Thief of hearts, p.25
Thief of Hearts, p.25L.H. Cosway
His anger turned to frustration. “Then why the hell are you still holding it against me?”
“I’m not holding it against you. I’m doing this to protect the people I love. I’m sure you know a lot more men like Alfie’s dad, Stu. What if one of them decides to blackmail you like Raymond did? I can’t take that chance.”
“Now you’re not even making sense. Nobody’s going to blackmail me. This job was my last. I’m going straight.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Yes, I bloody well can. I’ll never break the law again; you have my word.”
My lip trembled. I hated confrontation but I had to stay strong. Taking a deep breath, I spoke again. “Tell me this, and answer honestly. If someone you knew from prison, or from before you were sent away, came along and said they’d hurt your family if you didn’t do their bidding, what would you do?”
Stu raked a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth. “That’s not fair, Andrea.”
“Answer the question,” I whispered.
His body sagged and he stared at the floor. “I’d do whatever I had to.”
And there it was. I’d do whatever I had to. Stu may have only spent two years behind bars, but the prison cell provided more than just a place of seclusion. It was a place he had to survive, and thank God he did. But that could never bode well for him and me. I wasn’t his family. And as much as that actually pained my aching heart, I knew it was now for the best. Alfie needed me, so I would be strong. I would mourn the loss of Stu’s care, attention, and focus. But we couldn’t survive. I wouldn’t survive always living in that shadow of fear.
I moved by him and out of the bathroom, my stomach doing a queasy flip-flop as I returned to class. Everyone was engrossed in the film. I folded my arms and stood by the door, watching Sue and Jude.
Sue was too kind. She was going to get her heart broken.
But Jude wasn’t the villain, and his heart would be broken just as badly.
As though to punctuate my inner thoughts the door opened and Stu stalked inside. I swallowed tightly and watched as he returned to his desk. He sat completely still for a few minutes, his posture stiff. When he moved it was to pull a pen and a piece of paper from his bag. He bent over it and started to scribble something down. When he was done he folded the paper up and shoved it in his pocket.
What had he written?
Almost two hours later the movie was over and the class broke up for lunch. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Stu so I busied myself sorting through some folders in the filing cabinet behind my desk. I didn’t turn back around until the room had grown silent. I just hoped Stu hadn’t decided to wait, hoping to hash things out again.
The room was empty.
When I glanced at my desk I found a small piece of paper sitting on the keys of my laptop. Without even reading it I knew it was from him. My hand was shaky as I picked it up and carefully unfolded the paper. It contained just one sentence. The words were misspelled but that didn’t stop me from understanding the question.
Did you ever stop to wonder if maybe you were my family now, too?
My sandwich was left uneaten, my appetite vanished, as I considered Stu’s question over and over. I couldn’t make sense of my emotions, couldn’t decide if I adored him or hated him for making me feel even more mixed up than I was before.
I planned to confront him about the note after lunch but he never showed. In fact, he was absent from class for the entire rest of the week. I didn’t realise how much I could miss someone I’d determined to cut from my life. Every morning I stared at his empty desk, forlorn.
Then, after a couple of days, my missing him turned to anger. Because everything else aside, he shouldn’t be letting his attendance slip. I couldn’t tell if I was hurt more by the fact that he was cutting class or that he’d deceived Alfie and me.
Every day I tried to initiate conversation with my cousin, but it was like trying to talk to a brick wall. All I got from him were one- or two-word answers. On Saturday I called Jamie and asked him to come over. I didn’t tell him the whole story, only that Alfie wasn’t talking to me and I needed him to try and get through to my cousin.
“Where is the moody little bastard?” Jamie asked as he stepped inside the flat. He had a stack of books under his arm, all tied together with a length of brown string.
“He’s in his room. He’s barely come out all week.”
“Care to tell me why?”
I scratched at my arm in agitation. “His dad got out of prison recently. He showed up here and I can’t tell you why but it’s my fault. Now Alfie’s completely closed himself off.”
Jamie hitched the books higher up under his arm. He didn’t ask any further questions. “Righteo. I’ll see what I can do.”
Striding down the hallway, he stopped outside Alfie’s door and knocked twice before stepping inside and closing it behind him. I heard muffled voices and was relieved that at least Alfie wasn’t giving him the silent treatment as well. I let out a sigh just as my phone rang from where I’d left it on the kitchen counter. Hurrying inside, I saw my dad’s name on the screen.
“Dad, hey, how are you?”
“Hello Andrea, I’m quite well. And you?”
I hovered from foot to foot, deciding whether or not to answer the question honestly. “I’ll admit, I’ve been better. Alfie and I have been going through a bit of a rough patch.”
I heard rather than saw his frown. “I hope nothing too serious?”
“Um, well, did you know Raymond got out of prison?”
Dad inhaled sharply. “I didn’t.” There was a pause as I heard him asking Mum the same question. She hadn’t known either. “Did something happen?”
“He showed up at the flat, and Alfie’s hardly left his room ever since. It’s like he’s back to where he was ten years ago. Jamie’s with him now, so hopefully he’ll be able to get through to him.”
