Sergeant Cormoran Strike sat at his desk in his office on the military base near Winchester, his home for these past few years now since he’d lost his leg, and took another pull of whisky from his hip flask. It was late on a Friday night, the corridors and communal rooms quiet. Strike cast a long, last look around his office. On Monday the space would belong to his successor.
His letter of resignation lay in front of him, as yet undelivered. He couldn’t risk word getting out, as it inevitably would, until Cadet Robin Ellacott was safely off the base and away for her annual leave. She was going first thing tomorrow morning - he’d overheard her tell her friend and fellow cadet Callie Baines that her taxi was booked. She was looking forward to her two weeks away, he knew, to spending some time with her parents and visiting old friends in Yorkshire and Edinburgh.
She didn’t know he’d be gone when she got back.
Strike sighed and took another gulp of whisky. He didn’t normally drink in uniform, certainly not at his desk, rarely even on base. But what did it matter now? By mid-morning tomorrow he’d have handed in the letter in front of him, arranged to take his copious amounts of outstanding annual leave in lieu of notice and be packing his things. Nick and Ilsa were expecting him for dinner, and he had appointments lined up in London tomorrow afternoon, not least of which was the necessary evil of a meeting with Peter Gillespie, lawyer to his estranged father, to organise the release of funds that had sat untouched since Strike’s eighteenth birthday. He’d been determined never to use the money, and was only reluctantly agreeing to a loan now, but he needed to get away from the Army and this was his only option.
He’d turned things over and over in his head, and there wasn’t another way out. He couldn’t allow things to continue with Cadet Ellacott the way they were. They had been drifting closer to getting caught, becoming more and more reckless, until he was sure they had aroused the suspicions of Cadet Baines. Strike ran a large hand through his hair that was beginning to curl even at the back. He was, after all, in the business of training detectives. It was a miracle that he and Ellacott had got away with as much as they had.
He might have other options available to him, but she did not. She’d already left one career, she could ill afford to lose this one too when she’d barely begun. And besides, she was going to be an asset to the Royal Military Police, that was obvious, and she couldn’t have the blemish of an illicit affair with a superior officer on her record.
Yet it had become painfully obvious to Strike that he was incapable of standing back and letting her go, of watching from the sidelines while she flourished in her career, inevitably dated other guys. Their last encounter had been a disaster of which he was deeply ashamed. He’d come perilously close to knocking out a junior officer for daring to flirt with her - Strike wasn’t arrogant about his prowess, but it was a simple fact that he’d once been the best in his division in a boxing ring, and the young lad had been somewhat drunk. What would have happened had he succumbed to temptation and the jealous rage that had subsumed him and thumped the guy... Well, it didn’t bear thinking about.
He shouldn’t even have been in the pub. Telling himself he was just looking out for her, he’d engaged in behaviour that could have seemed almost stalkerish. And then he’d followed her into the alley, unable to bear seeing her leave alone when the young corporal might have followed her, and, well. The argument that had followed, the utter loss of control of his gentlemanly instincts, the animal passion she’d awoken in him— It all had to stop. He’d avoided her since, barely able to meet her gaze, dimly aware of her misery that matched his own. He was fucking everything up, from her promising future in the Army to his own steady contentment here, simply by still being present.
No, he had to leave, leave Ellacott to her career and her future, and stop torturing himself with their ongoing affair and the desperate longing for more that he could no longer deny. He had to set her free from his very presence. And, if he was honest, it had been some time - since even before she’d arrived the previous year and blown his equilibrium out of the water - that he had been truly content here. He could see now, looking back to before Ellacott had arrived, that he’d started to drift, purposeless, going through the motions. He needed a new challenge.
And so he had decided that now was the time to finally, after years of procrastinating, set up his own detective agency. The money was arranged and would be released once the paperwork was signed, and he had two potential office premises lined up to view tomorrow afternoon and another on Monday. Where he was going to live was still an unknown quantity, but Nick and Ilsa’s spare room would do until he could find himself a bedsit or anything he could afford within reach of his eventual working space.
