Thief of hearts, p.14
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       Thief of Hearts, p.14

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  Perhaps that’s why Stu took facing off with Shark Eyes in his stride. He hadn’t been sheltered, had experienced real hardship. Threatening confrontations were probably a daily occurrence for him in prison.

  He stood silently next to me and I could feel his eyes looking me over, searching for cracks. He probably thought I was going to break down any moment, and believe me, I wanted to. I wasn’t normally so weak, but everything had just been piling up lately and I’d been internalising so much of it. It was only natural that the floodgates would burst open sooner or later.

  But no, not here, not in front of Stu Cross. I could wait for privacy, until there were no judging eyes present, just my four bedroom walls and my pillow to comfort me and soak up my tears.

  “You all right?” Stu asked, laying a hand on my shoulder, his voice soft.

  And just like that, as though all I needed was a sympathetic word and a light touch, I broke. In spite of my determination to put up a strong front, all my pent-up sadness, feelings of inadequacy, fear of losing everything, utter indignation erupted, and I was helpless to do anything about it. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I turned away from him and dug in my handbag for some Kleenex. All I found was a crumpled napkin. I used it dab my eyes in an effort to hide my tears. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to cover up the sniffling.

  “Ah fuck, come here.” He wrapped his arm around my waist again and pulled me into his warm chest. “Hush, I’ve got you,” he whispered as he turned me and I buried my face in his neck, unprepared to let him see my blotchy cheeks.

  Stu’s hand drifted comfortingly down my back, coming to rest at the base of my spine. There he started to rub soothing circles as his other arm held me to him. It felt so good to be held by another human being that I simply sank into the embrace, helpless to resist the comfort.

  “You’re okay, I’ve got you,” Stu murmured, his lips in my hair as he pressed a light kiss to the top of my head. Tingles radiated down my spine from his voice alone. I could lose myself in these arms. How was I still this attracted to him when I knew it wasn’t reciprocated?

  He smelled so good. I couldn’t help inhaling his masculine scent. There was something incredibly comforting about it, something that made me feel protected. I paused, hoping he hadn’t noticed me practically nuzzling his neck. But he just continued rubbing circles, letting me cry it out. After another minute or two I drew away, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Earlier today we’d fought. I’d been horrible to him and here he was defending me against threatening money collectors and holding me as I cried. I didn’t feel like I deserved it, even if he had used me before.

  His hazel eyes looked me over as I dabbed the remaining wetness from my face. I couldn’t look at him, and instead stared at the ground as I asked quietly, “Why did you come?”

  “I didn’t like how we left things.”

  I glanced up, studying his expression and seeing nothing but remorse.

  Stu raked a hand through his hair. “Andrea, listen I—”

  “Do you want to come in for tea?” I cut him off, feeling too raw to continue standing on my doorstep with a red post-crying face.

  “Yes,” he answered, his voice still soft. Maybe he thought that if he spoke normally I’d break down again. Now that my crying jag was over I felt more embarrassment creeping in.

  Busying myself with picking my keys up off the ground and opening the door, I led him inside the flat. The distinct tones of Rachmaninov echoed from Alfie’s room so I knew he was busy at work. He always listened to classical music when he painted. Seemingly hearing us come in, the music shut off and my cousin emerged from his room.

  There was dark blue paint in his hair and his fingers were stained black. I took this to mean he’d started working on the piece for Stu. He also had his laptop tucked under his arm, which made me think he’d come out to show me something. Really though, I was glad of his presence, because I felt like I needed a buffer. My emotions were too close to the surface.

  Alfie looked between the two of us, his concerned gaze falling on me the longest. “Andie, is everything okay? You look upset.”

  Before I could answer Stu spoke. “There was a piece-of-shit money collector outside coming the hard man with her. I ran him off.”

  “Oh,” Alfie exclaimed, his hand going to his heart. “Was it the same man from yesterday? I’ll admit I was too scared to answer the door when I saw him.”

  “Yes,” I said, nodding, “it was the same guy.”

