Thief of hearts, p.7
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       Thief of Hearts, p.7

           L.H. Cosway
 

  Susan rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m still bored.”

  I wagged my finger at her. “A curious mind makes life interesting, Susan. You shouldn’t always dismiss things before they’ve had a chance to wow you. If you do, you’ll miss everything that’s wonderful in the world.”

  “Maybe my idea of wonderful is just different to yours. Ever think of that?” She cocked a hip, all attitude.

  “Okay, true. But if you go around living your life indifferent to new experiences, you’re going to have a grey life. Wouldn’t you prefer it to be a rainbow?”

  Susan shot Mary a look like I was some hippy-dippy crazy woman. “Here she goes again, philosophising.”

  Mary chuckled, shaking her head and continuing with her assignment.

  “It’s my job to help you open your minds,” I said, addressing Susan again.

  “Yeah well, you know what they say about that,” said Larry, joining our chat. “If you open your mind too much, your brain might fall out.”

  Smiling, I replied, “That’s why you only have to open it a little. You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn with just the tiniest smidgen of curiosity.”

  “Curiosity killed the cat though, didn’t it, Miss Anderson?” Larry went on unhelpfully. Sometimes I wondered if he just liked the sound of his own voice.

  “Are you just going to keep throwing sayings at me today, Larry, or are you going to get on with your assignment?” I questioned firmly.

  “I was only saying,” he huffed, lifting his pen and turning back to his work.

  Sensing someone’s attention, I glanced to the side to find Stu studying me. I held his stare, wondering what he was thinking. A shiver trickled over my skin, the same awareness he always seemed to provoke. I wore a sleeveless shirt and his eyes traced the bare skin on my arms, the hollow of my throat. Feeling too exposed, I shrugged on my cardigan and excused myself to the bathroom.

  The man frazzled me, even when he didn’t say a word. How I was going to survive the next five months?

  ***

  “Herodotus is by far my favourite classical author. Sure, he might’ve been a tad creative with the truth, but you have to be if you want to entertain people. I mean, everything else seems flat and lifeless in comparison to his Histories,” said Jamie. I was helping him open cardboard boxes full of books in preparation for the author reading and signing he was hosting today.

  “Hmm, I quite like Aristotle, and I was always very interested by the teachings of Hippocrates,” I replied, and he screwed up his face in disgust.

  “Oh God. When suffering from insomnia at university I’d read The Nicomachean Ethics and it’d send me right to sleep. And Hippocrates? Aren’t you at all offended by his theory of the wandering womb?”

  I laughed, pulling out a stack of books and placing them on the table. “You mean how he thought the female monthly cycle and accompanying mood swings were caused by the womb becoming displaced and knocking around inside the abdominal cavity?”

  “No, the other wandering womb theory,” Jamie deadpanned. “Of course that one.”

  I shrugged. “Not really. All through history people came up with lots of wacky ideas. We have to make mistakes in order to get to the truth, after all.”

  “Well, I can’t argue with you there,” said Jamie, pausing to glance over my shoulder. “Where’s your cousin gotten to by the way? He told me he’d be here to help.”

  “He’s running late because he was up half the night working on a new painting.”

  “Another one? I thought he just finished a large piece.”

  “He did. It seems the muse has been upon him lately.”

  “Well, he’s the finest artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I suppose it’s best to just leave him to his process,” said Jamie.

  I nodded my agreement and then there was a knock on the shop door. Peeking through the window, the author and his assistant had arrived. Jamie went to let them in while I continued unpacking the books.

  A few minutes later Alfie showed up, and I watched as he and Jamie spoke earnestly about a story that had been on the news that morning. If I was honest, I secretly held out hope there might be something romantic between my cousin and his best friend. Unfortunately, from what I’d observed of Jamie, he didn’t date often. And although he was always very straightforward and open about things, I suspected something was holding him back. Perhaps he thought he’d scare Alfie away if he expressed his true feelings.

