Thief of hearts, p.10
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       Thief of Hearts, p.10

           L.H. Cosway
 
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“Never?” I found that hard to believe.

  “I suppose I grew desensitised. When you’ve been stealing since you’re a kid, it just becomes a way of life. It was more like a job than anything else. Me and my brothers got away with it for so long that we thought we were invincible. At least I did. Then it all fell apart and I learned I wasn’t. Far from it, in fact.”

  There was an odd note of nostalgia in his voice, almost like he missed it. Not the stealing, per se, but the sense of invincibility, of thinking he’d never get caught.

  “I guess you live and learn,” I said, lifting my mug and taking a long gulp.

  Stu’s eyes shone with some sort of hidden knowledge and I wondered where all this was coming from. The subject matter was certainly odd.

  “But that’s just it, Andrea,” he finally continued, “some of us never learn at all.”

  Ten

  My conversation with Stu played on my mind. His words echoed in my head, bringing with them a sense of unease.

  But that’s just it, Andrea, some of us never learn at all.

  There were so many things the statement could mean, the most obvious being that he hadn’t learned his lesson from his time behind bars. Did that mean he was going to start breaking the law again, or that he had already?

  I hated the idea of him falling back into that life and wanted to do everything in my power to keep it from happening, which was why I picked up the phone and called my dad. Would Stu accept guidance from someone else?

  “Andrea, honey, to what do I owe this pleasure?” came his happy voice as he answered.

  My dad was the sort of man who was forever in a good mood. My mum, too. They were pretty much the most perfect couple ever to exist in my eyes. So completely in love even after all these years together. Maybe that was why they were so endlessly cheery, because of their love for each other. It was the same as what I had with Mark, and a part of me would always mourn the fact that we hadn’t had years and years together like my parents. Sometimes I succumbed to sadness, but I tried not to fall too deep. I’d had a true and wonderful love once. Perhaps that was enough.

  “Hi Dad, I actually called to ask a favour, but how’ve you been? Is Mum well?”

  “We’re both as fine as can be. Now what do you need?” he replied kindly.

  “Well, I’ve this student. He comes from a very disadvantaged background and is actually just out of prison. I suspect he’s dyslexic but he has a real talent for maths. It could be just that he’s above average, but I think it might be more than that. I think he could be truly exceptional with the right teacher.”

  “And you’d like me to assist?” Dad finished, guessing my intentions.

  “Yes, if you’re up for it. He wasn’t in prison for anything violent. He used to steal cars, but he’s gone straight. I just worry that if left uncultivated, he’ll slip back into his old ways. If you can mentor him I truly believe he could qualify as a mature student for a university course somewhere.”

  “Well, I have to admit, I’m intrigued. You know I love a good underdog story,” Dad said, a smile in his voice.

  “That’s why I love you.”

  “I love you, too, honey. Now listen, I just had an idea. Here’s what we’re going to do . . .”

  ***

  My hands felt clammy the following day in class as I handed out worksheets containing a complicated algebraic equation. I told everyone it was a competition, and that whoever was first to solve it would win £10. It was my dad’s idea, of course. He could be such a big kid sometimes.

  Obviously, the competition was a ruse. Stu was the only one with a chance of winning, but my dad wanted to see how he fared. If he could solve the equation, or perhaps come close, then it proved he had aptitude. After that, all I had to do was convince him to come meet my dad and attend regular tutoring sessions over the coming months.

  Piece of cake, right?

  Perhaps not.

  As soon as I told the class their challenge, Stu grew suspicious. I could tell by the set of his mouth and his narrowed gaze. I plastered on an innocent expression and sat back down at my desk, setting the timer on my phone for twenty minutes.

  After a while I shot a furtive glance in Stu’s direction, relieved to find he had his head down, his pen scribbling away. When the twenty minutes were up, I discreetly took a picture of Stu’s work and texted it to my dad. His response came quickly.

  Dad: We’re onto a winner. Bring him by the house later.

  Shuffling through the papers, I saw that although they made decent efforts, nobody else had come close to getting it right. Clearing my throat, I announced to the class, “It looks like Stu’s the winner. You can come collect your prize at the end of the day.”

  “Well done, Stu!” Larry congratulated.

  “Shit!” Kian yelled. “Sorry, I mean, congrats, man.”

  “Thanks, buddy,” said Stu, his shrewd eyes landing on me. He smelled a rat, I could tell. Now even my neck was sweaty. I’d never make a good magician. People could see my tricks coming a mile off.

  “Damn, I could’ve done with that ten quid,” said Susan.

  “That’s you and me both, hon,” Mary commiserated.

  “Miss Anderson, can we do a competition for who’s the most fabulous next?” Susan asked, all sassy. “Because I’d definitely ace that shit.”

  “Language, Susan.”

  “Sorry.”

  “Forgiven. And maybe we’ll make the competitions a weekly event, though I’m not sure I can afford ten pounds every time.”

  “If there’s no cash on offer then I’m not interested,” Mary said with a cheeky grin.

  “How about a night off homework? Would that tempt you?”

  She smiled wide. “It might.”

  “All right, well, I’ll see what I can do. Will you all take out the art history workbooks I gave you and open to page eleven?”

  I busied myself with the next lesson, trying not to look in Stu’s direction again. I could feel his mounting suspicion like a physical thing. By the time class ended for the day I was a nervous wreck, worried he was going to outright refuse my dad’s offer of tutoring the same way he’d refused mine.

  “So, where’s this ten quid I’ve been hearing about?” he asked, approaching my desk once the room had emptied out.

  I picked up my bag and rummaged for my wallet before pulling out a crisp ten-pound note and sliding it across the desk. When Stu went to pick it up I held on. His eyes flicked to mine.

  “There’s just one condition.”

  He smirked and let go of the money, rising to his full height and folding his arms across his chest. “I thought there might be.”

  “Please don’t get mad, but I talked to my dad about you. He’s the one who gave me the equation.”

  “So it was a test?”

  “Sort of. But I promise it was only because I have your best interests at heart.”

  Stu’s eyes hardened as he stared at me, but then, unexpectedly, they softened. “You’re very lovely, Andrea, but I promise you, I don’t deserve it.”

  “Just give it a shot, please. For me? You do realise that the percentage of people who could’ve solved that equation on the first go without any prior learning is tiny, right? Minuscule. You’re special, Stu, and incredibly lucky to have been born with such a mind.”

  He shifted from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable with my compliment. I wondered if anyone had ever really praised him like this, or encouraged him to develop his skill.

  “Look, I’ll give this tutoring thing a try, but if I don’t like it then you have to leave it at that. No pestering me to keep at it, are we clear?”

  “Clear as crystal. So, are you free now? My dad is really looking forward to meeting you.”

  Stu lips twitched. Clearly he found my eagerness terribly amusing.

  “Yeah, I’m free. I’ll follow you in my car.”

  About forty minutes later we arrived outside my childhood home. Stu scoped the place out when we got there, his ey
es scanning the street.

  “Nice neighbourhood,” he said as he came around to meet me.

  “It is. I was very lucky to grow up here.”

  “No offence, but where you live now seems like a bit of step down,” he went on, raising an eyebrow.

  His comment made me tense. “Yeah, I um, I’m not in the best position right now, financially speaking. It’s all I can afford at the moment.”

  “It’s a basement, right? Even I think that’s depressing, and I live in a shithole.”

  I frowned. “Now you’re just being rude.”

  “I speak my mind, luv, always have. You ever thought of doing something to make more money? Something that would help you pay for a better flat?”

  “Of course, but what could I do? I work full-time. It doesn’t leave much room for anything else.”

  He eyed me closely, weighing his words. “What if I told you there was a way you could make a lump sum in just a few weeks? Would you be interested?”

  I narrowed my gaze at him. “Stu, where are you going with this?”

  The conversation was an eerie reminder of what we spoke about at the art gallery. It made me feel like he was suggesting something illegal. Stu’s eyes moved back and forth between mine, measuring, calculating. Whatever conclusion he came to, it seemed he’d decided I wasn’t prepared to play ball.

  “Nowhere. Never mind.”

  I didn’t like how he just dropped the subject, because although I was wary, I was also curious. I wanted to know what all these cryptic conversations were about, and why he was having them with me of all people. However, if I’d learned anything about Stu so far, it was that there was no point pushing him to explain himself when he didn’t want to.

  “Okay, well, come on. Let’s go inside and I’ll introduce you to my dad.”

  Now he wore a cheeky grin. “Do I get to check out your old room, too?”

  I pointed a stern finger in his direction. “No. Definitely not.”

  We stepped through the gate, past my mum’s hydrangeas and to the front door where I knocked twice. When Dad appeared, he wore his favourite grey jumper, and his brown eyes shone as he smiled and welcome us inside.

  “You must be Stu,” he said, his voice friendly, excited even. Dad always loved the prospect of a new protégé. “I have to say, it’s been years since I’ve come across a student who managed to complete that equation after the first try. You have no idea how thrilled I am for the chance to tutor you.”

  “Well, it’s uh, it’s nice to meet you, Mr Anderson,” said Stu, his posture a little stiff and his words awkward. He obviously wasn’t used to professor types like my dad.

  “Please, call me Jim,” Dad said, leading Stu into his study.

  “I’ll leave you two to get to work,” I called after them. “I’m going to go say hi to Mum.”

  “Yes, of course. Are you staying for dinner?” Dad asked.

  “I wouldn’t miss it,” I told him fondly.

  After a cup of tea and a catch up with Mum, I left her to finish preparing dinner and oddly enough, went to have a look around my old bedroom. It must’ve been Stu’s mentioning it that put the idea in my head. The space was mostly used for storage now. An old exercise bike sat abandoned in the corner. Dad had bought it a few years ago but stopped using it after less than a month. There were also a few boxes of wool that belonged to Mum. Whenever anyone she knew was having a baby, she always knitted something for the newborn—mittens and socks and such.

  I sat down on the bed, remembering my teen years when I’d first met Mark and we’d fallen head over heels for one another. I’d lost my virginity on this bed, spent countless nights in his arms while my parents slept just down the hallway, completely oblivious to my overnight guest. Life was so much simpler back then.

  I was startled out of the memory when someone knocked lightly on the door. Turning around, Stu stood in the doorway, his hand braced against the wood.

  “Oh, hey,” I said, my voice breathy. “How did the tutoring session go?”

  He lifted a shoulder, the gesture noncommittal. “Good.”

  “Just good?” I asked, seeing a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. He was excited but trying to hide it.

  Stu shot me a look. “Fine. It was better than good. You were right. I’ve learned more from your dad in the last hour than I have on my own in thirty years.”

  I smiled, delighted. “I’d say that’s a success, then.”

  “Yes, Andrea, it’s a success,” said Stu, stepping into the room and approaching the bed. I shifted back a little, my thoughts going fuzzy the closer he got. We were in a bedroom, a bedroom full of memories. It felt too much. Too private. The pores on my forearms drew tight.

  “I bet you were a real bookworm as a teenager,” said Stu, running his finger along the shelf that held my old collection. He came to stand before me and I glanced up.

  “What makes you say that?”

  “You know stuff.”

  I let out a chuckle at his comment. “Very true. I do know a lot of stuff.”

  “Is that why you decided to become a teacher?” he asked, slicing his teeth over his lower lip as he studied me. I felt conscious of every inch of my skin, the air thickening between us.

  “No, actually, believe it or not, when I first graduated from university I had every intention of going into marketing. I got an internship, did it for six months, and decided it wasn’t for me. So, I enrolled in a teacher training course and never looked back.”

  Stu’s brows drew together. “I bet if you’d stuck with marketing you’d be on a much better salary.”

  I shrugged. “Probably, but it had no soul. I find teaching far more rewarding. I get to make a real change in people’s lives, instead of spending my days trying to figure out ways to make them buy more stuff they don’t need.”

  Stu chuckled. “Yeah but, maybe that way you wouldn’t be living in a crapshack basement flat. There’s an upside to everything.”

  I shook my head. “Not necessarily. I could own a swanky penthouse but if I was miserable in my heart then it might as well be a hovel. Teaching makes me happy. It feels right, even if I am living in a ‘crapshack basement flat’” I said, throwing his own words back at him. Stu let out a quiet laugh before levelling me with a stare, his expression oddly tender.

  “You remind me of my brother, Lee. He’s always putting the rest of us before himself. I didn’t understand it for a long time,” said Stu, running a hand through his hair as he came to sit next to me on the bed. The mattress dipped and my skin tingled when his arm brushed mine.

  “But you do now?”

  Stu stared out the window. “Yeah, I do now. It was supposed to be Lee, you know. He was supposed to be the one to go to prison. Little bastard was prepared to fall on his sword like always, take the flack for the rest of us. And you know what? In the past I would’ve let him, but something changed in me. I was sick of sitting back and letting him take one for the team. No matter what way you want to spin it, I was a coward, hiding behind my fucking little brother of all people. So I stepped up. I went behind his back and made sure it was me who got sent down instead of him. He was angry at me for a long time. In a way I think he felt powerless. I’d taken away his ability to protect us by putting myself on the chopping block.”

  I stared at him, taken aback by his story. “That was a very selfless thing to do.”

  He shook his head. “Nah, I was just taking what had been coming to me for a long time. Anyway, I’m out now and that’s all that matters, but my point is, you and Lee are alike. You’d rather live a life for others than for yourselves, and it’s not right. You should live your own life, Andrea. Just because someone you loved got stolen from you too soon doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s so much more out there for you.”

  His voice was tender as his gaze dropped to my lips, his eyelids hooded. My lungs felt bereft of air as his meaning sank in. And I hated to admit it, but I was shocked by his sentiment. I knew Stu wasn
t stupid, but I hadn’t thought him capable of seeing so much of me either. Just because someone you loved got stolen from you too soon doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s so much more out there for you. He understood me on a level deeper than I ever could’ve expected and it was sobering.

  “I never realised I was so transparent,” I breathed, my cheeks heating under his attention.

  “You’re not. I’ve just been looking real close.”

  Heat encapsulated me as Stu’s gaze darkened. My tongue dipped out to wet my lips, the action involuntary. I was staring at his collarbone, too shy to meet his eyes. “How close?” I whispered, finally glancing up at him.

  All the air left me as he reached out, his big, strong hand cupping my neck. I felt like I was under water, struggling to breathe.

  “This close,” he whispered, right before his mouth descended on mine.

  Eleven

  Stu’s kiss was hot and electric. I couldn’t move, couldn’t pull away. And believe me, my brain was yelling at me to do so, but my body had other ideas. My body wanted Stu Cross to taste every inch of me until I was warm and sated.

  He didn’t kiss me tenderly, instead he kissed me hard, his tongue plundering inside my mouth like a man starved of oxygen only I could provide. It was disconcerting, because although we’d just shared a pretty intense moment, I didn’t feel like it warranted such hunger. Then a thought hit me. Despite how he’d bragged during his first day in class, Stu hadn’t actually been with a woman since he’d gotten out of prison. He’d confessed as much the day I’d shared my lunch with him.

  I was his first kiss in over two years. And God, was he kissing me.

  Wow.

  His hand wrapped around my throat, the action making me shiver. His fingers felt hard and soft at the same time, giving just enough pressure to make me tingle all over, but not enough to hurt me. His lips were warm and wet, his scent incredibly masculine. When I shifted my weight, turning my body into the kiss, he groaned into my mouth and I trembled.

  I’ve never been kissed like this.

  Mark’s kisses had been sweet and tender, beautiful in their own right. Stu’s kisses were fierce and hungry, like he had a fire burning under his skin and only my lips could put it out.

 
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