Thief of hearts, p.8
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       Thief of Hearts, p.8

           L.H. Cosway
 

  “I take it you’re a petrolhead then,” I replied, and he shot me a grin.

  “You have no idea. Get in.”

  I hesitated, still trying to think of a way to get out of going, even though part of me was dying to spend the evening with Stu. “Are you really sure you want me to come? None of your family know me. They might not like it if a stranger just shows up.”

  “That’s not true. Trev’s met you, and it’s his day so that’s all that matters. The rest of them will get to know you.” The next part he muttered under his breath. “Whether they like it or not.”

  Placing his hand to the small of my back, Stu reached forward to open the passenger side door and ushered me in. Before I knew it he was helping with my seatbelt and then we were off.

  I was on my way to meet Stu Cross’s family. How the hell had that happened? And why did I feel more excited than anything else?

  Eight

  “This feels a little bit like a kidnapping,” I said to Stu on the drive. “How on earth did I let you talk me into this?”

  He flashed me a devilish grin. “Got a magical tongue. Works every time.”

  I shook my head, trying not to let him see the effect that grin had on me. My body was literally buzzing with awareness, because the man was right. His tongue was magical.

  “This is so wrong. I could get fired for this, you know.”

  Stu’s grin grew even wider. “How? We haven’t broken any rules. Yet.”

  I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re a bad influence.”

  “I hope so. Maybe I can influence you into letting me do more tongue stuff,” he said and winked.

  I shook my head, a fizzy feeling of excitement in my belly. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so spontaneous. And I quite liked watching Stu drive, the way he moved his body. It was certainly a new experience to be driven by a man. Alfie had never learned, and Mark and I didn’t own a car when he was alive because we’d both lived within walking distance of our work. It was something we’d always planned to do. After he died it was a bittersweet challenge to go it alone.

  God, I missed him. Spending time with Stu reminded me how much I enjoyed having a man around, a partner in crime to do everything and nothing with. A little pang struck my heart.

  “Where’d you go?” Stu asked, glancing at me then back to the road.

  I shrugged and fiddled with my hands in my lap. “Just thinking about stuff.”

  “Stuff?”

  “My husband, Mark. He never learned how to drive. He always planned to but then, I don’t know, fate had other plans, I guess.”

  Stu’s look was empathetic as he turned the steering wheel. “I’m sorry. Do you miss him a lot?”

  “Some days more than others.”

  He nodded and a silence fell between us. After a moment Stu spoke again. “I was only fourteen the first time I got behind a wheel. I was a cocky little shit, thought I knew it all. Me and my brother Lee took our uncle’s Ford Fiesta and went for a joyride. I nearly crashed the thing, but Lee was a natural from the start, came out of the womb knowing how to work a gear stick.”

  “I guess that’s like people who pick up an instrument and just know how to play.”

  “Like a driving virtuoso?” Stu asked. “He always was the clever one, got all the talent, too.”

  The way he said it made me curious. He sounded almost . . . self-deprecating. I wondered if it stemmed from his reading difficulties, but I was wary of broaching the subject again after last time. I needed to wait for the right moment. “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t get all the talent. Is he as good with numbers as you are?”

  Stu lifted a shoulder, looking vaguely uncomfortable. “I’m all right.”

  “You’re probably better than you know. You just need the right teacher.”

  He glanced at me sideways. “Not you?”

  I shook my head. “I’ve got a basic understanding, but I’m no expert. My strong suits are literature and history.”

  “Ah, got ya.”

  Again, I thought of my dad, how he could guide Stu. If he was as talented as I suspected he might be, then he needed the right kind of cultivation.

  “You’re thinking about something. What is it?” Stu asked, his expression curious.

  “How do you know?”

  He reached out and tipped my chin. “You chew on your lip when you’re thinking, and your forehead crinkles up.”

  I shifted in my seat, feeling self-conscious. “I do? I never noticed. And I was thinking about maybe introducing you to my dad.”

  Stu chuckled. “Hey, slow down, gorgeous.”

  I flushed at him calling me gorgeous, unable to look him in the eye for a second as I slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Not like that, you goof. My dad is a mathematics professor at King’s College. I think he’d be interested in meeting you.”

  Stu returned his attention to the road, his smile disappearing. “Nah, you’re all right.”

  “Don’t you want to see if you can get into university? If you meet my dad and he thinks you have potential, he could help you with your applications.”

  “Don’t put yourself out, Andrea. I’ll never go to uni. The only reason I’m doing this course is because it’s a requirement for my parole. This isn’t Good Will Hunting.”

  His answer made my stomach twist. He just sounded so resigned to never being anything other than an ex-criminal, and it made me sad. “So then what will you do when the course ends?” I asked quietly.

  Stu flexed his hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. “I’m sure I’ll find something.”

  He sounded like he didn’t really care much either way, which made me even sadder. I knew how difficult it was to break out of the social strata you were born into, how stuck in a mindset people could become. The thing was, ever since Mark died, I considered it my calling in life to help people achieve their potential. I’d spent almost a year in a deep depression, had taken a leave of absence from my old job teaching sixth-form English. Mark had been a social worker when he was alive, and even though he’d only been doing the job two years before his diagnosis changed everything, he’d still managed to make a difference for so many people. He had the biggest heart.

