Thief of hearts, p.13
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       Thief of Hearts, p.13

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  “So fill us in,” Alfie urged.

  Stu opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off. “Wait. Maybe we shouldn’t know any of that side of things,” I said, eyeing my cousin. “Plausible deniability, remember?”

  Alfie’s expression sobered. He actually looked a little disappointed. “You’re right. As much as I’m dying to know the ins and outs of all this, we should keep ourselves in the dark as much as we can.”

  Stu didn’t say anything. Instead his hazel eyes fell on me and I could feel the heat of it. A moment of awkwardness ensued and Alfie cleared his throat.

  “Well, if you don’t mind I’m going to bed. This has been a tiring night.”

  “Wait,” said Stu. He picked up the small backpack he carried in with him and handed it to Alfie. “This is from the Duke. There are pictures, film and a USB drive with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree photographs of the painting as it is now. He had one of his men break into the owner’s house to get it all so you can imitate the wear and tear that you can’t see in regular prints.”

  “Well, wasn’t that kind of him,” said Alfie, eyeing me before continuing on to his bedroom. “It looks like I’ve got a painting to get started on.”

  I could’ve cursed him for leaving me alone with Stu. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and not because I sensed danger. Well, at least not the kind that could cause physical harm. The fact of the matter was, I was embarrassed and annoyed, and quite frankly, royally pissed off. Stu’s gaze wandered over me again, his mouth almost tipping into a smile.

  “Nice bathrobe.”

  “Oh please, the jig is up now. You don’t have to keep pretending,” I huffed, folding my arms defensively.

  One dark eyebrow rose. “Pretending?”

  “You must think I’m an idiot,” I went on, my cheeks heating. I hated how attractive I still found him, sitting there with his tousled hair and effortless male beauty. He didn’t even have to try and quite frankly it was infuriating.

  “Course I don’t. Why would I think that?”

  “Because I fell for your act. I had no clue the only reason you were . . . you were in my class was to get to Alfie.”

  “Andrea, of course you wouldn’t suspect me. It’s not like it’s the sort of thing that happens every day. I’m the one who’s at fault.”

  I sat up straighter, folding my arms. “I’m well aware you’re at fault, and I want to hate you right now for dragging my cousin and me into all of this.” I wanted to, but I couldn’t, because at the core of his actions was a love for his family. I felt so torn.

  Stu’s expression hardened. “It’s not like you’re not getting anything out of it. You’re getting a hundred grand. So don’t act like I’m the only one who benefits here.”

  “Yes, well, why couldn’t you just be up front about it? There was absolutely no need for you to pose as a student and then pretend to like me. You could’ve simply approached me and told me your story. I’m not an unreasonable person. In fact, I’m probably more reasonable than most. I would’ve tried to assist if I could.”

  At this he scoffed. “Like fuck you would. You’d have been straight on the phone to the coppers, so let’s not pretend otherwise.”

  I didn’t reply, because deep down I suspected he was right. He let out a sound of irritation and stood. I levelled my hands on my hips and endeavoured to maintain a hard expression. I wouldn’t be a soft-hearted, gullible fool with him anymore.

  His gaze was unwavering, but then he just shook his head, muttered something unintelligible to himself and then headed for the door.

  Before he left he turned back around, giving me one last irritable glance. “You’ll be seeing me, Andrea.”

  Then the door closed and he was gone.

  “Well . . . shit,” I muttered to the empty room.

  Thirteen

  I woke up the next morning full of regret. This was due to the fact that I’d stayed up half the night polishing off that bottle of wine and looking through old photos of Mark and me. I used to be into keeping albums, but ever since he passed I’d barely taken any pictures. It was like that part of me died with him, the part that wanted to store precious memories.

  Some days I wished so hard for him to still be here, so hard that my entire body hurt. My throat felt like a lump of raw, abused meat and my stomach constantly ached.