He took another gulp of whisky and set the flask down. With every swallow, the scorch of the alcohol warmed his stomach, heated his veins, strengthened the longing for Cadet Ellacott, his wish that things could be different. His regret that he was leaving with things between them the way they were, broken and wretched. He reached into his pocket and turned the pebble over in his big fingers, the pebble he’d bought for her in Cornwall in a fit of sentimentality and never given her. He never would, now. He was never going to see her again, kiss her, know her curves and the way that she responded—
Strike gave an impatient huff at his wayward thoughts and dragged himself out of his chair. He pulled his cigarettes from his pocket and set off for the side door to the block, outside of which he knew there was a corner where one could smoke undetected by surveillance cameras. It was late and the base was largely quiet, awaiting the youngsters, all out celebrating the end of their assessments, who would creep in after the clubs in town had closed. Ellacott would be safely tucked up in her bed by now, and he ought to be getting his head down too. But he couldn’t focus with her so close, so near and yet so far, within a few hundred yards of him and yet so inaccessible that she might as well be on the moon. By the time he woke tomorrow, she’d have left and he would never see her again.
He wished she’d gone tonight.
Cadet Robin Ellacott lay in bed in her room in barracks, drifting towards sleep, comfortable and warm. This time tomorrow night she’d be in her old childhood bedroom in Masham. Her case was packed and standing neatly by the door. She just needed to add her toothbrush and shower gel after her ablutions tomorrow morning. Her taxi was booked for half past seven, the train at eight. Her mother had promised her afternoon tea at Betty’s when she collected her from Harrogate station at the other end.
Robin felt strangely content tonight. She had reached a decision, of sorts. She had at least decided to make a decision, which was half the battle.
Her final assignment was handed in, the exams and assessments behind her. She’d done the best she could, and her fate was in the hands of her superiors now as they perused the cadets’ efforts and determined who would pass out in two weeks’ time. Robin had decided to take the opportunity of an escape, some clarity, to decide her future.
She had two whole weeks, fifteen nights, away from the base. Away from the Army, from Sergeant Strike and the increasingly complicated situation they found themselves in. Two weeks to step back, assess the situation and think.
It was obvious they couldn’t keep going the way they were. The debacle of their last encounter had brought things to a turning point. Robin didn’t think she would ever forget the feeling of being sat in the back of that taxi, trying to make polite small talk with the driver who wouldn’t shut up, her ruined knickers in her handbag and her knees squeezed tightly together.
But the evening had, in a strange way, given her hope. All this time, she’d been telling herself that her feelings were pointless, unreciprocated and really rather pathetic. What had started as a mutual attraction had been allowed to grow, in her heart at least, into something that it couldn’t be. Or so she’d told herself.
Yet he had followed her to the pub. He’d clearly said something to Corporal Saunders. The rumour mill whispered that the young man, so like Robin’s ex-husband, had been bragging about his potential success with her and that the big sergeant had set him in his place. Robin was both primly disapproving of the interference in a matter she told herself she could have handled (she’d made it very clear to Saunders since that night that his interest was not reciprocated, and he’d backed off) but also, on a primal level, touched that Sergeant Strike had been looking out for her. If only someone had warned her away from Matthew all those years ago. It was all very well for Stephen to tell her now that he’d never liked him...
Robin sighed a little and stared unseeing at the ceiling, only the big, taciturn sergeant in her mind’s eye. His bulk, his diffident manner, his almost bear-like appearance. His wry grin, his sense of humour, the way his huge hands felt so gentle and reverent on her body. The restraint with which he tried to hold himself, and the thrill of making him lose that control—
Was she in love with him? She’d stared at this ceiling night after night since their last encounter, wondering, not reaching a firm conclusion. Watched him covertly in lectures as he refused all eye contact, formal and businesslike. Did she even know him well enough to be in love with him? And yet there was a closeness between them, confidences shared and secrets told that she had certainly told to no one else, and she suspected he hadn’t either.
And so she had decided. The purpose of this trip, of getting away, was to gain some perspective. She would decide the answer to her question. And if she answer was no, she didn’t love him, then she would end their dalliance and refocus on her career by sheer force of will. She’d left a highly-paid job and a marriage to pursue this career, and she wasn’t giving it up for a mere fling.
If she was in love with him... Well, there were a few options, depending on whether her feelings were returned. At the very least, transfer to another training facility. She could say she needed to be nearer family, ask to be moved to Catterick. She might not be able to do the next stage of her RMP training, but she could complete that later. Or she could ring Vanessa and take up the offer of a position in the Metropolitan Police, based on her results so far. She’d know when she spoke to Sergeant Strike and declared her hand whether he reciprocated her feelings, and therefore which option to take - the one that moved her far away but preserved her Army career, or the one that was close enough for her to keep seeing him, and released her from the Army so that their relationship was no longer forbidden.
So, it would be all or nothing. Either way, she’d talk to him when she got back. Knowing that she at least had a plan had made her feel calmer, more in control of her life again.
Her eyes drifted closed as sleep began to claim her.
Strike paced restlessly as he smoked. Temptation was rising swiftly, burning through him with the whisky, and he was desperately trying to ignore it.
Just go to her, his treacherous mind whispered. You can’t leave with things the way they are.
He resisted the impulse to shake his head angrily at himself and took another long drag of his cigarette. The mere thought was ridiculous. He couldn’t enter the female cadets’ barracks at this time of night. It was beyond breaking the rules, veering wildly into the deeply inappropriate.
What does that matter now? You’re leaving tomorrow.
He was leaving, and he couldn’t bear their most recent encounter to be the last memory he had of her, leaving her standing in that alley. He’d felt terrible all the way back to base, wretched, guilty, miserable, alone, feelings that had faded somewhat but changed little. He wished that, if he was never going to see her again, they could at least have parted on better terms. He’d hoped he might have had a moment with her at some point while he worked to set his plan in motion this last two weeks, a moment to apologise for his behaviour, to make things right between them, to part as friends.
You could do it now. Most of them are still out in town, celebrating the end of the year. Nobody would see you.
It was just the whisky talking. He had arranged things precisely so that he’d be long gone when she returned from her annual leave. Job done, a fait accompli. Was he really going to screw it all up by trying to say goodbye?
Could he bear to leave if he didn’t?
Drifting, floating in the strange half-consciousness between awake and asleep, Robin listened to the tapping of an oak branch on her childhood bedroom window as it swayed in the breeze. It was odd that the noise was so steady, a gentle rhythm. She idly listened and wondered why she couldn’t hear the wind itself.
She opened her eyes. She wasn’t in Masham yet. She was still on the base.
Tapping. There it was again. Someone was at her door.
Blinking, Robin scrambled out of bed and reached for the handle. She opened the door without thinking - it could only be Callie or one of the other girls - and jumped in shock at the sight of Sergeant Strike.
He filled the door frame, but there was nothing imposing about his presence tonight. He seemed to be almost trying to make himself smaller, and his eyes when they met hers (a jolt, deep in her chest; they’d barely looked at one another for two weeks) were guarded but also hopeful, hesitant.
He said nothing, standing silently looking at her.
Robin’s heart pounded. For a moment she was frozen, staring at him, and then the reality of the situation hit her. If they were seen like this—
She grabbed his arm, pulled him into the room, closed the door behind him.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered. They faced one another in small space between the door and her bed; this close, Robin could smell him, cigarettes and whisky, shower gel and aftershave, and under it all, the very essence of him that she craved, longed to bury her face in and just breathe.
He was watching her uncertainty.
“Came to apologise,” he mumbled eventually, and Robin wondered how much he’d had to drink. “Again. Didn’t want to leave things like—” He made a vague gesture with his arm behind him, that seemed to encompass all that, and a small smile pulled at the side of Robin’s mouth. Yes, all that had indeed been a disaster. A disaster she was going to fix once she’d had the time and space to think it through properly and make a plan.
“An’ you’re going away—” He seemed to stop, suddenly, as though there was something he wasn’t supposed to be saying. Robin wondered if he felt that he shouldn’t know she’d taken two weeks of leave, but it wasn’t a secret. Lots of the cadets were taking the opportunity for a quick break.
But here he was, risking his career to come and find her and apologise for what had occurred between them last time, and Robin could own her own part in all that as well. “I’m sorry too,” she whispered, and stepped into his arms.
He really had only come to apologise, to say sorry, to work out how to say goodbye without actually saying goodbye, but Christ, she was warm and soft in his arms. The smooth brushed cotton of her pyjamas felt like silk under the roughness of his big fingers. He could feel her breasts against his chest as she moulded herself into him, one hand at his waist and the other resting against his chest next to her cheek. His arms slid around her back, easing her closer, and he buried his nose in her hair that was loose around her shoulders, breathing the very essence of her that he needed to feel alive. She’d looked incredible when he opened the door, sleepy and vulnerable and perfect, her arms and calves and feet bare and the soft cotton clinging to her just enough.
This had been a terrible, terrible idea, coming here. The idea of leaving her now he had her in his arms again was just unthinkable.
And then she tipped her head back and gazed up at him, her expression hard to read in the dim light, and what else could he do but kiss her?
There was something different in his kiss tonight that Robin couldn’t quite put her finger on. The urgency that had marked almost all of their previous encounters was missing. The big sergeant felt and tasted amazing as always, his chest hard against her breasts and his lips soft against hers, but he kissed her slowly, almost reverently, as though savouring every touch, cataloguing every sensation.
Dimly she wondered what time it was, how long everyone would be out. Callie and the others had been determined to party hard, and Callie had worn her dancing shoes, intending to hit the nightclubs. But still, they could be back any time, and Robin didn’t actually know how many had gone. There were a few who, like her, were taking the chance of two weeks off from tomorrow to make an early getaway, and might also have chosen a quiet night.
No, this was not a good idea at all, she told herself as she pressed closer to Sergeant Strike and slid her arms around his neck, deepening the kiss and feeling the rumble of appreciation at the taste of her echo through him. Lazy desire began to grow and coil deep in her body as they kissed, the slow inevitability of it making her arch a little and press her breasts against him.
Had this been his intention, coming here? Strike had told himself not, but as she tugged him closer and arched against him like a cat, sinuous in his arms and twining her tongue with his, it was most certainly his intention now. His arm wrapped right around her waist, pulling her body flush against his, and he knew she’d be able to feel his rapidly growing arousal against her thigh.
This wasn’t the most risky thing they had done, but they were going to have to be quiet, Robin thought dimly, and her desire pulsed at the idea of it.
It was still a risk, though. And yet, her treacherous mind reasoned with her. If you decide you don’t want more from this, you’ll be ending things after Masham. This will be the last chance.
Telling herself that that was a realistic possibility, knowing she was lying, Robin stepped back from him. He let her go reluctantly, his eyes drifting open and glittering dark at her in the dim glow from the security lighting outside the window, and he watched her hungrily as she stepped away.
She turned the lock on her door with a defiant click, and swung back to face him. His gaze was hooded, shadowed, but she heard the sharp breath he sucked in as she crossed her arms in front of herself and stripped her top off over her head. She tossed it aside and pushed her pyjama trousers down, and he gave a faint groan as he saw she was naked underneath these too; she stepped out of them and left them in a heap on the floor.
He reached for her but, grinning, she stepped back out of his way and moved to her bed, still warm, throwing the covers back and lying down, watching him, a challenge in her eyes.
So, this was happening. Strike stopped trying to pretend to himself that it hadn’t been his hope all along, his hands moving to his shirt buttons.
It was highly erotic, undressing for her in silence while she lay and watched him. Strike had no idea how many of Ellacott’s fellow recruits were still in the building, but she was making no sound and so he followed her lead.
She settled herself back against her pillow, so gorgeous his hands ached to touch her, watching him while he stripped the shirt and then his T-shirt off, a sultry smile stealing across her face as his thickly haired torso was revealed to her. He hesitated a little, his hands moving to his belt, and she nodded, grinning. A smile tugged at his mouth; he carried on undressing, undoing his belt and opening the button and his fly.
He still had his boots on. Strike gave a small huff of amused impatience and moved to sit on the bed next to her; she shuffled her hips over to make room, and the bed creaked ominously.
This was going to be a challenge.
Ellacott sat up while he bent to deal with his boots and then his prosthesis, sliding close to him, pressing her breasts against his back, making his fingers fumble. Strike muttered a curse under his breath and she giggled softly, and then he was finally stripping off his trousers and casting them aside, and swinging himself into bed with her.
The bed creaked again and she giggled again, dropping her head back as he bent to kiss her cheek. “Shh,” she whispered, and he grinned against her soft skin.
“I’ll try,” he whispered back, and kissed her.
He was distantly aware, kissing her mouth, her lips, her cheek, the soft skin by her ear, that nothing was sorted out, nothing was fixed between them, that indeed he was leaving tomorrow for good and she didn’t know. Guilt pierced him, but how could he resist her when she was smiling and naked and pliant and forgiving in his arms? How could he not push all that aside and just enjoy this moment, these sensations, this last time with her?
This last time. It hit him hard suddenly as she pressed her naked body to his and his hand slid around her back to drag her curves closer.
“’m gonna miss you,” he murmured into her neck, his arm tightening around her waist, and she gave a low chuckle.
“I’m only going for two weeks,” she replied fondly. “You’ll live.”
His heart wrenched; Strike closed his eyes and pressed his lips to her skin.
He was going to miss her. His confession warmed her heart, but she mustn’t allow it to sway her decision. Robin forced her thoughts away from wondering about the future, told herself to just enjoy this moment. What happened next, she would decide in Masham. She was just glad to have this one last chance to be with him, to not have their most recent encounter be the last memory she had of him while she made her decision.
It wasn’t exactly difficult to put the worries from her mind, with his huge bulk naked in her bed, the sheer, almost unnecessary masculinity of him overwhelming her senses. He smelled musky and warm, faintly of his morning shower, more of cigarettes and a little of whisky. It was far from unpleasant; Robin breathed him and hugged him close, and he kissed her slowly and reverently, his mouth exploring hers. Then he drew away and gently pressed her back down onto the bed, and turned his attention to the rest of her.
He kissed gently into her neck, his hand on the curve of her hip. He lowered his head to kiss her collarbone, to run his mouth along her shoulder. He moved down across her chest and his hand slid up; Robin arched into his touch as hand and mouth met at her breast, cupping her, raising her to his lips, licking gently across her nipple and then drawing it into his mouth.
A low moan escaped her, and she felt him grin against her skin.
“Shh,” he whispered, and Robin giggled a little and then moaned again as he sucked at her and his hand drifted downwards, across her stomach. Delicious anticipation tightened in her groin and her legs fell open in invitation, but he was in no hurry; his hand slid around to caress her hip again, leaving her aching for his touch.
There was going to be no rushing tonight. This was the last time he was ever going to know Robin Ellacott, and he wasn’t going to miss a moment. Strike kissed and caressed every inch of skin he could reach, tasting her, smelling her, shivering under her touches as her nails raked across his back and she writhed against him as he brought her higher and higher. Masculine pride surged as she twisted and panted beneath him. Knowing that she wanted him and that he was pleasing her was its own satisfaction, and he deliberately held back from giving her too much stimulation, wanting these moments never to end.
Because when it was over, he had to leave for good.
Panting, the ache of arousal tight in her body, Robin arched beneath him. Her skin tingled everywhere he had kissed and stroked her, and she slid her hands across him everywhere she could reach, thrilling to the feel of him shuddering as she drew her nails gently across his back and ran her mouth down the side of his neck, kissing and sucking in the way that she knew, now, made him melt in her arms.
Strike shifted himself to lie between her legs (the wretched bed with its creaking), his weight on his elbows either side of her arms and his hands sliding into her hair. He cupped her face gently and kissed her again, deeply, slowly, richly, his tongue licking into her mouth and inviting hers to respond, withdrawing gently to angle his head and kiss her again.
He was still in no hurry. The feel of her curves beneath him was delicious. Her legs tangled with his, one foot stretching down towards his and the other curled up over his thigh. Her hair ran like silk through his fingers as he caressed it as he kissed her, occasionally moving his mouth to her cheek, her jaw, her neck, back to her lips. She smelled warm and rich, musky and aroused, her curves were soft against him, her breasts pressed to his chest and her arms around him, one around his back and one around his neck, her fingers raking through his hair.
He could have lain like this for hours, kissing her, feeling her shudder beneath him as her desire rose, her hips rocking a little as though to encourage him forward.
Eventually the temptation grew too great, the ache of his own desire no longer to be denied, and he shifted himself up the bed a little, bringing his hips above hers and lining himself up.
There was something about lying under his solid bulk, feeling him holding his weight off her but allowing his hips to sink into hers, that made Robin feel anchored, secure, content. He was so warm, running a little hotter than her, the mat of hair on his chest and belly against her breasts and body. His kisses, slow and rich and languid, stoked the fires of her arousal slowly, and although she ached for him, she was in no hurry to end this encounter. He’d have to leave then, go back to his own room, and she wouldn’t see him for two weeks. The longer she could keep him here—
His mouth on her neck, her jaw, made her hips jerk involuntarily beneath him, desire arcing through her, sharp and sweet. Just as she began to feel she could stand it no more, he hitched his body up hers a little, and Robin gasped and slid her hand to his backside.
“Yes,” she whispered, pulling him closer, angling herself up to him, and he obliged, sliding slowly into her.
A low groan escaped him at the pure pleasure of the feel of her around him. Strike knew that the creaking of the bed would preclude too much movement, and he eased himself a little higher, his shoulders arching up over hers and his head still dipping down to her mouth to kiss her. His hips flexed slowly, easing in and out of her without too much rocking that would make a noise, and the heat and softness of her were incandescent.
Robin shuddered at the feel of him, the pure delight as he moved within her slowly, his hips flexing and his tongue dipping languidly into her mouth. Desire suffused her body, spreading warm through her veins, rendering her boneless and trembling; she let him bring the pleasure to her in the gentle rock of his hips.
It didn’t feel like it was going to be enough. Panting, she bucked her hips under him a little, aching for more, and the bed creaked and she felt him smile against her mouth. Robin subsided, letting him control the pace, and slowly the delicious tension within her built. Her hands slid to his backside, pulling him harder against her.
“Cormoran,” she murmured against his cheek, and he kissed her and whispered “Robin” into her ear as he flexed into her again. Emotion swelled, and she clung to him a little tighter.
His name on her lips, uttered in passion; he could never tire of hearing it in a lifetime. And he would never hear it again. Strike swallowed the tightness in his throat and whispered her name in return, and focused on bringing her as much pleasure as possible.
Pleasure built slowly was its own reward. He pressed his stubbled cheek to her soft one and thrilled to the sound of her soft gasps in his ear, little breathy sounds of delight that drove his own arousal on. Knowing the effect he had on her increased his own enjoyment, every part of him beginning to thrum with the sensations building at the base of his spine.
Robin hadn’t known it was possible to experience such delight and not splinter apart; with every stroke she felt that the pleasure must break, but still she floated higher. The slide of him deep within her was exquisite. She clung to him, her hands clutching at his sides, her whole body trembling, her gasps breaking into high, breathy moans in his ear. He moved his mouth back to hers to kiss her, swallowing the sounds, and Robin kissed him back greedily, feeling the same trembling delight running through his large frame.
Still he built her, her body begging now for release, desperate for more, and still he moved slowly, gently, holding her on a plateau of sensation that went on and on.
Then he shifted a little, bracing himself, and slid a hand down and under her hips, tugging her up to him, angling her, thrusting deeper, and the pleasure swept her away.
Her quiet moans in his ear, her hungry mouth devouring his - it was all going to be too much. Pulling her hips up to his, Strike flexed deeper, driving harder into her, determined to push her over the edge before his own excruciating pleasure broke. The deeper thrusts would be his undoing; the liquid feeling swelled at the base of his spine and he knew he was past the point of no return, his orgasm bubbling up, unstoppable, but even as a moan escaped him at the pure, carnal pleasure of it all, she convulsed beneath him with a low, guttural groan, a sound he had never heard her make before.
He hovered on the brink for several more slow, delicious strokes, gasping, and then a deep, rolling orgasm swept through him, driving hers on, pleasure he had never experienced before imploding into every part of him, leaving them gasping and clinging to one another, awestruck.
As the big sergeant shuddered to a halt, his heaving breaths hot in her ear, his arms wrapped around her and their sweat-slicked bodies pressed together, Robin clung to him, echoes of delight shivering through her.
Slowly they floated back to earth, lying still in one another’s arms. Tears stung Robin’s eyes and her heart swelled with emotion.
Of course she loved him. It was so obvious, lying here in his arms, safe and sated, the sweet ache of the pleasure he’d given her ringing through her body, his huge arms around her and his face buried in her shoulder, his lips against her skin. She felt him kiss the base of her neck softly, and she nearly said it, nearly whispered the words that would change everything.
But she couldn’t. She needed time, time to rehearse what she was going to say. Time to decide, away from him and the pleasure they found together and the rush of endorphins soaking her brain, time to analyse, to make a plan that wasn’t just blurted out in the heat of the moment. They had never once discussed what was going on between them, and that wasn’t a conversation that could be had in a whispered rush before he must try to leave her room without being seen, and her train was leaving in a few short hours.
She hadn’t yet worked out how and where this discussion would happen, only that it needed to, and it needed to be away from the base and the rules that kept them apart. The details she would sort out while she was away, with a clear head.
So she merely clung to him a little tighter, sliding her hands across the sheen of sweat across his back, and pressed her lips to his stubbled cheek.
Despair. He had to leave, to go back to his room tonight, and more importantly to leave the Army altogether tomorrow.
Come with me. It was on the tip of his tongue to say it; but what then? What could he offer her? Half a futon in some strangers’ spare bedroom, no job and no financial support. Strike was a realistic man; he knew he’d be lucky to break even in the first couple of years building a business, especially with the stringent interest rates Gillespie wanted to charge. There would barely be enough money to support one person, let alone two. And Ellacott had a guaranteed job here - he’d seen some of her assignments, she was going to pass with distinction - and a future.
So he bit down the words, swallowed them, and pressed closer, burying his face in her neck, in her hair.
Eventually Sergeant Strike moved, drawing back, and Robin’s arms tightened around him reflexively. He gave a low chuckle and kissed her cheek, and with a complaining creak from the bed, shifted himself to lie next to her, scooping her close.
Robin rolled into him and buried her face in his chest; he rested his chin on her head and she felt him hug her closer and sigh; still neither of them said anything, and the silence felt stretched, empty.
Pleasure still thrummed through her veins. Robin closed her eyes and breathed him, felt the rise and fall of his chest, listened to his heartbeat even out and slow, and just enjoyed being entwined with him, safe and sated and wrapped in his arms.
Before she knew it, she’d drifted to sleep.
Voices pierced Strike’s sleep; suddenly aware that he was somewhere he shouldn’t be, he jolted awake. Outside the window, shushing and giggling, a group of cadets, clearly drunk, stumbled by. They were not being anything like as quiet as they clearly thought they were.
His heart beating a little faster, Strike lay and listened. The block was quiet. He needed to get out somehow without being seen. He peered at his watch in the dim light and blinked comically at it. It was half past three in the morning. No wonder the light had a grey tinge to it - at this time of year, the height of summer, it would be dawn soon.
Next to him, Ellacott slept soundly, snoring softly, curled between his bulk and the wall. He was amazed they’d slept this long in such a small bed, squashed together. Now he had to get out without creaking the bed and get dressed. And leave.
Slowly he rolled away from her, and she snuggled closer into the pillow, her breathing deep and even. Strike sat up and reached for his clothes, his prosthesis.
Fully dressed, he turned to look at her in the almost darkness. She was impossibly beautiful, her long lashes resting on her cheeks, her curves outlined under the covers.
He wanted to wake her to say goodbye, but what was the use? And anyway, he didn’t think he’d be able to go if she was looking at him, wouldn’t be able to not tell her that this was the final goodbye, wouldn’t be able to stop himself from begging her to come with him.
He turned away, made himself stand up. He slipped a hand into his pocket and drew out the pebble that had gone everywhere with him for months now, its smooth curves familiar under his fingers, the name of his home town painted jauntily beneath the little robin partly worn away.
His throat tight, Strike bent and set the pebble on her bedside table. He paused another agonising moment, looking down at her, at the softness of her cheek, the gentle pout of her lower lip as she breathed deeply and evenly, and his heart ached as though to break to pieces in his chest.
The distant sound of a door banging; he needed to go. He forced himself to turn away. Let himself out of the door. Slipped stealthily down the corridor and out into the warmth of a summer night, around the side of the building and away, feeling with every step that he had left his heart, his soul, behind in that bed, on that bedside table, in unsaid words and unspoken feelings.
Strike stopped in the lee of his office building, just along from the door nearest his own office, a corner that wasn’t covered by CCTV, and took a deep, shuddering breath. He pressed a large hand to his eyes and stood, breathing slowly, the balmy night air catching in his chest on every inhale, trying to get control of himself.
At length he dropped his hand, drew his cigarettes from his pocket. He fumbled one from the packet and lit it with trembling fingers, taking a welcome drag deep into his lungs. For long minutes he stood, smoking and staring at nothing.
He was no stranger to pain in his life. Pain came and went, and he just had to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. It was all he’d ever known how to do.
The cigarette was burned down in a few deep, consuming drags. He lit another from the butt of the first, and turned his steps, stumbling a little, towards the officers’ quarters and his bed.