Thief of hearts, p.20
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       Thief of Hearts, p.20

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  He’d changed out of the suit and now wore his typical ensemble of T-shirt and jeans. I much preferred him like this. Leaning down, he kissed the edge of my mouth. Butterflies took charge of my stomach.

  “You ready?”

  “Yes, just let me grab my things.”

  A few minutes later we were in his car on our way to his house. I noticed the neighbourhoods getting dingier as we travelled, which reminded me how the rich and poor lived in such different circumstances in London. I’d always been somewhere in the middle, not quite rich, not quite poor. In more recent times I certainly knew how it felt to be stretched thin financially, but it wasn’t like I’d ever gone hungry. Feeling nervous, I chewed on my fingernails, wondering what sort of welcome I’d receive.

  “Do your brothers know I’m coming?” I asked, my voice betraying my nerves.

  Stu nodded. “Yeah, but don’t worry. I told them you’re just a friend.” He reached over and took my hand in his, his thumb rubbing just beneath my ring. “Besides, if anyone asks you can just say you’re married.”

  A self-deprecating laugh escaped me. “I guess having emotional attachments to objects has its benefits.”

  “Hmmm,” Stu murmured, his expression contemplative.

  “What?”

  He seemed to weigh his words. “Do you ever think you’ll feel ready to take this off? Maybe put someone else’s ring on there?”

  My posture stiffened at his question, my stomach churning. It was far too early for him to be asking me questions like that. I pulled my hand out of his hold.

  “I don’t know,” I answered quietly.

  Stu didn’t say anything, but I felt him looking at me for a long moment before he settled his attention back on the road. When we reached his house I was just about ready to burst from the awkward silence, relieved to get out of the car. I looked up and down the street, trying not to judge how rough it looked. Stu pulled his keys from his pocket and opened the front door. I stepped inside, and the smell of barbecued meat drifting down the hallway made my mouth water.

  Unlike most of the street, Stu’s house was actually incredibly well looked after. Everything was new and modern, and it looked like the entire place had been gutted out and renovated. We bypassed the living room to enter a large, open-plan kitchen. It even had an island and one of those range-style cookers. Large sliding doors led out to the back garden where it appeared all the family had congregated.

  “Stu!” Trevor called, the first to spot us. “Come over here and tell Reya I’m right. Joker would kick Dare Devil’s arse any day of the week.”

  Stu placed his hand to the small of my back, his heat soothing even though I suspected he was still annoyed with me, and led me over to Trevor and his friend.

  “Sorry, Reya, but I have to side with my brother on this one. It doesn’t matter what character you put him up against, Joker always wins.”

  “Oh whatever. You two are biased,” said the woman. She was about my height, with long golden brown hair and similarly coloured eyes. I thought she might be Spanish, or maybe Italian.

  “Hi, I’m Andie. Stu’s friend,” I said, introducing myself.

  “She’s Stu’s teacher,” Trevor butted in, elbowing Reya in the side and shooting her a wink. She returned it with a look that told him to quit being a smart-arse. I liked her already.

  “Oh well, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Reya,” said the woman just as Trevor threw his arm around her shoulders.

  “She’s my best buddy, aren’t ya ReyRey?” He grinned widely, and she narrowed her gaze.

  “How many times do I have to tell you to stop calling me that? You know I hate it.”

  “And that’s why I’ll never stop.” He grinned before leaning in and licking the side of her face. Uh, okay. Reya squealed her displeasure and Trevor scarpered. She chased after him but he effortlessly jumped up onto the high wall at the back of the garden, like some kind of ninja.

  “The next time you do that I’ll string you up by the testicles,” she shouted. “Don’t think I won’t.”

  Trevor blew her a kiss. “Sure, sure, you love my testicles too much to ever do them harm.”

  “First of all, gross. Second of all, wanna try me?”

  I glanced at Stu. “Are they always like this?”

  He shrugged, his expression a little distant, even if his hand still lingered at the base of my spine. “Depends on what mood Trevor’s in.”

  “How did he manage to get up there so easily? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

  “He’s a traceur. We all are, actually. Or well, I used to be. I’m too old for all that nowadays, haven’t got the legs for it.”

  “Forgive my ignorance, but what’s a traceur?” I asked, embarrassed I didn’t know.

  “It’s someone who practices parkour. Ever heard of free-running?”

  “Oh! Yes, I have. Those people are incredible. You used to do that?” I had to admit I was impressed.

  Stu glanced away. “Yeah, when I was younger. Fucked my knee up in prison, so my legs can’t take the impact anymore.”

  “Don’t listen to him. He’s just gotten lazy in his old age,” came Lee’s voice. I turned to see him holding a spatula and wearing a chef’s apron. Just behind him was a fancy-looking barbecue, burgers sizzling away over the coals. He gave me a nod. “All right, Andie? You hungry?”

  “Very.”

  “Good. And it’s good to see you again. Sorry I was a nasty prick last time. Had my wires crossed.”

  “Oh, um, no worries,” I replied, not knowing what he meant about having his wires crossed.

  “Come on, let’s get a drink,” said Stu, his breath hitting my ear as he led me over to a deck table where the rest of his family were enjoying themselves. “You want me to fix you up another cocktail? Same as last time?”

  “No, that’s okay. Just give me whatever you’re having.”

  “So long as it isn’t whiskey, right?” He winked.

  I remembered him taking my glass at Renfield’s, drinking it for me. That had actually been quite a sexy move. And now I couldn’t stop looking at his lips.

  “Right yeah, can’t stand the stuff,” I said, a little too breathily.

  Stu shot me a heated look, like he knew what I was thinking. Then he grabbed me a beer, before proceeding to re-introduce me to his family members. There was his youngest brother, Liam, Lee’s wife, Karla, and their cousin, Sophie, and her two kids, Billy and Jonathan. I waved hello to everyone, smiling all the while and trying not to forget their names. Trevor and Reya came to join us, having called a truce to their bickering.

  Reya took the seat on the other side of me, and I noticed she smelled really nice, like vanilla pods. It must’ve been her perfume. Trevor sat on her other side, continually ribbing her in the same way he’d done before. I felt a little awkward when Stu went to help Lee with the food, sipping on my beer and just letting everyone else chat around me.

  “I’m pretty sure she isn’t,” I heard Stu saying to Lee.

  “Just go and ask her,” Lee urged.

  “Fine,” Stu grunted. “Andrea, you aren’t a veggie, are ya?” he asked while Lee snickered at him, crooning, “Oooooh, Andrea, is it? I’m fairly sure her name is Andie, ya posh prick.”

  Stu got him in a headlock for a second. “I call her Andrea, so shut it.”

  His attention came to me again once he was finished roughhousing with Lee. I shook my head. “No, I’m not a vegetarian.”

  He turned back to his brother. “See, I told you.”

  A few minutes later the food was served, and Stu returned to his seat next to me. I didn’t speak much, but that was mainly because everyone here was so chatty that I could hardly get a word in. I startled when Stu put his hand on my thigh midway through the meal, mainly because I hadn’t been expecting it. His fingertips were dangerously close to my inner thigh, and all of a sudden I wasn’t hungry for food anymore.

  I flicked my gaze to his, widening my eyes as a message for him to quit touc
hing me. He didn’t look at me, but his lips twitched once so I knew he was aware he was pushing his luck. Still, it didn’t stop him from moving his fingers back and forth in a caressing motion. They danced briefly over the apex of my thighs, and I sucked in a harsh breath.

  I swallowed, glancing across the table to find Lee studying me. For a second I thought he knew what was going on under the table, but I realised I was wrong when he spoke, his curious blue eyes on my ring.

  “You married, Andie?”

  My throat went dry as sandpaper. Finally, I summoned up the will to reply. “Oh, no my husband passed away.”

  Lee’s expression sobered as he swallowed a gulp of beer, his gaze going to Stu for a second. For some reason he didn’t look happy.

  “I’m sorry,” said Karla, her voice soft. “Was it recent?”

  I knew why she asked that. Obviously people would think Mark’s death wasn’t too long ago if I was still wearing my ring. I shook my head, embarrassed. “No, it’s been just over four years.”

