Thief of hearts, p.3
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       Thief of Hearts, p.3

           L.H. Cosway
 

  I expected him to react one of three ways: embarrassed, apologetic, or hostile. Surprisingly, it was none of those. What he did do was lean closer, granting me a waft of his masculine, woodsy cologne. His gaze never left mine as he replied simply, “And here’s a life lesson for you, Miss Anderson. I’m not pretending.”

  He startled me when he reached forward, took a strand of hair that had fallen free of my ponytail and gently tucked it behind my ear. I inhaled sharply when his fingers brushed my earlobe and felt momentarily speechless. He withdrew and cast me a final heated look, then left the classroom.

  Em, what the hell was that?

  I remained in place, my heart hammering in my chest as I fought to calm my breathing. I was having all sorts of strange feelings and the reaction alarmed me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so flustered and lost for words. In fact, I barely recognised myself. I didn’t act like this, all girlish and fluttery. At least, I hadn’t for a very long time.

  One thing was for sure: Stu Cross wasn’t as predictable as I thought, and even though I was the teacher in this situation, somehow it felt like I’d just been schooled.

  Three

  After lunch I felt awkward. It was difficult to concentrate on teaching with Stu right in front of me, the memory of his touch replaying over and over in my head. Why was I even thinking about that? I was being ridiculous.

  Unfortunately, the fact still remained that was I going to have to talk to him again. This time I wouldn’t let him get the last word, and I wouldn’t let his not-pretend flirting affect me either. At least, I hoped I wouldn’t.

  At three o’clock when the class let out for the day, I asked Stu to stay back again. He almost looked like he expected it, but more than that, he looked like he’d won something. I took my time packing away my things while Stu waited quietly. When everybody had left, he asked, “Can I help?”

  I paused and glanced at the folders I was shoving into my handbag. “Uh, no, I’m almost done.”

  Stu sat on the edge of his desk, his arms folded and an expectant look on his face. Remembering the error of my ways at lunch, I stood and went to lock up the cabinets behind my desk.

  “I like your top,” said Stu, his eyes blatantly perusing my chest as I walked back and braced my hands on the top of my chair. I had to glance down because I’d forgotten what top I was wearing. Whether this was due to being flustered or the fact that I never really paid much attention to such things, I couldn’t say. It was a simple navy blouse, nothing special. He was obviously still on his pretend flirting kick.

  “Thank you,” I replied.

  “The colour suits you,” he went on.

  “Again, thank you, but can we talk about what happened earlier? I’d like to clear the air.”

  “Are you married?” Stu asked, completely blindsiding me.

  I frowned. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

  “You’re wearing a wedding ring, but everyone calls you Miss Anderson, not Mrs,” he went on and I stiffened. For whatever reason, no one at the college had ever called me on the fact that I still wore my ring. Perhaps it was because they already knew my story. It was no secret I was the widowed teacher whose husband died tragically young. I’d learn to ignore the occasional pitying looks.

  “I was married. He’s passed. And going by Miss is a personal choice. After a while you get a little tired of people asking about your husband and having to explain you’re a widow,” I said and let out a humourless laugh. “Like right now, actually.”

  God, what was I doing? I shouldn’t even be entertaining this conversation. My personal circumstances were none of his business.

  Stu shot me a commiserating look and ran a hand through his hair. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

  “It was a long time ago,” I said, not bothering to correct him on his language this time. I was beginning to think it was a lost cause, encouraging Stu Cross not to swear.

  “Can’t have been that long,” he replied, eyeing me up and down. I didn’t look particularly young for my age. In fact, I always tended to look the exact age I was. Still, twenty-eight was young to have lost a husband, I knew that.

  “It’s been almost four years,” I said, again not knowing why I was being so open. Bizarrely enough, there was something oddly liberating about speaking to Stu.

  “Four years? What were you, a child bride or something?”

  I shook my head. “I married at twenty.”

  Stu whistled. “That’s young.”

  “It was, but I was always mature for my age.”

  “And you still wear the ring,” he said, his voice very quiet now.

  I lifted my hand up in front of me to study the small diamond. It hadn’t been particularly expensive, but it had been the most beautiful thing in the world to me the night Mark proposed. In an odd way, it still was.

  “Yes, I guess I’m just very sentimental in that sense.”

  Surprising me, Stu came forward and took my hand in his. I hitched a sharp breath as he slowly slid his thumb down the centre of my palm. Tingles skittered along my spine as his eyes followed the movement of his thumb and he made a low humming sound in the back of his throat. I stood completely quiet and still, partially because I was dumbfounded and partially because I couldn’t remember the last time a stranger had touched me.

  Had a stranger ever touched me?

  Stu Cross was without a doubt the most forward person I’d ever met.

  He turned my hand over to reveal the front of the ring. “Pretty,” he said, and I nodded before glancing up into his eyes. My heart skipped a beat when I found he wasn’t looking at the ring, but at me. Words were unreachable and all I could manage to do was pull my hand from his and take a sobering step away from him.

  I stared the floor as I whispered, “Why are you acting like this?”

  “Because I like you,” he answered simply.

  I looked up, studied him closely. Something was off about this entire situation. “No, you don’t.”

  He let out a quiet chuckle. “I’ve just spent the last two days watching you, Andrea. Believe me, I like you.”

  “Address me as Miss Anderson, please,” I said, fumbling through my mind for a way to put an end to this bizarre moment. How had he known my first name? Perhaps one of the other students mentioned it.

  The edge of Stu’s lips twitched and he winked at me. “Okay. If that’s how you like it.”

  I shook my head at him. “Don’t be cute. I’m your teacher. I’m trying to help you.”

  He met my gaze squarely. “Do I look like I need help?”

  My instinct was to move farther away but I stood my ground. He could be intimidating when he wanted to be. “Sometimes it’s the ones who don’t look like they need help that need it most.”

  “I don’t need help. I just want to be friends,” he said, mustering a very handsome and charming smile. “No wait, that’s a lie. I definitely want to be more than friends.”

  His determination had me flabbergasted. No man had ever pursued me like this, not even Mark. Something was amiss.

  “Well, friendship is all I have to offer, Stuart,” I said, putting as much authority into my voice as I could muster. “And the flirting will need to stop. Like I said, it won’t get you an easy pass. The only thing that will that get you a pass is hard work.”

  He grinned. “You’re sexy when you’re laying down the law, do you know that?”

  Now I just shook my head in exasperation. There was no talking to him. Maybe he was just a natural flirt and couldn’t help himself. Either way, it wasn’t going to work on me so perhaps I should just let him have it his way. Still, it was difficult not to return his smile. He really was far more handsome than he had any right to be. Plus, the twinkle in his hazel eyes was pretty much irresistible.

  “Completely shameless.” I sighed and walked around to the other side of the desk, needing some space from his heady presence. “So, tomorrow I hope we can start over. Please try
to fit in some reading this evening and get an early night so you’re not late again.” When I looked at him this time he was smirking.

  “Just gonna ignore the fact that I want you, eh?”

  I shook my head, exasperated. “I’m sure my oversized grey slacks get you real hot and bothered, Stuart,” I deadpanned. “Now go on, I’ll see you bright and early in the morning.”

  Busying myself gathering the last of my things, I studiously avoided looking at him, hoping he’d concede defeat and leave. Big mistake. Before I knew it, strong hands took my handbag and coat and set them back on the desk. Then Stu used his broad frame to corner me into the wall behind my chair.

  I stared up at him, my breathing heavy, unsure why I wasn’t screaming for help. But I knew why. It was the soft, sexy look in his eyes. It was a dangerous look, but not one that could lead to harm, not physically anyway. This was by far the most surreal thing that had ever happened to me. It was like some little Cupid baby had shot him with a love arrow and all of a sudden Stuart Cross was hot for his teacher.

  Or perhaps all that time behind bars away from the opposite sex had turned him into a crazed horndog. I mean, when was the last time I had been flirted with? Mark and I started seeing each other when we were seventeen, so perhaps I should be asking had I ever been flirted with? Surely I was imagining things. Stu made it clear he hadn’t wasted any time catching up on what he’d missed out on for two years. So, why me? Was this all just a game, a bit of fun?

  The dark look he gave me said it wasn’t. In fact, all I saw in his eyes was need.

  “I could take or leave the slacks,” he breathed, all gravelly. “But those lips and your big brown eyes, now those are what get me all jacked up.”

  I couldn’t look away and there was something in his voice that said he wasn’t lying. Well, wasn’t this just wonderful. The resident classroom bad boy fancied me. Some days the world really did have a sense of humour. It was like Fred suddenly having a hard-on for Velma when there were a hundred Daphnes he could be shagging.

  Levelling both hands firmly on his impressively hard chest (prison workouts?), I pushed him away and stepped aside. I couldn’t look at him now, my eyes trained determinedly on the floor as I grabbed my things. My voice wouldn’t work either, so, with spectacular awkwardness I shrugged into my coat, hitched my bag up on my shoulder, and walked silently out of the classroom.

  And yes, I didn’t think I’d ever been so stiff and uncomfortable in my entire life. But I mean, what do you say to something like that? I had no idea how to flirt and was entirely out of practice with men. Furthermore, I’d never known a man like Stu Cross.

  And further-furthermore, he was my student. There was no chance in this life or the next that anything could happen between us.

  I felt like I was walking on air as I made my way to my car. Fumbling for my keys in my handbag, I glanced around the mostly empty car park. A black Honda Civic idled by the entrance to the college, but the windows were tinted so I couldn’t see inside. A moment later the door I’d just exited opened and Stu strode out. He stood there for a second, pulling a packet of smokes from his pocket and lighting up.

  Almost as though he sensed my attention, his eyes flicked up and our gazes locked. Something fluttered in my chest for a second but then he turned away, continuing down the steps and climbing inside the Honda.

  Huh.

  I wondered who’d been waiting to collect him, and it struck me as odd because Stu didn’t seem like the sort of man who let other people chauffer him around. Then I remembered he was fresh out of prison. Perhaps he didn’t have the money for a car yet, or maybe his licence had been revoked. His crime had been driving related, after all.

  I thought on this on my way home, still trying to decide whether or not his interest in me was real or fake. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t see myself as ugly, but I definitely didn’t get pursued like this. Was he pursuing me?

  Ugh. I needed to stop thinking about it before I gave myself a headache.

  When I arrived back at the flat, Alfie was sitting on the floor in front of the TV, still wearing the same clothes from yesterday. Tears were running down his cheeks as he watched the news.

  Alfie was incapable of turning off his feelings when it came to distressing world events. I called it Anti-Bystander Effect. We’ve all heard accounts of people standing idling by and filming disasters on their phones while others lay fatally injured. Well, Alfie was the opposite of those people. He’d jump into shark-infested waters to save a stranger, and that was no joke. This was another reason he was a shut-in. Alfie was an emotional sponge. The outside world held too much pain for my cousin, because he was just one person, far too small to absorb it all.

  I glanced at the TV screen and sure enough a story was being reported about a bombing in Syria, where over twenty people had been killed.

  “Alfie,” I whispered, and he blinked. He’d been so engrossed in the story that he hadn’t even heard me come in.

  Letting out a small, watery breath he began wiping his eyes as he got up off the floor.

  “Are you okay?” I asked, my voice quiet, gentle.

  He nodded but didn’t speak, instead taking a chair from the kitchen and carrying it over to the cupboards. He stepped up onto the chair so he could reach the highest cabinet, where he kept some of his paint supplies. I watched as he hurriedly grabbed tubes of paint and various brushes, before getting back down off the chair. Then he disappeared inside his room and shut the door.

  I’d lived with him long enough to know he’d retreated inside his artist’s mind. It was likely I wouldn’t see him for a couple of days now until he’d finished whatever piece he’d been inspired to create.

  I guessed I was having dinner alone tonight. Story of my life. I considered popping over to visit Jamie, but then again, I wasn’t much in the mood to discuss the details of my personal finances and have him question whether or not I was doing okay. I knew he only asked these things because he cared about me, but sometimes I simply preferred not to think about them.

  It was the only way to keep from sinking under the weight and stress of it all.

  Four

  The week went by and I was relieved when Stu didn’t make any more untoward advances. He did, however, make a few random comments during class that seriously confused me. Unfortunately, they were too subtle for me to properly reprimand him on.

  You work a projector screen like nobody’s business, Miss Anderson.

  Pardon?

  Just complimenting you on your very fine projection.

  And . . .

  What does adumbrate mean, Miss Anderson?

  It means to summarise or roughly describe.

  Oh, right.

  Why?

  Thought it meant something else.

  Cue my WTF face. I was beginning to think that despite his very mainstream manly appearance, Stu Cross was a bit of an oddball.

  When the following Monday arrived, I checked my schedule and remembered I’d organised for the class to visit the nearby library to borrow some books. I liked to encourage my students to read both fiction and non-fiction, and since they were currently reading Jude the Obscure, their assignment today was to select a non-fiction book to borrow.

  Everybody seemed enthusiastic when I announced our mini excursion, all except for Stu, who had no discernible reaction to the news. The library was only ten minutes away, and I walked next to Mary and Susan, as the rest of the class followed behind. Stu was directly behind me, talking with Kian, who today had taken quite a shine to the phrase ‘cocksucking dickface’. At least it kept life interesting.

  I could tell Stu took a subversive pleasure in befriending someone who had free rein to shout expletives at random. Kian seemed happy to have made a friend, which made me glad, too. I just hoped Stu’s interest was genuine. So yeah, I was still trying to figure him out.

  Despite their differences in age, both Mary and Susan were avid Tinder users and had decided to regale me with dating stor
ies on our walk.

  “He seems real nice,” said Susan, talking about a guy she’d been seeing. “But he can be a bit of a wet lettuce at times.”

  “Oh, one of those,” said Mary, pursing her lips. “I went out with a bloke like that once. He used to make me take my shoes off before I came inside his flat. I can’t be dealing with that.”

  “Well, the trouble with Keith is that he doesn’t want to do anything that involves alcohol,” said Susan with a grimace.

  “Is that a bad thing?” I asked.

  “Yes, very bad. He only ever wants to go to the cinema or out for coffee. I can’t get him to come to a pub with me to save my life, and don’t even get me started on nightclubs. The problem is, I can’t do the deed without alcohol, so sex has been a no-go area. I’m just not confident enough to do it sober.”

  I tensed up a little at her mention of sex. Not because I was at all embarrassed talking about this stuff with them. My teaching style had always been very casual and easy-going in that sense. The trouble was, Stu was right behind me, and I had the feeling he was listening in on our conversation. I could also feel his eyes on me, wandering over the back of my neck, over my shoulders, down my hips. It was eerie, but I just knew he was watching me. Studying. Looking for cracks.

  “Well, do you both have to be drunk? Why don’t you just drink and let him stay sober?”

  Susan shook her head. “No, it has to be both of us, otherwise I’ll still be self-conscious because I’ll know he’s going to remember everything.”

  “You don’t want him to remember you had sex?” I asked, frowning.

  Susan threw her hands up in the air. “Hey look! I never said I was normal. This is just how I operate.”

 
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