Thief of hearts, p.28
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       Thief of Hearts, p.28

           L.H. Cosway
 
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  “He’s a pleasant fellow,” said Jamie pointedly.

  I scoffed. “I don’t think anyone’s ever described Stu Cross as a ‘pleasant fellow’ before.”

  “Well, they should because he is. And he’s clearly besotted with you.”

  I glanced to where Stu stood over by the service counter, making sure he was out of earshot. “Shut up.”

  “I’m just saying. It’s pretty obvious.”

  “You need to forgive him,” said Alfie. “He’s not the villain you’ve convinced yourself he is.”

  “If you must know I’ve already forgiven him. We’re friends now.”

  This time it was Alfie’s turn to scoff. “Oh, pull the other one.”

  I couldn’t really argue with him because he was right. I was deluding myself if I thought Stu and I could ever just be friends. He’d affected me since the very first moment he’d stepped into my classroom. When I saw him making his way back over to the table I quickly changed the subject.

  “So, Alfie tells me you two are off on a cruise of the Aegean. Fancy.”

  The two exchanged a glance, and if I wasn’t mistaken Jamie looked like this was news to him. Maybe I was just imagining things. Finally, he replied, “Yes, that’s right. We’re going to drink gaudy cocktails with tiny umbrellas, and soak up the Mediterranean sun while making friends with all the pensioners we can find. It’s going to be a roaring good time.”

  Stu, who had just retaken his seat next to me, didn’t look very convinced. He didn’t comment though, and I quietly thanked him for the water.

  “Well, I applaud you for being the only person able to convince Alfie to go abroad.”

  “Oh, you know I’m determined once I set my mind to something.” Jamie grinned while shooting Alfie another mysterious look. Seriously, what was going on with those two? For some reason I got the feeling I didn’t want to know.

  Back in the bookshop, I knew this was it. I was going to lose against Stu and be kicked out of the tournament. I took my seat across from him and clasped my hands together. The prize pack sat on a shelf at the other end of the shop and I stared at it, forlorn. Goodbye first edition, signed copy of Jude the Obscure. You were a momentary, lofty, idealistic dream from the start.

  Stu must’ve noticed where I was looking because he said, “I can throw the game if you want. I’m not bothered about winning.”

  I shook my head. “No, don’t do that. If I lose it’s meant to be. I don’t want to cheat.”

  His expression softened. “All right, then.”

  Jamie called a start to proceedings and the game began. Somewhere along the way Stu slid his feet around mine, his knees cradling my thighs. I wasn’t faring as badly as I expected. In fact, I was beating him and I could tell he wasn’t going easy on me. I was genuinely in the lead.

  My belly quivered as his legs locked around mine, the position intimate though nobody else in the room could see. “If you’re doing that to try and distract me, it’s not going to work,” I said, biting my lip as I contemplated the board.

  Stu’s gaze focused in on the movement. “Now why would I want to distract you? I already offered to throw the game.”

  I shot him a shy look and picked up a pebble. I was black, Stu was white.

  Stu tilted his head as he studied me. “You’re so beautiful.”

  I was sure I flushed pink at the compliment and endeavoured to avoid his heady gaze. I could tell he was smiling when he went on, “What? No response.”

  I sucked in a breath. “Thank you.”

  He pushed his knees in, holding my thighs tighter. “That’s better.”

  “Shouldn’t you be focusing on the game?” I huffed, because the way he was acting was turning me on. I wanted to have sex in the middle of a Go tournament. Bizarre.

  “Maybe that’s why I can’t focus. You’re too pretty.”

  I rolled my eyes, but could feel myself turning redder by the second. Stu leaned closer across the table. “And you’re so fucking sexy when you blush like that,” he continued. “Makes me want to bite you.”

  “Shut up.”

  “But you like it when I bite you.”

  I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “That’s neither here nor there.”

  “I like it when you bite me, too.”

  “Stu,” I whispered, glancing around to make sure nobody was listening.

  He laughed softly. “What? One of these days, luv, you’re gonna let me kiss you again. Everywhere.”

  “Oh my God,” I said, letting out a nervous laugh. “You need to stop.”

  His gaze was tender as he leaned his elbows on the table. “I can’t help it. I love you.”

  I gasped. My brain became scrambled, and I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I was having heart palpitations to boot. Stu finally focused back on the game, like I’d wanted him to all along. If he kept flirting with me, telling me he loved me, I was in danger of turning into a strawberry right where I sat.

  One of these days, luv, you’re gonna let me kiss you again. Everywhere.

  He loved me. He truly loved me, and despite my discomfort and embarrassment, I knew without a doubt that I was one of the luckiest women in the world because Stu Cross loved me.

  Needless to say, the entire conversation put me off my game, because over the next twenty minutes he easily gained the upper hand and I lost. I was out of the tournament. All because I couldn’t seem to think straight when he was close to me.

  I went and sat by Alfie to watch the remaining competitors. My excitement grew the longer Stu remained in the competition, until finally it was just a red-headed guy wearing a Game of Thrones T-shirt and him. Most everyone seemed confused by Stu’s presence, because I don’t think any of them had ever seen a Go player who looked quite like him before. Tall, dark, and gorgeous, tousled brown hair, effortlessly muscular, and a beguiling smile to make women sigh the world over.

  My heart was in my throat as I watched the final unfold. Stu was a force to be reckoned with, a natural even though he’d only been playing a while.

  “He’s amazing,” said Alfie. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

  “I know,” I breathed. Stu was amazing. And I was in love with him so much it frightened me. His opponent took the lead for a little while, but soon Stu got the upper hand again, finally winning the game. I cheered way louder than necessary when Jamie announced him the winner and he grinned at me, pleased. He was presented with his prize, and then competitors and spectators alike gathered to congratulate him.

  “Not going to go over and give your beau a big sloppy kiss for winning the competition?” Jamie asked coyly, and I shot him a look. He raised his hands in the air. “Just a friendly suggestion.”

  “Yes well, I’ve never really been one for public displays of affection,” I replied.

  “With a man who looks like that, all women like PDAs. If for no other reason than to ward off other females.” He chuckled, highly amused by his own joke.

  I shook my head at him and approached Stu. His expression warmed as soon as he saw me. I muttered a shy “Congratulations” and he knocked the wind out of me when he pulled me into a tight hug. His lips brushed my ear when he asked, “Want to help me celebrate?”

  The question was dripping with sexual undertones and a tendril of desire spread through my belly. I pulled back a little, unable to look at him when I answered,

  “I, um, ah . . .”

  Stu chuckled softly then kissed the edge of my lips. I couldn’t tell if he’d been aiming for my cheek and missed, or if it was intentional.

  “I’m going to pop open a bottle of wine,” Jamie announced once most everyone had gone home. There were just a few stragglers still hanging about.

  “Good idea,” I said, needing some alcohol. Now.

  And that was how an hour later I found myself sitting around a table with Stu, Jamie, Alfie, and three of the other players who’d almost made it to the final. At one point Jamie had popped up to his flat above the shop and grab
bed a few more bottles of wine. I was tipsy and flushed, and generally enjoying the conversation and the company. Whether that was down to the alcohol or the fact that Stu kept finding new, subtle ways to touch me, I couldn’t say.

  His arm rested against mine, his skin warm. I closed my eyes for a minute, enjoying the feel of him.

  “Tired?” he asked low enough so no one else could hear. Not that any of them were listening. They were all too drunk and engrossed in their boisterous conversation.

  “A little.”

  “Want me to walk you home?” His breath hit my ear and I trembled. Stu made a noise that sounded a lot like frustration. When I looked at him his eyes were practically glowing.

  “Yes.”

  As soon as the word left my mouth he helped me from my seat and we said goodnight to the others. I was vaguely aware of Jamie’s knowing smile as Stu slid his arm through mine and led me outside.