  Yesterday was one of those days, and it was the reason I arrived at work ten minutes late with a hangover and blotchy eyes from crying myself to sleep. Usually, if I could keep my mind focused on every day, practical things, I could avoid feeling this way. Unfortunately, yesterday and last night had been all kinds of crazytown and I lost the run of my emotions.

  “You’re looking a little worse for wear, Miss Anderson,” Mary commented with a grin. “Late night, was it?”

  I knew she meant well, thinking I’d been out enjoying myself. Little did she know, it had been a party of misery and loneliness for one. Plastering on a brave face, I replied kindly, “Something like that.”

  Mary winked at me and I continued inside the classroom, stumbling and almost falling over my own feet when I saw Stu in his usual seat. He turned and caught me by the elbow, preventing my fall. His touch brought on the usual tingles and his eyes shone with concern but I was having none of it. What the hell was he even doing here? Now that his true intentions had been revealed, I didn’t think he’d continue attending class. And to think I’d introduced him to my dad for his insight.

  I just didn’t see what he thought his being here was going to achieve. Perhaps he simply wanted to prolong my discomfort.

  “I take it you all finished the final chapters of Jude last night?” I said, clearing my throat as I opened my laptop. I strongly suspected that Stu hadn’t read a single page, which was sort of the reason I’d said it. Maybe I was being mean-spirited, but I thought he deserved a little discomfort, too. Most of the class called out that they’d finished but Stu remained silent. I addressed him directly.

  “Stu, I know you started late, but did you get a chance to fit the book into your busy schedule?”

  Yes, I said the last part with a hint of cynicism, but it couldn’t be helped. I was wounded and needed to reassert myself. Stu stared at his desk then brought his dark gaze to mine, scratching his head self-consciously. A pang hit me right in the chest and I instantly felt bad for putting him on the spot. Of course he hadn’t read it. It was a four-hundred-page book and he had difficulty with reading and writing. I was an awful person.

  “Yes, I, uh, I did, actually,” he said, surprising the hell out of me. So much so my mouth fell open, my disbelief written all over my face.

  “You did?” I asked.

  He ducked his head, his voice going quiet. “Took me longer than most, I’m sure, but Lee’s been helping me with my reading.”

  My heart pounded, because even though I was still angry with him, the idea of him going out of his way to read the book, to get help from his brother, was just too admirable. Why couldn’t he be horrible and let me enjoy hating him for a while?

  “And did you enjoy it?” I went on, trying not to let my voice convey how touched I was.

  “I’m not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, Miss Anderson, but I definitely felt like it made me see things differently. Guess I could relate to the whole being dirt-poor thing. Actually, there was a lot I could relate to.”

  “Really?” I went on, curious. “What else?”

  Stu glanced around the room, then shot me a look as if to ask, why aren’t you asking anybody else questions? The answer was rather simple, really. I wasn’t asking anyone else, because in spite of all the reasons he shouldn’t, Stu fascinated me.

  “You have the whole Christminster thing. That’s supposed to be Oxford or Cambridge or something, right?”

  I nodded and gestured for him to continue.

  “Well, I feel like to Jude, Christminster represents everything that’s good. It’s his goal to get there and become a student, but he’s so far away
from it, it almost feels impossible. I think we all have a Christminster, this thing we want more than anything else, and it’s what keeps us moving forward. If we didn’t have that, a goal, a dream, there’d be no point to keep going. Because who wants to work their fingers to the bone for minimum wage day in and day out without something to look forward to? If we knew for definite that we weren’t going to get to Christminster, then we’d all just give up.”

  I stared at him, taken aback by his words and how deeply he’d thought about this. And considering the difficulty Stu had with this area of his learning, what he’d just come out with felt like a real breakthrough. I smiled at him, my disgruntlement momentarily forgotten. As a teacher, these were the sorts of moments I lived for.

  “You’re right. That’s a fantastic point, Stu,” I said and turned to the rest of the class. “Now, would anyone else like to contribute?”

  For the rest of the day Stu didn’t approach me. He didn’t stick around at lunch and he didn’t try to provoke me in class. In fact, he was acting like he genuinely wanted to be there, and I wondered if his continued attendance had something to do with the robbery. But then, how could it?

