Thief of hearts, p.11
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       Thief of Hearts, p.11

           L.H. Cosway
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  “Open your legs,” he breathed, breaking the kiss long enough to push me onto the bed and climb between my thighs. I felt his hardness press against my inner thigh and grew instantly wet. Stu wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been intimate in a long time. In fact, I had him beat by more than two years. Perhaps that was why everything felt so much more intense than I expected. Every sweep of his tongue, every press of his fingers on my throat had me wanting to open for him, let him take whatever he wanted, however he wanted it.

  It was only when I heard my parents chatting downstairs that I came back to my senses. Yes, parent chatter was the perfect bucket of ice-cold water to throw over any sexual situation. I drew away from Stu, my breaths coming hard and fast. My entire body felt warm, ready for something it had forgotten it even wanted. Stu’s eyes were still closed, and he seemed lost in me, drugged by our kiss. He pulled me back under him, his mouth finding mine again.

  “Wait, wait, stop,” I gasped, my mind at war with my body yet again.

  “Andrea,” he murmured. “Just let me—”

  “I can’t,” I said as his mouth lowered to my jaw, planting kisses that sent a pleasurable sensation down my spine and made me moan. “My parents are downstairs. You have to stop.”

  Stu groaned and let his face drop to my chest, his nose brushing the top of my breast. How I wanted to feel his mouth there, his lips, tongue . . . teeth. Honestly, where had all this desire come from? Had it been building up for years, silently wait for its time to unleash?

  His eyes were still dark, still full of need and want, even as he withdrew from me, our moment of bliss cut short. I knew it was the right thing to do. Being with Stu was not only bad for my heart, it was bad for my career. I could lose my job if anybody ever found out.

  “Let’s go back to yours,” he said, his voice pure gravel.

  “We can’t. Alfie will be there. We live together.” I was using my cousin as an excuse, I knew that, but it was all I could think of on the spot. I needed to pull the brakes.

  “Come back to mine then.”

  I let out a small squeak of a laugh. “That’s an even worse idea. You said yourself your house is packed to the rafters.”

  “We’ll be quiet then,” he said, running his hand along my shoulder, down my arm.

  “Stu, I’m surprised my parents didn’t hear your groans just now. If you’re that loud just kissing, then I can’t imagine how you’ll be doing . . . other things.”

  Now he smirked. “Oh yeah? Care to find out?”

  Before I could respond my mum called up the stairs that dinner was ready. I looked to Stu as I asked quietly, “Are you staying to eat?”

  His smirk widened. “Course I am.”


  “Okay, well, please behave yourself.”

  “I always do.”

  I scoffed at that, then rose from the bed and led him down to the dining room. I did my best to smooth out my top and fix my hair, but somehow I still felt dishevelled, like my parents would be able to tell what I’d done with Stu just by looking at me. I was being paranoid, of course, because neither of my parents noticed a thing.

  In fact, dinner was less awkward than I anticipated. Mostly because my dad chatted away to Stu about what he planned on teaching him in the coming weeks, and I filled my mum in on how Alfie was doing. My parents cared a lot about my cousin, but given his hermit-like ways, he didn’t come to visit them very often. Or let them visit him for that matter. I knew it hurt their feelings, but I always tried to reassure them that it wasn’t anything personal.

  Alfie simply didn’t maintain contact with many people, and a lot of the time it was because he was so wrapped up in his art. Also, we weren’t actually blood relatives, since Alfie’s mum was adopted into my mum’s family after my grandparents discovered they couldn’t conceive any more children. This was why my aunt was so different. She’d spent her early childhood in foster care and it made her very ambitious. Determined never to be poor again, she’d married Alfie’s dad, who came from wealthy stock. She didn’t foresee how he’d get caught in a fraud scandal, resulting in him losing all his money.

  “Let’s go back to yours,” Stu whispered over my shoulder as we left my parents’ house and made our way to our respective vehicles. My thoughts of my cousin’s family were cut short when his body pressed into mine from behind.

  “I told you, Alfie will be there,” I replied.

  “I’m sure he won’t mind. Actually, I’ve been hoping to try again with him. We didn’t get off to the best start.”

  “Don’t be offended. He’s like that with everyone except for Jamie and me. My cousin is one of the hardest people to get to know.”

  “Well, I’d still like to try,” said Stu, and there was a determined note in voice that made me curious.


  He lifted a shoulder. “He seems interesting.”

  “He is interesting, but I’m not sure you two would get along. You’re very different kinds of people.”

  Stu’s lips drew into a tight line and he seemed annoyed with what I’d said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “It means exactly what I said. You and Alfie are polar opposites, plus, he’s incredibly paranoid. He doesn’t let new people in very often, and if I brought you to the flat he’d get freaked.”

  “So what do you do when you want to bring a man home? Sneak him inside while your cousin is asleep, then ship him out before he wakes up in the morning?”

  “No,” I answered before thinking it through. “I don’t bring men home.”

  Stu came around to face me, his expression disbelieving. “Never?”

  “Never,” I said, feeling a blush creep in. A moment of quiet ensued.

  “So . . . eh, when’s the last time you—?”

  “Oh my God, I’m not discussing this with you. I’m getting into my car now, okay? I’ll see you in class in the morning.” I felt self-conscious. He knew how long it had been since Mark’s passing. Would he laugh at my celibacy or be understanding about it?

  “Come on, Andrea. Don’t just run off when things get personal. I’m trying to get to know you.”

  When I reached my car I opened the door, threw my bag into the passenger seat, then turned back to Stu. “That’s just the thing, you shouldn’t be trying to get to know me at all.”

  I slid into the car before he could respond, closing the door and slotting my key in the ignition. I was on edge as I pulled away from my parents’ house. In my driver’s side mirror, I saw Stu standing on the street, his frustration evident in the way he clenched his fists.

  I’d let things go way too far tonight and it wasn’t his fault. Even though he was older, he was still my student. I was in a position of power over him and it was wrong to let him kiss me. I should’ve stopped him, should never had let things progress that far. But I’d been incapable of resisting. His touched had stoked a fire in me that had lain dormant for years, and it felt almost freeing to let it out, like I’d been waiting all this time for the right person to bring it out of me. Was Stu that person?

  No, he couldn’t be.

  My hand started to tremble as my attention fell to my ring finger, where my wedding band sat, like always. My shirt sleeve was rolled up, revealing the end of the tattoo I got a year after Mark passed away. I felt like I needed to commemorate him in some way, so on the inside of my left forearm I had a small M shaped into a heart surrounded by pretty flowers. I’d caught Stu staring at it once or twice, but he never asked me about it. Perhaps he knew it was too personal.

  Even distracted by the tattoo I couldn’t get his kiss out of my head and I felt awful, because even though he was gone, I felt like I’d betrayed the man I’d loved since I was seventeen years old. And that was the most disconcerting part of all.


  A fresh batch of overdue bills arrived the following morning. I shoved them into my bag on my way out the door, too afraid to leave them in the flat in case Alfie found them. My cousin was bli
ssfully unaware of how bad things had become and I planned to keep it that way.

  When I arrived at college, I immediately spotted Stu’s car a few spaces away from where I parked. The fact that he was here made me nervous. We’d both acted completely inappropriately last night, and I was scared of him telling someone. My stomach tensed at the very idea.

  As I approached the entrance, I saw him leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette. Our eyes locked and we both moved at the same time, reaching for the door handle. Our bodies collided, knocking my handbag off my shoulder and sending my bills spilling out onto the ground.


  It was just my luck that the most visible one had a big red OVERDUE stamped on the envelope. Stu bent over to help me pick them up, and I knew he could see it. A deep sense of shame washed over me. It was ridiculous, because it wasn’t like paying for your deceased husband’s medical bills was anything to be ashamed about, but I felt it all the same.

