Sergeant Cormoran Strike sat in his office on the Army base that was his current home. It was the evening, dinner well behind him. Files were spread out across his desk. A half mug of cold tea sat to one side next to his cigarettes. It had been some time since he’d been out to smoke; he was considering going for another. He’d told himself he’d get one more file reviewed before he did.
But he wasn’t doing anything of the sort, and hadn’t been for more than half an hour. Instead he was sat back listlessly in his chair, facing half sideways towards the window, absently gazing out at the buildings opposite, seeing nothing.
It was extremely unlike the normally focused and driven Strike to be purposeless and inattentive. His large left hand rubbed at his eyes, which were sandy from lack of sleep, and in his right, his big fingers manipulated a smooth pebble that was adorned with a painted picture of a robin on one side.
The pebble flipped over and over in his hand. Robin and then no robin, robin and then no robin.
He sighed and looked down at the smooth stone, his mind idling around the quandary it represented. He was torn between what he knew full well was the correct thing to do, and what he wanted to do. His strong conscience and pride in himself as a man who did what was right and honourable wouldn’t let him do the latter. His battered, longing heart wouldn’t let him do the former. And so he sat, turning the pebble over and over, in a mood approaching melancholy.
There was no version of the future that worked the way he wanted it to. The cadet he’d been— Here he paused. What, Strike? Not dating. Not even really seeing. But he couldn’t bear to define it as merely fucking. It was so much more than that, surely? It was to him.
Therein lies the problem, he told himself. He had no idea how she felt. Sometimes he could imagine that she felt the same, when they were together, when she was in his arms, after, and he felt closer to her than he ever had to anyone. When they’d rescued each other from upset, been there for one another, the quiet understanding in the dark of the night.
But maybe she was just being…nice. Niceness (got to be a better word for it than that, Strike) just radiated from her. She was kind to everyone. Everyone liked Cadet Robin Ellacott.
Especially Sergeant Cormoran Strike. He liked her far too much, in fact, for his own good, for his own equilibrium. His unruly heart wanted more than he had any right to ask of her.
You have to stop. How many times had he told himself? But he really had to. For self-preservation, if nothing else. And yet when they were together, he couldn’t resist the pull of her - and not just for the sex, but for the comfort, the caring, the sense of connection with another human being.
And so, for so long now, he had done nothing, frozen in place between what he wanted and the wisdom of walking away, until he’d found himself hopelessly stuck. And now things were beginning to unravel, he was sure of it. Afraid of giving himself away after their last encounter, when they’d spent a night together like no other he’d experienced before, when she’d confided everything in him and then slept deeply and safely in his arms, her total trust in him a crumb that his hungry heart had gobbled up greedily - afraid that the way he felt would be like a beacon for all to see, he’d largely avoided her. He was sure, sometimes, that Ellacott’s friend Cadet Baines suspected something, from the way she looked at both of them, and so he had been more than usually formal in class. He had sensed a slight puzzlement from Ellacott at his distance, but there was nothing that could be done.
A knock on the door startled him from his reverie, made him jump. He had no appointments scheduled. Strike shoved the pebble back into his pocket and swung to face his desk, trying to gather his scattered thoughts back together. “Come in.”
Swallowing her nerves, Robin opened the door and entered Sergeant Strike’s office. He was sat at his desk, files spread across it. The desk that, last time she was here, all those months ago—
She was blushing already at the thought of it. Willing her cheeks to calm down, Robin took a moment to close the door, giving them both time to gather their composure - he’d looked shocked to see her - before she turned back and advanced across his office to stand in front of his desk.
The big sergeant had scrambled up out of his chair, and they faced one another across the desk, a big, sturdy piece of furniture, as they both well knew. Robin stood stiffly, waiting for permission to speak.
Her eyes raked over him quickly. He looked terrible. The bags under his eyes had a bluish tinge, and the lines around his mouth were etched deeper then usual. She wondered if his leg was paining him. She waited.
“At ease, Cadet,” he said at last, and Robin flinched a little at the sound of his voice, formal to the point of brusque. He must have realised, for his tone when he spoke again was softer. “How can I help you?”
Robin hesitated. She hadn’t formulated a plan beyond placing herself in front of him and trying to work out what was going on, if everything was all right between them. It had seemed so the last time they had been together, but maybe he’d had time to think since then. Everyone in her life who she’d told or who had found out about her rape, bar Vanessa, had treated her differently afterwards. Perhaps she had been stupid to think that Sergeant Strike would be any different. Maybe he had decided that someone who came with baggage didn’t fit into his life any more. He’d been fine with what she’d told him on the night, but in the cold light of day—
“Sir,” she managed. “I, er—” She paused, an agony of indecision, and then jumped. “Are you okay, sir? Are—” she swallowed “—are we okay?”
Strike’s heart thumped painfully in his chest. He hadn’t expected her to actually confront him on this. To make him face up to what was happening between them. And if they were going to drag everything out into the open, examine it in daylight, then what else could he do but follow the rules?
