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The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth

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If it proves so, then loving goes by haps;
Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.
-William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, 3.1

 

Cormoran stood, staring at the door which Professor Ellacott had slammed firmly behind her. Anger and lust were throbbing through him; he tried to focus solely on his frustration, and not the disappointment racing alongside it.

He paced back to his desk and flung aside a few books before dropping heavily back to his chair. He leaned forward, dropping his head into his hands.

He fell backwards in time, to mere minutes ago, helpless to resist reliving the hungry kiss, the heat coming off of her body in waves, the way she rubbed herself against his thigh-

“Fuck.”

Cormoran gripped his hair and shifted his hips, uncomfortable.

This is what comes, he thought miserably, of having feelings.

He would admit as much, now. His interest in Miss Ellacott clearly went beyond sheer desire. He reasoned that the sooner he was truthful with himself, the sooner he could cut himself loose again.

She was, after all, with Cunliffe.

He groaned, closing his eyes, then stood up and strode toward the office door, yanking it open and walking purposefully out into the library, as if he could outpace his own feelings.

He seized a half-empty cart of books waiting to be reshelved and moved along the stacks, willing his mind to calm.

Slowly, the methodical nature of reshelving worked to soothe his heated thoughts. He let himself focus only on the numbers in front of him, on shifting the books along to make room. Rain was falling on the grounds outside; sheeting against the windows. The library was cocooned warmth and soft lighting, the muted laughter and conversation of the students providing gentle background noise.

When somebody behind him cleared their throat, it sounded distant. Cormoran turned, frowning at this interruption to his peace.

“All right?” began Barclay, taking a step back, and Cormoran rearranged his face into a more pleasing expression.

“Is something wrong?” There was concern in Barclay’s eyes. “You’re grimacing.”

“Sorry,” said Cormoran gruffly, stopping the attempt at a smile. “Headache.”

Barclay checked his watch.

“You’re not staying here all night? You were supposed to be finished hours ago. Besides, a clerk can do that.”

Cormoran picked up a book and sighed.

“Right; I’m going for dinner and you’re coming with me to the White Horse,” determined Barclay.

“Sam, I’m really not in the mood-”

“Aye, and I’m not in the mood to hear it.” Barclay grinned at him. “They do a good curry on Mondays.”

 

*****

 

The pub was filled to capacity. Cormoran, already slightly grumpy at losing out on a night of pouting in peace, visibly bristled.

“Don’ go bein’ curmudgeonly,” proclaimed Barclay cheerfully into his ear. “We’ll find a seat.”

“I didn’t think it would be so busy on a weeknight,” was Cormoran’s shouted reply.

“It’s Quiz Night!” exclaimed Sam, with the air of somebody announcing ridiculously good fortune.

“Of course it bloody is,” grumbled Cormoran. They scanned the crowd, and Barclay shrugged.

“You grab us drinks and I’ll find us a table.”

They split, and Cormoran wove his way through the laughter and full tables, deeply disgruntled. He was carrying their pints back, searching out Sam when he caught the junior librarian’s hand waving in the air.

He had found a table to share. It was currently occupied by a young brunette, who gave Cormoran a welcoming, wide smile as he approached.

“I’m Violet,” she said cheerfully, sticking out her hand to shake. “Tables are always a hot commodity on Quiz Night! I’m here with my cousin; just getting drinks.”

Cormoran nodded and sat down, then took her hand and shook it.

“Cormoran. Thanks for letting us sit with you.”

Barclay leaned in. “We’re not a bad go at trivia, either.”

Violet’s brow furrowed in Cormoran’s direction.

“Did you say your name was-” She shook her head, breaking off and waving eagerly over Cormoran’s shoulder.

“Rob! We’re over here!”

Cormoran felt as if two alternate realities of the evening had opened before him; one, in which he fervently hoped Violet’s cousin was some bloke named Rob, and the other, in which-

Professor Ellacott was walking towards their table, a drink in each hand, and her bright smile at Violet had already begun to falter as her and Cormoran’s eyes met.

“Oh,” said Violet, and even in the loud pub, the interest which she managed to inject into the single syllable was deafening. “You are that Cormoran.”

Barclay looked at him, lifting his eyebrows over the rim of his pint glass. This made Cormoran more curious than he’d admit. Robin must have shared some history with her cousin. It couldn’t have been all that bad, though, because now Violet’s eyes held a rather dangerous spark of interest.

Meanwhile, Robin had reached the table. She gave Sam a brief, friendly smile, and Cormoran a purely professional one that did a passable job of covering the displeasure behind it.

“Our trivia teammates!” exclaimed Violet, spreading her hands wide.

Sam nodded, in Cormoran’s opinion, far too eagerly.

“You won’t be sorry to have us on your team. We’re mad for trivia, aren’t we?” he elbowed Cormoran, who shot him a glare, and answered sarcastically,

“Positively batty for it.”

Violet grinned, and Robin snorted, shaking her head and sipping her drink.

Cormoran took a pull of his own, and tried hard to ignore the fact that a few hours previously, he had had her in his arms, kissing her breathless as her fingers tangled in his hair. He took a few enormous gulps in an effort to quell the memory.

There was a sudden smattering of applause and a few solitary cheers as the host stood by the bar and switched on his mic.

“Hello all, and welcome to Monday Trivia Night!”

More applause.

“My name is Alex, and my assistant Jenny is handing out papers and pens to all the tables, and she’ll take your team name as well, when she comes by! As usual, we’re operating on the honour system here; no cheating on mobile phones! If one of our staff catches you, it will mean elimination from the game, and unending dishonour.”

There was some obligatory laughter, then chatter picked up, and Violet and Sam immediately put their heads close.

“What do you reckon for a team name?” asked Violet. “Rob and I always go for The Purple Bird.”

Sam grinned. “That’ll do.”

Meanwhile, Cormoran and Robin looked at each other, then both glanced away. Out of the corner of his eye, as he pretended to be interested in Jenny handing out the paper and pens, he could see Robin frown at him.

After an awkward ten minutes during which Sam and Violet proceeded to become best friends, and the frosty atmosphere between Cormoran and Robin thickened into a layer of solid ice, the Quiz Night began.

“First category,” announced Rick, “is pop culture and general knowledge!”

“Question one: which fictional detective was a successful mystery author, and became an amateur sleuth in the town of Cabot Cove, Maine, in America?”

“Jessica Fletcher,” whispered Robin and Violet eagerly at the same time, and smiled at each other, as Sam duly wrote down the answer.

“Wasn’t that the lass who voiced the teapot in Beauty and the Beast? It’s the only movie that puts the baby to sleep.”

Violet grinned at Robin.

“I like him.”

Sam puffed out his chest, and Cormoran resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Question two: what was Freddie Mercury’s legal birth name?”

At this, the group fell into silent thought.

“Oh, I know he was born in Tanzania,” said Robin, “But I can’t for the life of me remember his name.”

She snapped her fingers. “It starts with an ‘F’ I’m sure, but…”

Sam was frowning, tapping the pencil against his mouth.

“‘F’ for...Frederic? Fortesque? Fontleby?”

Robin grinned.

“Something that doesn’t sound like a butler from the 1800s, perhaps.”

Violet giggled, and Sam kept guessing.

“F...F...F for...Francis? Finnegan! Felix?”

Cormoran, despite his resolution to remain stoically silent, leaned in.

“Farrokh Bulsara.”

Violet squealed, clapping her hands together, and Sam gave a gleeful shout and clinked his glass against Cormoran’s.

“Ha! I knew you’d be into it! Quiz night, didn’t I say so, mate?”

“‘F’ for fuck off,” said Cormoran mildly, grinning.

“Right, here’s number three: how many stripes are there on the American flag?”

“Fifty!” said Violet, then slapped her forehead. “No, sorry, I’m an idiot, that’s states. God, stripes on their flag?”

She scrambled for the paper and pen and began sketching madly, then paused and looked up, laughing.

“I don’t know how many stripes to draw!”

“Just put down thirteen,” advised Robin. “Lucky number.”

“Question four: name the national flower of Japan!”

“Cherry blossom,” said Sam aloud as he scribbled it down, looking relieved to have known one. “Very pretty, they are, in spring.”

Robin blushed at this, and after exchanging a look with Violet that Cormoran couldn’t decipher, took a few long gulps from her drink.

“Question five: name this long-running American television drama, in which a surgical residency student accidentally sleeps with her colleague, the night before they both start their new job the next morning.”

“I’ve got it,” said Violet hastily, and scribbled down the answer, carefully and obviously not looking at Robin or Cormoran.

Sam took a very long sip of his drink.

“Could you imagine, folks? Not a wise idea to date your colleagues,” laughed the host into the microphone, and there were chuckles from the crowd. Cormoran felt drawn to meet Robin’s eyes. Her cheeks had gone from pink to bright red, he felt a sudden desire to take her by the hand and get them both out of there, out of the packed pub and into the air, to cool her cheeks with starlight and kisses, to take her home and dissolve her embarrassment in ecstasy.

She held his gaze for a burning, rushing moment, then looked down.

Fucking Cunliffe.

“Question six, and we’re switching to a new category here, to Art and Literature; finish this poetic couplet: ‘There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun/by the men who moil for gold…

Violet and Sam looked blank, but Robin and Cormoran quoted in tandem,

“The Arctic trails have their secret tales/that would make your blood run cold.”

Sam wrote it down, as Cormoran and Robin stared at each other in surprise.

“I loved Robert Service as a kid,” she said, shrugging, and Cormoran felt a tightness in his chest.

“Me too.”

“Robin’s always loved poetry,” put in Violet with a knowing look at Cormoran. “She’s a sucker for a man who can-”

“Yes, well, aren’t we all,” smiled Robin tightly, and Violet dropped the subject, before throwing Cormoran another curious glance.

Cormoran felt as if he was missing something vital.

“Question seven: Name this Shakespearean play, based on the quote, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”

“Taming of the Shrew,” answered Cormoran and Robin, at the same time yet again, and Sam and Violet looked between them.

"Shrew," joked Sam. "Another word for your ex-fiance." He shrugged at Cormoran. "Actually, Charlotte was nothing like Kate, it turned out."

Violet raised her eyebrows.

Robin looked over at Cormoran, mouth open, then cleared her throat and stood.

“Excuse me.”

Cormoran watched her weave through the crowd, and before he knew it, he was following her. She pushed through the side doors and came to stop in the crisp, cool air. A few people were standing to the side, smoking. Robin turned to face him, giving a miserable chortle of laughter.

He stepped closer.

“Robin.”

She held out a hand as if holding him back.

“I can’t sit there, across from you, knowing-”

She shook her head wildly, and he took another step.

“Knowing what.”

He willed her to come closer. He wanted to kiss her so badly that he could taste it.

She looked right into his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter.” She laughed humourlessly again. “We hardly know each other.”

I want to know you.

He bit his lip against the declaration, and rubbed a hand down his jaw. There was no way they could continue like this. That he could continue like this. He had to find different footing. He had to find a way forward.

“Right. I think we both know that trying to politely ignore each other isn’t exactly working.”

She let out a long breath.

“Agreed.”

He pulled off his glasses, polished them on his shirt, and put them back on to find a slight smile on her face. It felt like a boost. He could do this.

“And,” he ventured, feeling daring, “we can get to know each other without me pouncing on you every other moment.”

She looked as if she might make a quip at this, a spark flaring to life in her eyes, but it died, and instead, she nodded.

“True.”

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his beat-up pack of Benson & Hedges, then stopped.

“Do you mind if I-?”

She shook her head, and he shook loose a cigarette, then held it between his teeth as he lit it, cupping a hand around the flame briefly, Robin’s eyes following the movement. He inhaled, feeling slightly more at ease as the first hit of nicotine rushed through him, settling his tangled emotions.

He blew out a stream of smoke, raising his eyebrows at her, and she blushed.

“Sorry.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “I’m staring. I’ve just never dated anyone who’s smoked.” There was a potent beat of silence as her words landed in the space between them, and she rushed to fill it.

“Not that we’re dating, of course.”

He was all too aware.

He briefly entertained the fantasy of what it would have been like to attend a night like this with Robin as his date. How differently it might have gone. How they could have learned about each other.

How he could have rested his arm casually around her waist, and kissed the side of her temple whenever she blushed, which he found adorable. Or how she might have put a flirtatious hand on his thigh when he made a joke.

How the evening could have ended, not with unfinished, loaded moments in a lift, or frenzied snogging in his office, but with him taking his time. Drawing moans from those kissable lips of hers as he made her blush all over that delectable skin, savouring her, his pleasure in response to hers bringing them both to the edge.

He took another drag of his cigarette and rubbed his forehead, saying,

“We can still get to know each other. Ask me anything,” he said, only half-jokingly. “I’ll give you the truth.”

“All right.” She hesitated, looking down, then back up at him, curious. “I didn’t know you were engaged, once.”

He grinned.

“Christ. Don’t be shy, or anything.”

She grinned back.

“You think that’s forward, you should see what happens if you get me drunk.”

He burst out into surprised laughter, deep, rough peals of delight that broke the ice between them entirely, and startled the other pub goers standing nearby.

She smiled as he recovered, and gave her a nod.

“Fair enough.” He exhaled, and spoke around the Charlottian-sized lump in his throat. “It was years ago. I was in love with a woman for a long time. So long that I lost the ability to tell how poisoned it had all become.” He paused, then clarified. “It took me even longer to end it.”

Robin’s eyes were on him, open and undemanding. He gave her a mischievous smile, wanting to change the topic.

“My turn.”

She set her shoulders playfully.

“Go on then.”

“What’s your favourite, desert-island read.”

She looked at him, then laughed.

“I meant go on and ask me something important.”

“What’s more important than that?” he teased, and felt a tiny, triumphant thrill as she laughed again.

“All right. Jane Eyre.” She raised her eyebrows. “And I will defend it to the death. I loved the romance of it, of course, but for me, that book is about Jane’s determination and independence. And her quiet, loving heart; she doesn’t judge people, she just takes them for who they are, and how they treat others.” She bit her lip thoughtfully.

“Jane’s character inspired me to become a teacher. I’ve wanted to be one since I first read it.”

She tilted her head.

“Why did you become a librarian?”

He took a drag of his cigarette.

“So I didn’t have to become a teacher.” He grinned, and she burst into giggles once more, and the thought occurred to him that he was becoming dangerously addicted to that sound.

“What do you see in him?” he asked suddenly, surprising both of them as he cut into her laughter. “What do you see in Cunliffe?”

Robin’s brows drew together, confused.

“Matthew? What do you mean, what do I-”

“Are you two goin’ to come back and help, or what?” Barclay had appeared, looking half amused, half cross as he held the door open. The sounds of the raucous laughter from the crowded pub inside filtered out into the evening.

“Violet an’ I are doin’ it all ourselves, and I’m not sayin’ we’re doin’ a poor job, but we could use a hand.”

Robin and Cormoran both stared at him, frozen, then Robin nodded, stepping forward.

“Of course, Sam! I’m sorry we forgot about you!” she shot Cormoran a last, unreadable look, blushing again, and headed inside.

Barclay uncrossed his arms.

“Was I interruptin’ something?”

Cormoran shook his head, and stubbed out the last of his cigarette into the ash tray on a table alongside the brick wall.

“Not at all.”

He followed Sam back into the pub, his heart hammering in his chest. Her confusion over Cunliffe had sparked something inside him, creating, out of all the feelings he was wrestling with tonight, the most dangerous one of all.

Hope.