Thief of hearts, p.26
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       Thief of Hearts, p.26

           L.H. Cosway
 
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“You sure?”

  “Have some,” Stu urged. “He won’t let up until you do. He’s like a pushy grandmother when it comes to food.”

  I chewed on my lip and glanced at Lee. “Honestly, I’m good.”

  Lee shrugged. “It’s your loss.”

  “A tenner says he’ll be back in fifteen minutes. I’m telling ya, nobody comes in here and leaves without eating something,” Stu said, closing down his laptop.

  “Is that like an OCD thing?”

  “Nah. Like I said, on the inside he’s a seventy-three-year-old grandmother. You’re lucky he didn’t make scones today, or he’d be shovelling one down your throat by now.”

  I laughed. “That’s quite endearing. No offence but your brother looks more inclined to be challenging someone to a fist fight than force-feeding them baked goods.”

  Stu glanced at the books I’d set on the table, his brow arching sceptically. “I hope those aren’t for me.”

  I frowned. “Why not?”

  “The Hunger Games? Aren’t those books supposed to be for teenage girls?”

  I shook my head. “Not necessarily. I picked them for you because I think they’re a perfect place to start. Though there are many layers to the story, the author has a very simple, pared-back writing style. We can’t exactly start off reading Dostoevsky.”

  “Well, you could’ve picked something a little manlier is all I’m saying,” Stu huffed.

  “What’s manlier than a reality TV show about teenagers that have to fight to the death?”

  Stu’s look was incredulous. “That’s what it’s about? I thought these were the ones with the glittering vampires.”

  “That’s Twilight, silly. But if you prefer I’ll be more than happy to read those with you instead.”

  “Nah, fighting to the death is fine by me.”

  I shook my head, smiling as I pushed the first book across the table to him. We’d gotten through about ten pages when Stu glanced up from his reading.

  “Oh, would you look at that. I think that’s a tenner you owe me,” he said, pleased.

  I glanced away from the book to find Lee had placed a selection of cheeses, cured meats, and crackers down in front of us. Stu shot him an expression like he was overdoing the hospitality big time.

  “Wow, this looks amazing,” I said. “But honestly, you didn’t have to.”

  “Just eat,” Lee urged. “Try the gorgonzola with the pastrami.”

  With that he left, and I stared at all the food, my stomach quietly gurgling. I was starving, but luckily Stu didn’t hear. Picking up a cracker, I stacked on some meat and cheese then took a bite. It was delicious, especially since I hadn’t actually had dinner yet.

  “Good?” Stu asked, his gaze fixed on my mouth.

  I nodded past another bite. “So good.”

  “Told you he wouldn’t let you off the hook that easily.”

  “I should’ve listened to you. We’re going to have to do these lessons at the college from now on, otherwise I’m going to be two stones heavier by the time we’re done.”

  One edge of Stu’s lips curved in a grin as his gaze fell to my hips. “Nothing wrong with that.”

  His attention had me shifting uncomfortably. I wiped my hands off with a napkin and returned my attention to the book. “Right, well, we’d better get back to work.”

  Stu didn’t protest, and over the next forty-five minutes I’d eaten enough cheese to feed a small army and we’d worked our way through the first two chapters. When it was time for me to go, Stu helped me pack away my things, while Lee wrapped up the rest of the food and insisted I take it home with me.

  Two weeks went by in a similar fashion. I went to work in the mornings, tutored Stu every few days, and tried my best to make headway with Alfie. I had no idea what Jamie had said to him, but whatever it was seemed to be working because my cousin was gradually thawing towards me.

  It was when I arrived home one evening after my fifth tutoring session with Stu that everything changed. The flat was quiet when I got in and there were some letters on the floor. Alfie must’ve been stuck in his room all day because usually he picked them up and set them on the entry table for me. I went into the kitchen and dropped the letters on the counter.

