Thief of hearts, p.23
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       Thief of Hearts, p.23

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  “No, you won’t. You shouldn’t be doing this, Andie. It’s a terrible idea.”

  I slid into the driver’s seat while Alfie got in and strapped on his seatbelt. I stared at him. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m coming with you so I can stop you from doing anything stupid.”

  At the end of the street I saw Stu’s car pull away. I started up my engine and immediately followed, making sure to stay a fair distance behind so he didn’t realise he had a tail.

  “I’m not going to do anything stupid,” I huffed.

  “And I don’t believe you. You’ve been acting out of character these past few weeks. Who knows what kind of unpredictable decisions you could make?”

  “I have not,” I protested.

  “Oh really? Shall I list all the ways you’ve been acting strange?”

  “No, thank you.”

  Alfie started listing anyway. “Number one, you allowed yourself to get close to a student outside of work. Number two, even though we agreed you wouldn’t be involved in the robbery you still went to that meeting with Renfield, which was ridiculously stupid but you wouldn’t listen to me.”

  “Stu needed me—”

  “I’m not finished,” Alfie said. “Number three, you wanted to go with Stu to meet the Duke even though it would make you an accessory to the robbery. And number four, you’ve been having sex with your student, which, I must say, is probably the most stupid part of all.”

  Fuck.

  I gasped in shock before turning to glare at him. “You knew.”

  “Of course I knew. I’m not the stupid one here.”

  “Stop calling me stupid.”

  “All right, I’ll amend my wording. Perhaps misguided is better.”

  “I’m not misguided either. I genuinely care for him.”

  “Well, yes, that might very well be true. And believe me, Andie, I get it, the guy is a perfect specimen of male beauty, but once all this is over and he has his money he could disappear. Go anywhere. Then you’ll be left nursing a broken heart. I’m not trying to be cruel here. I’m only saying this because I care about you. You’re my family and I don’t want to see you hurt.”

  I bit my lip, because at the back of my mind I’d worried the same thing. Would Stu leave me once the excitement of our secret relationship wore away and he had his money? Was he simply keeping me sweet so that in turn I’d continue to encourage Alfie’s cooperation with the heist?

  Too many questions. I felt a migraine coming on.

  “I can’t believe you knew and didn’t say anything,” I muttered quietly, feeling self-conscious now.

  “Andie, the most oblivious person in the world couldn’t stand in a room with you two and not realise you were sleeping together. Your chemistry is off the charts.”

  “Don’t say that. What if my other students have noticed? Oh God, this is awful.” If I wasn’t driving right then I’d bury my face in my hands.

  My cousin reached over and softly squeezed my arm. “Listen, maybe I was exaggerating a little. If they haven’t said anything by now, they probably don’t know. If they did there’d be rumours. No one can resist the urge to spill a juicy bit of gossip like that.”

  “If you’re trying to make me feel better, you’re failing miserably.”

  “I’m sorry. Sometimes I say things all the wrong way. I get out of practice with people when I’m stuck indoors painting all the time.”

  I shook my head, quiet for a moment before replying, “Don’t apologise. You know what? You’re right. I am stupid. If even a hint of my relationship with Stu got out, I’d be fired. What the hell have I been thinking?”

  “I doubt your brain had much say in the matter,” said Alfie.

  I shot him the stink eye.

  “What? Too early for jokes?”

  “Way too early.”

  Focusing my attention up ahead I realised we were on the same street that housed Lee’s restaurant. Was Stu meeting the Duke here? It didn’t make sense. A moment later he emerged from his car, walked out onto the road, and hailed a taxi.

  I followed the cab and soon we were driving towards central London. We passed through the West End, then, to my surprise Stu got out at Trafalgar Square. This was where I’d brought the class on their day trip to the art gallery. It was a busy hour and there were lots of people around. I parked outside an old pub across the street as Stu passed through the crowds, his eyes constantly scanning the area.

  “Well, at least he had the wits to organise to meet him in a public place,” said Alfie. “It’s not like the Duke can pull anything dodgy here. There are too many people.”

  “You’d be surprised,” I said, still on edge.

  A red double decker-bus went by, momentarily blocking our view. I panicked when it passed and I couldn’t see Stu anywhere, but then exhaled when I spotted him lowering himself to sit on a step. He checked his phone, looked from left to right, and then he just . . . waited.

  Several minutes passed and there was still no sign of the Duke.

  “Looks like our man is late.”

  “Either that or Stu’s been stood up,” said Alfie.

  What did this mean? “I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

  But I was wrong. Twenty minutes later Stu stood, his jaw tight and his posture portraying his unhappiness. Whatever was going on here, something wasn’t right. He strode past groups of tourists looking at maps and taking photographs, his tall form striking a formidable figure. Alfie and I were quiet as we watched him, and then, almost like he sensed our attention Stu looked up and spotted my car.

  “Oh shit,” Alfie swore. “We’ve been made.”

  “Crap, crap, crap.” I twisted my keys, prepared to make a swift exit and then deny everything later down the line.

  Who? Me? At Trafalgar Square? Couldn’t have been. I was home correcting papers in my pyjamas all evening. Lots of people have this car. It could’ve been anyone.

  Unfortunately, my hands were shaking and it took me longer than normal to start the engine. Before I knew it Stu was standing in front of us, his gaze furious. I swallowed past the hard lump lodged in my throat. A second later he climbed into the backseat, slamming the door shut behind him with a loud thud.

  I glanced at him nervously through the overhead mirror.

  “Drive,” he ordered.

  I drove.

  The tension was so thick that both Alfie and I were too afraid to breathe a word. Stu was intimidating when he was angry. He ran a hand down his face, his features etched with stress as I drove in the direction of my flat. We’d suffered at least fifteen minutes of tense silence when Stu finally spoke.

  “What the hell were you thinking following me? I told you I didn’t need you there.”

  I white-knuckled the steering wheel, trying to come up with an excuse and falling short.

  “Would you believe us if we said we just so happened to be in the area?” Alfie asked in an effort to diffuse the tension. Stu glared at him, and he zipped his mouth shut.

  “I was worried about you,” I managed finally.

  “And I told you there was nothing to worry about. For fuck’s sake, Andrea, the Duke didn’t show. Do you know what this means?”

  I glanced at him through the mirror, swallowing tightly as I shook my head.

  “It means he spotted you. It means he knows I told you more than I was ever supposed to. I’ve been trying to keep you both safe, and you’ve fucked everything up.”

  “Hey, don’t talk to her like that!” Alfie butted in, his features drawn in a frown.

  Stu’s dark eyes cut to my cousin. “I’m pissed off and I’ll express it how I like.”

  My cheeks heated. “Look, it’s done now so there’s nothing we can do to change it. I messed up and I’m sorry . . .”

  Stu leaned forward, his shoulders rigid. “You don’t understand. He’s not just going to let this fly. He doesn’t like loose ends and that means he’s going to try and do something to tie them up.”

 
“You mean, to tie us up?” Alfie questioned nervously.

  Stu exhaled and dropped back into the seat. “I can’t protect you from him.”

  I looked at him through my mirror again and our eyes locked. It was then that I saw how powerless he felt. He’d been in control but I’d gone and ruined all that. Now everything was up in the air. I really was stupid, always thinking with something other than my head. This time it had been with my soft foolish heart.

  “We need to come up with a plan. A story to explain everything away and gain his trust again. Do you have a way of contacting him?” I asked and Stu looked at me like I was being naïve.

  “I’ve got a number,” Stu replied, “but look, I think you just need to stay out of this from now on. I’ll figure something out.”

  I opened my mouth to say something but came up short. I was at a loss for words yet again. When I turned onto our street and stopped the car outside the flat, I turned off the engine and we all just sat in silence for a minute. Our brains were working overtime to come up with a solution. It was only as I was lost in thought that I noticed the suspiciously out-of-place gentleman standing at the end of the street.

  He was big and muscular, but he wore a suit. He looked like he should be working security for the government or something. When I glanced through my side mirror I saw a similarly dressed man at the other end of the street. This didn’t bode well.

  “Stu,” I whispered, afraid that even halfway down the street they might hear me.

  He didn’t answer so I whispered louder. “Stu!”

  His tired gaze flicked to mine. “What is it, Andrea?”

  I cocked my head ever so slightly to indicate both gentlemen. Alfie made a move to turn in his seat but I grabbed him and urged him not to look. Stu let out a whispered string of expletives.

  “All right, this is what you’re going to do,” he ordered, his mouth barely moving as he spoke. “Start the car back up real slow and get us out of here as quick as you can.”

  I nodded and brought my hand to my keys. I was shaking. I started the engine and put my foot on the gas. Just as I pulled out onto the road I hit the brakes and let out a startled yelp, because one of the men was now standing directly in front of my car. I tried to reverse but the other was standing behind it. They both had shoulders so wide they might as well have been brick walls.

  “Throw the keys out the window,” one of them shouted. I looked to Stu, his face angry yet resigned. Finally, he nodded and I did as the man requested. My keys hit the ground and the man picked them up. “Now all of you get out of the car and head inside. You’ve got a visitor.”

  I’d never been so nervous in my entire life. Alfie looked just as terrified. This wasn’t our world. We didn’t belong here. Stu was the only one who didn’t look frightened. If I was honest, he looked like he was weighing his chances of taking on both men in a fight. He must have decided the odds were against him because he didn’t initiate any violence.

  I took Alfie’s hand in mine as we headed for the door of our flat. It was already open. The lock was bashed in and the door ajar. We both took a step inside and entered the living room, Stu close behind us. I sucked in a breath when I saw the entire place had been ransacked. My gaze travelled over our trashed living room before we all stopped short. My heart pounded as I stared at the dapper gentleman lounging casually on our worn-out sofa.

  He wasn’t a stranger. In fact, I recognised him instantly.

  Perhaps this was our world, after all.

  Alfie dropped my hand and took a hesitant step backward, his voice hushed as he whispered, “Dad?”

  Twenty-Three

  “Alfred, my boy, it’s been a long time. My, look how you’ve grown,” said Raymond, his gaze sharp as he took in his son.

  I did a quick mental calculation. Alfie hadn’t seen his dad since he was seventeen when he was prosecuted and sent away for committing fraud. That was over a decade ago. I heard my cousin’s breathing quicken as he clutched my hand again, his grip so tight it was almost crushing.

  “Get out,” he said, voice quiet.

  “Well, that’s no way to greet your father,” Raymond chided.

  “Get out, please get out,” Alfie went on, louder now. He started to hyperventilate and I quickly realised he was having a panic attack.

  “You need to leave,” I ordered, channelling as much authority into my voice as possible. Raymond, or should I say ‘the Duke’, chuckled, a hint of cruelty behind it. “Oh, I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Can’t you see that he doesn’t want you here?” I shouted, my protective instincts kicking in. “He doesn’t want to see you, so just go.”

  “Andrea, don’t . . .” Alfie pleaded and I immediately regretted my outburst. Obviously, he didn’t want us having a domestic with his dad in front of Stu and the two suited men standing in the doorway.

  Speak of the devil . . . Stu’s every muscle was coiled tight. In fact, I’d never seen him look so furious. The funny thing was, he didn’t look surprised. Not. One. Bit.

  He’d known.

  Quick as lightning my hostility found a new target. “You knew!” I exclaimed hoarsely, my voice catching with emotion. “You knew all along, didn’t you?”

  Suddenly, everything made sense, how ‘the Duke’ knew so much about us, how he targeted us from the very beginning. Betrayal. It was an ugly, painful sore to experience, but that’s what I felt. I had trusted Stu. I had trusted his thoughts, his promises. I had trusted him with my heart. And he did this. How could he?

  Alfie’s dad must’ve found out that we’d been living together for the past few years. Furthermore, he knew how resistant Alfie was to new people and that the only way for Stu to meet him was through me.

  Alfie gasped and turned away from his dad to face Stu. His expression was horrified. “Did you?” he asked in a tiny voice. His feelings were hurt, and it was in that moment that I realised just how fond Alfie had grown of Stu. He might’ve denied it if asked, but I could see he’d considered him trustworthy, a friend. I’d never seen him look so betrayed and I didn’t know who I was angrier for: me or my cousin.

  Stu cleared his throat, his expression torn as his brows drew together. “Let me explain—”

  “There’s nothing to explain. I should’ve known you were hiding something. You’ve been lying to us from the start.”

  “Andrea, I couldn’t tell you. You have to believe me.”

  “I don’t want to hear it. Just leave,” I growled, turning to Raymond. “Both of you can leave. I don’t even know why you came here.”

  “Andrea, darling, sit down and be quiet,” Raymond ordered, standing from the couch and walking towards Stu. “I take it that’s the painting,” he went on, eyeing the case eagerly.

  Without a word Stu handed it to him and Raymond grinned as he ran his fingers over the leather. He carried it to the coffee table, set it down and then sat again. He flicked open the locks and exhaled a breath once he saw the painting.

  “Magnificent.”

  I couldn’t argue with him. I eyed the piece, completely identical to the one Alfie had painted. Raymond ever so gently touched his fingers to the canvas.

  “D-don’t do that,” Alfie stammered and his father shot him a cynical glance, placing his fingers more firmly against the paint as though in challenge. “There might be something on your skin that could corrupt the canvas,” Alfie went on.

  “I think you’ll find my hands are perfectly clean, Alfred,” Raymond replied.

  “Don’t be a prick,” said Stu, and Alfie’s dad’s gaze cut to him.

  “I’ll thank you to keep quiet. You’re hardly in a position to tell me what to do.” He paused, his attention sliding to me. “It seems you went above and beyond the call of duty in regards to what I sent you here to achieve.”

  Stu opened his mouth to speak but Raymond held up a hand. “Don’t bother. It’s clear to me you allowed yourself to develop feelings for my niece. How tragic. And there was me, thinking I’d found a he
artless hardened criminal to do my bidding.”

  “Fuck you, Raymond,” Stu swore, the way he said his name dripping with disrespect.

  Raymond chuckled a mirthless laugh. “Are you testing me, son?”

  “Why can’t you just leave?” Alfie interjected. My cousin was still hyperventilating. I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and whispered for him to take slow, deep breaths. Then I narrowed my gaze on Raymond. “Why did you even come here? You could’ve collected the case from Stu earlier without the need to drag us into it.”

  “Ah, but I’ve had my men following young Stuart all morning, you see. And I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when they told me he made a stop here of all places instead of coming directly to meet me. Something was amiss.”

  “Is that why you ransacked our flat? Nothing was amiss. Alfie wanted to see the painting since he’s been working day and night to replicate it. It was the least he deserved for all his hard work.”

  Raymond dismissed me with a glance, his attention going to his son. “Still so sentimental.”

  Alfie wheezed a shaky breath. Raymond rolled his eyes heavenward and I wanted to punch him in that moment. It was his fault Alfie’s mum was a neurotic wreck all through his childhood, and it was his fault they were left with nothing and my cousin had to paint counterfeits in order to save their house. He wasn’t a father. He was nothing.

  “For crying out loud, Alfred, calm down. You’d swear I was holding a knife to your throat. If it’s the money you’re worried about you can relax. I’m a man of my word. I’ll pay you everything you’re owed once the sale of the painting is finalised.”

  “You can stuff your money. We don’t want it,” I barked, letting go of my cousin to face his dad head-on.

  “Oh darling, of everyone in this room you’re the last person who should be refusing a payout.”

  I gaped at him. “Look at you, still so obsessed. This has nothing to do with money. This has to do with you leaving your wife and child penniless and desperate. He never wanted to see you again, and he never should have to. Now you’re exploiting him for your own gain. You’re a worthless excuse for a father.”

 
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