Thief of hearts, p.1
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       Thief of Hearts, p.1

           L.H. Cosway
Thief of Hearts

  Thief of Hearts


  L.H. Cosway

  Copyright © 2016 L.H. Cosway.

  All rights reserved.

  Smashwords Edition.

  Cover design by RBA Designs.

  Editing by Marion Archer at Making Manuscripts.

  This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.


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  “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?”

  - Leonard Cohen.

  For the ones we’ve lost who live on in our hearts.


  If you ever want to experience the true depths to which humanity can sink, go live in a ground-floor flat in any major city.

  It was three a.m. on a school night, and I’d just been woken by the sound of someone shuffling around outside my bedroom window. I groaned and blinked my eyes open, sitting up and rubbing the bird’s nest that was my hair. Grumpily, I wondered who was out there this time.

  I used to get anxious, worried about what kind of nutter could be hanging around and if they were going to try and stage a break-in.

  Now I was just numb to it, willing the person to get whatever they were doing over and done with so I could go back to sleep. Sweet, precious sleep.

  When I heard the recognisable trickling sound, I saw red. Acting purely on instinct, I got up, shoved my feet into a pair of boots, grabbed the cricket bat I kept especially for occasions like these, and stomped my way outside.

  A middle-aged guy in a suit stood there, pissing into the corner of my building, directly outside my bedroom window like it was his own personal urinal.

  “Get the fuck out of here before I do something I regret,” I threatened, wielding the bat like a sleep-deprived mad woman. The irritating thing was, other than the fact that he was clearly drunk, he looked like a perfectly normal human being. He wasn’t some kind of homeless crackhead who had nowhere else to go. He was someone with a home, and most likely, a job, but more importantly, a bathroom. In spite of all this, he decided that tonight was the night he said fuck it to common decency and pissed on somebody’s home.

  As you can probably guess, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’d had a lot of time to stew on the fact that people did the scummiest things when they thought they weren’t going to be caught. Unfortunately, this was what you had to put up with when you were drowning in debt like I was. Simply put, nice flats cost money.

  The man’s drunken, bleary eyes widened, as he quickly put his cock away, tucked tail, and made a run for it.

  “You should be ashamed of yourself!” I shouted after him.

  There was a deep, dark part of me that kind of wished I’d hit him with the bat . . . just a little. Maybe it’d teach him a lesson. Or maybe I was going mad from lack of rest. I wasn’t the best sleeper in the world, and even the slightest noise woke me up.

  I stomped back inside and noticed the light was still on in my cousin Alfie’s room. Alfie was a creature of the dark, burning the midnight oil as per usual. We’d been sharing our tiny two-bedroom flat in Finsbury Park for the last three years. It was on the basement level of a renovated Victorian house that had been split into separate units. We weren’t even technically on the ground floor. We were subterranean. Still, this was one of the more affordable neighbourhoods to rent in London, though strangely home to a disconcerting number of hair shops. Some days I felt like throwing caution to the wind and getting myself some hot-pink extensions.

  I could hear chuckling a moment before Alfie came out of his room, holding his hand to his stomach as he practically bowled over with laughter. I scowled at him.

  “You were watching from your window.”

  “That was priceless, Andie, the look on his face. If he wasn’t already pissing, I think he might have wet himself.”

  My scowl didn’t fade as I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge. “Ha ha.”

  “Seriously, we should hire you out to scare children on Halloween. You could play the role of the crazy old witch.”

  I gave him the finger as I slugged back a mouthful of water. He came over, sighed, and draped an arm around my shoulder. His attempt at parental soothing didn’t exactly work since he was several inches shorter. The kids at school used to call us Little and Large, though I’d always been slim.

  “I’m almost finished Young Girl with Kite. Do you want to see?”

  I nodded and exhaled. “I might as well now that I’m up.”

  We went inside his bedroom/studio and I tried not to trip over all the crap on the floor. Alfie was a chaotic soul: a painter. Born the only child of two wealthy parents, he’d been able to pursue an artistic calling. Well, that was until his dad was prosecuted for running a Ponzi scheme and subsequently had his assets frozen. These days Alfie survived on rare patronage and sales of his works to a handful of specialist art galleries.

  My cousin left the flat mostly to buy coffee and sandwiches from the hipster café around the corner, whose employees consisted solely of six-foot-tall Swedes with white-blond hair. I wasn’t sure if these attributes were a job requirement or what, but Alfie always said he found their presence soothing. He also spent a lot of time at his best friend, Jamie’s, second-hand bookstore. If it weren’t for Jamie and me, Alfie would probably turn into a full-fledged hermit.

  I stood in front of the canvas, taking in Young Girl with Kite and feeling that sense of awe that often accompanied seeing Alfie’s finished works. I took several moments to absorb his mastery before turning and giving him a hug.

  “It’s beautiful. Every time I think you can’t possibly top the last, you go and prove me wrong. You’re a genius.”

  Alfie rubbed at his chin, contemplating the piece and leaving a smudge of brown paint behind. “The yellow is revelatory. It allows your eyes to absorb the leaves on the ground and the kite in the clouds all at once,” he said, his voice energised. Alfie was fascinated by colour, could find things in it I’d never even think to look for.

  He was the most intelligent person I knew, but it was the kind of artistic intelligence that left you a homeless vagrant on the street, rather than a millionaire CEO. The problem was too much empathy. Alfie could see a story on the news about how Russia was involving itself in the troubles in Ukraine and spend days wallowing over the disaster it might lead to. Whereas I, on the other hand, could see the same story and continue on with my day, wholly oblivious.

  Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t heartless. In fact, as a teacher I spent most of my days helping others. I had empathy in spades, but I didn’t have Alfie’s level of intelligence, and trust me, folks, that was a blessing.

  “You’re right,” I told him finally. “And the ribbon in the girl’s hair has so much life; the way it moves in the breeze looks like dancing.”

  Alfie turned to me, his grin wide. “That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve.”

  I returned his smile, gave his shoulder a small, congratulatory squeeze and told him I was going back to bed. On my way out I noticed some paintings stacked by the door. They were copies of old masters, Vermeer and Rembrandt mostly. Oddly enough, reproduction was how Alfie started out painting. Growing up, his mother liked to decorate their home with replicas of famous pieces, so Alfie used to create imitations. The accuracy was actually kind of spooky. Anyway, after a few years he finally progressed to doing his own original works, but the replicas were how
he honed his skills to what they are today.

  I turned back to him, nodding at the paintings. “Do you want me to drop those off at a charity shop during the week to clear up some space?”

  My cousin rubbed his chin, his signature I’m considering it action. “Let me think about it. You know I hate giving stuff away, and those have sentimental value.”

  “Well, let me know what you decide.”

  When I woke up to my alarm at seven, the flat was quiet like usual. Alfie wouldn’t be awake until well after midday, as was his habit.

  I showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and climbed into my Nissan to head to work. I taught an adult education class, designed specifically for those seeking to return to college as mature-aged students. Most of my pupils had been out of school for years, if not decades. The course helped improve their writing and grammar, as well as identified their strengths and/or weaknesses in preparation for higher education.

  My class had fifteen students, ranging in ages from twenty-one to sixty, and was held five days a week, from nine to three. Running for six months, the course was intensive. We were only three weeks into the new school year, but already I had my favourite students.

  Mary was a no-nonsense cockney in her early fifties, with dyed black hair and ever-present matte-red lipstick. She was at least a few stone overweight, with a penchant for leopard print, and always had the best advice about relationships and paying your council tax. Kian was the youngest member of the class, a goth rocker from Camden who suffered from Tourette’s. Despite his purple Mohawk and frequent obscenities, he was one of the kindest, most adorable people I’d ever known.

  And then there was Larry, barely over five feet with endless stories about his days on the markets. He used to run a stall selling pirated videotapes, before DVDs and Internet streaming came along and made them obsolete.

  They were all there, chatting with the other students and drinking their morning coffee. I entered the class and exchanged hellos, remembering there was a new student arriving today. The information on my schedule said his name was Stuart Cross, and he was thirty years of age, with very little previous schooling. Actually, he’d just gotten out of prison after a two-year sentence. His crime wasn’t listed, though, and I had to wonder what he’d been in for.

  I was wary of someone new coming in, someone with a record, because in my experience it only took one bad egg to ruin the carefully cultivated atmosphere of friendship and learning. I wanted everyone to feel at ease, to look on this room as a place without judgement, somewhere they could express their dreams as well as frustrations without cause for worry or criticism.

  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Thankfully, this year I’d been blessed with a class where everyone genuinely liked one another and got along. Hopefully, Stuart would fit in well.

  Organising my things and opening my laptop, I pulled up the morning’s lesson plan when I heard the friendly chatter quieten down. Glancing up, our new student had arrived, and I had to take a second to catch my breath.

  Stuart Cross looked dangerous, in a James Dean, careless-male-beauty, leather jacket wearing sort of way. He was tall, with chestnut-brown hair, hazel eyes and dark, expressive brows. He looked like he drank beer straight out of the bottle and drove a motorcycle.

  Mary placed a hand on her hip and smirked as she looked him up and down in a very I’ve got your number, Sonny Jim fashion. I imagined she’d eat him for breakfast if he even gave her so much as a hint he was interested in becoming her boy toy.

  And I, well, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off him either. He was just so unexpected. It was like entering Alfie’s bedroom and discovering a newly finished painting. He seemed too much for our ordinary, comfortable little classroom.

  He made eye contact with me just as he pulled out a chair in the third row and sat, a whoosh of air capturing my lungs. I rubbed my palms on my skirt and leaned forward, about to introduce myself when a student approached him. It was Harold, a small, bespectacled man in his early fifties, who liked everything to be done just so. In other words, he was set in his ways, and Stuart was currently occupying his usual seat.

  “Pardon me, but I sit there,” he said, tapping Stuart on the shoulder.

  Stuart rested an elbow on the desk and slowly turned to look at him. “You what?”

  Harold cleared his throat. “This is where I sit. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to move.”

  Stuart let out a quiet chuckle, shook his head, and leaned back to spread his legs. “I don’t think so. I’ve just gotten comfortable, mate.”

  I frowned and rose from my seat. Making my way past the desks, I felt the others watching as I approached our new student. I stopped just in front of him, briefly placed a reassuring hand on Harold’s shoulder and levelled Stuart with a strict look.

  “We actually have a set seating plan. Come with me and I’ll show you where you can sit. I’m Miss Anderson, by the way. Your teacher.”

  Stuart took his time raising his eyes to mine, slicing his teeth across his full bottom lip for a second as he contemplated me. I rested my hands on my hips, trying not to fixate on his mouth as I felt a tiny flicker in some long-neglected part of my body.

  “All right then, Miss Anderson. I wouldn’t want to cause a fuss,” said Stuart, standing to his full height and allowing Harold to take his seat. His attitude rubbed me the wrong way, but nevertheless, I led him to the only free seat in the front row. He stepped forward, his chest brushing mine before he sat. I caught my breath for a second; the contact took me by surprise. In fact, it almost felt like he’d done it on purpose.

  Yep, I was definitely going to have to keep an eye on this one.

  Clicking on my laptop, I opened the file with the discussion points for the morning lesson. But first, we’d have our usual start-of-the-week chat, where my students talked about what was going on in their lives.

  “I hope you all enjoyed your weekend,” I said. “Did anybody do anything fun?”

  The shyer members of the class avoided making eye contact, while Mary spoke up. “My daughter went into labour early on Saturday morning. She had a healthy, eight-and-a-half-pound baby girl. I’m made up.”

  “That’s wonderful news, Mary. Did she decide on a name yet?”

  “She’s calling her Georgina. I’m off to the hospital later today to bring them both home.”

  “Well, I’m glad it all went well and they’re both healthy,” I said and glanced around the room. “Would anybody else like to share something?”

  I was met with quiet but it didn’t faze me. I knew how hard it was to speak up in situations like these, but I always encouraged my students to do so because it was a great way to build confidence. I never pushed anyone to talk, but I did like to gently cajole. My attention went to our new student.

  “How about you, Stuart? Would like to tell us a little about yourself?”

  “It’s Stu,” he corrected, levelling me with his eyes again.

  “My apologies, Stu,” I replied kindly.

  He flexed his hands. “What do you want to know?”

  “Anything you’re comfortable telling us. I like to think of this class as something of a family. We all support one another, and I’m happy to provide a friendly ear. If you don’t want to tell a problem to the entire class, then I’m always available to speak with privately at the end of each day.”

  His gaze moved over me and I shifted in my seat, not entirely sure why. He made me feel odd, like he knew me already, which was absurd because we’d never met before. He took his time answering, first running a hand over his jaw then rubbing his lower lip with his thumb.

  “This isn’t a family,” he stated, like the idea vaguely offended him.

  I tensed. “Yes, I know that. I said it was like a family, or well, as close to one as we can get.”

  “Fuckers!” came a loud expletive, but it wasn’t from Stu. Kian had shouted it from his position at the back of the class. His Tourette’s had obviously kicked in. I was use
d to his outbursts and never made a big deal of them, no matter how obscene, but today I wondered if the presence of our new student had put him on edge.

  Stu cast an amused glance in Kian’s direction then looked back at me. “You gonna let him get away with that language, Miss Anderson?”

  His tone was oh so cocky and the challenge in his voice made my cheeks heat. I’d had all manner of students in my time, but none who made me feel quite so flustered. “Kian has Tourette’s,” I explained. “We all know that nothing he says is meant to insult.”

  “Sorry,” said Kian, scratching his head and I cast him a kind expression.

  “I’ve told you, you don’t ever need to apologise.”

  Stu grinned at Kian. “So, you can get away with calling us all a bunch of wankers and arseholes and we just have to let it fly?”

  Kian smiled shyly, still scratching his head. “Yeah, pretty much.”

  “Well, fuck me.”

  I levelled Stu with a firm look. “I make an exception for Kian. You, however, are not permitted to use foul language in class.”

  Stu raised his hands in the air. “My bad.”

  I sniffed. “Yes well, if we could get back to my original question. Is there anything you’d like to share?”

  Stu contemplated me for a long moment, then surprised everyone with his candidness. “I just got out the nick a fortnight ago. Last weekend I made up for lost time. Seeing as how I was just told off for foul language, I won’t go into details,” he said, baiting me. It was almost like he wanted to piss me off. “I enjoyed myself, though, let’s put it that way.”

  “What were you in for?” Mary interjected, never shy in asking questions.

  Stu glanced at her but didn’t hesitate to answer. “Stolen car racket. Learned my lesson.”

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