Thief of hearts, p.22
Thief of Hearts, p.22L.H. Cosway
Be my soft place to fall. I need you. If only he knew how much I needed him too now.
My breathing turned erratic, my heart pounding faster. I wanted to say something to express what I felt inside, but before I could utter a word he bent and pressed a kiss to my lips.
“I guess this is where shit gets real.”
I barely slept all week knowing the robbery was imminent. There was a lump in my throat and a brick in my gut that I couldn’t seem to shift.
“So, today’s the day?” Alfie asked anxiously. He eyed me sitting by the kitchen window, staring outside as though searching for the answer to some unknown question.
“Yep,” I replied, lifting my mug and taking a sip of tea. Ugh. I’d been lost in my head for so long it was cold.
“When will we know if he got the painting?”
I glanced at the clock. “In a couple hours.”
“And where is Stu planning on storing the piece before he hands it over to the Duke?”
“I’m not sure. He didn’t say.”
“You never thought to ask him?”
“Alfie, why all the questions? It shouldn’t be any concern of ours where the painting is kept so long as it’s safe.”
My cousin hopped anxiously from foot to foot, chewing on his lip as though he wanted to say something but was unsure how I’d react.
“Oh, just spit it out,” I urged. I was way too stressed to humour his weirdness today.
“Well,” he began tentatively, “I mean, I feel like I’ll regret it the rest of my life if I don’t at least ask, but . . . um, what I mean to say is, I was wondering if you could convince Stu to bring the painting here first. This will probably be my only chance to ever see it in the flesh, and I’d just like to spend a few minutes alone with it.”
It was his earnest expression that did me in. Alfie was a lifelong lover of Rembrandt, so I understood how much it meant to him to see the real painting. After all, he’d spent weeks labouring over the replica. The least we could do was allow him a few brief moments to appreciate the original.
My features softened as I told him, “I’ll call Stu and see what he says. But if it’s too risky I won’t push the matter. You’ll just have to accept that it’s not possible.”
Alfie’s grin spread wide across his face as he hurried over to give me a hug. “Thanks, Andie. I won’t forget this.”
One long phone call later (Stu took some convincing), we sat down in the living room and waited for him to arrive with the piece. Only ten minutes passed when my phone rang and I practically dove to answer it, thinking it was Stu calling to say something had gone wrong. But it wasn’t him. It was Karla. For some reason seeing her name on the screen had my heart pounding fast. I remembered how we’d exchanged numbers all those weeks ago, but why was she calling me now?
Had she found out what Stu was doing today? The fact that she was a policewoman only made matters worse. Alfie eyed me curiously as I took a deep breath and answered the call.
“Hi Andie,” Karla replied. She sounded stressed. “I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch, but Stu and Lee had a massive fight this morning, and we’re really worried about him.”
“Oh. What sort of fight?” I put my hand to my chest and anxiously rubbed.
“It actually happened out of nowhere. Lee asked him if he wanted to go play a game of football with a few of their mates and Stu said no. When Lee pushed him to come he literally just snapped and lost his temper. He stormed out of the house angry, so Lee and I followed him to try and make amends. He won’t answer our calls, either. We thought he was going to go see you but then he stopped into a car rental company and drove off in a transit van.”
Oh, God. This was bad. This was so, so bad.
“Um, well, he never came by my place,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
“Yes, we know that. We followed him to a really fancy residential area in Hampstead Heath. He just went inside one of the houses.”
This wasn’t just bad. It was catastrophic. Lee and Karla couldn’t be at Renfield’s. They were going to ruin everything. Before Alfie could ask what was going on I ran to my bedroom and shoved some makeup and Jamie’s blonde wig into my handbag. A second later I was out of the flat, the door slamming shut behind me as I hurried to my car.
“Do you have any idea what he’s up to?” Karla went on. “Because this has dodgy written all over it.”
I coughed and tried to think of an explanation. Make something up, my brain urged, anything. Why was I so bad at lying? “Oh yes, actually, that’s my uncle’s place. He’s moving and Stu offered to help him with his furniture.”
“Are you sure?” She didn’t sound convinced.
“Yes. I’m on my way there right now, because I, uh, I offered to help, too.” God, could I sound any more nervous? The way my voice echoed back to me told me I was on speakerphone.
“I’m going over,” I heard Lee mutter. “Something doesn’t add up. Look at all the security cameras.”
“Don’t go over,” I blurted, my pulse racing as I put my foot on the gas. “My uncle, he’s well, he’s very paranoid. That’s why there are so many cameras. If you just wait a few minutes until I get there, I’ll go inside and get Stu for you. But I promise, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Karla let out a long sigh, and I couldn’t tell if she was buying my story. I hated that I had to lie to them, but today was the worst day they could’ve picked to follow Stu. We needed everything to run as smoothly as possible, and if Renfield saw them he was liable to get suspicious and call the whole thing off.
“Okay, we’ll wait for you,” said Karla. “But we’re not leaving until we talk to Stu. Lee wants to make sure he’s okay.”
“All right, see you in a bit,” I replied and hung up. I chewed on my bottom lip and put my phone on hands-free to dial Stu. I’d been so stressed by Karla’s call that I hadn’t even realised I’d been talking and driving at the same time. Frustratingly, all I got was Stu’s voicemail. His phone was off. Wonderful.
I got stuck in traffic halfway there, though at least it gave me enough time to throw on some makeup. When I finally arrived, Lee and Karla were parked just across the street. I cut my engine and hurried over to them. Lee rolled down his window and I bent to speak, trying to keep a calm façade. “Hi you two. I’m just going to run over and get Stu. My uncle’s a little, um, eccentric. He doesn’t like strangers in his house so it’s probably for the best if you stay out here.”
Lee eyed me like he was trying to figure out why I was acting weird. “That’s some rich uncle you’ve got.”
I nodded and plastered on a smile. “Yes, it’s too bad he’s not big into sharing the wealth.”
Karla was quiet, which only made my nerves worse. She was too shrewd not to notice something was up, especially considering what she did for a living. I just hoped my false breeziness was convincing.
I cleared my throat. “Right, well, I’ll be back in a minute.”
I walked across the street to Renfield’s, first stopping just shy of the security cameras and out of sight of Lee and Karla so that I could pull on the wig and slip on some sunglasses to cover my eyes. My hair had been up in a bun so the wig slid on easily enough. I just hoped it looked okay because I didn’t have a mirror on me to check.
This was officially the most surreal day of my life.
When I pressed the button to be let in, I was immediately answered by the butler. I told him I needed to see ‘Mr. Kennedy’ and that it was urgent. He quickly buzzed me through and I entered the walled garden and driveway. Stu was busy loading carefully packed boxes into the transit van. Several questions flashed across his face when he saw me, and his accusing expression spoke volumes.
What the hell are you doing here?
I swallowed and calmly approached him, wary of a few other members of Renfield’s household staff puttering about. Keeping my voice as quiet as I could, I said, “Lee and Karl
Stu’s features hardened as he took in what I said. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could speak Renfield stepped out of his house. He looked delighted to see me.
“Miss Jordan, or should I say Mrs Jordan? What a pleasant surprise,” he greeted and stepped forward to take my hand in his. He lifted it to his mouth for a kiss then lowered it. “What brings you here?”
After he asked the question I noticed the steel behind his smile. He was suspicious, and he had every right to be. Come on, brain, don’t fail me now.
“I just found out that there’s a police check on the original route I planned for Mr Kennedy to take to the port,” I said. It was the first excuse that sprung to mind. “I tried calling him to advise on a different direction to take, but I couldn’t get through. I apologise for just turning up at your home like this, but it was the only way to warn him.”
“Ah,” said Renfield, rubbing at his jaw as his suspicion subsided. “Well, I’m very lucky you took the initiative to come in person, otherwise we might’ve found ourselves in a terrible spot of bother. Please, come inside and have a drink with me. I’d like to thank you for saving our bacon.”
“Oh, well, I . . .”
“She’s got a meeting she has to go to. Isn’t that right, Mrs Jordan?” Stu cut in.
I nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Actually, I’m late. I’d better hurry.”
“Of course. I won’t keep you then. It was a pleasure to see you again, Rebecca,” said Renfield.
“You, too,” I smiled.
“I’ll walk you out,” said Stu just as Renfield turned and went back inside his house. My heart pounded all the way to the gate. Stu placed his hand to the small of my back and his touch eased some of my nerves. Once we were out of view I quickly pulled off the wig and shoved it back in my handbag before Lee saw us. Both he and Karla got out of the car when we approached.
“So you’re following me now?” said Stu.
“You lost your rag with me this morning for no reason. What was I supposed to do?”
“Well, don’t stalk me for a start.”
Lee let out a gruff breath and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I know it was wrong of me, but I’ve been worried. You know I have. And then you turn up at a place like this. What did you expect me to think? How was I to know Andie had some rich uncle? You have to admit, it’s looks suspicious.”
I saw Stu swallow, and I knew he felt guilty. He clearly didn’t want to lie to Lee, but he had to. It was the only way to keep his family safe. I didn’t know what I expected him to say, but he surprised me when he suddenly blurted. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been acting like a moody bastard and you don’t deserve it. It’s taken me a while to get my head on straight after being inside, but I promise you things will be different from now on.”
Lee frowned, but I could tell it was more because he was feeling emotional and didn’t know how to deal with it, especially since he had an audience. Karla and I made eye contact and I thought we were both feeling the same way, like maybe we should give the brothers some privacy. At the same time, I was aware that we couldn’t stand out here for much longer without causing suspicion.
Without a word, Lee stepped forward and pulled Stu into a hug. “No need to be sorry, bruv. I love you.” He drew back, and I felt a little like I might well up. In spite of the urgency of the situation, that had been a heart-warming moment.
“I’ll always have your back, Stu.”
Stu gave his brother a serious look. “And I’ll always have yours.”
With that they hugged it out once more time before Lee and Karla got back in their car and drove off. I stood on the sidewalk with Stu, who had gone very still and very silent.
Taking his hand in mine, I asked, “Are you all right?”
“I don’t like lying to him.”
“I know, but after today you’ll never have to again.”
He exhaled heavily, his gaze tender when it met mine. “Yeah, you’re right. I suppose I better finish this fucking job then, eh?”
I squeezed his hand and pressed a quick kiss to his lips.
“Finish the job, and then come home to me,” I whispered.
I was in my car, buckling myself in when I realised how important it was that he do just that. I needed him to come home . . . to me. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if anything happened to him and the thought was sobering.
The next few hours were some of the most nerve-wracking of my life. Stu was out of contact as he took care of switching the paintings and then passing the rest of the cargo on to his man at the port. After explaining to Alfie everything that went down over at Renfield’s, I drank copious amounts of coffee and chewed off half my fingernails. I practically leapt up from my seat when at long last there was a knock on the door.
Stu stood on the step and I’d never felt so relieved to see him all in one piece. He was handsome as ever, though he did appear a small bit out of breath. In his hand he held a thin leather case, which I presumed contained the painting.
“Is that . . . did you . . . was everything . . .?” I rambled, my nerves getting the best of me.
“Relax, Andrea, it’s done. Everything went off without a hitch,” Stu reassured. “Well, after my brother decided to show and almost mess up everything, that is.”
I exhaled and motioned for him to come in. Stu stepped past me and inside the flat. I closed the door. Alfie stood and clasped his hands together, his posture practically humming with anticipation.
“I can’t express how grateful I am that you’re allowing me this opportunity, Stu. You don’t know how much it means to me.”
Stu stepped forward and handed him the case, his expression kind as he approached my cousin. “Just be gentle with the old girl. She’s not as young as she used to me.”
Alfie didn’t even register the joke, too preoccupied with the precious cargo. He didn’t need to be told to be careful. He took the case with barely concealed reverence, his palms outspread and facing upward as though he were holding a holy relic. He cleared his throat. “I hope I’m not pushing my luck, but do you mind if I view it alone? I’m afraid I might embarrass myself and tear up in front of both of you.”
Stu and I exchanged a glance. I knew Alfie wasn’t trying to do anything shifty; he was simply an art lover and this was a special experience for him. Luckily, Stu got it because he smiled and replied, “Sure, mate, take it inside your room and do your thing, but I need to leave in ten minutes to meet with the Duke and make the exchange.”
Alfie nodded his understanding and quickly slipped down the hall to his room. I glanced at Stu. “You’re meeting with the Duke? I thought he was still in prison.”
“He got out a few days ago.”
“Oh. Well, are you sure it’s safe?”
“I can take care of myself, Andrea,” he answered, evading the question. I started to worry.
“You should let me come with you, just in case. He won’t be able to try anything if I’m there.”
Stu cocked an eyebrow. “What do you think he’s gonna do? Kidnap me? All he cares about is the painting. So long as I hand it over I’m good as gold.”
“But he still owes you money after he sells it. What if he decides he’d rather get rid of you than hand over the cash? Stu, I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you,” I said, my voice shaky with emotion.
He moved across the room and pulled me into his arms. “Stop worrying. The Duke’s a man of his word. So long as I hold up my end of the bargain, he’ll hold up his.”
I buried my face in the crook of his neck, but for once, I didn’t feel calmed. Just because Stu trusted this guy didn’t mean I did. I simply couldn’t believe that a man who would lower himself to threatening the safety of somebody’s family could be trusted.
Stu pulled me closer, hugging me tight as we waited for A
A minute later Alfie returned, silently handing the case back over to Stu, his words solemn. “Thank you. You’re proven yourself a kind and selfless person today, Stu Cross, and I won’t forget it.”
Alfie’s emotional words took me by surprise, and the way he looked at Stu told me he truly meant them. He considered him a friend now—one of us. And for someone like Alfie to accept and trust Stu, well, it spoke volumes. Stu’s face reddened a little, like he was just as touched by Alfie’s sentiment as I was.
“I owed you,” he replied. “I couldn’t have pulled this off without you. I’m just the muscle. You’re the brains.” He paused and then glanced at me before whispering, “She’s the heart.”
Everything seemed to still and I couldn’t seem to get my pulse to slow down. Everything inside me wanted to grab him and kiss him until we were both breathless, but now wasn’t the time. A moment passed before Stu looked away. He clipped open the case and took a quick peek inside. He smiled when he looked to Alfie again. “No offence, but you can never be too careful with these things.”
Alfie held his hands in the air. “Oh, none taken. I completely understand.”
Stu exhaled a long breath and stood up straight. “Right, well, I’m off. I’ll call you once I’m done to let you know everything went as planned.”
My stomach quivered as I watched him leave the flat, a painting potentially worth millions in his possession. As soon as the door closed I grabbed my coat and car keys.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry this time?” Alfie questioned.
“I’m following Stu. He might trust this guy, but I don’t. I need to be there in case anything bad happens.”
“And what are you going to do if it does? Take them all on with your mad fighting skills?” Alfie scoffed.
I shook my head, already out the door and halfway to my car. Alfie followed me, not prepared to let me go so easily. “I’ll figure that part out when I come to it.”
Thief of Hearts by L.H. Cosway / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes