Thief of hearts, p.24
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       Thief of Hearts, p.24

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  Raymond huffed a careless laugh. “It’s not my fault he’s always been soft.”

  “It’s exactly your fault. You were too busy working so hard to defraud people out of their money when you should’ve been raising your son. As far as I’m concerned they never should’ve let you out of prison.”

  “Well, luckily that’s not your decision to make,” said Raymond, his attention falling to Alfie again. “Aren’t you even going to say anything, son?”

  Alfie glanced up coldly and shook his head.

  “Good Lord, still as soft as ever.”

  “If not being soft means being like you then you can keep it,” Alfie finally muttered.

  “Ah, he speaks.”

  “You’ve got your painting. You can go now. I have nothing to say to you.”

  “Well, now you’re just being rude. I was hoping we could talk about old times,” Raymond replied sarcastically. With a short huff of dissatisfaction, he closed over the case and locked it shut. He cast both of us one final dismissive glance before he stood and brushed down his slacks.

  “Stuart, I’d like a word in private if you don’t mind.”

  Stu’s eyes met mine briefly. I could see the apology in them but I didn’t want to hear it. A second later he followed Raymond outside. My heart felt like it was breaking apart piece by piece.

  Everything between us had been a lie.

  I’d told him all about Alfie’s childhood, and he hadn’t said a word. He’d known it was his dad behind all this, and he’d known exactly what a careless bastard the man was and he hadn’t said a word.

  As soon as they were gone Alfie deflated, tears streaming down his face as he silently cried. I pulled him into my arms, holding him close and whispering that everything was going to be all right, even though I knew it wouldn’t. Stu’s betrayal aside, seeing his dad again after all these years was going to set him back. He’d been doing so well since leaving his mother’s house and his troubled childhood behind, but now he was back there, lonely and helpless.

  Vulnerable.

  My cousin was a man made of glass, naturally sensitive, and always so close to shattering. It sounded like a bad thing but it was why I loved him. It was what made him so unique. Unwillingly, my thoughts travelled backwards, as something Stu once said to me rose forth.

  You made me realise that softness is necessary. That we need both. People who are kind and who help others are needed, but so are people who are hard, toughened by experience.

  Why was it his words I was remembering right then? His words that were helping me make sense of everything. Raymond was wrong to think Alfie’s softness was a weakness. It was what allowed him to create things no one else could, art that made people feel.

  His weakness created his strength. I just wished mine could be considered one, too. Unfortunately, my open-heart hadn’t achieved anything beautiful this time. It had brought me hurt. Alfie, too.

  A few minutes passed and then I heard car doors slamming and engines starting up outside. I relaxed a little to know Raymond was finally leaving, even if he had left our flat turned upside down. Slowly, I helped Alfie to his room where he quietly climbed into bed and pulled the covers over himself. I rubbed soothingly at his back for a little while until I heard his breathing even out and knew he’d fallen asleep.

  I’d unintentionally brought betrayal into his life and it made me feel truly awful.

  As quietly as I could manage, I closed his door and went about putting the flat back to rights. If I could just focus on that task, maybe I could ignore how I was falling apart inside.

  The last few weeks meant nothing.

  Stu had just been using me. Again.

  I stopped short when I walked into the living room and he was sitting on the couch.

  My hand went to my heart as though to shield it. “Why are you still here?”

  Stu got up and came towards me. I backed up all the way to the other side of the room. His gaze was pleading, but I didn’t let it get to me. “Just let me help you clean the flat. It’s my fault the Duke’s men wrecked the place. I never should’ve brought the painting here. That’s why he turned everything over. He thought we were trying to hide something.”

  “Yes well, you never should’ve done a lot of things, but there’s no changing that now. And will you please stop calling him the Duke? It sounds ridiculous. It always sounded ridiculous. He’s a horrible little man and you should’ve been straight with us from the beginning about who was actually behind all this.”

  “Andrea, I couldn’t tell you. He was blackmailing me, remember? He didn’t ever want either of you to know it was him. He was going to take the painting and sell it and you’d never be any the wiser.”

  “Oh, so that makes it better?”

  “At least Alfie wouldn’t have had to go through seeing him. He’s clearly having some kind of a meltdown.”

  “Alfie is none of your concern anymore.”

  “You don’t own him.”

  “No, but I protect him. He’s my family and he never trusts people, but he trusted you. He considered you a friend. The worst part is that I’m the one who brought you into his life, and I’m the one who encouraged him to spend time with you. Now he’s suffering and it’s all because I let you into our lives.”

  He took a step toward me but I held up my hand. “Don’t. Don’t come any closer.”

  “I promise if I could go back and change things I would.”

  At this I bit out a humourless laugh. “No, you wouldn’t. Because if you did things any differently those men would’ve been paying a visit to your home instead of mine, and they wouldn’t have left at throwing a few bits of furniture around.”

  “Exactly. My hands were tied.”

  I frowned, my words stuttering, “N-no y-you still . . . God, I don’t even understand how you and Raymond were even in the same prison. He was prosecuted and sent to an open prison for white-collar crimes.”

  “He got on the wrong side of one of the other inmates. This guy had a lot of sway with the higher ups and he didn’t want the Duke, I mean Raymond, around anymore, so he had him transferred,” Stu explained.

  I gaped at him. “Is that even legal?”

  “Half the stuff that goes on in prison isn’t legal. That’s what happens when you house a bunch of criminals together.”

  “Yes well, I’ll know not to trust one in the future,” I said harshly, folding my arms across my chest.

  “Andrea, please.”

  “No, Stu, I don’t want to hear it. All I want to do right now is salvage what I can of my furniture, make sure my cousin is okay, and then go to bed. I don’t want to talk to you. I’m sick of talking.”

  He mimicked me when he folded his arms and stood completely still. “I’m not going anywhere.”

  “Well then you’re going to have a long night ahead of you.”

  I moved by him and went into the kitchen, ignoring him completely as I went about collecting the broken cups and plates and putting them in a black bin liner. Warm fingers covered mine. “Let me help,” Stu urged.

  I pulled the bag from his hold and turned away. He let out a long, tired sigh as I kept busy cleaning. I heard movement in the living room and knew he was cleaning up in spite of me telling him I didn’t want his help. Of course he wouldn’t listen. By the time I had the kitchen back to rights the living room was almost good as new. I still couldn’t face him though. Instead I went to my bedroom and locked the door. A few minutes later there was a gentle knock.

  “Andrea, let me in.”

  “Go away.”

  “Please, don’t . . . don’t do this.”

  “I didn’t do this. You did this.”

  “I didn’t have a choice.” His voice was scratchy, and in spite of myself my heart panged. He was hurting too but I couldn’t let myself feel any sympathy. His family was now safe. He was a liar. I had to remember how he’d deceived me.

  “I said go away,” I finally managed, trying to keep my voice steady even
though all I wanted was to break down. I cared for him so much and now everything was ruined. Even if he truly was sorry I’d never be able to trust him again. He loved his family, and I didn’t hold that against him, not for a second. But the fact remained that for him they’d always come first.

  From the beginning I tried not to hold Stu’s past against him, but now I knew that I had to. What if some other criminal he knew came along and blackmailed him the same as Raymond had? He’d protect his family before Alfie and me, and that meant I couldn’t have him in my life. I couldn’t put my family at risk. All I had was three people: Alfie, Mum, and Dad. I used to have four but lost one, and I knew I wouldn’t survive the pain of losing another. I almost didn’t survive the last time. Some days I was still only hanging on by a thin thread.

  Hanging on by determination and duct tape.

  I refused to live like that anymore. I had to at least learn that I could move forward. Just not with Stu.

  “Andrea, let me see your face,” Stu whispered but I ignored him. His voice made me want to give in and I had to be strong.

