Sergeant Cormoran Strike shouldered his way in the door of the Hyde Tavern and looked around. He’d been reasonably sure that this was where he would find the person he was searching for, and sure enough there she was, sat at the back in a corner, ignoring the other punters and clutching grimly at a glass of white wine, scrolling through her phone.
His eyes took in the scene swiftly. Cadet Ellacott’s pallor, the heaviness around her eyes that suggested recent tears or the suppression of them, the empty glass to the side of her proving that the one in her hand was not her first, the whiteness of her knuckles where she gripped the stem of the glass.
He hesitated, but he was here now, and she looked as though she needed a friend. Whether he would be welcome, or would in fact be the last person she’d want to talk to, remained to be seen.
He made his way to the bar and ordered a pint of Doom Bar and another white wine.
Robin ignored the door just as she had ignored the curious glances that she could feel being cast her way every so often. This wasn’t really a women’s drinking place. The odd wife or girlfriend accompanied a punter or two, but it was mostly a men’s pub, old-fashioned with a bar and tables made of ageing, battered wood. The real ales on tap were plentiful, but there was only one dry white wine on offer and it wasn’t a particularly nice one. It was doing the trick, though, numbing the incessant churning of her mind, helping her to stop turning this morning’s events over and over, wishing she could have handled things better and trying to ignore a deep-down needle of fear that she wasn’t cut out for the career she’d chosen. She was going to have to learn to be tougher.
Strike waited patiently while his pint was pulled and the wine poured, and took the opportunity to watch Cadet Ellacott. She resolutely didn’t look up from her phone, her thumb scrolling so steadily he doubted that she was actually taking in anything on the screen. Her shoulders were hunched and there was tension in every line of her body; some sort of internal struggle laced with misery. He was beginning to seriously reconsider the wisdom of his presence here; she looked like she wanted to be alone.
And yet. And yet. When he’d retired here to this very pub to lick his wounds and drown his sorrows in a few pints, she’d come to find him. He felt in some vague way that he owed her that at least, a return offer of comfort in what was clearly her own hour of need.
He couldn’t escape, however, the sneaking suspicion that he was in fact the cause of her current state of mind, though he could recall nothing specific that had happened that morning that stood out in his memory as being the catalyst. They’d tackled difficult subjects in class before, and all the trainees knew that they could talk to mentors if need be; as far as he was aware, she’d sought no such support before or today.
The barman set the drinks in front of him. Strike thanked him and paid, and picked up the the glasses. He was here now, he might as well go through with it.
He turned towards the back of the room, a glass in each hand, just in time to see the youngest other male in the room, a nondescript local of perhaps fortyish, his own age, wearing a stupidly expensive shirt and sporting a single earring, approach the table where the cadet was sitting, and instant rage swelled within him. If he could see how determinedly Ellacott was avoiding all interaction with the other punters here, how come this idiot couldn’t?
He carried the drinks towards the little table, his steps determined suddenly.
Robin ducked her head closer to her phone, sensing the approach of another customer, anxiety tinged with irritation gnawing at her. She’d done all she could to make it clear that she wasn’t seeking company, but there was always some jerk who chose not to get the message, she thought viciously. And as always, such situations made her feel intensely vulnerable. Would she be able to get rid of him politely? If she couldn’t, would any of the other strangers here stand up for her?
The figure hovered, and she was forced to look up, smothering her distaste at the flashy shirt and confident grin.
“You alone?” the man asked, and Robin felt a surge of anger and fear. Clearly she was, and clearly she didn’t want his attentions.
As ever, she sought to deflect, to avoid issuing an outright rejection that might elicit an angry response, wishing now that her thoughts weren’t quite so clouded by cheap wine. “I’m waiting for someone.”
His grin broadened, clearly seeing the lie for what it was. He glanced at the chair opposite her. “Can I wait with you?”
“No, you fucking can’t.”
Even out of uniform, Strike knew he cut an imposing figure. He was several inches taller and considerably broader than the twat who dared think he could make a play for Ellacott’s attentions when she clearly didn’t wish to be disturbed. Forgetting his recent reticence on the same subject, Strike stepped forwards into the other man’s personal space, gratified when he took a step back; bristling, Strike half turned, insinuating his shoulder into the space between the other man and the small table. There was a tense pause as his dark eyes bored into the pale blue of his opponent’s, and then a weak smile was offered and the man melted away, turning back towards the bar with an air of defeat tinged with resentment.
Well. There was no way he could leave now, at least not until the other guy did. Strike set the drinks down on the small table next to the two empty wine glasses already there, and sat down.
Robin let out a shaky sigh of relief, her thoughts and feelings even more of a tangle now. Despite Sergeant Strike being the last person she particularly wanted to see right at this moment, she was both immensely glad of his imposing presence and somewhat resentful that she’d needed the intervention.
He sat down opposite her, huge on the pub chair, his eyes watching her carefully, and Robin clutched at her phone and eyed the glass of wine he slid across towards her. It would be her third - or was it her fourth? - and she must watch her tongue; if he was here then he’d somehow sensed her inner turmoil, and she must not tell him anything, because if she started she’d tell him everything. She had a career to build here in the Army, and if he knew about her past he’d be obliged to report it and then everyone would think she wasn’t up to the job. Damaged goods, both physically but more pertinently emotionally, and they would doubt her ability to do this job just as her mother, her brothers, her ex-husband had. She must be strong. She sat up straighter.
“What’re you doing here?”
