Free Read Novels Online Home

Lethal White (A Cormoran Strike Novel) by Robert Galbraith (1)

Happiness, dear Rebecca, means first and foremost the calm, joyous sense of innocence.

Henrik Ibsen, Rosmersholm

If only the swans would swim side by side on the dark green lake, this picture might turn out to be the crowning achievement of the wedding photographer’s career.

He was loath to change the couple’s position, because the soft light beneath the canopy of trees was turning the bride, with her loose red-gold curls, into a pre-Raphaelite angel and emphasizing the chiseled cheekbones of her husband. He couldn’t remember when he had last been commissioned to photograph so handsome a couple. There was no need for tactful tricks with the new Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Cunliffe, no need to angle the lady so that rolls of back fat were hidden (she was, if anything, fractionally too slender, but that would photograph well), no need to suggest the groom “try one with your mouth closed,” because Mr. Cunliffe’s teeth were straight and white. The only thing that needed concealing, and it could be retouched out of the final pictures, was the ugly scar running down the bride’s forearm: purple and livid, with the puncture marks of stitches still visible.

She had been wearing a rubber and stockinette brace when the photographer arrived at her parents’ house that morning. It had given him quite a start when she had removed it for the photographs. He had even wondered whether she had made a botched attempt to kill herself before the wedding, because he had seen it all. You did, after twenty years in the game.

“I was assaulted,” Mrs. Cunliffe—or Robin Ellacott, as she had been two hours ago—had said. The photographer was a squeamish man. He had fought off the mental image of steel slicing into that soft, pale flesh. Thankfully, the ugly mark was now hidden in the shadow cast by Mrs. Cunliffe’s bouquet of creamy roses.

The swans, the damned swans. If both would clear out of the background it wouldn’t matter, but one of them was repeatedly diving, its fluffy pyramid of a backside jutting out of the middle of the lake like a feathered iceberg, its contortions ruffling the surface of the water so that its digital removal would be far more complicated than young Mr. Cunliffe, who had already suggested this remedy, realized. The swan’s mate, meanwhile, continued to lurk over by the bank: graceful, serene and determinedly out of shot.

“Have you got it?” asked the bride, her impatience palpable.

“You look gorgeous, flower,” said the groom’s father, Geoffrey, from behind the photographer. He sounded tipsy already. The couple’s parents, best man and bridesmaids were all watching from the shade of nearby trees. The smallest bridesmaid, a toddler, had had to be restrained from throwing pebbles into the lake, and was now whining to her mother, who talked to her in a constant, irritating whisper.

“Have you got it?” Robin asked again, ignoring her father-in-law.

“Almost,” lied the photographer. “Turn in to him a little bit more, please, Robin. That’s it. Nice big smiles. Big smiles, now!”

There was a tension about the couple that could not be wholly attributed to the difficulty of getting the shot. The photographer didn’t care. He wasn’t a marriage counselor. He had known couples to start screaming at each other while he read his light meter. One bride had stormed out of her own reception. He still kept, for the amusement of friends, the blurred shot from 1998 that showed a groom head-butting his best man.

Good-looking as they were, he didn’t fancy the Cunliffes’ chances. That long scar down the bride’s arm had put him off her from the start. He found the whole thing ominous and distasteful.

“Let’s leave it,” said the groom suddenly, releasing Robin. “We’ve got enough, haven’t we?”

“Wait, wait, the other one’s coming now!” said the photographer crossly.

The moment Matthew had released Robin, the swan by the far shore had begun to paddle its way across the dark green water towards its mate.

“You’d think the buggers were doing it on purpose, eh, Linda?” said Geoffrey with a fat chuckle to the bride’s mother. “Bloody things.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Robin, pulling her long skirt up clear of her shoes, the heels of which were a little too low. “I’m sure we’ve got something.”

She strode out of the copse of trees into the blazing sunlight and off across the lawn towards the seventeenth-century castle, where most of the wedding guests were already milling, drinking champagne as they admired the view of the hotel grounds.

“I think her arm’s hurting her,” the bride’s mother told the groom’s father.

Bollocks it is, thought the photographer with a certain cold pleasure. They rowed in the car.

The couple had looked happy enough beneath the shower of confetti in which they had departed the church, but on arrival at the country house hotel they had worn the rigid expressions of those barely repressing their rage.

“She’ll be all right. Just needs a drink,” said Geoffrey comfortably. “Go keep her company, Matt.”

Matthew had already set off after his bride, gaining on her easily as she navigated the lawn in her stilettos. The rest of the party followed, the bridesmaids’ mint-green chiffon dresses rippling in the hot breeze.

“Robin, we need to talk.”

“Go on, then.”

“Wait a minute, can’t you?”

“If I wait, we’ll have the family on us.”

Matthew glanced behind him. She was right.

“Robin—”

Don’t touch my arm!

Her wound was throbbing in the heat. Robin wanted to find the holdall containing the sturdy rubber protective brace, but it would be somewhere out of reach in the bridal suite, wherever that was.

The crowd of guests standing in the shadow of the hotel was coming into clearer view. The women were easy to tell apart, because of their hats. Matthew’s Aunt Sue wore an electric blue wagon wheel, Robin’s sister-in-law, Jenny, a startling confection of yellow feathers. The male guests blurred into conformity in their dark suits. It was impossible to see from this distance whether Cormoran Strike was among them.

“Just stop, will you?” said Matthew, because they had fast outstripped the family, who were matching their pace to his toddler niece.

Robin paused.

“I was shocked to see him, that’s all,” said Matthew carefully.

