Chapter 1: Never Have I Ever
“O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil.”
-William Shakespeare, Othello, 2.3
Robin returned the shot glass to the bartop with a euphoric clink, the alcohol burning a trail of warmth down her throat.
“Another?” the bartender grinned as Robin let out a small cough.
“No thanks,” said Robin brightly. “But I’ll have a glass of white, please.” He nodded, then returned with her request. She pushed money towards him and turned away, weaving through the crowd that shoved eagerly forward to take her vacated spot.
For a small town college pub, The Runaway Keg did extremely well, especially during the last, hedonistic days before the spring term began; throngs of students and staff alike crowded into its grimy, dimly lit space.
Robin was mostly here to get a feel for the city of Cambridge. She wanted to meet people and try new things. Tomorrow, she officially started as the newest and youngest Drama professor at the University, and she wanted to spend one last fun night out, before her social life moved entirely within the confines of campus life.
Music pulsed into the pub, the bass blending pleasantly with the warm glow of the alcohol; she felt relaxed and loose and fond of her new home.
Fifteen minutes and three laps of the place later, Robin’s glow had dissipated.
Her mobile buzzed; a quick glance revealed that Violet, her cousin and the only person she knew in Cambridge, had come down with food poisoning.
“I’m so sorry, Rob! Can’t leave the loo. Will make it up to you. Good luck tomorrow!”
Robin sighed, looking around. There wasn’t a single spot to sit, and most of the older people were talking in tight, closed-off huddles, their close-knit familiarity shimmering around them like a shield.
She was good with people, good with parties, and made a point of being easy to talk to; she knew her strengths and played to them well.
But this was a bit too intimidating.
She watched a group of people about her age burst into laughter at the table to her right, looked at the empty wine glass she held, and decided to get another.
She turned abruptly towards the bar, and smacked directly into a young man about her age.
“Oh god, I’m sorry!” Robin exclaimed.
The man’s angry expression softened as his eyes swept Robin from head to foot.
“Nah, you’re all right, darlin,” he smiled.
Robin gave him a brief nod, then turned to walk away.
“Hey, where’re you going?” The man’s hand landed on her arm, and Robin’s breath caught.
No matter how many years had passed, her body still burned through its wildfire of reactions: pulse quickening, palms clammy, sweat prickling along the back of her neck.
She glared at him, and he lifted his eyebrows, but his hand stayed where it was.
“We’re just bein’ friendly, is all,” he leered, and a bright female voice shouted, “There you are!”
A blonde woman with a friendly, pretty face had stopped at Robin’s side, looking at the man with a sharp expression before turning to Robin.
“I lost you at the bar, it’s absolutely packed in here!”
The man looked between them, and sensing a lost cause, dropped his arm from Robin’s elbow, disappearing back into the crowd.
Robin and the woman stared at each other, smiling.
“Thanks!” Robin said, raising her voice to be heard above the music and laughter.
The woman waved a hand.
“No thanks necessary!”
“Let me buy you a drink!” Robin was already reaching for her purse.
“No, really, it’s all right-”
“Please, I insist!”
The woman tilted her head, kind eyes studying her behind metal framed glasses.
“Only if you join me at my table back there. You look like you could use some company.”
“I promise we’re safe,” grinned the woman. “It’s only my husband and a friend of ours. We’re boringly normal.”
This coaxed a laugh from Robin, and she nodded. She had come out this evening in order to make friends, after all.
“Lovely!” said the woman, nodding to the left corner, indicating their route as they began steering through the crowd. She leaned closer to Robin’s ear.
“I’m Ilsa, by the way!”
“Nice to meet you!” Ilsa had led them to a small table, where two men sat, each with a pint of beer on the table in front of them, watching Ilsa’s approach. They were almost comically opposite in appearance; one was a trim, balding man whose glasses were similar to Ilsa’s, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt for the band The Cure.
In contrast, the other stranger had an overall appearance of worn-out roughness; long legs bent so uncomfortably under the table that one stuck out; his big frame testing the limits of his blue collared shirt.
The man with glasses gave them a friendly raise of his eyebrows.
“I thought you had gone to get more drinks, but you seem to have returned with an extra person,” he said, his grin encompassing Robin as well as Ilsa.
“This is Robin. There’s absolutely nowhere to sit, so I rescued her.” Robin gave a small wave, feeling deeply grateful that Ilsa hadn’t mentioned the incident with the creep.
Ilsa gestured to the men, indicating the one wearing glasses first.
“Robin, this is my husband Nick, and our friend, Cormoran.”
Both men stood; Robin had been right, the second man was tall, well over six feet.
Cormoran. Had she heard that right? Unusual name, but she wasn’t going to comment; she was occupied with shaking his hand and looking up into the scruffy, bemused face above her. Five o’ clock shadow generously stubbled a jawline beneath short dark hair in soft, messy waves, and green eyes studied her above a nose that had clearly been broken in the past.
Robin’s stomach gave a delighted flip.
“I’ll get another glass,” he said, then, turning to Ilsa, “and the refills that somebody failed to get.” His voice was teasing, and deep. He turned towards the bar, the crowd parting easily around his largeness.
Ilsa sat down and gestured for Robin to sit next to her. Nick sat across from them.
“So, you’re new to Cambridge, Robin?”
“Yes, I moved here for a new job. It’s lovely, so far. Do you like it?”
“Actually,” Ilsa said, “we don’t live here. Corm does; we’re just here visiting for Christmas.”
At this, Cormoran returned to the table, easily balancing the drinks, although Robin detected a slight limp in his right leg.
He sat beside Nick, and the four of them watched Cormoran place a glass of white wine in front of Robin.
“Sorry, I noticed that’s what you’re drinking.” He nodded towards the bar. “I can get you a beer if you prefer.”
Robin blinked, and Ilsa grinned.
“Corm’s powers of perception are legendary. I always thought he’d make a good detective.”
She looked around the table, clearly wanting to break the awkward tension. “Instead of small talk, shall we make it a bit more fun?”
Across from Robin, Cormoran merely took an impassive sip of his beer. Nick shook his head fondly at his wife.
Robin smiled at them as Ilsa laughed. “I’ve been trying to get these two to play a drinking game all night, but they’re being very dull.”
“Some of us have work in the morning,” Cormoran said dryly, and Robin wondered what his occupation was; she was having a hard time reading him.
“You can drink us all under the table,” Nick pointed out cheerfully.
I’ll bet, thought Robin, very aware of the broad expanse of chest sitting across from her.
“And usually does,” said Ilsa, with a touch of mild concern. In response, Cormoran threw back the last of his beer, then started on his freshly procured pint.
“I could be up for a game,” Robin said, and grinned as Ilsa gave a tiny cheer of triumph. Nick rolled his eyes, but smiled at her.
“All right, Robin, your presence has convinced me to submit to a few rounds.” He nodded to his friend. “Oggy?”
Cormoran’s eyes flicked towards Robin, and she felt her heart skip. They held each other’s gaze for a few moments, and he shrugged, looking at Ilsa.
“A few rounds,” he repeated.
“Never Have I Ever?” said Ilsa, and Nick groaned.
“We all know each other too well.” He glanced at Robin. “Except for Robin.”
“Exactly!” Ilsa put her hand on Nick’s arm. “Right. I’ll start. Never have I ever played this game before.”
Everyone took a polite sip of their drink.
“Never have I ever met somebody random at a bar,” supplied Nick with a wink, and Robin smiled back; he and Ilsa really were lovely. Everyone took another drink again.
“Never have I ever cancelled plans just so I could stay home and finish a book,” laughed Robin, voicing her temptation from earlier in the evening. Nick and Ilsa’s drinks remained on the table, but Robin raised her glass, and Cormoran did as well, surprising her with a slight smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
“Never have I ever missed work because I was reading,” he said, his tone a playful challenge.
He and Robin drank.
Ilsa said, teasing, “We can’t all love War and Peace to the extent that you did, Corm,” and Robin let out a gasp.
“I love Tolstoy.”
Robin didn’t notice Nick and Ilsa exchange a look; she and Cormoran were sharing a tiny, secret, smile.
Thirty minutes later, Robin was certain that Cambridge was the best city in England, and that she’d been spending the evening with the best people in it. She was definitely tipsy, most likely beyond it, but she knew her limits, and she wasn’t in the danger zone yet.
At least, not in terms of alcohol.
In terms of the man across from her, however, with his enigmatic reserve and intense eyes, she wasn’t as sure.
He could certainly drink, that much was certain; he had played the game but also steadily kept his own pace.
Ilsa and Nick had crossed the line from comfortable affection to positively handsy, and when Nick leaned towards his wife, whispering into her ear with his arm around her shoulders, Robin suspected the evening was nearing its end.
She and Cormoran looked at each other, and he grinned. The effect on his face was so startling that Robin stared. It transformed him; it erased the weathered cast and made him look positively boyish.
And a tiny bit devilish.
Her stomach didn’t just flip; it swooped low and settled lower, between her thighs. She ignored her body’s reaction to that grin, and decided to make conversation.
“Nick and Ilsa tell me you live here, in Cambridge.”
“That’s right. Not originally from here, though. I’m - from all over, a bit.”
That grin again. Robin crossed her legs, squeezing her thighs together underneath the table.
“I’ve just moved here. New job,” she explained, as she took a swig of her nearly depleted third glass of wine. “I start tomorrow, but they’ve given me a later start; a chance to have a bit of a lie-in.”
“Congratulations.” He said it with complete sincerity. “Cheers to that.”
They brought the rim of their glasses together.
“Never have I ever started a job hungover,” he stated with a wink, and Robin laughed. He took a drink, but she didn’t.
“Never have I ever made a bad decision because of alcohol,” she offered, and he chuckled as they both drank.
“Never have I ever actually liked this game,” he said with a rueful smile, and after they both finished off their drinks, he looked right at her.
“Until this evening.”
Maybe it was the heady rush of the surprising evening. Maybe it was the drinks. Maybe it was those damn green eyes of his, but something made careful-all-her-life, good-decision-making Robin say, daringly,
“Never have I ever pulled a man I just met at a bar.”
He cleared his throat. Looked down at the table. Looked back up, his eyes blazing into hers.
Robin went for it.
“Until this evening.”
