’s seamstress friend, the fabric still hung perfectly from every curve, accentuating the dip of her waist and the flare of her hips, the subtle cowl neckline draping sinuously over the curve of her breasts. She’d added green satin shoes and simple solitaire crystal earrings. A delicate gold chain around her neck carried a matching stone which nestled in her décolletage. Her make-up was just slightly more elaborate than usual, a little more emphasis around the eyes, her lipstick a touch darker, and she’d curled her hair so it fell in loose, rippling waves which just brushed her shoulders. He couldn’t help himself.

“Wow!”

She grinned back at him. “Better than ‘yeah’ I guess.”

He flushed and she realised that he too remembered that tiny detail from their outing to Vashti.

“And as for you…the name’s Strike…Cormoran Strike,” she teased.

“Not tonight it’s not,” he replied ruefully. “C’mon Rose, let’s go.”

As they stood in the mirrored lift in companionable silence, both trying to think themselves into character, Robin couldn’t resist a few surreptitious glances at Strike’s reflection. Despite his declaration that all he needed to do was get dressed, it was clear he’d made a bit more effort than that. His beard was tidier than it had been when she’d left him watching the football, his hair appeared to have been tamed somewhat and he smelt of woody, slightly spicy aftershave which she knew he’d worn before but on this particular evening seemed to be having an altogether more primal effect on her senses.

It was a good thing, Robin thought, that they were pretending to be a couple. At least she would have an excuse if she did or said anything slightly inappropriate. She had an ominous feeling it would be quite a challenge not to and made a mental note to go very easy on her wine consumption.

“Penny for them?” Strike voice brought her back to the moment as the lift stopped on the ground floor.

She looked up at him and for a split second he thought he saw a flicker of guilt wash over her face.

“Just trying to remember what I ordered for dinner,” she replied, sounding slightly distracted.

“Not like you to be the one obsessing about food,” he joked, offering her an arm, which she took as they headed to the banqueting hall.

Chapter Text

Robin and Strike took their seats at one of the long banqueting tables, where she was pleased to see that no-one had noticed or tampered with her adjustment of earlier. They were seated next to each other, opposite Ari and Dominic, who had yet to arrive.

Strike pulled her chair out for her and made sure she was seated comfortably before sitting down himself, and she reflected that, despite her feminist principles, his chivalry was really quite charming. She tried to remember Matthew behaving in a similar way and found it impossible to recall any such occasion. She’d always told herself they she didn’t mind his habit of letting her just ‘get on with it’, after she was hardly a hopeless specimen and he’d been there for her when it counted – apart from when he was shagging Sarah – added a vicious little voice in her head.

She had been about to reach for the bottle of sparkling elderflower cordial in the centre of the table, but Strike had just taken a flute of champagne from a passing waiter for her, and with thoughts of Matthew’s betrayal threatening to ruin both her mood and her concentration, she took it from him gratefully. Strike was scanning the room for familiar faces, some of the other directors and senior staff from Grayson Associates would be present. He and Robin had seen their photos and he was hoping for a chance to see how they would interact with Dominic in particular.

He turned back after a minute or two and spotted Robin’s empty glass.

“That was quick,” he commented, nodding at it.

Robin looked at him slightly sheepishly. “I’m a bit nervous to be honest.”

“You’ll be fine,” replied Strike, “You’re great at this roleplay stuff…oh, hang on, they’re coming over.”

Ari and Dominic greeted them with the usual platitudes about it being nice to run into them again.

“Almost didn’t recognise you with your clothes on,” quipped Dominic, aiming his comment primarily at Robin as his gaze slid briefly but obviously over her body. Strike noticed, bristled and took a large mouthful of red wine in an effort to prevent him saying something he shouldn’t.

More members of Grayson Associates began to arrive and Ari, who appeared happier than she had done at the spa made introductions whilst Dominic held court with another small group seated to his right. It was clear he liked the sound of his own voice. Thankfully the starters were served promptly, which thought Strike, should at least shut him up for a bit.

Robin, who was thoroughly enjoying her crispy duck salad, was more than a little taken aback by Strike’s starter, and he caught her eyeing it with a bemused look on her face.

“What?”

“That looks suspiciously meat free by your usual standards.”

“Truffled wild mushrooms though,” he replied. They were sat on a bed of potato rösti, topped with a poached quail’s egg and more truffle shavings. “Have you ever tried them?”

Robin wrinkled her nose and shook her head. She hadn’t and wasn’t sure she wanted to.

“Go on, try,” coaxed Strike, offering her his fork.

Robin was a little taken aback at the intimate gesture but reminded herself that it was completely unremarkable given that they were supposed to be a couple for the evening. Neither of them had noticed Dominic Parker watching their exchange with a smirk on his face. As Robin’s lips closed around the tip of the fork, he snorted.

“Ha! Truffles, supposed to taste like sex aren’t they, according to that posh chef, what’s his name? Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall?” His eyes were on Robin, his expression lascivious.

Strike’s fist clenched under the table. Robin swallowed her mouthful of food and turned her attention to Parker, shooting a look that was a combination of bemused and withering.

“Really? I’m not sure what you mean, perhaps you could elaborate?”

Put on the spot, Parker looked briefly mortified, blustered a few barely audible words and returned to his own food. Robin glanced at Ari and noticed she seemed delighted that he’d been put in his place.

“How long have you two been together?” she asked conversationally, as the waiters cleared the plates at the end of the first course, and Strike poured Robin half a glass of white wine before topping his own up with red.

“Three years,” replied Robin without missing a beat. “We met at the same company, got together and then set up on our own almost eighteen months ago.”

“And you’re married?”

“Oh no,” replied Robin, with a small laugh which stopped abruptly as she registered Strike replying at the same time, “Not yet.”

She looked at him in shock. Ari’s eyes were glittering with amusement.

“Oh shit! Have I just ruined a festive surprise?” she addressed Strike, who was looking distinctly pink-cheeked.

“No, no,” he responded quickly, “We’ve talked about it just not…”

Robin covered his hand with her own reassuringly and looked at Ari.

“I’d left my husband only a few months before we met and I’m not long divorced,” she explained, thinking on her feet.

“You must have married very young…sorry that’s really nosy,” replied Ari.

“It’s fine, I did. He was my high school boyfriend. It appears I've made much better decisions with age,” she smiled affectionately at Strike and gave his hand a squeeze. He turned his hand over and linked his fingers through hers, bending forward and kissing the tip of her nose.

“We both have, sweetheart,” he replied.

There was an awkward few seconds before the waiters reappeared and began serving the main courses. Ari was briefly distracted by the colleague on her left and Robin leaned over and hissed in Strike’s ear.

“What the hell was that?!”

“I was improvising,” he replied sheepishly.

Robin looked into his eyes, dark and dilated in the candlelight and briefly wondered about what else they might improvise that evening in the way of believability.

She shook the thought from her head and chuckled.

“You are a right one,” she joked.

“I told you you’re better at this stuff than I am.”

Their main courses landed in front of them, Dover sole on crab risotto for Robin, lamb with celeriac and black pudding for Strike. The meal was delicious and mercifully uneventful, giving the pair plenty of opportunity to observe the relationships between Ari and Dominic and their colleagues. Dominic seemed to be unpopular, but in such a way that people were clearly wary of him. Strike was not convinced it was entirely down to his position within the company, as even Ari seemed on edge around him. They definitely did not give the impression of being in any kind of relationship.

Ari on the other hand was warm and friendly, making a point, when she went to the bathroom at one stage, to greet as many people as possible on her return and ensure they were enjoying their meals and had whatever they wanted in the way of drinks. By the time dessert arrived, Strike and Robin were utterly bemused. Strike had excused himself on the pretext of needing the bathroom and texted Robin.

I think this might be a job for Robin rather that Batman. What do you reckon?

He waited for her reply.

YY. Will try and gain her confidence a bit more over pud and then corner her in the ladies later! Rx

Excellent plan 😊

Strike’s dark chocolate tart was beautifully presented, accompanied by a quenelle of pale green pistachio ice cream and a neat pile of perfect fresh raspberries, but he couldn’t help but be a little distracted by the arrival of Robin’s salted caramel crème brûlée with peanut butter mousse and banana ice cream. His mind was briefly assaulted by a crystal-clear memory of the first time he’d had crème brûlée, back at Oxford and in rather less conventional circumstances.

Robin noticed his expression change.

“Are you regretting your choice, by any chance?” she teased.

“No, not at all, just…” he mumbled, concentrating fiercely on his own plate. “Crème brûlée, brings back memories…Oxford.”

Robin froze momentarily. Oxford…Charlotte…still. Suddenly she was back at the Paralympic reception, watching him leave with her. Going home on her own, back to Matthew. She reached for the bottle of sauvignon blanc, topped up her glass and took a large mouthful.

But Ari had overheard Strike and shrieked with laughter.

“Oh. My. God! A reaction like that and mention of Oxford can only mean one thing…pennying!”

Robin looked between Ari and Strike, momentarily distracted from her miserable thoughts but now utterly bewildered. Strike was smiling in spite of himself.

“Were you at Oxford?”

“No, Cambridge, same old stupid dinner party games though.” She caught Robin’s curious expression.

“Pennying is usually done with alcohol,” she explained. “Someone drops a penny into someone else’s drink and they have to down it, but it can also be done with puddings, and then the person challenged has to eat theirs without using any cutlery.”

Robin’s look changed from baffled to mildly horrified.

“I know, I know, but it usually happens after a lot of drink has between taken,” she leaned forward conspiratorially and added in a stage whisper, “And between you and me, watching a man eat crème brûlée with just his tongue is usually a pretty good indication of whether or not he’s worth inviting back to your halls of residence.”

Robin’s eyebrows almost disappeared into her hairline, she turned to Strike who was struggling to meet her eye. A vision of Charlotte…beautiful, sexy, sophisticated Charlotte popped into her mind at the same moment as the last mouthful of wine hit.

“Well, that’s a party trick you’ll have to show me when we’ve not got company.”

He looked back at her and she couldn’t quite read his expression. Where she’d expected to see amusement, she saw sadness, anger and…fear? He pushed his chair back and got to his feet.

“I’m going for a cigarette,” he said quietly, and strode out of the room without looking back.

Chapter Text

“Oggy?” Nick spoke sleepily into his mobile. He’d just nodded off in front of Die Hard after a run of long days at the hospital.

There was no reply, just the sound of a long breath and the faint background noise of distant crowds and traffic.

“Oggy, are you there?” Nick caught Ilsa’s eye as she looked up questioningly from behind her book.

“Bloody idiot’s butt dialled me again,” he laughed.

“I’m here,” came a gruff voice at the other end of the line.

“Take your time why don’t you,” chastised Nick, realising a split second after the words left his mouth that his friend sounded awful.

“What’s the matter? Aren’t you supposed to be at some posh party with Robin ‘working’?!” Strike could hear the inverted commas around the final word in Nick’s tone.

“I can’t do this,” came the reply. Strike closed his eyes and leaned back against a ledge at the front of the hotel, taking another deep drag of his second cigarette.

“What do you mean? Can’t do what?”

Ilsa was still watching and listening to her husband’s end of the conversation, and she moved across the room and squeezed herself in the ‘cuddler’ style armchair beside him, bending her head so she could listen in without him putting Strike on speaker.

“We’re at this bloody party, and we’re getting nowhere nearer to finding out what the fuck’s going on, and Robin…”

Strike sighed heavily down the phone. Ilsa and Nick frowned at one another and waited.

“You know we’re having to pretend to be…together, for this gig?”

“Yeah, you might have mentioned it.”

“It’s just too bloody hard.”

“What, pretending to be Robin’s significant other?”

“No…” Strike hesitated. Fuck it, Nick teased him enough already, it wasn’t like he didn’t have his suspicions anyway, “Pretending that I’m pretending. That everything I’m saying isn’t how I really feel.”

Ilsa have Nick a sharp dig in the ribs and mouthed ‘told you so’ with a triumphant grin.

“Oh.”

“And she is so bloody good at this. She’s so convincing I keep almost thinking it’s real. Something came up about Oxford just now, which reminded me of…well, never mind. But the conversation went off at tangent and she made this comment…well more of a proposition really…”

Back in Octavia Street Nick and Ilsa’s respective jaws dropped simultaneously.

“…and for a split second I thought…well I’m not sure I was actually thinking. Anyway, she’s just being her character for this job, it’s not really how she sees me and…fucking hell Nick, it’s bloody torture…is that an incoming call?”

Nick and Ilsa glanced at her mobile on the table in front of them, lit up with an incoming text from Robin.

“No, just a notification. I’m not sure what to say Oggy…”

He had one eye on Ilsa who was reading Robin’s message.

HELP!!! I think I’ve just put my foot in it with Cormoran. We’re having to pretend to a couple for this job we’re on and I think I might have just taken the banter a bit too far. He looked really pissed off and went for a cigarette but that was fifteen minutes ago and he’s still not back. Rx

Can’t really gauge the sitch unless you tell me what was said. Ix

Oh God! Do I have to? Rx

YES!!!

There was this weird conversation about how at Oxford the girls get the blokes to eat puddings with just their tongues to decide if they want to…you know. And I said to Corm (who’s actually Cameron for the weekend – and I’m Rose so it wasn’t really me saying it to him IYKWIM?) it was something we’d have to try in private sometime. Anyway, he gave me this LOOK…and has buggered off in a mood, and I can’t find him and we’ve got a bloody job to do. Rx

Ilsa snorted and choked on her drink, before thrusting the message under Nick’s unsuspecting nose. He carried on listening to Strike as he scanned the screen of Ilsa’s mobile.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Nick, what’s the matter? You alright?”

Nick grimaced in an effort to regain some self-control.

“I’m fine but, erm, Ossie just puked up a massive hairball, I’m gonna have to go sort it. Look if you’re not willing to tell her how you feel, and I can see your point given that you’re working, you’re just going to have to pull yourself together, make your excuses and crack on.”

“I know.”

“And maybe think about telling her when you get back home.”

“Fuck off.”

“You too,” said Nick drily. “Night.”

He turned to Ilsa.

“Well no wonder he was having a hard time if that’s what Robin had just come out with!” he smirked. “What have you said to her?”

“I told her she’s probably misconstrued the look. That he’s probably had some bright idea about the case and is mulling it over with the help of a monster nicotine fix.”

“Probably best under the circumstances. What are we going to do with them?”

*     *     *

Robin put her mobile back in her handbag and marched determinedly out into the hotel foyer. She’d had enough of men behaving petulantly to last a lifetime, and if she had to have it out with Strike so they could get on with the job in hand, then so be it. He was coming in the door just as she reached it and they almost collided, both stopping dead in their tracks just in time.

She looked at him for a moment, eyes blazing, then with a jerk of her head spoke just one word.

“Outside.”

He followed her without question until they reached the side of the hotel, out of sight and earshot of any other guests.

“Look,” she addressed him before he could even begin to speak. “I don’t know what that was all about in there, and I’m sorry if my comment overstepped the boundaries of our characters and made you uncomfortable, but we’re here to do a job and you stropping off is not bloody helpful!”

She leaned against the wall of the hotel, slightly breathless from rushing her speech, heart pounding as she waited for him to respond, probably with a telling off for being so unprofessional.

If only he knew what I was thinking now, she pondered, as her imagination conjured an image of him taking the two steps required to close the distance between them and snogging her senseless up against the very wall she was leaning on.

“I know,” he said, “I’m sorry. I told you I struggle with this undercover, role play stuff.”

His voice was hoarse, and Robin wondered how many cigarettes he’d got through in the twenty minutes or so since he’d left the table.

Robin breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you feeling okay to go back in there now? We’ll stick to the plan – I’ll try and get Ari on her own and find out as much as I can. If it works, we can call it a night, yeah?”

He nodded and they headed back to the hotel entrance, where he took a deep breath, took her hand and led her back to the table.

*     *     *

It wasn’t long before Robin noticed Ari excuse herself from the group of colleagues she was talking to and make for the Ladies. She followed at a discreet distance and was glad to find that apart from one, locked cubicle, there was no-one else in there. She allowed herself to dwell on the evening’s events, knowing that it wouldn’t take much to bring on some not entirely fake tears.

She caught Ari’s eye in the bathroom mirror as she was washing her hands and smiled weakly.

“Rose, are you ok? I hope I didn’t cause any arguments earlier when I was joking about Oxford. I couldn’t help noticing Cameron didn’t seem very happy.”

“Oh, it’s fine.” Robin sniffed. “He has some…very mixed memories of his time there. Sometimes it gets the better of him…and me. You weren’t to know.”

“It’s not easy, loving a complicated man,” acknowledged Ari sadly.

Tell me something I don’t know.

“Dominic?”

“God no, he’s not my…” her face crumpled.

“I’m sorry I thought you were together.”

She looked at Robin with a haunted expression. “Not like that…well not really. I’m married to a wonderful man but…”

Robin felt a trickle of cold sweat run down her spine.

“I’m a good listener, if you need to get it off your chest. And you’ll never see me again after breakfast tomorrow morning,” she lied.

Ari nodded. “Not here though. There’s a little bar at the back of the hotel.”

“Come on then.”

Robin bought Ari a large red wine and herself a lime and soda, and they found the quietest possible nook in the small, cosy bar.

“Dominic is blackmailing me,” said Ari, after taking a large, steadying gulp of her wine. “He’ll keep my secret all the while I scratch his back.”

Robin nodded. “And what does you ‘scratching his back’ entail, exactly.”

“Helping out his friends with freebies, bank rolling him when he’s in the mood for his little luxuries. I’ve had to siphon money off from the business and I’ve been working all hours trying to get new clients to make up the losses so Gray – that’s my husband – doesn’t notice something amiss when we start the end of year accounts in a couple of months.”

“Money and freebies?” repeated Robin, recalling Ari’s earlier comment.

Not like that…not really.

Ari’s head dropped almost into her wine glass and she let out a poorly stifled sob.

“And…you know…sometimes. That’s how it started.”

“So, you were having an affair and now he won’t let it go?”

Robin’s skin felt like it was prickling all over. She couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Ari given that state the woman was in, but if she was sympathetic to her, did that mean she should have been sympathetic to Matthew? That she should have forgiven him?

Screw that.

“It wasn’t an affair. It was a one-off, a stupid, stupid mistake. Gray fell ill last autumn. It was a worrying time. His parents are elderly and live abroad. I don’t have much of a relationship with mine. We’ve always managed the children and the business between us. We have the money to outsource a lot of it, but neither of us ever wanted that, for the children or us.”

She paused and drank more wine. Robin sipped her lime and soda and waited for her to continue.

“Eventually he was diagnosed as having a growth on his prostate. It affected his perception of himself, as an individual and as a man. He’s always looked after himself, and hated being vulnerable, and obviously when something goes wrong in that area…it affected our relationship as well as our sex life, badly. And when they finally operated, there was an anomaly with the biopsy results. It took far longer than it should have for them to discover it was benign. We were both terrified, barely communicating. All our energies went on putting on a brave front for the kids. And Dominic was there, and he was charming and understanding and he listened. When I look back now I think he realised I was easy prey.”

“So now he’s threatening to tell your husband if you don’t keep him in money and freebies for his mates and…?”

“Yeah, that too,” Ari drew a shuddering breath, “But not often now, thank God. I put enough money his way for him to be able to get far younger and more attractive women into bed.”

“Bastard.” It came out under her breath, but Robin couldn’t help herself.

“Yep. But I can’t have him telling Gray. I know it sounds like I’m an awful woman who couldn’t handle it when the going got tough, but it really wasn’t like that. It was the most stupid mistake of my life and I don’t see why Gray should suffer. He’s back to full fitness now which is wonderful. It would break his heart if he found out. And I can’t lose my kids. He’s their primary carer. I don’t want to only see my babies every other weekend and half the school holidays.”

She broke down completely at that point and realising there was nothing more to be gained from the conversation, Robin helped her back to her – mercifully unshared – room, made her sweet tea and ensured she had calmed down, before returning to the party that was now in full swing downstairs. A gamut of emotions washed through her – elation at having discovered what was going on, emotional exhaustion, but simmering underneath both was a fierce rage about the behaviour of Dominic Parker and others of his ilk.

Strike turned just as she entered the room and watched her crossing the space in his general direction, but she didn’t appear to notice his presence. Her eyes were focused on Dominic Parker.