  I was busy correcting papers when the final bell of the day rang and everybody started getting up to leave. After a few minutes the room fell quiet and I thought they’d all gone, which was the reason I let out a startled yelp when Stu suddenly spoke.

  “Andrea.”

  “For crying out loud, Stu,” I said, clutching my hand to my chest. “You frightened the life out of me.”

  His lips twitched and it looked like he was trying to hold in his laughter. “Sorry.”

  “It’s fine. What do you need?”

  Now his expression grew serious. “I wanted to talk.”

  “About?”

  “About us.”

  I swallowed, returning my attention to the papers I was correcting. I made sure to put as much dismissal into my voice as possible. “There is no us, Stu.”

  “That’s bullshit, Andrea.”

  I blinked at him. “I think you’ll find it isn’t. And don’t talk to me like that. I’m your teacher.”

  “Oh, come on. Don’t act like you’re bothered. Susan swears in class all the time and you never give her stick for it.”

  “It’s the spirit in which it’s done, Stu. When Susan swears it’s good-natured. When you swear it’s aggressive.”

  “That’s only because you frustrate me.”

  At this I slammed my hand down on the desk. “I frustrate you? That’s a laugh. You’re the most frustrating person I know.”

  “For God’s sake, what do you want from me? I told you I’m sorry. I even read that bloody book for you even though it took me forever. I’m really trying here.”

  “That’s what I don’t get. Why are you trying? Why are you even still attending class? You said yourself the only reason you enrolled in the first place was to get to me to get to Alfie. Well, mission accomplished. Your presence is no longer necessary.”

  His expression wavered ever so slightly, almost like my words hit a sore spot, and I instantly wanted to take them back. But I couldn’t. I had to stand my ground, show him I wasn’t a pushover.

  Stu stepped closer, leaning forward to take the pen from my hand and shove the papers out of the way. “You talk like I came up with all this on my own and I didn’t. I was put up to it. If it were down to me I never would’ve used you like I did.”

  His features were etched with regret, and yet there it was—the truth. He’d used me. He’d probably only read Jude to alleviate his guilt, to prove to himself that he wasn’t such a bad person.

  And there was me thinking he had an actual interest in expanding his learning.

  My head hurt, the final remnants of my hangover and dealing with Stu making it ache.

  “Look, I’m tired. I can’t do this right now,” I said, rising from my seat and frantically shoving my things into my bag. “I still don’t understand why you’re coming to class, but whatever. If you want to learn I’ll teach you. But like I said, there’s no us. There never will be.”

  Stu’s gaze hardened as I gestured for him to leave. Silently, he turned and left the classroom. As I locked up I felt emotion catch in my throat but I did my best to tamp it down until I got home. Once there I could let out all my pent-up emotions.

  Stu’s car was still parked outside as I left but I couldn’t see him. The glare from the sun blocked out his windows, and butterflies flitted in my stomach at the idea of his unseen, watchful eyes.

  I was antsy the entire way home, wondering about Stu, a million questions swirling around inside my head. Had I been too harsh? Or had I given him exactly what he deserved?

  My fluster meant I was out of my car and almost to my front door before I saw him. The very same man from yesterday had coming knocking again, but this time he was facing me. I stood frozen to the spot as I dropped my keys in fright. They fell to the ground with a loud clatter.

  The first thing I noticed were his black shark-like eyes. Seemed oddly fitting that he worked as a money collector.

  “Andrea Anderson?” he asked, his voice hard. Yep, there definitely wasn’t going to be any messing around with this one.

  “I, um . . .” I mumbled, unable to find my voice.

  The man withdrew a leather-bound folder from under his arm, opening it up and flicking through some papers. I felt like using this opportunity to make a run for it, but then again, I doubted he’d have trouble catching up to me. When he found what he was looking for, his eyes scanned back and forth and I swallowed, my mouth dry as sandpaper. Inside my chest my heart beat like a rabbit on crack.

