Thief of hearts, p.18
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       Thief of Hearts, p.18

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  “Don’t worry,” said Stu, glancing at himself in the mirror over the mantelpiece. “I’m not Freddy McGonagall. I know what I’m doing.”

  “Freddy Mcwho?” asked Alfie, puzzled.

  “Freddy McGonagall was my cellmate. Also Britain’s dumbest criminal, though in fairness, he was a junkie at the time, so you can’t really blame him for the dumb part.”

  “What was his crime?” I asked, strangely curious.

  Stu scratched at his stubble. “He used to take out low-end hits to pay for his drugs. Set out to do a job high as a kite, took a bloody taxi to the location, boasting to the driver all the way there that he was going to kill some well-known gunrunner. In the end they got him from fingerprints on the bullets. Silly prick loads up his revolver with his bare hands then slips on a pair of leather gloves afterwards, wouldn’t want to leave any evidence, after all.”

  “Oh my God, that’s so tragic it’s almost funny,” said Alfie.

  “World’s full of ’em.” Stu sighed.

  “Yes well, we’d better get going,” I cut in, glancing at the clock.

  I was antsy to get a move on, even if we ended up arriving early. Really, I just wanted to get the whole thing over and done with. Stu approached me, his gaze soft as he lifted his hand as though to cup my cheek and ease my anxiety. Instinctively I stepped away to avoid it, conscious that Alfie was still in the room. Stu frowned, a brief look of frustration marking his features.

  “After you,” he said, voice tight as he gestured for me to lead the way. I grabbed my handbag and went outside, the cool air soothing my frazzled nerves.

  “Sorry about that,” I apologised when he opened the passenger side door of the BMW for me. “Alfie doesn’t know about us yet, and I’m not ready to tell him.”

  “No worries,” Stu replied stiffly.

  My gut sank at the realisation that I’d hurt his feelings. He started driving and I just wanted to climb astride him and kiss him until he forgave me. A pity it’d ruin my makeup. I pulled open the overhead mirror to check my appearance, unable to remember the last time I’d worn so much foundation and eyeliner. It was good though. I looked like a completely different person, unrecognisable from my usual self.

  “Stop fussing. You look perfect. Do you remember our story?”

  I nodded. “Yes. I’m the business manager, you’re the hands on the ground, as it were.”

  “Exactly. Anyway, just let me do most of the talking. If we're lucky, Renfield will be too distracted by how tight your blouse is to realise the bullshit I’m peddling.” Now he shot me a smirk, and I was relieved he wasn’t still pissed at me. “Let’s just hope he prefers blondes.”

  “Don’t all men?”

  Stu shook his head, his expression heating. “Like brunettes myself, always have.”

  I blushed and focused on the road ahead. When we arrived at Renfield’s my nerves really kicked in. How was Stu so calm? I found an unopened bottle of mineral water in the glove compartment and knocked back a long gulp. Stu squeezed my knee.

  “You’re going to be fine,” he murmured, his deep voice reassuring me more than anything else could.

  We exited the car and approached the house, where we had to be buzzed in. What I assumed was the modern-day version of a butler opened the door to us, wearing a dapper suit with a red tie.

  “Mr Kennedy and Miss Jordan,” the butler greeted in an overly posh accent, using the fake names we’d given. “Mr Renfield has been expecting you.”

  “How do,” said Stu, cheekily tipping his imaginary top hat to the guy. Was he seriously taking the piss right now? The butler just about managed to hide his displeasure. I shot Stu a wide glance but he only winked at me. Then I got it. This was exactly how he should be acting. After all, if we were making jokes then we couldn’t possibly be nervous, right? Couldn’t possibly have anything to hide.

  We were led into a large study, the walls lined with bookshelves. Renfield stood from his chair and came to shake our hands. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but he looked very normal, like any ordinary fifty-something-year-old man on the street. Though his clothes were clearly expensive.

  “Mr Kennedy,” he said, shaking with Stu. “And Miss Jordan, it really is a pleasure to meet you both.”

  Stu and I spoke simultaneously.

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too.”

  “Likewise.”