Parker noticed and ambled towards Robin, his sleazy gaze crawling over her. He was clearly drunk, flushed and slightly sweaty. Strike was already on his feet as Parker made a grab for Robin.

“Coming to ask me to dance gorgeous?” he leered.

Strike, furious, but still unaware of how much he needed to keep the odious man onside, swooped in from behind and to the side of him and smoothly steered Robin out of his reach.

“Sorry, mate, I think it was me she was after,” he said, with a friendly grin, and he led Robin to the dance floor.

“You obviously know what’s going on,” he stated, pulling her towards him just him enough to look convincing, but maintaining enough distance to keep his sanity…and libido in check.

“That man is an ARSEHOLE,” she spat through gritted teeth. Then realising they were actually dancing, albeit to something fairly sedate, “Are you ok with this?”

“It’s not exactly Strictly Robin, I’ll cope,” he joked back, noticing as he spoke that the music was changing and the haunting tones of the current number one, Gabrielle Aplin’s version of The Power of Love, was filling the room.

Bloody John Lewis.

“What did you find out?”

As they danced, Robin filled him in on the whole story, by the end of which she was shaking with adrenaline and fury. The combined issues of infidelity and the fact that Parker had been blackmailing Ari for sexual favours which was tantamount to rape, had hit her hard now that she had sobered up. She could feel Strike’s eyes on her, questioning, concerned.

“I’m fine,” she replied, looking back at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Just cross, and it’s been a long day and…Stop it! I am bloody fine.”

“Oh, Robin,” he pulled her closer and rested his chin gently on her head. After the first couple of seconds he felt the tension drain out of her body as her arms went automatically around his waist and she relaxed against him, her head on his shoulder. “You don’t have to always be fine, not for my benefit."

Chapter Text

The song was nearing it’s end and still Robin and Strike swayed slowly back and forth on the dance-floor, neither wanting to let go, both knowing they had to.

We’re working…she’s still married…why would she want me?

He’s just being a good friend…he was horrified by my comment earlier…he’s never going to get over Charlotte…

As the last few bars played, Robin reluctantly pulled away and gave an exaggerated yawn.

“I’m shattered. Can we talk about what we’re going to do about the Grayson case tomorrow?”

“’Course. I’m going to head out for a smoke. Meet you for breakfast at nine?”

“Great, see you then…night.”

“Night.”

*     *     *

Strike made his way to the little bar at the rear of the hotel, where Robin had been with Ari earlier. It had a small smoking terrace and he ordered himself a large whisky before letting himself out through the closed door and making himself as comfortable as possible on a wrought iron chair in temperatures only just above freezing. Nick’s voice echoed in his brain.

“And maybe think about telling her when you get back home.”

There really wasn’t enough nicotine or whisky in the world to process that idea right now, he thought. His phone buzzed - a text from Robin.

Did you take your key card with you? Just got back and realised we came out via my room earlier. Not sure if you can get back into yours. Rx

“Shit!”

A young woman emptying ashtrays looked up warily and he smiled apologetically back at her as he tapped a reply.

No. Will be up ASAP.

Strike had had no intention of returning to his room with its temptingly, terrifyingly unlocked interconnecting door to Robin’s until he’d drunk enough whisky to ensure oblivion the moment his head hit the pillow, but he knew she was tired and wouldn’t be able to go to bed until he was back.

He half-halfheartedly stubbed out his cigarette, knocked back the remainder of his drink in one go and headed back upstairs, hoping that the mini bar was well stocked.

Robin was already changed by the time she heard the knock on the door. Even though she knew it was Strike she still called out to check before opening up.

He’d removed his jacket and his painstakingly tied bow tie hung loosely around the open neck of his dress shirt. He still smelled faintly of aftershave, but moreso of whisky and tobacco. For a moment Robin forgot to move and they just stood in the doorway.

“Are you letting me in or what then?” he joked, aware that his voice sounded slightly unsteady. In soft, pale pink lounge wear, hair pulled back and face scrubbed free of make-up, Strike couldn't help thinking she looked even more beautiful than she had in the green dress at the start of the evening.

“Yeah, sorry,” she stepped aside and he strode straight across the room to his own door.

“You did a great job tonight Robin,” he turned back at her and smiled.

“Thanks.”

And he was gone.

*     *     *

The following morning dawned crisp and sparking, a low sun highlighting the heavy frost across the Georgian Buildings and the little wooden huts of the Christmas market.

After a restless night, Robin was up and ready with her bag packed by eight-thirty, pacing the room impatiently, unwilling to sit in the breakfast room alone for half an hour until Strike turned up. There was no sound to even indicate he was up. Eventually she left her room a few minutes before nine, half expecting to bump into him returning from an early morning cigarette as she made her way across the lobby, but she didn’t.

She found a table in the quietest part of the room, hoping they would be able to discuss the case and texted him to let him know where to find her. After twenty minutes and her first cup of coffee, she gave up waiting and helped herself to a top up, along with fresh fruit, pastries and yoghurt.

He was at their table when she reached it again, having headed to straight to the hot buffet on the other side of the room.

“Overslept, sorry,” he mumbled with an apologetic grin through a mouthful of bacon and egg sandwich.

The continued awkwardness between them that Robin had both anticipated and dreaded after previous evening was already beginning to evaporate and she gave an imperceptible sigh of relief.

“So long as you don’t start getting irritable about being late getting on the road,” she told him, mock sternly.

“Actually, I was hoping to check out the Christmas market…only if you’ve not got plans of course, if you need to get back…”

He’d remembered her saying the day before that she hadn’t been, and he needed to make a start on his Christmas shopping. Besides, an hour or two to clear the air before the two of them were in a confined space for a couple of hours might be for the best. To his relief she looked delighted with the suggestion.

They finished their breakfasts, discussing the case as best as they could until the tables around them filled up to such an extent it made discretion impossible, then checked out, leaving their luggage in storage and walked the short distance to the market.

The previous night seemed like a cross between a hazy dream and a distant memory as they browsed the little wooden chalets. Strike was in his element with the number of food stalls and Robin was very glad she’d not had a cooked breakfast.

They compared notes on fudge, cheese, preserves, cured meats and various drinks, including tiny samples of chocolate wine, gin and cider.

“No more or we'll have to toss a coin for who’s driving home,” mused Robin.

Strike managed to complete most of his Christmas shopping. He bought Nick a cheese making set, silver starfish earrings for Ilsa from a little business that had come up from Cornwall for the market and a hand-blown vase for Lucy. They continued wandering amongst the stalls of garden ornaments, watercolour prints, jewellery, recycled stationery and hand made toiletries.

“I’ve no idea what to get bloody Greg,” he grumbled, even less enthusiastic about shopping for his brother-in-law than he was about the man himself.

“Is he not a cheese-making kind of man?” asked Robin with a smirk, knowing full well that Greg’s talents in the kitchen just about extended to stacking the dishwasher.

Eventually Strike decided on a striped cashmere scarf.

“Posh and a bit boring, just like’s its future owner,” declared Strike.

“Oh, come on that’s a bit harsh,” reprimanded Robin. “I think you must need feeding…again!”

“Ah-ha…you know me too well,” agreed Strike, already scanning the immediate vicinity for lunch options, “And we probably ought to get going in the next hour or so.”

They opted for hog roast filled rolls at a tiny pop up bar in a log cabin, washed down with warm, spiced fruit cordial. Strike was first to finish as usual.

“Are you okay here for a few minutes? I need to pop back for something.”

“No problem. What did you forget?”

“Never you mind,” he grinned, and left her to finish her lunch.

The journey home was surprisingly smooth, and by early evening Strike was ensconced in his two-and-a-half rooms over the office, inhaling creosote coloured tea whilst re-reading the Grayson Hargreaves file. Robin was ironing work clothes whilst watching ‘Love Actually’ and trying not to cry at Emma Thompson opening her CD on Christmas morning.

Equilibrium had been restored…at least for the time being.

Chapter Text

By the time Robin and Strike reached the office on Monday morning, there were already three messages from Grayson Hargreaves, of escalating urgency. Robin swiftly rescheduled a couple of new client meetings and called him to let him know he could come in at ten, after she and Strike had had their regular Monday briefing with Hutchins and Barclay.

On arrival he revealed that late on Sunday afternoon, Ari had received a call from the hotel manager to discuss a complaint made by one of his staff about the inappropriate behaviour of one of her colleagues, who it transpired was Dominic Parker, towards one of the waitresses who had been serving the previous evening.

As he was getting ready for bed, Grayson had received a text from a long-term colleague complaining he had behaved in a similar way towards her. She’d used the phrase sexual harassment and stated that she was uncomfortable raising the subject with Ari, due to the closeness of her a Parker’s working relationship.

Early that morning, he had received an email from another employee, a young man who had joined the company’s graduate training scheme that summer. His awkward and apologetically toned email also mentioned his reservations about reporting what he had seen to Ari Hargreaves, namely Dominic Parker doing lines of cocaine in the hotel toilets.

“So, it would appear we have plenty of grounds to get rid of Parker, but I need to know what the nature of Ari’s relationship is with him before I decide how to approach this.”

Robin looked at Strike, relieved that Parker had already shot himself in the foot with his own behaviour. It made it more likely that Grayson would accept Ari’s version of events. Strike knew Robin had misgivings about the fact they had to tell him about Ari’s indiscretion given the circumstances in which it had occurred and the consequences, but he’d reminded her that their responsibility was to their client.

She broke the news as gently as she could, Grayson broke down and Strike quietly removed himself to the kitchen to make tea whilst Robin picked up the pieces. By the time he left an hour later they were both drained, Robin from dealing with emotional fallout, Strike from advising on how best Grayson might handle the practicalities of the situation.

Robin stood at the window and watched him head back to his car, hunched over, head bowed, hands in pockets, looking a million miles from the self-assured.
“I hope they make it,” she said wistfully to Strike.

Strike wondered how much she was thinking about her own marriage. “Yeah,” he replied, reaching for his coat. "I'm heading out for a bit. See you later."

*    *    *

Robin was pleased to be busy on the Tuesday, the two postponed new client appointments had had to be fitted in around surveillance jobs and Strike had a day off in lieu of the fact they’d worked the weekend. By the time the end of the day arrived she was more than ready for her own day off, and the shopping and lunch trip with Ilsa she had planned.

They met at 10am at Covent Garden and spent an over an hour trawling the smaller independent shops there before breaking for coffee.

“How did the rest of the weekend job pan out?” asked Ilsa as she stirred her latte. If Nick had heard anymore on the subject from Strike he hadn’t mentioned it, and Robin hadn’t mentioned work at all so far, which was fairly unlike her.

“Oh, yeah, it was fine. Something and nothing. He’s not keen on jobs where he has to play act, he’d much rather be skulking around in an alleyway somewhere,” she grinned.

“Mmmm,” Ilsa nodded thoughtfully, “I think you might have given him a bit of a shock with your proposition!”

Robin flushed scarlet. “Oh, don’t start! I was caught up in the moment and wine had been taken.”

“So just a bit of proper method acting then?” asked Ilsa, eyes twinkling with mischief.

Robin looked her squarely in the eye.

“Absolutely.”

“No desire whatsoever to assess Corm’s oral skills?”

“Ilsa!” she shrieked, blushing even harder.

“Well?”

Robin bit off a corner of her square of tiffin and chewed for a few seconds, not meeting Ilsa’s eye.

“Wouldn’t matter if I was,” she replied quietly. “He’s clearly still hung up on Charlotte, and there’s no way I can compete with the likes of her…not that I want to,” she added hurriedly.

Ilsa looked at her newest friend and thought of her oldest friend and how despite the universe throwing every possible sign at them they seemed to be completely unable to see or comprehend what was so glaringly obvious to everyone else who knew them. What they really needed, she thought, was an almighty shove in the right direction. The million-dollar question was whether she should be the one to deliver it. She chose her words carefully.

“There’s nothing to compete with. He’s not harbouring feelings for Charlotte anymore, I’m sure of it.”

Robin looked skeptical.
“Ilsa,” she paused. “I know you’ve known Cormoran forever, and you’re his best friend, but how can you be so certain? We both know he’s a closed book where his feelings are concerned.”

“Just trust me Robin. He’s definitely over Charlotte, he said as much to Nick on Sat…”

Robin frowned at her. “When?”

“Erm…sometime last week I think, not sure.”

“You were about to say Saturday, weren’t you?”

Ilsa was silent.

“Is that where he was when he disappeared on me? On the phone to Nick?”

She nodded.

“And I was texting you wondering what the hell was going on! Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because your messages came through right at the end of the conversation, and we knew he was going back to find you.”

Robin huffed a heavy sigh.

“Did he tell Nick what had upset him?”

“No, just that the conversation reminded him of something that happened at Oxford, and then you made that comment…”

“Oh bugger…”

“…and the combination of the two things and like you say, him not being so keen on playing characters…it rattled him a bit.”

“So how did him being over Charlotte come into the conversation? That must have been what he meant about something happening at Oxford.”

Ilsa looked at Robin and smirked slightly.

“For someone who’s not interested you’re asking a lot of questions.”

“I’m a detective, it’s automatic.”

“I didn’t hear the whole conversation, and he didn't say what the Oxford was...” she lied, she couldn’t go there. Cormoran would never speak to her again, “ …but Nick came off the phone certain that he’d finally got Charlotte out of his system.”

Robin said nothing, mulling over what she’d just learned. It didn’t add up, there was definitely something Ilsa wasn’t telling her. Still, she decided to drop the subject. She’d spent long enough trying to analyse Strike’s actions and her feelings in recent weeks, and she had some serious shopping to do.

Chapter Text

By the time Robin had finished shopping for her parents, three brothers, sister-in-law, a handful of friends and thrown in a few treats for herself she realised she was going to struggle to make it back home on the tube.

“I think I’m going to have to dump some of this at the office for now,” she told Ilsa, looking ruefully at the enormous pile of bags at their feet, after they’d enjoyed a well-earned glass of wine to round off their day out.

“Excuses, excuses,” commented Ilsa, drily. She may not have been a detective, but she hadn’t failed to notice Robin looking at several items that would have made great presents for Strike, or the number of times she’d almost mentioned him but stopped herself and rapidly changed the subject.

Robin raised an eyebrow at her.

“Okay, okay, but when did you last see Cormoran? Two, three days ago between cases and you both having taken days off?”

“And your point is?”

“When was last time you went that long without seeing each other?”

Robin pondered. They’d been in Bath at the weekend, Winter Wonderland the one before and prior to that their paths often crossed in the office if they had weekend work, even separately, or they’d call one another for a catch up, or to check in and discuss anything business related before the Monday meetings with Barclay and Hutchins.

Tomorrow she and Strike would be finishing and closing the office for a week over Christmas, but they were having a small Christmas get together – the four of them, plus Vanessa and Eric, in the evening, and seeing each other again on Saturday before they headed respectively to Masham and St Mawes for Christmas.

Ilsa waited patiently for a response.

“Well, yeah okay, I can barely remember, but that’s the nature of what we do. It’s not nine to five, and you can’t do this job together without getting on.”

“Robin,” said Ilsa, reaching across the table and taking her friend’s hand, “I say this with all the love in the world…you need to give some serious thought to your relationship with Cormoran. If it is just a really good working relationship, you might want to think about putting some boundaries in place, because honestly, looking at it from the outside, it seems to be becoming quite co-dependent.”

She met Robin’s eye and couldn’t quite read her expression, but pensive and slightly angry definitely appeared to feature somewhere.

“I’m not trying to interfere…okay, maybe I am a bit. But if neither of you are willing or able to make up your minds what you want or do anything about it, you’re either going to get stuck in a rut, or one day, one of you will move on and someone will get hurt.”

“I told you it’s not like that…” Robin heard her own voice and realised that it didn’t sound convincing.

“It’s not me you need to convince Robin,” said Ilsa, reading her thoughts, “For what it’s worth, I think it’s yourself. Anyway, I’d best get going. Have a good weekend and a safe trip to Masham,” she gave Robin a hug and a kiss on the cheek before disappearing out of the door and into the bustle of early evening shoppers.

*     *     *

Robin could see the fuzzy multicoloured glow of the tree lights through the frosted door of the agency when she reached the second floor, and tried the handle before reaching for her key, hoping that Strike had simply forgotten to switch them off. Ilsa’s words had not stopped revolving around her head of the duration of the walk back to Denmark Street.

As she entered the outer office she was greeted by a waft of cigarette smoke and a barrage of expletives followed by the sound of crumpling paper.

“Cormoran?”

She walked the few steps to his office and found him, dishevelled and surrounded by three Hamley’s bags, an assortment she recognised as being from the Christmas market, and a pile of Amazon boxes. There was a small mound of screwed up wrapping paper on the floor around his desk which was strewn with more wrapping paper, tape, and scissors. A Tottenham Hotspur FC football sat in the middle of the wreckage, and Robin could help laughing at the scene.

“Adding insult to bloody injury,” grumbled Arsenal fan Strike, nodding at the gift for Timothy Anstis, his eldest godchild. “Why the fuck didn’t I buy gift bags?”

“Because they’re overpriced and don’t hide the contents properly from small recipients,” replied Robin matter-of-factly, head tilted to one side. “Would you like a hand?”

“Really? God yes! What are you doing here anyway?”

She indicated the outer office. “Dropping some bags off as I can’t manage to get them all home on the tube. Ilsa’s a terrible influence,” she added archly. She shrugged off her coat and threw it over a chair, fixing Strike with a stare. “Well, what are you waiting for…go and get the kettle on,” she ordered. He grinned and did as he was told.

When he returned a few minutes later, the football was wrapped in such a way it resembled a giant sweetie, and she handed him a gift tag to write.

“Why didn’t I think of doing it like that?” he sighed.

They began working their way through the pile of gifts, Robin in charge of logistics, Strike cutting Sellotape and holding paper in place around the more awkwardly shaped items. They were about halfway through when his stomach grumbled ominously.

“Fancy a pizza?”

“We’re out for dinner tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but it’s Christmas, and it’s the least I can do to thank you for your wrapping skills.”

“Ham and pineapple?”

“Philistine,” he retorted, but he was smiling, “So long as you’re not expecting me to share it.”

“Cormoran Strike - I think I’ve known you long enough to be well aware of your opinions on pizza sharing regardless of toppings,” she chuckled as she watched him disappear through the door.

She was battling with Lucy’s present, when her mobile went off, three times in quick succession.

“Oh bugger!” she exclaimed, letting the paper fall away from the tightly bubble wrapped vase and making for the outer office to dig her phone out of her bag, which she’d left on her desk.

“Fuck.” She dropped into her chair, staring at the screen. She scrolled back to the first message, then the second which she zoomed in for closer inspection before reading the third, which she had failed to pay much attention to at first glance. She frowned, feeling her heart begin to race and flush creeping up her neck. The texts were from Matthew.

Ha…so much for him not wanting to get in your pants, doesn’t look like you’re doing much ‘shoving him off’ these days. I still have friends in Bath, Robin…

A photo followed, Robin and Strike on the dance floor at the Gainsborough after Ari’s revelations and her near miss with Dominic Parker. She had both arms wrapped around his waist beneath his dinner jacket, her head on his shoulder, eyes closed. He was holding her tightly, his chin resting gently on top of her head. When she’d zoomed in, she’d realised that Strike’s eyes were closed too, and her stomach had performed such an almighty flip she thought for a moment she might throw up.

The third text continued:

I always knew he was a devious bastard, am just glad I decked him last week when I had the chance.

Robin read the last message once…twice…a third time. Decked him? Last week?

“One ham and pineapple thin crust with coleslaw, and one normal person’s pizza…” she looked up as Strike strode into the office, bearing two large flat boxes and a bag filled with sides and large bottle of ‘full fat’ Coke. He took one glance at her ashen face and stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s the matter,” his face was full of concern, “It’s not your family is it?”

“Matt,” she replied, not registering Strike’s look change in a split second to one of barely restrained anger, but also of fear.

Whatever it was surely she wouldn’t go back to him now?

“You weren’t mugged last week,” she stated, “It was Matt.”

He looked at Robin, trying to read her expression, failing, and slumped onto the sofa. How could she have found out?

She slid out from behind the desk, crossed the room and sat next to him. Wordlessly, she handed him her mobile. He scanned the messages in seconds, then turned towards her and said quietly, “Are you okay?”

She looked at him, disbelieving. “Of course I’m okay. I’m not the one who took a black eye and a split lip,” she exclaimed. “Why did you say you were mugged? Why didn’t you fight back…and don’t tell me you did – I know damn well if you had he wouldn’t have managed to hit you a second time.”

“I’d been on surveillance, he came out of a bar and heckled me in the street. I ignored him but he caught up with me,” Strike rolled his eyes in exasperation, “He was pissed and his friends were straight after him to drag him away. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of retaliating, he’d have had me arrested and charged in a heartbeat, and…” he paused briefly, “I didn’t want to do anything that would cause you more upset or aggravation.”

For the first time since she’d received the texts, Robin smiled.

“You are a wonderful, considerate man Cormoran. I’m a very lucky woman to have you fighting my corner, although I’d rather you hadn’t almost had to do it literally!”

“Are you sure you’re okay? Getting that photo must have been a bit of a…shock.”

“It’s fine. Quite frankly I couldn’t give a flying fuck what Matt and his small minded friends think.”

“But, what about the divorce? Do you think he might use it to cause problems there? Try and counter-sure you for infidelity knowing him?”

Strike could feel the anger begin to bubble in his chest again and attempted to distract himself by opening the pizza boxes and laying them and the sides out on the coffee table whilst Robin fetched glasses from the kitchen.

“Nah,” she replied, pouring two glasses and handing one to Strike, “He’s too late. My decree nisi arrived this morning. Cheers!”

She raised her glass and he tapped it with his, grinning.

“I’ll certainly drink to that!”

Chapter Text

Robin had booked a table in the Tottenham’s cellar restaurant for the Strike & Ellacott Investigations inaugural Christmas party, omitting to tell Strike that there would be a DJ and a dance floor on the night. She knew that she and Vanessa would appreciate it, even if the men spent the evening sat on their backsides getting sloshed.

In fact, they had already started. Strike had returned from a lengthy surveillance job, headed straight to his flat to shower and change, and been down just in time for the arrival of Barclay and Hutchins. He’d offered Robin the use of his flat to avoid her having to get ready in the cramped loo on the landing, and she’d left him cracking open the beers with their colleagues. By the time she arrived back in the office forty minutes later, Strike and Barclay were already halfway down their second bottles, whilst Hutchins was, as usual, being far more restrained. All three men looked up simultaneously as the door opened.

“Aye, Robin, you’re lookin’ beltin’ tonight,” Barclay greeted her with a cheeky grin, “Don’t ye think boss.”

Strike glanced at him and then back at Robin. “You look very nice,” he told her, trying to figure out if she really was blushing slightly, or if he was imagining it. The small room was quite warm after all, what with the fairy lights and candles and more than the usual number of bodies in it.

Robin was wearing a cranberry coloured jumpsuit featuring a plunging neckline and slightly flared legs that were slit to just above the knee, with gold heels. She’d done her make up the same as the previous Saturday, but left her hair straight, the front clipped back, the rest loose down her back. As she crossed the room to help herself to a beer, Strike was surrounded by a waft of her perfume and for a moment it took every ounce of his self-control not to close his eyes and wallow in the scent.

Get a grip, he told himself sternly, ignoring the opposing voice in his head that whispered temptingly back, she’s nearly divorced…

On entering the Tottenham, Eric Wardle and Vanessa Ekwensi, their regular contacts on the MET were already at the bar. Eric took orders and got a round in for himself, Strike, Barclay and Hutchins, whilst Vanessa turned to Robin, waving a bottle of Prosecco and a champagne flute.

“We already got yours in,” she beamed, “Double celebration, am I right?”

“You certainly are,” Robin grinned back, accepting the glass that Vanessa had poured whilst she was speaking, and taking a mouthful before catching Barclay and Hutchins quizzical expressions. “Decree nisi came through yesterday, in six weeks I’ll officially be a free woman!”

As they made they way down the stairs to their table, Barclay nudged Strike and winked.

“You’re in there mate.”

Strike gave him a censorious look and chose not to reply. Barclay merely smirked and took another slug of his beer.

The Tottenham may not have been the most glamorous or elegant place for a Christmas party, but it suited the small group perfectly, reliably good food, decent service and a good selection of both real ales and wine, although Vanessa had just returned to the table with two cocktail glasses of highly perfumed liquor and two fizzing shot glasses.

“Bloody hell, what’s that?” exclaimed Robin.

“Pornstar Martini,” replied Vanessa with a wink, “Drink up!”

“Go easy on her Vanessa,” groaned Strike, “She’s not the best at holding her drink, and I’ll be the one dealing with the consequences tomorrow.”

Suddenly the whole table seemed to have fallen silent and four pairs of eyes were looking expectantly at Strike and Robin, who promptly inhaled rather than swallowed her Prosecco shot and nearly choked.

“We’re taking his nephew out tomorrow,” she explained, “The one that was poorly a few months ago.”

The men all nodded and resumed their conversation, much to Strike’s chagrin, about Tottenham’s chances in the FA Cup. Arsenal were flagging dismally in the league tables.

“Why?” hissed Vanessa in Robin’s ear.

“What? Oh, because I missed his nativity, so Strike said we’d both take him out to make up for it and as a kind of Christmas present.”

Vanessa looked at her friend, utterly incredulous.

“Um, don’t wish to state the bleedin’ obvious, but since you and Strike aren’t actually a couple, I’m failing to see why cosy family days out involve you,” she stated bluntly.

Robin met her gaze, thoughtful. She had a point, in theory but…

“It’s just…well, Jack knew I visited when he was in hospital, you know, to keep Cormoran company whilst he was waiting for him to come round from the op…”

“You did what?!”

“I was being a friend, for Gods’ sake Vanessa, the kid nearly died and Corm was there on his own 'cos his sister was away . I know you’re a bit of a cynic but surely it’s not that much of a stretch for your imagination. Anyway, Lucy popped into the office with him to say hello afterwards and he took a bit of a shine to me…”

“Like uncle, like nephew…”muttered Vanessa drily.

The conversation was curtailed by a noise from the far end of the room, as A Fairytale of New York blasted out from the DJ’s set up at the far end of the room.

“Bloody hell, Ellacott,” huffed Strike, “You could have warned me.”

“Now, why would I do a silly thing like that? Can’t have an office Christmas party without the boss present, can we?”

And with that she headed to the bar for another round.

*     *     *

An hour later, the music was in full swing and Barclay was considerably worse for wear. Strike, with his bulk and Eric with his more judicious approach to alcohol were faring better, and with Vanessa…well, it was hard to tell! Hutchins had switched to soft drinks early on, and Robin had also opted for something non-alcoholic on the last round.

Strike and Barclay were on their way back from a cigarette break when the old Jackson’s track, ‘Rockin’ Robin’ came on. Back at their table, Eric turned to Robin with a twinkly grin.

“They’re playing your song – fancy a dance?”

She looked at him in amazement.

“You dance?”

“What can I say? I’m a man of many talents!” And he held out his hand and led a laughing Robin to the dance floor, whilst Strike, who had been watching the interaction as he approached, looked on with an expression somewhere between shock and disgruntlement.

Barclay immediately returned to his conversation with Hutchins and Strike dropped heavily into the chair next to Vanessa’s. She eyed him with amusement.

“Jealous?”

He picked up his pint and took a large mouthful before replying.

“Nope…I wasn’t much of a dancer even before I lost my leg.”

Vanessa looked at him, lips pursed and shook her head.

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

He looked at her with an expression he hoped would warn her that the subject of Robin was not up for discussion. Vanessa, however, did not become a MET detective by being put off asking questions by mere grimaces.

“You know Strike, you can deny your feelings all you want, to me, to Robin, to yourself. You can play the ‘it might harm the business’ card until you’re blue in the face, but do you really think carrying on like this is going to do less damage?”

Strike sighed and drank more beer, his eyes still on Robin and Eric who had largely cleared the dance-floor.

"At some point, one of you will give up waiting for the other to make the first move, and my money is on that being Robin. You might think you managed to hide how you felt after she married Cuntliffe, but you didn’t, and to be honest, she wasn’t much happier.”

She had Strike’s attention now. He’d found out to some extent how trying Robin’s first and only year of marriage had been but hadn’t realised it had been quite that bad from outset. Vanessa fixed him with a steely gaze.

“I know this has sod all to do with me, but just ask yourself – how are you going to feel if six months…a year down the line, Robin starts dating again, and you have to watch her with a new man, knowing you had your chance and didn’t take it? Do you really think that’s not going to affect the business adversely?”

“You’re assuming I’d actually have a chance now,” he challenged.

“I saw, on a few occasions, how she was with Matt - even when things were supposedly good between them. Tense, distant, it was like she was constantly trying to be someone else, someone he would approve of.” She paused, registering the twitch in Strike’s jaw at the mention of Robin’s soon-to-be ex-husband and how unhappy he’d made her.

“And I’ve seen how she is with you – relaxed, happy, free to be herself. I’ve seen how she looks at you when she thinks no-one will notice, and you’re just as bad…”

…and I’ve seen that photo Matthew sent her, Vanessa thought.

Strike had just opened his mouth to reply when Robin threw herself into the seat next to him, swiftly followed by Wardle arriving back at the table, breathless, and finishing his remaining half a pint in one go.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” asked Strike, gesturing towards the dance floor.

“April,” admitted Eric, “We met at modern jive classes. Then she diversified into burlesque and I became a grumpy bugger like you,” he joked.

“Modern jive?” spluttered Strike into his pint.

“I was at the same community centre doing mixed martial arts – it was the session after dancing and I got there a bit early once and saw her,” he blushed a bit at the memory and Strike couldn’t help but smile at the sight of his hard-boiled associate going a bit soft.

“So, I kept getting there early for a few weeks,” he continued, “But I couldn’t quite manage to catch her, so in the end I thought ‘fuck it’ and joined her class, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Robin was watching transfixed as Eric told the story. She was still a sucker for a love story, even after the catastrophic end to what she had once thought of as her own.

Strike shook his head in disbelief.

“Bloody hell, I would never have seen that coming in a million years,” he admitted, good-naturedly.

“Well,” replied Eric, with a knowing look back at him, “If you know something or someone is worth it, you just have to take a chance, don’t you?”

Chapter Text

Strike awoke on Saturday morning and relished a brief few seconds during which his weekend stretched out ahead of him, blissfully quiet and empty. Then he remembered.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Jack, and he certainly had no objection to spending more time with Robin (not that he dwelled on that point for very long) but he was…he struggled to put a finger on exactly what he was feeling…nervous.

He knew, of course, that he was a perfectly capable adult. Shepherding a nine year old around a museum and a theatre and keeping him fed and watered was not exactly the greatest challenge Cormoran Strike had ever faced in his thirty-eight years, but Strike was a man who, when he undertook to do a job liked to do it well, and in this respect his confidence was well and truly lacking. He’d never been in charge of a child for a whole day before, or even, he mused, a whole hour, apart from when Jack was in hospital and not needing anything other than a familiar adult in the same room.

He wasn’t sure if the thought of Robin accompanying them was making his anxiety worse or better. He was grateful that he’d have the backup of another adult, but equally couldn’t help feeling it added to the pressure to not make a right royal cock up of it.

*     *     *

A few miles across London, Robin was boarding the tube, also deep in thought about the day ahead. She kept picturing Vanessa’s disbelieving expression the night before when she’d asked her why on earth she was going on ‘family day out’ with her business partner and his nephew, given that they weren’t even in a relationship.

She supposed that on paper it would seem strange to most people, but then she and Strike weren’t most people, were they?

“It’s not like a normal friendship…”

That’s what she’d told her mother, some eighteen months previously, when Linda Ellacott had questioned Matthew’s dislike of her relationship with Strike in the run up to her wedding. Robin’s words still held true, although she’d meant something else back then...hadn’t she?

She turned her thoughts to the day ahead – a trip to the Imperial War Museum, lunch, Jack & the Beanstalk at the London Palladium, dinner and then she’d head home and Strike would return Jack to Lucy’s in time for bath and bed. Lucy had been in touch with Robin earlier in the week, hoping she would be able to persuade Strike to stay over and travel to Cornwall with them early on Sunday morning rather than taking the sleeper train. Robin, with her characteristic tact and charm had managed to extricate herself from that particular responsibility.

She arrived at Denmark Street just as Lucy was dropping Jack off, before heading on to Oxford Street for some last-minute shopping, ’God help me’, she laughed.

“Where are Oliver and Harry today?” asked Robin.

“Harry’s been at a friends for a sleepover. Oliver…” she paused for effect, unable to keep the grin off her face, “Is enjoying some quality time with Daddy.”

Robin and Strike exchanged a glance. Greg loved, and was inordinately proud of his trio of sons, but was not a particularly hands-on father and Oliver very much favoured Lucy. Robin sensed, as Strike had also noticed in the past, that despite the pressure she put on herself to be the best mother possible, she was relieved to have a few hours at least devoid of such responsibility. Strike occasionally wondered if deep down, Lucy was more like Leda that she cared to admit. If her many obvious differences were, in fact, a carefully constructed shield, protecting her from any comparisons that might otherwise be made between her and their late, infamous mother. From her own fear that one day she might succumb to the darker pleasures in life that had ultimately, one way or another, been Leda’s undoing.

Lucy was saying her goodbyes, wishing Robin a merry Christmas and a safe trip to Masham, telling Jack to ‘be a good boy for Uncle Cormoran and Auntie Robin’.

Strike saw the flicker of surprise on Robin’s face and made a mental note to fill her in later. In Lucy’s world, much as had been the case in their shared seventies and eighties childhood – particularly in St Mawes, any adult friend of the family had to be bestowed such a moniker, as a mark of respect.

*     *     *

The trio headed to the tube, where they boarded a southbound, Northern line tube before changing at Charing Cross for the Bakerloo line to Lambeth North, the nearest stop to the museum.

They took a slightly meandering route to the museum and when they stumbled across the neighbouring Tibetan Peace Garden, Strike slowed down.

“We’re almost there, but do you mind if we stop for a minute?” He dropped onto a wooden bench without waiting for an answer, “I put my prosthesis on in a hurry this morning and it’s not sitting quite right.”

“No problem,” replied Robin. “Jack, shall we go and have a look at that monument over there?”

She led him away to look at the tall, pale grey sculpture, to give Strike the chance to adjust his prosthesis discreetly, not noticing the young woman slumped at the bottom of the stone pillar wrapped in a grubby sleeping bag, her belongings apparently piled beside her in two carrier bags against one of which was a sign scrawled on cardboard – “Homeless, please help me.”

Jack spotted her first and tugged at Robin’s hand. She immediately registered the scene in front of them and assumed he was scared. There was no reason to be, but she knew Lucy was extremely protective of her boys. Even at nine years old, homelessness was quite possibly something Jack had never encountered.

“Can we help her, Auntie Robin?” he asked

She looked at the small, dark, earnest boy standing beside her, and then at the young woman. She was in her early twenties at most. Pale, freckled and painfully thin, she looked frozen and exhausted. Her long dark hair fell in straggling lengths around a heart-shaped face that might have been beautiful if fate had dealt her a different hand. Robin spotted a small café a short way across the road.

“Yeah,” she said. “I think we can.”

Strike watched as she made a few hand gestures, indicating where they were going, and again a few minutes later as she returned with Jack to the woman at the foot of the peace monument, and passed Jack a brown paper bag which he handed solemnly to the woman. She opened it and Strike saw her jaw drop momentarily before thanking Robin effusively. The three of them chatted for a few more minutes, and Robin pulled a notebook and pen from her bag, consulted her phone and jotted a few things down whilst the woman ate and drank, before tearing the page out and handing it to her.

Strike was already on his feet by the time they reached him again, and they set off immediately for the museum.

“That must’ve been one hell of a cheese toastie,” remarked Strike, his voice low as they followed a few feet behind Jack.

“I gave her the names of some hostels nearby...and I bunged her £20 note as well,” said Robin, bracing herself for Strike’s reaction.

He merely smiled and shook his head. “You’re too kind for your own good sometimes, you know that.”

“Maybe,” she acknowledged, “But she reminded me of Stephanie…you know Whittaker’s…”

“Yeah...I know.”

“And besides, I’ve saved a fair bit of money not having to buy presents for Matthew and the wider Cunliffe family this Christmas…” she grinned wickedly at Strike, “I’m sure he’d be delighted to know some of that cash was going to such a worthy cause.”

Strike chuckled as they caught up with a waiting Jack and entered the museum.

*     *     *

It turned out that Strike’s reservations and anxieties about the day were completely unfounded. Jack was a polite boy, but not without character and he found himself warming even more the nephew who had hero-worshipped him for several years already.

Robin had listened, almost as fascinated as Jack, to the many stories Strike told of his days in the army as they wandered around the museum. There had been a somewhat embarrassing moment for her in the coffee shop whilst she was ordering lunch, Strike and Jack already having purloined a suitable table. She’d seen the elderly lady on a few occasions already, apparently eavesdropping on Strike’s tales, and now she sidled up to her as they approached the checkout.

“My dear, I’ve had my eye on you all morning. Such a lovely family…I hope your boy knows how lucky he is to have such a brave daddy.”

“Oh, no…” Robin replied, instinctively, “He’s not…we’re not…”

But the elderly lady mistook her objections for false modesty, and later gave them all a cheery wave and a wink as she passed their table.

“What was that all about?” asked Strike, amused and curious.

“Oh, nothing,” answered Robin, “Case of mistaken identity.”

Full of paninis, cake and hot chocolate, they headed to the Palladium for the matinee. Gary had managed to pull some strings with a friend of a friend to get them good tickets at short notice, and they knew it would be a great show, but no-one was more surprised than Strike when he found himself joining in the traditional heckling and so forth. Robin watched him and Jack surreptitiously, noting that despite having spent very little time together in Jack’s nine and half years, they shared a startling number of the same mannerisms and expressions.

When the show had finished, they went for burgers, chips and ice cream – ‘Lucy’ll string me up’ confided Strike, as Jack returned from the ‘Create Your Own Sundae’ bar with a puddle of half-melted ice cream and an array of extraordinary technicolour, sugary toppings.

“Don’t tell her then,” whispered Robin, conspiratorially, with a grin.

After they’d finished, Strike and Jack walked Robin to Oxford Street station where they said their goodbyes before heading back to Denmark Street. Strike needed to collect the presents for Lucy, Greg, the kids and Ted and Joan before dropping him back to Bromley. Lucy was taking them tomorrow to save him having to manage them on the train.

Jack was quiet on the way back, which Strike put down to tiredness and a certain amount of sensory overload, Oxford Street’s loud, bustling crowds and bright lights a far cry from the village in Bromley he was used to.

“You alright mate?” he asked, as they made their way up the winding staircase to the office.

“Yes, thank you Uncle Cormoran…” there was a weighted pause, as if he was wanting to say something else, but wasn't sure that he should.

“What’s up?” asked Strike, giving the boy his full attention.

“Why don’t you and Auntie Robin live together?”

Strike was momentarily floored.

“Well, because…because…”

Jack continued. Now he had started to ask questions, he was determined to get some answers.

“You love each other, don’t you?”

Strike’s eye’s widened and he was vaguely aware that he was probably turning a not particularly fetching shade of puce.

“Jack, we’re colleagues and friends…that’s all.”

Jack looked confused.

“But Auntie Robin looks after you like mum looks after dad.” He stated, thinking of the way his Auntie Robin had dealt with the sore leg situation, made sure they had everything they all needed at the café and restaurant and generally taken care of both of them throughout the day, in her own calm, unobtrusive manner.
Strike was speechless.

“And…” continued Jack, undeterred, “Sometimes you look at Auntie Robin just like Grandpa Ted looks at Nana Joan...before he kisses her,” Jack giggled, blushing.

Strike scrutinised the face of his nephew, bright with amusement and wise beyond his years.

“You notice a lot, don’t you?” he said eventually, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You’ll make a great Redcap one day.”

Distracted from his line of questioning, Jack beamed up at his giant uncle. His hero.

“C’mon, we need to get you back home or I’ll be in trouble with mum. You’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

“I’ve had the best day today though,” replied Jack.

And they headed out into the freshly falling sleet to where Strike’s car was parked.

Chapter Text

Overnight the weather across the country became truly wintery. Temperatures dropped nationwide, London was beset with freezing sleet and snow showers had begun to drift across the West Country, whilst a second weather front appeared to be approaching the UK from the North East.

Strike sat at the little Formica table in his flat drinking black coffee and smoking whilst he checked various weather forecasts and travel websites and texted Lucy intermittently to see how they were getting on. He knew they’d been planning to leave at six as Lucy had mentioned it several times when he’d delivered Jack home, slightly late, the previous evening.

On his return he had switched on Sky Sports and opened the first of three bottles of Doom Bar, with the intention of winding down and getting a decent night’s sleep, but he’d found his mind drifting back to Jack’s words…

“You love each other, don’t you?”

…and someone elses…

“I love him, darlin’. One day you’ll feel like that about someone.”

Did he?

Sitting alone in the tiny flat above the office, the rhythmic thud of music drifting up from bar on the ground floor, forming a symphony with the traffic noises from nearby Charing Cross Road, he was forced to acknowledge it.

He did love her.

He loved Robin.

But that didn’t mean she felt the same, despite what everyone kept telling him. It didn’t mean that doing anything about it was a good idea.

For a long time, he’d been afraid of loving anyone again. Love, for Strike, had always come with a dose of chaos, whether it had been witnessing his mother’s numerous affairs, or the madness and mayhem of life with Charlotte. The endless on and off, ups and downs, filthy, violent rows followed by passionate, blissful reunions.

Sixteen years with Charlotte, albeit intermittently, had left him believing that real love meant an intensity of feeling that could only go hand in hand with threats, manipulation and violence. That the highs were worth the lows that accompanied them. The idea that love could be easy, calm, straightforward, that was an anathema to Strike. Getting to know Robin had proved, however, that it could be the case. He wasn’t afraid of love anymore.

What Strike was afraid of was loss.

He’d lost his mother, his first love, his leg, the army career he’d loved.

He was over Charlotte now, he’d rebuilt his career, his leg…well that was what it was.

He had Robin. He had her as a business partner, as a friend. He risked losing that if he told her and she didn’t feel the same way. Even if she did, now, there was the risk of losing her further down the line, to someone younger, someone whole, someone who could give her things he still wasn’t sure he could offer – stability, a family.

And then there was the job. He thought of Donald Laing…Noel Brockbank…Ralph Chiswell. He could lose her anyway, and it would be hard enough to lose her as friend and business partner, to lose her as more than that…

He’d eventually gone to bed, only to spend the night restless, images and voices floating in and out of his head as his brain undulated between sleep and consciousness. Only now, as the duel crutches of caffeine and nicotine began to kick in, was he able to think more clearly.

The bleep of his mobile made him jump slightly.

We’ve made it! Clear most of the way down but snow’s getting heavier. You might want to think about getting an earlier train if you can. See you soon. Lx

But Strike was already booked on the 6.03pm train, and besides, he had one more visit to make before leaving. He picked up his phone, tapped a text message, hit send and headed for the shower.

*     *     * 

The bench was damp but Strike didn’t care, the familiar journey had taken too long in the icy weather and all he wanted was to sit and rest his leg and drink.
He’d only been there a few moments when his companion arrived, his familiar, slightly bouncing gait unchanged by the slippery pavements, a blue plastic carrier bag swinging by his side.

“I bought supplies,” he announced as he sat down next to Strike.

“Cheers Shanker, how are you doing?”

“Can’t complain, Bunsen, can’t complain,” he replied, pulling a can out of the bag and passing it over. Thatcher’s Cornish Cider, Leda’s favourite drink, which had always seemed ironic given her socialist tendencies. She’d told Strike once it tasted of summer in St Mawes.

They toasted Leda and made small talk. Shanker’s son had started secondary school recently and was managing not to follow in his father’s turbulent footsteps. Shanker himself, if not exactly on the straight and narrow, was steering clear of some the dodgier opportunities that came his way, having just moved in with his girlfriend and her two young daughters. He watched his old friend as he gazed at Leda’s headstone.

“Penny for ‘em?”

Strike looked at him.

“Robin’s divorce is going through…just a few more weeks.”

Shanker nodded.

“And what ya gonna do about it?”

“I’ve no idea,” he didn’t even bother trying to convince Shanker that he didn’t want to do anything about it. He knew. He’d known since their last-minute dash to Yorkshire in a stolen Jaguar the previous year. “I’m the happiest I’ve been in years already. It feels like asking too much to want more.”

“Jesus, you’re a soft ol' bastard really, ain’t ya?” said Shanker affectionately. “Look mate, sometimes you just have to grab the bull by the 'orns and get on with it. There’s no point waftin' about waitin' for some higher power to send you a sign, although…” he paused momentarily, “…if that’s what you want, I reckon you’ve just got it.”

Strike followed Shanker’s gaze to the electric guitar carved from stone that marked his mother’s grave. Sitting atop its triangular head was a robin.

*     *     *

Robin was not happy. She’d thought she’d finished wrapping her family’s presents but as she’d loaded them into a couple of giant gift bags for ease of transportation back to Yorkshire the following morning, she realised her sister-in-law Jenny’s gift was missing. After several minutes of searching her bedroom and wracking her brains, she realised that it must have ended up under her desk in the office when she’d dropped her bags to help Strike with his wrapping on Thursday night. Knowing she couldn’t turn up without it, she’d thrown on coat, scarf and trainers and slogged out on the tube to retrieve it.

She’d been in the office almost fifteen minutes, having decided to make a final quick check of her emails and phone messages when she heard the familiar sound of Strike coming up the stairs and stuck her head out of the door to greet him.

“It’s only me Cormoran, I just had to pop back for…God, what’s happened? You look awful.”

“Merry Christmas to you too,” he responded, “I’m fine – just cold and tired.”

“Come on, I’ve got the kettle on,” said Robin, and obediently he followed her into the office, and sat down gratefully on the sofa, which for once remained silent.
She joined him a couple of minutes later with two mugs of tea and a packet of shortbread.

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

“Yeah, just had to do a fair bit of walking. It’s harder work in this weather.”

He could see the curiosity and concern on her face, and suddenly the desire to confide in her overwhelmed the boundaries he had fought so long to establish.

“I went to my mum’s grave,” he explained, “Christmas, you know, and I didn’t make it on the anniversary.”

From somewhere in the back of her mind, Robin recalled that Leda Strike had died in early December 1994. She wanted to ask if he’d gone alone but didn’t quite know how, nor was she entirely sure why it mattered to her.

“I met Shanker there, we raised a glass of Cornish Cider to her, she’d have liked that,” he said, reading her mind. He looked at her, soft blue-grey eyes warm and sympathetic, but never condescending or pitying. “She liked crème brulee too,” he added softly, swallowing the lump that was beginning to rise in his throat.

Robin knew what he was referring to immediately.

“So that’s what upset you at the party last weekend? I thought it was some Charlotte/sex thing,” she admitted, then blushed when she realised how that sounded.

“No, nothing to do with Charlotte.”

Robin waited, saying nothing, a technique she’d learned from Strike himself. She could sense he wanted to tell her more, when he was ready.

He drank some of his tea, his large hands cupped around the chipped mug, absorbing its warmth.

“Mum couldn’t come with us when Ted dropped me for my first year. Switch was still tiny – ten months but he’d been quite premature. But my second year…”

He paused and ate a shortbread finger, and Robin watched him putting his thoughts and memories in order.

“Whittaker had gone away touring with whatever shitty band he was in at the time, so me and mum and Switch went to Cornwall for the last week of the uni holidays. It was October but the weather was perfect. Mum always complained that St Mawes was boring when she lived there, but when we went back that week she was like a different person. No Whittaker being a prize cunt, decent food, fresh air. Lucy even bunked off sixth form one day so we could all hang out at the beach together. Anyway…”

He took another large mouthful of tea.

“When it was time for me to go back to Oxford, mum asked Joan to look after Switch for the day so she could come with us – me, Ted and Lucy, and once we’d dropped my stuff off we went to this – well I s’pose these days you’d call it a gastro pub. She ordered crème brulee for pudding and convinced me to try it too – you know me, as far as I’m concerned the only place for custard is on top of an apple pie or sticky toffee pudding, but she was so bloody happy and pleased with herself I gave in. We’d had a few by then and she’d heard of pennying – which didn’t always have the connotations Ari mentioned, I hasten to add - and challenged me. I challenged her back and it ended up with both of us eating our crème brulee without spoons.”

Robin was looking at him in astonishment, his face lit up by fairy lights and happy memories.

“Ted wasn’t particularly amused but was so pleased to see her happy and away from Whittaker he let it go. Lucy was mortified, as you can imagine…”

His face fell suddenly and when he spoke again his voice was choked, barely more than a whisper.

“It was the last time we were all together,” he put his mug down on the coffee table as if he no longer trusted himself to hold it. “The next time I saw my mum was at the undertakers.”

“Oh God, Cormoran,” murmured Robin, resting her hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at her and before either of them knew what was happening, he was in her arms, sobbing into the soft, warm curve of her neck whilst she stroked his hair and shushed him gently, like a small child. Even when his tears had subsided and his breathing had returned to normal, it was several minutes before either of them moved. Eventually, he pulled away, surprised that he didn’t feel more awkward.

“Sorry, Robin. I’m sure that’s not what you came here for…what did you come here for?”

“Never mind that - and don’t apologize to me for being human and having feelings. I know you don’t like feeling vulnerable though…I do understand,” she smiled ruefully at him, not sure what else to say. She looked at her watch, it was just after four o’clock.

“How about another cuppa? I could hang around and drop you at the station on the way home.”

He smiled gratefully, partly at the offer, partly at her consideration in changing the subject.

“No, you go on home, you’ve got your own packing to do, and I’ve already booked a cab.”

She nodded, picked up her things, put her coat and scarf back on and opened the door.

“Robin…thanks for everything. Merry Christmas.”

She turned back, took two steps across the room and reached up to kiss him on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Cormoran.”

Chapter Text

Robin headed home from the office on Sunday afternoon, wrapped Jenny’s present and added it to the gift bags in the back of the Land Rover, then finished ironing and packing her clothes and other personal items ready to leave for Masham early the following morning.

She and Gary often ate together on a Sunday, but he’d left the previous day to spend Christmas with his new boyfriend’s family in Portugal, so she threw together a bowl of pesto pasta and poured the last glass of wine out of the bottle left in the fridge before sinking onto the sofa and flicking through the guide for something to watch.

Despite being busy, Robin’s thoughts had returned repeatedly to Strike. It had been heart-wrenching to see him grieving for Leda, but she had been touched that he had felt able to do so in front of her, and that he’d allowed her to comfort him. She knew how fiercely protective he was of his privacy and how he loathed showing any sign of vulnerability, and whilst the nature of their job and their relationship to date had inevitably eroded some of the barriers he put up, the afternoon’s revelations had been something else altogether.

She reached for her mobile. She’d deleted the messages from Matthew, but not before saving the photo he’d sent of her and Strike on the hotel dance floor. She clicked on the thumbnail and zoomed in, trying not to wonder exactly how many times she had done so in the last few days and if it was possible to wear a groove in a mobile phone screen. It was no surprise that Matthew was angry and jealous, thought Robin. Even she could see that to any outsider their embrace did not look one of purely friendship. Her arms around his waist beneath his jacket, the way her head rested on his shoulder, the fact they both had their eyes closed…all little things hinting at a level of intimacy beyond that which actually existed, or at least had been acknowledged.

Ilsa’s words from their shopping trip came back to haunt her.

“You need to give some serious thought to your relationship with Cormoran…he’s definitely over Charlotte……”

Serious thought. Robin had been doing her best for weeks now to give her relationship with Strike as little thought as possible. She’d already spent over a year after her ill-fated wedding pushing her feelings down, desperately trying to suffocate them with work, and doing everything she could to make something of a marriage she had known wouldn’t last the distance, probably even before the clanging sound of brass vases hitting flagstone had echoed around St Mary The Virgin.

She’d initially held off telling Strike about her separation, not only because she hadn’t been able to find a way to bring the subject up naturally, but because deep down she had known that once it was out there it would change their relationship, possibly irrevocably.

Three months later the question Robin kept asking herself was whether she wanted that change enough to take a risk and do something about it. Increasingly she found herself listening to a little voice in her subconscious that kept whispering “Yes…I do.”

She sighed heavily, making the decision to park such thoughts until after Christmas, there was nothing to be done one way or the other until then anyway. Perhaps a week away would give her the breathing space she needed to get her head straight on the subject.

She flicked over to the news and unmuted the TV, which almost instantly drew her attention with a familiar name:

“The weather front sweeping across Cornwall from North America has been worsening throughout the day with severe weather warnings in place throughout the county. Villages on the South Coast have been particularly affected with Mullion, Lizard and St Mawes the worst hit, receiving a record breaking eleven inches of snow in just the last few hours with drifts up to four feet deep in places.”

Shit!

Robin grabbed her mobile and texted Strike, it was gone ten and she knew he would be about ninety minutes away from Truro under normal circumstances.

Where are you? Just seen the news. Hope you’re not stuck in a snow drift somewhere and that Ted or Greg is able to get you from the station. Let me know when you’ve arrived safely. I’ll be up. Rx

Her phone rang within seconds.

“Cormoran, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine…arse-bound on my sofa with a beer watching the footy. Train was cancelled.”

“Oh no! Ted and Joan must be gutted…”

“Well, they’re disappointed but they’ve got everyone else down there, and they’re well stocked for a good week or so. Lucy was not impressed, mind you.”

“I bet she wasn’t. She kept on at me to try and convince you to go with them this morning.”

“Did she? Bloody cheek!”

Robin laughed, then something occurred to her.

“What are you going to do with yourself on Christmas Day?” She was well aware that spending the day alone in his flat with a plentiful supply of beer, food, and cigarettes even on Christmas Day would probably be Strike’s idea of heaven, but she really didn’t like the idea, especially after this afternoon.

“Nick and Ilsa are going to his parents and I’ve been invited along. I’ll probably stay over at theirs tomorrow and we’ll get a takeaway,” he paused, “Don’t worry, I won’t starve or go mad from lack of company.”

“Well I certainly never doubted the former,” her voice softened, “…and I’m glad you won’t be on your own, even if you’re normally an anti-social bugger!”

Strike grinned down the phone. He would never tire of hearing just how ‘Yorkshire’ she sounded whenever she said ‘bugger’.

“Are you still heading up to Masham as planned? That front is dying down but it’s still heading up across the Midlands and they reckon there’s another weather front coming in from the North East?”

Was she imagining it, or did he sound ever so slightly as though he was hoping she might say she was staying in London?

“That’s the plan. I’ve looked at the forecast, and if I leave at sparrow-fart tomorrow I should just make it before the North Eastern one hits. I’ve got an extra flask ready and emergency supplies. I suppose I should have gone up today really,” she mused, “But I needed a day to just chill out before facing everyone up there to be honest…your anti-social is catching!”

“I’m not that anti-social,” he contradicted her, “Just choosy about the company I keep. I’m perfectly sociable with the right people as you well know.”

Robin felt her heart do a little somersault.

“You have your moments,” she agreed affectionately. “Anyway, I must go, like I said, up at sparrow fart for me tomorrow, I need my bed.”

There’s a thought bound to keep me lying awake in mine tonight, reflected Strike.

“Off you go. Take care won’t you…I know you will, just…really take care, and text me when you’ve arrived safely, okay?”

“Will do. See you next week.”

“Yep, you too, g’night.”

Chapter Text

Robin’s alarm went off at five the following morning, an hour earlier than she’d initially planned to rise, taking into account the atrocious weather.

She donned her fingerless gloves and heated up a wheat bag in the microwave to tuck behind her back while the ancient vehicle warmed up. She added two flasks to the car, one full of coffee, the other with hot water which could be used to either fill the hot water bottle she’d packed, or to make hot chocolate with the sachets in the glove box. A large fleece blanket, mobile phone power bank and substantial bag of snacks completed her ‘survival kit’.

She smiled as she loaded the cool bag into the car.

“Anyone would think I was taking Cormoran with me, there’s so much food!” she muttered to herself.

Robin Ellacott was nothing if not well prepared.

It normally took her about half an hour to get from her home near Earl’s Court to the M1, but she was behind before she’d even got started. It appeared that everyone heading out of London had had the same idea, and by the time she reached the motorway it was beginning to snow, something she hadn’t been anticipating until she was much further north.

The motorway had been thoroughly gritted but it was still a tough drive, volume of traffic and a combination of both nervous and occasionally reckless drivers meaning she had to keep her wits about her. She was almost glad when they hit a tailback which gave her time to pour a fresh coffee into her travel mug and stretch as best as she could in her seat.

She didn’t remain glad for long. God, she was bored. She loved driving but you could hardly call this driving, and long journeys and traffic jams were no fun, it appeared, without her favourite co-pilot to feed her toffees, top up her coffee and regale her with his weird and wonderful stories. Robin, who had less than zero interest in fishing, found herself wondering exactly what was so interesting about the migratory pattern of the black marlin. Strike had never gotten around to telling her on their way to Barrow.

The car in front moved forward a few feet and Robin followed, before grinding to a halt yet again. She caught sight of her phone on the passenger seat and glanced up at the illuminated sign ahead.

DELAYS for the next 3 MILES

“Oh, bugger it” she murmured, and hit speed dial.

*     *     *

“…so whilst there are lots in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland during October and November, they all migrate by December either south or north east to Polynesian Islands…one study tracked some as far as Hawaii…Robin, are you still awake?”

“Hmm, yes, although please don’t ever repeat that when we’re in fast moving traffic,” she teased into her phone which was on hands-free on the dashboard.

“You did ask.” She could hear him smiling. “Is it no better then?”

“I’m nearly there now, about another two hundred metres according to the signs…oh, we’re moving a bit, I’d better go..”

“Don’t forget to let me know when you arrive…”

But she had already rung off.

*     *     *

By lunchtime Strike was restless. He’d restocked his fridge, cupboards and cigarette supplies on the way back from his abortive trip to the station, and his flat never needed serious tidying thanks his naturally orderly nature and it's tiny size. Even when he’d been living in his office he’d made a point of everything having it’s own place, as much as anything as a way of delineating the boundary between work time and down time.

He picked up his book, the latest in the Roy Grace series by Peter James and tried to concentrate. Somehow his flat just didn’t feel quite right. It seemed austere somehow, even though nothing had changed. He sat and looked around for a few minutes, tutting and cursing himself when the penny finally dropped. Shanker was right, he thought, he was turning into a soft old bastard. Nonetheless he hauled himself out of his sofa and headed downstairs.

He awoke three hours later, having dozed off reading his book beneath the hand-knitted blanket he’d retrieved from the office. The flat smelt faintly of mulled wine although the candle had burned out, and in the gathering dusk was lit only by the coloured lights on the now somewhat shabby Christmas tree, which he’d somehow managed to tug, pot and all, up the stairs complete with decorations.

Strike immediately reached for his phone, registered the time and realised that he’d not received any message from Robin to say she’d safely arrived. Even taking the weather conditions and busy road into account she should have been in Masham a couple of hours at least.

He sent a text.

Take it you’ve arrived ok? Have a great time and say hi to your family for me. C

Twenty minutes later no reply had been forthcoming. He waited a further ten minutes, telling himself he was worrying unnecessarily, then texted again.

Ellacott – I know you’re probably on the snowballs by now but let me know you’re ok, yeah? C

Another half an hour elapsed. He tried calling but it went straight to voicemail.

He typed ‘Traffic News’ into the search engine on his phone, filtered it to M1 and squinted at the results on the tiny screen. The route map showed numerous red and amber dots indicating a variety of accidents and incidents. As he attempted to zoom in for a clearer image, a news update flashed across the screen.

US and Siberian weather fronts meet over the Midlands dumping two feet of snow in just over an hour and causing traffic chaos...

Fuck!

He called again and left another message, then began scrolling through the traffic accident reports to see if any mentioned a geriatric blue Land Rover. He thought of Robin’s Christmas present and an icy sensation spread across his chest.

His phone rang and he grabbed it blindly. “Thank fuck! Are you there? Are you okay?”

Ilsa’s bewildered voice answered. “Erm, yep, I’m here and I’m fine, what’s the matter with you?”

“Bollocks…sorry I thought you were Robin. She left for Masham at half five this morning in the Land Rover. I spoke to her at eleven – she’d got stuck in a tailback around Milton Keynes. It started moving again at half past but it’s almost five now and she’s not let me know she’s arrived safely yet.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows at Nick who was vaguely listening in from across the kitchen whilst dishing out bowls of cat food to Ossie and Ricky who were not amused at him being distracted from the task in hand.

“Have you texted her?”

“Of course, I bloody have, and phoned. I don’t have her parents’ number. The weather conditions are appalling and there are more accident black spots than I can count, although I’ve not come across any reporting a blue Land Rover.”

“You’ve been reading through the traffic reports to see if any mention her car?”

Nick was smirking and shaking his head, whilst Ilsa tried not to giggle. She reminded herself that, Cormoran’s panic notwithstanding, it wasn’t at all unreasonable to be worried about someone driving long distance in the current weather conditions, even someone with Robin's driving expertise.

“Wouldn’t you have her parent’s number on file in the office? Next of kin?”

“She had Matthew listed, I don’t know if she’s changed it, but it’s worth a look, thanks Ils…”

And he’d rung off before she’d had a chance to ask him whether he fancied Chinese or Indian for Christmas Eve.

He headed to the office, rummaged frantically through the filing cabinets and pulled out Robin’s file. True to form, she had indeed updated her next of kin to Michael Ellacott. He had just dropped into her chair and picked up the receiver when he heard his mobile ringing, upstairs in the flat.

“Fuck’s sake…”

He grabbed the file and headed back upstairs to find a missed call from Robin, which he immediately went to redial, just as a text came through.

I’m home. Rx

He started texting back but thought better of it and called instead.

“Robin? You made it…did you manage to just miss that snowstorm?”

“Made it? No…I’m home home…back in London.”

“Back in London?”

Don’t sound pleased…you must not sound pleased...

“Got stuck in another tail back shortly before Leicester – big accident. Then the snow started coming in with a vengeance. The police advised anyone with a shorter distance back than onwards to go home and I wasn’t going to, but then Dad called to say it was basically apocalyptic around Masham and there was good chance I’d be stuffed, even in the Land Rover. He and mum didn’t want me to risk it…”

She tailed off sounding tearful and exhausted.

“Oh Robin, I’m really sorry, I know you must’ve been looking forward to seeing your family.” He couldn’t help but picture her, alone in her house and wished he was there with her.

She sniffed.

“I’ll be okay,” she replied, “I feel worse for Mum really. I mean I was looking forward to seeing them, but it would have inevitably meant seeing Matthew and his lot as well – it’s such a small village. At least I’ve got out of that.”

Strike didn’t answer for a moment, thinking.

“Tomorrow, if you’ve not got something else in mind, would you like to come to Nick’s parents with us for Christmas dinner?”

Robin was flummoxed.

“Well, erm, it’s a lovely offer but hadn’t you better check with them first?”

“I will, but it’ll be fine. Jan – Nick’s mum, used to be a cook in our high school canteen. She does Christmas dinner like she’s feeding an army. And I’m spending tomorrow night at Nick and Ilsa’s if you want to join me…I mean us, I’ll be fine on the sofa, you can have your old room…you know they’d love to see you,” he mumbled hastily.

Robin smiled, suddenly feeling warmer and happier than she had since she’d finally arrived back from her gruelling road trip.

“Well, I’d love to spend tomorrow evening with you all, but how about you come to me for a change? Gary’s away, I can cook and there’s plenty of room for you all to stay over.”

“Sounds great,” agreed Strike. I’ll call Nick and Ilsa and get it sorted.”

Chapter Text

Robin was up at the crack of dawn again on Christmas Eve. Arrangements had been confirmed with Nick and Ilsa and everyone was arriving at six that evening. Her friends had insisted on taking charge of the drinks for the evening, so all she had to do was food shopping…on Christmas Eve.

After speaking to Strike for the second time the previous evening, Robin had taken a torch and spent several minutes rummaging in a box in the garage before she eventually found the slow cooker she had taken from the marital home and the old, battered notebook filled with handwritten recipes that she’d not used since moving to London.

She’d checked the kitchen cupboards, made an exhaustive list, and now, wrapped in many layers and sporting a pair of sturdy walking boots she headed out to brave the Christmas crowds for supplies.

*     *     *

Nick woke to find Ilsa’s side of the bed empty, although neither of them were working and both had gone to bed stating they were desperate for a lie in. With a sigh, he realised where she would be and headed downstairs to the sitting room.

As predicted, Ilsa was sat in the armchair nearest the window looking out at the snow-covered street. He could hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ playing on the radio in the kitchen, and he knew even before his wife turned to face him that she was crying.

He’d been and gone then.

He went and sat on the arm of the chair, sliding his arm silently around her shoulder, pulling her close and kissing the top of her head. He wanted to tell her that there would be other chances, other clinics, other programmes, but he knew none of it would help. She – they – had been pinning their hopes on this for months now.

“They said we’d definitely hear before Christmas,” she whispered, her voice hoarse and broken. “I know I’m stupid for not having given up already, but I still thought…I hoped…”

She leaned into him, her shoulders racked with sobs.

Nick could feel the heat building behind his eyes and swallowed hard. He’d deal with his own feelings later. Ilsa needed him to be strong for her now. Again. It wasn’t the first disappointment they’d had.

Suddenly the doorbell rang. For a moment Nick was inclined to ignore it, but then a sharp knock followed. He slid off the arm of the chair and went to open the door.

“Morning,” greeted the postman, “Just found yours in the van, must’ve slipped out of the bag – we had a ton of post today,” he grinned. “Merry Christmas mate.”
“You too,” replied Nick as the postie disappeared down the short black and white tiled path.

He began checking the bundle of envelopes, held together with elastic bands before heading back to the sitting room, but Ilsa was already in the doorway. Three Christmas cards, a couple of items of junk mail, a small package for Ilsa from a second-hand bookstore that she used regularly, and right at the bottom a neatly addressed padded brown envelope. Putting the rest of the post down on the tiny hall table, Nick carefully tore it open, removed the covering letter inside and scanned its contents as Ilsa watched on.

After a minute, he looked up at his wife, smiling, his face awash with relief.

“We’re in,” he said, “We start the programme mid-January.”

*     *     *

Strike was getting ready later that afternoon when his mobile rang. Picking it up he was mystified to see an incoming video call from a number he didn’t recognise. For a split second his mind went back to Franco’s…

“Wouldn’t you rather have had advance warning that I want you back?”

It would be just like her to pull some kind of stunt now, she always seemed to have a sixth sense for when he was happy, when he was moving on, knowing exactly how best to disturb his equilibrium. Except she didn’t anymore, he’d moved so far on that she was just a speck in the rear-view mirror. Bracing himself, he answered the call.

“Cormoran? Cormoran?” for a few moments he appeared to be talking to a beamed ceiling.

“You need to…look…this way. Hi Stick.”

Lucy came into view, looking over the shoulder of his Auntie Joan, one hand steadying whatever device she was on.

“Hello you! Hi Joan, are you trying to make me homesick?” he joked. Now the phone was in the right position he could see they were in the Victory.

“No, of course not! Lucy just had the bright idea of us calling you as you couldn’t make it - we're trying out her new iPad. How are you love? You’re not on your own, are you? Lucy said your Robin was going back to Yorkshire for Christmas.”

“She’s not…she’s not in Yorkshire. Too much snow that way too. We’re getting together tonight – with Nick and Ilsa, and we're all at Jan and Barry’s tomorrow.”

“Well, that’s good. I didn’t like to think of you on your own at Christmas.”

“Leave the man alone, he’s big enough and ugly enough to look after himself,” joked Ted, as he hove into view, toasting the screen with a pint of Doom Bar.

“Glad to see the snow hasn’t prevented you getting to the pub,” laughed Strike.

He caught up with Ted and Joan, Lucy and Jack, and said a brief hello to Greg and the other boys. Gwennifer Arscott, now working as a barmaid at the Victory insisted on saying hello, as did Dave Polworth, who arrived at the pub during the course of the conversation.

“I reckon you pulled this ‘cancelled train’ scheme on purpose, Diddy,” he teased, once Lucy had gone to see the kids and Ted and Joan were engrossed in a conversation with their neighbours who had now joined them, “I’ve seen that partner of yours in the paper…and she’s stranded in London as well? Well that’s a fine bloody coincidence if I ever I saw one.”

“Yeah,” agreed Strike, smiling, “Yeah, it is.”

*     *     *

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Robin when she opened the door to the three of them later, “Did you bring the entire off licence?”

“Thought we’d cover all the eventualities,” replied Ilsa, kissing Robin’s cheek, “Are we in Gary’s room? We’ll go and dump our stuff…back in a mo.”

Strike was behind them, his large frame filling the doorway as he handed Robin a bottle of her favourite sauvignon blanc, the one he knew she only treated herself to on special occasions, and a bouquet of snow-white roses, silvery eucalyptus and sprigs of tiny scarlet berries.

“Oh, my goodness, they’re beautiful,” she breathed, surprised and touched at the unexpected gesture, “You really didn’t need too…”

“I wanted to,” he smiled, pausing for a moment before bending to kiss her cheek, his arm around her waist pulling her just fractionally closer and for just a millisecond longer than he ever had before. “Do you need a hand with anything in the kitchen?” he asked, “It smells amazing.”

“Erm, no…well, yes, drinks…” she replied, trying to regain her composure.

Something had shifted between them, and she was certain that this time she definitely wasn’t imagining it.

Half an hour later they all sat around the kitchen table, helping themselves to a feast of lamb biryani, chicken Ceylon, gobi aloo saag, naan and onion bhajis.

“You made all this yourself?” Ilsa was incredulous, “Even the bhajis?”

“Yep,” replied Robin, “It was fun actually, I’ve not cooked properly for ages.”

Strike emitted a groan of pleasure at his first mouthful of lamb, which had simmering the slow cooker for most of the day.

“This is the best curry I’ve ever had.”

“It should be, it’s a traditional family recipe,” she saw Nick’s look of surprise and laughed. “Not my family obviously. My best friend at sixth form – Nilakshi - was from India. We spent so much time in and out of one another’s houses we were like family. Her mum gave a me a little book of my favourite recipes of hers when I went to uni.” She nodded at the notebook covered in colourful sari fabric on the kitchen worktop.

“I’m surprised you’ve not mentioned her before,” said Strike.

“We went to different Unis. She studied medicine and managed to get an internship at a teaching hospital in California, so we’ve only been touch via the internet for years. She was due to come to the wedding but when we had to reschedule, she couldn’t make the second date.”

“What sort of medicine?” asked Nick, helping himself to a second portion of vegetable curry.

“Paediatrics. She’s working with Medicin sans Frontiers at the moment.”

The conversation drifted along covering other old friends, and led to Robin confiding in the group that she was looking into the possibility of completing her psychology degree via the Open University, once she’d decided whether to do the general course or to go down one of the more specialised paths available.

“Well I think it’s a fantastic idea, and you know I’ll do whatever I can to help you with that as far as work goes, if you need extra time to study,” said Strike. “Bring the paperwork into the office in the new year and we’ll see if we can sort something out with the cost as well. Don’t see why we can’t put it through the business as professional development.”

“Really?! Robin was clearly delighted at this show of support.

“’Course, whatever you need. If nothing else it should be tax deductible and I'll have a look and see if there's any other funding we can access. ”

Robin reached across the table and squeezed his hand, “Thank you.”

Ilsa and Nick exchanged glances. They had both noticed the subtle change in atmosphere between their friends, as if the tension that had been palpable between them for the last few months had simply dissipated overnight. But they also had some important news of their own.

“We had some good news this morning,” announced Nick, as they all sat back, replete. He hesitated for a moment. Although both Strike and Robin were aware of their struggles to have a child, it wasn’t a subject they generally discussed, particularly not as a group.

“We’ve been accepted on a new IUI treatment programme that we hope will help us have a baby. We start next month,” he continued.

“There are no guarantees, of course,” continued Ilsa, in a hurry to avoid tempting fate, “But hopefully it will increase our chances considerably.”

“I’m so pleased for you,” said Robin, moving around the table to give her friend a hug, “I really hope it works out.”

“Yeah, best of luck with it all,” agreed Strike, raising a glass to Nick.

***

The evening continued with a fiercely fought round of Trivial Pursuit won by Ilsa, followed by a considerably more raucous game of Pictionary, which went to Robin and Strike, thanks in no small part to Robin’s drawing skills. Strike’s were, to say the least, more dubious but made for a lot of rude jokes!

Eventually, just before midnight, Ilsa conceded defeat and announced that she was heading off to bed. Strike headed out for a last cigarette, accompanied by Nick, and Robin began clearing up and sorting out the sofa bed.

Strike eyed his friend suspiciously as he lit up.

“I know it’s late and dark, but I’m not sure I need a chaperone,” he quipped, raising an eyebrow.

“Ha bloody ha! I just wanted to talk to you about something…”

Oh God, here we go again…

“This treatment me and Ilsa are starting,” he hesitated, “Honestly mate, I’m terrified.”

Strike frowned at him, concerned.

“I though you both really wanted kids?”

“We do. I do but…Ilsa’s going to be taking medication that will probably have some unpleasant side effects – it’s not essential but it will increase our chances. And the treatment itself is pretty invasive for her and well, a bit embarrassing for me.”

Strike understood his meaning and couldn’t help but snort.

“Nick, you’re a doctor, you know these professionals will not give a toss – sorry, but you know what I mean…”

Nick sighed.

“The thing that scares me most is, what if it doesn’t work out? We’ve enough saved for four cycles of treatment, which should give us a fairly good shot but…”

“Mate,” said Strike seriously, grinding out his cigarette stub and turning to his friend, “You can’t worry about the ‘what ifs’ when it comes to something as important to you as this. If it doesn’t go to plan you’ll find a way to deal with it, but think of how amazing your life will be if it does work out.”

He couldn’t help smiling himself at the picture in his of his two best friends with a child of their own. He knew they would make incredible parents. Then he noticed the way the Nick was looking at him, a wry smile on his face. He thought back over what he’d just said.

“I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

“I wasn’t saying it for effect,” said Nick, “I am bloody scared, but I guess sometimes you just have to put your big boy pants on…”

“Or take them off in your case…” joked Strike, unable to help himself.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” laughed Nick. “I’m going to bed. Get back in there and sort yourself out. You are never going to get a better opportunity than right now to tell her how you feel.”

Strike looked at him thoughtfully.

“You go on, I’ll be in shortly.”

Chapter Text

When Strike returned to the sitting room Robin was standing with her back to him having just dropped a pile of duvet and pillows onto the sofa. She had her mobile phone in her hand and appeared to be reading a message.

She jumped as he walked in, dashed her hand across her face and made herself busy with the bedding.

“I’ll be done in a mo…” she told him, without turning around.

He watched her for a moment in the silvery light emanating from the Christmas tree.

“Never mind that,” he replied, crossing the room in two steps and gently turning her to face him, “What’s the matter?”

She sighed heavily and dropped onto the sofa.

“I can’t hide anything from you, can I?” she said with a watery smile. “It’s nothing really. I just got a text and photo from home. I’ve never not been with my family at Christmas…”

Strike sat next to her and pulled her into a one-armed hug, which reminded her of them sitting at the roadside after her Geraint Wynn induced panic attack.

“What are they up to?” he asked.

“Usual,” she replied. “Just in from midnight mass now, mulled wine, mince pies and everyone gets to open a present from under the tree before bed.”

“Right,” said Strike decisively, “Don’t move.”

He came back from the kitchen a few minutes later, with two mugs of mulled wine and two mince pies which he set down on the table before hitting play on the Spotify list he’d pulled up on his phone of ‘Carols from Kings’.

Robin looked at him, happy but confused.

“Where did those come from? I didn’t have any mulled wine or mince pies.”

“Appropriated from Ilsa’s supplies for tomorrow…”

“Cormoran!”

“It’s fine, I’ll find a corner shop that’s open tomorrow and replace them. Joys of living in the city, now, we just need…”

He went over to the tree and picked up a small, flat package which he handed to her with a smile.

“There you go.”

“Well, if we’re doing presents…did you bring the bag from the under the office tree like I told you?”

“It’s under there too,” he said gesturing to the tree.

Robin went and rummaged in the large gift bag and retrieved a squishy package.

“You first.”

He tore into the paper and pulled out a thick, cable knit, half zip jumper in cream wool with flecks of slate grey running through it.

“Wow! It’s fantastic – thank you. The dark red one’s getting a bit threadbare these days. Hang on…”

She watched, grinning as he squinted closer at the label in the light from the Christmas tree.

 

Handknitted with love by Robin Ellacott


“You made this…for me?”

“Yep, I started it when I was off that week after Ralph Chiswell…you know how I deal with trauma – do something to distract myself.”

“Bit of a change of pace from advanced driving lessons,” joked Strike. “I love it, really. Does this mean I’m going to have to give the office blanket back?”

“Give it back?”

“It may have made it’s way up to my flat yesterday,” he admitted sheepishly.

Robin just smiled and shook at her head at him.

“Go on,” he said, “Your turn.”

The gift was wrapped in thick turquoise paper covered in robins and tied with a red ribbon.

“This is excellent work.” she commented.

“I had a great teacher.”

Robin carefully removed the ribbon and the tape securing the ends of the package and slid out the contents which was wrapped again in bubble wrap. She opened it carefully, turned it the right way up and gasped.

“From the Christmas market? But, oh, it’s…how did you...?”

“I asked him if he could customise one…it only arrived Friday morning. Why do you think I kept looking out the window – I had to intercept the post so you didn’t see it.”

Sitting in Robin’s lap was a framed cartoon drawing of a Land Rover speeding through the countryside. They’d seen them amongst several other pictures on one of the stalls in Bath, but this one featured her own blue vehicle rather than a green one, and her own number plate. She was at the wheel, with Rowntree her pet Labrador in the passenger seat.

She looked at Strike, eyes shining with happy tears.

“It’s perfect,” she beamed.

It’s now or never...

He took the picture from her lap and put it on the coffee table, then picked up both her hands in his and said softly, “So are you.”

Robin was speechless for a moment. When she finally met his gaze, she could feel her heart thundering in her chest.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” she replied, reaching up to stroke his stubbled jaw, brushing her thumb gently over his uneven lips before sliding her hand to the back of his neck and pulling him willingly towards her, her eyes closing as their lips met, lingering for several seconds before they both pulled back.

“And we didn’t even need this,” said Strike, pulling a sprig of mistletoe that he’d surreptitiously brought back from the kitchen out from behind him.

The sound of footsteps along the landing above them broke the spell, and they looked at one another. Strike rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

“It is kind of a shame that Nick and Ilsa are staying over,” replied Robin who sounded thoughtful, but had a decidedly naughty glint in her eye when she looked at him.

He groaned softly, “Don’t even think about it. Besides, it’s taken us two and half years to get this far, there’s no rush.”

“Good things come to those who wait?” she grinned, “Well, on that note, I’d best say goodnight.”

And with another kiss, she left the room.

*     *     *

Strike had changed into pyjama bottoms and a long-sleeved T-shirt, settled himself comfortably onto the sofa bed and was just finishing reading the news on his phone when he heard footsteps on the stairs and looked up to see Robin peeking around the door.

She was in the same pale pink pyjamas she’d worn in Bath and, he thought, looked even more adorable than she had then. Of course, his world had just spun on its axis, so it was hardly surprising.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, fixing her with a look that made blood rush to her face, and a few other locations. Now, however, was not the time.

“I was just thinking…” her confidence of earlier seemed to have evaporated somewhat, “That maybe…you might prefer to join me…” her eyes flickered towards the stairs, “Not for…you know, not that I don’t want to but…” she took a deep breath, “Look, it has taken us a long time to get here and, I just don’t want to let you go quite yet.” She was blushing, her words hurried.

Strike looked ruefully from Robin to his leg, to the prosthesis propped against the coffee table.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he replied with a cheeky smile, flicking back the duvet on the sofa bed.

“C’mere, Ellacott.”

Chapter Text

Ilsa awoke early on Christmas Day, in dire need of orange juice to stave off the dehydration caused by the previous night’s excesses. As she headed for the stairs, she couldn’t help but notice that Robin’s bedroom door was wide open, her bed neatly made as if it hadn’t been slept in.

Surely she couldn’t be up already? It was only just gone six, she thought.

She padded down the stairs and saw the sitting room door was ajar, so peeked in to see if Robin was there having a coffee. The sight that greeted her made her beam from ear to ear.

Strike was lying on his back on the sofa bed, eyes closed, one pyjama-clad arm around Robin, who was snuggled cosily against him in her pink PJ’s, one hand on his chest, her head resting on his shoulder. Strike, who had also been awake for some time, opened one eye, grinned and raised a finger to his lips to stop Ilsa from saying anything and waking his sleeping partner.

She simply mouthed the words ‘about bloody time’ and headed for the kitchen and the orange juice.

*     *     *

By nine o’clock Nick had been informed of the previous evening’s developments and congratulated his friends. The sitting room had been restored to its usual function and everyone was gathered in their dressing gowns to open their gifts to one another over coffee, Bucks Fizz and bacon sandwiches.

Strike had a second gift for Robin, also from the market – a teal leather wrist band bearing a trio of glass beads in shades of green flecked with copper, made from Cornish sand. Robin had made him a stocking full of foody treats including his favourite fruit cake from Betty’s, the tea room and shop near her home in Yorkshire. Ilsa loved her earrings from Strike and Nick was fascinated with his cheesemaking kit. Both looked forward excitedly to the voucher Robin had given them for afternoon tea at a venue of their choice, and Robin was thrilled with pale blue, leather bound address book they’d given her.

“I remember you mentioning that your old one was a bit of a mess, post the Cunliffe cull,” said Ilsa.

Presents unwrapped and breakfast eaten and cleared away, the foursome went their separate ways to get ready for their day with the senior Herberts, Barry and Jan, and Nick’s brother, Spanner.

Robin was the last to get ready and as she began getting dressed, she remembered something. Standing on tip toes and using a hairbrush, she managed to manoeuvre the glossy bag from the top of the wardrobe. She took out the contents, purchased more than six months previously, still bearing their tags, and inspected them thoughtfully with her head on one side.

Oh...what the hell, why not?

They gathered in the hall and climbed into Nick and Ilsa’s car for the short journey to Nick’s parents’ where they were all greeted enthusiastically. Spanner was delighted to see Robin, on whom he’d had a crush for quite some time. His hopes were rapidly dashed however when he came back from the kitchen with a beer and found her and Strike looking very cosy on the sofa together.

Nick spotted his crestfallen face and gave him a pat on the back.

“I know you’re my brother, but honestly mate, it was never going to happen.”

Strike was right about Jan Herbert’s catering abilities and by mid afternoon they were all well and truly stuffed. They’d run too late to stop for replacement mince pies and mulled wine, which would have proved surplus to requirements in any case, and when Ilsa explained to Jan why they were missing she simply hugged Strike and told him she was glad he’d put them to good use.

They all pitched in to help with the clearing up, before getting out the cards and playing several rounds of Texas Hold ‘Em using chocolate coins as chips. Robin had never played poker before but picked it up quickly after a couple of hands supervised by Strike, who spent most of the afternoon struggling to take his eyes off her. She looked decidedly festive in a bronze coloured satin blouse with a v-neck, full sleeves and deep cuffs, a black knee-length skirt with a bronze brocade pattern, black tights and black suede knee high boots with a small, slim heel.

She was luminous, he thought, as he watched her interact effortlessly with his friends and their family, even Spanner having forgotten his disappointment. Every time she exclaimed at winning a hand, or teased Nick for having made a dud bet, or caught his eye and gave him that secret smile which he knew was just for him he thought about how bloody lucky he was. In fact, he’d barely stopped thinking about it since he’d woken up with Robin in his arms that morning. Nothing had happened the previous night, well, nothing apart from talking and lots and lots of kissing, and he was more than happy with that, enjoying the pleasurable sense of anticipation of what was to come whenever the time was right.

Across the table, Robin was thinking along very similar lines. She’d replayed in her head countless times the earliest days of her marriage when she’d wondered, and in fact tried, to convince herself that her feelings for Strike were intrinsically linked to the job, rather than the man himself. Now after just one night, and a pretty chaste one at that, she couldn’t believe she’d managed to lie to herself for so long.

There had been no discussion about what would happen when they left the Herbert’s that evening, and by the time they said their goodbyes Robin’s heart was racing. Would he say anything? Should she? He’d said there was no rush, which was good to know but…she’d spent the day mentally reliving the kisses of the previous night and struggling not to whimper aloud at the memory of how good they’d been.

In the end it was Ilsa, the designated driver who forced the issue.

“Right, where to first? Yours or Robin’s?” she addressed Strike with a barely suppressed smirk as he was helping Robin with her coat.

He looked at Robin, questioning, slightly awkward and suddenly there were no doubts in her mind whatsoever.

“Mine,” she answered Ilsa, “…and then I think you two can head straight home.”

“Okaaaay, let’s go!”

*     *     *

Robin closed and locked the front door behind them, hung up her coat and removed her boots before turning to Strike.

“Would you like a drink?”

“No…unless you…”

“No.”

They stood for several seconds, looking at each other, both knowing what was coming next, neither of them quite able to move, until Robin reached out, took Strike’s hand and led him upstairs.

Her bedroom was very different from the last time he’d seen it, just after she’d moved in, white and empty save for the flat packs he’d come to help assemble. Robin was more than capable with a screwdriver herself but had been forced to concede defeat and admit that the wardrobe was a two-person job.

Now the walls were painted a soft, buttery yellow, which contrasted with the pale grey curtains and carpet. The bedding featured a geometric pattern in the same shades, set off by a couple of fluffy cushions and a sturdy v-shaped pillow which made him smile. He’d deduced from previous conversations that she frequently read or worked on her laptop in bed. He recognised a familiar cuddly polar bear sat atop the chest of drawers he'd also helped build.

“What are you smiling at?”

“Where do you want me to start?”

“Here…” she murmured, pulling his head down for a kiss which moved rapidly from gentle to demanding, the pressure of his lips increasing against hers, his tongue sliding between her lips, stroking, tasting…

Her hands were fisting the fabric of his black shirt, unconsciously pulling it free of his waistband until suddenly her fingers made contact with skin and they both felt an electric shock ripple through them. His hands were on her ribcage, his thumbs stroking the underside of her breasts and she moaned into his mouth, pulling him impossibly closer, gasping as she became fully aware of exactly how aroused he was.

Still holding her with one large hand, his other slid lower, over the curve of her backside and down her thigh. Suddenly he pulled back, breathless, eyes wide and almost black with longing.

“Is that? Are you…?” he couldn’t quite believe it. He’d already thought his wildest fantasies were coming true.

Robin grinned cheekily up at him, gratified by his reaction. By the fact that this huge, strong, stubborn man she’d fallen head over heels in love with was looking at her with an expression that could only be described as awe and wonder.

“Wearing stockings? Well, yes…it is Christmas after all and I’m nothing if not a stickler for festive traditions.”

“Jesus Robin, I think you might actually be the death of me.”

“Maybe just a little one,” she smirked.

He hadn’t expected this. He’d not allowed himself to think too much about Robin in a bedroom context prior to the last few days. Not that he hadn’t wanted to, or that his subconscious hadn’t occasionally got the better of him whilst he was sleeping and sent her into his dreams.

He knew her history. He’d prepared himself for her to be shy, for things to maybe be a little awkward. He’d anticipated gently, slowly moving things forward at snail’s pace if that was what she needed.

He should have known better. Why would this woman, who he adored as much, if not more, for her bravery, intelligence and sense of humour than for her looks, be any different in the bedroom?

Robin was amused by his apparent shock and took advantage of his inertia, sliding her hands over his torso and beginning to undo his shirt buttons, parting the fabric, her eyes closing as she relished the sensation of his skin beneath her fingertips as she slipped the shirt from his shoulder.

He caught her wrist and bought her hand to his lips kissing it before undoing the silk covered buttons that fastened the cuff. He repeated the action with her other wrist then moved his hand upward, tracing the skin exposed by the v-shaped neckline of her blouse with a single fingertip. He could feel the goose bumps forming under his touch, and see her erect nipples pushing against the silky fabric. It briefly occurred to him that he had absolutely no clue how he was managing to remember to breathe.

Impatient to feel him against her at long last, Robin reached for the top button of her blouse and began to work it free. Strike instinctively moved to take over but she took a step backward and stopped him with a charged look from beneath her long eyelashes. She hadn’t realised until now quite how powerful she could feel in such a situation and was pleasurably shocked to discover how much she enjoyed it. She held his gaze as she continued to undo and remove the blouse, then reached behind her to unfasten the zip of her skirt and let it fall to the floor, leaving her standing before him in just her underwear – the delicate, sheer lace bra, matching briefs and of course the suspender belt and lace topped stockings Strike had been so delighted to discover earlier.

Robin had purchased the lingerie ahead of her first anniversary weekend in Oxford, months earlier, another misguided attempt on her part to instil some level of romance and intimacy into her failing marriage. It had remained in its glossy packaging when the time had come, the few short weeks between purchase and anniversary only confirming to her the futility of such an idea, when the truth was, she actually had no desire to reignite that part of her relationship with Matthew. She should have returned it to the shop, but life and work had taken over. Perhaps it had been fate that they should have been there, waiting to be put to far better use.

Strike was looking at her transfixed, his gaze creating a trail of heat as it travelled over her body.

“You can touch me, you know. I’m not made of china,” his eyes met hers once again, “I want you to touch me, Cormoran.”

It was like lighting a touch paper. He stepped forward, she reached out and in seconds they were tumbling onto the bed, limbs wrapping around one another, lips and tongues tangling together, the touch of skin on skin driving them onward.

His lips moved down her throat, her chest, his tongue laving at the cleft between her breasts, exploring beneath the lace edges of her bra, his breath hot through the fabric over her nipples. Her back arched and he slipped a hand beneath her, deftly undoing the clasp and pulling the flimsy fabric away so he could take each hard peak into his hot mouth, teeth gently scraping the velvety flesh before sucking and soothing with his lips and tongue whilst she whimpered with pleasure beneath him.

He was so intent on her reactions, he barely noticed her hands working his belt free, undoing first the button then zip of his fly, hands pushing away both his trousers and boxers. He was momentarily brought back to reality with the realisation that he’d need to deal with his prosthesis before they could go any further and moved back up her body to delivering a searing kiss to her swollen mouth before disentangling himself.

“Leg,” he explained apologetically. He managed to remove the prosthesis and his remaining clothes without taking his eyes off her. He wasn’t sure he could have taken his eyes off her if his life depended on it, the sheer black lace that covered her mound did little to hide the amber curls beneath and the pale, soft flesh above the wide band of lace at the top of her thighs were like a magnet to his hungry eyes.

He turned back to lie alongside her, propping himself up on one elbow to cover her midriff and stomach with tender kisses whilst his hand slid over the silky stockings, toyed with the lace trim at the top, and he drank in the scent of her – warm skin, roses, vanilla and sex.

He knelt up, fingertips hooked lightly in the fabric at her hips, and looked at her questioningly. He needed to be sure. An almost imperceptible nod and he was sliding them down then covering her body with his own, kissing her deeply, parting her thighs and exploring her centre with gentle, talented fingers.

Robin wasn’t sure what felt better – the sensation of his cock, hot and hard against her thigh, or the magic he appeared to be working on her body, his lips and tongue swirling over her breasts, whilst his fingers teased her clit and stroked her core, sliding inside her, caressing the most sensitive parts of her with tantalising precision. The hoarse growl that had escaped his lips when he’d discovered how wet she was for him had almost made her come on the spot.

But she wanted this to last, and so with a massive effort of will, she pushed him away and over until he was on his back and she was straddling him, her fingers tangling through the matt of thick, dark hair covering his stomach and chest as she stroked upwards, leaning forward to kiss him so that, as her tongue slid into his mouth her could feel the heat of her radiating against his erection. His warm hands cupped her backside, naked except for the elastic straps of the suspender belt, stretched taut across the soft curves. It seemed that every time he thought he couldn’t possibly get any harder, he discovered another sensation that sent a rush of blood to his cock.

Robin’s mouth was carving a path down his torso now, making detours en route to gently bite his nipples, causing his hips to buck and bring his shaft into contact with her slick heat. She pressed back against him, sliding briefly against his length, before continuing to work her way downwards.

“Fuck, Robin…”
Her mouth was hot against his hipbone now, moving inexorably closer to the place he most desperately wanted to feel it, but simultaneously dreaded the contact for fear he would be unable to hold back. Her fingers drifted over him and he knew in that moment that any more stimulation would be far too much.

“Robin…stop…please…” he begged, his voice ragged, eyes pleading.

“Really?” she looked surprised but amused.

“Really. If you keep going…I’m not…” he swallowed, “I won’t…”

She smiled down at him and he saw an expression on her face that he hadn’t even seen in his wildest dreams.

“Are you saying, Cormoran,” she whispered huskily, “That I’m going to make you…lose control?”

Determination gripped him then, and she saw a dark glint in his eyes as he replied.

“Not until I’ve made you lose control first.”

He lifted her leg over his stomach and used his left leg to propel himself swiftly down the bed beneath her, hands on her hips pulling her down so he could bury his mouth in her warmth, tasting, teasing, exploring.

She cried out again and again as his tongue alternated between sliding into her and tracing slow, firm patterns over and around her clit. He felt her succumb to the pleasure he was giving her and holding her in place with just one arm, allowed the other hand to drift upwards to caress her breasts whilst he continued to push her higher and higher with his hot, greedy mouth until she was seeing stars, colours exploding behind her closed eyelids.

She arched back as she came against his lips, and he felt the whisper of her silky hair brushing his straining cock. Gently, he lifted her from over him and laid her back on the bed, pulling himself up to gaze into her flushed and dazed face. To his surprise she pulled his face down to hers, kissing him, moaning softly as she tasted herself.

Her eyes fluttered open, questioning.

“Cormoran…please…” she murmured.

“Yeah?”

She nodded, wrapping her legs around him so that he slipped inside her effortlessly with a single slow, deep thrust that made them both moan. For a minute or more they lay together, savouring the sensation of closeness after waiting for so long, and when he finally began to move inside her it was with a languorous, exquisite tenderness. With every gentle but firm stroke she felt swirls of pleasure coiling once again in her stomach. He fought to hold himself back for as long as possible, enjoying the slow build-up of heat and tension in his stomach and the base of his spine, the warmth spreading to his groin in pulsing waves of pleasure.

He changed his angle slightly, determined to make her climax a second time before he gave in to his own release, and as he felt her tighten around him, he came, hard and hot, burying his head in the curve of her shoulder, murmuring her name and how much he loved her.

Chapter Text

Robin awoke on Boxing Day morning to brilliant white light filtering through her bedroom curtains - the miserable grey sleet had turned to picture postcard snow overnight, and an empty space on the other side of the bed.

For a moment she wondered if she’d dreamed the previous thirty-six hours, then she panicked slightly, realising she hadn’t, before the sound of Strike’s familiar uneven gait came up the stairs and along the short landing. Robin breathed a small, silent sigh of relief.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” he greeted her affectionately, as he entered the room in just his boxers and passed her a mug of steaming coffee.

“I didn’t dream you then,” she smiled as he slid back into bed, and threw a large hairy arm around her shoulders.

“Are you kidding me? I think it’s my dreams that have all come true in the last few days.”

“Shanker’s right, you are a soppy old bugger.”

“Only for you,” he whispered, taking her coffee mug, setting it down on the bedside table next to his own and pulling her closer so her head rested on his chest and she could hear his heartbeat. He planted a lingering kiss on her rose gold hair.

“I was thinking,” he said, sounding a little more tentative than usual, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?”

She was tracing patterns over his stomach with delicate fingertips and paused momentarily to consider the question.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” she replied. “I feel like I should try and get to Masham if the weather clears, but it’s not looking promising, and most of the family won’t be around. Stephen and Jenny are going to her family, Martin’s off to Tenerife on the twenty-ninth if the flight still goes and Jonathan will probably go into Leeds with his girlfriend. It’ll just be mum, dad and the neighbours at the local I expect.”

She raised her head to look at him, grimacing at the thought.

“How would you feel about coming away with me for a few days?” Strike asked.

“And shut the office again?”

“Alright goody two-shoes, I’d thought of that. We’re here for the next few days anyway, and we’re not exactly snowed under with work, it’s just paperwork until life returns to normal for most of our clients. If you didn’t mind, we could work the next few days and take the thirtieth until the second of January off instead?”

“When you say the next few days…” Robin was straddling and peppering his chest with kisses and nibbles in between words, “You don’t mean today do you?”

“Not anymore,” Strike groaned.

*     *     *

They returned to the office on twenty-seventh for a rest, having spent Boxing Day in its entirety in bed.

Strike thought the previous couple of days may have taken the edge of his desire for his partner, but watching her get dressed that morning, he realised that it was quite possible that would never happen. Clearly Robin felt the same, as forty minute later she found herself getting dressed for the second time that morning.

When they finally arrived at Denmark Street, Strike headed up to his flat to shower and change whilst Robin let herself into the office, frowning at the empty space where the tree had stood and the thick layer of pine needles covering the floor. She vacuumed the mess, opening the windows just enough to let a brief swirl of fresh air through the office, replaced the milk in the fridge with fresh, put the kettle on and started up her computer, before taking up her notebook and pen and hitting play on the answerphone.

As both she and Strike had predicted on the tube on the way in, there were a few calls from potential clients whose marriages had gone south over the festive season. A couple of them suspected affairs and wanted proof, and one had simply made the decision, due to a hellish few days, to end her marriage and wanted to find out more about the finances she suspected her husband was keeping hidden.

Robin made appropriate notes and pressed the button to listen to the fourth message. There was the sound of an open line and someone breathing before it cut off. She listened a second time but could detect nothing that made her think it wasn’t a pocket dial.

Message five was the same, but slightly longer, as if, thought Robin, someone at the other end wanted to speak but had changed their mind.

When message six revealed the third call from the same number Robin frowned. After a brief pause, a woman’s voice spoke:

Hello. I’m hoping to reach Cormoran Strike. My name is Dr Genevieve Madison. I can’t give any further details…I need to speak to Mr Strike in confidence if he could please call me on 01865 750920 or 07900 122078. He should recognise the name. Thank you.

Calls from two existing clients completed the messages. Robin deleted them all apart from the one from Dr Madison. She was listening to the message for the second time when Strike entered the office, and she hit pause.

“Cormoran, do you know a Dr Genevieve Madison?” she asked him before he’d even closed the door.

“Genevieve Madison,” he stood still for a moment thinking, rubbed a large hand across his face, “Hmm, the name’s familiar…yes, she was one of my lecturers at Oxford, not sure she was a doctor then though. Why? How have you heard of her.”

“Listen to this…” Robin played the message again from the beginning.

“Weird. Have you tried calling yet?”

“No, as she said she wanted to speak to you in confidence, I thought I’d check who she was first. I’ll do it now. Probably wants you to do some kind of Oxford alumni talk or something now you’re a celeb,” she laughed.

“Doubt it since I dropped out,” he replied drily, heading to the kitchen to make tea, “If there’s an issue I’m happy to talk to her.”

Robin dialled both numbers whilst Strike made tea and cut them slices of Betty’s fruitcake. The first went to answerphone, the mobile connected to the international dial tone, but went unanswered.

“Nothing,” stated Robin. “Do you want to retry the Oxford one yourself and leave a message?”

“Yep, I’ll do that,” he said, taking the proffered page of notebook with the numbers, “What else have we got?”

She gave him a brief outline of the other enquiries before he made to head off in the direction of his own office.

“Oh, by the way Cormoran…what happened to the Christmas tree?”

*     *     *

At five o’clock, Robin began the process of tidying away paperwork and shutting her computer down, still smiling to herself at Strike’s confession about having purloined the Christmas tree for his flat when he thought she’d be in Masham for the week.

He emerged from his office just as she was washing up their mugs and plates, wrapping his arms around her as she stood at the sink and kissing her neck.

“Stay?” he whispered in her ear, his gravelly tone sending a shock-wave of lust all the way down to her toes.

She turned in his arms and kissed him softly.

“Not tonight. I’ve chores I need to catch up on, and the obligatory family Skype call,” she kissed him again, “Not that it isn’t a very, very tempting offer.”

His hands slid up beneath the soft wool of her jumper as he pulled her closer, and crooned jokingly in her ear, “But baby it’s cold outside.”

Robin laughed. This was a side of Strike she’d not seen before, and she rather liked it.

“Not so cold I can’t tempt you with a quick one in the Tottenham before I head off?”

His eyes widened and he smirked unashamedly.

“Not that kind of a quick one, cheeky,” she admonished, “Come on, get your coat.”

Chapter Text

The following day the office was busier. Two of their prospective new clients with marital problems had been keen to come in as soon as possible, and they needed to finalise the client invoices for the month before going away.

Strike had known before even suggesting the idea of a short break exactly where he wanted to take Robin. He’d spent the previous evening researching and making bookings but was yet to divulge where they were going, much to her frustration. She had trawled through the office computers when he’d popped out for sandwiches but found nothing. He was being overly vigilant with his mobile phone and had changed the password on his laptop.

He could sense her exasperation as he came back through the door with their lunch and grinned.

“You’ve been snooping, haven’t you?”

She tried to look indignant, but he knew her tells, the slightly fidgety movements, the pink tinge creeping over her earlobes. It was, he thought, ridiculously cute.

“You’re going to have to tell me at some point, I need to pack tonight if I’m staying over tomorrow so we can leave together in the morning.”

“And I will, but for now…” he began unpacking the bag, “I have all your favourites - Chicken Caesar wrap, salt and vinegar crisps and hazelnut latte.”

She pouted back at him. “Alright then, you’re forgiven…for now, but I need to know by the end of today.”

*     *     *

Half an hour later, having eaten and compared notes on the morning’s work, they were clearing up when the intercom rang. Strike answered it and Robin watched as he spoke, his expression inscrutable.

“Grayson and Ari Hargreaves…on their way up now.”

Robin nodded slowly. They hadn’t heard from Grayson since they’d broken the news about his wife’s infidelity and subsequent blackmail at the hands of their company’s creative director. Anxious, she tidied her hair and straightened her black skirt and purple blouse, whilst Strike filled the kettle.

When the Hargreaves’ arrived they appeared surprisingly relaxed.

“I hope you don’t mind us popping in,” said Grayson, “We both wanted to thank you for all your hard work, and let you know that I’ve transferred the outstanding balance we owe you this morning.”

Ari was smiling up at her husband, and he was holding her hand. Robin breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ari, I’m sorry I had to be dishonest with you to find out what was going on…”

“I understand, and it’s the best thing that could have happened. God knows how long Dominic would have carried on for if this hadn’t all come out.”

Strike brought over mugs of tea as their clients sat on the sofa.

“So, what have you decided to do about Parker?” he asked, leaning back against Robin’s desk next to where she was also perched.

“We’ve been in touch with our legal team,” answered Grayson, “…and he was put on garden leave the day after we last spoke. We’re waiting to find out if either of the women who complained about him are intending to take the issues any further before deciding exactly how he’ll be dismissed. We also need to have some kind of gagging order drawn up to prevent him trying to twist what he’s done and sell his story to the Press.”

“Sounds like you’ve got it all in hand,” nodded Strike approvingly.

He wondered how genuine the couple’s impression of a united front was. He’d known plenty of people capable of lying to outsiders and even themselves about the state of their relationships. Strike was not a judgemental person and he had some sympathy for Ari and what she had been through when Grayson’s illness was at it’s worst. But he also knew how it felt to be cheated on, especially when already vulnerable.

“And we’re making some changes too,” announced Ari, as if she had read Strike’s thoughts. “Now the kids are at school, Grayson’s going to get a bit more involved with the business again, and we’re upgrading the home office so that I can work remotely a bit more. I’ve loved the way we’ve done things up to now, but it’s time for a better balance I think.”

Robin beamed at them. “I’m so glad you’re managing to work things out.”

“It won’t be easy – we’re having some counselling to help us talk through what happened and why – but it will be worth it,” Grayson Hargreaves gazed fondly at his wife. “We both made mistakes, and we’ll get past them together, won’t we sweetheart?”

Ari gave her husband a look that spoke volumes, and Robin had to swallow a lump in her throat. They were definitely going to make it.

*      *     *

After they’d left, Robin stood at the window watching the couple walk away down Denmark Street. She had no regrets about ending her marriage to Matthew, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t upset that things had turned out the way they had. For the relationship to have started so young and weathered such an almighty storm to then break as it had…well, it was hard not to feel sad, angry and disappointed. To have such an intimate relationship with someone, then be left with nothing but an angry, deceitful stranger where that person had been had taken some coming to terms with. Mostly though, she regretted not having had the courage to end things sooner.

Strike watched her from the kitchenette as he dried up the mugs, wondering what she was thinking, hoping she wasn’t regretting their fledgling relationship. Was it really too soon? It felt to him as though they’d both been waiting to be together almost since the day they’d met. It had just taken an inordinate amount of time for all the obstacles to melt away.

She turned around, caught him watching her and walked straight across the room into his arms.

“You okay?” he murmured into her hair as her arms tightened around his waist.

She pulled back to look at him. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

They both knew he wasn’t just referring to how she was feeling at that particular moment.

“One hundred percent. I feel sad that my marriage didn’t work out, because of what it was supposed to signify, I guess. I don’t regret leaving Matt at all. I’d have shrivelled up and died inside if I’d stayed with him, even regardless of the Sarah Shadlock thing…” she paused, “…and I definitely have no doubts about this.”

She freed one hand to reach up to the nape of his neck, stroking the dark curls there as she pulled his head down so his lips met hers in a soft, lingering kiss. Strike pulled her closer and kissed her again, his mouth more demanding but still gentle, tongue hot as it traced her lips, parting them and sliding slowly against hers. By the time they pulled away they were both breathless.

“Good,” said Strike, “Because I have no doubts either…”

“I can tell,” Robin’s eyes twinkled up at him as she leaned into him, trapping him between her body and the kitchen units.

“Ever since Grayson and Ari walked through that door, I’ve not stopped thinking about how you looked in your green dress that weekend. I wanted you so badly,” he admitted, not quite able to meet her eye, even now.

“Well,” she challenged, “Perhaps I’ll wear it on our mini break…if you tell me where we’re bloody going!”

He laughed at her turning the conversation so swiftly to her advantage.

“Nope, I’ve told you it’s a surprise, but bring the dress and pack for weather like we’ve had here.”

He kissed the tip of her nose and began heading back towards his own office, before adding over his shoulder, “…and make sure you bring your passport.”

Chapter Text

Strike was finishing his packing later that evening. They were going via a budget airline, although he’d arranged for an additional luggage allowance and carry-on bags for them both. Still he had to carefully fold up his Italian suit so it needed minimal attention once they arrived. Also packed between the layers of clothing was a small box containing something rather important, which he hoped to goodness the x-ray machines wouldn’t pick up at the airport. The contents would take quite some explaining. Satisfied he had everything organised, he was in the throes of making a cuppa when his phone rang.

Lucy.

“Hi Sis, you back okay?” he knew that his sister and her family had been driving back from St Mawes during the day. The snow still lay thick in parts of Cornwall, but there hadn’t been any fresh fall since Boxing Day and the main roads were largely clear. Still he was pleased to hear that she was home safely.

“So, Stick as we didn’t see you over Christmas we were hoping you’d come over for a meal and see the New Year in with us. I know you’ll want to have a drink so you’re very welcome to stay over and we’ve got a few friends coming, and our new neighbour is dying to meet you, she’s a museum curator…”

“Thanks Lucy, it’s a lovely offer but I’ve got plans for New Year.”

“Oh…Nick and Ilsa.”

“No, actually…”

“Is it a woman…oh God, you’re being cagey…tell me it’s not her again.”

“Her?”

“Charlotte.”

“Jesus Christ Lucy, no, it’s not bloody Charlotte.”

“Who then? Where did you meet her? I didn’t know you were even seeing anyone…it must be serious if you’re spending New Year with her…”

Strike was minded to just let Lucy keep going. It was looking vanishingly unlikely that he would be getting a word in edgeways anytime soon. Suddenly his sister’s tone of voice changed.

“Hang on…you wouldn’t be going away with someone you’ve only been dating for five minutes...it’s not…” her voice was increasing in pitch with her excitement, “Are you and Robin together?”

Lucy could actually hear him smiling down the phone.

“Yeah, we are…since Christmas Eve.”

“Christmas Eve…and you’re going away for New Year together? Bloody hell Stick!”

“I know,” he agreed, “It’s a bit sudden but…”

“Sudden, oh pull the other one…it’s been waiting to happen since the day she turned up in your office…Temporary Solution my arse!”

Strike spluttered on his tea.

“Well, you must bring her round for dinner. When are you going? Where are you going? Could you do tomorrow evening?”

He thought about it for a moment. Normally he’d run a mile from cosy dinner with his sister and a new girlfriend. But this was Robin, and he actually loved the idea. She and Lucy got on and it would be great to catch up with Jack and hear the news from St Mawes.

“Tomorrow’s okay. Can’t be too late though, we’ve got to get the airport for an 11am flight the following morning.”

“Airport! Seriously, what have you done with my brother? And where are you going?”

“Still the same old stubborn, grumpy brother Lucy, and I’m not telling you. It’s a surprise for Robin and I don’t want you letting it slip.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Do you want me to come tomorrow or not?”

“Of course I bloody do! See you both at seven?”

“Okay, see you then.”

“Love you Stick.”

“Love you too Luce.”

*     *     *

The following morning Robin arrived pulling her small suitcase behind her, with a smart grey rucksack instead of her usual handbag. Strike met her at the office door to take the suitcase up to his flat and glanced at her modest luggage both disbelieving and impressed.

“Really? You know I did book extra baggage allowance.”

“We’re going for three nights not a month,” she laughed, “How much do think I’m going to need, or is there something you’re not telling me…apart from where we’re going?!”
“I’m just surprised, wasn’t this the same case you packed for Bath?”

“Yes, and I had lots of room in it to take home all my Christmas market shopping,” she looked at his bewildered face. “Cormoran you must have realised by now that I’m not exactly high maintenance.”

“You don’t need to be,” he replied, looking down at her fondly, and letting go of the suitcase to pull her in for a kiss. “You’re bloody marvellous…just the way you are.”

*     *     *

Robin let herself into the office, made coffee and switched her computer on by which time she could hear Strike heading back downstairs. She’d been back to her own flat for the previous two nights, which she was happy with - they both liked their personal space and she had no desire to rush things. Still she was looking forward to spending the evening, not to mention the next few days and nights with Strike. It would be good to just be themselves, not to mention the other opportunities sharing a hotel room presented. After the previous day’s meeting with Ari and Grayson Hargreaves and the talk of the green dress, they’d come perilously close to ‘christening’ Robin’s desk, until the computer alarm had gone off and they’d realised they still had one more potential new client due in.

She glanced up from the filing cabinet as Strike entered and her heart sank immediately. He looked decidedly sheepish.

“What’s the matter? Has something happened?” she paused for a moment, trying not to show her burgeoning disappointment. “Do we need to cancel the trip?”

“No, nothing like it, it’s just, I forgot to tell you something.”

“Riiiiight.”

“Oh, don’t look so worried, it’s not that bad. I spoke to Lucy last night. She knows we’re together and she’s invited us over for dinner tonight.”

“Is that all?!” exclaimed Robin, relieved.

“Well, I was rather hoping to have you to myself for the whole evening…”

“Mmmm, me too, but we’ve got three days and nights away to look forward to. Nothing wrong with a bit of anticipation.”

“I have told her we can’t be late because of catching the flight in the morning.”

“Okay, a tiny bit of anticipation,” she grinned. “Wait, does that mean Lucy knows where we’re going? Rude!”

“No, she doesn’t, now stop fishing, we’ve both got work to do.”

*     *     *

The evening was a huge success. Lucy was at least as excited as Ilsa that Strike and Robin had finally gotten together, and listened wide-eyed as Robin told her exactly how it had all happened. It was such a sweet, understated, romantic story that she couldn’t help hoping that this really was it for her brother, a possibility at least of him settling down with someone level-headed with whom he had lots in common and clearly adored, and who seemed just as smitten with him. Lucy knew he might not want the same things from a relationship that she had always craved, but she also fervently believed that no man was an island, even her stubborn giant of a brother.

Jack was delighted and couldn’t resist telling Strike ‘I told you so!’ repeatedly, much to everyone’s amusement. Even Lucy’s husband, Greg, seemed so genuinely pleased for the couple that the usual tension between him and Strike seemed significantly lessened, and Strike managed to get through the entire evening without once slipping outside for a cigarette.

Back at Denmark Street later, Strike watched Robin return from the tiny bathroom and slip into bed beside him. She was wearing red tartan flannel pyjamas, and he rolled his eyes teasingly as she crossed the room.

“I don’t like being cold,” she said defensively, “…and I know how bloody draughty the office gets so I wasn’t going to take any chances.”

“But you don’t have your own personal hot water bottle in the office,” he said, wrapping the duvet around her and pulling her as close as humanly possible as she spooned in front of him.

“And…” he continued, “I can think of all sorts of other ways to warm you up.”

She arched her back slightly. He heard her sharp intake of breath as she felt his cock twitch against the curve of her arse and he bent his head to nibble her earlobe and trail his tongue down the side of her neck.

“Barometer’s definitely rising,” she whispered breathlessly, wriggling back against him.

“And you…” he slipped one hand into her pyjama bottoms and began to gently stroke her centre, “…are absolutely soaking wet…”

She moaned softly, and then giggled.

“Have you been watching Bridget Jones Diary?”

“Hmmm…what?!”

“Bridget Jones Diary…Raining Men…”

“I have no idea what you’re on about.”

Slightly disconcerted that she’d been so easily distracted from his ministrations, Strike redoubled his attentions.

Robin gasped out loud as his clever fingers hit a hitherto undiscovered spot that made her shudder in the best possible way.

“Never mind…” she murmured, “…as you were.”

Chapter Text

Strike saw the flicker of curiosity on Robin’s face as she watched him get dressed the following morning.

“It’s just easier going through security,” he said ruefully indicating the baggy combat trousers with a zip off lower leg that she’d never seen before. “It’s too bloody cold for shorts!”

They arrived at Gatwick with plenty of time to spare, Strike still refusing to divulge their ultimate destination, and made their way through security which was well managed if a little more long-winded than usual due to the slight complication of Strike’s prosthesis and medications for his stump.

“Right, breakfast!” he announced, once they’d got into the main part of the airport and he’d reattached his trouser leg.

“We had toast before we left,” laughed Robin.

“That was nearly two hours ago, c’mon.”

Robin had overheard Strike tell Lucy what time their flight was and was scanning the departure boards as they ate, but there were so many options it was impossible to fathom where they were going. The announcement that several boarding gates had opened came and went and resulted in not a flicker of a reaction from Strike, who calmly finished his second coffee before announcing that it was time to go.

He took her hand as they approached the waiting area and leaned to whisper in her ear.

“Vienna.”

She stopped in her tracks and turned to look at him, beaming, but with tears in her eyes, and threw her arms around him.

“Thank you. I can’t believe you remembered.”

“I know it’s not Christmas, but there are New Year’s markets and a trail of events through the city for New Years Eve, and it’s just a really lovely place.”

“You’ve been before?” She tried not to let the ghost of Charlotte infiltrate her brain. It was a struggle not to think of her any time Strike mentioned something he’d done before they met, even though she knew they’d been more off than on over the preceding sixteen years.

“Years and years ago, and not for New Year,” he saw something on Robin’s face and realised what she was wondering. “I came with Ilsa and a couple of mates for the Christmas markets. She’d split up with her boyfriend at the time, I was on leave and single. We spent the weekend on bunk beds in a youth hostel dorm, living on Bratwurst and the cheapest glühwein we could get our hands on,” he grinned, “Happy days.”


*     *     *

They boarded the train from station to the centre of Vienna and from there it was a short walk to their hotel.

“It’s not the Gainsborough,” explained Strike, “…but it’s in a great location. Just a few minutes’ walk from Stephansplatz where they ring in the New Year, and there’s a tram stop right outside and the underground a couple of minutes away so really easy to get around.”

“Sounds perfect,” smiled Robin, thinking to herself that she’d have been quite happy in that youth hostel, so long as she was with Strike…and they didn’t have to share a room!


*     *     *

They passed the first day simply mooching around, taking a walk along the Kartnerstrasse, getting their bearings, shopping and stopping for coffee and Sachertorte at Sluka, a Viennese coffee house & patisserie that reminded Robin of Betty’s, right down to the marzipan pigs in the window. She’d been bemoaning to Strike in the run up to Christmas that even in London no-one made them like the ones she’d enjoyed from her favourite Yorkshire tea rooms throughout her childhood.

“Ooh cute!” she exclaimed, reading the accompanying sign that was written in multiple languages. “Apparently it’s traditional here to give people marzipan pigs on New Year’s Eve…bet they won’t be doing that in Masham!”

Tired after a long day and wanting to make the most of the celebrations ahead, they ate dinner early and headed back to the hotel, showered and climbed into bed.
Strike was asleep almost as soon as his head the pillow, much to Robin’s amusement. She read a few pages of her book before being distracted by the rumbling snores emanating from her sleeping boyfriend. Putting her book on one side, she gently stroked his stubbled cheek, hoping she might wake him enough to get him to turn on to his side. When that didn’t work, she tickled his ear and with a twitch and a snort, he rolled over in the opposite direction.

Chuckling, Robin turned out the light, wriggled under the covers and spooned behind him, snaking her arm around his waist and snuggling into his broad back.

*     *     *

New Year’s Eve

It was still snowing when they awoke the next day, but unlike the thick blanket that had covered the UK the previous week, this was icing sugar snow, delicate swirling flakes that lightly dusted the pavement, making the city look wonderfully festive and pretty without causing any of the usual chaos associated with such weather.
Wrapped up warmly, Strike and Robin headed out for breakfast at a café they’d looked up online. As they headed towards it they passed the fiaker stand at Stephansplatz, where drivers waited for customers for their horse-drawn carriage tours of the city.

“Oh look…we should definitely do that!” exclaimed Robin. She’d wanted a horse-drawn carriage for her wedding at one point, but a combination of Mathew’s objections and cost had resulted in them choosing a pair of dark blue Rolls Royce’s instead.

“Horses?” Strike raised a dubious eyebrow at her. He was not a fan of horses.

“You’re being pulled along by one, no one's asking you to ride the bloomin’ thing.”

“Hmmm…we’ll see,” he mumbled, grabbing her hand and tugging her in the direction of breakfast.

*     *     *

Strike had made his mind up before they’d even ordered their food that he’d take Robin back for a fiaker ride after breakfast, but if he hadn’t, he soon would have been swayed by the way she watched the passing carriages out of the window every time they passed.

When he asked for the bill, he asked the waiter to add a large coffee and a hot chocolate to take away, and turned to Robin, “We’ll need it to keep warm on this carriage ride.”
It was worth it, he thought, to see the way her face lit up.

Fifteen minutes later they were setting off in a small, black, enclosed fiaker drawn by two large grey horses. It was cosy inside and they sat on the backseat, Strike with his arm around Robin, snuggled under the blanket provided.

The ride, much to Strike’s surprise, was smoother than he would have anticipated as they travelled down snowy cobbled streets, admiring pretty buildings and places of interest. The journey also gave them a chance to spot some of the entertainments and activities being set up for the Silvesterspfad, or New Year Trail that was due to start that afternoon and carry on into the early hours.

At the Spanish Riding School, the carriage turned to begin the thirty minute journey back to Stephansplatz. They’d finished their drinks by then and Robin took Strike’s empty cup and tucked it along with her own in the holder in the door. She turned back to him, smiling softly.

“This is wonderful, thank you.”

“My pleasure.” He noticed her shiver slightly, “Are you warm enough?”

“Yeah, I’m fine, just a bit of a draft when we took that corner.”

“C’mere,” he said, pulling her closer and tugging the blanket up further around them, “Better?” he murmured, “Because I can think of ways to warm you up even more…”

“Can you now,” she edged closer and rubbed noses with him, Eskimo style, and he quickly tilted his head and captured her mouth with his own, gently at first, then increasing in pressure. As she let out a soft moan he slid his tongue slowly between her lips, tasting, exploring and felt her fingertips clutching tighter against his jeans, sending a rush of heat through him.

Her lips traced a path over his stubbled jaw and he felt them brush over his earlobe and heard her whisper, “It’s working,” before they continued behind his neck.

“Tell me about it,” his voice was hoarse, the sensation of her fingers absently stroking his denim clad thigh as her tongue entwined with his was driving him to distraction.

“Really?” she mumbled, pulling away slightly.

“Really,” he confirmed, his eyes meeting hers, impossibly dark green and intense. The look on his face filled Robin with both confidence and a sense of mischief. Pulling off her gloves beneath the blanket, she allowed her hand to creep slowly up his thigh. She kept her eyes locked on his as she moved higher and higher, aware of the change in his breathing.

“Robin…” an eyebrow raised, a twitch of the mouth, a warning tone in his voice. They all went unheeded as she found the not insubstantial bulge beneath his fly.

“Yes…Cormoran…” her breath was hot on his ear again as slid his zip downward and insinuated her small hand inside.

“Jesus! Robin…”

“Shhh…” she replied, kissing him deeply, finding the lack of space inadequate for her purposes and deftly dealing with both his belt and button before continuing to caress his hard length.

Strike’s head dropped back against the seat and he closed his eyes for several moments. Then, still holding her with his left hand, he raised his right to his lips, tore off his leather glove with his teeth, and set about unbuttoning her coat. He slid his hand beneath the soft lambswool jumper she had on and upwards, cupping her left breast, feeling the nipple already straining through the thin cotton fabric.

His hand slid back down again to her hip, over the curve of her backside as she turned in towards him, and down the length of her thigh. He stopped at the crease of her knee and tugged her further round so her leg rested on his own, allowing him access to her centre. She felt his large hand pressing against her through the fabric and ground her hips, desperate for more.

The blanket had slipped a little and Strike adjusted it, ensuring they were both fully covered before dipping his hand below the waistband of her fitted leggings and sliding a single long finger once against her hot, wet core, making her gasp out loud, her own movements faltering.

He waited, anticipation building as they continued kissing passionately. The carriage hit a cobble causing a brief second of friction and Robin whimpered into his mouth.

“Feel good?” his voice was hoarse in her ear.

“So good,” she was breathless already, struggling to get the words out.

He stroked her again, firm and slow, feeling her shudder against him.

“How about this?” His finger circled her entrance before sliding into her, making her moan, not only at the sensation, but at the sound of his breath hitching as he realised how much she wanted him.

Several more strokes, and he added a second finger, his tongue sliding into her mouth, mimicking their rhythm, the gentle rocking movement of the carriage only serving to heighten the reaction of every nerve ending.

“Fuck…Cormoran…please…” she sobbed, hips bucking as he pushed her inexorably closer.

He looked at her, blissed out in his arms, flushed with arousal and thought, not for the first time in the last week, that he might just be the luckiest man alive. Only one thing could make this moment any better…

“I wish I was inside you right now,” he growled softly in her ear as his thumb flicked smoothly over her clit. Her eyes flew open with shock and met his momentarily at the exact moment his fingers took her over the edge, before fluttering closed as spasms of pleasure tore through her body.

Strike held her tightly as she regained her breath, only realising belatedly that her fingers were still wrapped loosely around his shaft, having been stilled halfway through their endeavours by his own. His cock twitched in her hand and she opened her eyes to look at him with a deliciously wicked smirk, as she began to slowly stroke him again, determined to return the pleasure he’d just given her.

She caught his wrist with her other hand and raised it to her mouth, closing her lips around the two fingers that had been inside her and sucking hard as she looked him directly in the eye.

“Robin…” the warning tone in his voice was much stronger this time.

“Cormoran…” she knew only too well how he reacted to hearing her say his name in certain situations.

“If you keep going,” he gasped, glancing down at the blanket draped across them, “I’ll have some very embarrassing explaining to do when we get back.”

“Just as well I’m good at problem solving then…” she replied, sliding to the floor of the carriage before he even realised what she was doing, and taking him into her mouth for the first time.

“Fuuuuckk…” the long drawn-out whimper of an expletive was all he was able to manage as he felt the soft, wet heat of her mouth envelope him, the velvety swirl of her tongue around his head, and her slim fingers pumping gently at the base of his cock.

Gritting his teeth, his knuckles white as he clutched at the blanket Strike felt the pleasurable build-up of tension beginning in the base of his spine and the pit of his stomach just as he began to recognise some of the buildings they had passed at the beginning of their journey.

Knowing time was limited he dragged his eyes open and peeked beneath the blanket, well aware that the sight of Robin’s golden head, her lips around him would tip him over the edge, and within seconds he climaxed, spilling into Robin’s welcoming mouth.

It was another five minutes before they arrived back at the fiaker-stop, decent once more, very definitely more than warm enough, and just about sufficiently recovered for their respective legs to hold them up.

Strike pulled Robin immediately into his arms for a kiss that was both tender and passionate enough to make her go weak at the knees…again.

“You really are something else, Ellacott,” he smiled down at her, looking genuinely awestruck.

She grinned up at him.

“I have no idea where that came from,” she admitted, blushing slightly, “I’ve never…I wouldn’t have had the confidence. You have a very…unique… effect on me Cormoran Blue Strike.”

He looked unequivocally pleased with himself at her compliment.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” he replied, “Now…do you fancy some lunch? I imagine we’ve both worked up quite an appetite.”

Chapter Text

They found a food stall selling goulash served in bowls carved out of thick crusty bread, which they ate at tables made from old barrels as they people watched and planned their afternoon.

Taking a tram they headed first for Rathausplatz to check out some of the tribute bands that were playing, before beginning a slow walk along the trail back towards their hotel.
Robin was fascinated when they reached the Teinfaltstraße, which had been transformed into ‘The Street of Fate’ with stalls offering all manner of fortune telling.

Strike raised a sardonic eyebrow at her interest in the subject, but listened intently when she began to tell him about some of the studies that she’d read regarding the psychological impact of fortune telling and how an individual’s own psychological make up may make them more or less inclined to seek out or believe in practices such as astrology, palm reading and tarot.

The tarot was something that particularly interested Robin, and she deliberated for some time at the stall whether to have her cards read.

“Is there any point?” asked Strike, feeling both sceptical and somewhat ill at ease at the idea. “If you understand the psychology behind it, you won’t believe it, so there’s no value to having it done.”

“True,” she replied, “But I’d still be interested to see how the process works.

“And what if they hit a nerve? You know it would be fluke but can you honestly say it wouldn’t play on your mind?”

She mulled it over for several moments.

“To be honest, no. I probably would give it some thought afterwards if anything seemed particularly relevant, but I don’t think I’d dwell on it. Anyway,” she laughed, “…have you seen how our case load is building up? I won’t have time!”

Strike rolled his eyes.

“Go on then, waste your money,” he grinned, as he guided her into the tarot hut.

The woman inside was what not what Strike would have expected had you asked him to describe a fortune teller. A petite brunette with olive skin and hazel eyes, she was, he suspected, in her mid thirties, dressed in a simply black knitted dress with thick tights and boots and a large rust coloured shawl swathed around her shoulders. She greeted them with a twinkle in her eyes.

“What sort of reading are you looking for today,” she addressed them both, “I can do a variety of individual readings or a connection reading for the two of you.” Her accent was Eastern European, but her English was impeccable.

Robin laughed softly, “Just a straightforward three-card reading for me, thanks.”

“Your man is a sceptic.” It was a statement rather than a question. Her eyes trawled the large dark figure of Strike as he stood before her, looking even more gargantuan than usual given the extra layers of clothing necessary to ward off the sub-zero temperature.

He shrugged affably, unable to help himself warming to the woman, despite having no time for her ‘profession’. He was open-minded enough to accept that whilst most were charlatans, some genuinely believed in what they were doing, even if he most certainly didn’t.

“Whether you believe or not,” she continued, her eyes now fixed on him, “…the outcome is the same. We spend large parts of our lives believing things that aren’t true until we are proved otherwise…that our parents are infallible, that ‘it will never to me’, that we can be completely in control of our destiny,” she smiled knowingly at him, “…wyrd bið ful aræd…fate is inexorable, whether or not you choose to see it in the cards. Take a seat over there,” she nodded at a padded bench to the side of the room, and led Robin to a small table, where she shuffled a pack of tart cards and spread them before Robin so she could select three.

“The first card represents the past,” said the fortune teller as she turned it over. “The Tower. Time to brace yourself for change. Something that has built over several years is crashing down around you, and it’s painful and confusing, but it will be over soon. You’ll look back and be grateful for this change of course eventually.”

Robin cast a glance at Strike, whose eyebrows flickered upwards, but she could tell even in the shadows that he was smirking.

“The second card represents your present…the Ace of Cups. The suit of cups deals with love and emotions, and aces mark the beginning of an exciting new phase. You feel you are making a brand new start and a new love may be on the cards.”

The fortune teller looked at Robin’s pink cheeks and suppressed smile and threw a somewhat smug grin in Strike’s direction. He grinned back and shook his head slightly. The fortune teller shrugged and returned her attention to Robin.

“The third card represents your future…the Six of Wands. A symbol of success, victory and triumph. You have faced what seems like a relentless series of obstacles but now is your time to rise up against the odds and fly.”

Robin was looking delighted with her reading, and Strike had to admit, if only to himself that it was quite impressive…and lucky. She’d drawn cards with which it was simple to make connections to her own life. There were no doubts ways of interpreting the tarot that would work for anyone regardless of what cards they selected.

“…a connection reading after all.” He heard the tail end of Robin’s voice, and a look of concern washed over him.

“Robin,” he stood up and moved across the small room, “I know yours was really good and accurate, but perhaps quit while you’re ahead, eh? I really don’t want to get involved with this.”

“You don’t have to. I pick the cards…one for me, one for my challenge, one for ‘the other person’ – which may or may not be you…” she said, although they both knew it was, “…and one for your challenge, and the final card shows us the uniting force.”

Strike was not happy. He wanted no part of this nonsense. His mother had dabbled with all kinds of quasi-mystical nonsense when they were living in that God-awful commune in Norfolk, and made some mind-bogglingly ill-advised decisions as a result.

But Robin, whilst sharing Leda’s kindness and people skills, was not his mother. He could see from the expression on her face that this was about curiosity more than it was about seeking guidance or an insight into the future, even if it was a complete waste of time and money. The part of him that wanted to drag her from the hut and talk sense into her was quickly stifled by the memory of her telling him how often Matthew had done just that. Sought to control a situation that had little to do with him, to denigrate and demean her interests and her choices. Strike didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to be that man, especially over something so trivial.

“Go on then,” he said, and  suppressing a sigh. And then turning to the fortune teller, “Mind if I watch?”

She nodded and indicated a spare chair which he pulled up to the table. Robin was already selecting her cards.

“Your card…Mother of Wands. A vibrant woman, protective of her family, proud and determined but blessed also with grace and beauty. She has overcome great pain or trauma in her life and is not to be crossed.”

Strike tried to ignore the fact that his heart rate had increased as he slipped his hand into Robin’s. It was just the mention of what she’d overcome…another lucky draw of course, but still…

“Your challenge…the Four of Swords. Something threatening looms in the future, you need to find time to look inward and gather your strength to cope with the pressures and challenges to come. Do it now, before the swords strike, so you can be prepared.”

Robin squeezed Strike’s hand reassuringly, knowing instinctively that he was thinking of the all too real threats she had faced in the past, not least during the time she had been working with him.

“The ‘other person’…” the fortune teller glanced up at Strike from beneath long dark eyelashes. “Father of Swords…a man gifted with great powers of perception and an ability to distance himself emotionally from certain situations. He can see things from all angles and as a result is respected by others and considered fair and just. A responsible man with deep ties to his family.”

Strike ran a hand over his jaw, his expression inscrutable.

“The ‘other person’s’ challenge…” the fortune teller smirked again, but there was a flicker of something else in her expression as she turned the card. “The Devil…representing a darkness in your life, something that is holding you back and that you need to let go of. Maybe an addiction, a damaging relationship or some other negativity,” her eyes on Strike were curious. “Its grip is relentless, and you need to make a conscious change in order to free yourself.”

Bollocks…utter bollocks…

“Finally, your uniting force…the Three of Pentacles. A momentous task is coming, relating to your jobs or careers. You will need to focus all your efforts to conquer the mountain ahead of you. This is a card of teamwork, you must rely on and trust one another more than ever now, particularly when you are feeling tired or overwhelmed.”

There were several seconds of silence after the fortune teller interpreted the last card. Eventually Strike rose to his feet.

“Righto, thanks,” he nodded curtly, holding out his hand to Robin. Suddenly it seemed stuffy in the small hut and he was desperate, ironically, for both fresh air and a cigarette.
The stumbled out into the daylight, such as it was by that point in the afternoon, blinking.

“Well…that was…interesting,” he said, not really able to come up with anything else. He knew it was all complete rubbish, but was still somewhat unnerved by how accurate some of the cards had been.

“I’m glad I did it,” replied Robin. “It was fascinating, although with our job talk of threats and challenges is rather a moot point, and as for your devilish addictions…” she looked at the Benson and Hedges dangling from his lips. He gave her a sideways glance.

“Although to be fair it could just as easily be beer, or chocolate Hobnobs,” she teased.

“Cheeky,” he grinned, pulling her under his arm as they headed for the next stop on the trail, relieved that she’d not taken any of it too seriously.

They watched more bands, funk and soul this time, at Am Hof and then headed for Graben, dubbed the World’s Biggest Ballroom, where dance instructors were offering free tuition in the Viennese Waltz. There was a bench nearby and Strike made towards it he nodded in the direction of the dance floor, shimmering under the lights from the huge chandeliers that hung above their heads.

“Go on…have a go,” he urged, “Then I won’t have to worry about you treading on my toes later.”

Robin looked at him and did a double take.

“I’m sorry…are you telling me a/ that you will be dancing with me later and b/ that you can do the Vienesse Waltz?” her expression was utterly disbelieving.

He shrugged. “Oxford and the Army…there were enough formal occasions between the two for me to pick up a few basics.”

“Wow…”

He saw the unspoken question in her eyes.

“I’m not promising anything, but I’ll be fine providing they do a few slow ones.”

She beamed back at him. “I’d better go grab a dance teacher then.”

He watched her for over half an hour, picking up the steps with unsurprising speed, and wondered once again exactly what he'd done to deserve fate bringing them together, blissfully happy but somewhat bewildered that after everything they’d been through both individually and as a team, she had chosen him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a Christmas this happy or looked forward so much to the coming year.

Chapter Text

When Robin finished her lesson, they headed back to hotel, drank tea and ate biscuits that they’d bought from one of the market stalls earlier, and, after a day of fresh air and exercise fell asleep for a while before waking and getting ready for the evening.

“This place we’re going tonight…” called Robin as she prepared to get into the shower, “…what should I wear?”

“Green dress, if you’ve brought it,” he replied, “…and if you want to of course.” He popped his head around the bathroom door and flashed her a wicked grin, “Don’t let my desire to get you out of it later influence your decision in any way whatsoever…”

He was rewarded with a flying sponge, and laughing, headed off to his bedside drawer, from which he removed the small box he’d so carefully hidden in his suitcase, and tucked it safely in the inner pocket of his Italian suit. It would completely spoil his plan for midnight if he forgot that.

Strike was ready long before Robin, and she despatched him downstairs to wait for her in the hotel lobby, where he could nip out for a cigarette and have a coffee. If she was honest, she wanted to make a bit of an entrance and it wasn’t so easy to do that if someone was actually watching you get ready.

She was running the tongs through her hair when her mobile phone buzzed. Ilsa.

Nick says I should leave you in peace but I’m desperate to know how it’s going! Hope you’re having a fab time. Ix

Amazing. Vienna is absolutely beautiful. Rx

You made it out of the room then?

Who needs a hotel room when you’ve got a fiaker? 😉

OMG!!! You are kidding! 😲

You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.😊

I need to hear everything when you get back…

...OK maybe not everything! 😂

No chance. Must go now…out somewhere posh for dinner. Have a fab NYE…love to Nick and the cats. Rx

You too. Give Corm a hug from me x

Robin smiled as she popped her phone into her small gold bag, fastened the ivory fake fur shrug around her shoulders and headed out to the lift.

When Strike heard the lift doors open, he thought he was prepared. He’d seen Robin in the green dress before, at the Paralympic Reception and at the Gainsborough, as well as that fateful day in the changing rooms at Vashti. The difference was that this time she was wearing it, at least in part, for him, and she took his breath away.
She smiled at him, a bit shy, a bit smug at his reaction, and took his proffered arm. He had no idea if she was aware of the looks she was attracting from others in the hotel lobby, but he certainly was.

They walked the short distance to the restaurant Strike had booked for the evening, which was in a hotel overlooking Stephansplatz and the cathedral. As a venue it was more in line with the Gainsborough than the Tottenham, albeit with a trendier vibe that Robin would have thought was Strike’s cup of tea.

“I know,” he told her, as she took in the shiny curved glass exterior bedecked with thousands of tiny lights, “…but I wanted to find somewhere special that would live up to how stunning you look tonight.”

She slipped her arm around his waist, reached up on her toes and kissed him, one hand on his cheek, not remotely caring what any of the stylishly dressed onlookers thought.
The top floor restaurant was simple and elegant with pale wood, cream leather chairs, panoramic views of the city and the cathedral and soft, warm lighting. It served a mixture of Asian and Viennese cuisine, and they both opted for seafood starters, followed by Weiner schnitzel. Robin chose a trio of chocolate mousse for pudding whilst Strike had Key Lime Pie, and they took their time finishing their wine and coffees before heading upstairs to the bar.

“I may have had a slight ulterior motive for choosing this place,” Strike admitted as steered her towards their pre-booked table by the window and near a door onto the terrace, “As well as drinks they have a cigar menu.”

She rolled her eyes good naturedly at him. She’d only ever known him as a smoker and it had never occurred to her to object to his habit, in fact she’d come to associate the smell of smoke with safety and comfort in a way she knew wasn’t entirely healthy in itself. She was taken aback therefore when he continued.

“May as well make the most of it before midnight and the New Year’s Resolution kicks in.”

“You’re giving up smoking?!”

“I’m going to have a go, cut back at least. I went cold turkey for while when I was in Selly Oak, it’s better for the healing process, and I know it’s better for the leg in general, quite apart from all the other stuff.”

“Blimey!” exclaimed Robin, “I certainly didn’t see that coming. What made you decide?”

“Well, you have quite a unique effect on me too,” he smiled, leaning in to kiss her thoroughly while they waited for their drinks.

At 11.50pm they headed out onto Stephansplatz, where a live band was playing something that Robin noticed with a tinge of regret was too fast for them to dance to. But after a few minutes the tune changed, and she recognised the opening bars of This Year’s Love by David Gray. She turned to look at Strike to find him looking down at her.
“May I?” he asked, holding out his hand, which she took wordlessly and let him lead her out on to the dancefloor.

This year’s love had better last
Heaven knows it’s high time
I’ve been waiting on my own
Too long
And when you hold me like you do
It feels so right

They’d done this before, on the dancefloor at the Gainsborough. But this time, there was no case, no tension, just the two of them, at least that was what it felt like, even though they were surrounded by New Year’s Eve revellers. A slow swirl of navy wool and green silk, their steps faltered now and then, and Len Goodman would have had a lot to say about their lack of ‘rise and fall’ but still, it was perfect.

As the song came to an end the bells of Stephansdom began to ring in the new year, and Strike and Robin stilled, arms wrapped tightly around one another.

“Happy New Year, Ellacott,” he smiled down at her.

“Happy New Year, Cormoran,” she beamed back.

The moved at the same time, lips meeting, warm and soft, even though their faces were almost frozen and snowflakes were settling in both Robin’s and Strike’s hair. He pulled away, remembering something, and reached nervously into his inner jacket pocket.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said, handing her the small, white box.

She looked at him, curious as she took it from him. She broke the small circular seal, opened it and gently unwrapped the tissue paper from the contents. Staring out at her was…

“…a marzipan pig,” she looked up at him, eyes twinkling.

“Probably the world’s best travelled marzipan pig,” he added.

She looked again at the tissue paper, which she now saw was embossed with the ‘Bettys of Harrogate’ logo.

“I had a bit of help from Jenny,” he explained. He’d spoken to Robin’s sister-in-law who’d managed to get hold of the pig, package it and send it to Denmark Street before they left, after he’d explained what he was planning.

“You are completely mad, Cormoran Strike,” she said, tucking the pig into her handbag and snuggling into his side as they began the walk back to their hotel, “But I do love you.”

He kissed her head, feeling the snowflakes that had settled on her hair melt against his lips.

“I love you too.”