  An awkward silence filled the table, and believe me, when you were dealing with a bunch as loud as the Cross family, silence was certainly unusual.

  “How’d he go?” Lee asked, his arm around his wife’s shoulders as he levelled me with a concerned look. It was almost . . . protective.

  “Cancer. Lymphoma,” I answered and then downed a long swig of beer.

  “My condolences. Cancer’s a fucking shitty way to go.”

  I let out a breath. “Yeah, it is.”

  Everyone was watching me then, which was probably why I felt the urge to escape. Rising from my seat, I said, “I’m just going to use the bathroom.”

  Stu made a move to follow me. “I’ll show you where—”

  I stayed him with a hand. “It’s fine. I’m sure I can find my own way.”

  “First door at the top of the stairs,” said Lee, and I shot him a thin but grateful smile. When I was safely ensconced in the bathroom, I leaned back against the door and exhaled deeply. My face was red, and my heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t take their pitying looks. I hated it when people felt sorry for me. It often made me feel sad all over again, made me wish he was still alive.

  I stared down at my hand and twisted the ring around and around in a way that soothed my nerves. Why couldn’t people just accept the fact that I still wore it? It was just a piece of jewellery and it wasn’t like me wearing it was causing anyone else harm.

  But then I thought of Stu in the car and how he’d been upset by my response to his question about wearing someone else’s ring in the future. Maybe I was hurting him and I didn’t even realise it. But surely Stu wasn’t thinking that far into the future with us. He barely knew me, and I didn’t really know him either. Was this about the ring and its place in my life, or the future I had never considered before? Could I remove it? Would I consider another man’s ring on my finger?

  I ran my hands under the cold tap, took a few deep breaths, then headed back downstairs to re-join the others. I could hear their voices as I entered the kitchen, and when my name was mentioned I paused just shy of the doorway to listen.

  “She’s clearly vulnerable, Stu, and seems like a good person. I just wouldn’t like to see her get hurt.” This was Lee.

  “I’m not going to hurt her,” Stu grunted his reply.

  “How do you know? You haven’t been yourself for a while now. You’re vulnerable, too.”

  “Fuck off.”

  “Don’t swear in front of the kids,” Sophie scolded.

  “Sorry, but he needs to mind his own business,” Stu said.

  “You’re my brother. You are my business. And maybe she’s not the only one I’m worried about. You’ve been through the ringer yourself. What if she hurts you?”

  “She won’t, because like I already told you, we’re just friends. Now can you please shut up? She’ll be back down any second.”

  “Fine, but we’re not done discussing this,” Lee said.

  “Did you make your baked Alaska for dessert?” Karla asked, clearly trying to distract her husband.

  “Course I did,” Lee answered. “I know it’s your favourite.”

  I waited another minute or two before stepping out into the garden to make sure they didn’t suspect me of eavesdropping. I was still self-conscious though, especially since it seemed Lee could see right through my façade. But how did he think I could hurt Stu?

  “You all right?” Stu asked quietly as I sat back down beside him.

  I nodded. “I’m fine.”

  He studied me, his eyes tracing my features. “My family can be a nosy lot when the mood takes them. Don’t feel like you need to answer their questions. Just do like I do and tell ’em to eff off.”

  I giggled softly at this and Stu smiled, seemingly happy he’d made me laugh. The rest of the meal wasn’t so bad, and no one else asked me any personal questions. About two beers later I was sitting with Karla, Reya, and Sophie. The brothers took turns shooting hoops at the basketball net affixed to the wall at the other end of the garden. There was some kind of wager going on, but I was too busy chatting with the girls to know what was at stake.

  Sophie, who had just put the kids to bed, was telling us about the guy she was currently seeing. “He’s just . . . so lovely,” she beamed. “And he doesn’t seem at all put off by the fact that I have children because he already has one of his own from a previous relationship.”

  “That’s probably because he’s older. Older men are more mature in that sense. It’s the young ones that freak out over stuff like that,” said Karla.

  “Yeah but, you’re married to a younger man,” said Sophie. “And it’s all worked out well enough for you.”

  “Lee’s younger than you?” I asked, intrigued.

  She shrugged. “Only by three years. And besides, there were never any kids between us. It’s a whole different ball game when children are involved.”

  “Oh, come on. Lee might as well have been a father of three when you first met,” Reya joked, grinning. “I still think Trevor has the mental age of a four-year-old sometimes.”

  “Ugh, don’t even get me started,” said Sophie. “You didn’t have to grow up with the boy. He was worse when he was kid, more energy than five Jack Russell Terriers combined.”

  This made me laugh, and I lifted my beer and drained the last of it. I hadn’t noticed him approach, but suddenly Stu took the empty bottle from me and pulled me up from my chair. The girls were still engrossed in their chat and didn’t notice him pull me away.

  “Where are you taking me?” I asked as he led me inside the house.

  “Thought you might be interested in seeing my bedroom.”

  “Um, no, not really,” I replied even though my belly was all-aflutter at the idea of being alone with him. I was less inhibited now I’d had a few drinks.

  He chuckled, the sound low and sexy. “You keep telling yourself that, luv.”

  Leading me upstairs, he pushed open the door to a small bedroom. There was only a neatly made-up bed and a chest of drawers for furniture, nothing else.

  “Wow, now I get it. I couldn’t possibly leave without seeing this shining example of interior design,” I teased.

  Stu slammed the door shut then flung me back against it. “Somebody’s feeling mouthy,” he whispered. “Let’s see what else you can do with that smart tongue of yours.”

  His lips crashed against mine, hard and unrelenting. I moaned and fisted my hands in his T-shirt, pulling him close so his body practically moulded into mine. He gripped my backside, gave it a firm squeeze then lifted me effortlessly off the floor. I wrapped my legs around his hips and his erection pressed into me, the friction sending bolts of desire shooting through my system. How could I be so hot for him already? We’d just had sex mere hours ago and yet here we were, desperate for each other again.

  Stu carried me over to his bed, dropped me down on the mattress and made quick work of unbuttoning my jeans. He slid his hand inside my underwear, fingeri
ng my wetness as his mouth crashed into mine again. I gasped when his thumb rubbed my sensitive clit, arching my spine with need. A little whimper escaped me when he broke the kiss, his hand leaving me as he rose to his knees and stared down at me.

  “Let’s take a look at you,” he murmured and proceeded to undress me piece by piece.

  I lay there, my every pore tingling, as Stu pulled off my jeans and my top. When only my knickers remained, he was still fully clothed, his gaze raking possessively over my body.

  “This isn’t fair. Why haven’t you taken anything off?” I complained as I held my arm across my breasts, self-conscious.

  “I told you, I want to look,” said Stu, grabbing my arm and pulling it away from my body. “And stop hiding. There’s not a single part of you that isn’t perfect.”

  “Stu?”

  “What is it, luv?”

  “I want to look at you, too.”

  At this his mouth shaped into a pleased smirk as he grabbed the hem of his T-shirt and lifted it above his head. “Well, it’d be mean of me to refuse, now wouldn’t it?”

  “V-very mean,” I agreed, feeling breathless as I took in his body. I didn’t think I’d ever seen anything sexier than a topless Stu Cross reaching down to undo his belt buckle. His arms were toned and muscular, his abs ripped and leading down to a delectable V. He. Was. Incredible. It had been different in the car, because there was less room and we’d still had half our clothes on. Now we were in a bedroom, getting completely naked and I suddenly felt like a nervous virgin or something. Ridiculous.

  Though saying that, only one other man had ever seen me naked, so maybe I had a right to be nervous.

  “Andrea,” said Stu, a note of concern in his voice.

  “I’m fine.”

  “You look like you’re about to do a runner.”

  I bit out a shaky laugh. “You’re just very, um, fit. I’m feeling a little self-conscious of all my jiggly bits.”

  Stu grinned and reached for my hips. “I love all your jiggly bits.” Dipping his head down, he sucked one of my nipples into his mouth. “Especially these ones,” he continued, mouthing my breast.

 
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