  My cousin had had a few boyfriends over the years, but none in the last fifteen months at least. I couldn’t tell if it was because he liked Jamie and was holding out for him, or if he was simply too preoccupied with his art.

  About an hour later the shop was all set-up and people were starting to arrive for the reading. I was busy manning the service counter while Jamie schmoozed with the author and Alfie sat in a corner sketching something on a piece of torn paper. I’d always found it fascinating how he could be struck by inspiration anytime, anywhere, and he’d have no choice but to use whatever materials were at his disposal.

  My attention drew away from my cousin when somebody approached the counter. Glancing up, I caught my breath because Stu Cross stared back at me.

  “H-hello. What are you doing here?” I greeted, a frog in my throat.

  “I came for the reading,” Stu answered casually, a sexy smile gracing his lips. “After I heard you getting all jazzed up about it in class yesterday, I thought I’d come see what the fuss is about.”

  His explanation sounded genuine, and I perked up at the idea that he might actually be interested in classical history. Usually my passionate speeches fell on deaf ears, so there was a certain triumph in knowing I’d gotten through to someone. Mostly though, I was happy because it meant he was interested in reading—or least trying to read—a book. After our conversation yesterday, it seemed like a bizarre turnaround, but I was willing not to question it so long his interest wasn’t fake. I mean, what would be the payoff? Perhaps he simply realised how unreasonable he was and decided to make up for it by coming to the reading.

  “Really?” I grinned. “That’s great. Would you like to buy a copy of the book?”

  He lifted a shoulder. “Sure.”

  “Okay, wonderful,” I grabbed a hardback and rang up the purchase while Stu scanned the room. I noticed his attention fix on Alfie for a long moment, but he was probably just curious as to why he had paint all over his clothes.

  “Here you go. That’ll be £12.99,” I said, and Stu handed over the money before nodding to Alfie.

  “Who’s that?”

  “Oh, that’s my cousin, Alfie. He’s an artist, forever stuck in some creative endeavour,” I explained with a smile.

  Stu’s eyebrows jumped. “Your cousin? Care to introduce me?”

  I frowned, remembering how freaked Alfie had been when Stu dropped me off at the flat the other day.

  Biting my lip, I answered, “Um, he’s not the most social animal. It’s probably for the best if I don’t.”

  Stu took a step closer, and once again, the intoxicating scent of his cologne made me a little weak-kneed. Why did he always have to smell so good?

  “You ashamed of me, Andrea?” he asked low.

  My heart pounded, both at his closeness and his question. “You’re my student. What’s there to be ashamed about?”

  “You tell me. All I know is you looked anxious as fuck just now.”

  “Like I said, Alfie’s not great with people, all people. It’s got nothing to do with you. Now, would you like to take a seat? There are customers behind you waiting to be served.”

  Stu stared me down for a moment before going to sit. I watched as he sat a few seats away from two plainly dressed middle-aged men, so completely out of place. Stu wore dark jeans and a T-shirt under his worn leather jacket. Definitely the last person you’d expect to see at an event like this.

  The reading would start in just a few minutes, and I was relieved Stu and I wouldn’t have any more oppor
tunities to talk for a while. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy he was here, showing an interest in an academic subject. It was more that our conversations always tended to veer toward the uncomfortable or awkward, or sexy awkward. And I couldn’t tell if it was his fault or mine.

  Probably a little of both.

  When the reading began I took the opportunity to pay a visit to the bathroom, and when I returned, Alfie was waiting outside, an unhappy slant to his mouth.

  “What is that man doing here? Did you invite him?”

  “He expressed an interest in Persian history,” I answered, trying for casual. “I’m encouraging him to be pro-active about his learning.” It wasn’t exactly the truth, but it was the best I could do. I couldn’t tell Alfie that Stu had turned up after eavesdropping on a conversation and discovering I’d be here. If I did he’d blow a gasket. He already thought I was too lax with my personal information as it was.

  “He keeps turning up, Andie. Are you sure he isn’t stalking you?”

