Strike’s ears pricked up at the distant sound of footsteps on the metal stairs. If he could hear them from his armchair, whoever it was was already higher than the middle floor, heading to either the office or up here to his flat. He picked up the remote and turned the volume down on the football match he’d recorded at the weekend, listening.
The footsteps were getting closer. He dropped his half-finished cigarette into his almost empty beer can and reached for his prosthetic leg which he had set aside, hastily rolling up his trouser leg to reattach it. He hadn’t been expecting company.
By the time he’d got himself strapped back together, it was obvious the steps were approaching his door, and from the click of heels, it was a woman. Robin, then. No-one else had a key to downstairs, if you didn’t count Pat. And the chances of Pat approaching his flat at almost eleven o’clock on a random Monday night were even more remote than the chances of it being his business partner.
The soft tapping on his door that ensued suggested his visitor feared he was asleep. Smiling, Strike opened the door to reveal Robin in her beige coat and heels, smiling up at him a little hazily.
“I am. Did you text me?”
“Nah, wuz only roun’ the corner.” She blinked at him owlishly. “C’n I come in?”
She’d almost never entered his flat. Bemused, Strike nodded and stepped aside, and Robin moved confidently into his space.
“Um, beer? Whisky?” He eyed her slightly swaying form as she swung back to face him. “Tea?”
“A li’l whisky w’d be good, thanks.”
Strike nodded and moved to his kitchenette while Robin took her coat off and draped it over the back of his single dining chair. He reached the whisky bottle down from the cupboard and wondered what on earth she was doing here, late at night, in his flat, clearly having had a few drinks. And he’d worked his way through a few cans himself during the course of the football. He didn’t usually bother to tape full matches, but it had been a working weekend, Arsenal had won for once and it was nearing the end of the season when every point mattered.
He poured fingers of whisky into two glasses and turned back to Robin, and his breath caught in his chest.
She was wearing slim-fitting black trousers with heeled sandals, but her fitted top, shimmering with gold sequins, drew the eye to her cleavage, the gold bringing out the understated eyeshadow that he now noticed as he moved his eyes hurriedly to her forehead.
She looked stunning. He’d known, although he’d always tried not to look, that she had a gorgeous figure. It just wasn’t normally displayed so…provocatively.
He passed her one of the glasses.
“Nice, er, earrings,” he managed, and she snorted and he felt his cheeks grow hot.
“So, to what do I owe this late-night visit?” he asked, hurriedly moving the subject on. Christ, her breasts were gorgeous, soft creamy curves trying to spill out of her top, scattered with pale freckles, tantalisingly close here in his flat, to him, to his bed.
It had been a very long time since Strike had so much as kissed a woman. He kept his eyes on hers and took a half step back so he couldn’t smell her perfume so clearly, weaving seductively around him in the small space.
“Ilsa,” she replied, and he blinked, surprised. “Well, an’ Vanessa. And Michelle.”
This properly confused him. “Michelle?”
“Yeah, you know, Michelle. Our Michelle.”
“Greenstreet?” She nodded. Strike raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t know you went out with her.”
“You go for beers with Sam.”
“Oh, yeah, I wasn’t saying—” Strike stopped. “So how is it their fault you’re here?”
Robin grinned and swigged her whisky. “Well, see,” she said, and took a deep breath. “You have to hear me out on this, cos issa long story.”
Amusement washed through him. “Okay. Shall we sit?”
Robin looked around, and Strike tried to force his eyes to stay above her collarbone as she swung away and back again, and he mostly succeeded. “Nah.”
She was right. One dining chair, one easy chair.
One bed. He swallowed that thought with a sip of his own whisky. Stop it, Strike.
“So anyway,” she waved her glass, the amber liquid sloshing a little. “’S cocktail night, innit.”
Strike’s eyebrows climbed his forehead. “It’s Monday.”
She grinned a little lopsidedly. “Yeah, everywhere has happy hour.”
I bet. Monday wasn’t known for being a drinking night. “So is cocktail night a regular thing?”
“It is now,” she replied confidently. “An’ so we had cocktails.”
“Good plan, on cocktail night.”
“Yup. An’ then we were playing truth or dare—”
Apprehension flipped Strike’s stomach a little. He had long refused to play truth or dare with Ilsa, no matter how tipsy and artless she appeared to be when she suggested it. He suspected her of lining the questions up beforehand.
“An’ now I know things. So many things. Secrets.” Robin tapped the side of her nose, and this time it was Strike’s heart that twisted at how utterly charming that was. Not an adjective he would normally use to describe a woman he was attracted to, but—
“But I can’t tell you them,” she finished, and he nodded. “Thank goodness.”
“So anyway,” she said again, and paused to take another slurp of whisky before coughing a little. “God, that’s strong.”
Strike’s mouth curved with amusement. “Try sipping it.”
She nodded, and set the glass down on his small dining table, a look of determination crossing her face. She took a deep breath.
“They asked me if we’d ever snogged. You and me,” she added, as though the clarification were necessary.
Strike’s heart lurched. Here it was, then, finally, this moment. Forced out into the open by alcohol and peer pressure. He wasn’t sure whether he was more angry, afraid or hopeful.
“An’ I said no, we hadn’t, cos we haven’t. So that was the truth, see.”
Yes, I know how the game works. Strike said nothing, watching her carefully as she rambled on.
“And then Vanessa asked if I’d ever thought you were going to kiss me,” she went on. “An’ I said yeah, on my birthday. But you didn’t.”
She looked sad for a moment, and again Strike couldn’t work out whether hope for Robin’s feelings or irritation with her friends was his dominant emotion.
“And then Michelle said - she’s weird at this stuff, Corm’ran, I think she’s got a calculator in her head -” Robin paused, picked up her whisky again, sipped it, set it back down. “She said that’s two hundred days ago.”
“Right.” He was unsure suddenly where this was going.
“And Vanessa said it can’t be exactly, an’ then there was an argument, an’ we had to Google it, an’ Michelle said we should jus’ trust her, and Van said it’s not natural to jus’ know stuff like that off the top of y’r head…”
She wound to a halt. “Anyway, it is. It’s two hundred days since my birthday, tonight.”
She stood, staring at him. Strike had an odd, fleeting sense of deja vu that he couldn’t put his finger on, there and gone like a shadow passing through the back of a mind that was already trying to process a lot of thoughts and feelings.
“Right,” he said again cautiously.
“Two hundred days,” she said again. “And nothing. And on my birthday, I thought…”
She trailed off, and her eyes grew brighter and her cheeks flushed; all at once Strike was wondering first if she was upset, and then, if she was, whether it was heartfelt emotion or too much alcohol that was causing it.
Robin swallowed hard. “An’ then Ilsa asked—”
Here we go.
“—if I’d ever wanted you to.”
His heart was hammering as though to break out of his chest now, stood here in his dimly lit flat, staring at her across a room that was both a chasm too wide to cross and, at the same time, far too small to contain the emotions filling the cramped space.
He wanted to know the answer so much, he couldn’t bring himself to ask. Instead he gazed mutely at her.
“An’ I refused to answer,” she replied with dignity. “So here I am.”
It took Strike a few moments to take in the sudden change of gear. “Right,” he said, yet again, slowly. “Because—?”
“Because that’s the dare,” Robin replied, as though he were being obtuse. “If I wouldn’t say whether I’d ever wanted you to kiss me, I had to come here and ask you why you haven’t.”
Strike decided he was either going to throttle Ilsa or give her a bunch of flowers the next time he saw her, depending on how the next few minutes went.
“So,” she said, with an air of throwing caution to the wind. “Here I am. Why haven’ you kissed me?”
Strike opened and closed his mouth, his quick brain churning. What was the right thing to say, that would take him in the direction he wanted to go, yet leave the way back to safety open if she either wasn’t on the same page, or changed her mind in the sober light of day?
She was standing there, brave, trembling, in that top that was a siren call to his libido, and now all he could think about was crossing the space between them and capturing her lips with his.
He cleared his throat. “Um,” he began. “I guess…”
What, Strike? He briefly toyed with the idea of saying something playful, flirtatious. That rather depends on the answer to the truth part. I suppose you’re allowed to tell me that.
But she was watching him, now, very still, and he sensed that despite the game, the truths and the dares, the alcohol and the fun night out, there was something deeper going on. Robin would not have allowed herself, even drunk, to be manipulated into this position if she didn’t want on some level to be here.
He raised his chin, meeting her eyes clearly. “I wasn’t sure enough that you wanted me to. And I didn’t want to fuck up the most valuable thing in my life right now, which is our friendship.”
Tears filled her eyes, but she gazed steadily back at him. “What if it wouldn’t fuck it up?” she whispered.
Strike took a step forwards, reaching to set his whisky down on the table next to hers, and Robin moved too, closer to him, tilting her face up, watching him for clues.
“Then all I’d be waiting for is the right moment.”
A soft smile curved her lips, and she took a trembling breath. “How about now?”
He grinned. “Now is good,” he murmured, and kissed her.
It was everything he’d imagined and more; she tasted of whisky and rum, pineapple and coconut, and she leaned into the kiss with more confidence than he’d been expecting. Her lips parted for him and her hands slid up to cup his face; Strike wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer with a low rumble of appreciation.
She eased herself into him, her breasts against the front of his shirt, her fingers scratching gently at the stubble on his cheeks. Pleasure washed through him at the gentle taste of her, the soft press of her lips on his, and then her mouth opened wider and her tongue slid into his mouth, and desire jumped sharply, need and pleasure fizzing through his veins and rushing to pool in his groin where she was pressing her hips to his. Somehow his hands were on her backside, feeling her curves through the sheer material of her trousers, pulling her hard against him, and she whimpered softly into his mouth.
Silence reigned for a minute or so as the kiss built and then Robin broke free to gasp in a breath, her head tilting back, and he couldn’t resist; his mouth moved to her jaw, her throat, and his hand crept around and up, seeking the gorgeous soft swell of her—
A low groan from Robin’s throat brought him back to himself somewhat; panting, Strike pulled back.
“Christ, Robin,” he growled, need pulsing through him and his body, already fully aroused, thrumming with desire at the sight of her, lips already swollen from his kisses, breasts heaving as she gasped in air.
He couldn’t do this, not when she’d had so much to drink. Could he?
God, he wanted to.
“How much have you had to drink?” he mumbled, powerless to resist her as she moved back into his arms, her lips finding his neck, making him shudder and rock his hips to hers as she sucked gently on his skin and then nipped at him, making him jump and moan.
“Prob’ly too much for this,” she murmured back, and pulled his head back down to hers, kissing him with her fingers tangled in his hair now.
Another minute passed before Strike forced himself to ease back again. “Then I think I’d better call you a cab,” he told her roughly, and she pouted prettily.
“Don’ wanna go home.”
Strike drew a shuddering breath and dropped his forehead to hers, aching to kiss her again, to pull that top off her, to explore her gorgeous figure that he was suddenly allowed to touch, to taste. He wanted to do everything; he was dizzy with the force of his longing.
He swallowed. “Then you’re going to have to help me put the brakes on, if you’re staying,” he replied shakily.
Her delighted smile took his breath away. “I c’n stay?”
He grinned. “Saves me trekking across town to hammer on your door at seven o’clock in the morning.”
She giggled. “An’ it’s much closer to work here.”
He chuckled, pulling her into a hug, his heart swelling as she nuzzled into his chest. “I’m not so sure that’s an advantage under the circumstances.”
He felt laughter ripple through her, pressed against him, her arms around his waist.
“We’d better wake up early, then.”
His heart twisted a little; he stepped back. “And if you change your mind in the morning, no pressure, okay? Just say it and we go back to how we were.”
She smiled up at him, her eyes full of a love he’d never dared to hope he’d see. “Okay. But I won’t.” She chortled. “Been waitin’ long enough. Two hundred days is a long time, you know.”
So’s five years.
He grinned. “I know.”
“So,” she said, and swung away from him towards his bedroom. “I’m goin’ to bed, to sleep. Until, like—” she cast a cheeky look back over her shoulder that made his libido pulse again “—five o’clock in the morning?”
Strike chuckled. “Sounds good.”
“Yeah, I am.” He followed her into his bedroom.