“Well, would you like me to come over? If Jamie can’t help, maybe I can.”
“I’m not sure. We’ll see how Jamie fares first. Anyway, why did you call?”
“Right, yes,” said Dad. “I wanted to ask if everything is all right with Stu? He was supposed to drop by last night for a tutoring session but he never showed up. I tried calling his phone a few times too but got no answer.”
I swallowed tightly. “Actually, he hasn’t been to class all week either.”
“Oh, perhaps he’s under the weather?”
“Well, if you hear anything, do let me know. I’ve been enjoying our little weekly meetings.”
“Will do, Dad. And I’ll give you a call tomorrow to let you know how Alfie’s doing.”
“Very good. Talk soon.”
The moment I hung up the phone I started pacing. Stu wasn’t just neglecting to turn up to my class, he wasn’t going to see Dad either. The idea of him completely giving up on his education bothered me. After I found out about the plan for the robbery and he’d continued coming to class, he told me it was because he enjoyed being there, that he wanted to learn. Well, if he wanted to learn so badly then he shouldn’t be giving up just because we weren’t together anymore. Hell, I’d organise for him to be transferred to another class if it meant he’d continue with his schooling.
With this in mind, my determination formed. I wasn’t just going to let him slip away without confronting him about it. This was more important than him and me, this was bigger. At least, that’s what my head and my heart kept telling me. For once they were working in tandem.
I pulled on my shoes, grabbed my coat, and hopped in my car. The closer I got to his house the more my nerves kicked in, and the more I started to wonder if this was a terrible idea. When I turned onto his street I noticed a few teenagers hanging out on the corner. Stu’s house was about midway down and it looked like the front door was open. Trevor and Reya
Stu’s car was parked out front and I saw the hood had been popped. I took my time parking, Trevor and Reya watching me all the while.
When I got out and headed towards them Trevor clamped his hands around his mouth and called, “Oi, oi, how’s it going, Teach?”
Something clanged from beneath Stu’s car and I heard a few muttered swearwords.
“Hi. Is your brother around?”
Trevor grinned. “Which one?”
Reya elbowed him in the side. “You know which one. Don’t be an arse.” Her eyes came to me and she nodded toward the car. Now I knew where the disembodied swearing had come from.
“Stu. Your teacher’s here and she’s looking mighty fine. You’d wanna get your ugly behind out from under there,” said Trevor.
I watched as Stu emerged from beneath the car, his white T-shirt stained with motor oil. He held a wrench in his hand as he wiped at his brow with an old rag. He shot Trevor an unhappy look before his attention fell on me, and he gave me a very neutral chin tip.
“What can I do for you, Andrea?”
I fiddled with the ends of my sleeves, and in spite of myself I couldn’t help looking at his body. I hadn’t seen him all week and now the sight of him had butterflies flitting wildly around inside my chest.
“You’ve been absent from class all week,” I said, finally finding my voice.
“Playing truant, eh, bruv?” Trevor tutted. “I expected better of you.”
“Shut it, Trev.”
Trevor’s mischievous eyes slid to me. “How are you going to punish him, Andie? If you want my opinion, I think you should give him a good old-fashioned spanking.”
“Right, that’s it. We’re going inside,” said Reya, grabbing Trevor by the arm and dragging him into the house as she shot me a look of apology. “I’m sorry about him. Sometimes he just doesn’t know when to shut up.”
When they were gone a silence fell between Stu and me. I glanced up to find him studying me as he used the rag to rub the oil from his hands.
“What happened to your car?”
“Nothing that can’t be fixed,” he answered, his posture stiff. I wasn’t welcome. That much was clear. “What are you doing here, Andrea?”
“I told you. I’ve come to see why you haven’t been to class. And my dad called to say you never showed up for tutoring.”
“I’m not coming back,” he answered simply and my expression hardened.
“So you’re going to give up just like that?”
“No, not just like that. I realised that studying and learning wasn’t for me.” He eyed me pointedly. “I’m better suited for other things.”
“I’m sorry but I call bullshit,” I blurted, unable to hold back my temper.
Stu whistled low. “Strong words, Miss Anderson.”
“Yeah well, I’m swearing because I’m angry. You’re giving up on yourself when you’ve got so much potential. You’re the brightest student in my whole class.”
“Is that why it takes me ten minutes to get through a page of a book it takes everyone else thirty seconds to read?” he asked sarcastically.
“How many times do I have to tell you? There are more kinds of intelligence than what the average person perceives. Some people are clever because they study hard. Some people because it’s natural intelligence.” I gestured to his Toyota. “You can fix a car. I can read a book. You can solve complicated mathematical equations, while I can write a ten-page essay on the Persian Wars. We all have our strengths.”
His face showed he was uncomfortable now and my passion deflated. I softened my voice. “Look, I’m not here to force you into coming back. If you genuinely don’t want to be in school, then don’t be there. But don’t lie to me and tell me it’s not for you, because I remember how excited you looked the first time I introduced you to my dad. You looked like you’d found something important. Something life-changing.”