  “Wait, I forgot my things . . .” I scrambled to go back into the shop when Stu lifted his other arm on which hung my coat and handbag.

  “Oh, you think of everything,” I said, a big stupid grin on my face.

  His expression was fond and it made my stomach fizzle. “Yeah?”

  “Mm-hmm.” I glanced up at him. “You’re not half as drunk as the rest of us, are you?”

  Stu shook his head. “I’m not a big wine drinker.”

  “No, I remember. You’re more of a beer and whiskey sort of bloke.”

  He chuckled quietly and tipped my forehead. “That’s right. Good memory.”

  “I always remember stuff about you,” I slurred just before he dropped his arm and slid it around my waist so I was snuggled against him. The warmth from his body felt delicious, especially since it was dark out and there was a chill in the air. I was almost sad when we reached my flat, because he let go and pulled my keys from my bag for me.

  “Thanks, I had a great time tonight,” I said, sticking them in the lock and pushing the door open. I turned and stood in the doorway facing him. “I’m glad I decided to compete. It was fun.”

  “Yeah, me too. You were a better player than you gave yourself credit for.”

  I shrugged. “Not as good as you ya big . . . winner.” I grimaced and smacked my hand over my face. “Oh my God, I really am drunk. I should go to bed.”

  Stu’s gaze was hot and for a second I thought he might kiss me, but he only ran a hand down my arm before stepping away. “Get some sleep, luv. I’ll see you in class on Monday.”

  I swallowed tightly. “Yeah, see you Monday.”

  A second later he was gone and I went into my kitchen, plopping my bag down on the counter and grabbing a glass of water. I sat on a stool and stared glumly at the room, disappointed that even as tipsy as I was, I still hadn’t the courage to tell him how I really felt. My phone buzzed with a text, and I knew it was probably Alfie checking to make sure I got home okay. I pulled my bag into my lap, fumbling for my phone when my hand brushed off something unfamiliar. Upon closer inspection I discovered it was a book, but not just any book.

  What the hell?

  I withdrew the first edition copy of Jude the Obscure and emotion swelled within me. Stu. He must’ve put it in there when I wasn’t looking. My eyes started to water as I opened it to find Thomas Hardy’s signature on the title page. My fingers skimmed reverently over the inscription. As I did so, something else fell out onto my lap. Actually, two somethings: a note and pretty white-gold chain. I unfolded the note to read it.

  Andrea,

  Not all stories end sadly. Take a chance on us. I’ll be waiting.

  Stu.

  P.S. If you ever decide to take off the ring, this should keep it safe.

  The water in my eyes turned to full-on tears as I held up the delicate piece of jewellery. It glittered under the light of the lampshade overhead. So pretty. My pulse quickened as my attention went to my ring. Without overthinking it, I slid it off my finger and put it on the chain. Next I clipped it around my neck, and somehow it just felt right. It was still with me, because Mark always would be too. But I no longer needed its presence to be a barrier. I didn’t need it to protect my heart, because my heart had been given another soul to love. To be safe with.

  Mark’s ring had found a new home and gratefulness filled me, because Stu’s kind gesture, his gift, had been what gave me the courage to move forward.

  My life wasn’t over.

  Maybe it had just begun.

  I didn’t hesitate when I climbed off the stool, grabbed my keys, and headed for the door. Stu’s car was still parked outside Jamie’s shop, so he couldn’t have gone far. I ran outside and onto the street, my heart pounding as I searched for him. I was barely three houses down when I stopped in my tracks.

  He stood by the kerb as though debating whether or not to come back to my flat.

  Then he looked up.

  His eyes wandered over me, but it didn’t take him long to see I was wearing the chain. All at once his expression changed from uncertainty to joy to heated possession. He started to smile when I suddenly leapt for him, wrapping my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist. My hands trembled when I cupped his face and pulled his mouth to mine, kissing him with everything I had inside me.

  He groaned into the kiss, holding me tight as our tongues collided.

  I broke away long enough to whisper, “I love you.”

  Then my mouth was on him again, kissing, nipping, biting. Stu made a low sound of pleasure and frustration as he tried to catch his breath. “Wait, Andrea. What did you just say?”

  “I said I love you. I’ve loved you for as long as you’ve loved me. Maybe longer.”

  At this he clasped my chin in one hand, pulling my mouth back to his in a hot, searing kiss. “Say it again,” he growled.

  “I love you.”

  “Again.”

  “I love you.”

  His hands cupped my backside, his expression full of sexy promise. “I love you, too, Andrea. So fucking much.”

  After that everything sped up. Before I knew it he’d carried me back to my flat, into my bedroom, and divested me of all my clothing. His face was between my legs. I arched off the mattress and gasped when I came. Stu crawled up my body. He was naked, too, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember how he’d gotten that way. Though there were scratches and bite marks on his neck and shoulders that had to have been my doing.

  I couldn’t even blame it on the wine, because the strength of my emotions seemed to have zapped away all the drunkenness until it left nothing but stone-cold sobriety.

  He pushed inside me and I cried out before biting down on his shoulder again. There was something about Stu that brought out my wild side. I moaned when he started to move, unable to help how loud I was being. We were nothing but sensation and frenzied whispers.

  “I missed you.”

  “I missed you, too.”

  “Don’t ever leave me again.”

  “I won’t.”

  “Promise me.”

  “I promise.”

  “I love the book.”

  “I love you.”

  “I love you, too.”

  Stu gripped my neck as he drew back then thrust into me deep. My eyes closed, a light sheen of sweat covering my body as he drove me to dizzying heights of pleasure. We’d both been so hungry for one another that we’d forgotten to use protection. It felt like we both realised at the same time, but I only caressed his cheek and told him not to stop. I trusted him. Completely. Implicitly. In spite of everything.

  It was true what he’d written in that note. I was his family now, and he was mine. I felt it deep in my bones. Our love meant we’d go to the ends of the earth to protect each other. Each of our lists had grown by one.

  And sometimes the smallest number could be the biggest in the world.

  Twenty-Eight

  The letter had been burning a hole in my pocket all day. As soon as class came to an end I walked over to where Stu remained seated and dropped it on h
is desk. My pulse accelerated as he looked from the letter to me and then back to the letter.

  “What’s this, luv?”

  I already knew. I was nervous for his reaction. I wanted him to be happy and not feel intimidated by the task ahead.

  Stu and I had been seeing each other for almost three months. In secret, obviously. I knew that technically it was unethical to be conducting a romantic relationship with one of my students, but we were both adults. So long as it didn’t interfere with my work and Stu’s studies, then I didn’t see anything wrong.

  Besides, there was only one month left of the course. After that he wouldn’t be my student anymore. I was going to miss seeing him every day.

  A couple of weeks ago I’d started helping him with his university application. He applied to the Mathematics BSc programme at King’s College, and since Dad worked in the department he’d informed me just yesterday that Stu had gotten in. Stu applied through the college, which meant his acceptance letter had been sent here. And that was why I had it in my possession.

  His acceptance depended on his final grades in my class, but I was confident he was going to ace his exams. In spite of his dyslexia, his reading and writing was improving rapidly. He was really trying, and it made me believe he truly wanted this.

  “It’s a letter about your uni application. Open it,” I answered, barely able to conceal my excitement.

  Stu smirked and shook his head, his expression warm as he tore open the letter. Obviously, my enthusiasm amused him. Some days I wondered if him studying for a degree meant more to me than it did to him. Our personal relationship aside, as a teacher there was nothing more rewarding than to see one of my students succeed.

  He unfolded the letter and scanned the contents. I frowned when I saw his expression falter, his brows drawing together in what looked like disappointment.

  What the hell?

  “Guess it’s not the end of the world,” said Stu, shoving the letter aside and folding his arms across his chest.

  “What are you talking about?”

  He levelled me with a serious look. “I didn’t get in. Maybe I can try again next year.”

 
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