  As I crawled into bed I heard him slide down to sit on the floor. He could stay out there all night; I still wasn’t opening my door.

  Twenty-Four

  I didn’t hear Stu move for a long time, and after lots of silently shed tears I drifted off to sleep. When I woke it was because my alarm went off, and regrettably I had to get up for work. My heart still felt very broken, and I struggled to leave my room.

  I really hoped Stu wasn’t still outside.

  Very slowly I unlocked my door and opened it. The hallway was empty. I frowned as I glanced at the front door, because the lock wasn’t broken anymore. Taking a few more steps towards it I saw it was repaired and knew it had to have been Stu. Again I felt a pang in my heart but I endeavoured to ignore it.

  I went to Alfie’s room, knocking first before peeking my head inside. I expected to find him asleep but he was up, a new canvas in front of him as he went to work on it with a combination of blacks, yellows, and oranges. Approaching him, I placed a hand on his shoulder but he flinched away from my touch.

  “Don’t. Please,” he whispered, not turning to look at me. “I just want to be alone.”

  I didn’t push him. Instead I nodded sombrely and went to take a shower. It wasn’t until I was under the spray that I let myself cry. I thought I couldn’t possibly have any more tears left in me but I was wrong. I hated seeing him in pain.

  The entire drive to work I twisted my ring around and around, an outward sign of my inner turmoil. Thankfully, I was early and none of my students had arrived yet. I wondered if Stu would come today. Half of me didn’t want to see him, but the other half didn’t want him to give up on his education. I wasn’t sure I could handle seeing him every day, but there were plenty of other adult classes at the college he could transfer to.

  Just because he’d lied to me didn’t mean I didn’t still care about him. I wasn’t the sort of person who could just turn off their feelings like that. I wanted him to go to university, to fulfil his potential. I wanted him to get a degree and change his life, not be just another statistic of an ex-con returning to crime after serving time.

  I wanted him to find his Christminster.

  The thought was sobering. How could I hate him for lying yet still want him to find happiness?

  Kian was the first to arrive to class. I plastered on a smile I wasn’t really feeling and told him good morning. Next was Mary and Susan, and before long all of my students were there, all except one. Stu’s seat remained empty until only a minute before the bell rang. The door opened and he strode inside, his shoulders knit with tension and his hair still wet from a shower. I stared at him and his eyes came to mine—so handsome, so golden . . . so sorry.

  Now he was here I knew I had to steel myself, especially considering how there were a thousand apologies in his gaze that my heart wanted to give in to. I reminded myself of how Alfie had been last night, of how he’d been this morning. I knew he was going to be like that for weeks, if not months. He’d retreated inside his mind and it was going to be a challenge to get him back on track.

  I cleared my throat to make an announcement. “This morning we’re going to watch the film adaptation of Jude.”

  “Score!” Susan drove her fist into the air. “I love movie days.”

  “It’s not in black and white, is it, Miss Anderson?” asked Jake, another of my younger students. “I hate black and white films.”

  “It starts out that way but then turns to colour, sort of like The Wizard of Oz,” I answered, aware of Stu watching me as I spoke. “It’s from the nineties and stars Kate Winslet as Sue.”

  “Love her,” said Mary.

  “Ugh, I hated The Wizard of Oz,” Jake complained.

  “Who’s Kate Winslet?” Larry asked.

  “OMG, I can’t believe you don’t know who Kate Winslet is.” Susan gaped at Larry.

  “That’s enough,” I said firmly. I had to put my foot down before they got rowdy. “I want you to take notes while you’re watching and jot down any differences you see between the book and the film,” I went on. “Then tomorrow we’re going to have a debate on whether or not you think books should be made into films. When you’re finished watching it you’ll decide whether you’re for or against and we’ll divide you into two teams.”

  “I hate debates,” said Larry.

  “Oh, I love them,” said Susan. “I always win.”

  “There’s a difference between winning a debate and being louder than anyone else in the room,” Mary teased and Susan stuck out her tongue.

  I busied myself setting up the film and then went to dim the lights before hitting play. Unable to handle the idea of Stu watching me in the darkened room, I went to stand by the door as the class focused their attention on the screen. Once I saw they’d all settled down and had fallen into the story I quietly slipped out the door and went to use the bathroom.

  Well, I didn’t actually need to go. I just needed some air and the staff bathroom was my sanctuary right then. I splashed water over my hands and wrists in an effort to cool myself down, then stared at my reflection in the mirror for a long few moments.

  I looked tired, and my eyes were puffy from hours of crying. Just thinking about why I was sad meant they started to water again.

  I sniffled and went to grab some tissues from one of the stalls when I heard the door swing open. I didn’t want to be caught crying by one of my co-workers, so I quickly dabbed away the wetness. I waited for whoever it was to shut themselves inside a stall, but I didn’t hear any locks click. A second later a warm hand came to rest on my shoulder and I didn’t have to look to know who it was.

  “You can’t be in here,” I said, still not looking at him.

  “The Duke is selling the painting to his buyer this morning. The money will be transferred to Alfie’s account by lunch time,” he said and I let out a watery laugh. For a second there I thought he’d come to discuss something other than business. I wanted him to be upset about me. About how his lies destroyed us.

  But maybe he didn’t feel that at all.

  “That money is no concern of mine. It’s Alfie’s. He’s the one who earned it.”

  Stu frowned. “You earned it, too. And you need it more than any of us.”

  “Get back to class. You’re supposed to be watching the film.”

  “I’ll watch it later.”

  “Stu, get out of the staff bathroom now before I report you for disobedient behaviour.” I stood straighter, stepping out of the stall and away from his soothing touch.

  His gaze narrowed. “How long are you gonna keep this up?”

  “Until you accept that aside from being your teacher, I don’t want anything else to do with you.”

  When he winced slightly, I knew my words had affected him. My throat quivered but I didn’t let it show. Wouldn’t.

  “That’s a lie,” said Stu, his voice low as he advanced on me. I backed up agains
t the sink but he kept on coming forward until our bodies were almost touching. Stu gently took my arms and unfolded them. “Stop trying to push me away. It won’t work,” he whispered, his voice soft.

  I firmed my jaw. “Get your hands off me.”

  “Never.” He took each of my hands in his and laced our fingers together. I was too caught up in his tender gaze to fight it. Stu leaned in, his chest brushing mine, and his scent overpowered me. I’d come to love that scent. Love.

  I’d come to love everything about him, but in an instant all of that had changed.

  “This is the last time I’m going to say it. Go back to class, Stu.”

  “This isn’t the last time I’m going to say it, Andrea, in fact, I’ll keep telling you until you finally forgive me. I’m sorry. I’ve never been sorrier in my entire life.”

  My eyes moved back and forth between his and in spite of the fact that he’d lied to me before, I knew in this moment he was telling the truth.

  “I forgive you,” I said quietly.

  As soon as the words left my mouth his body sagged and he inched his lips towards mine.

  “Thank you,” he breathed but I shifted back and moved away from him, my fingers slipping out of his and his lips meeting nothing but air. A confused expression crossed his face.

  “Andrea?”

  “I forgive you, Stu, but that doesn’t mean our relationship can continue. It was wrong of me to let things get this far in the first place.”

  “But, luv, I need you—”

  I held up a hand to stop him from saying anymore, because if he did my strength was in danger of breaking.

  “I care about you, I always will, and I hope you’ll continue with your studies because I honestly want you to graduate and go on to university. But we can’t be together anymore. I’m sorry.”

  Stu’s features hardened. “Why not?”

  “Because I can’t trust you.”

  His anger was palpable. I could see it in the way his jaw tensed. “For fuck’s sake, you can trust me, Andrea. You know I didn’t have a choice. If you were in my position you’d have done the exact same thing.”

 
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