Cadet Robin Ellacott took a deep breath as she approached the requisitions desk. She wasn’t a great liar at the best of times, and this was a risk that could damage her prospects here, or at least leave a disciplinary mark on her record. She was counting on the end justifying the means, and the ultimate backup of the man who was the object of her mission, should it come to it.
“Hi,” she gave the admin clerk her best smile. “I’m here for the keys to the Land Rover? I’m Sergeant Strike’s driver for the evening.”
The young clerk nodded. He was well used to handing the keys to her; she had become the big sergeant’s semi-official driver in recent weeks. He was fishing the keys out of the drawer even as he scanned the requisition list.
“Can’t see it here,” he muttered, flicking pages back and forth. The key to the Land Rover dangled from his hand, tantalisingly close. “When was it ordered?”
Robin shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Dunno. I was just told to pick the car up and be ready at seven.”
The clerk glanced at his watch and flicked the pages again, looking for an order that Robin knew perfectly well he wouldn’t find, because it didn’t exist. She was relying on Strike’s taciturn nature being enough for the young man not to want to risk his ire.
“Strike’s usually spot on with the paperwork.”
Robin shrugged again, trying to look as blank as possible, and deliberately glanced at her own watch, hoping the slight tremor in her hands wasn’t noticeable.
The clerk hesitated, then handed her the keys. “Just make sure you put it back where you got it from.”
Robin gave him her best smile. “Will do, thanks.” She hurried away before he could change his mind, her heart hammering.
It had all started that morning. Mid-lecture, a young lieutenant had arrived, apologised for disrupting their lesson and had a quiet word in Sergeant Strike’s ear. The sergeant had gone very still - Robin was trying not to watch, but she knew his body language. Then he had abruptly ended the class, dismissed them all and left, and hadn’t been seen since.
Burning with curiosity, Robin had been unable to ask anyone, but luckily gossip abounded and was passed along quickly. A family issue, the rumour mill said, and he would be heading to Cornwall tomorrow. Where he was at the moment, no one seemed to know, until a couple of the lads started bantering that he’d probably taken advantage of his swiftly granted family absence to go down to Winchester. The rumour was that he’d be found in the Hyde Tavern.
So now Robin sat in the cab of the Land Rover, hands on the wheel, and wondered if she was doing the right thing. What existed between her and the sergeant was not a relationship; it wasn’t allowed to be. She had no idea about his family situation beyond what the gossip columns online had told her - that his mother had died years ago and he was estranged from his father - and him mentioning at Christmas that he had a sister, and an aunt and uncle in Cornwall. She knew he had numerous other siblings, but on his father’s side so she didn’t imagine he was close to them.
Beyond commenting about the gathering he had deliberately missed at Christmas, he had never mentioned family, never given her an inkling that he was anything other than the creature of solitude that the rumours on the base purported him to be. Why she thought he might welcome any offer of moral support or comfort from her at a time of trouble, she couldn’t imagine.
And yet, feeling he was in need, she was drawn to him as though by a magnet. Worry, concern and a hefty dose of a fond feeling that she was trying very hard not to label or even think about drove her on.
Robin started the ignition and set off before she could rethink her mission.
Sergeant Cormoran Strike made his way back from the gents’ toilets via the bar for another pint. He hadn’t intended this afternoon to turn into a drinking session, but he was at a loose end, cursing the trains for thwarting his attempts to get to Cornwall today. He’d rung his sister Lucy to explain, and she’d been, in his mind unreasonably, furious with him, as though it were in some way his fault that the trains didn’t work to get him to St Mawes tonight. The tone in her voice had suggested she didn’t believe him.
Well, fuck her. There was nothing he could do. He’d got a ticket for the earliest train he could get tomorrow, but he still wasn’t going to be there until lunchtime, and Lucy had finally allowed her anger to dissolve into tears, hiccuping down the phone at him that she was afraid he’d be too late, that their aunt Joan would no longer be with them by this time tomorrow.
Strike took his pint back to the table and set it next to the three empty ones he’d already drunk, then decided that as he was on his feet anyway, he’d go for a smoke. He made his way outside, round the back of the pub to the car park, and lit up gratefully.
The car park was shabby, reflecting the general air of the pub, chosen by him precisely for being away from the bustle of town. Strike stood near the bins, idly gazing at the couple of older cars parked facing the opposite wall, not really seeing them.
Fuck. Why hadn’t he gone to Cornwall at Christmas?
He should have gone. Even Ted had sounded disappointed when he’d said he wasn’t going. He’d justified it to himself that be needed to save his leave for the very eventuality in which he now found himself, but deep down he knew he could have gone then as well as now. The Army wasn’t utterly unreasonable about such things, much as it had suited him over the years to allow people to think so. It had got him out of a lot of tedious social engagements with few recriminations.
But he should have gone. Joan had been on good form, by all accounts, laughing and joking. Strike wished now that he could have seen her. Her decline since had been rapid, taking them all by surprise. Somehow he’d just assumed that he always had more time, hadn’t been able to get his head around the fact that this might have been her last Christmas. It didn’t seem possible that she now probably wasn’t going to make Easter.
There was no probably about it. Strike sighed and dropped his cigarette butt to the floor with all the others, grinding it out under his heel. There was nothing he could do now but pass the time, get to St Mawes as soon as he could, and hope Joan was still there for him to say goodbye to.
Ignoring the ache in his throat as being a symptom of too much smoking, he returned to the warm fug of a Friday evening in a real ale pub, and his pint.
The pub was hard to find, on the outskirts of Winchester well away from the town centre where the youngsters would have congregated - it was a Friday night, after all. Robin parked up, took a deep breath and approached the door. She wasn’t used to entering pubs alone, and had deliberately not worn anything identifying her as Army, choosing instead nondescript leggings and a shirt, flat ballet pumps on her feet.
She spotted him the moment she made her way in the door, glad she had found him as every male gaze in the room turned to her. This was not a youngsters’ pub with cocktails and polished glass such as were frequented by her fellow cadets. This was a locals’ boozer, all dark wood and real ale, and Robin was not their usual clientele.
The big sergeant sat hunched at a small table, several empty glasses in front of him. The closest to him had an inch of beer left in it, into which he scowled morosely.
He looked lost somehow, and her heart melted a little.
Stop being sappy, Ellacott. She walked up to the bar.
“A small white wine, please, and a pint of whatever he’s drinking.” She indicated Strike, and the barman raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He picked up a pint glass and began to pull a pint of a beer called Doom Bar. Robin wondered if his surprise indicated that Strike was not usually seen in the company of women. Not that that was any of her business either.
She paid and, nervous suddenly, took the drinks across to the little table and set them down. The sergeant looked up in surprise as she lowered herself onto the stool opposite him.
“Cadet Ellacott,” he said, attempting to straighten himself up, his voice a little thick with the beers he’d already consumed, clearly making an attempt to seem more sober than he was. “It’s late. What’re you doing here?”
“Looking for you, sir,” she replied. “And it’s not that late.”
The sergeant peered at his watch. “I s’pose not.”
“Have you been here long?”
He shrugged. “Prob’ly. Got packed, got a taxi down. Trains’re stupid.”
Robin smiled and took a small sip of her wine. “How so?”
“Fuckin’ three changes from Winchester down to Cornwall.” He scowled. “Was too late to go today, I’d’ve got stuck half way. Goin’ at seven-something tomorrow, found a two-change one.”
Robin took another fortifying gulp of her wine. “What’s in Cornwall?”
He paused, then said heavily, without looking at her, “My dying aunt.”
Shock pierced her at his bald statement of fact, at the pain behind it that he was trying to hide. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
The sergeant shrugged. “She’s been ill ages. Cancer. Looks like it’s time. We knew it was coming.”
Robin hesitated, searching for words. “Maybe so. But it’s still a shock when it happens.”
He looked up at her sharply; their gazes clashed and Robin saw a flicker of recognition, of understanding.
“Y’re a very nice person,” he told her, and Robin felt herself blushing.
Strike finished the last dregs of his pint, and eyed the fresh one with some surprise. Had Cadet Ellacott bought him that? He was pretty sure he’d decided the next pint would he his last, but he definitely couldn't remember buying it.
What was she doing here anyway? He was inordinately happy to see her; somehow the fact that he was stuck in a pub in Winchester while his aunt lay dying in Cornwall was rendered slightly less awful by the presence of the woman who had gently insinuated herself into his determinedly solitary life in recent months. If he was brutally honest with himself, it wasn’t just his life she’d managed to carve herself a small part of; it was his head and heart too.
He couldn’t help wishing, though, that she wasn’t witnessing him being drunk. He wasn’t totally smashed, but he would have chosen to be much more sober in front of colleagues, especially juniors. It was why he had found himself this pub to go and drink in when the need arose - as far as he knew, no one else from the base came here. The pub was usually quiet, the beer passably well kept, and more importantly they had rooms upstairs that were often free at short notice, very useful for sleeping off a heavy night rather than go back to barracks and risk being seen in a state of total inebriation. He had spent more than one night here in the aftermath of Charlotte, when even throwing himself into his work hadn’t always been enough of a distraction.
He’d arranged a room for tonight, too - not that he’d planned to get that drunk, but having left the base for his leave of absence, he didn’t really want to go back, and his train was very early the following morning. Stranded in Winchester for the evening with the prospect of an early start, his plan had been to fill the hours with a few pints and retire early that he might be up and out in plenty of time the next morning.
Instead he now found himself in a pub with the cadet he’d been sporadically sleeping with for some months, both of them in civilian clothing, which made the age difference between them shrink suddenly. No longer in uniform and surrounded by fellow cadets, she now seemed older, much closer to him in age, and this felt for all the world like it could be a date.
It was somewhat incongruous to sit here in the pub opposite the big sergeant, who no longer looked like a sergeant in his casual black trousers and blue shirt. Without the uniform marking him as her superior officer, he seemed more normal, more approachable, despite his taciturn nature. He’s just a man, Robin thought, almost in surprise.
Her heart ached for him. He must be longing to get his travels under way, to get to his family rather than be stuck here with his journey unstarted, barely two miles from the base. She wished she could offer him some comfort, but she didn’t know where to start, what overtures might be welcome, whether he’d want to talk about his aunt.
“What time will you arrive tomorrow, sir?” she asked him, trying to feel her way into a conversation.
He puffed out a sigh, took a gulp of his pint. “Not till lunchtime,” he replied. “It’s a fuckin’ long way.” He paused and shook his head a little. “Sorry for swearin’.”
Robin dipped her head to hide her smile. “It’s okay.” She risked a glance up at him. He was gazing into his pint again.
“Are you meeting family there?”
He nodded. “My sister’s already there, been there ages.” He sighed. “’S all right for her, she got loads of compassionate leave from work. ’S a bit different in the Army.”
Robin nodded. The Army ran to its own schedule, and taking unexpected time wasn’t easy. She was glad the sergeant had managed to take these few days.
“Good thing she’s already there, though,” he went on. “Otherwise she’d have picked me up on her way down from London. She wanted to.” He gave a shudder that in any other circumstances would have been comical.
“Would that not be a good thing?” Robin asked.
The sergeant shook his head vigorously. “Fuck, no. Hate her driving me. Hate anyone driving me.”
Robin thought about that for a moment. “I didn’t know.”
He waved a vague arm, almost knocking an empty glass off the table. “Not you. You’re different.”
Robin caught the glass and set it back upright. “How so?”
“You c’n drive properly.” The big sergeant grabbed the edges of the table and hauled himself to his feet. “’M goin’ for a slash,” he announced to no one in particular, and made his unsteady way across the bar.
Robin sipped her wine and thought about the driving comment, ignoring the curious glances she was getting. It gave her a small, unexpected burst of pleasure to know that he trusted her behind the wheel when he had such a dislike of being driven.
Strike realised as he wrestled with his fly that he was drunker than he’d realised. It was a relief to empty his bladder; he decided he’d probably better make sure he had a couple of glasses of water before he fell asleep tonight. And he mustn’t forget to set his alarm. He’d be even less popular with his sister if he missed his train.
He wondered as he did his trousers back up and washed his hands if Cadet Ellacott would still be at the table when he went back out. Unwise though it was, he hoped so. Her presence made everything a little better, chased away the gloom a little. A wash of fondness overcame him that she’d taken the time out of her Friday night - he had no idea what she normally did on a Friday night - to check on him.
He splashed some cold water on his face, trying to sober up a little, and made his way back out to the bar.
She was still there, and his heart lifted a touch more.
Robin smiled at the sergeant as he sat back down, and the grin he gave he was unguarded. She blinked. They’d exchanged cheeky looks and shared chuckles before, but he’d never looked at her with such fondness. Her heart expanded and her smile grew soft.
“Let me know when you want to go back, sir,” she said. “I brought the Land Rover.”
He blinked at her. “How did you do that?”
She shrugged. “I told them you booked it out and gave them my best smile. They believed me.”
The sergeant chuckled and drained the last of his pint. “Not surprised,” he replied. “You could charm anyone.”
Robin blushed again.
“But you’re all right,” he went on. “I’m sleepin’ here.” He waved a hand at the ceiling. “Easier for the morning.”
“Oh.” Robin squashed down her disappointment. She’d been looking forward to a little time with him, to taking him back in the Land Rover. She liked driving him around; there was an intimacy, a companionship to it. Especially now she knew she was the only one he allowed. Instead she’d be going back alone.
Sergeant Strike stood again, and Robin sensed their brief evening was over. She pushed her half-drunk glass of wine away. If she was to drive straightaway, she wouldn’t drink any more.
“I’m gonna head to bed,” Strike muttered. “Best not have another, gotta be up early.”
Robin nodded and stood too. He swayed a little, and she took his arm. “Let’s get you upstairs, sir,” she said fondly.
He cast her a cheeky sideways look. “You comin’ with me?”
Robin chuckled, her cheeks pink again. “I’ll see you to your door.”
Why not? The devil on his shoulder said as the cadet set their glasses back on the bar and moved to take his arm again. He didn’t need the support - he wasn’t quite as drunk as she clearly thought he was - but her arm through his was nice. He could feel the press of the side of her breast against his bicep, and that was nice, too. He remembered their last couple of encounters, how he’d longed for her to stay, how she’d seemed to linger as though she, too, felt the pull to be together. Now they had a bed, a whole night, no witnesses. Why not?
They climbed the stairs in silence and made their way to his room. Cadet Ellacott stepped back while Strike fumbled for the key and unlocked the door. The tiny corridor was empty - the pub only rented three rooms - with dark walls and carpet, the smell of old buildings hanging in the musty air. He liked it here, despite having to permanently guard against banging his head on beams and doorways upstairs.
He pushed the door open and turned to her; Cadet Ellacott stepped back a little more. “Good night, sir.”
She was leaving. Without realising he was going to do it, he grabbed her hand.
“Stay,” he heard himself murmur. “Jus’ for a bit.”
He could sense her reluctance, but her fingers tightened on his.
“It’s not a good idea,” she replied gently.
She shrugged a little. “You’re drunk. You’ve just had bad news.”
“I’m not as drunk as I think I am.” Strike paused. That didn’t sound right. “As you think I am.”
She giggled, and as usual her face lit up, her eyes dancing. “You’re rather proving my point, sir.”
She was beautiful and perfect and still talking, so he kissed her.
Robin felt her resistance, which had only been half-hearted and morally obligated anyway, begin to melt at once under his kiss. She allowed herself to be gently drawn forward into the room, was dimly aware of him shoving the door closed behind them and then he wrapped his arms around her properly and kissed her so thoroughly that her head swam.
He was different, tonight. Every encounter before this one had had a sense of urgency to it, born of lust too long denied and a need not to get caught. Here in this somewhat dingy little room above a pub, away from their normal lives and out of uniform, they were just two people who wanted to spend the night together.
Robin kissed him back; he tasted of beer and a little of smoke, mostly of himself, and his tongue was gentle against hers. The heat that normally exploded between them was different tonight too, more of a warm, steady glow. Still she felt it, coiling deep in her body, and she had a strong sense of taking advantage; that, despite what he said, she perhaps shouldn’t sleep with him when he was drunk and vulnerable.
He’s a big boy, he can make his own decisions, her own little demon whispered as desire swam through her veins. Nevertheless, she found herself drawing gently away.
“Sir,” she began gently, and the big sergeant opened his eyes. His arms were still around her, his face inches from hers, and the fondness in his gaze sent a stab of something bittersweet through her chest. She honestly couldn’t have said whether the feeling was more painful or pleasant.
“We’re off base and not in uniform,” he said, smiling down at her. “I think you can drop the ‘sir’.”
Robin blinked. What was she supposed to call him, then? Sergeant? Strike? Surely not...?
His smile was gentle. “My name is Cormoran.”
“I know, sir.” She grimaced at her mistake. “I mean—”
He chuckled, and lowered his head again to nose against her neck, drawing her still closer. “Try it,” he murmured into her skin.
“Cormoran,” she managed, the name unfamiliar on her tongue, and he growled a little, his arms tightening around her.
“Robin,” he muttered back, and somehow the sound of him saying her name was so intimate, it brought tears to her eyes. Ridiculous, after everything they had already done together.
“Robin,” he murmured again, and his fingers moved to the buttons of her blouse.
“Sir,” she tried again, and he raised an eyebrow at her and she chuckled softly. “Cormoran—”
The look he gave her, gently pleading, melted her heart.
“I’m not tryin’ to start anything you don’t want,” he murmured. “Just stay.”
Robin thought about the Land Rover in the car park. Thought about the propriety of the situation. She thought about spending the night wrapped in these strong arms.
“Just—” He seemed to sense her indecision. “You always go. Stay. Please?”
His eyes, large and dark and intense, were uncertain suddenly, his features almost boyish. Robin swallowed, the yearning in her chest a huge, aching thing, and nodded.
She was rewarded with an unguarded smile so sweet, it took her breath away and made tears start in her eyes again.
He nodded too, and his big fingers resumed their work on the buttons of her blouse, sure and only a little clumsy as he undid each one.
She trusted him utterly. Robin threw caution to the wind, and her hands moved to undo his shirt, too. The blue material was softer than his usual Army regulation shirts, the buttons sliding easily.
Sergeant Strike reached her hem and parted her blouse, opened it and gathered her to him, his hands splaying around her back, stroking across soft skin, and he kissed and mouthed at her neck and murmured her name into her hair and Robin was swept away on a wave of pleasure.
“Robin.” He whispered her name into her skin and pushed her blouse off her shoulders. It fell to the floor even as his fingers sought the clasp of her bra, clumsy but clearly well practised. Dropping this too, he stepped back again and lowered himself to kneel in front of her, an ungainly move that necessitated grabbing the edge of the bed for support. Slowly he peeled off her leggings while she kicked off her pumps, and Robin felt herself growing pinker as he slid the material down her legs and she stepped out of it. His hands moved back up to the sides of her knickers, and he paused, looking up at her for permission.
Robin nodded, and soon her knickers were gone too, drawn achingly slowly down by his big, gentle hands. Her cheeks flushed further; despite all their encounters so far, she’d never actually been completely naked in front of him. Never been naked in front of anyone except her husband, in fact, and the man with whom she’d had a brief dalliance before joining the Army.
Sergeant Strike began to clamber back to his feet, levering himself up on the end of the bed again. Grinning, Robin helped him, grabbing his elbow to steady him. His big hand closed gently around her upper arm, his fingers soft against her skin as he restored his balance.
Upright, he dropped his hand, stepped back a little and simply gazed at her; Robin had to force herself to keep her hands at her sides and not try to cover herself up. Tears welled to her eyes again; even her husband had never looked at her with such reverence.
“Christ, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, and drew her close again; smiling, Robin stopped him with a hand on his chest and he paused, confused.
“You’re overdressed,” she told him, and he chuckled softly and began to strip off his shirt.
Dimly Strike wished he were more sober for this. He wanted to remember every second of what could, if he was lucky, be a whole night with Cadet Ellacott.
Robin. What was so intimate about using her name, about hearing her say his? For once in his life, sex was actually not a priority. He just wanted to see her, to feel her, to hold her.
Naked, she looked incredible, the figure he’d only seen in parts revealed in full to his appreciative gaze. He’d always preferred a woman to have curves, and she was perfect, from the swell of her breasts to the soft round of her stomach to the curve of her hips.
He dropped his shirt to the floor, and then her hands were at his waist, undoing his belt buckle. He helped her, undoing his trousers and pushing them and his boxers down, moving automatically to sit on the bed, and then he paused suddenly, looking up at her, uncertain for a moment.
“You do know about my leg?”
She smiled softly. “I do.”
He nodded and carried on stripping off while she climbed onto the bed behind him. He fumbled with his prosthesis, his fingers uncooperative as he tried to unstrap it while Cadet Ellacott - Robin - knelt behind him, her hands stroking softly across his back, her face nuzzling against his neck.
With a growl he tossed his leg and trousers aside and turned to her, his hands moving to cup her face and bring her in for another kiss. They kissed for a few moments, until she made a gentle little noise of pleasure into his mouth and pressed closer.
He wanted to feel all of her against him; he slid an arm around her, tugging her body flush to his, and she arched into him.
“Let’s get into bed,” she murmured, and Strike could feel her shiver a little. The room wasn’t particularly warm now the sun had gone down. He grunted in agreement, and they stripped the covers back and climbed into the bed, pulling the duvet around them in a warm cocoon. Strike slid his arms around her, pulling her close so that they were stretched out together, her long legs entangled with his one and a half, her body flush with his. She felt incredible against him, soft and curving. He pressed her down onto the bed, leaning over her to kiss her deeply, rumbling his appreciation as her arms crept around his neck.
They kissed for long, languid minutes, and Strike explored her mouth, his hand idly moving from cupping her face to stroking down her arm and hip, back to tangle his fingers in her gorgeous hair. Her tongue moved against his, and he thought dimly that he could have happily laid here for hours simply kissing her.
He didn’t want her to think he was going to push things. Despite his body responding automatically to the situation, his erection pressing against her hip between them, he found himself craving just the taste of her, her arms around him, the scent of her hair, more than the release of sex. And she was right; he was drunker than he’d admitted to himself, his thoughts hazy. Slowly the kissing ended, and Strike gave a sigh of satisfaction and lay down next to her; she snuggled in to him, her head on his shoulder.
Drifting now, warm and relaxed, his heart felt slightly less battered, his self-recriminations a little further away. Having her here made it all fractionally less awful, and he stroked a hand lazily across the curve of her hip and enjoyed the feel of her skin against his.
Secure in her arms, Strike was filled with a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to talk, to unburden himself of all the things swimming around in his head, to untangle the knot of mingled frustration and misery in his chest; but the words wouldn’t form coherently.
“I’m a bit sad, Robin,” he mumbled, and felt her arm across his chest tighten fractionally, her nose nuzzle into his neck.
“I know,” she murmured back.
He tugged her closer, his arms wrapped around her, and breathed her.
Her heart breaking a little at his confession, Robin held him close, breathing the warm, musky scent of him, waiting to see if he would say anything more without being prompted, but nothing further seemed to be forthcoming. Wrapped in his big arms, her head on his shoulder and her hand idly stroking his abundant chest hair - so much of it; she was fascinated, couldn’t stop touching it - she felt the desire that had coiled deep within her as he kissed and kissed her relax into something else. Somehow the feel of him, the weight of his arms around her, his skin against hers from her cheek at his shoulder right down her body to her foot next to his, satisfied the bone-deep, aching longing in her body.
She made a soft sound of contentment and pressed closer. His answering rumble echoed through her and his arms tightened a little and then loosened again, relaxed around her. His face was in the hair at her temple and his lips brushed against her forehead.
“Tell me about your aunt,” Robin murmured.
She felt him smile against her skin. “Not much to tell,” he replied. “She’s small and fierce and loyal. She and my uncle were almost like parents to me.”
Robin absorbed this and wondered where his actual parents had been. She knew she was estranged from his father, but—
“I never knew my biological father,” Sergeant Strike went on. “He ignored me when I was little. I was an accident he blamed my mother for.”
“Oh.” It was an inadequate syllable, but what could she say?
“And my mum was—” The big sergeant paused for a long time, then sighed heavily. “My mum was crap.”
Robin’s heart ached at the note of bitterness in his voice.
“Dunno. She couldn’t settle. Dragged me and my sister all around the place. Left us in Cornwall a lot. We never knew when - or if - she’d come back.”
Robin thought about her own childhood, the warm bosom of a loving family and a houseful of brothers. No wonder Sergeant Strike was a loner. He’d clearly learned to be independent from a very young age.
“But Ted and Joan were always there,” he went on. “Ted was RMP, like us. I think that’s why I joined up, after my mum died.” His voice was softer now, more distant, his vowels rounder and his consonants less defined. The hand idly stroking across her back was stilling slowly.
“An’ here I still am,” he mumbled sleepily. “Doin’ the same thing, over and over.”
“Would you want to do something else?”
“Yeah.” He yawned widely, and Robin actually heard the click of his jaw. She snuggled closer. He was incredibly warm, soft and hirsute. “Gonna set up my own detective agency one day. Shoulda done it after I lost my leg.”
“Why didn’t you?”
He shrugged. “No money. I coulda got a loan, but the only person lending, I wasn’t interested in borrowing from. Stayin’ in the Army seemed easier. Maybe shoulda made the move.” His arms tightened around her. “One day.”
Silence descended, and Strike’s breathing was deep and even. Robin wondered if he had fallen asleep, but presently he said,
“So why are you here? Why the Army suddenly, after years in finance?”
Robin drew a long breath and sighed. “I hated it, basically. I—” She hesitated. “I married my childhood sweetheart, and I shouldn’t have done. I wasn’t in love with him any more by the time we got to the wedding. But I thought I needed him, and...” She trailed off. “So, anyway. He had an affair. Nasty divorce. I was only doing the job he wanted me to do to fund our lifestyle.”
She buried her face closer into his neck. “I wanted to be a detective.”
Sergeant Strike kissed the top of her head gently. “Always?”
“Yeah, from tiny.” Robin paused. “I’ve never told anyone that,” she added in surprise.
“You’d make a bloody good one,” he told her, and she grinned into his neck.
Strike had sensed omissions in her story. He wondered if those omissions explained why this strong, capable woman had decided she needed a guy she didn’t love, who made her work in a job she hated and whom she’d never told her true ambitions to. He thought back to her file, and the gap between her prematurely ended university career and her move to London. Family reasons, her CV had said, and there had been no reason to think anything else. He’d vaguely assumed she must have been caring for a sick or elderly parent or something.
“So that’s why I’m here,” she went on. “I wanted to learn to be an investigator. A friend of mine in the Met suggested it. I could have joined up with them, but I was sleeping on her sofa while I tried to sort my divorce. My husband was a dick about the money. I didn’t want to stay in the job I hated, but I couldn’t afford my own place without it.”
“And the Army offered training and accommodation.”
“Yeah.” She yawned, setting off another huge yawn in him. Sleep was dragging at him, taking over his consciousness. He wanted to keep talking, but the alcohol and the tiredness combined with the deep relaxation of being in her arms were slowly winning the battle. “So I applied, and here I am.”
“Doin’ bloody well at it,” Strike mumbled.
She chuckled softly. “Thanks.” But he felt her expand a little, absorbing his praise. He wondered how such an incredible woman could have so little sense of her own worth.
God, he was tired. And so, so comfortable. Being in her arms felt like coming home, his drifting mind mused fancifully. For the first time in a very long time, longer than he’d been admitting to himself, he felt as though he were in the right place. In the moment, not just filling time.
A snore told Robin he’d finally drifted off; a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She eased herself a little closer as his body relaxed into sleep, his arms a comforting weight around her and his breathing deep and even.
What are you doing, Ellacott? She pressed her face into his thick mat of chest hair and breathed him, warm and musky and safe, a huge anchor around her. She had a career to build, lost time to make up for, a future to think about. A relationship was not something she could spare the time or emotional energy for.
This isn’t a relationship, she told herself scornfully. It can’t be. There can be no future in shagging a superior officer. It is what it is, and one day it won’t be.
Tears stung her eyes at the thought, though. Right from the start, she’d sensed something in this huge man, something that she longed to be close to. From their first encounter, a casual fuck across his desk - call a spade a spade, Ellacott, that’s what it was - they had clung to one another just a little, and then more and more each time. He felt it too, she knew he did. That was why she was here, wrapped up naked with him in a random hotel room. They had progressed from sex, to sex and more, to just the...more. Whatever this was. And she craved it, thirsted for it, loved it.
Robin awoke with a start at the sound of the toilet in the en-suite bathroom behind her flushing and the building’s ancient plumbing shuddering to life. She blinked, disoriented for a moment, wondering where she was, and then squinted at her watch in the dim light from a lamp in the corner that had been left on. It was very early, but could conceivably be considered the morning.
Shit. The Land Rover. She had somehow managed to stay with the sergeant all night, and she hadn’t intended to. She’d told herself she would just have a few more minutes. Maybe an hour. An hour wasn’t too much luxury to allow herself. She’d been acutely aware since Christmas and not going to see her family of how alone in the world she was now, no husband to give her an identity, few friends of her own. All their friends had been Matthew’s. Her career was the only thing she had that was just hers.
Lying in Sergeant Strike’s arms, she had felt less alone than she had in many, many months. She was allowed to take an hour just to enjoy it, she’d told herself. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but she’d been so, so warm and cosy—
The bathroom door opened and she felt him take hold of the bedpost and swing himself across - lucky the room was so small - and then she felt the bed dip with his weight. He tugged at the covers and then he was sliding into the bed behind her, a huge arm slipping around her stomach and scooping her close, a rumble of appreciation at the feel of her echoing from his chest through her back. Robin’s anxiety melted at once, returned to his embrace, and she pressed back against him.
Her bladder too was making itself known, however, and after a minute or so of breathing together, no words passing between them, she eased herself away. He gave a soft moan of protest and she chuckled gently, but slid herself free and padded round to the bathroom.
His breath had been minty fresh on the back of her neck; Robin had no toothbrush here, but was glad to see a complimentary one still in its wrapper on the washstand. She used the toilet and swiftly brushed her teeth, her naked skin washing with goosebumps in the cold morning air, and hurried back to bed.
She ducked her head, too shy to meet his openly admiring gaze as she climbed back in under the covers, and the sergeant chuckled and scooped her close, feeling her shiver.
“I’ll warm you up.” His voice was deep and croaky with sleep, impossibly even sexier, and Robin shivered for an entirely different reason as she pressed closer to his warmth and felt the stirring of his arousal against her thigh already. She needed to go, to get the Land Rover back to its place and try to get to her bunk before reveille; instead she found herself pressing closer, warmth of an entirely different kind starting to flow through her veins.
Strike had been attempting to keep his body under control, not wanting to appear too forward or make any assumptions about their waking up together, but her soft sigh and the way she pressed herself against his rapidly hardening cock crumbled his resolve at once. The heat rose sharply between them, as it always did; his mouth found hers for what he meant to be a tender kiss, but she opened to him at once, kissing him back eagerly.
The luxury of having no clothing between them was delicious. His hands stroked across all the skin he could reach; down her arm, around her back, over the delicious curve of her arse. The feel of her was exquisite, and he’d never had time to truly explore her body before. The two paracetamol from his wash bag that he’d swallowed with a handful of water from the tap were starting to work their magic, easing the vice-like band of a hangover across his forehead; warmth spread through him and he pulled her gently closer, a low groan escaping him as she rocked a little against his erection.
When would they ever get this opportunity again? He was determined to take his time and not rush.
Pleasure fizzed through Robin at the feel of the big sergeant’s bulk against her, their bodies flush together and his hand caressing her back, her hip, her backside. His head lowered to her breast and his tongue laved across her; Robin moaned and arched up into his mouth, the ache deep in her belly clenching tight.
He was slow, frustratingly so, taking his time, building her slowly. Every sweep of his tongue, every impossibly gentle touch of his hand drew her gently higher; writhing beneath his touches, Robin soon began to long for more stimulation, more friction, more anything. Her hands, too, stroked and caressed, exploring all the skin she could reach.
Eventually, unable to resist, she slid her fingers down across his stomach and closed around his cock, drawing a deep groan of pleasure from him. She squeezed gently, traced his length with feather-light fingertips, closed around him again and slid her hand up and down. His breathing ragged, he rocked into her touch, and his own hand moved downwards. Robin canted her hips up towards him, desperate for his fingers on her, and he obliged, beginning with slow strokes across her core, his fingers ghosting light across her clit and making her buck a little and moan with delight.
“Come here,” she muttered at last, rolling into her back, tugging him with her so that he lay over her, between her thighs, his cock pressing against her.
The big sergeant chuckled softly and nuzzled into her neck. Robin’s hands pulled at his backside, all muscle and firmness.
“I want you,” she gasped, not caring if she seemed too urgent now. He kissed her cheek, mouthed at her jaw, rocked against her, and slowly, slowly slid into her.
Her groan of relief and pleasure as he filled her was good for any man’s ego; Strike pulled back and slowly thrust again. What was it about this woman that made sex with her so good? His mouth found hers, kissing her as he moved against her, over her, within her, feeling the way she responded to him, the waves of pleasure that rolled through him echoed by her panting breaths.
“Fuck, Ellacott,” he muttered into her ear, and then he remembered. “Robin,” he amended, and felt her smile against his cheek.
“Cormoran,” she murmured back, and the pleasure pulsed through him at the sound of his name in her mouth, the one intimacy they had not allowed themselves before last night.
He moved slowly, determined to find her pleasure point first. Digging his elbows into the mattress, he shifted himself up her body a little and angled his hips just so; her gasp told him he’d found the right spot, and he repeated the move, keeping his rhythm steady, sliding against her clit and thrilling to the feel of her beginning to tremble beneath him, her breath coming in soft little gasps that began to catch in her throat into low moans.
The feel of her shaking and moaning with the pleasure he was giving her threatened to break his self-control, and her hands clinging desperately to his upper arms didn’t help; Strike forced himself to concentrate on her, on keeping the angle right, on pushing her gently closer to the edge.
Robin had been half anticipating having to change position to find her own pleasure; this had been Matthew’s preferred way to make love, and it had never done much for her. She’d occasionally managed, with a bit of concentration and the help of her own hand subtly insinuated between them, to chase down her release, but it had been hard work and she mostly couldn’t be bothered.
She hadn’t thought it possible to be given such pleasure like this. To be able to lie back and let him bring the delight to her. At first she’d hardly dared to trust in it, the initial shock of electricity at his first thrust at this new angle surely a fluke. But with every movement so incredible, sliding against her clit and somehow hitting the right spot within her as well, there was no chasing of her release to be done. He was bringing it to her, stroke by delicious stroke, and Robin knew she wasn’t being quiet but she didn’t care. The tingling fizzed through every part of her from her toes to her fingers, and within her, drawing tighter and tighter, the orgasm she could feel him stoking built slowly and surely.
He took her to the precipice and she hovered there for several incredible thrusts, her whole body shuddering with anticipation and delight, and she gave a low cry when her orgasm finally broke, pulsing through her with a force that made her back arch and her neck melt, her head dropping back. Sergeant Strike rode her through it, his rhythm steady, and then as she relaxed, her body going boneless with the satiation, she felt him snap. Groaning into her ear, burying his face in her shoulder, he surged into her with powerful strokes, and then with a fierce grunt he bucked against her as he reached his own climax. His movements grew jerky and finally stilled; Robin’s clutching hands on his solid biceps relaxed and she slid her arms around his back, hugging him close, panting and trying to catch her breath. Her vision swam with unexpected tears; she’d never, ever felt like this in her life, even on her honeymoon.
Strike knew he was lying on her, probably squashing her, but for a full minute he couldn’t move, boneless and heavy. He’d had his share of good sex in his life, but fuck, this was incredible. There was something about the...the depth of it with this woman that he’d not experienced before. Something about their connection that was more profound, more—
He was being fanciful, letting his hormones get the better of him. Panting, he gathered himself together a little and rolled off her, pulled her into his arms. He gave a deep rumble of satisfaction, and her answering noise was almost a purr.
“Fuck, that was good,” he murmured, his voice low and gravelly and sated, and she chuckled softly.
“God, yeah.” His ego stretched a little at how hoarse she sounded, her voice trembling a little still, and he hugged her closer, his breath still catching in his throat with the lingering pleasure.
Long minutes passed, minutes where for once they didn’t have to hurriedly disentangle themselves and return to normality as fast as they could. For the first time since he’d woken, Strike allowed himself to dwell on the implications of this night for their future.
His memories of the previous evening were hazy, but slowly swimming back into focus. He’d been in an uncharacteristic funk of self-recrimination, frustrated at being unable to complete his journey to Cornwall and get to his aunt, angry with his sister for blaming him and yet knowing she was right - he should have set off days ago.
Somehow, Cadet Ellacott - Robin (there was a line that needed to be un-crossed) - had turned up at the exact moment when he needed her, even if he didn’t know it. He remembered practically begging her to stay with a small lurch of embarrassment. And what had passed between them last night and this morning was far, far more dangerous than just sex, which they had enjoyed up until now but which he’d told himself had been no more than that.
It was just the alcohol, he assured himself now. Alcohol and a melancholy that he didn’t normally allow himself the luxury of indulging in, useless and unproductive as such feelings were. He’d always been a man of action rather than reflection. If he had a problem, he took steps to fix it, and if he couldn’t fix it, he ignored it. It was an approach to life that had served him well.
What did one do with the things that couldn’t be fixed or ignored?
She was going to have to go soon. Time was creeping by. Sergeant Strike - Cormoran? - would have to leave soon for his train, and she still had to think up a plausible excuse for being out all night with one of the base’s vehicles.
But when she tried to move, his arms tightened around her, his breath a soft huff of protest, and she relaxed again. Her fingers were idly toying with the whorls of hair on his chest, and she wondered how long she’d been doing that.
Don’t overthink this, Robin warned herself. Memories of their closeness last night, of murmured conversations and shared confidences, made her eyes sting. But she wondered how much of his life the taciturn sergeant would ever have shared with her without the lubrication of a few pints too many. Probably not much. It was a false closeness, brought on by upset and alcohol, and she mustn’t read too much into it. What he needed now was for her to not cling and make a big deal out of it. He had enough on his plate right now; he just needed to get to Cornwall and focus on his family.
Eventually the atmosphere between them shifted. Robin could feel Sergeant Strike’s thoughts turning to the practical, knew he had to get up, shower, pack and get to an early train. This time when she eased herself away he let her go, and Robin smiled, not quite meeting his gaze, and began the hunt for her discarded clothes. Behind her she heard him pull the tangle of his trousers and prosthetic leg towards him.
In a few minutes they were both dressed, Robin in her blouse and leggings from last night and the sergeant in his trousers and a loose T-shirt he pulled from a kit bag by the bed. Taking a deep breath, Robin turned to face him as he moved around the bed towards her, her heart jumping in her chest.
Sergeant Strike spoke first.
“I’ll ring the requisitions desk, take responsibility for the Land Rover,” he told her, and the abrupt return to the practical was a shock. Robin swallowed hard and refused to allow the tears that threatened purchase; he needed to be practical now and get on with his journey.
“Thank you, sir,” she murmured, bending to pick up her shoes. A big hand on her arm stopped her, and she straightened up again, looking questioningly into his battered yet somehow handsome face.
“Thank you, Robin,” he said softly, and then the tears did spring to her eyes at the gentleness, the genuine gratitude, in his voice.
“No problem,” she muttered, bending for her shoes again and blinking the treacherous moisture away.
“I—” He hesitated, and Robin stood up again, pumps dangling from her hand, her bag in the other containing her purse and the Land Rover keys, waiting to see what he would say.
There was so much to say, and he couldn’t utter any of it, wasn’t allowed to feel any of it. He needed to think.
“I, er, don’t know how long I’ll be away,” Strike heard himself say. “You know, it could be days, could be more. There’ll be a funeral to organise, and my sister—” For the first time it properly hit him how tough the next couple of weeks was going to be.
Cadet Ellacott smiled, the tears he was afraid he’d seen a moment ago gone. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Strike huffed a short laugh, the intensity of the moment eased. He wished he could say more, but what? How could he express his gratitude for her coming to find him, for her gentle moral support, her understanding when he needed it? ‘Thank you’ seemed so inadequate.
And there was so much more he wished he could say. He wanted to offer to discuss...this, whatever was happening between them, when he got back, but he could offer no such assurance. He wasn’t going to promise something he couldn’t deliver. More importantly, he wasn’t going to ask her for anything she couldn’t give, that could harm her career prospects, no matter how much he longed for...
For what? This has to stop, he told himself, for the umpteenth time.
Instead he merely nodded briskly. “Well, I’ll see how long they’ll give me, but I’ll probably stay till after the funeral if I can.” He glanced at his watch; his train was in half an hour.
Ellacott nodded, and sat down briefly on the end of the bed to pull her shoes on. “I hope it all goes...as well as these things can.”
“Thank you.” Strike’s brain was already turning to Cornwall, to funeral arrangements, to the hope that he would get to say goodbye to Joan. There had been no call or message from Lucy during the night. He figured no news was good news.
He watched Cadet Ellacott’s red-gold hair swing as she tugged on her shoes and stood. She opened her bag and pulled out the Land Rover keys.
His hovering melancholy of last night was gone, made better somehow by her company. Again Strike wished he could express what her being here had done for him: ‘thank you’ had been such a lame thing to say in the face of how much better he felt today, how much more prepared to face the world and the difficult days that lay ahead of him.
She flourished the car keys with a little smile. Strike took an instinctive step forward, and she moved automatically into his arms. He hugged her close and kissed the side of her head, and her arms tightened around him.
Longing hung in the air, and Strike swallowed at the tightness in his throat and inwardly cursed the maudlin sentiment that his impending trip was instilling in him.
Ellacott stepped back. “I’ll see you when I see you.” Then she grinned. “Sir,” she added, and the cheeky look that accompanied this last syllable made him laugh. Her eyes twinkled at him, and then she was gone, closing the door quietly behind her in case there were other patrons who would be, not unreasonably, still asleep.
She was a breath of fresh air. Grinning, Strike turned to pack his kit bag.