“I suppose you think I was expecting him to burst in halfway through the service and knock over the flowers?” asked Robin.

Matthew could have borne this response if not for the smile she was trying to suppress. He had not forgotten the joy in her face when her ex-boss had crashed into their wedding ceremony. He wondered whether he would ever be able to forgive the fact that she had said “I do” with her eyes fastened upon the big, ugly, shambolic figure of Cormoran Strike, rather than her new husband. The entire congregation must have seen how she had beamed at him.

Their families were gaining on them again. Matthew took Robin’s upper arm gently, his fingers inches above the knife wound, and walked her on. She came willingly, but he suspected that this was because she hoped she was moving closer to Strike.

“I said in the car, if you want to go back to work for him—”

“—I’m an ‘effing idiot,’” said Robin.

The men grouped on the terrace were becoming distinguishable now, but Robin could not see Strike anywhere. He was a big man. She ought to have been able to make him out even among her brothers and uncles, who were all over six foot. Her spirits, which had soared when Strike had appeared, tumbled earthwards like rain-soaked fledglings. He must have left after the service rather than boarding a minibus to the hotel. His brief appearance had signified a gesture of goodwill, but nothing more. He had not come to rehire her, merely to congratulate her on a new life.

“Look,” said Matthew, more warmly. She knew that he, too, had scanned the crowd, found it Strike-less and drawn the same conclusion. “All I was trying to say in the car was: it’s up to you what you do, Robin. If he wanted—if he wants you back—I was just worried, for Christ’s sake. Working for him wasn’t exactly safe, was it?”

“No,” said Robin, with her knife wound throbbing. “It wasn’t safe.”

She turned back towards her parents and the rest of the family group, waiting for them to catch up. The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.

“Do you want to go to Auntie Robin?” said Matthew’s sister.

Toddler Grace obligingly seized Robin’s injured arm and swung on it, eliciting a yelp of pain.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Robin—Gracie, let go—”

“Champagne!” shouted Geoffrey. He put his arm around Robin’s shoulders and steered her on towards the expectant crowd.

The gents’ bathroom was, as Strike would have expected of this upmarket country hotel, odor-free and spotless. He wished he could have brought a pint into the cool, quiet toilet cubicle, but that might have reinforced the impression that he was some disreputable alcoholic who had been bailed from jail to attend the wedding. Reception staff had met his assurances that he was part of the Cunliffe-Ellacott wedding party with barely veiled skepticism as it was.

Even in an uninjured state Strike tended to intimidate, given that he was large, dark, naturally surly-looking and sported a boxer’s profile. Today he might have just climbed out of the ring. His nose was broken, purple and swollen to twice its usual size, both eyes were bruised and puffy, and one ear was inflamed and sticky with fresh black stitches. At least the knife wound across the palm of his hand was concealed by bandages, although his best suit was crumpled and stained from a wine spill on the last occasion he had worn it. The best you could say for his appearance was that he had managed to grab matching shoes before heading for Yorkshire.

He yawned, closed his aching eyes and rested his head momentarily against the cold partition wall. He was so tired he might easily fall asleep here, sitting on the toilet. He needed to find Robin, though, and ask her—beg her, if necessary—to forgive him for sacking her and come back to work. He had thought he read delight in her face when their eyes met in church. She had certainly beamed at him as she walked past on Matthew’s arm on the way out, so he had hurried back through the graveyard to ask his friend Shanker, who was now asleep in the car park in the Mercedes he had borrowed for the journey, to follow the minibuses to the reception.

Strike had no desire to stay for a meal and speeches: he had not RSVPed the invitation he had received before sacking Robin. All he wanted was a few minutes to talk to her, but so far this had proved impossible. He had forgotten what weddings were like. As he sought Robin on the crowded terrace he had found himself the uncomfortable focus of a hundred pairs of curious eyes. Turning down champagne, which he disliked, he had retreated into the bar in search of a pint. A dark-haired young man who had a look of Robin about the mouth and forehead had followed, a gaggle of other young people trailing in his wake, all of them wearing similar expressions of barely suppressed excitement.

“You’re Strike, aye?” said the young man.

The detective agreed to it.

“Martin Ellacott,” said the other. “Robin’s brother.”

“How d’you do?” said Strike, raising his bandaged hand to show that he could not shake without pain. “Where is she, d’you know?”

“Having photos done,” said Martin. He pointed at the iPhone clutched in his other hand. “You’re on the news. You caught the Shacklewell Ripper.”

“Oh,” said Strike. “Yeah.”

In spite of the fresh knife wounds on his palm and ear, he felt as though the violent events of twelve hours previously had happened long ago. The contrast between the sordid hideout where he had cornered the killer and this four-star hotel was so jarring that they seemed separate realities.

A woman whose turquoise fascinator was trembling in her white-blonde hair now arrived in the bar. She, too, was holding a phone, her eyes moving rapidly upwards and downwards, checking the living Strike against what he was sure was a picture of him on her screen.

“Sorry, need a pee,” Strike had told Martin, edging away before anybody else could approach him. After talking his way past the suspicious reception staff, he had taken refuge in the bathroom.

Yawning again, he checked his watch. Robin must, surely, have finished having pictures taken by now. With a grimace of pain, because the painkillers they had given him at the hospital had long since worn off, Strike got up, unbolted the door and headed back out among the gawping strangers.

A string quartet had been set up at the end of the empty dining room. They started to play while the wedding group organized themselves into a receiving line that Robin assumed she must have agreed to at some point during the wedding preparations. She had abnegated so much responsibility for the day’s arrangements that she kept receiving little surprises like this. She had forgotten, for instance, that they had agreed to have photographs taken at the hotel rather than the church. If only they had not sped away in the Daimler immediately after the service, she might have had a chance to speak to Strike and to ask him—beg him, if necessary—to take her back. But he had left without talking to her, leaving her wondering whether she had the courage, or the humility, to call him after this and plead for her job.

The room seemed dark after the brilliance of the sunlit gardens. It was wood-paneled, with brocade curtains and gilt-framed oil paintings. Scent from the flower arrangements lay heavy in the air, and glass-and silverware gleamed on snow-white tablecloths. The string quartet, which had sounded loud in the echoing wooden box of a room, was soon drowned out by the sound of guests clambering up the stairs outside, crowding onto the landing, talking and laughing, already full of champagne and beer.

“Here we go, then!” roared Geoffrey, who seemed to be enjoying the day more than anybody else. “Bring ’em on!”

If Matthew’s mother had been alive, Robin doubted that Geoffrey would have felt able to give his ebullience full expression. The late Mrs. Cunliffe had been full of cool side-stares and nudges, constantly checking any signs of unbridled emotion. Mrs. Cunliffe’s sister, Sue, was one of the first down the receiving line, bringing a fine frost with her, for she had wanted to sit at the top table and been denied that privilege.

“How are you, Robin?” she asked, pecking the air near Robin’s ear. Miserable, disappointed and guilty that she was not feeling happy, Robin suddenly sensed how much this woman, her new aunt-in-law, disliked her. “Lovely dress,” said Aunt Sue, but her eyes were already on handsome Matthew.

“I wish your mother—” she began, then, with a gasp, she buried her face in the handkerchief that she held ready in her hand.

More friends and relatives shuffled inside, beaming, kissing, shaking hands. Geoffrey kept holding up the line, bestowing bear hugs on everybody who did not actively resist.

“He came, then,” said Robin’s favorite cousin, Katie. She would have been a bridesmaid had she not been hugely pregnant. Today was her due date. Robin marveled that she could still walk. Her belly was watermelon-hard as she leaned in for a kiss.

“Who came?” asked Robin, as Katie sidestepped to hug Matthew.

“Your boss. Strike. Martin was just haranguing him down in the—”

“You’re over there, I think, Katie,” said Matthew, pointing her towards a table in the middle of the room. “You’ll want to get off your feet, must be difficult in the heat, I guess?”

Robin barely registered the passage of several more guests down the line. She responded to their good wishes at random, her eyes constantly drawn to the doorway through which they were all filing. Had Katie meant that Strike was here at the hotel, after all? Had he followed her from the church? Was he about to appear? Where had he been hiding? She had searched everywhere—on the terrace, in the hallway, in the bar. Hope surged only to fail again. Perhaps Martin, famous for his lack of tact, had driven him away? Then she reminded herself that Strike was not such a feeble creature as that and hope bubbled up once more, and while her inner self performed these peregrinations of expectation and dread, it was impossible to simulate the more conventional wedding day emotions whose absence, she knew, Matthew felt and resented.

“Martin!” Robin said joyfully, as her younger brother appeared, already three pints to the bad, accompanied by his mates.

“S’pose you already knew?” said Martin, taking it for granted that she must. He was holding his mobile in his hand. He had slept at a friend’s house the previous evening, so that his bedroom could be given to relatives from Down South.

“Knew what?”

“That he caught the Ripper last night.”

Martin held up the screen to show her the news story. She gasped at the sight of the Ripper’s identity. The knife wound that man had inflicted was throbbing on her forearm.

“Is he still here?” asked Robin, throwing pretense to the wind. “Strike? Did he say he was staying, Mart?”

“For Christ’s sake,” muttered Matthew.

“Sorry,” said Martin, registering Matthew’s irritation. “Holding up the queue.”

He slouched off. Robin turned to look at Matthew and saw, as though in thermal image, the guilt glowing through him.

“You knew,” she said, shaking hands absently with a great aunt who had leaned in, expecting to be kissed.

“Knew what?” he snapped.

“That Strike had caught—”

But her attention was now demanded by Matthew’s old university friend and workmate, Tom, and his fiancée, Sarah. She barely heard a word that Tom said, because she was constantly watching the door, where she hoped to see Strike.

“You knew,” Robin repeated, once Tom and Sarah had walked away. There was another hiatus. Geoffrey had met a cousin from Canada. “Didn’t you?”

“I heard the tail end of it on the news this morning,” muttered Matthew. His expression hardened as he looked over Robin’s head towards the doorway. “Well, here he is. You’ve got your wish.”

Robin turned. Strike had just ducked into the room, one eye gray and purple above his heavy stubble, one ear swollen and stitched. He raised a bandaged hand when their eyes met and attempted a rueful smile, which ended in a wince.

“Robin,” said Matthew. “Listen, I need—”

“In a minute,” she said, with a joyfulness that had been conspicuously absent all day.

“Before you talk to him, I need to tell—”

“Matt, please, can’t it wait?”

Nobody in the family wanted to detain Strike, whose injury meant that he could not shake hands. He held the bandaged one in front of him and shuffled sideways down the line. Geoffrey glared at him and even Robin’s mother, who had liked him on their only previous encounter, was unable to muster a smile as he greeted her by name. Every guest in the dining room seemed to be watching.

“You didn’t have to be so dramatic,” Robin said, smiling up into his swollen face when at last he was standing in front of her. He grinned back, painful though it was: the two-hundred-mile journey he had undertaken so recklessly had been worth it, after all, to see her smile at him like that. “Bursting into church. You could have just called.”

“Yeah, sorry about knocking over the flowers,” said Strike, including the sullen Matthew in his apology. “I did call, but—”

“I haven’t had my phone on this morning,” said Robin, aware that she was holding up the queue, but past caring. “Go round us,” she said gaily to Matthew’s boss, a tall redheaded woman.

“No, I called—two days ago, was it?” said Strike.

“What?” said Robin, while Matthew had a stilted conversation with Jemima.

“A couple of times,” said Strike. “I left a message.”

“I didn’t get any calls,” said Robin, “or a message.”

The chattering, chinking, tinkling sounds of a hundred guests and the gentle melody of the string quartet seemed suddenly muffled, as though a thick bubble of shock had pressed in upon her.

“When did—what did you—two days ago?”

Since arriving at her parents’ house she had been occupied nonstop with tedious wedding chores, yet she had still managed to check her phone frequently and surreptitiously, hoping that Strike had called or texted. Alone in bed at one that morning she had checked her entire call history in the vain hope that she would find a missed communication, but had found the history deleted. Having barely slept in the last couple of weeks, she had concluded that she had made an exhausted blunder, pressed the wrong button, erased it accidentally…

“I don’t want to stay,” Strike mumbled. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry, and ask you to come—”

“You’ve got to stay,” she said, reaching out and seizing his arm as though he might escape.

Her heart was thudding so fast that she felt breathless. She knew that she had lost color as the buzzing room seemed to wobble around her.

“Please stay,” she said, still holding tight to his arm, ignoring Matthew as he bristled beside her. “I need—I want to talk to you. Mum?” she called.

Linda stepped out of the receiving line. She seemed to have been waiting for the summons, and she didn’t look happy.

“Please could you add Cormoran to a table?” said Robin. “Maybe put him with Stephen and Jenny?”

Unsmiling, Linda led Strike away. There were a few last guests waiting to offer their congratulations. Robin could no longer muster smiles and small talk.

“Why didn’t I get Cormoran’s calls?” she asked Matthew, as an elderly man shuffled away towards the tables, neither welcomed nor greeted.

“I’ve been trying to tell you—”

“Why didn’t I get the calls, Matthew?”

“Robin, can we talk about this later?”

The truth burst upon her so suddenly that she gasped.

You deleted my call history,” she said, her mind leaping rapidly from deduction to deduction. “You asked for my passcode number when I came back from the bathroom at the service station.” The last two guests took one look at the bride and groom’s expressions and hurried past without demanding their greeting. “You took my phone away. You said it was about the honeymoon. Did you listen to his message?”

“Yes,” said Matthew. “I deleted it.”

The silence that seemed to have pressed in on her had become a high-pitched whine. She felt light-headed. Here she stood in the big white lace dress she didn’t like, the dress she had had altered because the wedding had been delayed once, pinned to the spot by ceremonial obligations. On the periphery of her vision, a hundred blurred faces swayed. The guests were hungry and expectant.

Her eyes found Strike, who was standing with his back to her, waiting beside Linda while an extra place was laid at her elder brother Stephen’s table. Robin imagined striding over to him and saying: “Let’s get out of here.” What would he say if she did?

Her parents had spent thousands on the day. The packed room was waiting for the bride and groom to take their seats at the top table. Paler than her wedding dress, Robin followed her new husband to their seats as the room burst into applause.

The finicky waiter seemed determined to prolong Strike’s discomfort. He had no choice but to stand in full view of every table while he waited for his extra place to be laid. Linda, who was almost a foot shorter than the detective, remained at Strike’s elbow while the youth made imperceptible adjustments to the dessert fork and turned the plate so that the design aligned with its neighbors’. The little Strike could see of Linda’s face below the silvery hat looked angry.

“Thanks very much,” he said at long last, as the waiter stepped out of the way, but as he took hold of the back of his chair, Linda laid a light hand on his sleeve. Her gentle touch might as well have been a shackle, accompanied as it was by an aura of outraged motherhood and offended hospitality. She greatly resembled her daughter. Linda’s fading hair was red-gold, too, the clear gray-blue of her eyes enhanced by her silvery hat.

“Why are you here?” she asked through clenched teeth, while waiters bustled around them, delivering starters. At least the arrival of food had distracted the other guests. Conversation broke out as people’s attention turned to their long-awaited meal.

“To ask Robin to come back to work with me.”

“You sacked her. It broke her heart.”

There was much he could have said to that, but he chose not to say it out of respect for what Linda must have suffered when she had seen that eight-inch knife wound.

“Three times she’s been attacked, working for you,” said Linda, her color rising. “Three times.”

Strike could, with truth, have told Linda that he accepted liability only for the first of those attacks. The second had happened after Robin disregarded his explicit instructions and the third as a consequence of her not only disobeying him, but endangering a murder investigation and his entire business.

“She hasn’t been sleeping. I’ve heard her at night…”

Linda’s eyes were over-bright. She let go of him, but whispered, “You haven’t got a daughter. You can’t understand what we’ve been through.”

Before Strike could muster his exhausted faculties, she had marched away to the top table. He caught Robin’s eye over her untouched starter. She pulled an anguished expression, as though afraid that he might walk out. He raised his eyebrows slightly and dropped, at last, into his seat.

A large shape to his left shifted ominously. Strike turned to see more eyes like Robin’s, set over a pugnacious jaw and surmounted by bristling brows.

“You must be Stephen,” said Strike.

Robin’s elder brother grunted, still glaring. They were both large men; packed together, Stephen’s elbow grazed Strike’s as he reached for his pint. The rest of the table was staring at Strike. He raised his right hand in a kind of halfhearted salute, remembered that it was bandaged only when he saw it, and felt that he was drawing even more attention to himself.

“Hi, I’m Jenny, Stephen’s wife,” said the broad-shouldered brunette on Stephen’s other side. “You look as though you could use this.”

She passed an untouched pint across Stephen’s plate. Strike was so grateful he could have kissed her. In deference to Stephen’s scowl, he confined himself to a heartfelt “thanks” and downed half of it in one go. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jenny mutter something in Stephen’s ear. The latter watched Strike set the pint glass down again, cleared his throat and said gruffly:

“Congratulations in order, I s’pose.”

“Why?” said Strike blankly.

Stephen’s expression became a degree less fierce.

“You caught that killer.”

“Oh yeah,” said Strike, picking up his fork in his left hand and stabbing the salmon starter. Only after he had swallowed it in its entirety and noticed Jenny laughing did he realize he ought to have treated it with more respect. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Very hungry.”

Stephen was now contemplating him with a glimmer of approval.

“No point in it, is there?” he said, looking down at his own mousse. “Mostly air.”

“Cormoran,” said Jenny, “would you mind just waving at Jonathan? Robin’s other brother—over there.”

Strike looked in the direction indicated. A slender youth with the same coloring as Robin waved enthusiastically from the next table. Strike gave a brief, sheepish salute.

“Want her back, then, do you?” Stephen fired at him.

“Yeah,” said Strike. “I do.”

He half-expected an angry response, but instead Stephen heaved a long sigh.

“S’pose I’ve got to be glad. Never seen her happier than when she was working for you. I took the piss out of her when we were kids for saying she wanted to be a policewoman,” he added. “Wish I hadn’t,” he said, accepting a fresh pint from the waiter and managing to down an impressive amount before continuing. “We were dicks to her, looking back, and then she… well, she stands up for herself a bit better these days.”

Stephen’s gaze wandered to the top table and Strike, who had his back to it, felt justified in stealing a look at Robin, too. She was silent, neither eating nor looking at Matthew.

“Not now, mate,” he heard Stephen say and turned to see his neighbor holding out a long thick arm to form a barrier between Strike and one of Martin’s friends, who was on his feet and already bending low to ask Strike a question. The friend retreated, abashed.

“Cheers,” said Strike, finishing Jenny’s pint.

“Get used to it,” said Stephen, demolishing his own mousse in a mouthful. “You caught the Shacklewell Ripper. You’re going to be famous, mate.”

People talked of things passing in a blur after a shock, but it was not like that for Robin. The room around her remained only too visible, every detail distinct: the brilliant squares of light that fell through the curtained windows, the enamel brightness of the azure sky beyond the glass, the damask tablecloths obscured by elbows and disarranged glasses, the gradually flushing cheeks of the scoffing and quaffing guests, Aunt Sue’s patrician profile unsoftened by her neighbors’ chat, Jenny’s silly yellow hat quivering as she joked with Strike. She saw Strike. Her eyes returned so often to his back that she could have sketched with perfect accuracy the creases in his suit jacket, the dense dark curls of the back of his head, the difference in the thickness of his ears due to the knife injury to the left.

No, the shock of what she had discovered in the receiving line had not rendered her surroundings blurred. It had instead affected her perception of both sound and time. At one point, she knew that Matthew had urged her to eat, but it did not register with her until after her full plate had been removed by a solicitous waiter, because everything said to her had to permeate the thick walls that had closed in on her in the aftermath of Matthew’s admission of perfidy. Within the invisible cell that separated her entirely from everyone else in the room, adrenaline thundered through her, urging her again and again to stand up and walk out.

If Strike had not arrived today, she might never have known that he wanted her back, and that she might be spared the shame, the anger, the humiliation, the hurt with which she had been racked since that awful night when he had sacked her. Matthew had sought to deny her the thing that might save her, the thing for which she had cried in the small hours of the night when everybody else was asleep: the restoration of her self-respect, of the job that had meant everything to her, of the friendship she had not known was one of the prizes of her life until it was torn away from her. Matthew had lied and kept lying. He had smiled and laughed as she dragged herself through the days before the wedding trying to pretend that she was happy that she had lost a life she had loved. Had she fooled him? Did he believe that she was truly glad her life with Strike was over? If he did, she had married a man who did not know her at all, and if he didn’t…

The puddings were cleared away and Robin had to fake a smile for the concerned waiter who this time asked whether he could bring her something else, as this was the third course that she had left uneaten.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got a loaded gun?” Robin asked him.

Fooled by her serious manner, he smiled, then looked confused.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Never mind.”

“For Christ’s sake, Robin,” Matthew said, and she knew, with a throb of fury and pleasure, that he was panicking, scared of what she would do, scared of what was going to happen next.

Coffee was arriving in sleek silver pots. Robin watched the waiters pouring, saw the little trays of petits fours placed upon the tables. She saw Sarah Shadlock in a tight turquoise sleeveless dress, hurrying across the room to the bathroom ahead of the speeches, watched heavily pregnant Katie following her in her flat shoes, swollen and tired, her enormous belly to the fore, and, again, Robin’s eyes returned to Strike’s back. He was scoffing petits fours and talking to Stephen. She was glad she had put him beside Stephen. She had always thought they would get on.

Then came the call for quiet, followed by rustling, fidgeting and a mass scraping of chairs as all those who had their backs to the top table dragged themselves around to watch the speakers. Robin’s eyes met Strike’s. She could not read his expression. He didn’t look away from her until her father stood up, straightened his glasses and began to speak.

Strike was longing to lie down or, failing that, to get back into the car with Shanker, where he could at least recline the seat. He had had barely two hours’ slumber in the past forty-eight, and a mixture of heavy-duty painkillers and what was now four pints was rendering him so sleepy that he kept dozing off against the hand supporting his head, jerking back awake as his temple slid off his knuckles.

He had never asked Robin what either of her parents did for a living. If Michael Ellacott alluded to his profession at any point during his speech, Strike missed it. He was a mild-looking man, almost professorial, with his horn-rimmed glasses. The children had all got his height, but only Martin had inherited his dark hair and hazel eyes.

The speech had been written, or perhaps rewritten, when Robin was jobless. Michael dwelled with patent love and appreciation on Robin’s personal qualities, on her intelligence, her resilience, her generosity and her kindness. He had to stop and clear his throat when he started to speak of his pride in his only daughter, but there was a blank where her achievements ought to have been, an empty space for what she had actually done, or lived through. Of course, some of the things that Robin had survived were unfit to be spoken in this giant humidor of a room, or heard by these feathered and buttonholed guests, but the fact of her survival was, for Strike, the highest proof of those qualities and to him it seemed, sleep-befuddled though he was, that an acknowledgment ought to have been made.

Nobody else seemed to think so. He even detected a faint relief in the crowd as Michael drew to a conclusion without alluding to knives or scars, gorilla masks or balaclavas.

The time had come for the bridegroom to speak. Matthew got to his feet amid enthusiastic applause, but Robin’s hands remained in her lap as she stared at the window opposite, where the sun now hung low in the cloudless sky, casting long dark shadows over the lawn.

Somewhere in the room, a bee was buzzing. Far less concerned about offending Matthew than he had been about Michael, Strike adjusted his position in his chair, folding his arms and closing his eyes. For a minute or so, he listened as Matthew told how he and Robin had known each other since childhood, but only in their sixth form had he noticed how very good-looking the little girl who had once beaten him in the egg-and-spoon race had become…

“Cormoran!”

He jerked awake suddenly and, judging by the wet patch on his chest, knew that he had been drooling. Blearily he looked around at Stephen, who had elbowed him.

“You were snoring,” Stephen muttered.

Before he could reply the room broke into applause again. Matthew was sitting down, unsmiling.

Surely it had to be nearly over… but no, Matthew’s best man was getting to his feet. Now that he was awake again, Strike had become aware just how full his bladder was. He hoped to Christ this bloke would speak fast.

“Matt and I first met on the rugby pitch,” he said and a table towards the rear of the room broke into drunken cheers.

“Upstairs,” said Robin. “Now.”

They were the first words she had spoken to her husband since they had sat down at the top table. The applause for the best man’s speech had barely died away. Strike was standing, but she could tell that he was only heading for the bathroom because she saw him stop a waiter and ask directions. In any case, she knew, now, that he wanted her back, and was convinced that he would stay long enough to hear her agreement. The look they had exchanged during the starters had told her as much.

“They’ll be bringing in the band in half an hour,” said Matthew. “We’re s’posed to—”

But Robin walked off towards the door, taking with her the invisible isolation cell that had kept her cold and tearless through her father’s speech, through Matthew’s nervous utterings, through the tedium of the familiar old anecdotes from the rugby club regurgitated by the best man. She had the vague impression that her mother tried to waylay her as she plowed through the guests, but paid no attention. She had sat obediently through the meal and the speeches. The universe owed her an interlude of privacy and freedom.

Up the staircase she marched, her skirt held out of the way of her cheap shoes, and off along a plush carpeted corridor, unsure where she was going, with Matthew’s footsteps hurrying behind her.

“Excuse me,” she said to a waistcoated teenager who was wheeling a linen basket out of a cupboard, “where’s the bridal suite?”

He looked from her to Matthew and smirked, actually smirked.

“Don’t be a jerk,” said Robin coldly.

“Robin!” said Matthew, as the teenager blushed.

“That way,” said the youth hoarsely, pointing.

Robin marched on. Matthew, she knew, had the key. He had stayed at the hotel with his best man the previous evening, though not in the bridal suite.

When Matthew opened the door, she strode inside, registering the rose petals on the bed, the champagne standing in its cooler, the large envelope inscribed to Mr. and Mrs. Cunliffe. With relief, she saw the holdall that she had intended to take as hand luggage to their mystery honeymoon. Unzipping it, she thrust her uninjured arm inside and found the brace that she had removed for the photographs. When she had pulled it back over her aching forearm, with its barely healed wound, she wrenched the new wedding ring off her finger and slammed it down on the bedside table beside the champagne bucket.

“What are you doing?” said Matthew, sounding both scared and aggressive. “What—you want to call it off? You don’t want to be married?”

Robin stared at him. She had expected to feel release once they were alone and she could speak freely, but the enormity of what he had done mocked her attempts to express it. She read his fear of her silence in his darting eyes, his squared shoulders. Whether he was aware of it or not, he had placed himself precisely between her and the door.

“All right,” he said loudly, “I know I should’ve—”

“You knew what that job meant to me. You knew.”

“I didn’t want you to go back, all right?” Matthew shouted. “You got attacked and stabbed, Robin!”

“That was my own fault!”

“He fucking sacked you!”

“Because I did something he’d told me not to do—”

I knew you’d fucking defend him!” Matthew bellowed, all control gone. “I knew if you spoke to him you’d go scurrying back like some fucking lapdog!”

“You don’t get to make those decisions for me!” she yelled. “Nobody’s got the right to intercept my fucking calls and delete my messages, Matthew!”

Restraint and pretense were gone. They heard each other only by accident, in brief pauses for breath, each of them howling their resentment and pain across the room like flaming spears that burned into dust before touching their target. Robin gesticulated wildly, then screeched with pain as her arm protested sharply, and Matthew pointed with self-righteous rage at the scar she would carry forever because of her reckless stupidity in working with Strike. Nothing was achieved, nothing was excused, nothing was apologized for: the arguments that had defaced their last twelve months had all led to this conflagration, the border skirmishes that presage war. Beyond the window, afternoon dissolved rapidly into evening. Robin’s head throbbed, her stomach churned, her sense of being stifled threatened to overcome her.

“You hated me working those hours—you didn’t give a damn that I was happy in my job for the first time in my life, so you lied! You knew what it meant to me, and you lied! How could you delete my call history, how could you delete my voicemail—?”

She sat down suddenly in a deep, fringed chair, her head in her hands, dizzy with the force of her anger and shock on an empty stomach.

Somewhere, distantly in the carpeted hush of the hotel corridors, a door closed, a woman giggled.

“Robin,” said Matthew hoarsely.

She heard him approaching her, but she put out a hand, holding him away.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Robin, I shouldn’t have done it, I know that. I didn’t want you hurt again.”

She barely heard him. Her anger was not only for Matthew, but also for Strike. He should have called back. He should have tried and kept trying. If he had, I might not be here now.

The thought scared her.

If I’d known Strike wanted me back, would I have married Matthew?

She heard the rustle of Matthew’s jacket and guessed that he was checking his watch. Perhaps the guests waiting downstairs would think that they had disappeared to consummate the marriage. She could imagine Geoffrey making ribald jokes in their absence. The band must have been in place for an hour. Again she remembered how much this was all costing her parents. Again, she remembered that they had lost deposits on the wedding that had been postponed.

“All right,” she said, in a colorless voice. “Let’s go back down and dance.”

She stood up, automatically smoothing her skirt. Matthew looked suspicious.

“You’re sure?”

“We’ve got to get through today,” she said. “People have come a long way. Mum and Dad have paid a lot of money.”

Hoisting her skirt up again, she set off for the suite door.

“Robin!”

She turned back, expecting him to say “I love you,” expecting him to smile, to beg, to urge a truer reconciliation.

“You’d better wear this,” he said, holding out the wedding ring she had removed, his expression as cold as hers.

Strike had not been able to think of a better course of action, given that he intended to stay until he had spoken to Robin again, than continuing to drink. He had removed himself from Stephen and Jenny’s willing protection, feeling that they ought to be free to enjoy the company of friends and family, and fallen back on the methods by which he usually repelled strangers’ curiosity: his own intimidating size and habitually surly expression. For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint on his own, and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky. Even Martin and his friends, now full of drink themselves and smoking in a circle like teenagers, failed to muster sufficient nerve to badger him.

After a while, the guests were skillfully rounded up and ushered en masse back into the wood-paneled room, which had been transformed in their absence into a dance floor. Half the tables had been removed, the others shifted to the sides. A band stood ready behind amplifiers, but the bride and groom remained absent. A man whom Strike understood to be Matthew’s father, sweaty, rotund and red-faced, had already made several jokes about what they might be getting up to when Strike found himself addressed by a woman in a tight turquoise dress whose feathery hair adornment tickled his nose as she closed in for a handshake.

“It’s Cormoran Strike, isn’t it?” she said. “What an honor! Sarah Shadlock.”

Strike knew all about Sarah Shadlock. She had slept with Matthew at university, while he was in a long-distance relationship with Robin. Once again, Strike indicated his bandage to show why he could not shake her hand.

“Oh, you poor thing!”

A drunk, balding man who was probably younger than he looked loomed up behind Sarah.

“Tom Turvey,” he said, fixing Strike with unfocused eyes. “Bloody good job. Well done, mate. Bloody good job.

“We’ve wanted to meet you for ages,” said Sarah. “We’re old friends of Matt and Robin’s.”

“Shacklewell Rip—Ripper,” said Tom, on a slight hiccup. “Bloody good job.”

Look at you, you poor thing,” said Sarah again, touching Strike on the bicep as she smiled up into his bruised face. “He didn’t do that to you, did he?”

“Ev’ryone wants to know,” said Tom, grinning blearily. “Can hardly contain their bloody selves. You should’ve made a speech instead of Henry.”

“Ha ha,” said Sarah. “Last thing you’d want to do, I expect. You must have come here straight from catching—well, I don’t know—did you?”

“Sorry,” said Strike, unsmiling, “police have asked me not to talk about it.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the harried MC, who had been caught unawares by Matthew and Robin’s unobtrusive entrance into the room, “please welcome Mr. and Mrs. Cunliffe!”

As the newlyweds moved unsmilingly into the middle of the dance floor, everybody but Strike began to applaud. The lead singer of the band took the microphone from the MC.

“This is a song from their past that means a lot to Matthew and Robin,” the singer announced, as Matthew slid his hand around Robin’s waist and grasped her other hand.

The wedding photographer moved out of the shadows and began clicking away again, frowning a little at the reappearance of the ugly rubber brace on the bride’s arm.

The first acoustic bars of “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling struck up. Robin and Matthew began to revolve on the spot, their faces averted from each other.