She smiled, letting out a deep breath that ended on a disbelieving chuckle at herself. Cormoran raised his eyebrows. There was a beat, a pulse, between them, then he pulled his wallet out and looked at his watch.
“Right. It’s gone half past one in the morning, and you two-” he flicked an amused green eyed glance at Nick and Ilsa giggling at each other as he stood. “-are up way past your bedtime.”
Cormoran paid their tab, though Robin tried to insist on contributing. They made their way out into the brisk night air, Ilsa and Robin exchanging numbers, Nick repeatedly shaking Cormoran and Robin’s hands, and then Cormoran bundled Nick and Ilsa into the first cab, giving the cabbie such clear, calm instruction that Robin marvelled he’d had anything to drink at all.
The car glided away from the pavement, and Cormoran and Robin were left alone. She took a step closer to him. He echoed her, and ran a hand down his jaw.
“Well,” she said, gesturing with her arm. “I’m that way, by the University.”
He hesitated, then squinted down at her.
“My flat is close to there. We could share a cab, if you like.”
He was offering her both an invitation and a way out, and if she hadn’t been sure before, this last gentlemanly gesture, combined with his surprisingly shy smile, decided her.
Cormoran’s flat was small, but tidy.
He walked her through the tiny front hall, past a cozy, squished kitchen, and turned right, into a front room. A large bay window faced the street, the other three walls covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, jammed to the absolute limit with a colourful array of titles.
This was reassuring. Robin walked closer to the shelves; he stood watching her with his hands in his pockets. They smiled at each other. He stepped closer, closing the distance between them, and his large hands came up and cupped her face.
There was so much of him; his sheer size, the solidity of his presence, his low-level, guarded intensity.
She wanted him to kiss her. Wanted those large hands all over her skin. Wanted him. She placed her hands on his chest, and tipping her face up to his, he took the hint and bent his head.
For such a big man, Robin hadn’t expected such a tender kiss. His lips brushed softly against hers, encouraging her to open her mouth. Their tongues touched tentatively, then brazenly stroked, and the warmth that had settled between her legs grew steadily more demanding.
The man knew what he was doing; he ran one hand down her side, fingers trailing goosebumps in their wake, while the other hand threaded gently into her hair, cupping the back of her head as he deepened the kiss and pulled her body flush against his.
They both moaned as their bodies met; the ridge of his erection against her stomach a thrilling point of contact, and she began rubbing herself against him, the friction between them building heat.
“Oh my god,” Robin gasped, drawing back to catch her breath, and to run her fingers through the silky waves of his unkempt hair.
“Agreed,” he rasped, dropping his mouth to her neck, laving his tongue against her skin, sending sparks of arousal shimmering to her centre. She let loose a hungry, animal sound that shocked her, and he swore quietly into her skin.
Strike placed his hands at her waist and walked them backwards until the nearest bookcase was against Robin’s back. He kissed her again, deep and hard. Robin grabbed his arse, pulled him tight and moaned into the kiss. He ground against her as she buried his hands in his hair.
He broke the kiss, breathing heavily, and rested his forehead against hers.
“Shall we take this upstairs?”
In answer, Robin’s hands traveled low. She hardly knew herself as she palmed his erection through his trousers. His eyes fluttered closed, and he dropped his head forward, letting out a gutteral sound of need.
He drew back, holding out his hand endearingly, and Robin took it. He led them up the stairs, where a haphazard stack of books sat one step, and into a neat master bedroom. A large bed, some beautiful arched windows, and more books piled on the nightstand.
She didn’t see much more, because at the moment, she only cared about one thing, and that was more of Cormoran.
All of Cormoran.
He made his way over and stood in front of her, and she reached eagerly for him; that kiss downstairs had shot straight to the all-time best she had ever experienced. This time, Robin’s desire was impatient.
This time, Cormoran was unhurried.
His tongue stroked softly against hers. His palms meandered slowly along her curves. His hand cupped between her legs, maddeningly gentle.
She threw her head back, arching into him.
He grinned against her skin.
“Patience is a virtue,” he murmured teasingly, his stubble a delicious rasp at her throat.
“Whoever said that has never been more wrong,” she groaned.
He dropped kisses along her jaw; hummed against her neck.
“William Langland, but everybody thinks Piers Plowman.”
“Nothing. I’m quoting poetry to you, and doing a poor job of it.”
She laughed, he chuckled, and then he was kissing her again, and it wasn’t enough.
She reached for his belt.
“Do you have-?”
Then he began undoing the front of her blouse, sliding it from her shoulders. He undid his own buttons, and she lifted his shirt impatiently over his head, running her fingers over the dark, soft hair across his chest. She tugged his belt free, tore open his fly button and didn’t reach far at all before her hands met his rock-hard arousal.
She gripped him, thrilling at his inhale, the deep expansion of his broad ribcage. With her mouth fused to his, she unhooked her bra, tossing it to the side, and shimmied out of her jeans, lying back on the bed as he followed her. He crawled up her body, his tongue scoring a line from her ankle to her hip. Robin felt light-headed with lust; every kiss and suck of his mouth made her jolt. He took his time, then, moved up higher. He held himself on his forearms as he lapped along the edge of her knickers, his hair tickling the inside of her thighs.
He tugged her knickers slowly down, holding her leg and following the path of her underwear with his tongue. Then he lowered her leg carefully over his shoulders, bent his massive frame to her core, and licked.
Her back bowed off the bed, and his quiet laugh rumbled against her. Robin’s pulse pounded, throbbed, at her centre, as he licked and sucked and traced his tongue against her.
She came, moaning his name, her hands tightly wound in his hair, her body convulsing. He sat up, and she distantly noticed his trousers were still on, that he was only half-kneeling at the edge of the bed, when he flipped her over onto her knees.
She heard the rustling of clothes, the sound of foil and the snap of a condom, and her body responded with a shiver of anticipation. His hands settled warm on her hips, pulling her back towards him, and she braced herself. She felt the tip of him as he touched the head of his cock to her entrance and she cried out as arousal sparked through her.
He slid inside and they both moaned as he pulled slowly back, so that she felt every glorious inch of him.
He shifted behind her, adjusting his balance, his hands warm and large on her hips as he slid forward again, agonizingly slowly.
Robin dropped her head down, groaning, and pushed herself back against him, silently begging for more.
And he began to move, deep, steady thrusts that had Robin struggling to catch her breath in between keening moans. Pleasure was everywhere, there was no escaping it; every cell in her body was stimulated; sensation travelled outward in waves with every one of his thrusts inside her.
He leaned forward, his chest hot and sweaty against her bare back, and reached a hand forward, his thumb finding her clit.
She cried out as her orgasm hit, rushing and fizzing through her whole body; Robin helpless in its delicious grip.
He coaxed her through it, one hand steady at her waist as her body shuddered and clenched around him, his other hand smoothing gently down her spine. Distantly, she heard him curse, then he followed, slamming hard into her.
Robin awoke the next morning to sunlight and a feeling of absence.
She had been dreaming that she had been cuddled against a giant teddy bear all night, and now, unreasonably, felt its loss.
She stretched, blinking at grey sheets and a navy blue duvet. On the bedside table, her eyes focused on the spines of books: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, along with a battered, worn copy of War and Peace, Erik Larson’s The Devil and the White City, and, improbably, a paperback edition of Outlander.
Robin sat bolt upright, wincing.
Cormoran. Cormoran - did she even know his last name?
The bedroom was empty. There was a note on the pillow, which she opened, smiling.
Never have I ever had a night like that one.
Breakfast in the kitchen. Tea and teapot set out. Not my style to leave a woman without a proper goodbye, but we had a proper hello, at least. (And I really did have work in the morning.) No rush, let yourself out the kitchen door. Good luck at the new job.
Robin folded the note and put it aside, glowing.
She picked it up and read it a second time.
His words were sweet, and considerate. On her second read, though, she could sense the same reserve from the night before. The slight distance.
She scanned it a third time.
She sighed. What had she expected? Still, she was pleased with her foray into the world of one-night stands. Now she could return to her reliable, predictable ways. And start her new job.
The new job! Robin checked her watch. Oh, god. No time for a shower, but if she scrambled, she could make it.
Cambridge University’s campus was gorgeous.
Robin walked alongside Ms. Bunting; a petite woman who served as staff advisory in the Administration office. She kept up a steady patter of conversation as she led Robin across the courtyard, the green lawns sparkling with morning frost. Brick buildings rose up from manicured gardens; ivy crept up the turreted castle walls, and Ms. Bunting stopped in front of the arched entryway into one of the buildings.
“Professor Ellacott, I know you were promised your own office, but…”
She trailed off, looking at Robin, who smiled encouragingly, although she knew what was coming.
“The Drama department’s offices are usually housed near the Faculty of Education building, but a few weeks ago a pipe burst, and I’m afraid the repairs and restoration are taking a bit longer than we’d hoped.”
She bit her lip.
“And due to budget cuts, and the fact that you’re joining us halfway through the year, well, we just couldn’t give you your own space.”
Robin gave the woman a smile.
“Ms. Bunting, if I have a desk, that’s all I need. It doesn’t matter if it’s shared, I don’t mind.”
Ms. Bunting’s face lit up.
“Oh, how wonderful of you! We’ve placed you with the senior librarian. He keeps mostly to himself; shouldn’t be a problem. We let him know earlier this morning that he’d be sharing his office. He spends most of his time in the main library, so it shouldn’t matter.”
She entered the building, indicating Robin should follow.
“Budget cuts, you’ll hear everyone singing the same refrain!” trilled Ms. Bunting, uttering a last giggle and giving a brisk knock on a heavy oak door.
Robin heard a gruff, “Enter,” before Ms. Bunting pushed the door open, gesturing for Robin to follow her through.
The space was small. A single, large window was facing the green courtyard beyond, butter yellow sunlight dappling two maple desks on either side. Bookshelves lined both walls, and behind the desk on the right sat Cormoran, wearing a cardigan and black-framed glasses, squinting at his laptop screen with a cup of tea at his lips.
He looked up with a slightly annoyed expression. His eyes traveled from Ms. Bunting to Robin’s, and visibly widened. He put down his teacup abruptly; liquid spilling onto some papers and saturating them without him taking notice.
“Dr. Strike, this is your new office mate, Professor Ellacott.”
He stood, holding out a large hand, eyes giving her a quick sweep behind the black frames.
“Professor - Robin - Ellacott.” His voice was clipped with dry surprise.
Ms. Bunting looked between Robin’s pink cheeks and Strike’s polite expectation.
“Do you two know each other?”
Robin’s hand joined Strike’s, her eyes met his, and she experienced a full-on bodily memory; on her knees, those large hands gripping her waist, her face against the mattress, biting the pillowcase, her fingers scrambling to fist the sheets as he thrust into her from behind, filling her again and again, her sobbing his name in ragged, half-drawn breaths, his rasping curse as he came.
“We’ve met.” Cormoran’s eyes held far too much intensity; Robin was burning with embarrassment.
Ms. Bunting clapped her hands.
“There you are, Professor Ellacott! You do know somebody!”.
Robin didn’t know where to look.
Anywhere but those deep green eyes.
Instead, she glanced at the cup of tea near his laptop, scanned the bookshelf behind him, then gave the carpeting on the floor a thorough inspection.
Ms. Bunting, oblivious to the tension in the air, chirped into the silence.
“I’m so glad, Professor Ellacott! I feel far less guilty about cramming you into a shared office!” She walked to the door and was halfway out when she turned around.
“Welcome to Cambridge University.”
Chapter 2: The Longest Day
Cormoran and Robin deal with their new discovery.
Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.3
There was the sound of the office door closing, followed by thick, loaded silence.
Professor Robin Ellacott looked at her new office partner.
Dr. Cormoran Strike looked back at his.
The last time Cormoran had seen this woman, she had been asleep in his bed. His brain was struggling to equate the Robin standing in front of him with the Robin from the previous evening.
Mere hours ago, he had showered, dressed, set tea out, then made his way upstairs to the master bedroom of his flat. He had placed a note on the pillow beside Robin, curled up and oblivious, fast asleep.
He had stilled. He was held captive by the sentimentality of pre-dawn softness, his eyes drinking in the sight of her. The half-moon curve of her hip beneath the sheets, face angelic in repose, her hair a tangled sunbeam on the cotton.
T.S. Eliot’s words had floated irrepressibly forward:
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair—
He had been tempted to brush his lips gently across her forehead, to taste that soft skin one last time, but he had stopped himself, thank Christ, and the romanticism of the moment had passed. He had left the room and quietly let himself out into the morning, his heart pounding.
Similar to the rhythm it was beating now, actually. They continued to study each other. Robin tucked her hair behind her ear.
“Should I - should I speak with Ms. Bunting? To see if I need to switch offices?”
Cormoran leaned back against the desk.
His voice sounded strained and harsh.
She stared at him; he tried again.
“Do you feel like you need to switch offices?”
Now he sounded like a therapist.
“I mean - I - fully support however you’d like to handle it.”
And now he’d made it sound like a problem she had to deal with.
He took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.
What the hell had possessed him to take her home with him? He certainly didn’t make a habit of it. In fact, he didn’t bring women to his flat much at all; he preferred staying at theirs. After Afghanistan, after Charlotte, after everything, he had become wary of relationships. He knew this about himself, and he liked it that way.
Women and his personal life; they were two separate worlds, as far as he was concerned.
But last night, Robin -
Professor Ellacott, he mentally reprimanded himself-
-had been sitting across from him, talking animatedly about her love of reading, and growing up in Yorkshire, and how she couldn't wait for this new chapter in her life. Clever and funny and warm; she’d been a light, and he’d been irresistibly drawn to basking in her glow.
When he’d felt himself playing with the idea of making a move, she’d met his gaze and made one first. That clear cut boldness in the moment, so wonderfully at odds with her playful charm, had been his undoing.
She had - stirred - something in him. Something he didn’t care to examine.
Or needed to. After all, he had reasoned, what did it matter? They were adults; they both knew how these things worked. It wasn’t like they’d see each other again.
Or as if they’d be sharing a bloody office together.
He put his glasses back on, and Robin’s embarrassment swam sharply back into focus. He had to say something.
“I know I didn’t leave my number, but last night was-”
She held up a hand, her expression pleading.
“Oh, please don’t.”
He stopped, and Robin uttered a humourless laugh.
“Let me have some dignity in this ridiculous situation, at least.”
Before, his heart had been racing; now it felt curiously leaden.
She tilted her chin and looked up at the ceiling. Silence reigned once more. Cormoran sighed, scratching the back of his neck.
She brought her attention back to him, waiting.
“I’m not here that much. If it helps. I’m mostly at the main library.”
She latched onto this, nodding eagerly.
“Right. Yes. Of course. And I’ll be in class, and in the theatre.”
She gave him a tentative smile, and he returned it.
“We won’t really see much of each other.”
She kept nodding.
“Exactly. Yes. We can keep this entirely professional.”
There was a brief, awkward pause, and then Robin held out her hand. He shook it, her skin warm. Their eyes met.
She flushed, and he fought valiantly against sensory recall; fought to forget how last night, his mouth had brought that same rosy hue rushing to the surface of her delicate skin.
Fought valiantly, and failed utterly.
He took a breath and half-turned away, stepping towards his desk and taking the opportunity to discreetly adjust his trousers. He looked up in time to see Robin’s eyes travel low, then climb back up, cheeks now positively red.
Not as discreet as he’d hoped, then.
The office felt about fifty sizes too small. He was extraordinarily warm; he wished he could take off his cardigan, but even thinking about losing a layer of clothing seemed too suggestive. He reached into his shirt pocket for a pack of fags and withdrew it, tapping one out.
“I’m just going to-”
Bugger the fuck out of here.
“Step outside, for a moment.”
Robin’s eyes had landed on the cigarette in his hand.
It wasn’t a question. More an observation. A lesson she was just learning, and from the disappointment in her eyes, one she didn’t like.
“Only when I need to,” he quipped, and the joke landed heavily in the silence.
“I thought it was the fact that we’d been in the bar,” Robin stated quietly. Then her eyes widened.
“That I could taste smoke when I kissed you, I mean. Not that I was thinking about how you tasted!”
She buried her head in her hands.
“Oh my God.”
Her shoulders heaved with a silent breath.
He turned to step towards her, forgetting he’d moved closer to his desk, and tripped. He grabbed onto the edge, barely catching himself, and the knee of his bad leg slammed hard into the wood.
He swore, and Robin dropped her hands, face red, stepping immediately towards him.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, it’s fine, it’s just my bloody knee-”
He tried to wave her off, and attempted to hastily pull down his trouser leg, but it was too late.
She had seen it; the dull, worn metal of his prosthetic.
Their eyes met, and he could tell her mind was rapidly working to catch up; could see her mentally replaying last night through a different lens.
Her expression cleared.
“Are you sure? I can run and fetch some ice.”
Gratitude surged forward, mixing strongly with frustration and pain.
“Knock knock!” A cheerful male voice sounded at the door, accompanied by brisk rapping.
“Really, I’ll get some ice-”
“There’s no need, I’m fine, it’s-”
“Hello there!” came the voice again, still knocking.
“For fuck’s sake - what is it!” barked Cormoran.
The door opened.
A young man with light brown hair poked his face tentatively in.
Cormoran had met him before at various faculty meetings and events. He could recall nothing about the young lecturer other than a weak handshake and an impression of eagerness that didn’t quite ring true.
Cunliffe was handsome and keen, though, and it apparently served him well; he had a good reputation among staff and students alike. Cormoran never saw him alone: he was always surrounded by a group of admirers. It probably didn’t hurt that his uncle was on the Board of Trustees.
“Dr. Strike.” Cunliffe gave Cormoran a cursory nod before turning to Robin.
“Yes,” Robin said, straightening and shaking Cunliffe’s hand.
“I’m Matthew Cunliffe.”
“Oh, my associate Drama professor! I’ve only seen your name in emails ‘til now; it’s lovely to meet you.”
“Same. Absolutely lovely.”
Cormoran could see just how lovely Matthew Cunliffe found his new colleague; he was clearly growing more and more delighted with the woman standing in front of him.
Cormoran retreated, limping the few steps behind his desk and sitting heavily in his chair. With detached dismay, he saw that a pile of grant paperwork was now soggy and sepia-coloured, his teacup beside it half-full.
Matthew finished pumping Robin’s hand.
“I’m here for your campus tour, before the students arrive tomorrow.”
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry, I’ve just been-” Robin flashed Cormoran a look, “-occupied. I’ve completely lost track of time.”
“That’s fine.” Matthew smiled at her, and Robin smiled back.
Cormoran tried not to scowl. His knee experienced a throb of pain; his chest an unreasonable throb of jealousy. He tampered down on it, and focused on gingerly lifting a sodden page from the stack. It fell soggily apart in his hands.
“Ready for tomorrow?” Cunliffe was asking Robin. “Any thoughts for the term’s Shakespeare play?”
“Oh, yes! I’ve been planning on Macbeth.”
“Tried and true,” smiled Matthew.
“Absolutely.” Robin’s eyes were shining brightly, reminding Cormoran of the enthusiasm he remembered from last night.
“I’d like to take it in a new direction and set it in an entirely different time and place. I was thinking New York City, during American Prohibition.”
“American Prohibition,” Matthew said faintly. “For Shakespeare.”
“Yes! We can have jazz, and flappers, and bootleggers from Canada. Macbeth is perfectly poised to takeover his family’s underground Speakeasy.”
“Bootleggers and jazz,” repeated Matthew faintly, looking dazzled. Cormoran felt a touch of grudging sympathy for the younger man; he knew what it was like to be at the mercy of her sunshine.
“Why not? We should make it memorable.” Robin was grinning.
Matthew looked deeply uncomfortable.
“I’m not sure.”
“Macbeth is dark ambition and violence and sex. It’s the perfect fit for 1920s New York.”
Matthew cleared his throat.
“Cambridge traditions are-”
“Nothing but leftovers from an old boys’ club.” Robin waved an unconcerned hand, grinning. “Let’s shake things up a bit.”
Matthew’s mouth fell open. Cormoran smiled to himself; clearly, the young lecturer hadn’t anticipated such forward thinking.
“Can you see it?” Robin asked encouragingly, pinning Matthew with her brightly resolute gaze.
“Er,” he said, shooting a pleading glance at Cormoran, who nodded.
“I can absolutely see it,” he agreed. He was enjoying Cunliffe’s discomfort immensely.
“Er,” Matthew repeated, glaring at Cormoran’s unhelpful input. “I guess...I guess we can try it.”
“We can, and we will,” Robin returned. “I am in charge, after all.” She said this with a friendly, casual air, but there was an underlying, take-no-prisoners tone in her voice.
“You do seem to have thought about it,” offered Matthew tentatively.
Robin beamed at him, and this made Matthew perk up.
“So you should do it how you like,” he said. ‘To thine own self be true’, as they say in Macbeth.”
“Hamlet,” corrected Cormoran and Robin automatically, in tandem.
Matthew looked between them, his smile growing forced.
“Well, I don’t exactly have every line of Shakespeare memorised. Who doesn’t mix those plays up?”
“Cambridge Drama professors, one would hope,” returned Cormoran mildly.
“What was that, Dr. Strike?” Matthew’s smile had gone from forced to frozen.
“I was thinking we should do some research,” Robin cut in peaceably.
“On Shakespeare?” Matthew asked.
Robin tilted her head. “On American Prohibition.”
“Right,” Matthew laughed, slapping his forehead. “We already know Shakespeare.”
“Do you, though?” Cormoran muttered.
Robin threw him a look.
“How about that tour?” she said briskly, and Cunliffe snapped his attention back to her.
“Yes, the tour!” said Cunliffe, and laughed. “I know this place inside out.”
He continued to talk as he and Robin headed towards the door. “It’s very important to know your way around here, to really get a sense of the place” he announced imperiously.
“This, above all else,” was Cormoran’s innocent reply. Matthew’s brows were drawn together in confusion, but before the oak swung shut, Cormoran caught Robin’s flicker of a smile.
As far as long days went, Dr. Cormoran Strike’s was everlasting.
He longed to be back at his flat, alone, where he could have a drink in peace and quiet, but annoyingly, there was actual work to be done. The last day before the beginning of term always meant a last-minute burst of activity in the library, a soul-sucking tour for the board members, a slew of start-of-term emails, programme planning, signing up his staff for their mandatory first aid and emergency response training, and the mundane but necessary task of delegating which parts of the collection needed weeding.
All of it was routine, but today, none of it was easy.
He was thoroughly distracted by thoughts about his new office partner. He kept reflecting on Robin’s genuine warmth, despite the embarrassing situation. He couldn’t stop thinking about her enthusiasm for the play, blazing through the sleepy little office and shaking up Cunliffe.
And then there was last night.
His memory insisted on reliving, in glorious technicolour, details from the end of the evening. The pale slope of her back beneath him. The catch in her giggle as he kissed the silk of her inner thigh. The sound of his name on her lips, transformed into a long, low moan as he tasted her, her fingers gripping his hair, how wet she had been-
He looked up sharply, his reeling senses awash in Robin-tinged memory, as he lifted his eyebrows at the junior librarian hovering in the doorframe.
Get a fucking grip.
“That application for the volunteering grant came in the mail; d’ye want it now, or-?”
Cormoran nodded, reaching out for the envelope.
“Yeah. Thanks, Sam.”
“What is it?”
“Do ye know that Cunliffe fellow? From Education?”
“He’s strutting all over campus with the new Drama Professor. Robin Ellacott.”
Cormoran squinted at his computer screen.
“Ran into them earlier. She’s a breath of fresh air, that one.”
“Word is she’s sharin’ her office with the senior librarian.”
Cormoran looked up.
“Do you have a point, Barclay, or am I just the lucky recipient of today’s verbal meandering?”
“Ye should ask Professor Ellacott to the staff introduction party at the end of the week. I know you don’ like those things, but-”
“Don’t you have the student community board to be setting up?”
“Breath of fresh air, boss.”
He left the office with a wink, and Cormoran shook his head.
He stared at the email he was drafting without reading it.
The staff party.
Cormoran hated it; hadn’t attended for years. Unlike some of the other staff events, it was optional, so he generally avoided it.
He sat back in his chair and ran an idle hand down the scruff of his jaw, thinking.
Would it be a good idea to ask Robin? Perhaps it could go some way towards repairing the awkward situation they found themselves in.
Or would it make things worse, between them?
There was a third argument to be made, one that was being irrationally and loudly voiced by his own body.
He sighed, and rubbed his forehead above his glasses.
“So this is the main library, obviously, you’ve met Dr. Strike, he’s always hiding here somewhere. His staff are helpful, but he’s a bit elusive - he’s a bit rough; keeps to himself and there’s a rumour he’s a bit of a heavy drinker. We needn’t bother with more than a quick look…”
Matthew Cunliffe’s voice, with its tone of puffed-up authority, reached Cormoran’s ears. He looked up to see Cunliffe gesturing at one of the displays near the front. Robin was beside him, her hands on her hips, studying it.
Cormoran had been studying those same hips last night.
With his mouth.
“Listen, Robin,” Matthew’s voice became clearer as they walked a bit closer to the glass windows of Cormoran’s office. Robin looked over and gave a professional wave, which Cormoran returned.
“You know that start-of-term staff introduction night?” asked Matthew, apparently deciding to ignore Cormoran completely.
“Yes - I got the email for it - this Friday, I believe?”
“How’d you like to go with me?”
Matthew had turned fully towards her, his handsome face suffused with confidence. Cormoran waited to hear the words he knew were coming.
“Oh, I’d like that! Thanks, Matt!”
The familiar shortening of Cunliffe’s first name didn’t escape Cormoran’s notice. Nor did his own, internal spike of disappointment at her acceptance.
It was better this way. Robin was too smart for Cunliffe, but what did Cormoran care about it? Things had returned to their natural order.
Professor Ellacott could do whatever she liked with her life.
Cormoran looked at his watch. An hour to go. He pulled open his desk drawer, took the small bottle of whisky hidden at the back, and sloshed some into his tea.
He leaned back, took a sip, and closed his eyes. Tomorrow was the start of term. He wasn’t a man who bought into fresh beginnings, but as the whisky warmed a comforting trail down to his stomach, he made a small, singular resolution in regards to the last twenty-four hours and his new office partner:
This far, and no further.
Thanks to Lula for Britpicking - Canadian English is such a weird mix of British/American. 😂
And thanks to BlueyGreeney for her input on the world of Cambridge! :D Very useful.
Cormoran/Robin's version of working for Cambridge is definitely fictional - some liberties will be taken with the professional lives of professors/librarians. 😅
Chapter 3: Strange Things
Robin and Strike try to keep their professional lives separate from their feelings, and don't really succeed. Meanwhile, a sinister prank is played in the student theatre.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2
Robin was enjoying the sound of rain drumming steadily against the windows. Outside the office, the view was a blurred canvas of green and grey, but inside, in the desk lamp’s golden glow, she felt cosy and content. She sat back, giving her eyes a break from the computer screen. She had been grading the first assignment she had set their students:
Describe yourself by writing a Shakespearean soliloquy that reveals your “fatal flaw.”
They would perform their works in front of the class, next Friday.
Reading their submissions was giving her insight to her students’ personalities and writing, although that was becoming clear during their sessions together, as well. She had a few theories about who would fit where in their production of Macbeth, but she’d wait and see how the students did in front of an audience.
She stretched, reflecting. It had been a good week. Other staff had been friendly and welcoming. A few dubious looks were cast her way, due to her younger age in a profession marked by stature, but otherwise, a promising start to the term. She was absolutely determined to make a good start of her career.
Her gaze wandered along the bookshelves behind Cormoran’s empty desk. His hours were later than hers: he worked nights, she knew, as the library needed to be accessible to after-hour students and those who took evening classes. He had been right; he spent most of his time in the library.
After that tremendously awkward first morning, she hadn’t seen him.
He certainly invaded her thoughts on a regular basis: his cheeky grin across the pub table, and his sly, barbed comments in the office the other day that had gone straight over Matthew Cunliffe’s head.
And then, there were other memories.
Green eyes meeting hers in the dark before he whispered poetry along her skin, his dark head between her legs, his mouth warm and soft against her core.
Robin placed her arms carefully on the desk and leaned her head in her hands. That night at the pub had been a spur of the moment decision, albeit the most erotic and spectacular of her fairly limited sexual life, but the fact remained: Dr. Cormoran Strike was a distraction she did not need.
Robin entered the main library and stopped short. When Matt had given her the tour, the place had carried the sleepy, hushed atmosphere she had always associated with libraries. The space she was currently standing in was absolutely packed.
Each computer terminal was in use, students milled around, laughing and swatting each other, squealing and flirting, and the queue at the desk reached all the way to the front doors.
She walked alongside the line, spotting a familiar face. She remembered meeting Sam Barclay on her first day and liking his easy, open demeanor.
He looked up, recognising her, and waved her over.
“First week o’ term’s always a bit much,” he grinned.
“I would have thought they all have laptops,” replied Robin, genuinely still surprised at how full the library was.
“You’d be shocked how many teenagers can navigate YouTube, but can’t attach a document to an email to their instructor.”
“Do you have anything that outlines the legal tenancy rights for student cooking in their rooms?” asked the girl approaching the desk. Her friend added hastily, “And, like, anything about removing smoke stains from the wall would be good.” Barclay’s colleague nodded, gesturing them forward, as the boy waiting behind her stepped up.
“My student app crashed because my phone stopped working, and I’ve lost my student card with my access code, and I don’t know the day’s value for the Bitcoin stock that I bought two days ago, and I’m going a bit mental because I used all the money my mum gave me for my birthday and-”
“Don’ worry, we’ll get ye sorted,” soothed Sam, and smiled at Robin.
“Ah, I can help ye find the books you’re lookin’ for in just a moment.” He nodded over his shoulder. “Or I can get another librarian-”
“Actually, I’d like to explore a bit,” said Robin cheerfully.
He gave her a nod.
“Come back if ye need help,” he said, already turning towards the crowd of waiting students.
Robin began walking down an aisle of books, then another, the noise and bustle of the front desk fading. She wandered at random, enjoying the stillness and peace, telling herself she wasn’t hoping to run into Cambridge’s senior librarian.
She stood still for a moment, enjoying the new challenge but unsure where to start. She looked at the numbers on the shelf closest to her.
458.3421 LEA 2018
The title on the spine read “Learn Italian with Victor.”
Definitely the wrong spot. She vaguely recalled history being somewhere near the end of Dewey, but couldn’t for the life of her remember how high the numbers went. She turned on her heel and walked along the stacks, noting that as the numbers grew higher the general theme changed from languages to science and maths.
She turned a corner, and up ahead, concentrating on the open book in his hand, a cart of books beside him, stood Cormoran.
Here was a chance to stare at the man who had been a near constant presence in her imagination, and Robin unabashedly took it. Her memory wasn’t faulty: he really was that tall. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, exposing the hair on his large forearms, and his dark hair was sticking slightly out where a pencil rested behind his ear. He glanced up, sensing her presence, and he pushed his spectacles higher on his nose in surprise.
He closed the book with a quiet snap and placed it on the cart with its fellows.
“You’re here for your production’s background research?”
They both stepped closer to each other, and she nodded.
“Yes. I thought...history?”
That sounded quite smooth, Robin thought, proud of herself for appearing casually businesslike.
“You’ll have to go more specific. Prohibition would be social sciences, in the 360s.”
“History of Manhattan?”
He was showing off; eyes crinkling behind the frames.
Robin tried hard not to find it rather adorable.
“Is that generally history, then? The 970s?”
“So period clothing and fashion would be there as well?”
He shook his head, grinning.
“That doesn’t make much sense.”
“I agree. It’s a randomized system based on one man’s whims.”
They stood staring at each other. Then, he took the pencil from behind his ear and scribbled down a few lines on a notepad. This close, Robin could tell that his worn, blue-collared shirt was the same one he had been wearing the night they met; she knew exactly how soft that cotton felt. The last time she had been this close in proximity to blue-shirted Cormoran and bookshelves, he had pinned her up against one, slowly grounding his erection against her.
She swallowed. He tore the piece of paper off, his gaze focused on hers.
“Titles on the history of New York, Prohibition and speakeasies in America. A few on jazz and rum smuggling.”
He was speaking about American history, but Robin barely heard a word. She was so busy trying to appear nonchalant that she couldn’t actually focus on what he was saying. She hadn’t realised he had a light dusting of freckles just underneath his eyes.
“Also ones on the history of Macbeth, and I included a few recent periodicals to search for reviews on modern adaptations; successful runs as well as the ones that went a bit wrong, for balance’s sake.”
She nodded. They stared at each other.
He cleared his throat.
“Here’s the list, then.” He held the paper out, she accepted it without looking at it, his fingers grazing hers. Fingers that had intimate knowledge of her skin, her nipples, her-
“Thanks very much Dr. Strike,” she said briskly, and turning abruptly away, began to walk back down the aisle without paying attention to where she was going. As long as it was in the other direction from Cormoran Strike and his intent, playful focus.
She strode past students grouped at tables, laughing and sharing snacks, and along a far wall lined with windows and cosy chairs, ignoring a couple snogging heavily in the depths of one. She could see the front reference desk ahead and walked purposefully towards it, returning Sam’s friendly wave goodbye.
Robin made her way out the front doors, standing aside to avoid colliding with a boisterous group of girls just entering.
She would come back when he wasn’t there, when she could actually focus. When she wouldn’t be distracted by tall librarians, with their surprisingly muscular forearms, their eyes crinkling behind black-framed spectacles, and their annoying familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system.
Robin was doing a last sweep of the small theatre, checking for clothing and bags left from the class, when she heard Sam Barclay’s playful tenor echoing from the main doors.
“Hallo down there, Ms. Ellacott!”
She looked up, grinning, as he headed down the aisles between empty seats, bookbag in hand. Cormoran was close behind him, carrying another bag.
They met up with her in front of the stage, and Robin looked from the books they placed at her feet, back up to the two men.
“For your research,” pointed out Sam helpfully.
“Yes, I surmised as much,” replied Robin dryly, and Sam laughed.
“Cormoran was mighty concerned when ye left, and asked me if you’d got the books ye needed, and we bolted down here absolutely posthaste to rectify the situation-”
“You’re set now,” interrupted Cormoran firmly, and met her eyes for a brief, burning moment before looking down at the books again.
“I appreciate it,” said Robin, and Barclay gestured at the stage.
“Heard you’re doing a modern version of the Scottish play.”
“You heard correctly, and thank you for following tradition with the name.”
Robin heard Cormoran emit a sound suspiciously like a scoff.
She turned to him, smiling politely.
“Is that doubt I detect from our senior librarian?”
His eyebrows rose, amused.
“Superstitious nonsense, Ms. Ellacott.”
“It’s not nonsense, it’s a fun tradition.”
“Och, I’m on Ms. Ellacott’s side, here. It’s a bit of fun, and part of the whole experience, isn’t it?”
Cormoran gave Sam a disapproving shake of his head.
“Not you, too.”
Barclay looked appalled.
“I’m nae about to break one of the oldest traditions in stagecraft history. It’s bad luck to say the name inside the theatre, everyone knows that.”
Cormoran looked between them, disbelieving.
“You’re taking the mickey, both of you. You don’t really believe in terrible, mysterious occurrences, and ghosts haunting the production? In curses?”
Sam nodded, and Robin crossed her arms.
“Utter madness,” Cormoran stated.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Robin quoted loftily.
Cormoran gave her a graceful nod of defeat, then a sudden, mischievous grin.
Robin couldn’t help the squeal that she emitted, and Sam took a sharp intake of breath. The word disappeared into the empty theatre, and there was a moment of silence as the three of them waited. Robin looked at Cormoran, who winked.
Her stomach performed a somersault.
“There’s nothing to-”
His words were cut off by a scream, an almighty crash, and heavy footsteps. Then, silence.
“What on earth-?” Robin scrambled up onto the stage and ran to the wings before reaching backstage. She skidded passed an overturned ladder, then came to a sudden stop. At her feet lay a huge, overturned chest of drawers, its splintered legs still issuing motes of fresh sawdust. Its giant mirror had broken with the crash, and splintered glass lay in pieces, along with a glittering trail of fine glass powdered on the floorboards.
“Hello?” called Robin, but the darkened wings remained silent.
She heard movement behind her, and Cormoran’s low voice.
“I’ll check; got heavier shoes.” He walked past her and into the shadows. Sam came and stood beside her, surveying the mess of the shattered bureau.
“Who screamed?” wondered Robin, stepping carefully back.
“An’ who knocked over this monstrosity?”
“It’s a set piece, I presume. I hadn’t seen it before.” Robin sighed. “I’d better find a broom, and I’ve got to take care of this glass. I should call Facilities, I suppose.”
Cormoran reappeared, his mouth a thin line.
“There’s nobody in the dressing rooms. Whoever it was has scarpered.”
“I swear all my students left,” said Robin. “It’s a Health and Safety issue; I wouldn’t leave them locked alone in here.” She put her hands on her hips, thinking. “There are two back door fire exits, but they trigger an alarm if they’re opened.”
“So they had to have used the main doors,” surmised Sam. “They circled back out front once we all scrambled backstage.”
“Why, though?” Robin added. “Why knock over a giant piece of set furniture, then scamper off? As a prank?”
“Somebody waiting in the wings just to scare you after class? That’s a bit sinister,” Sam replied. “What do you make of it, boss?”
They both turned to Cormoran, who had been examining the bureau. He had pulled a white piece of paper out from one of the half-opened drawers, and frowned at it before holding it out. There was a single line of text, clearly made by the distinct keys of a typewriter.
Watch your step.
The staff party was in full, merry swing by the time Robin and Matthew arrived. Robin had dressed with some care; she had an instinctive feeling that Cormoran avoided these kind of things, but couldn’t help dressing as if he might show. She chose a black, shorter dress that sat just off her shoulders, with black hose and a favourite pair of heels. When Matt arrived in his car to pick her up, she had seen the appreciative gleam in his eyes, and felt a flash of confidence. Even if Cormoran didn’t appear, she could use a boost.
The smashed bureau backstage had left her a bit nervous. Cambridge security had followed due process, saving the paper and noting the official details into a report that would disappear forever into the hallowed halls of bureaucracy. It was dismissed as a start-of-term prank, and Robin was even told, a tad condescendingly, to expect more, considering her choice of production.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it. Prank or not, she felt targeted, and it wasn’t pleasant to think one or more of her students were willing to go that far just for a laugh. And it hadn’t been funny.
She was determined to have a good time tonight, and Matt proved an attentive date; getting her a drink and introducing her to various staff she hadn’t yet met with. About thirty minutes in, they decided they were hungry enough to visit the table laden with food, and Matt gave her a surprisingly funny summary of what the best choices were.
She was reaching for another piece of smoked cheddar when he leaned in close.
“Didn’t realize he was going to be here tonight - doesn’t usually grace us with his presence,” he joked, with a conspiratorial roll of his eyes towards the corner.
Robin knew who Matthew meant before she turned around and confirmed it; there, standing with a few other staff members and nodding along to conversation, stood Dr. Strike.
He was frowning into the drink in his hand, but he looked up, his eyes unerringly finding hers across the room.
Unlike most of the other attendees that night, he had forgone party dress in favour of his work clothes: shirt wrinkled underneath his ubiquitous cardigan, the collar unbuttoned and open, his trousers unpressed, his soft dark hair sticking slightly up.
“-looks like he woke up and rolled his way over here,” Matthew was snickering.
“He looks good,” said Robin absently, only realizing what she had said when she saw the surprise on Matthew’s face.
She grinned to cover the blunder. “Only that I doubt he rolled here out of bed, obviously.” It worked, Matthew laughed.
“There’s Mr. Lau, from the Board of Trustees. Want me to swing you an introduction?”
Robin nodded, indicating for him to lead the way. She snuck a last look at Cormoran, but he was entirely focused on his own group, so she turned back and followed Matt through the crowd.
“No, no, no. It all started when we followed the Americans into Kabul, in 2001,” exclaimed Professor Belair, brandishing her finger in the air.
Robin took a sip of her drink. She had never seen so much alcohol consumed outside of a club, and over the past few hours, she had watched as mild-mannered colleagues grew loud and boisterous. The evening had worn on, and Robin was more than ready to go home and collapse into bed. It wasn’t that late, night classes were still in session, but she was craving the quiet of her own company.
Currently, she and Matt found themselves gathered with ten to fifteen colleagues, and she couldn’t tell if the topic at hand was the state of the British pound sterling, the state of the British nation, or the state of British football.
“What do you think, Doctor Strike?”
Professor Ashmore grabbed the elbow of the man standing behind him and pulled him forward, and Robin found herself standing across from Cormoran.
“I think I need another drink,” he said, and the group laughed.
“But you were there, in Kandahar, weren’t you?” pressed Ashmore, and there was quiet, waiting for his answer.
“I was there.” His tone was polite, but wary.
The group broke out into excited chatter all over again, ignoring him, and Cormoran took a long pull of his drink. Robin was surprised; she hadn’t known he was in the army, let alone fought in Afghanistan.
Then again, she reminded herself; she didn’t know him.
With a flash, she remembered the glimpse of the metal prosthetic beneath his trouser leg, from the other day. She wondered if his time in the war was related to it.
“What a mess that whole thing was!” Matt proclaimed knowingly beside her.
Robin looked over at Cormoran; his face was schooled into grim neutrality as he stared into his drink. Matthew continued.
“A waste of effort and money, and I think-”
“What an awful thing to say,” interrupted Robin. Cormoran looked up.
Matthew was undeterred.
“And I think it’s very brave of those men and women, to risk their lives,” declared Robin, overtop of Matthew, who stared at her.
“I never said it wasn’t,” he said, a touch petulantly.
Robin turned back to where Cormoran had been standing, only to see he had left. She sighed, suddenly exhausted. Matt was her ride home.
As she thought it, he smiled fondly at her.
“Shall we call it a night?”
“They’re about to get into the state of the world, next, so your timing’s good.” Matt gestured to the group, who were getting louder.
“Er - I’ve just got to run to the loo. Meet you downstairs, in the main lobby?”
“I’ll get our things.”
Robin wove her way through the remaining partygoers, nodding and smiling her goodbyes. She pushed open the door and saw that down the hall, Cormoran was waiting for the lift with a small knot of other people.
She walked over, and he gave her a rueful smile.
“I’m too knackered for the stairs.”
She pictured them in the lift together, her in close proximity to his glasses and rumpled sexuality, and decided that it was a dangerous idea to join him. The stairs were her much smarter option.
“I’ll keep you company,” she said brightly.
The door slid open, and he stood back as she stepped in with the others. She and Cormoran stood at the back, side by side. More people were coming in, chatting and laughing, and Robin shuffled closer to him.
They descended, and Robin felt Cormoran’s presence beside her like a brand on her skin.
Then she felt it: the cool, dry, brush of his fingers; a whispering caress against hers.
A slight turn of her head, and she caught his profile. He was staring straight ahead. He shifted, his hand flexing against hers again, and she responded, gently twining her fingers with his. She felt his inhale, and saw his chest expand with it.
“Any more strange occurrences?” he said softly.
Apart from the unearthly rate at which her heart was currently racing?
The lift stopped, and emptied of a few people making their way to offices. She and Cormoran continued to face ahead, his thumb stroking gently back and forth across her hand.
“Thanks for what you said earlier.”
She knew what he referred to.
“I meant it.”
Another stop, another opening of the doors, another tumbling out of people.
The doors closed, and they were alone.
Robin could feel his eyes blazing a path down the side of her face to the skin of her bare shoulders, lingering there. She looked over; their eyes met.
He moved at the same time she did; he had both arms braced on either side of her head, and she was grabbing his collar, pressing herself flush against his big body. He leaned in, his eyes closing.
Heat rippled through her and settled invitingly between her legs.
She placed her hands lightly on his shirt, just above his heart, and he shuddered. He dropped his head down to her neck, his lips nuzzling her hair aside. He spoke against the pulse at her throat, his deep voice breaking.
“You’re driving me fucking wild.”
She let out a long, gutteral moan.
He lifted his head, and they stared at each other. They didn’t move, but the hunger in his eyes made her feel as if he were drinking her dry. He licked his lips, and Robin felt the heat between her legs turn damp. She wanted that mouth on her, she wanted his tongue hard and hot against hers, she wanted him sliding into her, stroking deep.
The lift dinged and the door slid open. Strike sprang back from her, and a group of night students flooded in, talking and laughing loudly.
Robin attempted to run her fingers through her hair. Cormoran looked down at her, took in her shaking fingers and flushed face, and shook his head, speaking low.
“Jesus Christ.” His voice was rough. “I’m sorry, Ms. Ellacott. I don’t know what came over me.” He was looking at her with an expression filled with regret.
“Unacceptable behaviour, just then.”
She was still trying to gather her wits. She opened her mouth, close to uttering pure absurdity-
Please, pounce on me anytime you like. In fact, take me rough and quick against the wall, now’s a good time.
- and closed it as the lift stopped again.
It was her floor, and the door slid open to reveal a waiting Matthew.
Chapter 4: In the Clear Light of Day
Cormoran deals with the morning after the night of the staff party, among other things.
What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes?
-William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, 2.2
Robin was looking at Cunliffe, who was shooting Cormoran daggers. Cormoran looked back, completely unbothered.
Try me, you fucker.
The three of them formed an awkward triangle of silence, and the lift door began to close again. Cormoran lurched forward, his arm blocking it, and stood aside as Robin walked past him, her face flushed.
Cormoran followed her out of the lift, the scent of gardenia and roses still clinging to his jumbled senses, and he shook his head slightly to clear it. Cunliffe smirked at him as he held out Robin’s coat and handbag towards her.
“Thanks Matt,” she said, taking them from him, and the two of them walked out the front doors and into the evening.
Cormoran stood there for a few moments, adrift, before the spell of Robin Ellacott lifted, and he realised he was standing alone in the building’s front entrance. He took off his glasses and pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead; he could feel the beginnings of a headache.
Time to make his solitary way home.
Cormoran walked into his kitchen and pulled a bottle of whisky from the cupboard, tipping quite a lot of it into a glass. He threw back a promising mouthful, then paced back to his front sitting room, staring at the spines of his books.
With aching clarity, he remembered Robin’s body melded to his, the pocket of her soft warmth sheltering his hardness, the bookshelf bracing both of them as they fit together, seeking each other’s closeness.
There was no way she could have gone home with Matthew Cunliffe, he decided, tossing back another mouthful.
He swallowed the rest of his drink, marched immediately back to the kitchen, and poured himself more. He drank it down in one go, then splashed another measure into the glass, before weaving unsteadily back to the front room and throwing himself into a chair. The taste of oak and amber burned down his throat, and he wanted the taste of Robin. He closed his eyes and saw hers, burning into his in the lift.
He pulled his mobile from his pocket, his blurry emotional state ignoring his rational brain, which was screaming at himself to stop from making what was clearly a bad decision. He found the Cambridge Staff App on his phone and opened it, then searched the staff directory and located her phone number.
Another swallow of whisky, and the idea of calling her seemed like a brilliant one. He punched in the number and stared at the ceiling, listening to each unanswered ring.
“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of Professor Robin Ellacott. I’m sorry I’ve missed your call, but please leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
He could hang up, he thought, as the tone sounded. He should hang up.
He would hang up.
“Ms. Ellacott.” He took a breath, leaned forward in his chair.
He dropped his head.
He swallowed, shifting in his seat, restless.
“I can’t stop thinking about our night together.”
He ran a large hand through his hair and gripped it, hard.
“No, that’s not it. I can’t stop thinking about you.” He closed his eyes, his memory tracing the lines of his own longing. “Everything about you. Your warmth. Your - passion. And the way you stood up for me, this evening. I can’t-”
He closed his eyes, imagining a world where the lift doors had never opened.
“I wanted to taste you, tonight,” he said, into the phone. “I wanted to press you against that wall and take my time.”
He took a breath.
“You know what I want to do with you, Robin?”
His voice was rough and unsteady, and he didn’t give a fuck.
“I want to tease you open, and watch you bloom beneath my hands. I want to see your desperation build until I have you whimpering your pleasure, I want it echoing into my mouth as you come. I want to make you glow, I want to make you see stars, I want your own ecstasy to be so complete that it’s a torment.”
He breathed in and out, his hand clenching on empty air at his knee, missing the landscape of her skin, needing to map the valleys of her curves, wanting to taste the tang at her core.
“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees," he quoted softly, picturing himself murmuring the words against her mouth, lingering on the soft skin of her lips, sucking gently on her full bottom one.
He huffed a dark laugh at himself, and ended the call.
Saturday morning found Cormoran in his staff office. Bright and chipper he was not, but grateful for an opportunity to stop his alcohol-fueled weekend of denial he was, so in a rare burst of job productivity, he had come in early to tackle languishing paperwork.
So far, he had answered a few emails, thrown out quite a few Board of Trustees meeting minutes, and stared out the window at the rainy campus. He had a raging headache, which was his own bloody fault, but still.
There was a cheery knock on the office door, and Cormoran steadfastly ignored it. Whoever it was, it wasn’t important.
“Professor Ellacott? Are you in there? It’s - it’s important.” The voice was young. A student.
Cormoran frowned at his laptop screen, as if it would resolve itself into a suddenly imperative task, at the cost of all else.
“Professor Ellacott?” said the voice again, sounding a tad plaintive. Cormoran relented.
“Come in,” he said shortly, and took a bracing sip of tea.
The door opened, and a tall, lanky young student stepped in. He had a shock of bleached hair, a handsome face caught between the roundness of youth and the defined planes of adulthood.
He smiled nervously at Cormoran. “Uh, hi. Doctor Strike, right? I’m Jordan Campbell.”
“It’s a Saturday, Mr. Campbell. Professor Ellacott won’t be here. If you head to the student theatre on Monday morning, I’m sure you’ll have better luck.”
Jordan scratched the back of his neck.
“She said she’d be in today, and I wanted to make my case.” Jordan said, somewhat defiantly. “I’m aiming for the lead in the play, and I want to prove my dedication.”
The news that Robin would be coming into the office was careening through him, but Strike kept his focus on Jordan.
“Yeah. I’m the best in the class. No contest.”
“I’ll leave that for the expertise of Professor Ellacott.” Cormoran gave Jordan a perfunctory smile. “Anything else I can help you with, apart from pleading your case as the best in the class?”
Jordan grinned. “Nah. I’ll pop by later. See ya, Dr. Strike.” He gave a friendly wave and left the office, whistling.
Cormoran stood. He’d go to the library office. He was trying to get his mind off Robin Ellacott, and whether or not she had gone home with Matthew Cunliffe. He was powering down his laptop and stuffing a bunch of papers into a bookbag when she came bustling in, stopping short at the sight of Cormoran at his desk.
He couldn’t blame her; he was so rarely there.
“Morning,” he nodded. He noted the jeans that hugged her hips, the soft, cream-coloured sweater that clung to her figure, with complete disinterest. What did it matter to him that she looked freshly showered, her hair pulled loosely back, tendrils escaping and softly framing her face? What soul could possibly care, that she smelled of sun-soaked flower petals on a spring morning?
She was staring at him.
“Tea?” he pointed to the pot brewing on his desk. “It should still be passably hot.”
This seemed to wake her up, and she tucked her hair behind her ear.
“Er - no. Thank you.”
She was still looking at him. He decided to clear the air.
Robin bit her lip; she had noticed his determined return to formality. He soldiered on.
“What happened last night, what I said in the lift-I’d like to sincerely apologize for my inappropriate behaviour.”
Her cheeks coloured brightly. She began to speak, then halted herself, and tilted her head.
“What you said - in the lift?”
There was an awkward pause. He knew she remembered. He certainly did. What else could he be referring to?
“Yeah. The lift.”
“I thought you were talking about-” Robin put her hands on her hips and gave an embarrassed laugh. “I thought you were talking about the message you left. On my mobile.”
Now it was his turn to stare.
They were looking at each other. He shook his head in confusion.
“I’m sorry, I don’t-”
“Professor Ellacott?” Robin had left the door ajar, and Ms. Bunting popped her head in.
“Morning!” she trilled, into the awkward silence.
“I heard from Professor Lee that you were in this morning, Robin. May I be a bother and steal you for a moment? Your staff ID badge finally came through; you just have to come to the administration office to sign the paperwork and then it’s all yours!”
“Oh!” Robin’s face cleared, and she nodded, already heading towards the door. “Yes, I’ve been waiting for that!” She followed Ms. Bunting out the door, giving Cormoran a last, indecipherable look.
As soon as she left, he pulled his mobile out of his pocket, and swiftly looked up his outgoing calls. He had made one, to a number he didn’t recognize, at 1:39 am.
The memory danced tantalizingly at the edge of recall; with a sinking feeling, he remembered deciding to-
He scrambled to grab his laptop and slammed it on the desk, opening it and taking an impatient sip of tea as he waited for it to load. As soon as he could, he pulled up the Cambridge Staff directory, and compared Robin Ellacott’s number to the one listed in his outgoing calls.
He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands, calling to mind Robin’s pink face and awkward behaviour just now.
Christ, what had he said in that message?
When Cormoran entered the library, students were grouped around tables, lattes in hands, laughing and talking. A librarian was walking a student through the process of mobile printing, and one of their student volunteers gave him a wave as they moved past with a cart of books to be shelved.
He walked past a display that Barclay was working on, and Sam grinned at the look of general malcontent on Cormoran’s face. Barclay opened his mouth, clearly ready to take the piss, but Cormoran threw him a murderous look and held up a hand.
Barclay raised his eyebrows.
“Well, either you had a very good night, or a very bad one.”
“I’ll let you solve that burning mystery yourself. I’m going to my office to catch up on paperwork.”
“Ye never do paperwork, if you can avoid it.”
“That’s why I can’t avoid it any longer.”
Cormoran was navigating through a maze of rucksacks strewn on the library carpet towards his office, and reached the door. Sam was right behind him.
“Do you need any help?”
“Signing one’s name is usually a solitary job. But thanks for the offer.”
Cormoran was about to shut the door, but at the last moment, hesitated.
“Is there -” Cormoran paused, knowing he was opening himself up to the ribbing of a lifetime - “is there any way to retrieve a message left on somebody else’s phone? Without knowing their passcode?”
Barclay grinned at him.
“Not easily, that I know of. What happened last night?”
Cormoran opened his office door wider, inviting Barclay in, and shut the door behind them. He paced to his desk. Looked at the floor. Looked at the ceiling. Heaved a sigh.
Barclay was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed.
“After I left the party, I pinned Professor Ellacott up against the wall of a lift.”
Barclay’s eyebrows shot up. Cormoran rushed on.
“Not what you think. Well, I guess it is. But the doors opened before anything happened.” He cleared his throat; the next, painful, admission seemed to be stuck there.
“She went home with Matthew Cunliffe.”
“I proceeded to go home alone, and got good and pissed.” He looked up at Barclay. “And then I called Rob-Ms. Ellacott.”
Barclay let out a low whistle, then his brows drew together. “How do ye know you called her?”
“She told me as much this morning. She was barely able to look me in the eye. I tried to apologize for my behaviour in the lift, and-”
“What exactly happened in the-”
“-and she thought I was talking about this message that I left.”
“What exactly did you say in the-”
“I don’t bloody know!” Cormoran collapsed heavily to his chair, scowling. “Obviously something to warrant an apology.”
Barclay shook his head.
“I miss one staff party…”
He walked forward, and placed a hand bracingly on Cormoran’s shoulder. “Ah, don’t worry yourself. It was probably something raw and drunkenly sentimental, about how you’re absolutely pining for her, how you need her, body and soul…”
Cormoran groaned, squeezing his eyes shut.
There was a knock at the door. The two men stared at each other, before Barclay shrugged and went to open it.
“Professor!” He stood aside, and Robin walked in, and Cormoran knew something was very wrong, as soon as he saw the shaken expression on her face.
“Dr Strike, did anybody come by our office this morning?”
She looked deathly pale. He stood.
“A student, but he didn’t stay.”
“Did he leave a paper on my desk?”
“Not that I saw.” He came around the desk. “Robin. Are you all right?”
She shook her head, holding out a piece of paper, and he understood immediately.
“Another one.” She nodded, and he took it from her, reading the letters which marched angrily across the page. The words weren’t typed, like the one in the theatre had been. They were painted, in the rusty, serrated colour of blood. It looked suspiciously like the real thing.
Wrong move, Professor Ellacott.
The line about the cherry trees is from Pablo Neruda's poem, "Every Day You Play," which is one of my favourites. I'm actually not super into poetry, I don't have the head for it, but there are a few that I adore, and that's one of them.
Chapter 5: Saying the Wrong Thing
Idiots in love. 😆🙄
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win, By fearing to attempt.”
-William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, 1.4
Dean Sheffield looked up from the piece of paper he was holding in his hand, his eyes roving between Matthew and Robin. His face was weathered and lined, and the Monday morning sunlight emphasised the stern brackets around his mouth.
“This type of behaviour is not tolerated by Cambridge standards. You must take your students in hand.”
Matthew stepped immediately forward, a conciliatory smile on his face.
“We completely understand, Dean Sheffield.”
Matthew’s contrite tone prickled at Robin. The students were respectful and engaged with both her and Matthew; the past few weeks had been nothing but positive. She felt certain that these pranks were not a case of lack of their authority over their class.
She cleared her throat, steeling herself and willing herself to speak up. She was not confrontational by nature, and she felt a bit ill. The air of the dean’s office felt close and thick around her.
“I don’t know that it’s necessarily a student. And I’m beginning to strongly suspect that these aren’t just harmless pranks. They mentioned me by name.”
The dean sat back, sighing.
“Ms Ellacott. I appreciate that a note of this nature might make you feel...uncomfortable.”
“Unsafe,” she clarified, her heart pounding at her daring to correct him. He inclined his head, as if indulging her use of the word.
“There is, however, nothing we can do beyond what we’ve already done. I’ve reported this to campus authorities; and I agree with them when they say there is no direct threat to your, or anyone else’s safety. Vague letters are merely that.”
The brackets around his mouth deepened.
“I suggest that you and Mr Cunliffe keep a keen eye on your students.” He leaned back and nodded at them, and Robin knew they, and the matter, had been dismissed.
She and Matt left the office, and once outside, he walked quickly ahead, disappearing down a stairwell before she could say a word. Robin was left standing in the hallway, a tumult of frustration and confusion rising through her, staring at the space where her colleague had been just a moment ago.
~Friday night, previously~
Robin smiled her thanks as she stepped into her coat that Matt held open. It was a cold night, but clear, and as they walked along, she crossed her arms across her chest, tucking in her fingers.
“Not bad, eh?” Matt asked, looking over at her, and she gave him a noncommittal nod. The chill air did nothing for her heated thoughts, and she didn’t feel much like making conversation about the party.
What she really wanted was to go home, sit in the bath with a glass of wine, and linger over, in exquisite detail, the moment where Cormoran had pinned her against the wall of the lift, his big warm body pressed against hers, his mouth moving at the skin of her throat.
“All right? You look a bit spacey.”
Matt waved his hand in front of her jokingly, disrupting Robin’s erotic mental replay.
“Yes! Yeah.” She laughed, shaking her head. “I didn’t know teachers were such a liberal hand at mixing a cocktail.”
Matt grinned in relief; she was back to giving him her full attention.
They stopped at his car, and Matt walked over to the passenger side, holding open her door. She got in, and he shut the door, singing under his breath as he strode confidently over to his side, and settled himself into the seat.
He looked over at her.
“I live quite close, actually.”
Oh God, he didn’t think he had a chance, did he? This had been a friendly date, and nothing more.
Apparently he did though, because when Robin didn’t answer, he brought his arm up and around the back of her seat. “So I’ll be taking you…”
“To my flat,” she finished firmly.
There was a flash in his eyes, of disappointment and something else, something uglier, but it was quickly gone again.
“Right!” he stuck his key in the ignition a touch harder than necessary, then started the car, and they pulled out of the car park. Matt began a running commentary on the traffic, the night, and seemed to find glee in targeting small pieces of gossip about their colleagues. She gave the odd vague noise of agreement, aware that she wasn’t really contributing, but he didn’t seem to clue in that she wasn’t actually speaking much.
“Music?” Matt asked, and Robin nodded gratefully.
Finally, the car pulled up in front of the place she was renting: the bottom floor of a small house. Matt turned off the car with an ominously decisive turn of the keys. He moved to face her, but Robin had already pushed open the door and placed one foot on the pavement. She gave him a brief smile.
“Thanks for the invite tonight, and for the ride. Good night, Matt. See you Monday!” She got out of the car at top speed, gave him a cursory wave from the pavement, then tripped briskly along the front path, unlocking the door as he sped off.
Robin shut the door behind her, and took a shuddering breath in the quiet. Then she flicked on the lights, and headed upstairs.
When she got out of the bath, pleasantly warm and bonelessly relaxed, she got into her pyjamas, then lay on the bed and picked up her mobile. The screen showed a missed call, and she frowned at the unknown number.
The caller had left a message.
Probably a scam call, she thought, but she was a thorough type of person, so she keyed in the code for her voicemail and waited for the message to play.
That was Dr Strike’s voice. Robin sat up.
She shivered; she could hear his low register speaking directly in her ear, that intelligent, rich baritone skating right along her spine.
“God, Robin. I can’t stop thinking about our night together.”
The straightforward confession, the underlying note of need; his tone of voice was so intimate that Robin found herself looking around the room to make sure she was alone.
“You know what I want to do with you, Robin?”
Her body was flushing in direct reaction to Cormoran’s heated words, her heart picking up speed. She listened to him describe what he wanted to do to her, and her mouth dropped open.
The call ended, and Robin sat silently in the glow of lamplight. She closed her eyes.
She had never heard anything as sex-soaked as that message in her entire life.
She needed to hear it again. She pressed the number to replay.
Robin licked her lips.
Welcome, delicious heat rose at the sound of her name on his lips, and Robin placed a hand on her chest, breathing in.
She drifted her hand lower, smoothing it down between her breasts, then the front of her stomach, fingertips skimming beneath the hem of her shirt.
“I can’t stop thinking about our night together.”
Robin’s palm travelled lower, over the top of her cotton pyjama bottoms, closing her eyes at the tingling sensation as her thumb stroked across the warmth at her core.
“I wanted to taste you, tonight.”
A bite of her lip, another brush of her thumb over the fabric. She arched into her own touch, and wriggled lower on the bed so that she was lying down. She moved her hand beneath the hem, and her third finger found her clit, making slow, leisurely circles.
“You know what I want to do with you, Robin?”
She was basking in his words, the dark promise latent in them, and when she slid two fingers into herself, she was met with wet, warm heat, and no resistance.
“I want to tease you open, and watch you bloom beneath my hands.”
She was breathing harder, her hips rocking slowly against the heel of her hand against her clit. She tossed her head to one side of the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. She increased her rhythm, her fingers working faster.
The message finished and ended again. It was too fast, and Robin fumbled with the mobile, one-handed, desperately pressing play.
She was holding her breath, her fingers working, rolling her hips, her body a bow being strung tighter and tighter, from her toes to her core.
“I want to see your desperation build until I have you whimpering your pleasure, I want it echoing into my mouth as you come.”
Robin moaned. Her body had no trouble remembering that first night together. She could easily recall the feel of him stroking in and out, the deep fullness of him inside her sparking a slow build of pleasure, his broad hands steady at her waist as he moved.
She came, the gathering pressure giving way in a burst of satisfaction, fulfillment tingling along her nerves.
She lay there, dozy and liquid, listening the last of his message play out.
“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”
She felt burst open and blooming, she felt like she had her face to the sun. She giggled softly. Cherry trees. Little did he know.
Groups of students sat in hushed bunches; the evening light filtering in through the windows was grey. One teen girl sat in another’s lap, textbooks open in front of them, forgotten in front of them as they were in each other’s kiss. Another student had his head cradled on his folded arms, fast asleep. Robin could hear the tinny music issuing from his headphones as she stepped past.
Cormoran’s office door was ajar; the amber light spilling out of it a wedge of invitation in the dimmed light of the library atrium.
He was sitting at his desk, dark brows furrowed in concentration at the screen in front of him, a cart of books beside him. He looked up, lips parting in silent surprise. He leaned back, the glow of his desk lamp glinting off of his glasses.
That low voice of his. Robin wondered what he would happen if she just told him, point-blank, about his message and what she had done, and fought against a mad urge to giggle at the imagined look on his face if she did. She moved further into the office, shutting the door behind her.
“I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Lies. She didn’t care if she was interrupting him writing his magnum opus; she wanted to see him, speak to him. Be with him.
He offered her a half-smile. “Thank Christ you are. I’m just weeding some of the graphic novels and I feel like I’m about to go cross-eyed.”
He stood, stepping out from behind his desk.
“How was your meeting with Sheffield this morning?”
“Frustrating. He more or less blamed the whole thing on Matt and I for not keeping our students in hand.”
Cormoran looked sympathetic.
“Typical academic bureaucracy, I’m afraid. Unwilling to admit the boat might be rocking.” He paused, then looked at her carefully.
“But you think there might be more behind these incidents.”
Robin hesitated. She felt, instinctually, that there was a sinister tone to the pranks, but what else was there to be done? She had followed the proper channels, and all she had earned was a professional rebuke and a mild feeling of having stirred the waters over a trifle.
Still, something about the way Cormoran was looking at her, waiting for her reply, decided her.
“Yeah,” she said. “I trust my instincts about my class, and I think this is about something else.”
Cormoran didn’t say anything to this, but he nodded once, clearly believing her, and that one serious, considerate movement meant more to her than she could explain.
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then replaced them, they rested endearingly askew. Robin stepped closer.
His brows drew together.
“For believing me,” she said.
There was a pause.
“You stood up for me the other night,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
He refrained from mentioning Matthew specifically. She nodded.
“Well.” She couldn’t look away from him. “Thank you.” She flushed. “Again.”
He wasn’t looking away either; they held each other trapped. The green in his eyes had turned mossier, darker.
His voice had become rougher. She had heard it that rough before.
“I want to make you glow, I want to make you see stars, I want your own ecstasy to be so complete that it’s a torment.”
Robin swallowed around words she didn’t have.
Instead, she reached out a hand towards him without thinking.
She stared at her hand, hanging in the space between them, then she looked into his eyes which were scorching sin right into hers, and she had just enough time to think, oh, he’s going to-
-before he had grasped her hand and pulled her to him, and it wasn’t tentative or soft. It was his hand on her arse, cupping and squeezing, it was his tongue in her mouth, working in hard, swift strokes, it was her pushing herself into him; it was scrambling, messy, need.
He backed her up against the desk, hoisting her up so she was sitting on the edge, and she immediately opened her legs to him, wrapping them around his waist.
They broke for air, gasping, and Cormoran bit softly at the skin of her neck. God, he was so big and solid, and her hands delighted in confirming that the real thing was better than her memory. She tangled her fingers into his hair and tugged him gently back up, their mouths meeting eagerly. The kiss turned gentle, slow and deep, sweet heat building; instinctually, she began to move against his thigh, desperate for friction.
He moved one hand lower, running it along the outside of her thigh as he kept the kiss going, pulling her forward and shifting her slightly so that the heavy, aching part of her met his hard need. He moved, rocking them slowly together, and the sound that escaped her was something intrinsic and vital.
He stopped, and they took a breath. He looked down at her, his breathing uneven.
He leaned forward, his lips coasting along her temple, her cheek, her collarbone; Robin melting into his touch.
“What you do to me,” he murmured, almost to himself, and rubbed his stubble playfully into the skin of her neck. It reminded her of the voicemail.
She placed a palm on his cardigan, and he lifted his head as she searched his eyes.
“About the other night. The night of the staff party.”
At her words, a flash of realisation crossed his face, and he seemed to withdraw.
“None of my business.”
Hearing his own words, his dropped his hands from her waist. She stared at him, confused, and tried to cover the moment with a bit of a chuckle.
“Shall I play you the voicemail you left me on Friday night, or-?”
His brows drew together and he exhaled slowly. “I had a lot to drink that evening, and - I don’t remember anything I said during that call.”
He scratched at his jaw, his face almost apologetic.
“But I’m willing to bet it wasn’t professional. Neither is - any of this.”
He took a step backward, and she felt the loss of his body heat. He shook his head.
“Especially since you and Matthew-and since I-”
He drew a breath.
There was an invisible wall in front of him that hadn't been there a moment ago, and Robin stared at him, incredulous. Cormoran looked as adrift as she felt: crushed shirt collar, glasses sitting at a funny angle, his hair sticking up where her fingers had been tugging at it.
He ran a hand through it, rumpling it further.
“I’m - I’m sorry, Miss Ellacott. This shouldn’t be happening.”
She tried to make some sense of how the situation had spun so suddenly sideways.
“Because you think that Matt and I are dating?”
His eyes behind the glasses looked pained.
“None of my business,” he said again, gruffly. “I take full responsibility for this. All of this. It won’t happen again.”
Robin was about to explain, but stopped herself. She was trying harder, these days, not to make excuses for herself. There was something else behind her hesitation, making itself known with a sudden flare: her pride. There was clearly attraction between them, but she thought again of their night together and their interactions since: he had never indicated interest in a relationship of any kind.
Perhaps it wasn’t him reading this wrong. Perhaps it was her.
As they stared at each other, she realised these moments between them were all the same: bursts of scattered lust.
Embarrassment spiralled up and through her, and suddenly, she couldn’t stand to be in the same office as him.
“You’re right,” she said, her voice sounding forced and pitched strangely bright. “It won’t happen again.”
She slid down from the edge of the desk, and he made an awkward move forward as if to help her, but she shook her head, her cheeks burning hotly.
“Please don’t!” she burst out, and he took another step back, retreating further behind his invisible wall.
“Right,” he said, and his voice was colder, now.
She could feel tears welling up as she made for the door. She opened it and faced him once more.
“Not that it is any of your business, but I make it a point not to date my colleagues.”
“Bloody good idea,” he returned, his face impassive.
Robin gave him a last look of disbelief, then left the office, shutting the door behind her with a satisfying hint of a slam.
I owe this one to Lula; I lost sight of this chapter and she asked the right questions. Thanks for making it make sense again! ❤
Chapter 6: Quiz Night
A pub quiz night reveal more of Cormoran and Robin to each other.
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-
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!”
“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?”
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
Thanks to Lula, for Britpicking, for enthusiasm, and for helping me clarify my own thoughts. ❤
Also, doesn't everyone experience pub quizzes that weirdly correspond to their lives, in the style of Slumdog Millionaire?😁