Thief of hearts, p.4
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       Thief of Hearts, p.4

           L.H. Cosway
 

  I had to admit, insecurity was the last thing I expected of Susan. She just always seemed so confident, never afraid to speak her mind. Though I guessed we were all a muddle of contradictions when it came down to it.

  “You’ve obviously got body issues,” said Mary. “Which is ridiculous because look at you. You’re only a slip of a thing. But I get it. When I was your age I had a fantastic figure, but I never believed it. I always felt lacking in some way. Then after I hit forty I just didn’t give a crap anymore. To hell with all that insecurity bull, I was going to have sex with who I liked, when I liked, and I wouldn’t let anyone tell me otherwise.” She paused to point at Susan. “You should be exactly the same. Enjoy your life, because it’ll be over like that,” she finished with a click of her fingers.

  “I suppose you’re right,” said Susan, her confidence bolstered though she still seemed a little sceptical.

  Mary winked at her, pleased that her pep talk had proved relatively successful.

  I smiled to myself. Seeing friendships blossom between my students was always something I took great pleasure in. And since there was such a mix of age groups in adult classes, I felt like everybody could learn from each other.

  “What about you, Miss Anderson?” Susan enquired. “Have you ever tried online dating?”

  I grimaced a little and shook my head. “No, I’ve, uh, never tried it.”

  “Why not? You should be getting out there like me and Susan, trying all the different flavours,” said Mary with a saucy grin, and I actually felt myself starting to blush.

  “She’s right,” Susan agreed then eyed me up and down. “Though I’m not being funny, you’ll probably need to get yourself some new clobber.”

  I glanced at my worn jeans and white shirt. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”

  “You want the honest truth?” she asked, and I nodded, bracing myself. Susan never pulled any punches.

  Taking another look at my outfit, she continued, “Well, no offence, but you dress like a lesbian. And not one of those stylish lesbos with the biker jackets and choppy bobs, but the plain-Jane ones who wear baggy chinos and checked shirts.”

  I let out a surprised laugh while Mary elbowed her in the side. “Go easy, would ya? She asked for honesty, not to be insulted.”

  “Sometimes honesty is insulting.” Susan shrugged. “You’re not offended, are ya, Miss Anderson?”

  I smiled. “Not at all. You’re right about my clothes. I’ve always been pretty inept when it comes to fashion.”

  “You see?” she said, eyeing Mary. “She doesn’t mind. Oh em gee! I just had a great idea. Why don’t you let us give you a makeover? Then we can help you set up a Tinder account.”

  “Don’t get carried away,” I said, chuckling. “I think fashion advice is where I draw the line.”

  “Oh, you’re no fun,” Susan pouted in disappointment.

  “You should seriously give Tinder a try some time, though,” said Mary. “A pretty thing like you needs to be getting out there.”

  “Please don’t,” another voice joined our conversation. It was Kian. “Tinder’s full of perverts, and you’re too classy for unsolicited dick pics, Miss Anderson.”

  I shot him a smile. “Why, thank you, Kian.”

  He blushed a little and Susan turned to slap him on the shoulder. “Teacher’s pet.”

  “I’m just trying to give her a more rounded picture. You two are painting it like a single lady’s paradise. Wankers!”

  “Too right,” said Stu, finally speaking up. His deep, masculine voice had a weird effect on me. “People who use Tinder are all a bunch of wankers.” Kian chuckled, and they both high-fived. Both Mary and Susan looked unimpressed. I was relieved when we reached the library, because I could tell Mary was just about to confront Stu for basically calling her a wanker.

  I swear, sometimes it felt like I was teaching teenagers. Well, at least they made me laugh.

  “Here we are,” I announced before turning to address everyone. “You have half an hour to find a book, then we’ll meet back at the check-in desk at eleven thirty.” They all nodded and moved by me while I levelled my gaze on Stu.

  “Have you got a library card?”

  He shook his head.

  “Okay then, come with me and I’ll grab you an application form. They’ll give you a temporary card so you can check a book out today, then they’ll post the permanent one to you in a week or so.”

  “You shouldn’t listen to them,” he said as we stepped through the entryway.

  I shot him a glance. “To who?”

  “Mary and Susan. You don’t need to change anything about yourself. You’re already sexy as fuck.”

  I sucked in a breath at his words, so blunt and to the point. I didn’t think I’d ever been described quite like that before. It made me feel nervous . . . but a little excited, too. I turned to face him, plastering on a strict look. “You need to learn to stop talking to me like that. I’m your teacher.”

  He cocked a brow. “So you can talk to Mary and Susan about their sex lives, but I can’t tell you how sexy you are?”

  I placed my hands on my hips. “Yes, that’s exactly right. I’m friends with my students. I’ll talk to them about their lives and give advice when needed. The way you speak to me isn’t friendly, Stu, and I think you know it.”

  He shrugged. “I say what I think.”

  “Yes, well, try to keep some of the things you think to yourself every once in a while.”

  “Oh, I have been,” he said, pausing to slice his teeth across his lower lip. I was beginning to notice it was a signature move of his. “I’ve been keeping things to myself for over a week. Seems only natural that some of it finally slipped out.”

  My eyes flickered between his as I shook my head. His persistence was both bizarre and flabbergasting, and yes, a tiny bit flattering, which was why I decided to swiftly change the subject. “God, there’s no talking to you. Come on, let’s go find you an application form.”

  Stu was quiet as he followed me to the reception desk. A few minutes later I sat down with him at a table close to the poetry section so he could fill it out. I pushed the form across the table and handed him a pen. He glanced down at both items in consternation before levelling his gaze on me.

  “You do it. I hate filling out forms.”

  “They need your address and a few other personal details,” I said, as I noticed Kian scanning books in the poetry section. “It’s quicker if you do it yourself.” He seemed irritated, possibly by my presence, so I thought I’d go check on Kian. “Go ahead. I’ll be back in a minute, then we’ll take it to reception to get your temporary card.”

  Leaving Stu, I approached Kian. He was holding the collected works of T.S. Eliot. “‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,’” I quoted and he looked up at me curiously. “It’s from The Hollow Men, should be in there.”

  “I’ve only read The Wasteland so far. I like it but it’s very long.”

  I gave a soft laugh and made a gesture with my hands. “I can see that quote on the blurb. T.S Eliot, fantastic poet, but God, does he ever shut up?”

  Kian chuckled quietly. “Does poetry count as non-fiction? I want to borrow this one and read more of his stuff.”

  “Sure, go for it. You’ve got good taste. Eliot is actually one of my favourite poets,” I replied and then heard a muttered expletive from Stu. Turning around, I saw him glaring at the form and it made me worry.

  “I better go see what’s bothering him,” I told Kian before making my way back over to Stu.

  “What’s wrong?”

  He lifted his gaze to mine, his dark brows drawn together in frustration. Letting out a gruff breath, he shoved the form across the table and stood from his seat.

  “Fuck this shit,” he muttered under his breath then strode past me. What the hell? After several seconds a thought suddenly hit me. I felt like such an idiot. He said he hated filling out forms and all last week he hadn’t submi
tted any homework. I’d given him leeway because he was new and still settling in, but I should’ve seen the signs sooner. It was a very real possibility that Stu had trouble reading and writing.

  Firming my resolve, I followed in the direction he’d gone, finding him outside the library lighting up a cigarette. He glanced at me, inhaled a drag, then leaned back against the wall. I folded my arms over my chest and met his gaze head-on.

  “Care to explain what that was all about?”

  He shook his head. “Not really.”

  I studied him, trying to decide how to broach the subject. “Stu, if you have trouble with reading and writing, you only have to say the word and I’ll . . .”

  He turned and glared at me. “I can read and write fine.” The bitterness in his voice told me he was lying, though whether it was to himself or me I couldn’t say. Judging from his defensiveness, I decided now wasn’t the time to push the matter. So, I’d put it on the back burner, but it was definitely something we needed to discuss soon if he was going to progress in the class.

  I tried a different tack. “Is everything okay at home?”

  He blew out some smoke. “Just rosy.”

  “Are you sure about that?”

  “I’m thirty years old, Andrea. My daddy isn’t beating on me, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he practically sneered.

  I ignored his tone. For now. “Are you living with your parents?”

  “Oh, Andrea. Fuck off.”

  “Stu, I overlooked your language inside the library just now, but if you swear at me again I’ll have no other choice but to report your behaviour to the dean.”

  He at least had the decency to look regretful. “Sorry. Look, it’s how I talk. I don’t mean anything by it.”

  I sighed. “Well, try not to swear around me, okay? You might be thirty years old, but this is still school. You need to be respectful.”

  “Got ya.”

  “So, if you don’t live with your parents, where have you been staying?”

  “With my brothers.”

  “Oh, really?” I said, relieved he wasn’t all alone. “How many brothers do you have?”

  “Three. Lee, Trevor, and Liam.”

  “And you all live together?”

  “Yeah. It’s a bit of a full house at the moment, actually. Lee’s missus, Karla, lives with us now, and then there’s our cousin, Sophie, and her son, Jonathan. Oh, and her foster daughter, Billie.”

  “Wow, that really is a full house,” I said.

  Stu nodded. “Tell me about it. I feel like I’m getting under everyone’s feet. They got used to me not being there, and now I’m back, taking up space.”

  “I’m sure they don’t see it that way. They’re probably just happy to have you home and safe,” I said, sad for him. He’d been away for two years and things had changed. It must be difficult to feel like there wasn’t a place for you anymore.

  “I’ve been looking into getting a place of my own, but everywhere in London’s so bloody pricey. And it’s a pain in the arse trying to find work when you’ve got a record. Lee has his own restaurant, and he’s offered me a job doing the books, but I dunno, feels like charity.”

  I was surprised to hear his brother owned a restaurant, especially given Stu’s criminal history. Usually, crime ran in families, but not always. “The books?” I asked, impressed, especially considering my suspicions about his reading and writing. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as I thought. “Have you done accounting work before?”

  He took the final drag of his smoke then stubbed it out with the toe of his boot. Sending me an arch look, he replied, “Sure, none of it technically legal though.”

  Realisation hit me. So, by “the books” he meant cooking the books. I really hoped his brother’s restaurant wasn’t a front business for something more sinister. Stu must have read my mind because he went on, “Lee’s place is all above board. He’s given up the old life.”

  “Ah, I see. And you?”

  “What about me?”

  “Have you given up the old life, too?”

  It took him a few beats to answer. “Course I have.”

  I wasn’t too sure I believed him. Stu let out a low chuckle. “You’ve got a very expressive face, Andrea. Like a fucking billboard.”

  I pursed my lips at his persistent use of profanity and my first name. It felt like a losing battle. Still, his statement made me self-conscious as I glanced away. Was I really that transparent?

  “You don’t believe I’ve given up thieving, and that’s okay. You’re right to be leery of me. I mean, look at me. If ever there was a shifty-looking geezer, it’s me. But listen, even if I wanted to get back into that racket, where would I find the time? I have to have perfect attendance on this course as part of my parole.”

  “There are plenty of hours in the evening to be getting up to no good,” I said, placing my hands on my hips. Stu’s eyes glinted and a smirk shaped his hips. The innuendo in my statement hit me right after I said it.

  “There sure are, Andrea,” he said, taking a step toward me. His eyes traced my form as his voice lowered a notch. “There sure are.”

  I tugged on my shirt collar, warmth suffusing my cheeks. How could a man’s gaze seem so carnal, as if he was defiling me with just a look? Even worse, why did it both thrill and terrify me?

  Five

  Most of my students had gathered in the reception area to borrow their chosen books. Had thirty minutes passed already? There wasn’t going to be enough time for Stu to fill out the form now. Though maybe that was for the best until I got to the crux of his reading issues.

  “Come on,” I told him. He was still standing uncomfortably close. “We need to get back to the college.”

  Ignoring the heated look he gave me, I went to join the students and a short walk later we were back in class. There was only an hour left before lunch, and I planned on using that time to set up a Facebook group we could all use to interact with one another in the evenings. Given it was always a questionable area interacting with students on social media, I’d obtained permission from the department head.

  However, since I was teaching adults as opposed to children, it was allowed. In the past I’d used the college’s online forum for such things, but I found nobody really bothered checking in. By creating a group on Facebook, a site many of my students used daily, I found participation was almost ninety per cent higher.

  Of course, I didn’t make it compulsory, because I knew not everybody used social media, but I just wanted the option to be there should anyone need support with study or homework.

  “I don’t have a Facebook account,” said Larry, speaking up. “Too many of my ex-wives are on there, and I don’t want to see pictures of the new blokes they’ve shacked up.” His grin told me he was trying to be funny.

  “That’s quite all right, Larry. If you want I can help you set up an account, but if not you can always contact me by email if there’s an urgent matter you need to discuss. You were all given my address in your orientation folders the first week of class.”

  “I never got one of those,” said Stu, levelling his gaze on me. A sliver of awareness trickled down my spine. It seemed to be happening every time we made eye contact now, and I really didn’t know what to make of it.

  “Oh, that’s right. It’s because you started late. I’ll put a folder together and have it ready for you tomorrow morning. Does anyone else have any questions?”

  Nobody spoke up, but Kian did shout out a certain C word, which I obviously wholeheartedly disregarded. I knew it must have been incredibly difficult living with his condition. Though he was in treatment and most days he did incredibly well keeping his Tourette’s under control.

  “Okay,” I said, walking through the room and handing out laptops. They were old and the software was in serious need of an update, but you could still use them to go online. That was the main thing. “When you log on to your accounts you’ll be able to find me under Andrea Anderson. If you click on th
e friend button, I’ll accept your request and then I can add you to the study group. I’ve posted the rules to the top of the page so you can all familiarise yourselves with them.”

  Everybody got to work quietly, and I returned to my desk to find a good number of friend requests had already popped up on my screen. There was one that stood out most, making my heart beat erratically as I stared at his picture.

  Stu Cross.

  Why did he have to be so good-looking? It really was unfair. He stood in front of a car on a rundown residential street, his arms folded as he smiled at whoever was taking the picture. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans, the gun show very clearly on display.

  For some reason it felt odd that he had a Facebook account. He just seemed too rough and ready. I couldn’t picture him sitting in front of a computer, checking his friend requests or commenting on the latest viral post. Hovering the cursor over the request, I finally hit accept and my heart rate sped up further. Why did this feel like stepping over a threshold that I couldn’t turn back from?

  As soon as the deed was done I started to wonder if he’d check out my page. Although, I didn’t have very many personal photos or anything like that. There were a few from my holiday last year to Mauritius with Mum and Dad, and a few random ones from various social gatherings over the last few months. There were also a couple older ones of Mark and me that I’d never been able to bring myself to delete. Of course, there were none of Alfie. He expressly forbade posting any pictures of him and said he’d disown me if I did.

  Needless to say, he wasn’t the biggest fan of social networking. Neither was Jamie. Given that my two closest friends didn’t use Facebook, my page was pretty boring and inactive.

  I tried resisting the urge to have a peek at Stu’s page, but my willpower barely lasted five minutes before I clicked on his profile to snoop. I was such a weak-willed human being.

  Scrolling down, I saw that most of the posts on his wall were from other people, a lot of them congratulating him on his early release. I found it weird, but then again, I wasn’t from that world. So why was I so interested?

 
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