  Slipping off my shoes, I sat down on a stool, not paying much attention as I tore open the letters, bank statement, electricity bill, dentist’s appointment reminder . . . It was when I picked up the last one that I started to pay attention. It was from the loan company, the one who’d sent the burly looking guy in the brown leather jacket to put the fear of God into me. The letter looked more official than usual, and when I tore it open I found out why.

  All of my debt had been paid off.

  Every.

  Last.

  Penny.

  Twenty-Six

  “Alfie! Get out here right now,” I said, banging loudly on his bedroom door. I clutched the letter in my hand.

  The door opened slowly and my cousin peeked his head out. “What’s got you all worked up?” he asked, squinting at me like I’d just woken him.

  I shoved the letter at him and waited for an explanation. He unfolded it and scanned the contents before his mouth dropped open in surprise. “Your loans have been paid off.”

  “Exactly.”

  “Why do you look so angry? You should be doing a jig on the rooftop right now.”

  “Alfie, I told you I didn’t want a penny of the money your dad sent for that painting. You had no right paying this off for me.”

  “Okay, well, it’s a good thing I didn’t, then.”

  I gaped at him. “What?”

  “I didn’t pay it, Andie. I didn’t even realise my dad had come through with the money. I haven’t checked my bank account in a while.”

  “Then how . . .?”

  Alfie rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it obvious?”

  “Stu? You think Stu did this?”

  “Well, it certainly wasn’t my father. And I think we’re both old enough to know it wasn’t your fairy godmother, though it does amuse me to envision Stu in fairy wings and a tutu.”

  “You definitely didn’t pay it?”

  Alfie shook his head. “Nope.”

  I exhaled, running a hand over my face as the reality sank in. “Well, hell.”

  “What are you going to do?”

  “Obviously I can’t accept it. I don’t even know how he managed to pay it off. It’s not like they just let anyone pay another person’s loans for them.”

  “With his background I’m sure he has his ways.”

  I started pacing, my thoughts frantic. “I’m going to have to make him take the money back. He can’t do this.”

  Alfie came and placed a hand on my shoulder. It was the first time he’d touched me in over a week. “Maybe he needed to. Maybe this was his way of saying sorry.”

  “He’s already said sorry countless times.”

  “Sometimes actions speak louder than words.”

  I glanced at him, surprised. “You’ve changed your tune.”

  Alfie’s expression grew serious. “I’ve had time to think. I don’t blame Stu anymore for what he did. In all honesty I’m not sure I ever blamed him. It’s not his fault I was born the son of a ruthless, greedy sociopath. He just got tangled up in all this by chance. In fact, I actually find his actions very noble. He might’ve deceived us, but there was love for his family at the core of what he did.”

  “I know but . . . Alfie, I still can’t accept this. It’s too much.”

  My cousin patted me on the shoulder. “Good luck trying to convince him to take it back. I don’t know him as well as you do, but if you ask me, Stu Cross is as stubborn as they come.”

  And wasn’t that the problem. Alfie returned to his room, and I went to find some wine.

  The following morning when Stu arrived to class I was antsy to pull him aside and confront him. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance until lunchtime, and when the bell rang I found my courage waning. I couldn’t settle on a
n opening statement, couldn’t think of a foolproof argument to get him to take the money back. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of being debt-free was incredibly liberating, but at the same time I felt trapped. By paying off my loans, Stu had indebted me to him, and I wasn’t emotionally equipped to repay, nor did I understand the currency.

  The classroom was already empty by the time I came to my senses. Standing from my desk, I grabbed my handbag and went in search of Stu. It wasn’t too difficult to find him. He was in the canteen sitting with Kian and Susan as they ate lunch. I hovered in the entryway until I caught his eye, then gestured for him to come over. Once I saw him get up I turned and walked straight out of the college to my car.

  Sliding into the driver’s seat I waited for him to join me, my nervousness building. Stu opened the door and climbed inside a minute later.

  “What’s wrong?”

  With a shaky hand I dropped the letter into his lap. His dark brows furrowed in concentration as he read it. I saw the moment of comprehension dawn before he turned to me. He exhaled heavily, his gaze softening.

  “I paid it.”

  I folded my arms. “Yes, I know.”

  His expression tightened. “Are you angry?”

  At this I made a very passionate hand gesture. “Of course I’m angry. This was a private matter. You can’t just go around paying off thousands of pounds of debt for me, Stu. We’re not together.”

  His jaw stiffened. “I don’t need reminding of that, luv.”

  I blew out air, exasperated. “How did you even manage it? Surely they would’ve needed some kind of authorisation from me first.”

  “That’s the upside of being indebted to unethical loan companies who send heavies around to threaten the people who owe them money. They don’t mind so much who’s paying them so long as the money’s legit.”

  I stared at him. “But why?”

  Stu’s gaze grew heated, his expression intense as he replied, “I’m not sure you want to hear the answer to that, Andrea.”

  Complete awkwardness descended, and I didn’t know what to say. I stared out the window while Stu dropped back into his seat. There were a long few moments of quiet before he spoke.

  “Look, by tutoring me and introducing me to your dad you’re helping me turn my life around. How about you just look on it as me returning the favour?”

  “It’s £50,000, Stu. That’s more than just a favour.”

  He ran a hand over his face and I noticed he looked a little tired, like he wasn’t sleeping so great. “If I’d done this job three years ago, I wouldn’t even be here right now. I’d probably be doing the exact same as Alfie’s old man, swanning off to the Seychelles to enjoy all that money. I sure as fuck wouldn’t be getting up every morning and going to school, and I wouldn’t be breaking my balls studying every night just so I can graduate from this course and go on to do another three or four years of study. But I’m not the same bloke I was three years ago. I’ve grown the fuck up and it’s about time. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life going from one dodgy job to the next, constantly trying to avoid jail time. I want something different and that’s all thanks to you. So just take the money, Andrea. You deserve it.”

  What he said made my chest tighten. Suddenly I forgot all my indignant feelings about the loan because I could barely mask how proud I was of him, how happy it made me that he was sticking with education. That he actually wanted to. If my estimation was correct there was still another £150,000 sitting in his bank account. He could be anywhere else in the world right now but he was here, attending class.

  I reached out and took his hand in mine. “I’m . . . I’m so proud of you,” I whispered.

  Air rushed out of him all at once; he clearly hadn’t expected me to say that. His expression made me think he might kiss me, but he didn’t. Instead he tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear and replied, “This might sound weird, but I’m proud of me, too.”

  I chuckled softly. “You should be. You’re defying the odds, Stuart Cross.”

  His voice deepened, his eyes tracing my lips. “Well, you know what they say about the right teacher . . .”

  At this the bell rang from inside the college, signalling the end of lunch. “Crap,” I breathed. “We’re late.” I looked at Stu again and squeezed his hand one last time. “Come on, we’d better get inside.”

  He walked behind me down the corridor towards the classroom, his breath touching my ear when he whispered, “So, are we done talking about the money?”

  I shivered, unable to help it. “N-not by a long shot.”

  He stepped by me, smirking. “We’re done.”

  “We are not,” I whisper-hissed. His confident expression was sexy and exasperating at the same time. He didn’t reply, only turned and stepped inside the classroom, taking his usual seat.

  I had difficulty concentrating on the afternoon lesson because something felt different. Something had shifted in the dynamic between us and my entire body was weirdly tense. Sort of like when you’re excited for a surprise, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen.

  I was walking up and down between the desks, explaining to the class how they were to complete a new assignment. I held my pen in my hand and dropped it just as I was walking by Stu. I didn’t think too much of it when I bent to pick it up. However, when I turned back around I knew he’d been checking out my arse. There was also the fact his eyelids were lowered, his mouth shaped into a seductive grin.

  Damn.

  We had a tutoring session scheduled for after class, and by the way he was looking at me I considered coming up with an excuse to cancel. He really needed to quit looking at me like that, because although it gave me butterflies, my feelings were still very muddled.

  On the one hand, I felt like I was dealing with a different Stu, one who finally knew what he wanted from life. He wasn’t denying himself the chance to learn anymore. In fact, he was embracing it. But on the other hand, he was still the same person with the same history and background. Even though I’d determined I couldn’t trust being with him, especially since I had Alfie to consider, I desperately wanted to. I wanted to believe what he’d said in that note, that he thought me a part of his family. That he’d defend me.

  I kept myself busy when class ended, chatting with Mary for a while as the students made their way out. Stu remained sitting at his desk, a book opened in front of him. Warmth suffused my chest when I realized he was reading The Hunger Games. There was just something too adorable about a big, tough, muscular guy like Stu sitting there reading YA dystopia, not to mention he looked completely engrossed in the story. The fact that I’d converted a man who used to get angry if I even mentioned reading a book into a reader was a reward in itself.

  I said goodbye to Mary then walked to my desk. I grabbed a pen and some paper and went to sit by Stu. He glanced up just as I dragged a chair over and placed it so I was facing him. When I took in his expression I noticed he looked a little bit sad.

  “You all right?” I asked, tilting my head to study him.

  He sucked in a disgruntled breath and frowned at me. “Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”

  “You just look sort of upset.”

  “I’m fine,” he huffed.

  I glanced between him and the book, then pulled it towards me as I scanned the page. Comprehension dawned. “You just read the part about the burned bread.”

  “Yeah, so?” Stu tugged the book away from me and back to his side of the desk.

  “It’s okay to be upset by it.”

  His mouth firmed as he rolled his eyes. “Piss off.”

  “Oh my God, you are upset. Don’t worry, Stu. I cry over books all the time. It’s normal.” I smiled widely. It was just so rare to find a subject that made him uncomfortable.

  “Andrea, I’m not crying.”

  “Yeah but, you’re not not crying either.”

  “I hate double negatives,” he grumped, and I laughed gently.

  “If it’s any consolation, I
cried when I read that part, too. In fact, I’m fairly sure I was bawling my eyes out.”

  His expression gentled. “It’s that soft heart of yours.”

  “We all have soft hearts when it comes to stories. Come on, even if you didn’t cry just now, you had to have cried at least once when you were reading Jude. That’s the ultimate ugly cry book.”

  Stu arched a brow. “Ugly cry?”

  “You know, when your face goes all red and blotchy, and your nose is running and you’re literally a hot mess because you’re crying so hard.”

  Stu shook his head, but he was almost smiling now. “I’ve never cried like that.”

  “Liar.”

  His almost smile turned into a grin. “Now that we’re talking about it, I think you might have a bit of sadistic streak making everyone in the class read that one.”

  “Ah, so you did cry,” I said, teasing him.

  He scowled playfully. “Aren’t you supposed to be tutoring me? Because it feels more like I’m being hounded.”

  I clicked my tongue. “Still avoiding the question. Don’t worry. It’s okay, I won’t tell anyone what a big softy you are.”

  He sighed heavily and there was a part of me that loved that I was getting to him. “I told you. Lee helped me read most of it, so even if I wanted to cry I wouldn’t have in front of my brother.”

  “Be honest, you both cried,” I continued, still goading him. “I can see it now. The Cross brothers holding one another through the heartache.”

  Stu laughed and I found myself admiring how his eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled. “Yes, that’s exactly right. We hugged it out then ate ice cream in our PJs to console ourselves afterwards. Happy?”

  “Did you cosy up on the couch and watch chick flicks, too?”

  He shook his head, leaning closer as he briefly stroked my cheek. My skin tingled where he touched me. His voice got lower, huskier. “Yes, Andrea, we watched a chick flick.”

  “Which one?”

  Stu opened his mouth to answer, and I could tell he really had to dig deep to think of a title. “Bridget Jones.”

  “I love Bridget Jones.”

  His expression went soft, his thumb stroking my cheek when he blurted, “I love you.”

 
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