  A moment of awkwardness ensued, Renfield glancing between us. I plastered on an expression as if to say, happens all the time, and our host quickly moved things along.

  “Please, take a seat. Can I offer either of you a drink? A little tipple, maybe?”

  I shared a quick look with Stu, both of us remembering Alfie’s warning.

  “No, thank you,” I declined, plastering on a bland smile.

  “Yeah, I’m good, too. But thanks,” said Stu.

  “Well then, I suppose we should get down to business,” Renfield declared, clasping his hands together. “Miss Jordan, I believe you’ll be taking care of planning the transportation and route, while Mr Kennedy here will be doing the groundwork. Now, I have it on good authority that you’re both the best in the field, but can I please have full disclosure? Have there ever been any hiccups in the past? I only ask because the cargo I wish to have transported is very precious to me and I want to know of any possible issues in advance so we can plan to avoid them.”

  “We’re generally fine leaving the port. It’s arriving at Port Klang and transferring onto the next ship where the trouble could come in. I’ve got men on both ships, and a friend at customs in Dubai who’ll grant me clearance,” said Stu.

  “We’ve completed over fifty transfers to the United Arab Emirates in the past two years,” I felt compelled to add. “All of them without a hitch.”

  Renfield’s attention came to me, his shrewd gaze taking me in, and I immediately regretted opening my mouth. “Forgive me, but you look vaguely familiar, Miss Jordan. Have we met before?”

  I tensed, unsure where this was coming from. We definitely hadn’t met before. Either it was an interrogation technique or in my current guise I resembled someone he knew.

  “I don’t believe so,” I answered.

  “Are you quite sure? Your accent is from Surrey, correct? I have a lot of acquaintances in that area. Perhaps our paths have crossed at some soiree or other.”

  I gave a soft laugh, though it was completely fake. “Perhaps.”

  “Who’s to say when libations have been taken, am I right?” Renfield chuckled. I sort of wanted to laugh at his use of ‘libations’ in regular conversation. The only time I ever came across that word was when I was reading the classics.

  “I can hardly remember my own name, never mind the folks I’ve met after one too many glasses of wine,” he went on, obviously finding himself completely hilarious. Stu’s eyebrow rose slightly.

  “Oh, I’ve been there myself a time or two,” I said, humouring him.

  Renfield smiled at me widely, his face taking on a look of interest that I didn’t immediately recognise. It was only when his eyes travelled along my breasts, lingering on my hips that I realised he was checking me out. Stu glanced between us, seemingly coming to the same conclusion. His posture stiffened.

  Renfield leaned forward slightly. “Tell me, Miss Jordan, do you enjoy art?”

  “Oh, very much so.”

  “Do you have a favourite artist, or a favourite style, perhaps?”

  “I’m quite fond of the impressionists, Cezanne in particular, though technically he was a post-impressionist,” I answered.

  “Ah yes, when it comes to the impressionists I’m a purist, I’m afraid. It’s Monet all the way,” said Renfield, laughing boisterously. I chuckled and feigned amusement. Stu was staying strangely silent, and I could’ve been mistaken but I thought he was a little irritated at how Renfield was flirting with me.

  “Are you a fan of cubism? I have a Picasso in my collection that I’d love to show you sometime.”

&n
bsp; “Oh,” I said, pretending to be flattered, “that would be amazing.”

  “Is that one of the pieces you want us to transport?” Stu asked, his voice holding a note of derision. I stiffened, hoping Renfield didn’t pick up on it.

  “No, no, the Picasso will be travelling with me. The purchase of that piece was all above board. It’s my other more precious cargo that I’ll be entrusting you with,” he answered, his gaze almost dismissive. When he looked back at me he was smiling again, all charm. “Now, might we discuss the matter of payment? I know, such a pesky topic when we could be chatting about our beloved artists, but I would like to come to an agreement on a figure.”

  “Of course,” I answered as he picked up a pen and a piece of paper and scribbled something down. He slid it across the table to me. I picked it up and tried not to gape at the sum. He was going to pay us one hundred thousand pounds, or more specifically, he’d be paying whoever Stu convinced to do the job. Our money would be coming from the eventual sale of the painting.

  I wondered why the Duke didn’t plan to take any of Renfield’s other pieces, but then, that was the beauty of the con. Rembrandt was probably the only artist in his collection that Alfie could successfully imitate, their styles being so similar. Renfield would probably never discover that the painting he owned was a fake, and if he did it could be years down the line.

  I passed the paper to Stu and he nodded. “Looks about right.”

  “Wonderful,” said Renfield. “Now, are you sure you both won’t join me in a drink to toast a successful arrangement?”

  “I’ll take a whiskey if you have it,” said Stu and I resisted the urge to nudge him and remind him of Alfie’s warning. There was a calculation in his eyes, though, which led me to believe the drink was purposeful. Renfield’s attention came to me, that flirtatious grin back in place. “And you, Miss Jordan?” he asked expectantly.

  “She’ll have a whiskey, too,” Stu answered for me. I wanted to grimace because I hated dark liquors, but I didn’t want to kick up a fuss and continued smiling my false smile. Renfield opened his cabinet, pulling out three glasses alongside an expensive-looking bottle of Scotch. He poured some for each of us and we toasted before taking a sip.

  Ugh, I didn’t care how much it cost, it tasted disgusting. Where was a spittoon when you needed one?

  “By the way, Miss Jordan, or can I call you Rebecca?” Renfield enquired, sidling up to me. He was several inches shorter, but unlike most men he seemed pleased by the fact. Over his shoulder I saw Stu shooting him a narrowed-eyed glare, lifting his glass to his mouth and knocking it all back before discreetly pouring himself another. Since Renfield was so focused on me he didn’t notice. I widened my eyes infinitesimally to try and urge him to act normal.

  “Of course you can,” I replied.

  “And you can call me Kenneth,” he continued. “Rebecca, the offer to view my Picasso still stands. In fact, I’d like to take you out to dinner sometime, too. What do you say?”

  I opened my mouth, then closed it, trying to come up with a polite way to decline.

  In the end I didn’t have to because Stu spoke for me, pointing his glass in the direction of my wedding ring. “She’s married.”

  Damn, he really needed to stop sounding so angry or this whole meeting was going to go belly up pretty quickly.

  “My apologies,” Renfield exclaimed. “I didn’t realise. Since you go by ‘Miss’ I just assumed—”

  “No, it’s my fault. I’m newly married, and I still haven’t gotten used the whole ‘Mrs’ thing yet,” I joked. “I’m sure it’ll stick eventually.”

  “Yes, yes, let’s hope,” said Renfield, tipping his glass to his mouth with a vague look of disappointment. This was so weird.

  Renfield left my side and went to return the Scotch bottle to the cabinet. While his back was turned Stu plucked my still-full glass from my hand and downed it in one. When he was done he gave it back to me, and I had to admit I was impressed by his ability to down it so quickly. I was also glad not to have to drink it myself.

  When Renfield brought his attention back to us I placed my empty glass down on the table and thanked him for the delicious drink.

  “It really has been a pleasure to meet you,” I said.

  “We’ll be in touch with dates and times for the transportation,” said Stu as Renfield led us to the door.

  “Very well. And it was a pleasure to meet you both, too. Rebecca, if you ever get bored with that husband of yours, you know where to find me,” he said, casting a final appreciative glance my way. It made me feel a little ill, if I was being honest, and it wasn’t until we got to the car that I felt like I could breathe again.

  Eighteen

  Stu pulled away from the house as I undid the first two buttons on my blouse, feeling too hot. I also leaned forward, using the overhead mirror as I carefully removed my contact lenses, because they’d started to itch. After that we were quiet for a couple of minutes and my nerves slowly subsided.

  “I can’t believe we pulled that off,” I said finally.

  He didn’t respond, his jaw firm as he stared dead ahead. I thought maybe he was just trying to concentrate on driving, but then I noticed the stiff line of his shoulders and the way he fisted the steering wheel.

  “Stu, are you all right?”

  It took him a moment to answer. “Pervy old bastard had his eyes all over you,” he grunted.

  My stomach tightened at his tone. I didn’t like it when he was angry.

  “Well, you did say you hoped he’d be distracted by my outfit, and it worked to our advantage in the end, didn’t it? He believed us.”

  “Doesn’t mean I’ve not still got half a mind to go back there and punch him in the face for coming onto you like that. I mean, I was sitting right there.”

  “Stu. It’s not like I could do anything about it. We needed to keep him sweet.”

  “You kept him a little too sweet, if you ask me.”

  “Oh my God, now you’re just being ridiculous. And what was with you slugging back all that whiskey? Didn’t we agree we weren’t going to accept any offers of drinks?”

  “It would’ve come across dodgy if we said no. You have a drink once the deal is done, that’s how it works.”

  “But you didn’t just have one drink, you had at least three. I’m not even sure you should be driving.”

  He scoffed at this. “I’m nowhere near drunk, luv. I would’ve had to down the entire bottle for that.”

  His dismissive tone got my back up, and I folded my arms across my chest. Stu’s eyes followed the movement, lingering on the open buttons on my blouse. I made a show of doing them back up. His jaw worked as he focused back on the road.

  “If I hadn’t cut in, would you have taken him up on his offer?” he asked gruffly.

  “Are you being serious right now? He’s old enough to be my father.”

  Stu shrugged. “Some women are into that. I’m sure Renfield would be more than happy to pay off your debts in exchange for a few nights with you.”

  I gaped at him, outrage building. “That’s it. Let me out of the car. I’ll make my own way home.”

  He ignored me and kept on driving.

  “Stu! I mean it. Stop the car right now. I won’t sit here and listen to you talk to me like that.”

  “No.”

  I huffed out a breath. “Why are you acting so jealous? You don’t honestly believe I have any interest in Renfield, do you?”

  “He can offer you a fuck of a lot more than I can.”

  Was that insecurity behind his aggression?

  “Well, it’s a good thing I’m not interested in people for what I can gain from them. Although the fact you think I can be bought says a lot about how you see me,” I replied, my voice hard. His insinuation seriously infuriated me.

  At this he let out a long, exasperated sigh. “That’s not . . . shit, Andrea, that’s not how I see you.”

  “Then why did you say it?”

  He ran a
hand over his jaw. “Because I’m a dickhead.”

  I didn’t say anything to that, because quite frankly I agreed with him. Stu continued driving, our argument at a standstill. I honestly couldn’t tell if he really believed I was flattered by Renfield’s interest, or if it was simply his jealousy making him speak out of turn. After a few minutes I realised he wasn’t going in the right direction for my flat.

  “This is the wrong way. Where are we going?”

  “Said I’d take you for a spin.”

  “Well, I don’t want to go for a spin anymore. I want to go home.”

  “Too bad.”

  “Stu, turn this car around right now or I’m going to start shouting.”

  “Just relax.”

  “No, I won’t relax until you apologise for how you spoke to me just now.”

  We were driving through a leafy area, one of London’s many parks, but I wasn’t familiar with the neighbourhood. Stu let out a growly sigh and pulled the car to a stop in an empty spot, shrouded from view by a number of bushes and tall trees. I didn’t see anyone about, but I imagined there’d be dog walkers and joggers happening by sooner or later.

  “I’m sorry. I just . . . I hate it when other men look at you.” He sighed, and it sounded like it took a lot for him to admit it.

  I was sure my expression portrayed my bewilderment. “Well, it’s a good thing men don’t look at me very often, and when they do it’s only because my outfit is so tight it’s fit to burst, and I’m wearing a blonde wig.”

  I thought injecting some humour into the conversation might lighten things up a little. I was wrong.

  “That’s bullshit. Kian’s constantly staring at you in class like a lovesick puppy. Gets on my nerves.”

  “Not this again. Kian likes me as a teacher and I like him as a student. There’s nothing more to it. Besides, I thought you two were friends.”

  “Yeah well, sometimes I want to tell my friends to stop mentally undressing my woman.”

  I sucked in a breath, not knowing whether to continue being angry or to melt at him calling me his woman.

 
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