There are plenty of other things you could do, the devil on his shoulder whispered. Things you did last time she was in your office…
It was as though she could see him think it. As though she were thinking the same. Her blue-grey eyes, stormy and troubled and giving her feelings away as usual, darkened as her pupils widened, and she almost seemed to sway towards him a little. Strike took half a step forwards, his thighs meeting the edge of his desk, and she was just an arm’s length away now. He could reach across for her, pull her into a kiss, and he knew she wanted him to.
It’s been a while, his devil whispered.
He was going to do it. He could smell her, almost taste her, the thrum of his blood rising at the heat in her stormy gaze, at the thought—
Footsteps in the hallway outside pulled them both back to themselves a little; Strike stepped back, clearing his throat, and Ellacott dropped her chin, stepping away too. When she looked back up at him, her expression was more guarded suddenly.
Strike cleared his throat again. “Everything’s fine, Cadet,” he told her, ignoring her slight wince at his use of her rank. “I’m fine. We just… I just…” He stopped. “Cadet Baines suspects,” he said at last, in a low voice. It was the closest they’d come to acknowledging - out loud and sober - what had been going on between them.
The Cadet sighed, and suddenly he knew that what had until now been only a suspicion, a fear, was in fact true. Someone had noticed. And if Baines was wondering, who else was?
“I’ll handle Callie,” Ellacott replied, equally quietly.
Impotent anger filled him suddenly. He didn’t want Cadet Baines handled. He wanted her not to know. If people were starting to notice, then this, surely, was the line in the sand. They had crossed so many lines in recent months, but if the final one wasn’t here, then it didn’t exist.
“No,” he replied, slightly too forcefully. Ellacott jumped a little and stared at him, her wide blue eyes hurt, and Strike hated himself more than a little in that moment. But he had to do what needed to be done. This could not continue. It was too risky.
He paused, frustrated, and ran a big hand through his hair that was starting to curl. “I can’t.”
She blanched a little. She understood, and he felt like even more of a heel. But regulations were regulations, and it was up to him as the senior officer to take charge and put an end to things.
Still, he could hardly bear to look at her, at the hurt in her face, the reddening of her eyes. “Sir—” she murmured.
“You’re dismissed, Cadet,” Strike told her, hardening his voice and ignoring the splintering of his heart.
She hesitated, a hand half reaching out, and he could have sworn she whispered “Cormoran” almost below hearing; he knew if she touched him, if she said his name aloud, he would crack and be unable to send her away.
“Dismissed,” he barked, the emotions that were swelling his throat sticking in his voice and making the syllables more clipped than he’d intended.
She withdrew her hand and pulled herself up to attention, trembling, her eyes on his, shimmering with unshed tears but refusing to look away. Christ, this woman had poise, and courage, and she was so fucking beautiful—
“Yes, sir,” she replied, her voice equally hard, and she turned and marched from his office.
So, this man, then, was no better than all the others. She’d confided in him, told him the most secret part of her, let him see her broken soul, and he had turned away, no longer interested.
Robin scrubbed her face with a tissue and tried to force her mind to clarity. Her bed creaked as she rolled over and lay and stared at the ceiling. She took a slow, shuddering breath and tried to get control of her misery, blinking her tears away by sheer force of will.
Wasn’t it possible, she tried to ask herself, that it was just Callie’s suspicions that were making the big sergeant pull away? She had known all along that they couldn’t continue whatever had been going on between them, that sooner or later they must stop before they got caught. And if people were starting to wonder, then, well. The clues were there if anyone happened to look at the right moment, catch the right glance. The sergeant was quite correct. They couldn’t continue.
Why, then, did it feel like such a betrayal? Why did the little voice in the back of her head keep whispering to her, insisting that yet again she wasn’t enough, was too broken for someone to take on?
Take on as what? she asked herself scornfully. He had never offered her any more than what they had, which was, if she was brutally honest, some very good sex and a little pillow talk. Where was the connection that she’d felt, returned from him? There was scant evidence of it in reality. He had offered her nothing, promised her nothing. He was free to walk away any time he chose, and if she was upset about that then it was her own fault and her own problem. Her own fault for reading more into their encounters than had ever existed. Her own problem to handle in a mature, professional way, and she would do that.
She rolled onto her side and pulled the covers up higher over her shoulder, resolve hardening in her heart. Nevertheless, a few more tears leaked onto her pillow before she finally managed to fall asleep.
Strike hadn’t realised how often he had looked forward to interacting with Cadet Ellacott until the opportunity was taken away from him. It wasn’t as though they had spent a lot of time together, he told himself as he listlessly trudged to lectures, marked assignments, reviewed files, exercised, shovelled food that he barely tasted into his mouth in the mess hall. But the possibility had always been there. When what had been occurring between them was ongoing, there was always the chance of a little look, a glance, that would send heat coursing through him. Always a possibility of a brush of hands as files were passed that would start a thrill fizzing in his chest. And, of course, always the possibility that they would find themselves alone and could seek so much more from one another.
With all that gone, life had lost its flavour somehow. Ellacott was courteous and respectful, but kept her distance and never fully met his gaze, her eyes never quite connecting with his. He missed their little interactions far more than he thought he would. Missed looking forward to them. Missed her, even when they were sat in the same room.
And right now he was particularly not enjoying sitting with the other officers in the mess hall, watching Corporal Benjamin Saunders firstly manoeuvre his way into a seat next to Cadet Ellacott, and then proceed with his tall, good-looking charm to tease her from her quiet contemplation of her food, to make her smile and then laugh. Strike was too far away to hear anything of what was occurring between them, but he could see well enough the slow unfurling of her body language, the eventual relaxing of her shoulders, the sideways look she cast him as she giggled at something the corporal murmured that was clearly for her ears only.
Strike knew of Corporal Saunders’ family. His father was a retired colonel, his uncle big in trade and an acquaintance of Charlotte’s family. They moved in that set, the moneyed lot, littered with education opportunities at Eton and Harrow, jobs in business for the bright and guaranteed places in the Army for the…less so. Very little of what any of them had achieved had been earned on merit, in Strike’s opinion.
And here was the arrogant young man thinking he could make a play for Ellacott’s attentions. The Corporal’s progression through the ranks had hardly been swift; nevertheless he must be several years younger than her, twenty-five at most. He was undeniably good-looking, though, having inherited the best of the family genes, tall and handsome and fit and whole.
The food tasted even less appetising than it had all week. Strike pushed his plate away, and then rose, shoving his chair back. He took his plate to dump it at the serving hatch for the dishwashing team, and stalked from the mess hall without looking back.
“Robs, come with us,” Callie urged. “You always say no.”
Robin hesitated. Her fellow cadet, next-door roommate and friend Callie grinned, big eyes pleading at her over her armful of toiletries and towels. She was on her way to the showers to get ready for a Friday night down in the clubs and bars in town. Robin herself was already in her pyjamas, her book lying open and face down on her bed behind her.
Callie winked. “Ben’s going.”
This was not the draw the younger cadet thought it was. Robin could not deny, even to herself, that the attention she had suddenly begun receiving from the handsome corporal was rather flattering. He was tall, smooth-jawed, well spoken and confident. And, unlike her fellow cadets, not ridiculously young, although she suspected he was still younger than her.
His witty conversation and subtle flirting was a balm to her wounded ego, and she had to admit that the wide-eyed envy of the younger female recruits wasn’t entirely unpleasant either. She had no intention of starting any kind of relationship on the base (well, not another one, her unruly subconscious interjected), but she hadn’t exactly turned him down. She was enjoying the attention, feeling less miserable than she had in the initial aftermath of her— What? Break-up? Can two people break up if they were never together? she’d asked herself as she lay in bed at night.
There was another reason Robin hadn’t yet rebuffed the handsome corporal. She still wasn’t entirely sure that Callie had believed her blushing confession that she’d had a bit of a crush on Sergeant Strike that was, thankfully, over now. Robin had figured that something near the truth would be more easily believed than an outright denial. An unrequited crush, while embarrassing, was at least not against the rules. And the attentions she had been getting from Corporal Saunders had gone a long way towards giving truth to the idea that anything that might have looked like it was occurring between herself and the big sergeant had been entirely one-sided and was long over.
It had been on the tip of her tongue to turn down Callie’s invitation, as she always did, but she suddenly thought why not? What use was another Friday night spent reading on her bed? Why not go out, have a drink, enjoy the others’ company, allow herself to be flirted with a little? Lay the ghost of conjecture around herself and Sergeant Strike even further to rest?
“Okay,” she heard herself say, and Callie squealed and jumped up and down a little, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Be ready at half seven, taxis are ordered!” she cried, and bustled off to the showers. Grinning, Robin turned to put away her book and find something to wear.
Strike knew even as he changed his shirt that the evening ahead of him was a bad idea. He should just stay in his room and read or go to his office and work like he almost always did on a Friday night. The only local pub he ever frequented was the Hyde Tavern, and he had little interest in the busy town centre pubs. Why, then, had he accepted Sergeant Simms’ invitation? And why was he taking unusual care over his appearance, picking the dark blue shirt that Ilsa had once told him he looked handsome in, and the caramel-coloured chinos to complement it?
He was avoiding his own gaze in the mirror as he fiddled with a top button. He knew perfectly well why he was going, and it wasn’t for the chivalrous reasons he was telling himself.
He’d overheard the lads bantering over the pool table after dinner, knew that Corporal Saunders was being ribbed for his interest in Cadet Ellacott, a woman junior to him in rank yet a couple of years older. The young man’s fellows didn’t reckon he had a chance; the grinning corporal had insisted tonight was the night. Everyone knew Ellacott never joined a Friday night out, therefore she was going because he was, he’d bragged. It was obvious.
I’m just watching out for her, Strike thought, knowing he was telling himself a lie. No-one else knew about her past, least of all the brash young man seeking her attention. It wouldn’t hurt to have superior officers around to remind him to watch his manners.
Yeah, right. Strike forced down the simmering jealousy in his chest and reached for his jacket.
Robin didn’t immediately notice the two sergeants enter the bar, packed as it was. The town centre pub was a known hunting ground for local girls eager to meet young squaddies, and for the lads from the base to find female company for the night. She had marvelled at the scene, at the amount of young, female flesh on show, at the heavy tang of many kinds of aftershave mingling in the air, at the quantities of drinks being served. She herself had opted for a floaty summer skirt patterned in green leaves and an ivory sleeveless blouse that buttoned to her collarbone. Chaste enough not to draw unwanted attention, cool enough for her to be very glad, on this warm evening in this packed bar, that she wasn’t wearing the trousers she’d initially considered.
She had at first felt uncomfortably like she was a part of this evening that had such a transactional feel about it below the ostensibly genial atmosphere. But Corporal Saunders - Ben - had played his hand well. He hadn’t immediately pounced on her, waving at her across the room and proceeding to largely ignore her for the first hour or so while she chanted with Callie and the other female recruits. But every time she had glanced across, she had caught his eye, until eventually he had sauntered over with a lazy grin and offered to buy her a drink.
He was undeniably good-looking, and Robin knew that a younger version of her would have delighted in his attentions, been thrilled that he wanted to spend time with her. But there was something about him that was too suave, too familiar, too…Matthew-like for her to be truly attracted to him. He seemed anodyne somehow, lacking the features that she had in recent months come to find attractive in a man. Bulk, dark eyes, a polite reserve that held back from overt flirting and obvious moves.
But that avenue was closed now. Sergeant Strike had made his position very clear. And although she didn’t particularly want to date this handsome young corporal, he was funny and in many ways good company, even if he did like to talk rather a lot. And so she let him buy her a drink and flirt with her, and she told herself that allowing a little male attention to lift her low spirits and warm her lonely heart a bit wasn’t doing anyone any harm. If he tried anything on, she’d put him in his place gently but firmly.
Callie winked at her from her place chatting to the other girls, and Robin blushed a little and turned her attention back to Ben.
Simms didn’t stay long, and it occurred to Strike after he’d gone that perhaps he himself wasn’t being very good company tonight. The other sergeant had driven them down to town, nursed one pint slowly while Strike drank two, and then decided to head back to base. Simms was married and lived in the family quarters with his wife and young baby. His wife, also a sergeant and therefore also now Sergeant Simms, was known affectionately as Mrs Sergeant Simms when not on maternity leave, and was a long-time colleague of theirs. Simms bade Strike goodnight after offering him a lift back and being turned down, and now Strike had nothing to do except observe the youngsters.
He should leave. Should have left with his colleague, in fact. Instead he ordered another pint and a double whisky which he downed in one swallow, and gave up pretending he wasn’t watching Corporal Saunders flirt with Cadet Ellacott across at the other bar in this huge pub.
How could the cadet suddenly be any more attractive than she normally looked? And yet somehow she was. The patterned skirt floated around her knees and drew the eye to her shapely calves above low-heeled sandals, and the sleeveless blouse, buttoned neatly to her throat but leaving her freckled shoulders bare, was sexy enough to take his breath away. He could just imagine undoing those tiny buttons, one by one… The very fact that she was showing considerably less of herself than any other woman here made her the sexiest in the room by far.
And then there was her hair. He’d never seen it loose except when he’d been running his big hands through it while they— Well. It seemed almost obscenely sexy to have it loose around her shoulders in public.
But there she was, on what looked, to the glowering Strike, suspiciously like a date with Corporal Saunders. Unable to look away, Strike sipped his pint and tried not to stare while rage sat heavy in his chest like a brick and his other hand periodically closed into a fist at his side.
It was probably time to let Ben down gently, Robin had decided. His general chat and friendly questions about her family, about her riding history - a childhood hobby they shared - had begun to turn to proper flirting, complimenting her hair, touching her arm. She couldn’t in all conscience let him keep thinking his interest was returned.
It wasn’t unpleasant, though, to be told she was beautiful, and somehow when he offered her another drink she found herself accepting. He turned away from her to lean on the bar and try to attract the attention of one of the staff, and Robin glanced across to see if Callie was still watching.
The high table the girls had been standing around was occupied now by two young couples on a night out. A frisson of anxiety rippled through Robin’s stomach. She hoped Callie hadn’t abandoned her. Her gaze scanned the tables, and she jumped as she suddenly locked eyes with Sergeant Strike, across the room at the other bar, slouched on a stool at one end with his back to the wall and his big hand wrapped around a pint, looking straight at her.
What was he doing here? This wasn’t a pub he normally frequented. And the look he was giving her was not friendly. She gave him a half-hearted half-smile, and he broke eye contact, glancing away and then down at his pint.
Trembling a little, Robin moved her gaze on around the room. Callie and her group of girls had moved across to another table and were chatting with some local lads Robin didn’t recognise; she was relieved to see that her wingman was still here, feeling suddenly glad of some moral support. She told herself she was being ridiculous; why would she need it? But the sergeant’s apparent disapproval was unsettling, and she felt pathetically glad that Callie was still present.
“Here you go.” Ben was back at her elbow and passing her a fresh gin and tonic. Heart hammering, Robin turned back to him with a smile and asked him another question about the pony he’d owned as a lad, and nodded along while he told her all about a creature who sounded remarkably similar to Angus, her own childhood equine companion. She tried to force herself to listen and not wonder why Strike was here, tried not to feel the big sergeant’s dark disapproval prickling up her spine, told herself she wasn’t going to look across again.
Strike was washing his hands in the gents’ toilets and telling himself he was going to leave now rather than have another pint when Corporal Saunders and his mates strolled in, chatting; with his back to the urinals and bent over the sink, the young men, jovial and half drunk, didn’t recognise him.
It wasn’t his intention to overhear their conversation, but they were hardly quiet. The other squaddies were teasing Saunders about not having “closed the deal” yet; Strike gritted his teeth and focused on his task, rinsing soap from his hands and reaching to grab a handful of paper towels. He had intended to leave before he had to overhear too much, but his chivalry made him linger, drying his hands slowly and listening to the increasingly ribald comments, protective anger churning in his chest at the thought of this oik daring to lay a finger on Robin Ellacott.
She’s not yours to feel possessive over, he’d tried to tell himself all evening as jealousy thrummed in his veins, watching the handsome corporal flirt with her, touch her arm. She was free to date whoever she wished. But he was certain that if she could overhear the way she was being spoken about now, she would be less than impressed.
“You’re so in, mate,” another young corporal bantered as the group moved towards the exit. Trapped, Strike hung back a little as they crowded through the door; the lad continued. “Lucky bastard. Bet she’s slutty when she gets going. The quiet ones always are.”
Before Strike could bark an objection to the line the conversation was taking, another of the guys turned to Saunders. “Reckon she’s a proper redhead?”
A third lad leaned in. “And more importantly, are you gonna find out?”
Saunders grinned, cocky. “Tenner says the carpets match the curtains. And that I can prove it.”
There was a shout of laughter; several of them shook his hand, taking the bet.
“Oi!” His blood boiling properly now, Strike broke into the camaraderie with his interjection; the young men paused, surprised to have their banter interrupted. They turned to look at him, one still holding the door open, and he saw the recognition and uncertainly flicker across their faces. They hadn’t realised who he was until now, absorbed in their own conversation.
“That’s no way to speak about any woman, let alone an Army colleague and a junior,” Strike snapped.
Buoyed up by alcohol and gang mentality, the juniors appeared to weigh up standing up to him. Far fewer ranks separated them than separated Strike from the cadets; he held his ground and glared at them.
Reluctantly they backed down, to a degree. Mumbling in a vaguely conciliatory manner, they hurriedly left, Saunders at the back of the group. Strike stepped out through the doorway after them.
“Saunders.” His voice stopped the corporal in his tracks. The younger man turned back, his lazy body language belied by a degree of tension in his frame.
“Yeah?” There was more than a hint of insolence in the syllable. The two men faced off in the narrow corridor outside the gents’ toilets. Strike had an inch or so in height, a good chunk of breadth but also nearly fifteen years on the younger man. He was considerably more sober, though. His hands, closed into fists at his sides, itched to punch him. That he would dare to make a play for Cadet Ellacott, and worse, make bets with his mates about his prospects and the degree of his success…
“Leave Ellacott alone,” he gritted.
Saunders grinned, his handsome face marred by a nasty gleam of triumph in his eye. “Thinking of making a play yourself?”
“Watch your tone, Corporal,” Strike barked. “She’s a colleague, and a junior one. I suggest you leave it at that and turn your sights elsewhere - off the base, preferably.”
Saunders stepped closer, as though sensing Strike’s anger, as though daring him to lose his temper, a move they both knew would get the big sergeant into trouble.
“Why should I?”
“She deserves better.”
Again, that infuriating grin. “Got a hard-on for her yourself, have you?”
Strike’s fists tightened. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he growled.
The other snorted. “Ridiculous indeed,” he replied. “Like a gorgeous creature like her would look twice at a knackered old sergeant who’s practically on study leave.”
Rage swelled. An image rose in Strike’s mind of thumping the smirk off the handsome face, a moment’s fantasy of how deliciously satisfying it would be to watch the good-looking young man crumple to the floor; fortunately for him, Saunders’ mates, realising he was no longer behind them, had turned back for him, shouting jovially from the bar. For a few tense seconds, the two men stood, almost nose to nose, bristling, then the corporal stepped back.
“Later,” he drawled, not quite rudely enough for Strike to be able to object, and then he was gone after his mates, leaving the big sergeant in the narrow hallway, breathing hard and flexing his large fists, trying to get his rage under control.
Robin had taken the opportunity of Ben being absent to decide that she had better leave. Her second drink was finished and she didn’t want a third, and she didn’t want any more attention from the young man buying them for her. He was sweet enough, but he knew how good-looking he was and his slightly over-confident attitude was reminding her more and more of her ex-husband as the evening wore on. She was pretty sure he was going to try to kiss her before the evening was out, and the thought left her cold.
A surreptitious glance around the room told her that Sergeant Strike had left; irritated with herself, she dismissed her disappointment at his absence. It wasn’t like anything was going to happen between them again - he’d made that quite clear in his office.
She said a quiet goodbye to Callie, asking her to tell Ben that she’d headed back to the base for the night. Watching the corporal in question and his mates heading back to the bar, Ben clearly looking around for her, Robin skirted the girls’ group. Not wanting to be seen or found by Ben if he came looking for her, she slipped out of the fire door that led into the alley running down the side of the pub. She didn’t see Sergeant Strike down the corridor as she let herself out opposite the ladies’ toilets, pulling her phone from her pocket. She shoved the door closed behind her and moved a few steps towards the street, scrolling through her phone contacts for taxi companies.
Behind her, the fire escape opened again. Robin turned back, her shoulders tensing. It hadn’t exactly been fair to leave without saying goodbye, but the night was young and she’d been pretty sure Ben would happily turn his attention to a more willing conquest. She hadn’t anticipated him following her, and was already rehearsing an excuse about being tired or feeling a little unwell when Sergeant Strike stepped out into the alley.
Shock pierced her; she had assumed he’d left. Her heart hammering, she stared at him.
“Hi, sir,” she managed.
The fire door swung and slammed behind him. Now they were both stuck on the other side of a door which could only be opened from the inside. With anyone else, Robin would have immediately been on high alert, calculating the distance up the alley to the street, wondering if anyone would hear her if she shouted. But she had never felt anything other than safe with the big sergeant; her pounding heart and trembling hands owed nothing to fear and everything to the surge of heat and longing that swept through her. She slid her phone back into her bag and turned to fully face him, watching as he stood and stared at her, saying nothing, his dark eyes on hers troubled and, she would have sworn, containing the same longing she felt.
Following Ellacott had been instinct, an impulse Strike hadn’t thought through. He just wanted to be the one to go after her, couldn’t bear the thought of Corporal Saunders catching up with her and carrying on where they’d left off. But, trapped now in an alley with her staring at him with her blue-grey, depthless eyes, he was already regretting the folly of his actions. The simmering rage at Saunders still echoed through his veins, and was now tinged with longing for the woman in front of him and, to his further irritation, an echo of the annoying corporal’s words. What, indeed, could this gorgeous creature possibly want with him when she could have a younger man at his physical peak, with all the money in the world behind him?
Just look at her. His gaze raked her from head to foot, from that shimmering red-gold hair that he could remember running like silk through his fingers, down that gorgeous blouse and the skirt that clung just enough over her hips and floated around her knees, inviting him to slide a hand up underneath it, to the curve of her calves and her shapely ankles—
He dragged his eyes hurriedly back to her face. Her cheeks had flushed pink; she’d seen him looking. Angry with himself for not having more self-control around her, Strike blurted:
“What happened to your date?”
It was the wrong thing to have said. Her chin went up in that defiant gesture that was a siren call to his libido and her gaze became shuttered, cool.
“It wasn’t a date.”
“It looked like one.” He knew he sounded combative, anger still hot in his veins, anger at Saunders, at himself, and now at her for being so cool, for moving on to a new guy so quickly, for not caring when he couldn’t seem to stop himself from caring…
Her face grew stony. “Why were you looking?”
Robin’s brief pleasure at seeing the big sergeant, the surge of longing that swelled in her chest, turned to anger in a heartbeat. Of course he hadn’t come after her because he wanted her still. He was checking up on her. Defiance flared; how dare he accuse her of the very thing that she and he had until recently been engaging in themselves? The hypocrisy of it was mind-boggling.
She had him cornered, though, she could see. Why had he been looking? What was he even doing in a bustling pub in the middle of town on a Friday night? He never went out on the usual Friday night jaunts, Robin thought angrily, conveniently forgetting that she couldn’t possibly know this because she never went either.
“I was out for a drink with Sergeant Simms,” he said at last.
A likely excuse.
“Checking up on me?” Robin goaded, unable to stop herself. She wanted to get under his skin suddenly, wanted to make him feel as raw as she did in his presence. He held all the cards, the superior officer with power over her career here; now that things had gone south between them, he was in a far better position than she, and they both knew it.
What was seriously wreaking havoc with her equilibrium, though, was the desperate desire coursing through her at his proximity and devastating sexiness in that shirt that set off his dark eyes and tanned, thickly-haired forearms, desire that was rising in response to his clear agitation. A detached part of her was shocked to find she was enjoying baiting him, wanted to ire him further.
“No,” he replied, his face flushing with anger. “I was looking out for you, if you must know.”
“In what way?”
He hesitated, and she could see him weighing up what to say. A fierce stab of rage pierced her. What had he done, to “look out for” her? In what way had he interfered in what was, after all, her private business?
She took half a step towards him, furious suddenly. “In what way?”
“Saunders is an idiot,” he burst out, clearly startled by her challenge, by her overtly and directly standing up to him, by her sudden nearness as she drew closer.
Robin paused, wondering suddenly what he knew that she didn’t. “How so?”
This is why you don’t have relationships with subordinates, Strike realised dimly as he tried to fight down anger, resentment and a healthy dose of desire that he really didn’t want to be feeling and that only made him angrier. It erodes the chain of command. She wouldn’t stand up to me like this if it wasn’t for our history.
Christ, it was sexy, though.
“He’s just an idiot,” he repeated weakly. How could he tell her what he’d overheard in the men’s toilets?
Her jaw set; she wasn’t accepting a lame, unsubstantiated accusation.
“At least he’s open about his intentions,” she snapped, and Strike felt the barb pierce his normally iron-clad defences, honed by years of attacks from Charlotte’s sharp tongue.
Ellacott was right, and the sting of it made him angrier still. But what did she expect? He couldn’t openly date her, much as he might long to; he wasn’t allowed. He should never have let things get this far. How was it that he now found himself face to face with her in an alleyway, anger and frustration and misery coursing through his veins and no doubt hers, separated by rules and duty and misunderstandings?
He was being fanciful. Ellacott had moved on, happily dating a young man she wasn’t forbidden from seeing, a man nearer her own age and level of attractiveness, far more suited to her and with more to offer. His fists closed again in jealous rage, and he found himself wishing he’d taken the opportunity to punch the smarmy young corporal when he’d had it, and sod the consequences.
“Fine,” he heard himself say, bitterness colouring his words. “Date the little prick. What does it matter to me?”
She flinched but raised her chin. “What indeed? You’ve made your position quite clear. Maybe I’ll have better luck with him.”
It was too much. Strike could not bear the thought of it, the thought that she would throw her lot in with the little twat so casually, as though to deliberately hurt him. Anger and resentment and hurt bubbled over and he abruptly lost control of all of it; he stepped forward into her space, his hands sliding into that gorgeous hair, and kissed her.
Robin would have gasped at the sudden, unexpected onslaught if he hadn’t claimed her mouth so completely. This was no tender, passionate kiss. His mouth crushed hers in rage and longing, and she had a fleeting moment to dimly acknowledge that he was probably the only man in the world who could kiss her like this and not trigger a fear response before sharp desire obliterated all rational thought.
His hands were in her hair and his mouth hard on hers, his tongue thrusting forward and his whole body crowding her back against the wall; Robin’s bag slipped to the floor and she found her hands gripping his huge biceps as she returned the kiss, welcoming his almost savage passion. She tugged him closer and he pressed his whole body into hers; she could feel his arousal already swelling against her as they kissed fiercely.
Rage and jealousy turned to ravening desire between one heartbeat and the next; Strike could have eaten her alive, the way he felt at that moment. He ground his hips into her, crushing her against the wall, all recognition of where they were and what they were doing completely gone. Anyone could step out of the fire escape or the kitchen door, other customers, friends and colleagues, staff accessing the bins. None of it mattered. The world had narrowed to her and only her, the way it always did when they were alone together. He tore his mouth from hers to press frantic kisses to her jaw, her neck, and she gasped and writhed between his body and the wall, her movements against his aching cock sending bolts of lust though him.
She was his and only his in this moment, the only moment that mattered, and the primal part of him wanted to lay claim to her, stake her as his own, make her want only him. His hand was at her breast, teasing her nipple though her blouse, making her moan and drop her head back against the wall; he kissed her again and his other hand slid down to her skirt, tugging at the flimsy, floaty material, seeking her core, desperate to know if she was as aroused as he was.
He wasn’t disappointed, and her groan of need as he slid his fingers into her soaked knickers only enflamed him further.
It wasn’t enough. None of it was enough. He wanted to explore and possess, drive any thoughts of other men from her mind. With a lurch that he would bitterly regret tomorrow, Strike dropped to his knees in front of her and bunched her skirt up out of the way.
There was no time for shock or embarrassment; one moment it was his fingers teasing her and driving her desperate arousal on, the next it was his mouth. He kissed her through her knickers, sliding his big fingers free, and then he was nuzzling his day-old stubble against the sensitive skin on her inner thigh for a moment while his hands snapped her knickers apart as though they were made of paper. She was appalled and aroused in equal measure, by his roughness and by her surging reaction to it. Her shock was replaced almost immediately by overwhelming pleasure as his mouth found her again and Robin’s knees buckled under the force of the overwhelming sensation. His huge hands gripped her hips, holding her up and angling her open to him, and his tongue thrust forwards.
She had wondered sometimes, idly daydreaming in lectures when she was supposed to be concentrating, what his uneven lips and clever tongue might feel like against her core. It was one of the few things they hadn’t done together yet; despite the fact that what was - had been - occurring between them had been going on for months, there had been relatively few actual encounters.
It was more than she could have imagined. Her fingers sank into his hair as he buried his head between her thighs and her neck curled, her head dropping forwards with the pleasure storming through her. Only his hands on her hips held her up; her trembling legs were useless. Short, staccato moans broke from her as his tongue circled and thrust, her eyes screwed up and the sensations rising too fast for her to cope with, and then he pressed forward harder, sucking on her clit, and the pleasure exploded outwards, making her body jerk and her fingers tighten into fists in his hair.
He knew the exact moment to stop, easing away as she slumped back against the wall. Slowly he let her go and Robin forced her legs straight, her skirts dropping back to her knees as the big sergeant clambered, ungainly and using the wall either side of her for support, back up. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and returned his palm to the wall by her head, hemming her in with his arms, and they stared at one another, both breathing hard, his dark eyes black and glittering with something she couldn’t place and hers, no doubt, stormy with pleasure and shock and, still, the burn of arousal.
It had been too fast, too unexpected, the orgasm he had just dragged from her powerful but brought forth before she was ready; she wanted more, she wanted him inside her, she wanted him to fill her and anchor her like he always did. But was more even on offer? What did they do now?
Strike swallowed hard at the wrecked look on Ellacott’s face, trying to get himself under control and ignore the desperate ache of his own arousal. What had he done? He had allowed jealous rage to get the better of him, practically assaulted her in an alley down the side of a pub. What had become of him?
He should go. But even as the thought passed through his mind and he moved to drop his hands away from the wall either side of her head, she took control of the encounter.
“No.” Her hands came up between them, seizing the front of his shirt as he was about to step away, pulling him forward. “Stay.”
Strike opened his mouth to speak and she kissed him, tugging hard on his shirt, and he swayed into her instinctively as desire swept away all rational thought again. She had one hand still fisted in the front of his shirt while the other slid downwards, palming his erection through his trousers, and he groaned into her mouth and rocked against her touch. “I want you,” she muttered in his ear, and then her hands were at his belt, wresting his trousers open.
Anticipation rose sharply, and then her hand was on his cock, stroking and sliding and then gripping him, and Strike moaned with desire and pleasure, thrusting into her fist, rapidly losing control of himself as the sensations built at the base of his spine.
She swung her leg up, wrapping around his hip, pushing herself onto tiptoe and dragging him closer with her arm around his back; her skirt dipped between them and she gave a huff of impatience, letting go of his aching erection to scrabble the material out of the way. His pleasure had been surging with inevitability; Strike whimpered at the loss of it, and then suddenly she was angling herself against him and dragging him forwards. He slid into her with a low moan of relief, his palms cupping her arse to tug her closer, and then her hands were back at the front of his shirt, dragging him down into another messy, fierce kiss.
They found a rhythm, of sorts, instinct taking over in the thrusting of his hips as he kissed her, his tongue seeking hers. The sensations were pooling, building rapidly at the base of his spine again, anticipation rising, pleasure he had only ever found with her, this woman who wasn’t his, couldn’t be his, but who belonged with him, to him, in every way that mattered.
Ellacott’s hands slid up from his chest and around, her fingernails scraping at the back of his neck and up into his hair; she broke the kiss, gasping, and buried her face in his shoulder as he shifted her higher where she’d started to slip a little. Her heel hooked around his backside tugged him in closer and her foot on the floor pushed her up a little further.
“More,” she begged, her voice muffled in his shoulder, and Strike obliged, thrusting harder, his strokes becoming jerky as the pleasure began to overwhelm him. Her moans grew louder into the cloth of his shirt, and then her head dropped back against the wall, her eyes glazed and drifting closed, and he felt the exact moment she came, her muscles clenching down on his cock and making him splinter apart, swearing into her ear as his orgasm exploded through him, heightened by anger and longing and denial and all the messy things that this relationship had become, leaving him wrung out and slumped against her, every muscle aching with pleasure, his forehead resting on the wall by her head, his gasps echoing hers.
Slowly the storm receded, but where once he might have felt rested, secure in her arms, briefly happy and sated and content, Strike felt only wretched and, if anything, even more alone.
I love you. He dropped his head to her shoulder, pressing a kiss against the edge of her blouse. What use were those words? He’d promised himself, after Charlotte, that he would never again say them to another woman unless he could see himself staying with her, building a life with her. What could he offer this woman? Precisely nothing. Nothing she wanted, anyway.
A sigh shuddered through Strike’s large frame, and her arms tightened around him, her breathing slowing. It felt like comfort, but it was hollow. He had lost his temper, almost assaulted a colleague, acted like some crazy stalker following her here, practically forced himself upon her, and now he must leave. And he must, must find a way to make all this stop. This was not who he was.
For the first time in all their encounters, he lingered in her arms not because he felt at home, secure, safe, but because he couldn’t meet her gaze.
Robin felt the big sergeant’s soul-deep sigh, and tears stung her eyes. What were they doing? This was supposed to be over, consigned to the past, and yet here they were again. Once again she had experienced pleasure in his arms the like of which she had never known, and once again he was going to walk away, and her heart broke a little more each time he did.
She unwrapped her leg from around him and he stepped back, sliding free of her; for once, he didn’t make eye contact, just pulled his clothing back into place, did up his belt.
Blushing a little at the memory, Robin picked up her broken knickers and folded them into her handbag with trembling hands. She was going to have to make the journey back to the base without them. A sudden lurch of shame washed through her, and it was her turn to sigh. Shame had never been a part of this, of whatever they were doing, of what they were to one another.
What had become of them?
His clothing neatened at last, Sergeant Strike took a breath and, finally, met her eyes. His gaze was hooded, guarded, wretched.
There was a short pause. Strike gestured vaguely towards the street. “Do you need—?”
Robin shook her head, blinking furiously, swallowing the lump in her throat. “I’m fine.” Just go.
He nodded tightly. “I’m sorry,” he said simply, his voice low and defeated, and he turned and walked away.
Robin managed to hold back her tears until he’d left the alley and turned right, away from the town centre.