  “He’s not stalking me. Now relax and go back to the reading. Jamie’s spent the last month organising all this, and it’d be nice for him to see you show an interest.”

  “He’s well aware that wars are my most hated aspect of history.”

  “Your last painting depicted the wreckage after a bomb,” I countered.

  “Yes, and every moment creating it was agony. Sometimes the things I hate the most make me feel the most, Andie.”

  “I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

  Alfie looked at the floor. “Well anyway, I think I might head home. I don’t feel safe with your stalker hanging around.”

  He said the last part with a hint of sarcasm and I had to wonder if he just didn’t like the idea of anyone taking my attention away from him. He could be very possessive of my friendship in that respect. Even when Mark was alive, Alfie and I had been close, but still not as close as we were now. I’d been terribly bereft and lonely after Mark passed and Alfie had been desperate to move out of his mother’s house, hence our decision to move in together. Over the years we’d come to depend on one another in different ways, though Alfie definitely depended on me more than I did him. But it was a good fit. For both of us.

  “Andrea, is there a john in here I can use?” came a familiar voice and I startled when Stu appeared.

  Alfie looked at him with absolute horror in his expression. He seemed to shrink as if he was hiding himself, like Stu had walked in on him naked, towelling himself dry after a shower. Oh, Alfie. Always one to overreact. I guessed Stu now understood what I meant about Alfie being a little odd.

  I cleared my throat. “Yes, it’s just through there,” I said, indicating the way I’d come.

  “Thanks,” he replied and glanced at Alfie. “Hi, I’m Stu, a student of Andrea’s. You must be her cousin.”

  He held out his hand but Alfie just stared at it like he was offended. His social awkwardness really knew no bounds. In fact, it was making me feel awkward by association.

  “You all right, mate?” Stu asked, frowning.

  Alfie looked at me, shook his head and began backing away. “I’m going home. I’ll see you later.” And with that, he left.

  I shot Stu a look of apology. “I’m sorry. I told you he’s not good with people.”

  He chuckled. “Yeah. I got that.”

  Staring at the wall because his eyes were intense this close, I continued, “He’s also incredibly paranoid. I, um, I may have mentioned your past to him. He thinks you’re stalking me.”

  Stu’s smile grew wider. “How do you know I’m not?”

  His response took me off guard as I sputtered a reply, “Are you?”

  “Nah, but you have to admit it’d be just a little bit sexy if I was.”

  I rolled my eyes, trying not to let him see how his words affected me. “Sure.”

  “You know I’m right, Andrea,” he said, stepping close and running a hand over my shoulder. It took a concerted effort not to tremble. Until two weeks ago, another man hadn’t touched me this intimately since Mark. I felt skittish, affronted. I backed up as far as the wall and levelled him with a stern look.

  “Does that voice work on all women?”

  His lips twitched. “I’d say it’s got about a ninety-five per cent success rate. Why? Is it working on you?”

  I scoffed, my denial a little too fervent. “Noooo.”

  Stu’s eyes flicked down to my chest then back up again. He leaned even closer as he whispered, “Then why are your nipples hard?”

  I gasped and reared away, glancing down to check. I was wearing a padded bra, and although yes, admittedly my nipples were hard beneath the fabric, they weren’t visible. Stu had baited me and I’d fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.

  He winked. “I bet they are.”

  “They aren’t.”

  He let out a low, sexy laugh and moved by me into the bathroom. “You keep telling yourself that, luv.”

  I exhaled a breath when the door closed and then went to find a quiet spot amid the bookshelves to calm my erratic pulse. The reading had moved on to questions and answers, as Jamie held court taking questions from the attendees. A minute or two passed before I sensed movement in my peripheral vision. Judging by the faint hint of his cologne, I knew he’d found me.

  “Are you hiding?” came his deep, masculine voice, and I glanced up from my place on the floor.

  “Just having some ‘me’ time,” I answered, and Stu’s brows rose.

  “Behind the shelves of a public book shop? Andrea, I didn’t peg you for the kinky type.”

  “You’re an incurable smart-arse, do you know that?”

  Stu smiled and dropped down beside me, his shoulder bumping mine. “Ah yes, smart-arsery runs in the family. You’ve met my brother, right?”

  I nodded, thinking he was definitely correct on that one. “I have.”

  A moment of quiet ensued as I stared at the shelves in front of us. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Stu studying my profile, but I didn’t dare move. I felt like I was on display somehow, my every thought on view to him. Lacing my fingers in my lap, I tried not to let the quiet affect me but it was a lost cause. It wasn’t necessarily awkwardness I felt, but I was definitely uncomfortable.

  “You should come meet the rest of my family,” said Stu, breaking the quiet, his eyes still on me.

  Now I turned to him. “Huh?”

  I know, so eloquent.

  Stu reached out and began pushing my hair back behind my shoulders. I normally wore it up at work, but today it was down. “It’s Trev’s twenty-fifth today. We’re having a party at Lee’s. I like your hair like this.”

  His offhanded compliment made me blush as I tried to think of the nicest way to decline the invitation. “Thank you. I can’t come to the party though. I promised Jamie I’d help him clean up after the reading,” I croaked.

  Stu’s eyes told me he didn’t believe that for a second. “I’m sure he’ll manage. How messy can things get?”

  I swallowed hard. “Pretty messy.”

  “You’re right. I bet those history buffs leave empty beer cans and cigarette butts everywhere,” Stu quietly teased, his hands still on my hair as he groomed me. The feeling was heavenly, probably because nobody ever touched me like this. I couldn’t help sinking into it.

  A smile curved my lips. “It’s true. They go a little wild after they’ve gotten their books signed.”

  Stu moved ever closer, his mouth at my ear as he whispered, “Do you know what I think, Andrea?”

  Goosebumps marked my skin as his breath washed over me. “What?” I replied, so quietly I was surprised he heard.

  “I think you’re a dirty little liar.”

  He startled a gasp out of me when he tongued my earlobe into his mouth and gently sucked.

  I should have pushed him away, jumped to my feet, proclaimed my indignation. But I did none of those things. Couldn’t do any of those things. Instead I sat there, eyes closed and frozen
to the spot as I sank into him and he continued to do magical things with his tongue.

  Breaking away, he murmured, “I like you. Come to the party.”

  “O-okay,” I breathed. What the hell? I hadn’t meant to say that. It just slipped out, my body running ahead of my mind. For the first time in years I felt unchained from my inner worries, and all because Stu Cross had sucked on my earlobe.

  Figure that one out, because for the life of me, I couldn’t.

  Stu’s mouth smiled around one last suck on my earlobe before he pulled away, standing and offering me his hand. I took it and he yanked me up to standing, my chest bumping his in the process. My heart was beating an erratic rhythm again and I couldn’t seem to find my voice.

  Finally, I managed. “Actually, um, maybe I shouldn’t . . .”

  Stu placed a finger over my lips and involuntarily, I shivered. “You said you’d come, no going back now, Miss Anderson,” he teased, his hold still tight on my hand. “Do you have a bag with you? A coat?”

  “Yes, just behind the counter,” I answered and Stu guided me over, grabbing my things for me before I realised what he was up to. I caught Jamie’s eye just before Stu led me outside. My friend wore a quizzical expression as if to ask, who is that and where is he taking you?

  Of course, I didn’t have time to answer. A black Toyota with a bright orange stripe along the bottom was parked just around the corner, and when Stu pulled the keys from his pocket I admit I was surprised. This was his car? It was certainly eye-catching.

  “Me and my brothers all have a background as mechanics,” he said, as though to answer my unspoken question. Where did you get this? “Lee and Liam fixed this beauty up for me while I was inside. It wasn’t quite ready by the time I got out, which is why Trev’s been picking me up. She’s all fixed now though, runs like a dream, too,” he said, sliding his hand over the hood almost reverently.

 
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