So lately, been wondering,

Who will be there to take my place

When I’m gone, you’ll need love

To light the shadows on your face…

Strange choice for an “our song,” Strike thought… but as he watched he saw Matthew move closer to Robin, saw his hand tighten on her narrow waist as he bent his handsome face to whisper something in her ear.

A jolt somewhere around the solar plexus pierced the fug of exhaustion, relief and alcohol that had cushioned Strike all day long from the reality of what this wedding meant. Now, as Strike watched the newlyweds turn on the dance floor, Robin in her long white dress, with a circlet of roses in her hair, Matthew in his dark suit, his face close to his bride’s cheek, Strike was forced to recognize how long, and how deeply, he had hoped that Robin would not marry. He had wanted her free, free to be what they had been together. Free, so that if circumstances changed… so the possibility was there… free, so that one day, they might find out what else they could be to each other.

Fuck this.

If she wanted to talk, she would have to call him. Setting down his empty glass on a windowsill, he turned and made his way through the other guests, who shuffled aside to let him pass, so dark was his expression.

As she turned, staring into space, Robin saw Strike leaving. The door opened. He was gone.

“Let go of me.”

“What?”

She pulled free, hoisted up her dress once more for freedom of movement, then half-walked, half-ran off the dance floor, almost careering into her father and Aunt Sue, who were waltzing sedately nearby. Matthew was left standing alone in the middle of the room as Robin fought her way through the startled onlookers towards the door that had just swung shut.

“Cormoran!”

He was already halfway down the stairs, but on hearing his name he turned back. He liked her hair in its long loose waves beneath the crown of Yorkshire roses.

“Congratulations.”

She walked down another couple of steps, fighting the lump in her throat.

“You really want me back?”

He forced a smile.

“I’ve just driven for bloody hours with Shanker in what I strongly suspect is a stolen car. Of course I want you back.”

She laughed, though tears sprang to her eyes.

“Shanker’s here? You should have brought him in!”

“Shanker? In here? He’d have been through everyone’s pockets then nicked the reception till.”

She laughed some more, but tears spilled out of her brimming eyes and bounced down her cheek.

“Where are you going to sleep?”

“In the car, while Shanker drives me home. He’s going to charge me a fortune for this. Doesn’t matter,” he added gruffly, as she opened her mouth. “Worth it if you’re coming back. More than worth it.”

“I want a contract this time,” said Robin, the severity of her tone belied by the expression of her eyes. “A proper one.”

“You’ve got it.”

“OK, then. Well, I’ll see you…”

When would she see him? She was supposed to be on honeymoon for two weeks.

“Let me know,” said Strike.

He turned and began to descend the stairs again.

“Cormoran!”

“What?”

She walked towards him until she stood on the step above. Their eyes were on a level now.

“I want to hear all about how you caught him and everything.”

He smiled.

“It’ll keep. Couldn’t have done it without you, though.”

Neither of them could tell who had made the first move, or whether they acted in unison. They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office. The feel of her was both new and familiar, as though he had held her a long time ago, as though he had missed it without knowing it for years. Through the closed door upstairs the band played on:

I’ll go wherever you will go

If I could make you mine…

As suddenly as they had reached for each other, they broke apart. Tears were rolling down Robin’s face. For one moment of madness, Strike yearned to say, “Come with me,” but there are words that can never be unsaid or forgotten, and those, he knew, were some of them.

“Let me know,” he repeated. He tried to smile, but it hurt his face. With a wave of his bandaged hand, he continued down the stairs without looking back.

She watched him go, wiping the hot tears frantically from her face. If he had said “come with me,” she knew she would have gone: but then what? Gulping, wiping her nose on the back of her hand, Robin turned, hoisted up her skirts again, and climbed slowly back towards her husband.

Search

Friend:

Popular Free Online Books

Read books online free novels

Hot Authors

Sam Crescent, Flora Ferrari, Zoe Chant, Mia Madison, Alexa Riley, Lexy Timms, Claire Adams, Leslie North, Elizabeth Lennox, Sophie Stern, Amy Brent, Frankie Love, Jordan Silver, Kathi S. Barton, C.M. Steele, Bella Forrest, Madison Faye, Dale Mayer, Jenika Snow, Michelle Love, Mia Ford, Delilah Devlin, Penny Wylder, Piper Davenport, Sawyer Bennett,

Random Novels

On A Crazy Idea: A Best Friends To Lovers Story by Stephanie Witter

Regret by B.D. Anderson

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland by Rebekah Crane

Protecting Rayne by Emily Bishop

The Tycoon's Captured Heart by Elizabeth Lennox

Paranormal Dating Agency: Taming Their Talons (Kindle Worlds Novella) by Marianne Morea

Insidious by Aleatha Romig

Evan's Encore: Meltdown: The Conclusion (Meltdown book 4) by RB Hilliard

Burn for You (Slow Burn Book 1) by J.T. Geissinger

The Proposition by Elizabeth Hayley

Irresistible You by Kate Meader

Kidnapped by the Dragon Harem: A Paranormal Holiday Fantasy by Savannah Skye

Married This Year 3: Adventures In Hiring by Tracey Pedersen, Mikaela Pederson

BIKER’S SURPRISE BABY: The Bloody Pagans MC by Kathryn Thomas

Last Chance for a Lord (A Lord's Kiss Book 1) by Summer Hanford

Omega's Deception: MF Omegaverse SciFi Romance (Omegas of Pandora Book 1) by Lillian Sable

Violent Things (Chaos & Ruin Book 1) by Callie Hart

The Manny by A.T Brennan

The Bride Price (Civil War Brides Series, #1) by Piper Davenport

Anonymous by LP Dover