  “Well, in that case I suppose thanks are in order,” he said to Stu somewhat warily. “I’m not sure what Andie would’ve done if you hadn’t been there.”

  I huffed at this, not liking the insinuation that I was a weak, defenceless little woman, even if admittedly, I had been a tad weak and defenceless.

  “No worries,” said Stu, noticing my tense posture. Sure, I’d just been crying my eyes out, but it wasn’t like I wouldn’t have survived the encounter if it weren’t for him. I just wouldn’t have had a soothing shoulder to cry on afterwards. No big deal.

  A moment of quiet ensued as I went to put the kettle on and Alfie perched himself on a stool by the counter. Stu went and took a seat by the window, his face etched with thought. What on earth was going through his mind now?

  “Pssst,” Alfie whispered over the noise of the kettle, gesturing for me to come closer.

  “What?” I mouthed.

  “Don’t you think we should help him? Not to be mean, but he doesn’t strike me as the sharpest tool in the shed. This Duke character could be setting him up. We should let him tell us his plan for the robbery, like I offered last night.”

  I frowned just as Stu spoke up. “I can hear you, you know.”

  Alfie wore a sheepish expression. “Sorry.”

  “And just so you know, I’m not as dumb as I look.”

  “You’re right, I apologise,” said Alfie, appearing embarrassed. “I’m afraid I fall victim to stereotyping from time to time. And you’re right, just because your muscles are big doesn’t mean your brain is small.”

  Stu tilted his head from side to side, like his neck was tense. “People always make the same assumption about me. I’m used to it.” The way he spoke made my chest ache, and I wished I could go over and give him a hug. Had people always judged him on the way he looked?

  “Yes well, most people are small-minded,” I said. “They don’t realise that there are many different kinds of intelligence.”

  “And that right there is why you’re such a wonderful teacher,” said Alfie. “You can find a talent in everyone.”

  Stu’s gaze heated as he watched me and I shifted from foot to foot. His expression gave me butterflies. I busied myself making us all tea as Alfie turned to ponder Stu.

  “So, would you like my advice?”

  “Your advice?”

  “About the robbery. If I’m honest, I’m quite eager to poke some holes in this plan of the Duke’s. In my opinion the best schemes are plotted when several heads knock together.”

  Stu rubbed his thumb across his lips, an action I founded strangely mesmerising. So much so that I almost spilled the milk I held, catching myself just in time.

  “You sure you won’t start going hysterical on me again? Last night was dramatic enough,” said Stu, eyes wary.

  “I promise. I might not like it but I’ve made my peace with the situation. For better or worse, we’re all in this for the long haul.”

  Stu eyed him a moment as I set Alfie’s cup down in front of him then carried the other over to Stu. Our fingers brushed when he took it, reminding me of how good it felt when he’d rubbed my back so soothingly. And yes, how good it felt when he’d kissed me at my parents’ house.

  “The Duke’s getting out in a month. That’s why he needs the money. He plans on hotfooting it over to the Seychelles where he can spend his days in the sun and his nights bedding all the East African beauties he can get his hands on.”

  “How delightfully extravagant and predictable,
Alfie sighed and I gave a light chuckle.

  Stu’s expression warmed at my laughter and I glanced away shyly, focusing on my teacup. “Well anyway, the bloke we’re ripping off is actually an old acquaintance of the Duke’s, goes by the name of Renfield.”

  “As in Dracula’s thrall?” Alfie scoffed. “That’s an unfortunate surname to get stuck with.”

  “Renfield’s a big deal, some kind of hedge fund millionaire and apparently a crazy art fanatic. He’s had the painting in his private collection since the early nineties, when he supposedly purchased it from the thieves who pulled off the museum heist. The Duke caught wind that Renfield was relocating from London to the United Arab Emirates. Trouble is, he’s going to have a hell of a time moving his collection of stolen art and antiquities across the pond. That’s where I come in.”

  I frowned past a sip of tea, my stomach churning as I listened to Stu speak. The whole thing just felt too real now Alfie and I were being held privy to the actual plan.