  “Here,” said Stu, handing me the letters. I shoved them back into my bag, glad when he didn’t comment on them.


  Hurriedly, I made my way inside, feeling uncomfortable. All that morning, I felt jittery. Was he staring at me because of the kiss or the bills? I kept dropping things and making mistakes all the way through until lunch. When the bell finally rang, I felt like I needed some air and decided to take a little walk around the grounds.

  About fifteen minutes later I returned to the classroom and found Stu waiting for me. No other students were around and I hovered in the doorway, wary of his presence.

  “Do you need something?” I asked.

  Stu’s gaze was intense. His hazel eyes first traced over my face then wandered down my body. My outfit was plain and conservative, but the way he looked at me made me feel naked. Like he could see everything, visualise it in his head even though he’d never actually seen it.

  My throat went dry.

  “I want to talk to you, Andrea. Come in and shut the door,” he said, his voice commanding. It was like we’d switched roles and all of a sudden he was the one in charge. On instinct I did as he requested, closing the door and stepping inside the room. I took a seat at one of the desks and waited for him to speak. When he didn’t say anything for a long moment, I grew even more antsy.

  “For crying out loud, just spit it out,” I blurted, unable to take any more silence.

  “You need to introduce me to your cousin,” Stu answered. “Properly this time.”

  I furrowed my brow, not understanding. This was the last thing I expected him to say. If I was being honest, I thought he was about to proposition me, especially after the way his eyes raked my body.

  “Alfie? Why?”

  “I’ll explain everything once you introduce us, but it has to be today. I’ve been stalling and now I’m running out of time.”

  I frowned at him. “Stu, what the hell are you talking about? What do you mean, ‘running out of time’?”

  “Once you introduce me to Alfie I’ll tell you everything. I promise.”

  The forcefulness in his voice got my back up. Standing, I placed my hands on my hips and levelled him with a hard stare. “I’m not introducing you, so you can leave now. You’re not permitted to be in this room during your lunch hour.”

  “Andrea, don’t be difficult, please. I’m just trying to protect my family.” His tone was softer now, cajoling.

  “Stu, I’m won’t be able to understand anything you’re saying until you explain yourself fully. So either tell me what’s going on or get out. I don’t have time for games.”

  “Fucking hell,” he swore, pacing now as he raked both hands through his hair. I watched him, deeply concerned by how odd he was acting. Was this what Karla had meant about unpredictable behaviour? Gone was the flirt. Here was the serious ex-con brother-in-law she’d been worried about. I remembered I still had her phone number, but wasn’t sure whether or not I should use it.

  Finally, he stopped pacing and stood still, his eyes intent on mine. “My being in your class isn’t a coincidence. That’s why I’ve been telling you not to invest your energy in me. I’m piece of shit.”

  “Stu, what the—”

  “Once you hear what I have to say you’ll agree with me. All along I’ve been here under false pretences. It’s not a condition of my parole. I enrolled with the college of my own free will, all with the intention of getting to know you.”

  His words sent an eerie chill down my spine, his sometimes-golden eyes turning a flat dark brown. “Why?” I whispered.

  “Because you’re the only way I can get to your cousin.”

  Now I was trembling. “Again, what does Alfie have to do with any of this?”

  “I came here fully prepared to use you, Andrea,” Stu continued, avoiding the question. “But then I got to know you, and fuck, I decided you were too good to be used. I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore. The problem is, I don’t have a choice.”

  He appeared distraught, and although I was disturbed by what he was saying, I still wanted to comfort him. I was at a loss to explain it. Closing the distance between us, I took his hands in mine.

  “Tell me,” I breathed, my heart beating double time.

  “I think we should both probably sit down. It’s a complicated story.”

  I nodded and we each took a seat. Stu pulled his keys from his pocket, fiddling with them as he spoke, not meeting my eyes.

  “Since we were kids, me and my brothers worked for a dangerous man. His name was McGregor, and he was the one who got us into stealing cars in the first place. Fast forward a decade and Lee decided he wanted out for all of us. He had a hand in putting him behind bars. It meant we could get free of the life; otherwise he never would’ve let us quit working for him. But when our thieving came back to haunt us and I got sent down, I was put in the same prison. McGregor had it in for me from the beginning, wanted to use me to send a message to Lee. My first week in there I got the shit kicked out of me by five other blokes, spent ten days in the infirmary recovering. I knew those ten days were my last, and that as soon as I was out I was a dead man.”

  “Oh my goodness, Stu,” I gasped, horrified.

  “Belmarsh had two kings. McGregor was one of them and the other they called the Duke, ’cause he was a posh prick. He was also an absolute sociopath, which was why he’d climbed his way to the top of the ladder so quickly. Anyway, the day I got out of the infirmary, I got called to the Duke’s cell. He offered me protection from McGregor in exchange for my loyalty. I didn’t have a choice. It was life or death, so I chose life.

  “McGregor was killed soon after by another inmate, but I was still stuck with my promise to the Duke. He made me do some shit I’ll never forgive myself for, and I went to a very dark place for a while. Then, when I was given my release date, the Duke started spouting all this crap about a job he wanted me to do for him when I got out. I told him I was going clean, that I’d promised Lee, but he was having none of it. Said that if I refused the job he’d send people to hurt my family.” Stu paused and lifted his eyes to mine. They shone with moisture and I was taken aback by his show of emotion. “That’s where you and your cousin come in.”

  “But how?” I breathed.

  Stu started fiddling with his keys again. “The Duke knew of your cousin. He’d heard about a Rembrandt he forged once. Said you’d never tell it apart from the original. Long story short, luv, he wants me to convince Alfie to paint another.”

  “Another replica?” I asked, baffled. How had this person even known about Alfie’s replicas? He only ever painted them as a hobby.


  “For what?”

  “For a robbery.”

  I barked a laugh. “This is a joke, right? Some sort of prank?”

  Stu’s gaze sharpened, his breathing deep and even. “I’m not joking, Andrea. In fact, I’ve never been more serious in my entire life.”

  “So that’s why you needed to meet me, to get to Alfie,” I said
, suddenly understanding. It was quickly followed by another revelation: the only reason Stu had been coming onto me so hard was because he had to.

  You’re already sexy as fuck. A lie. But those lips and your big brown eyes, now those are what get me all jacked up. A lie. It made so much sense I almost felt like laughing again. Of course he wasn’t into me. I was so far from his level it was ridiculous. But still, it hurt, because the fact of the matter was, even if his attraction had been fake, mine hadn’t. I’d genuinely liked him, more than liked, and now I felt like a fool.

  “That’s about the size of it, luv,” Stu sighed.

  I pushed my hurt feelings aside and plastered on a brave face. “And just imagining that Alfie actually agrees to do the painting, then what? Who’s supposed to pull off the robbery?”

  Stu stared at me for a long moment, his expression torn. Finally, he replied, “We will.”

  Now I did laugh, shaking my head in disbelief. “We as in me and you? I don’t think so.”

  “I saw your bills, Andrea. I know you’re drowning in debt.”

  “That doesn’t mean I’d break the law to pay them off. My God, that’s what all that talk was about at the gallery, and again at my parents’ house. You were trying to suss out how far I’d go.”

  “He’ll hurt my family. My family. They’re all I’ve got, and I’d go to the ends of the earth to protect them. This isn’t about how far you’d go. It’s about how far I’d go, and I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t do to keep them safe.”

  “That’s incredibly admirable, Stu,” I said, my voice still hard. “But I’m sorry, I can’t help you. You need to go to the police. Talk to Karla, even.”

  “The police can’t help with this. You have no idea how powerful he is. That kind of power overrides the law.”

  “If you do this and get caught, you’ll only get more time. You know that, right?”

  He stared at me, his expression blank. “It’s a chance I have to take.”

  “Well, I won’t be taking it with you. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

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