  Why was this happening to me today of all days? When I just wanted to shut myself inside my room, eat chocolate, and have a good cry.

  He let out a low whistle and lifted his gaze to mine. “You’re two months behind on your repayments. I need to collect £1375 by the end of tomorrow or we’ll be upping your interest by another two per cent.” At this he closed his folder with a definitive whump and shoved it back under his arm.

  My mouth opened and shut several times as I tried to find words. “I don’t have it right now, b-but I’ll have it in a couple of weeks. I’ll have every penny I owe in just a couple of weeks,” I promised him. Stu hadn’t given us a time frame for the robbery, but it had to be happening soon, right?

  “Forgive me if I find that hard to believe,” said Shark Eyes, his expression cynical.

  “It’s the truth, I swear. I’m set to inherit some money from a relative,” I lied.

  “Oh yeah? Me, too. I’ll be getting a big windfall once my uncle Rupert Murdock pops his clogs. Come on now, do you think I don’t hear this bullshit every fucking day? You come up with the cash before five p.m. tomorrow evening or your interest goes up, Miss Anderson. It’s that simple.”

  “But please, it’s just not possible,” I said, my voice pleading.

  He glanced over my shoulder to where my car was parked out on the street. “That your motor?”

  I nodded before thinking it through.

  “Bet you could get yourself a couple grand for it. See? Problem solved.”

  “I can’t sell my car. I need it to get to work.” And really, I didn’t want to. I loved driving, loved the freedom it provided. It was one of my few pleasures in life and I wasn’t prepared to give it up. Not yet, anyway.

  “Public transport is a wonder these days,” he said, taking a step toward me. His face was hard, not a shred of empathy in his expression. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so small.

  “I won’t sell it. I told you. I’ll have the money very soon. I’m not lying.”

  His stance grew threatening as he continued to advance on me, leaving barely an inch between us. My gut quivered, because he practically oozed intimidation. I guess that’s why this was his job.

  Glaring down at me, he spat, “Sell the fucking car and have the money by tomorrow, babe, or your interest goes up. No compromises. I’m no
t gonna fall for that innocent doe-eyed bollocks you’re trying to peddle.” His words were cutting and I flinched away from him. He honestly sounded like he was two seconds away from roughing me up.

  “You want to repeat that, mate? This time to someone your own fucking size,” came a familiar voice. When I turned and saw Stu standing behind me, his expression was furious. Quick as a flash he wrapped his arm around my middle, pulling me back and away from the loan collector. When he’d set me firmly behind him he stood face to face with Shark Eyes, staring him down. Though this guy had width on his side, Stu had height, plus what I’d always suspected to be the kind of athletic muscularity only prison could provide.

  “This is between me and Miss Anderson,” said Shark Eyes. “So why don’t you piss off and stay out of it.”

  “I’m not going anywhere, so why don’t you piss off, yeah? Go get your jollies threatening some other poor defenceless woman.”

  Shark Eyes pointed at me. “If she doesn’t pay up, things are only going to get worse for her, whether she has a dumb-shit little guard dog on her side or not.”

  “Leave,” Stu grunted, his entire body coiled tight. I could tell his patience was already wearing thin and watched as he repeatedly clenched and unclenched his fists, ready for a fight. The fact that he was defending me when he didn’t have to gave me an odd swishy feeling in my stomach.

  “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.”

  “You’d better be good and ready in three seconds because I’m about to give you some help.”

  Shark Eyes grunted as he looked Stu up and down, deciding whether or not he was worth it. He must’ve decided he wasn’t because a second later he gave another grunt, shot me a final threatening look, and stalked away from my flat.

  As soon as he was gone I let out a relieved sigh, slumping back against my front door as I willed my pulse to slow down. I’d never endured a confrontation like that before. Up until now, I’d only received threatening letters and phone calls from my bank. This was new territory, and I was completely unequipped to deal with it. I’d been brought up relatively privileged, had spent the majority of my life quite sheltered, really.

 
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