Thief of hearts, p.6
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       Thief of Hearts, p.6

           L.H. Cosway
 

  He was right. It wasn’t like me, but I didn’t have the emotional energy to delve into why I was acting so out of character. Sure, Stu had been determined to give me a lift home, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t have put my foot down and declined. If I was being completely honest with myself, I’d wanted to take the lift. Some deep, dark, very unprofessional part of me enjoyed his attention. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared to admit any of this to Alfie.

  “He offered me a ride and it would’ve been rude to say no. That’s all there is to it.”

  “He could be grooming you.”

  I cocked an eyebrow. “Grooming me for what?”

  “I don’t know. For something illegal. Maybe he wants you to be his drugs mule, or to put your name down as guarantor for a mortgage he’s going to skip out on.”

  I barked a laugh at that. Honestly, where did he come up with this stuff?

  “It’s not funny,” he huffed.

  “I know it’s not. I’m just tired. Can we eat dinner and leave the worrying out of it for one night?”

  Alfie pursed his lips, glanced at the floor, then nodded his head. At least he was aware of how trying his personality could be at times. And yeah, maybe I would be more worried about Stu’s interest in me if I wasn’t already drowning in financial woes. The money I owed tended to take up the majority of my head space, leaving no room for anything else.

  I pulled the band from my hair, letting it fall around my shoulders as I opened the fridge to search for food. “I take it that you’ve finished your painting, since this is the first I’ve seen of you in days.”

  Alfie let out a breath and went to sit down at the table. “Yes. My bedroom door’s open if you want to go see.” I slid a glance his way and noted the frenetic energy about him. He always got like this when he finished a new piece. For some reason he was never satisfied that it was actually good until I told him so. I was like his very own live-in art critic.

  I nodded to him, poured myself a glass of Merlot and headed for his room. There were paints, paintbrushes and bits of stained cloth covering almost every available surface. The air was so thick with the smell of resin I was surprised Alfie hadn’t gotten high off the fumes. Although, that could explain his high energy . . .

  First I cracked open the window, then I turned to study the piece and my breath caught in my lungs. The canvas showed the wreckage left after a bomb, piles of concrete and rubble stacked high. The eerie stillness after a disaster.

  The entire piece consisted of varying shades of grey, except for a single beacon of light. A red ribbon lay vibrant but lifeless on a shattered brick, its owner nowhere to be found. It was the same red ribbon that had been in his last painting, the one of the little girl with the kite.

  There was something about the stark meaning that had me sitting down on the bed for a moment to let it sink in. Alfie could be one of the most difficult people in my life, but it was moments like this that made it all worthwhile. Emotion clutched at my throat as I realised that Alfie painted pictures that were like books, sad books like Jude the Obscure. They told a story, made you feel things.

  I glanced back at the painting, suddenly seeing something else and my heart pounded. The picture wasn’t all that it seemed at first glance. It required taking a step back, just a little more distance, to see what it really was. It didn’t depict just one thing, but two. Up close you saw the wreckage, but take a few steps back and you saw the face of the girl from the other painting. Pure genius.

  Movement caught my eye. My cousin hovered in the doorway, awaiting my feedback. I ran my fingers beneath my eyes and rose from the bed. Grabbing him around the shoulders, I pulled him into a hug, no words forthcoming. But none were needed. He’d seen my reaction. He knew it was good.

  “I took inspiration from the Sistine Chapel,” said Alfie once I let him go. “A lot of people believe that Michelangelo concealed images of the human anatomy within the painting as a sort of subversion to the Catholic church. If you look at the fresco of The Creation of Adam, it’s actually shaped exactly like the human brain.”

  “Really? I’ve never heard of that.”

  “It’s true. He might’ve been a painter and a sculptor, but he was also an anatomist. I wanted to achieve that sort of juxtaposition in my own piece.”

  “Well, I think you’ve outdone yourself. You’re going to have a lot of people interested in buying this painting, Alfie. I just know it,” I said and looked over his shoulder at the stack of old replicas still hadn’t been moved. “Are you keeping those?”

  Alfie glanced to where the paintings sat, looking torn. “I don’t want to give them away.”

  I walked over and picked up the one at the top. It was a copy of The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt. Turning it over, I noticed the wood used to stretch out the canvas looked very old. There were even cracks in the paint, as though Alfie had been trying not only to replicate the piece, but also make it appear like the original.

  “Where did you get this wood?” I asked, running my fingers along its knots and dents.

  Alfie’s expression turned guarded and he appeared uncomfortable with the question. “I got it from a chest of drawers I bought at an antique fair years ago.”

  I glanced at him. “And you chopped it up to use for your paintings. Why?”

  “Does it matter?”

  I shook my head. “Not really. I was just wondering why you’d go to the trouble.”

  He scratched his neck. “You know me. I get weird ideas sometimes.”

  “Well, you’re right there. Anyway, can I keep this? I’ve been thinking I need something new to hang on my walls.”

  Alfie hesitated a moment then shrugged. “Sure. Have it.”

  I smiled and came forward to kiss his cheek. “Thank you. It’s really beautiful.”

  ***

  The following morning I arrived to class early, having compiled the requested orientation folder for Stu. I also brought along a non-fiction book to see if he’d be interested, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. I’d decided to try a new tack by offering to help him read it, rather than going straight for the jugular and suggesting extra tutoring sessions to bring his reading up to standard. I suspected he’d only turn me down and get defensive like before.

  I was also trying to gauge where his interests lay. Politics, art, economics, literature. I’d find his sweet spot eventually. If he enjoyed this book, I’d recommend more science-based works, and if not, I’d try a different subject.

  That was the nice thing about teaching a class of only fifteen students. It gave you the time to discover each person’s strength, and encourage him or her in that direction.

  A few people started to arrive, Kian among them. He came straight up to my desk, his eyes alight beneath the thick black eyeliner he wore.

  “Morning, Kian,” I said, smiling at him as I organised the math worksheets for the morning lesson.

  “Morning,” he replied, shifting on his feet like he wanted to tell me something. “Wankers!”

  “How are you?”

  “I’m good, really good. I was up half the night reading the book I got yesterday. I think I’m in poetry love.”

  I smiled, making a mental note to recommend similar poets to him. I’d officially found his sweet spot. “I take it you’re now a fully-fledged Eliot fan.”

  He nodded. “Pretty sure my next tattoo is going to be a quote of his.”

  “Oh,” I sat up straighter, interested because I was also a big fan, “which one?”

  Kian rubbed at his lips. “Hmm. It’s a toss-up between ‘There will be time. There will be time’ and the last verse of The Hollow Men.”

  “Ah! The one I quoted to you yesterday? That’s my favourite, too.”

  We both shared a smile before a shadow fell over my table, and I glanced up to see Stu had arrived.

  “Hey Stu! Fuck! How’s it going?” Kian greeted him.

  “All good, buddy,” Stu replied and turned his attention to me as Kian went over to chat
with a few other students.

  I cleared my throat. “I have your folder here, the one you asked for yesterday.”

  Stu glanced over at Kian, who was now out of earshot, then back to me. “Goth boy’s got a crush on you.”

  I sputtered a laugh. “Who?”

  “Kian. He likes you. Can’t you tell?”

  “You’re imagining things,” I said, handing him the folder. “I’m old enough to be his . . . older sister.”

  Stu chuckled. “Older sisters are hot. And I’m not imagining things. It’s actually pissing me off if I’m honest.”

  “Oh yes, because being hot for teacher is your thing, right?” I joked. “Wouldn’t want anyone stealing your thunder. Honestly, Stu, you can drop the act now. It’s getting old.” Even as I said it I wasn’t sure if I believed it. The way he looked at me said he was attracted, but that could be faked, right?

  “Oh Andrea, there’s so much you’re gonna learn,” said Stu in a low, sexy voice.

  I focused on the papers I was organising, trying to ignore the shiver his words induced. “Fine. Don’t drop the act then. It’s your own time you’re wasting.”

  He didn’t respond, just kept on staring at me in a heated way that made my shirt feel too tight. The tension had me rambling. “I mean, honestly, we’re basically the same age. It’s not like there’s even a taboo. This isn’t high school. You’re not a seventeen-year-old girl and I’m not an attractive twenty-something male history teacher.”

  “No, I’m a thirty-year-old ex-convict and you’re an attractive twenty-something adult education teacher. Still feels like a sexy taboo to me,” he said with a wink and a smirk. I decided I’d already indulged this line of conversation far longer than I should have and stayed quiet.

  Stu took the folder back to his desk, and it was moments like these where I questioned my decision to seat him so close to me. To the front of the classroom. Only three feet away . . . from me. Shit. I really needed some distance between us or I was going to spontaneously combust. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I saw him flick through the pages and wondered if he’d ever be brazen enough to use my email for a non-class related subject. Was there a part of me that wanted him to . . .?

  Nope, not going there.

  Once everybody had arrived, I stood to give the class a quick lesson in basic algebra. Mathematics wasn’t a main component of the course, as it was more literature and history based, but I did like to at least touch on everything to round out the experience. I handed out some worksheets, and they were all quiet as they completed it. I noticed even Stu was busy. It didn’t last long though, and after only a minute or two he set his pencil down and pushed the worksheet aside.

  I glanced at him, asking quietly, “Is everything okay? Do you need me to go over the equation with you again?”

  Stu shook his head. “Nah, I’m finished.”

  “You finished the entire worksheet?” I asked, my mouth falling open slightly. It typically took students twenty to thirty minutes to answer all ten questions.

  “Yeah, no offence but it was a piece of piss.”

  “Are you for real?” Susan whispered from the desk next to Stu’s. “I’m only on question two.”

  Stu shrugged. “I’m good at this sort of thing.”

  Susan shot him a jealous look then turned back to her own work. I rose from my seat and went to collect Stu’s worksheet. I felt him watching as I scanned the paper, stunned to find he was telling the truth. He’d completed the entire thing in less than five minutes and every single answer was correct.

  “Have you taken any maths lessons before?” I asked and he shook his head.

  “No, I’m mostly self-taught, but honestly, that worksheet is kids’ stuff. Why don’t I give you something harder? Sorry, I mean, why don’t you give me?” he replied, a grin on his face like he was baiting me.

  I didn’t rise to the innuendo, though it did make my mind momentarily wander. I imagined that had been his intention. Instead I went back to my desk and rifled through my drawer for a new worksheet, this one containing some fairly difficult quadratic equations.

  I handed it to him and he gave a little scoff as if to say, this all you got? Ignoring his attitude, I went and sat down again, all the while watching him work out of the corner of my eye. If anything, I was fascinated, especially considering how he used to do illegal accounts. If I could just get him to use his skill in a more productive way, there was no limit to what he could achieve after the course ended.

  Again he finished in record time and again I was flabbergasted by the accuracy of his work. Not a single answer wrong. Had I just found Stu’s subject? The only problem with him having a talent for equations was that I wasn’t equipped to teach him anything more than the basics. He was clearly on another level and would need someone more adept at the subject in order to be properly challenged.

  An idea niggled at me. My dad was a mathematics professor at King’s College here in London. I knew that if I asked him he’d be more than happy to tutor Stu after hours . . . but did I want to introduce him to my dad? For some reason it felt like a step too far. Too personal.

  When I looked up I found him watching me, almost like he sensed my thoughts. I’d been chewing on my lip so hard I tasted blood. Stu lifted an eyebrow in question but I just looked away, going to collect the worksheets from the rest of the class.

  When the bell rang for lunch I noticed Stu hanging back, and when he approached my desk with a food container and a flask, I knew I had to set some boundaries.

  “So I’m not gonna lie, my brother Lee put all this together for us. He’s got mad skills in the kitchen. I can’t cook for shit.”

  “Stu, what you are doing?”

  He frowned. “I told you I’d bring lunch today.”

  “And I told you the lift home was a perfectly reasonable way to return the favour.”

  Setting both the flask and the container down on the table, he eyed me shrewdly. “That’s how it’s gonna be, huh?”

  “Stu, I’m happy to spend time with you if it’s coursework related. I’ll even lend an ear if you’re having personal issues, but I think we both know that’s not what’s going on here.” I paused and glanced down at the packed lunch. “Is that sushi?”

  Stu smirked. “Oh, now she’s interested.”

  “I’m not interested. I was simply surprised by your choice of cuisine. You don’t look like the sushi type.”

  His smirk transformed into a grin. “Well now, that’s just racist.”

  “Don’t be a smart-arse. You know what I meant.”

  Stu ran a hand over his jaw. “Like I said, my brother made it. He’s a chef, has his own restaurant and everything. You should stop by sometime.”

  I tensed up. “Thank you for the offer, but no.”

  “There you go again, making assumptions. Just because I might be a shifty fuck, doesn’t mean my family is, too.”

  “I never said they were. Or you for that matter.”

  “You don’t need to. Your face said it all, Andrea. Though you should know that Lee’s married to a copper. Can’t get any more law abiding than that.” He paused to eye my reaction and I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t deny the information surprised me.

  “Come by the restaurant this weekend. It’s Trev’s birthday. We’re throwing a big shindig or what have you. It’ll be fun, good chance for you to let your hair down.”

  The look he shot me had tingly goosebumps rising on my skin. Desperate for some way to break the moment, I bent over and pulled the Dawkins book from my bag, handing it to him.

  “This is for you, since you didn’t get the chance to borrow a book from the library. I was thinking we could read it together during class while the other students are doing written work.”

  Stu didn’t look at the book. Instead he stared at me, his expression hard. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and regretted bringing up the subject. But I couldn’t just let him continue as he was, sweeping his problems under the rug a
nd ignoring them. Finally, he broke eye contact and glanced at the cover. His mouth was a straight line as he shook his head, then placed it back on my desk. “Not my thing, sorry.”

  “How do you know it’s not your thing? You haven’t even looked at the blurb.”

  “I can just tell,” he replied, scooping up the lunch he’d brought. “Listen, if you don’t want to share this then I’ll head off. No need to shove shitty books at me to try and scare me away,” he grunted before turning and stalking out of the classroom.

  I sat there, mouth agape as he slammed the door behind him. My stomach twisted into knots as I dropped my face into my hands and rubbed at my temples. His unhappy expression said it all. By trying to discuss the matter in a roundabout way, I’d offended him. Well, crap.

  Seven

  “So, any plans for the weekend?” Susan asked as she helped me stack some folders into the cabinet behind my desk. Most of the class were busy making a start on the new assignment I’d given them, but I could tell Stu was eavesdropping. After his abrupt departure at lunch, I wondered if he was still pissed at me.

  “My friend Jamie is having an author visit his bookstore to do a reading and I offered to help out,” I replied.

  “Wow, no offence, but that sounds mega boring, Miss Anderson.”

  I chuckled. “It’s not boring at all. This guy wrote a book about the Persian Wars. You should read it if you ever get the chance. I find the whole thing fascinating.”

  “Oh my God, it gets worse. I think you just about put me to sleep there.”

  I heard a little snicker come from Stu’s direction and now knew he was definitely listening. Well, at least snickering was better than the scowl he’d given me at lunch. Turning to Susan, I smiled, because for some reason I had a fondness for the way she liked to playfully rib me. Unlike Stu, who I still had suspicions about, being cheeky was just Susan’s way. “Did you enjoy the movie 300?” I asked.

  “Yeah, obviously. Tell me a woman who doesn’t want to stare at Gerard Butler’s oiled-up CGI abs for ninety minutes.”

  “Well, that film tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small force of Spartans and their allies fought against the giant Persian army to defend against invasion. There’s a chapter in the book that gives a more realistic overview of it. I always find it interesting to pick out the alterations made when transforming history for the big screen.”

 
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