She’d meant to sound pleasantly interested, but it came out as somehow combative, defensive, and she could see in his face that he’d noted her antagonism towards his presence.
Strike took a slow draught of his beer to give himself a moment to think. He sensed he would be walking on eggshells; it would be only too easy to say the wrong thing.
She was sharp, though, his cadet - she’s not yours, Strike, not in any way - and wouldn’t be satisfied with anything but the truth.
“Looking for you,” he said at last, setting his pint down.
Ellacott picked up her glass of wine, appeared to think better of it and put it down again. “Thanks,” she muttered, a little ungraciously. “How did you know I was here?”
Strike shrugged. “Lucky guess.” He hesitated. “It’s where I come when I don’t want to see people,” he ventured, and she flushed and looked down, her elegant fingers tracing circles around the base of the glass stem.
That much at least he’d got right, then. And he’d also guessed accurately that she didn’t want to see him. Her demeanour was stiff and unwelcoming, a far cry from the easy, relaxed and sometimes flirtatious (when they were alone) way that she normally behaved around him.
Sensing she had a lot on her mind, he said nothing, wondering if she would start talking of her own accord.
The silence stretched, and Robin was determined not to fill it. Hadn’t he trained them himself on this very tactic, of allowing a suspect to fill the gap in the conversation themselves? And now here he was using the method on her a though she were a witness he needed to extract information from. It only served to irritate her further, and to his credit he must have realised this, for he spoke again.
“What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing.” She knew he wouldn’t believe her, but hopefully he’d take the hint and not ask any more.
He didn’t. “Come off it,” he replied robustly. “You weren’t okay earlier, and you’re not okay now. What’s going on?”
There was a short, tight silence. Robin swigged her wine.
Strike sighed. “Was it this morning’s exercise? I know it’s not a pleasant subject, but sadly you will encounter rape victims in the job. It’s not sexist to concentrate the training on the female recruits; most victims would rather talk to a woman—”
“It’s not that,” she interrupted fiercely, panic rising within her. He was too astute. He’d guessed what her problem was. “It’s just—” She trailed off, and took another gulp of wine. The room was blurring around the edges now, and she vaguely remembered she hadn’t eaten any dinner. The normally acceptable mess hall food had tasted of nothing, cloying in her mouth, her stomach tightening ominously whenever she tried to swallow.
Strike watched her impassively. “Just what?”
The urge to tell him rose within her, a longing ache. Somehow, through the haze of alcohol and misery, she knew he’d understand. She couldn’t have said what instinctively led her to trust him, but suddenly she was talking and he was listening, his face unchanging.
Strike’s heart sank and his stomach churned as she haltingly told him, first in too little detail and then too much, eventually stumbling to a stop, the bare bones of the story of why she had left university early. The dark stairwell, the gloved hands, the gorilla mask.
He controlled his features, listening to her steadfastly, letting her talk and swallowing his rage that she had had to undergo such an ordeal, rage that was neither useful to her nor productive in the situation at hand.
A detached part of his mind wondered if they’d be sat here now if she’d been chosen to role play the support officer rather than the victim. He’d sensed from the moment he’d allocated her the task and her face had blanched almost imperceptibly that there was something more going on here; he’d watched her carefully, only becoming more concerned.
And now he knew why. Christ, she had held herself together well. He was certain no one else had noticed. She had been nothing but professional, working through the exercises, and only he would have noticed the tremble in her fingers at her collar, the steady evenness of the rise and fall of her chest that brought to mind the very same breathing exercises he’d been given to combat his PTSD after Afghanistan.
He couldn’t have known it, but he’d thrown her right back into her own personal nightmare, and how she had held herself together so well, he couldn’t begin to imagine.
There. It was out. Robin stared down at her fingertips tracing circles around the edge of her now empty wine glass, too afraid to look him in the eye and see concern, disgust, pity.
“I need th’ loo,” she said abruptly, standing up. “An’ another drink.”
“I’m getting you a soft drink this time,” the sergeant replied, and she nodded tightly and weaved her way across the bar in the direction of the ladies’. For the first time, she wondered where she might sleep tonight. The plan had been to get a taxi back to the base, but she couldn’t show up this drunk in front of her younger colleagues.
She couldn’t meet her own eye in the mirror as she washed her hands. Why had she told him? The one thing that could jeopardise her Army career (well, okay, one of the two things, although the other she tried not to think about, because it was becoming very obvious that that would have to stop, and that she could not bear), and she had blurted out the whole story. If he told their superiors, surely she would be let go? Too fragile, now, for the job she had chosen. Couldn’t even cope with taking part in an exercise discussing rape, let alone actually investigating one. And he would never see her in the same way now. The closest thing she’d had to a real relationship since leaving Matthew, and it, too, was now polluted.
Robin scrubbed at her face with cold water, dashing angry tears from her eyes. Was everything in her life to be tainted by her having been in the wrong place at the wrong time almost a decade ago?
When she returned to the pub table, pale but composed, Sergeant Strike was back in his chair, a fresh pint of ale and a tall glass of Coke in front of him. An empty wine bottle also sat on the table with a wooden spoon sticking out of it displaying the number six in black paint.
“I ordered chips,” he told her as she slid back into her seat. “Thought you should eat something.”
She was hungry now, Robin noted with surprise. “Thank you,” she murmured, and steeled herself to raise her gaze to his.
He was watching her with fond amusement. That, she hadn’t expected.
“Did the cold water help?”
Flushing, Robin realised her hair was still damp around her temples. “A bit,” she muttered.
“How many glasses have you had?”
Robin shrugged and took a swig of the Coke he’d bought her. “Dunno. A few.”
He grinned. “Trying to drink all the wine in Winchester?”
Unexpectedly she found herself chuckling. “Somethin’ like that.”
A small pause.
“Three years ago,” Strike said suddenly, and paused to take a draught of his beer. He swallowed and set the glass back down. “We were out on an exercise up on the plain and a tyre blew out on the Land Rover. We were moving at speed over difficult terrain, hit a massive rut. There was this huge bang and the vehicle nearly went over.”
Robin watched him, nodded, wondered where this was going.
“Took me right back, in a heartbeat,” he went on, dropping his eyes to his pint. “I could smell the desert, hear my colleague Anstis shouting. Just for a second, I was back in Afghanistan,” he finished quietly. “Took me weeks to get rid of the dreams again.”
He looked back up at her, startling her, the intensity in his gaze making her jump. “But it does go again,” he told her. “You know that, though, obviously. I’m just saying.” He shrugged. “You’re not alone. Probably half the guys who’ve seen real active duty carry some baggage around with them.”
Robin nodded slowly, and there was a small pause.
“How come it’s not in your file?” the sergeant asked conversationally, and panic rose within her breast again.
“I asked around and decided I din’t need to declare it,” she said, hearing the note of defiance in her voice. “I passed the psych evaluation, an’ it was years ago. I’m over it.”
There was another pause while Strike sipped his pint thoughtfully.
“Do we ever get over these things?” he asked mildly. “Or do we just learn to live with them?”
He understood. Like no one else in her life ever had.
“Okay, I learned to live with it,” Robin replied hotly. “But it doesn’t change anything. It’s my person’l business and I din’t have to declare it.”
He shrugged. “Absolutely.”
She had to know. “Are— Are you going to tell anyone?” Robin asked hesitantly. He frowned at her.
“Why would I? And who would I tell?”
Robin watched his face anxiously. “Well, you know. HR. They might think I’m not up to the job—”
He was frowning hard now, seeming genuinely mystified. “Why not?”
Tears pricked the back of her eyes again and she blinked furiously. “Well, you saw me this morning. You must have noticed, ’s why you’re here,” she finished angrily, scrubbing at her eyes and trying not to notice the sideways glances she was getting from the other customers.
Strike shifted his weight to shield her a little more from prying eyes. “What I saw,” he began carefully, “is someone who handled the exercise with professionalism despite having had a fucking horrible thing happen to them.”
His hand slid across the table, his fingers brushing the back of her wrist. It was the first time he had ever touched her in front of other people.
“What I saw,” he went on quietly, “was someone who isn’t going to let past trauma get in the way of doing a good job, and whose understanding and empathy are in fact probably going to help.”
Somewhat mollified, Robin blinked at him. But she still didn’t understand. “Then why are you here?”
Strike stared at her, realisation dawning.
“I’m not here to talk about work,” he said slowly. “This is nothing to do with your ability to do the job. I wanted to know if you’re all right.”
Fresh tears spilled from her eyes, and he cursed under his breath.
“Shit, Ellacott, I’m sorry,” he said heavily. “I should have left well alone.” He hesitated. “Let me escort you back to base.” Privately he wondered how on earth that would work, how he could possibly arrive back at the base with a younger, female, clearly more-than-half-drunk junior colleague and not attract every strand of gossip for the next month.
Ellacott rubbed her hand across her cheek, smearing tears, sniffing, and fished in her pocket for a tissue. She mopped herself up a little.
“It’s not that,” she muttered. “I jus’— I thought you just wanted to ask about whether I was still able to do my job.” She paused. “Thank you for coming, for caring.”
Strike swallowed hard. “Of course I...care,” he said stiffly, the words sounding wooden and stiltedly formal in his mouth. “What kind of a—” A what, Strike? A lover? A friend? “—a man would I be if I didn’t?”
Her eyes searched his, and his face grew hot; for a racing, thrilling heartbeat it was there in front of them, a step to be taken if they so chose, to talk about what was happening between them and what they meant or could mean to one another.
Ellacott dropped her gaze back to the table. “Well, thank you,” she murmured, and the moment was going, sliding away from him like a shadow in mist, like it had never existed. Strike slid his hand back across the table as the cadet wiped her eyes again, his fingers seeking hers—
“Two bowls of chips?” A young girl in an apron had materialised next to his elbow.
The arrival of the chips, a discussion about condiments, tearing the little salt packet and sprinkling it. Robin managed to pull herself together with the mundane, to swallow a feeling that had hovered somewhere between gratitude and yearning, deeply touched that the big sergeant had come to find her out of caring, by his own admission, and wishing with all her heart that it was a deeper, fonder feeling rather than plain old-fashioned chivalry that had brought him to this little pub table.
She ate her chips, ravenous suddenly, the stodge and salt just what she needed to soak up the excess alcohol in her system. The combination of carbohydrates and the sugar in the Coke were doing a good job of sobering her up. She was hopefully going to be able to make it back to her room without embarrassing herself overly.
Did she have to, though? She stole glances at the big man sitting opposite her as they ate, and was very aware of the rooms for rent just over their heads. They were both off base, out of uniform, just like last time. They could just quietly go upstairs…
And what, Ellacott? she asked herself. Was he even going to want her now, after what she’d told him? Her sexual relationship with Matthew had never been the same, after. It had taken so long to get back to an approximation of where they had been before, and he had never truly relaxed again. Oh, sure, it didn’t seem to have made him a more attentive lover, but he’d never been bad in bed, maybe just a little more focused on his own pleasure than hers. And perhaps, after, a bit more inclined to put her less enthusiastic participation down to her past rather than his thoughtlessness.
This…whatever it was she had with Sergeant Strike, that she still hesitated to call a relationship, she considered to be her first proper sexual relationship since her attack. She’d dated a guy briefly between leaving Matthew and joining the army, but there hadn’t been much of a spark in the bedroom department. Truth be told, she’d been a little afraid before she met Strike that something deep within her was irrevocably damaged, that she was never going to be able to let go, abandon herself to pleasure, enjoy sex purely and simply for what it was, ever again.
Now she knew that wasn’t the case, now she had met someone she connected with on a physical level to a degree she’d never experienced before, whom she trusted utterly, and in whose arms she’d found pleasure she didn’t know she was capable of—
“Another?” Strike had picked up his glass, indicating her own with it.
Robin jumped a little, flushing at the wayward turn her thoughts had taken. “Thanks,” she muttered, and watched him make his way to the bar again and order more drinks. She knew he was trying to sober her up, and he was doing a good job of it, a large bowl of chips and now a second Coke.
She sighed as she chased the remaining grains of salt around the bowl with her last chip. Of course he wouldn’t want to sleep with her any more. She was damaged goods now, he’d have to be careful, think of her past. She knew how these things went. She didn’t think she could bear to see that mix of fear and pity in his eyes that she had seen in Matthew’s as they tried to rebuild their sex life together. She wouldn’t have persevered if she hadn’t believed she loved him, and he her.
Strike paid for another pint for himself and a Coke for the cadet, glad that the chips and soft drinks were doing their job. Her speech was less slurred already. He wondered how to restart the conversation that had dried up in the minutes since he’d almost blurted his feelings across the table at her. Thank God he hadn’t. This wasn’t the time or the place. She’d just shared something deeply personal, and he didn’t want to look as though he were only saying what he so desperately wanted to say in response to it. That conversation, which could never happen, certainly didn’t need to come about as a result of alcohol and oversharing.
And yet, as he handed over his credit card, he found his mouth opening to add another purchase to his bill, his conscience watching with detachment, refusing to get involved in such an unwise decision.
By the time Strike sat down with more drinks, Robin had pulled herself together a little. She was feeling much more sober now, the chips and the first Coke doing their job. Thirsty from the combination of alcohol and salt, she took a long drink of her fresh Coke.
“Thanks,” she managed, setting her glass down, and the sergeant nodded.
“You’re welcome.” He grinned suddenly. “My fault you’re drunk, my job to sober you up.”
Robin chuckled, relaxing a little.
Bold suddenly, she looked up at him. “So I’m still…I’ve still got a job? A career?”
Again, that look of puzzlement on his face. “Why wouldn’t you?”
Robin sighed. “Because they might think I’m not up to it.”
Strike shrugged. “How would they find out?”
He really wasn’t going to tell. Robin relaxed a little more.
“I suppose…. I suppose I’m just used to being treated differently,” she said, slowly. “People get a…look in their eyes once they know. They behave differently around me, kind of like I might break.”
“They don’t understand,” Strike replied. “I imagine no one can unless they’ve been through it.”
Robin nodded again. “I didn’t understand for a long time, either,” she said suddenly. “I thought I was damaged too. I stayed with my husband far too long, after. I shouldn’t have even married him. Stupid, really.”
Strike sipped his beer and wondered what the appropriate answer to that was. He set his glass down again. It was his third pint, probably wise to slow down. The aim of this evening was to get Cadet Ellacott sober, not himself drunk.
“How long were you together?” he asked. This was an odd conversational path to go down with her, discussing past loves.
“Ten years, one of them married,” she replied with a touch of irony, and Strike blinked in surprise.
“You must have been together very young.”
She nodded. “Since sixth form,” she said. Her face darkened. “He used to joke that he’d had no choice. I was ‘the only fit bird with a brain’, apparently.”
Strike snorted. “Charming.”
“Indeed.” Ellacott drank more Coke. “I should have seen the signs. But I thought he was a safe bet. He was good to me…after.”
Strike looked down at the table, at her slim hand resting on it. So close, and so far away.
“It’s easy to stay with people too long,” he said slowly. “I was with my ex, Charlotte, for sixteen years, on and off. I should have finished it way before I did. But people don’t, do they? We stay and stay, thinking it’ll get better.”
“What was the final straw?” Robin asked, curious.
Strike scowled. “The ultimate lie,” he said shortly. “She lied a lot, but this one I couldn’t forgive.”
There was a pause, and he was afraid she was going to push for details, so he turned the question back on her. “How about you? His affair?”
She gave a humourless laugh. “Yeah. Oldest story in the world.”
Twat. Strike was surprised by a sudden surge of anger. People had affairs all the time, he knew this. But how someone could cheat on this incredible woman—
“Idiot,” he muttered, and she laughed.
“Yup,” she replied, almost cheerfully.
Silence fell again, and Ellacott drank her Coke and Strike his pint.
“I guess I should get back,” she said presently. She glanced at her watch, and did an almost comical double-take. “Is that really the time?”
“Yeah,” Strike replied. He set his almost empty glass down again and took a breath.
“I, er, booked you a room,” he heard himself say. “You know, in case you didn’t want to go back. Sleep it off away from the base.”
He risked a glance at her, and their eyes met in a surge of heat that Strike determinedly pushed away. He didn’t want her thinking he was taking advantage, that he had booked her the room hoping he’d be staying in it too. Didn’t want to admit to himself that the possibility of that had spurred his decision on a little.
“Are you staying too?” she asked quietly, a twinkle in her eye.
She had drunk a lot of wine, no matter how much she thought she’d sobered up, and she’d been upset. Possibly still was. “No,” he replied firmly, hoping he had the willpower to make it true.
Ellacott gazed at him levelly. “Then I’m not either,” she replied, surprising him.
Her eyes flickered sideways, and Strike became aware suddenly of the idiot from earlier on at the edge of his peripheral vision. He’d forgotten the guy was still here.
“I’ll feel safer on the base,” she replied, her voice low. “I don’t like staying new places alone.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to remind her she’d stayed here before; he thought better of it. So, then, he had a choice. Escort her back to the base, or stay here with her.
Robin could see the big sergeant hesitating, and her heart twisted with a combination of hurt and anger. He didn’t want to stay here with her. Not now he knew. Despite all of his apparently genuine assurances to the contrary, things were different now. He didn’t see her the same way as he had before her confession over a pub table and too much cheap wine.
Tears gathered again, and she picked up her Coke glass to bury her face in it, but it was empty. She set it back down again.
He noticed, of course he did. He was far too astute. It was why he was here in the first place, after all. With the barest of glances towards Robin’s potential suitor, still waiting at the bar, he rose.
“Okay, I’ll stay for a while,” he told her, and she could hear in his voice that he didn’t think it was a good idea.
Numb and miserable, she stood too and followed him out into the corridor. It would look to the other punters at the bar like they had left together, shielding her from any unwanted advances. They made their way along the dark hallway to the stairs. Logically, Robin knew there was no reason for the other man to know she was staying here alone, and she’d be perfectly safe - the landlord and his wife lived in their own quarters above the kitchens.
But she still wanted him to stay. And not just for… She simply didn’t want to be alone. Not when the alternative was another night in Sergeant Strike’s arms, reluctant though he was.
They reached their room, opposite the one they’d stayed in last time, and the sergeant unlocked the door and let them in.
“We haven’t got a change of clothes,” Robin realised, feeling a little drunk again now she was back on her feet and moving around. She eyed the big bed with, for the first time, a sense of trepidation.
She heard the sergeant take a long, slow breath behind her, and felt herself shrink under his obvious reluctance. “We’ll manage,” he said heavily, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Fearing she was about to burst into tears again, Robin went and shut herself in the compact en suite to splash more water on her face and try to get a grip on her misery. What did it matter that he wasn’t going to doubt her ability to do the job, if he didn’t want her any more?
It’s for the best, she tried to tell herself as she dried her face and opened the complimentary toothbrush. This…affair had to stop anyway. Might as well be for this reason as any other.
It hurt, though. That he, of all people, saw her as damaged, lesser, that they couldn’t have the passion between them that had been the one thing, she now realised, to truly give her back her sexual confidence in a way that nothing else had.
When she came back out of the bathroom, Strike had shed his shirt, trousers and prosthesis and was sat up in the bed in a T-shirt and a pair of boxers, his partial right leg under the covers. Robin hesitated, and he gave her a gentle smile.
“Just…whatever you’re comfortable in,” he told her, and she swallowed her hurt at that, too. So it didn’t matter what she wore, then. He wasn’t going to be tempted.
Defiantly she stripped her clothes off. All she had to cover herself once she’d removed her shirt and leggings were her knickers and a strappy vest top, but clearly it didn’t matter. She unhooked her bra and pulled it out from under her top, noting that he was carefully not looking at her, scrolling through his phone, and she tossed the garment aside.
So this was how it was going to be, then. She climbed into the bed next to him and slid down beneath the covers. The pillow was deliciously soft, and she suddenly realised how the emotional stress and excess alcohol had taken its toll. She was exhausted. Without thinking about it, she rolled towards him, reaching for his bulk and the comfort he offered just by being present.
Slowly, reluctantly, Strike set down his phone and reached to turn off the bedside light, plunging the room into near darkness lit only by the dim glow of a street lamp through the thin curtains. He eased himself down into the bed next to her as she reached for him.
He shouldn’t have had that third beer. He was just tipsy enough to lower his inhibitions too much, and despite the fact that he’d tried hard not to look, an image persisted in his head of the soft band of stomach Ellacott had revealed as she stripped her shirt off over her head. Despite trying to think of anything else, all he could picture was the outline of her nipples under the sheer vest top after she’d wriggled out of her bra - it would have to be that green lace again, wouldn’t it, that he’d so longed so see again since their first encounter.
And now here she was, laid next to him, in said tiny vest top and the green lace knickers, soft and vulnerable and, no doubt, highly willing (he wasn’t smug about her attraction to him; when had they ever been alone together and not indulged in some way?) and he must not take advantage. She was drunk and upset, and what she needed was a protector, someone to take care of her and not lust over her.
Tell that to his libido.
He lay back with a small sigh, willing his body to behave itself, and she snuggled into his side, warm and soft, and he didn’t have a hope.
“Ellacott,” he murmured, his arm sliding around her automatically - he could offer the comfort she sought, at least - and his body tensed as she pressed closer, her fingers wandering across his chest, stroking against the material of his T-shirt.
“Stay,” she murmured against his shoulder. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“I’ll stay till it’s light,” he promised. “But we can’t go back together.”
She nodded and sighed, wriggling closer in a movement that pressed her breast against his bicep. Strike swallowed hard and tried to ignore the soft swell of her against him.
Her wandering hand crept up his chest, and then she was toying with the spring of his chest hair above his neckline, and desire jumped sharply. He went from largely in control of himself to full-blown arousal in a matter of seconds, and shifted uncomfortably next to her, cursing his perennial lack of self-control around her.
“Sir,” she breathed against his shoulder, pressing her face closer towards his neck, and Strike shuddered and tried to ease himself away from her a little, away from her soft skin and gentle touches and warm scent that made the arousal pumping through his veins pulse even harder.
Again, she could sense his reluctance, and it should have been a turn-off, but she could also hear how unsteady his breathing had become, and a fierce pulse of arousal pierced Robin’s tiredness, bringing her back to reality and the knowledge that they were once again in bed together, bringing with it all the possibilities… Perhaps if she could break down his inhibitions…
She pressed closer, and felt him try to draw away a little, and in her tired, still half-drunk state, a sudden wave of emotion washed over her, powerful but hard to define, a mixture of fondness, frustration, a good dose of hurt and a tinge of anger.
She hauled herself up onto one elbow, staring down at him in the almost-dark. “What?” she whispered fiercely.
He blinked back up at her, his gaze stormy, but he didn’t pretend not to understand her question. “Ellacott,” he began. “I can’t—”
Her voice was low but vehement. “Nothing has changed. I’m just the same person I was before that conversation we had downstairs.”
He stared at her. “I know.”
Tears were gathering in her eyes now. “So what is this? This…pulling away, refusing to stay? Am I damaged goods now? You don’t want me? You can’t bring yourself to— to—”
She trailed off with a gasp as his big hand reached across and slid into her hair, his muttered “c’mere” barely leaving his lips before they met hers as he pulled her head down to his to kiss her, not gentle. Their mouths met with a clash of teeth and his tongue sought hers at once, and his body surged up into the kiss. He flipped them both in one smooth movement, his mouth never leaving hers, and rolled onto her, and Robin broke away with a gasp as she felt the full force of his arousal pressing hard between her thighs, rocking against her and rubbing where she so desperately wanted him, separated only by their underwear. She whimpered with desire as he buried his face in her neck with a growl and mouthed at her skin, his hips grinding down onto hers, and she was lost in a swell of desire, clinging to his big arms and gasping as his tongue laved her skin.
With a jerk, Strike pulled back, panting.
“God, Ellacott,” he muttered, his voice hoarse. “How could you ever think I don’t want you?”
Her breathing coming in gasps, Robin gazed up at him, shocked at the speed and force of their mutual desire.
“It’s just— since I told you—”
Strike grinned at her suddenly. “My reluctance has nothing to do with what you told me, and everything to do with the copious amounts of wine you drank while you were telling me,” he said. His voice and expression gentled. “You’ve had an upsetting day and a lot of alcohol. I’m not going to turn that to my advantage, no matter how much—” he flexed his hips to hers again, nudging up against her, making her moan as a fresh wave of desire washed through her “—I might want to. I have slightly more self-control than that. Just,” he added ruefully.
Fondness ran through her alongside the desire, and Robin smiled tremulously up at him. “I thought you didn’t want me any more.”
“You thought wrong,” he replied, shifting himself off her to lie next to her again. “I always—” He stopped, seeming to catch himself as though realising where the sentence was going, and gave a deep, heartfelt sigh instead. He rolled onto his back and his big arm pulled her against him, tucking her into his side. “Go to sleep, Ellacott.”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered, and felt a chuckle rumble through him. Her fierce desire was waning fast, tamped down by alcohol and exhaustion, and she pressed into his comforting warmth and closed her eyes.
Ellacott was asleep within minutes, going soft and boneless against him, and Strike lay and looked at the ceiling, wishing he felt in any way the same.
His thoughts drifted back over their conversation tonight. Christ. She had been raped and left for dead, and this morning had masterfully role-played just such a situation and discussed how a fictional victim might feel with detachment and empathy. She was going to make a damn fine investigator, able to understand yet analyse, empathise yet keep a clear head.
She was exceptional, and there was only so long that he was going to be able to run away from his feelings for her. Strike lay and willed his body to calm down, his racing pulse to slow, his unfulfilled desire to abate.
It was a long time before he too finally fell asleep, lulled by the soft rhythm of her breathing.
It was dark when Robin awoke. Disorientated, it took her a moment to remember where she was, to realise that it was a combination of the pressure in her bladder and the steady snoring of the huge man in the bed next to her that had disturbed her.
She crept away and crossed to the small bathroom; when she returned and clambered back into bed, her movement caused him to shift in his sleep, automatically rolling towards her and throwing a long arm over her hip; secured and safe, Robin lay and drank him in.
His habitually surly features were much less forbidding in sleep, and he looked younger somehow. She wondered what his life had been before she met him. She knew little about his past beyond what she’d read in the gossip columns and the little he’d told her. Sixteen years with his ex - that was a long, long time. He must have been barely out of his teens when they met, given that she knew it was some years since they’d split up. She idly wondered what his childhood had been like. She had two images in her head - he seemed to be both the child who had been, according to the tabloids, dragged around the place with his groupie mother and a lad who’d grown up secure with an uncle and aunt in Cornwall. She wondered which had contributed more to his character.
Her thoughts drifted back over their evening, and she winced a little at the memories. She’d told him everything, which she had intended never to do. The Army was supposed to have been a new start for her, a chance to consign her past to the past and leave it there. Now that Matthew was married to someone else, she had no links left to the old her, the biddable, quiet Robin who did what people around her wanted her to do, conformed to their image of her.
She had been afraid Sergeant Strike would see her differently, but he had accepted what she’d told him and it hadn’t changed things between them at all. He was the only person, she realised now, apart from Vanessa who knew her past and treated her just the same. Even her mother seemed to see her as somehow fragile since her attack.
The sergeant was breathing deeply, evenly, his arm a comforting weight across her and his face close to hers. He smelled warm and slightly smoky, and Robin nuzzled closer. She remembered his reaction to her earlier, the urgent desire he’d been doing his best to hide not because he didn’t want her, but because he did and yet didn’t expect anything from her, and she pressed her lips to his cheek and breathed him, tasted him. Her heart twisted a little as she pressed closer.
She could not, must not fall in love with him. Enjoying his company, his body, was one thing, but she couldn’t allow herself to develop deep-seated feelings. What they had together was going to have to come to an end at some point, they both knew it.
Not yet, though. Tonight they had a whole night, and maybe now she had sobered up, he wouldn’t feel he was taking advantage.
Robin shifted her weight closer, propping herself up a little and leaning into Strike’s bulk, her mouth moving to his neck and her hands pushing him gently back over onto his back.
Strike woke slowly, desire creeping into his dreams and then reality following swiftly as he came to full consciousness and realised that this wasn’t just a delicious fantasy. The cadet was lying half across him, her mouth caressing his neck, her hand creeping up under his T-shirt and her fingers exploring his chest hair. He was fully aroused before he was fully awake.
“Ellacott—” he murmured, and she shushed him gently, kissing her way up his jaw.
“Shh,” she whispered. “I’m sober now, and not upset any more.”
“Okay,” he managed, and surrendered utterly to her mouth on his.
There was something about the softness of her, the dreamlike quality of rising to desire straight from sleep, the velvet darkness enveloping them. Strike lay pliant beneath her, letting her set the mood and pace, and although her movements were slow, they went up through the gears quickly. One minute it was her lips soft against his and her fingers toying with his chest hair, the next she was nibbling at his neck and sliding her hand below the waistband of his boxers and he was groaning softly, his head falling back as her fingers wrapped around him and slid against his length and pleasure turned his spine liquid. His hand found her arse, squeezing softly, and the fingers of his other hand tangled into her hair as she shifted against him, rocking her hips against his in time with the gentle movements of her hand.
Pleasure washed over him in waves; just as he began to ache for more, she drew her hand away and pushed at his waistband. In a few graceless, uncoordinated moments she’d cast his boxers and her knickers aside and was clambering over him, her thighs either side of his and her fingers sliding into his hair as she kissed him again and then moving to tug at his T-shirt, encouraging him half up so she could pull it over his head, throwing her vest top after it to land on the floor. She chuckled as he took the chance to bury his face in her gorgeous breasts, then gasped as his tongue stroked across her nipple, her head canting sideways with the pleasure and her gorgeous hair cascading over his shoulder.
She pushed him back down onto the bed and stretched out along him, her gorgeous curves pressed against his bulk. Strike was powerless to do anything, not that he would have wanted to stop her even if he could. He allowed himself, for once, to be swept away in the moment, to let her make love to him, rocking up against her as she moved her hips over his, his cock thrusting up between her thighs, feeling the dampness of her arousal and aching to be properly connected to her. His hands found her waist, trying to shift her a little as he bucked up beneath her.
The angle was wrong. He moaned his frustration into her mouth and felt her lips curl into a sultry smile against his. She hitched herself up higher, bringing her knees up either side of his waist, circling her hips over his and teasing him a little with her slick heat against him, her hands planted on his broad chest, making him gasp and thrust up, desperate to be inside her, and then she was sliding down onto him and he groaned with delight as the pleasure suffused him. Liquid heat pooled in his groin as she began to rock forward and back, and the pleasure built slowly but inexorably.
He felt incredible beneath her, utterly submitted to her, letting her control his pleasure and her own, and there was something fiercely sexy about it, about having this huge man totally at her mercy, his head back and his eyes closed, her hands fisting into his chest hair and his cupping her backside, drawing her closer still.
Her breath stuttering in her chest, Robin slowed down, wanting to draw their encounter out as long as she could, and he opened his eyes, his gaze seeking hers. Even in the almost dark, she could see the fierce glitter of arousal in his gaze. She lowered herself down to his him and his mouth devoured hers hungrily, his hips thrusting up into her.
Still the heat built, delicious tension that grew and coalesced into an ache in Robin’s groin that begged for release. Her mouth on his neck now, she rocked steadily, thrilling to the feel of him being brought higher and higher beneath her, his low moans breaking into panting breaths and his fingers digging into her hips as his whole body began to tremble.
“Christ, Ellacott,” he ground out in a broken whisper. “I’m close—”
“Me too,” she gasped in reply, slowing down a little more and feeling him buck helplessly beneath her. She buried her face in his neck, her hands in his hair, her hips working against his and her jaw going slack as the tension built until she couldn’t stand it any longer. Breath poured from her in a silent scream as the wave crested and broke over her; dimly she was aware of him grunting and finishing beneath her, his hips stuttering and his panting breath hot against her cheek.
Fierce pleasure melted into trembling relaxation; Robin slumped against his chest and let her head loll onto his shoulder. His arms slid around her waist, holding her in place, and they breathed hard together, slowly drifting back to reality.
She didn’t have to leave. He didn’t have to leave. A smile crept across Robin’s face and she snuggled a little closer. Her hips protested, aching now, and she eased herself up and off him, dropping down next to him with her face still buried in his neck. His arms stayed wrapped around her and his low rumble of appreciation echoed through his chest and hers. With a soft sound of satisfaction and contentment, Robin pressed closer, her head on his shoulder and her arm draped over him, and closed her eyes, floating.
He wasn’t capable of coherent thought. His body deeply relaxed, suffused with pleasure and satiation, Strike held her in his arms and allowed his thoughts to drift. She smelled divine, warm and musky and, well, of sex, and she fit perfectly against his side. For once the tangle of thoughts concerning her let him be, and he just breathed the moment, surrounded by the scent and feel of her and a deep sense of well-being.
He was snoring again within two minutes, his arms going slack around her. With a fond chuckle, Robin pressed closer and let sleep claim her too.
Strike knew when he next awoke that he wouldn’t be going back to sleep again. Early morning light tinged the room; he squinted at his watch. If he was going to make it back to barracks undetected (and that was a tall order; luckily he was known for going for early morning walks when sleep eluded him) then he was going to have to leave soon.
He lay a little longer, his arm wrapped around the cadet - Robin - and her back pressed against his chest. He allowed himself these few minutes of just holding and breathing her, the scent of her hair against his nose and the curve of her soft stomach under his hand, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. She was deeply asleep still.
Strike knew he couldn’t stay until she woke, much as he wished he could. Perhaps, in the early quiet of the morning, they could enjoy one another again before he had to go. His body stirred hopefully at the thought.
It wasn’t just that, though. He wanted her to wake so that he could talk to her some more, bask in her presence, enjoy her company, maybe flirt with her a little.
He pulled her a little closer, his battered heart aching. He wanted… what? Everything, with her. Everything that he couldn’t have. He wanted her to love him.
This had to stop. He couldn’t keep seeing her, wishing things were different yet knowing they couldn’t be. He needed to either make a move so that they could be together, or stop seeing her for his own sanity.
What move could he make, though? One of them would have to leave the Army, give up their career. For a fling that might not amount to anything. He’d never asked her how she felt about him, and she’d never volunteered the information. For all he knew, this was just about the sex to her. She was divorced, building a new career, focusing on getting her life back on track after a long detour caused by an incident in her past that she was finally overcoming. A relationship with an older, damaged sergeant probably wasn’t high on her list of priorities.
Strike heaved a deep sigh, breathing the scent of her one last time, and reluctantly rolled away and began the hunt for his clothes. His trousers, prosthetic leg and shirt were piled neatly against the wall on his side of the bed, and his boxers and T-shirt cast aside much more haphazardly. He picked them up, a smile ghosting across his face as he remembered her throwing them, and he dropped her vest top and the gorgeous green knickers over to the floor on Ellacott’s side of the bed.
He dressed as quietly as he could, pulling on T-shirt, boxer shorts. As he reached his trousers across to pull them on, there was a soft thump as the pebble he carried around with him fell out of the pocket and hit the cheap, patterned carpet. Strike stopped what he was doing and bent to pick it up, sat on the edge of the bed with it in his hand.
He turned the pebble over in his big fingers. The jaunty little painted robin sat on its stylised bit of twig, the name of his home town in Cornwall scribed below it in curly letters. He’d bought it on a whim at a local shop in Cornwall when he’d been on his emergency visit for the final days of his aunt’s life, out for a walk for a moment of respite from the funereal atmosphere of the cramped cottage. He’d paused outside the shop, smoking his cigarette, intending to make his way across to the sea wall to lean and admire the stormy vista but momentarily distracted by the tempting possibility of a strong coffee. His gaze had drifted idly across the display of pebbles painted by a local artist, and the robin had jumped out at him; he’d found himself buying it along with a double espresso to kick-start his morning and a newspaper to lay on the kitchen table and provide some welcome conversation about the outside world.
He’d never been quite clear in his head why he’d bought it, only that he’d been thinking of Robin - Cadet Ellacott - and their recent night together, and wishing she were there with him to impart some of the warmth and comfort he found himself increasingly craving. He’d half intended it as a gift for her, to thank her for her moral support, but had never found the right moment to hand it over. And so he had kept it, and now, despite how he tried to put such fanciful thoughts aside, with his habitual scorn for such things, he felt as though he somehow carried a part of her around with him. He carefully didn’t think about it too closely. The pebble lived in his pocket and had just become a habit, his fingers seeking its smooth curves whenever he missed her. The curling letter S at the beginning and end of his town’s name were staring to wear off, parts of their curlicues rubbed away.
He could leave it here on the bedside table. A gift, a parting gesture? He half turned to look at her as she slept, at the edge of her freckled shoulder above the duvet, the curves of her body below the covers, the spread of her hair on the pillow. How many times had he told himself he had to stop seeing her? Too many to count, now. He should leave the pebble, draw a line under their time together while they could still part as friends.
He turned back to the task at hand, slipped the pebble back into his trouser pocket and pulled the rest of his clothes on.
Robin knew as she came to consciousness that she was alone, but this time she didn’t feel as bereft as she often did after their encounters these days. She was warm and cosy, and she stretched beneath the covers, a grin sneaking across her face at the satisfied ache in her hips.
She rolled onto her back and gazed at the ceiling. For once in her life, she’d told someone about her past and it had made no difference. He’d accepted this as a part of her just as she accepted his leg as a part of him. It was what it was.
It was still early, and she was hungry. Perhaps she could make it back to the base in time for breakfast. She sat up and reached for her clothes.