  “The Duke used his contacts to have me recommended to Renfield as a specialist trafficker. I’ve got to pose as some bloke whose job it is to transport contraband across country borders. I’ve been in contact with him for a while now, but we won’t meet in person until next week. That’s where I’m going to have to convince him I’m the real deal.”

  “And if you don’t?” I put in, scared for him. I had no idea what kind of nutcase this Renfield might be.

  “Then the whole thing is screwed, I imagine,” said Alfie before Stu could reply.

  “Pretty much,” Stu agreed.

  “So, if my skills of deduction prove correct, what you plan to do is transport the Duke’s items while replacing the real painting with my fake, yes?”

  “Yep.”

  “But what if you get caught?” I asked anxiously. “Even after you swap the paintings you still have a bunch of stolen art to transport all the way to Dubai or wherever he’s moving to. That’s a big risk to take.”

  Stu scratched his jaw, his expression torn. “The Duke says he’s organised for me to travel on a cargo ship that goes fucking everywhere before ending up in Malaysia, and from there I take another ship to Dubai, where Renfield’s men will collect the items.”

  “Sounds a little too simple, if you ask me,” said Alfie, his expression thoughtful. “I’ve a feeling you’ll have a much bigger problem getting into the UAE than this Duke is letting on. And of course he won’t care because he’ll have his painting by then. I’m sure I’m right when I say you don’t want to go back to prison, especially not some Middle Eastern prison where quite frankly you’ll stand out like a sore thumb, not to mention you don’t even speak the language.”

  Stu thought on this a moment before speaking. “So what you’re saying is I need to be one step ahead, right? Maybe I could pay somebody to transport the goods for me. Somebody who actually comes from the Middle East and understands what they’re dealing with.”

  “Precisely,” said Alfie.

  “Yeah, but how can I trust they’ll follow through?”

  “Simple. You don’t pay them until the job is done. I might be an artist but I’m the son of a businessman. Growing up for me was a series of deals that my father was constantly in the middle of.”

  Alfie’s voice grew detached for a moment. He never really spoke of his childhood because those years had been privileged but lonely. Also, even before they lost all their money, his dad had cheated on his mum countless times, turning her into a paranoid wreck. I was surprised Alfie lasted so long under her roof, since she wasn’t the easiest woman in the world to live with.

  “Think I’m gonna have to call in some favours, find someone who’s desperate for the money and willing to take the risk,” said Stu, his expression thoughtful.

  “That’s probably the wisest action to take. I certainly wouldn’t put myself through the risk of completing the journey.”

  My heart clenched at Stu’s predicament, and though I was still trying to convince myself I was angry with him, I worried. I worried what would happen if he couldn’t find someone to take on the job, because in my gut I couldn’t stand the idea of him going it alone.

  “Oh, before I forget,” said Alfie, opening up his laptop. “I made an interesting discovery today while studying the images the Duke provided.”

  Both Stu and I came to stand by him as he pulled up a picture file that showed a 3-D image of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Alfie zoomed in on the cracks in the paint. “When I did this before I never had actual images of the original like this. It’s fascinating the things that can’t be seen in ordinary prints. I’ve always known that unlike paintings done on wood panels where the cracks run in somewhat straight lines, on canvas it’s the exact opposite. The cracks form in concentric circles, with a secondary network of finer cracks that radiate from the centre and join the circles together like a spider-web.”

  He paused and zoomed again, this time rotating the image at an angle. “And see here, the cracks actually appear to be elevated. Fortunately, I have a few methods of replicating this effect so it shouldn’t be too difficult. My new discovery though, are these tiny little black and brown pinhead spots at the edges of the painting.” Now he zoomed to the far left of the piece. “All day I’ve been trying to figure them out, and with a bit of research online I managed to discover what they are.” He paused as though for dramatic effect.

  “Well, what are they?” I asked.

  “Ancient fly droppings!” Alfie exclaimed as though it was the most marvellous thing ever.

  “Lovely,” Stu deadpanned and I gave a light chuckle.

  “That’s kind of disgusting,” I said and Alfie frowned.

  “Oh, you’re no fun. I wish Jamie could be in on this with us. I’m sure he’d be just as excited as I am.”

  “Excited about fly poo. What is the world coming to?” I joked.

  “Well, I for one am looking forward to figuring out a way to replicate them,” said Alfie, sticking out his tongue at me. I smiled and walked over to the fridge.

  “I think I’ll make something to eat. Anybody hungry?”

  “Oh yes, I’m starved,” said Alfie, rising from his seat and heading for the door. “Call me when it’s ready.”

  Stu eyed his departing figure, a single brow raised. “He always treat you like that?”

  “Like what?”

  “Like you’re his mum.”

  I laughed. “You mean because he lets me cook for him? Believe me when I say nobody wants Alfie loose in the kitchen. He might be a genius with a paintbrush, but my cousin could manage to burn a ham sandwich.”

  Stu let out a quiet chuckle and stood, crossing the room to stand before me. I swallowed, my throat dry at his proximity. I turned and opened the fridge to check what food we had in, trying to ignore the awareness he provoked.

  “Are you staying to eat?” I asked shyly, not meeting his eyes. I could feel his heat as he approached again, this time standing behind me.

  “I should get going,” he replied, voice low.

  I nodded. “Okay, I guess I’ll see you in class then.”

  “See you in class, Andrea,” Stu whispered right before he pressed a kiss to the back of my neck. I closed my eyes, the sensation overpowering even though it was only a kiss. By the time I turned around to face him he was already gone.

  It was a shame his presence still lingered.

  Fourteen

  The rest of the week passed by and Shark Eyes never came back, probably because he didn’t want another encounter with Stu. But since I hadn’t managed to come up with the money I knew my interest rate had gone up. I just hoped this whole thing with the robbery worked out, because otherwise I was screwed. I could see myself having to move back in with Mum and Dad, selling my car and anything else I owned of worth.

  Each day Alfie worked on his painting. Stu still attended class, which was odd. I didn’t get it, nor did I understand the kiss from the other day. He wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t attracted to me, r
ight? But then, why had he been so distant ever since?

  Aside from during class, he hadn’t spoken to me at all. Now it was Saturday and I was spending the morning in the back garden we shared with the two other flats above us. The sun had decided to make an appearance, so I was making the most of it by marking papers outside. There was knock at the front door, and I heard Jamie announce his presence when Alfie let him in.

  Twenty minutes later, there was a second knock, and that had me puzzled. Admittedly, we didn’t really get guests aside from Jamie, but maybe my parents had decided to pay a visit. Smiling at the idea getting to see Mum and Dad after the week I’d had, I quickly set the papers under my sunhat so they wouldn’t blow away and headed inside.

  I stopped in my tracks when I entered the hallway and saw Stu standing at the door with Jamie.

  “Why, Andie, would you look at who decided to pay a visit? It’s Brad Pitt’s decidedly broodier younger brother,” he declared loudly and I winced a little.

  Stu glanced at me, his expression perplexed. He looked nothing like Brad Pitt, but I suspected that was the only handsome male celebrity Jamie could recall off the top of his head. It went to show just how long it had been since he’d picked up a gossip rag.

  “Well, don’t just stand there,” Jamie went on. “Come in.”

  Stu stepped inside, and I grew conscious of the fact that I was wearing cut-off jean shorts and a blue string vest. Since I had longer legs than most, I felt a little bit too bare.

  “I came to see how that, uh, thing is coming along,” said Stu, his gaze wandering over my aforementioned bare legs. His throat bobbed as he swallowed.

  “No need to be cryptic,” said Jamie, waving his hand in the air. “Alfie’s told me all about your arrangement and my lips are sealed.”

  Stu appeared agitated by the idea of Jamie, a virtual stranger, knowing about the robbery. He opened his mouth to say something, but I grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hallway and into my bedroom before he could speak. I heard Jamie chuckling and muttering, “Well, that’s one way to get a man in your bed.”

 
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