Thief of hearts, p.2
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       Thief of Hearts, p.2

           L.H. Cosway
 

  Funny, he didn’t sound like it. I wondered if the likes of Stu Cross ever learned their lesson. I was, however, relieved. At the back of my mind I’d been worried his crime might’ve been violent or sexual in nature. Stealing cars was bad, but at least it didn’t lean toward deviant behaviour.

  “How long were you in for?” Mary went on.

  Now Stu grew tense and a little defensive. “You writing a book, luv? Want to know what I ate for breakfast and the last time I took a shit, too?”

  “Just curious. No need to get your knickers in a twist,” Mary huffed.

  I could tell by the look on Stu’s face that he was two seconds away from saying something unfriendly, so I quickly cut in.

  “Well, like I said, this class is a judgement-free zone. We’ve all got a clean slate here.”

  Stu eyed me for a long moment, like he was trying figure out if I was full of crap. I wasn’t. My life was dedicated to helping others nowadays. It was the only way I could keep moving forward.

  I cleared my throat. “Anyway, we’d best start the morning’s lesson. How are you all finding the book?”

  Every month I gave the class a new book to read, assigning them a few chapters a night so we could have a discussion the next day. The first book I’d chosen this year was Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Yes, I’ll admit, it was a heavy read, but in my opinion, a worthwhile one. I favoured stories that gave you something to take away at the end, books that brought insight, or a different perspective.

  A few years ago I’d recommended the same book to Alfie. When he got to the ‘because we are too menny’ chapter, he’d stormed into my room at three in the morning, bawling his eyes out and telling me he hated me for ever suggesting he read it.

  I’d always been fascinated by stories like that, where words on a page could make you feel things as strongly as though the emotional trauma was happening in real life.

  “That Arabella’s some piece of work,” said Larry, pulling out his copy and plopping it down on the desk. “Known a few women like her in my time, let me tell you.”

  “Ah yes, the last few chapters were about Jude and Arabella’s wedding,” I said as I grabbed my own copy and walked around the desks to hand it to Stu.

  “She’s a manipulative cow,” Mary piped in. “And Jude’s a gullible fool for marrying her.”

  “You can borrow this. See if you can catch up over the next few days,” I whispered quietly to him. He seemed uncomfortable as he glanced at the novel. In fairness, he didn’t exactly strike me as a bookish type.

  “Just ’cos she wears hair extensions and makeup doesn’t make her a cow,” said Susan, pointing a finger in Mary’s direction. She was in her early twenties but had left school at fifteen. She was also one of the most outspoken members of the class. “Women like you are the reason feminism is dead. I bet you go around slut shaming girls just because they like to wear clothes that show off their bodies.”

  “Hey now, that’s not what I was saying at all,” Mary defended. “Women can dress any way they like. It’s their actions I judge, and that Arabella is taking advantage of Jude’s kind nature, pure and simple.”

  “My first wife was exactly like Arabella. Took me for every penny in the divorce,” said Larry.

  Mary shot him the side eye. “How many times you been married?”

  “Three,” Larry answered, like it was a perfectly reasonable number of times to have wed.

  I enjoyed listening to where their book discussions usually went, but in this case they were getting slightly off topic. “All right, all right, think about this question. In your opinion, what’s the role of Arabella’s character in the book?”

  “Her role is to be Sue’s opposite. If it weren’t for Arabella, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate quite how lovely Sue is,” said Kian quietly before blurting an unexpected, “shit!”

  “Good answer,” I said encouragingly, and our discussion continued. Stu didn’t contribute, and I was a little unnerved by how closely he watched me, unsure if it was simply because I was in his line of sight or if he was trying to suss me out somehow. Anyway, there was definitely some sort of calculation going on.

  I just couldn’t tell whether or not I should be concerned.

  Two

  Overdue.

  Final notice.

  Past due.

  When I arrived home that evening, I flicked through the bills that had arrived in the post with the usual mounting sense of dread. The feeling of being overwhelmed was always there, but I’d become adept at ignoring it and pretending it didn’t exist most of the time. Unhealthy? Yes. But really, it was the only way to sleep at night.

  “I don’t like the look of that frown,” said Alfie, and I startled. I hadn’t noticed him standing by the kitchen counter with a bowl of cereal in hand, so distracted as I was by the strongly worded letter.

  “And I don’t like the look of that dinner,” I countered in an effort to steer his attention away from the dire state of my financial affairs.

  I’d married young, barely twenty years old, tied the knot with my childhood sweetheart, starry-eyed and completely in love. Sadly, there was no fairy-tale ending for us. Mark was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at twenty-four and passed away six months later. It was a late diagnosis, and because of the rapid spread of his disease and urgent need for treatment, we’d decided to go private. Hence my current financial state.

  In the end I still lost him, my heart irrevocably broken into a million tiny pieces. Nowadays I managed to hold them together with haphazard duct tape and determination. In other words, I focused so hard on helping other people overcome their issues I didn’t have to think about my own.

  At just twenty-eight, I was in debt to the tune of almost fifty grand and a widow. Instinctively, my eyes flickered down to the diamond that still graced my ring finger.

  I couldn’t take it off. The very idea was emotionally traumatising. I knew it wasn’t a healthy way to deal with my grief, but some days it felt like the only way to keep living my life.

  “It’s more of a late lunch,” Alfie replied. “I only woke up a couple hours ago.”

  I sighed and dropped my keys onto the counter. “You’re going to have to regulate your sleeping pattern soon, Alfs. If you don’t, you’ll get sick.” My voice quavered with emotion. I had so few people left in my life, and I was terrified of losing them the same way I lost Mark.

  “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You know I can’t deal with your sad doe eyes,” Alfie huffed, sounding guilty. I immediately felt bad for making him feel bad. It was a vicious circle.

  “Don’t mind me. It’s been a rough day. Actually, would you mind pouring me a bowl of whatever that is?”

  Alfie nodded and a minute later we were both munching away in companionable silence. I’d once heard a dietician say cereal held all the nutritional goodness of cardboard, but God, it tasted so bloody good. Carbs and sugar were the food equivalent of getting a hug from a life-sized fluffy teddy bear.

  “So, what happened?”

  I glanced at Alfie, lost in my own thoughts. “Huh?”

  “At work. You said you had a rough day.”

  “Oh, right, yes. There was a new student, an ex-offender. He claims he was involved in a stolen car racket. Mary gave him a bit of a grilling.”

  Stu hadn’t said much after that initial introduction to the class. In fact, he’d continued to unnerve me with his silent attention. And despite the vague stirrings of attraction I’d felt, something told me his own interest wasn’t that way inclined. My gut said he was more interested in my purse than my knickers, and I hated myself for feeling that so instinctively. I never wanted to be judgemental, and I truly believed that everybody deserved a second chance.

  Alfie grew still and I instantly regretted telling him about Stu Cross. My cousin could be paranoid at times, and it was one of the reasons he was a virtual shut-in. He suffered from a mild anxiety disorder and trusted very few people, me being one of them. The only reaso
n for that was we’d known each other since birth. Needless to say, Alfie didn’t like the idea of me teaching an ex-criminal.

  “You didn’t give him your surname, did you?”

  “Of course I did. All the students know me as Miss Anderson, Alfie. It was unavoidable.”

  “But what if he looks you up or follows you home some day? What if he becomes obsessed and starts stalking you or something? You can’t trust people who’ve been to prison, Andie. You just can’t.”

  “Will you calm down? He’s not going to start stalking me. You’re letting your imagination run away with you.”

  “How can you know that? You don’t know what could happen.”

  Reaching across the counter, I grabbed his hand and reassured him earnestly. “I promise it won’t. I’ll be careful and make sure no one follows me home. Now, would you like to go visit Jamie before he closes up for the day?”

  Jamie was Alfie’s best friend, and we were both big fans of his book store, Novel Ideas, because it possessed a certain old-timey charm. The place had been handed down through the generations and was originally owned by Jamie’s great-grandfather. We’d known him for a few years, and I personally thought he and Alfie got along so well because they were such polar opposites. Unlike Alfie, Jamie was very open to people and experiences, and he lived life with a sort of enthusiastic ferocity you didn’t come across very often.

  My cousin’s eyes lit up. “Yes. Just let me go put some trousers on.”

  I didn’t even find it weird that he walked around in his underwear half the time. I was too used to his ways by now. About twenty minutes later we arrived at Jamie’s. We’d called ahead so he had tea and biscuits waiting. Obviously, he was good people.

  “How have you been, Andrea?”

  Let me get this out of the way. Jamie was eccentric with a capital E. The kind of eccentric who wore a corduroy three-piece suit with an antique gold watch in the breast pocket on a daily basis. Another of his eccentricities was insisting on calling people by their full names. I was always Andrea and Alfie was always Alfred.

  “Not too bad.”

  “Those banks haven’t sold your debt off to a third party yet, have they?”

  Oh, another thing? He had no compunction about bringing up subjects I’d rather not discuss in polite company. Also, yes, a portion of my loans had been sold off to a third party, one that wasn’t so polite when demanding I pay back their money. I’d been doing my best to pay as much as possible, but the salary of a further education teacher didn’t stretch very far.

  “No,” I lied, mostly for Alfie’s benefit because I didn’t want to worry him. I was sure he was already up half the night fretting over the possibility of a Third World War or a catastrophic nuclear event to rival Hiroshima.

  “Oh well, you should definitely keep an eye on your repayments. I read in the papers just yesterday about the unethical practices of these collection companies. They’re basically loan sharks in all but name.”

  “I will. Thanks for the heads-up,” I said and searched for a way to change the subject. I caught sight of a copy of Poldark Season One resting on the counter and asked, “Is that show any good? The female teachers at the college are always talking about it.”

  Jamie went and grabbed the DVD, holding it out to me. “It’s great. I just finished it, actually, so you can have this copy. I wouldn’t want you missing out on the topless Aiden Turner scenes. He’s the new thinking woman’s crumpet, after all.”

  I laughed and took the proffered case. “I’m sold. Looks like my weekend plans are all sown up.”

  Jamie winked. “Don’t thank me.”

  We sipped on our tea a moment before Alfie broke the silence. “Andie had a new student join her class today.” I could tell he’d been just itching to talk about it. “An ex-criminal, though you know what the statistics say about reoffending.”

  “There’s a twenty-six per cent chance those who get out of prison will reoffend, and an average of three point one offences per reoffender,” Jamie provided casually. The man had a mind like an encyclopaedia at times.

  “This is what I’m talking about,” Alfie exclaimed. “It’s not safe.”

  “Oh, will you please stop with this. He stole cars. If worse comes to worse my Nissan will be taken and the insurance company will have to fork out for a replacement.”

  “What if that’s a lie, though? What if it was something else? He could be a paedophile for all you know.”

  “Well, if that’s the case then he’ll have no interest in me.”

  Jamie let out a light chuckle while Alfie scowled at my logic. “You know what I mean,” he griped.

  “Yes, I do, and it’s nice that you care about me enough to worry, but it’s honestly fine. I’ve met dangerous men before, and Stu isn’t one of them. He just picked the wrong path in life. It could happen to any of us.”

  Alfie didn’t look convinced, and even Jamie appeared a small bit sceptical. If I was being honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.

  ***

  The following morning trouble arose when I started our daily book discussion. Although, let it be said I was already bothered by the fact that Stu had strolled into the class twenty minutes late with no apology. I made a note to have a word with him about it before lunch, because in my experience, once one person started arriving late, everyone else began to think it was okay to do the same.

  “Did you get a chance to start the book last night?” I asked, my question directed at Stu.

  His tone was casual as he shook his head. “Nah, too busy.”

  “Well, you’ll need to start finding the time for homework. You’re already behind since you’ve joined us three weeks late. If you leave it too long there’ll be no way to catch up.”

  “I’ll see what I can do, Miss Anderson.”

  That was another thing. He kept addressing me as “Miss Anderson”, but not in a respectful way. His tone was almost patronising, like he was trying to get a rise out of me. Obviously, I’d worked with my fair share of difficult students over the years and had an endless supply of patience. Unfortunately, there was something about Stu that already stretched my tolerance level.

  I continued on with the morning lesson, quietly working up the courage to call on Stu when the class let out for lunch. The closer it came to twelve thirty, the drier my mouth grew and the clammier my hands became. What was it about this man that made me so bloody flustered?

  The bell rang and everyone started packing up his or her things and heading out to the canteen for food.

  “Stu, can I have a word?” I asked as he rose from his seat. He stared me down for a long moment, then nodded.

  “Course you can, Miss Anderson,” he said, the hint of a smirk on his lips. Oh my effing gee. He was doing it again.

  “Thank you,” I responded, closing my laptop as I waited for the last of the students to leave. When they were gone and only Stu and I remained, a quiet descended. My stupid dry mouth got the best of me, and I couldn’t seem to find any words. Stu just stood there staring, waiting for whatever it was I wanted to say to him. His eyes traced my form and I grew stiff, especially when his eyes landed on my ring finger. His attention lingered there for a long moment in something akin to confusion, but I didn’t really understand why. Finally, I broke the quiet.

  “You were twenty minutes late this morning.”

  Stu raked a hand over the light stubble on his jaw. “That a problem?”

  I cleared my throat. “Yes. Please make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

  “Will do. Is that all?”

  “No,” I blurted.

  His gaze went to my wedding ring again, before moving up to my lips and then my eyes. I rubbed my palms on my trousers. Stu took a step closer, and the fact that he was standing over me while I was still seated made me feel at a disadvantage.

  “What then?”

  “You need to do the work I give you, otherwise there’s no point in you being here.”

  He le
t out sigh now, like he finally understood my irritation. “You’re pissed that I didn’t read the book.”

  “I’m not pissed. My job is to teach you, Stu. It’s my passion, and if I can’t help a student fulfil all their potential then there’s no sense in either one of us wasting our time. But look, I understand all this must be a big change for you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just tell me and we’ll take it slow. However, if you don’t want to learn then I’m not going to force you.”

  Stu stared at me for a long moment before a small smile graced his lips.

  “You know, this is the first time a woman has ever offered to take things slow with me.” He tilted his head, his smile turning flirtatious, and I really didn’t get why he was trying to avoid being serious. I wasn’t there to berate him and I only had his and the other students’ best interests at heart. Like I said before, one bad egg could spoil the lot.

  “You don’t have to deflect. There’s no judgement here.”

  Now he bent to lean his hands on my desk and look me directly in the eye. “I’m not deflecting, Miss Anderson, I’m flirting.”

  His voice was low and purposefully husky. I fought the urge to roll my eyes. It just felt stereotypical for the young worldly male student to use his wiles to flatter the plain, bookish teacher. Little did Stu know, I was impervious to wiles, nor did I have any real interest in the opposite sex. I hadn’t been interested in anyone since Mark, and I couldn’t imagine that changing. He had been my world. Irreplaceable.

  But you did feel attracted to Stu when he first arrived, a little voice in my head piped up.

  And yes, okay, that was technically true, but I put it down to being female, and Stu Cross was the sort of man all women reacted to, whether they were teenage girls or eighty-year-old grandmothers. He had sex appeal; it was as simple as that. Luckily, I was more or less unsusceptible to sex appeal. Sure, he gave me vague stirrings, but I wasn’t the sort of woman who dropped her knickers for vagueness.

  I let out a soft chuckle. “Here’s a life lesson for you, Stu. And I say this with absolutely no malice or hard feelings. The combination of young and female in a teacher does not equal naïve. Pretend flirting with me isn’t going to help you pass. What will help you pass is working with me, participating in class, and arriving on time in the mornings. I’ll always be respectful toward you, and I hope you’ll be respectful to me in return.”

 
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