Stu’s gaze seared into mine. “Yeah well, things change.”
I stared at the ground. “If you . . . if being around me makes you too uncomfortable, then I can have you enrolled in a difference class. Just please don’t quit. I’d never forgive myself if you gave up because of what’s happened between us.”
His voice was soft when he spoke. “Andrea, I only ever enrolled to get to you. It’s not like I’m giving up my life’s dream. Look at me, I’m not cut out to be an academic.”
“You can be whatever you want to be,” I whispered.
Stu rubbed his neck. “Maybe I don’t want to be anything.”
I couldn’t take the tone of his voice, the self-loathing. Stepping forward, I touched his forearm and stared up into his eyes. “Don’t talk like that.”
His gaze darkened, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. When his attention fell to my mouth I dropped my hand and took a step backward. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.”
I turned to go back to my car, but Stu’s voice stopped me. “Fucking hell, Andrea. Wait.”
I faced him again, his expression torn as several thoughts flickered across his face. He gripped the back of his neck with both hands and exhaled heavily. I waited for him to speak, expectant.
“What if I said I’d come back?” he asked finally.
“Stu, that would be fantastic. You’re making the right decision.”
“Hold your horses. I have some conditions.”
I bobbed my head. “Okay.”
“I want you to give me those extra tutoring sessions you offered a couple weeks ago. If I’m going to do this, I need to tackle my weaknesses head-on.”
All of a sudden my enthusiasm waned. This sounded a little too much like a trick to me, a way to spend time alone with me. My expression grew suspicious. “I’ll tutor you but no funny business.”
One dark eyebrow went up. “Funny business?”
I huffed a breath. “You know what I mean.”
“I won’t mess you around, Andrea.” He paused, his face serious when he amended, “Not again.”
“Okay, well, is there anything else?”
Stu levelled me with a serious look. “You have to forget everything that came before.”
I crinkled my nose. “What do you mean?”
“I want a clean slate. I’ll come back to class. I’ll study every day and try my hardest to do well, but you need to forget everything that’s gone on between us. Pretend we’re meeting for the very first time.”
“Stu, I can’t just forget—”
“Yes, you can. I can’t have you looking at me with those sad brown eyes, constantly reminding me what a shit I am. That’s why I couldn’t continue coming to class. If you keep looking at me like that I won’t be able to concentrate. So it’s a clean slate or nothing.”
His ultimatum had my heart pounding fast. Truthfully, the idea both relieved and pained me. Even though it hurt to be around him, I had to admit that I missed not seeing him every day. Our time together hadn’t just been sexual, it had been emotional—a friendship. We’d laughed together, bantered, enjoyed each other’s company, and yes, also had some absolutely mind-blowing sex in between. It was my first real relationship since Mark and though I’d told him it was over, some small part of me was disappointed that he hadn’t fought harder to get me to take him back. Maybe I wasn’t just angry that he’d given up on his education. Maybe I was angry because he’d given up on us.
Were the two so intertwined?
I lifted my gaze to his and finally replied, “Okay, clean slate. I’m not sure I can forget but I promise I won’t bring it up. As far as I’m concerned you’re just a student and I’m just your teacher.”
I held out my hand for him to shake. Stu didn’t hesitate to take it, his warm fingers sliding against mine and making my skin tingle. When he could make me feel so much with a single touch, was it even possible for us to have a clean slate? Well, I was willing to try and find out. For him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Mr Cross.”
I returned his smile, and when I pulled my hand away it was stained black with motor oil.
I was a little wary when I pulled up outside Lee’s restaurant a few days later. Stu had returned to class, but this evening was our first private lesson and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Normally, I’d just have him stay back after class, but he was working some shifts for Lee so we organised to meet here instead.
It wasn’t too packed when I entered, only a few tables occupied with customers. Stu sat at a table at the very back of the restaurant, a laptop opened in front of him and a stack of papers to his left. It looked like he’d been working for hours, his hair standing up in all directions like he’d run his hand through it one too many times.
He was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t immediately notice me. I peeked over his shoulder to find spreadsheets full of numbers on the screen.
“Hi,” I said and he glanced up.
“Andrea, hey, come sit down. Can I get you anything? A drink, maybe?”
“Some mint tea would be great if you have it,” I said.
God, he was beautiful. He wore a T-shirt with the restaurant’s name on and a pair of dark blue jeans. Casual, but oh so sexy. He didn’t even have to try.
I really needed to stop thinking thoughts like that if I was going to be around him. Clean slate. He pulled out a seat for me then walked over to the counter where Lee stood counting money from the till. I busied myself taking the books I needed for the lesson out of my bag. A few minutes later he returned with my tea and a beer for himself.
“Andie,” Lee said, “I just made a fresh batch of Guinness bread. You want to try it with my French onion soup? I swear it’s the best thing ever.”
“No, thank you,” I replied. “I already ate dinner.” It was a lie but I didn’t want to eat anything here. It would feel too much like a date if I did.
Thief of Hearts by L.H. Cosway / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes