As he walked into the party he ignored the loud laughter coming from the pockets of people gathered together in small clusters around the room. There was only one person he was interested in seeing. Only one person he wanted to talk to.
He strode into the room, his coat still draped around his massive frame, eyes scanning the crowd for a red gold head. He hadn’t seen her in days. He’d been forced to go up to Scotland alone, the first work-related road trip he’d undertaken without her since Barrow-in-Furness, chasing a lead. It had been long and grueling and lonely and he’d had a realization while driving his BMW through the glens and mountains and fog of Scotland, with only Tom Waits on the radio for company.
He’d missed her presence on the road trip more than he’d thought he would. Her competent hands on the wheel. Her laughter. Her conversation. The way her lips moved as she talked. Her scent and the sound of her voice filling the vehicle.
He was capable of driving himself, but he preferred the times when she was behind the wheel so that he could look at her to his heart's content without having to give a reason for doing so. As long as they were talking, he was allowed to watch the way her lips shaped words, the way her lashes fluttered as she blinked, the way her nose crinkled when she laughed and the apples of her cheeks swelled slightly as she grinned at whatever quip he’d made.
He’d missed her in many different ways and on the long drive home he’d resolved to tell her. He’d decided to explain his feelings and let the cards fall where they may. As long as they were on the table. Ever since her birthday he’d been struggling to figure out how to take the next step, how to explain that he wanted to see what they could create between them, not just with the agency, but with each other.
Every time he smelled her scent, saw her figure walking toward him, or even away, he yearned to tell her how he felt, what he wanted, needed, from her, with her. He’d realized on the long, lonely trip, that there had never been, and would likely never be, another woman who suited him so well. One who inflamed his senses at the same time she engaged his mind. One who understood the job and the schedule, the unrelenting need for justice and truth, the driving need to make the puzzle pieces form a clear picture.
He’d long thought that Charlotte was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever known, and physically that was true, no woman before or after Charlotte had come close to her outrageous physical beauty. But somehow, his partner had overtaken Charlotte in his estimation. Her beauty was a different sort. Physically she was any man’s dream. Curvy and lush in the right places, full lips and sparkling eyes and hair that he sometimes felt his fingers tingle with the ache to touch.
But the beauty of Robin wasn’t just her physical form, it was the light she brought to the darkness. Her kindness, her decentness. Her calm and ordered collectedness. She was the most organized person he knew, aside from himself. Her case files were always complete and succinct, which was oddly arousing for some reason. She never failed to have exactly what he needed, when he needed it, anytime they were together. He’d joked multiple times that they could survive a nuclear blast with the contents of her bag.
She could nearly always sense when he was in pain and never made a fuss over him, or even said a word about it. Instead, more often than not, she’d dig in her handbag and pull out pain medication or bring him a cup of tea and an ice pack and continue their conversation as though nothing had happened.
Her presence in his life had done nothing but enrich it. And he needed her to know it. He needed her to understand that he valued no one as much as he valued her. Wanted no one as much as he wanted her. Cared for no one, indeed, loved no one, as he cared for and loved her.
He’d talked to her multiple times while in Scotland, but she’d refused to talk to him while he was driving, not wanting to distract him. Her voice through the line was soft and comforting, and he knew he could have told her any of the times he’d called her just to hear her voice. But he wanted to see her face as he explained. He just had to find her.
Laughter erupted next to him, a small group of party goers laughing uproariously at a joke or a story one of their number had shared, and he glanced their way instinctively, startled by the sudden noise. But as he turned his head back toward the kitchen he caught a glimpse of hair he’d know anywhere. She was walking out of the kitchen with their mutual friend Ilsa, followed by her roommate Max and his new boyfriend, Tamar. She was carrying a full glass of wine and laughing at something that had been said before they’d rounded the corner.
He stood where he was, drinking the sight of her in. Thirsty for her scent in his nostrils, for the sound of her laughter in his ears, for the taste of her in his mouth.
He waited. Unmoving. His eyes never leaving her.
He watched as her head turned slowly, drawn inexorably toward him, her smile still wreathing her lips as her eyes met his across the room.
He saw her lashes, dark with mascara, flare slightly as her eyes widened at the sight of him and as he held her gaze he felt heat sizzle between them. Her head tilted slightly, a questioning realization and he knew she could see everything he felt in his eyes. He felt a pull, as though there was a magnet connected to each of them, and without taking his eyes from hers he strode toward her, hardly caring if the people between them moved out of his way. He needed to be near her. He needed to feel her, hear her.
He barely registered anyone else around him as he approached her. Barely noticed that Ilsa swept the wineglass from her hand just as he reached her, his hands sliding around her, one tilting her face up, his thumb sweeping along her jaw as the other slid to the small of her back, drawing her to him and bracing her gently against his chest.
He dipped his head, feeling and hearing her quick intake of breath as his face lowered to hers, bringing his lips to her ear, “I’m going to kiss you. That alright?” He ran the tip of his battered nose along the shell of her ear, feeling her tiny nod as he captured the scent she’d sprayed behind her ear, breathing it in deeply and finally, gratefully, feeling he was exactly where he was meant to be.
Without a thought for who may be watching, he slid his lips along the edge of her jaw until he finally met the plump softness of her lips with his own. His hand slid into her hair, the back of her head cradled in his large palm, his fingers slipping through silky red gold waves as she sighed against him, opening her mouth to him and allowing him to sweep his tongue against hers.
He felt her hands slide around his waist, under his coat, her fingers clutching the wool of his sweater, tugging him even closer as he slid his tongue from her mouth, clasping her full bottom lip gently between his as he broke the kiss. He rubbed the side of his nose against hers, and unable to help himself, he stole two more gentle sucking kisses from her lips, aroused by the taste of her as much as the feel of her.
He lifted his head a fraction to meet her eyes, seeing nothing but desire in the blue grey depths, before she stepped into his body, wrapping her arms around him and laid her head against his chest as he met Ilsa’s stunned, but smiling, eyes.
“Go,” she mouthed, her lips curving in a smile that clearly said, “Finally!”
He dropped a kiss on the top of Robin’s head as he turned and, with an arm around her waist, led her to the door, pausing only to gather her coat and handbag as he swept her out into the evening, the taste of her still lingering, wine sweet on his tongue.
“So I told her that if that’s what she wanted to do we could do it, but it would mean putting off the landscaping she’s been angling for for ages,” the man next to her was saying to the group at large. She’d tuned him out a while ago, content to sip her wine, nod occasionally, and wait.
Nick and Ilsa’s annual Bonfire Night party was in full swing around her. Clutches of people, some she knew, some she’d just met, some she’d never seen before, were gathered around the Herberts home chatting and laughing and nibbling on whatever party food was on the surface closest to them while drinking beer or wine or cocktails. It was a lively, noisy and happy crowd and she’d been enjoying herself immensely, until she’d seen the time.
It was almost nine o’clock and Cormoran was still not here.
He’d had to drive to Scotland earlier in the week to follow up on a lead for the case he was working and she’d been unable to drive him for the first time since she’d gotten the Land Rover from her parents two years previously. She knew he was capable of driving himself, especially in his little BMW, but she hated knowing he was alone. She’d pictured him driving through the mountains and glens and wished she could be in the car beside him, laughing at his jokes, theorizing and discussing the case and enjoying the sound of his deep voice. She even missed the persistent scent of tobacco smoke that clung to him, though it seemed he was trying to cut down lately.
They’d stayed in touch the entire time he was gone, texting and talking at least once a day. One or the other of them would call, under the pretext of catching the other up, but it seemed that the calls were happening later in the day and lasting longer each time they spoke. The conversation straying into personal topics instead of work. When she’d left the office that afternoon she’d texted him, teasing him that he’d better hurry or he’d miss the fireworks she knew he enjoyed. He’d called her before she could make it to the Tube station to ask her to let Nick and Ilsa know he’d be late, “Tell Nick not to start the fireworks without me, unless he wants a repeat of last time” he’d joked as they’d been saying goodbye. “I should be there around eight-thirty.”
It was eight-fifty and there’d been no word from him.
The doorbell rang again, pulling Robin’s scattered attention away from the paunchy man next to her, who was still expounding on the vacation plans he and his wife were making, and she watched Nick begin to weave through the guests on his way to the door, clasping hands with a grin here, or slapping someone on a shoulder there, giving and accepting a kiss from a tiny raven haired woman, excusing himself swiftly and good naturedly each time he was stopped. He disappeared around the corner to the hall and she felt butterflies begin their tiny flutterings in the pit of her stomach.
Suddenly nervous, for some reason, to see her partner and best mate, she quietly excused herself from the group she was standing with and made her way toward the kitchen to refill her wine glass hoping to distract herself for a few minutes and calm her nerves.
She had no real reason to be nervous, she reminded herself. They were just mates. The best of mates. Nothing more. Just because they were both single and neither were dating anyone else didn’t mean they were a couple. Just because they’d begun going to the cinema together on weekends that they both had free, or they’d each become the others automatic plus one to functions they were required to attend, didn’t mean a damn thing. They were both single and neither had anyone to answer to, nor did they want to be inundated with setups and blind dates. It was just easier to rely on each other to fulfill the obligations of a plus one.
But she knew...could feel it with a certainty...something had changed this week.
“Need a refill?” a deep voice asked from behind her as she walked into the kitchen. She turned and smiled at the man with skin the color of honey, who’d apparently followed her into the room, carrying three bottles of white wine in his arms. She set her glass on the counter and stepped toward him, reaching to take a couple of the bottles.
“Let me help with those, Tam,” she said. “How about you?”
“Won’t say no,” he grinned. “Top one up for Max as well, darling.”
Max was her roommate and dear friend and Tamar was his boyfriend. They’d met on the set of Max’s television drama and hit it off immediately. Tamar was soft spoken and kind, and exactly, in Robin’s estimation, the man her friend deserved.
Tamar reached for one of the bottles she’d set on the counter as she moved to the cabinet, comfortable and at home in the Herbert’s kitchen, to grab a fresh glass for Max’s wine.
“Is your partner coming?” Tamar asked as he twisted a corkscrew into the cork.
“He said he was, but he was supposed to be here around eight-thirty,” she replied. “He’s driving back from Scotland though, so he could have gotten stuck in traffic.”
“Max is fond of him,” he said.
“Yeah,” she laughed. “The feeling is mutual.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him.” He handed her the glass of wine he’d just poured for her and reached for the fresh one she’d set on the counter, just as their hostess, Ilsa breezed into the room carrying a tray of snacks.
“You two hiding out in here?” she asked.
“Just getting refills,” Robin said. “Need some help?”
“Could you grab me the nuts?”
“Ilsa,” came another voice, “There’s a blonde out here asking if you have any red wine, I wasn’t sure, so I told her I’d come check.” Max leaned forward against the counter beside Tamar, his hair flopping over his forehead.
“In the rack over there,” Ilsa answered, nodding her head to the side to indicate the cabinetted wine cellar as she poured nuts from the bag Robin had passed her.
Robin turned to grab another fresh glass from the cabinet, as Max handed Tamar the bottle to uncork.
“Is Strike still supposed to be coming?” Max asked Robin, returning to his leaning stance against the counter, his eyes following the muscles in Tamar’s forearms, bunching and releasing with each twist of the corkscrew.
“He said he was,” she glanced at her watch, noting that it was now five minutes after nine. “He thought he’d be here around eight-thirty, but I suppose he might have hit traffic.” And though she could hear the wistfulness in her own voice, she hoped no one else could. But as she met Max’s eye she could tell it was a false hope.
“Well he’d better get here soon because Nick isn’t going to wait much longer for the fireworks,” Ilsa chimed in as she picked up the refilled tray and motioned for Robin to go ahead of her. “Corm would never forgive Nick for starting without him. Last time he did it Corm refused to acknowledge Nick’s existence for a week,” she snickered. “He was staying with us at the time,” she explained. “And Nick spent a whole week trying to trick Corm into speaking to him. Jumping out at him around corners to try and scare a reaction out of him. Putting salt in his beer. All kinds of stupid blokey stuff.”
“Did any of it work?” Tamar asked as they all rounded the corner laughing.
“Nope. The man is an island,” Ilsa said. “He takes his fireworks serious...ly,” she trailed off.
Feeling a slight shift in the air, as though someone had whispered, Robin glanced around, the air stopping in her lungs and found herself pinned by the dark eyes of her partner who was standing across the room, coat still on, his hair a riot of curls, and what she knew must be a weeks growth of beard shrouding his jaw.
“Oh shit. Is that him?” she heard Tamar breathe behind her, followed by Max’s quiet, “Uh huh.”
Heat pooled in her stomach, burning the butterflies away. His gaze was aflame with intensity. She’d seen flashes of this heat in his eyes before, but he’d always banked it or looked away before she could be sure it was really there. But this time, he was intent. She tilted her head, a question, “Is this what I think it is?” His answer came in the form of his purposeful stride toward her.
Guests moved swiftly out of his way as he headed to her, his coat swirling around his legs, eyes never leaving hers. She felt Ilsa slip the wineglass from her numb fingers, just as his hands reached for her. The side of his thumb brushed her jaw as his other hand slid firmly along the small of her back, pulling her hips to him.
He dipped his head and she caught her breath, her lips parting instinctively, but instead of kissing her he nuzzled her ear with his nose, his lips just brushing the lobe as he said, “I’m going to kiss you. That alright?” She felt his chest expand under her hands where they were trapped against his jumper and nearly whimpered as his lips slid along her jaw, his fingers sliding into her hair, grasping it gently at her nape, prompting a sigh as she opened her mouth and met his lips, his tongue sweeping inside to tangle with hers.
Unaware of anyone else around them she slid her hands around him, knotting her fingers in the back of his jumper and pulling him even closer, his chest pressing against her breasts. She was lost in the flavors of him and felt a catch in her throat as he slid his tongue from her mouth, catching her lower lip between his own and sucking slightly as he ended the kiss. Almost catlike he rubbed the side of his nose against hers before dipping back to her mouth for two more gently sucking kisses, just a sweep of his tongue against her lips and then gone.
She could feel his arousal against her abdomen and nearly groaned at the need to feel him completely.
He met her eyes once more, his dark irises so close she could see the brown of his iris fading to wite around the edges. His eyes asked a question and she answered by laying her head against his chest, pressing her hands to his back and holding tight.
And as he pressed a kiss to the top of her head, turning and sliding his arm around her waist, she knew she wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight.
And the thought was darkly thrilling.