  Once I pulled myself out of my depression I felt like it was my duty to continue his good work, so I changed career paths and started teaching adult courses instead. Teaching teenagers often felt like force-feeding, but in adult classes you had a group of people who genuinely wanted to learn, to make a difference in their lives. It was what gave me purpose, kept me going. I guess that was why Stu presented such a predicament. He wasn’t in my class because he wanted to be there. He was in it because he had to be, and that put me in a difficult situation, because sometimes I felt like he didn’t want my help.

  Stu parked just down the street from his brother’s restaurant, a bistro-style eatery called the Grub Hut. Somebody had hung pink balloons and purple party streamers outside and it made me smile. I didn’t imagine those were Trevor’s favourite colours. Stu’s family must have a wicked sense of humour.

  “Lee’s idea,” said Stu, placing his hand to the small of my back again. “Like I said, smart-arsery runs in the family.”

  “Yes, I can see that,” I said as we stepped through the entryway. I felt a little underdressed in my jeans, Converse, and pale yellow T-shirt. All the men wore shirts and slacks, while the women wore party dresses.

  “Everybody’s dressed up,” I whispered to him, feeling self-conscious as I tugged on the hem of my top.

  He shot me a warm look and his eyes briefly scanned my body. “Leave yourself alone. You look gorgeous.”

  Both the husky compliment and the warmth of his breath made me a little wobbly.

  Stu’s brother Lee was the first to approach us. Again I recognised him from Stu’s Facebook pictures. He wasn’t as tall as Stu, in fact, he was an inch or two shorter than I was, but he was attractive in a way you didn’t see too often. It wasn’t that he was particularl
y handsome or anything, but there was a confidence in the way he held himself, a certain wisdom in his light blue eyes that was infinitely appealing.

  He looked surprised when he saw me with Stu, his shrewd gaze going back and forth between us.

  “Who’s this?” he asked. The concern in his voice had me tensing up.

  “My friend, Andrea. Andrea, this is my brother, Lee.”

  Lee cocked an eyebrow. “Your friend?”

  “That’s right.”

  Not wasting a moment, Lee pulled his brother aside to talk privately. The thing was, they’d only stepped a few feet away and I could still make out what they were saying.

  “I ain’t seen you with a friend since before you got out, Stu. In fact, you told me you had no interest. So what’s going on?”

  “My interest came back.”

  “Bullshit.”

  “Fuck off, Lee. Sometimes I think you forget I’m older.”

  “I haven’t forgotten shit. You’ve not been the same since you came home. We’ve talked about it. It’s too soon for you to be with anyone, and we both know it.”

  My stomach twisted at the comment, a pang of sympathy hitting my chest. Why hadn’t Stu been with anyone? Had prison traumatised him somehow? And if that were the case, then why was he interested in me?

  “Jesus Christ, you’re as bad as your missus these days. Relax and enjoy the party; I’m going to grab a beer.”

  With that Stu left his brother and returned to my side, taking my hand and leading me through the restaurant to a small bar at the back.

  “You heard all that, didn’t you?” asked Stu, not looking at me as he walked around the bar, grabbing a glass and pulling himself a pint.

  “I did.”

  “Lee worries about me is all. Most of my life I kind of flaked out on being the eldest, so he took on the role. Now I’ve seen worse than him and he thinks I’m going to fall apart at any minute. It’s getting on my tits.”

  “Why would he think that?” I asked as Stu finished pulling his pint.

  “What’ll you have? Wine? I make a mean Long Island Iced Tea.”

  “The cocktail sounds good,” I replied, needing alcohol to get me through this weird day. “But you can quit avoiding the question.”

  Stu went to work grabbing ingredients for my drink, his brows drawn into a thoughtful line. “The day I got out I had a bit of a meltdown. Now Lee thinks it’s gonna happen again any minute. He doesn’t seem to realize how irritating it is to have someone constantly hovering, waiting for you to snap or break apart. He also thinks I’m not ready for a relationship, which is why he’s being all frosty knickers around you.”

  “I thought it was because he knows I’m your teacher. Did Trevor tell him?”

  “Course he did. Trev couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it.” There was an edge to his words.

  “Well, you do know there’s no relationship between us other than friendship, right?” I went on, and he shot me a cynical look.

  “You’re too fond of my tongue for that to be true, luv,” he said and winked at me just as a curvy brunette came and joined us. She had a little boy with her, and he was wearing the most adorable blue dungarees.

  “Grab me a glass of white, would you, Stu?” asked the brunette as she fixed the boy’s hair. “There, absolutely gorgeous,” she continued, pinching his cheek and making him giggle. He was probably only about two or three. She smiled when she saw me sitting next to her.

  “Hi, I’m Alexis,” she said, introducing herself and holding out her hand.

  “Andie,” I replied as I shook with her. “I’m a friend of Stu’s.”

  I noticed her eyes widen a fraction as she replied somewhat disbelievingly, “Really?”

  “Be nice, Lex,” Stu warned as he set a glass of wine down in front of her then continued mixing my cocktail.

  “What? I didn’t say anything.”

  “Your face said it all.”

  “Well, can you blame me for being surprised? I’ve never known you to have female friends, and no offence, but Andie here seems way too classy for the likes of you,” she said, mildly teasing.

  I didn’t know where she was getting classy from, since she was wearing a fitted black dress and I was wearing the sort of clothes most people did their gardening in. Perhaps it was my accent she thought fancy.

  “Yeah, yeah.” Stu waved her off before his eyes fell on me. “Lex and I used to go out.”

  “About a million years ago,” Alexis put in.

  “She thinks she knows what I’m all about.”

  “That’s because I do. And this girl is way too good for you. I can tell with just one look.”

  I was momentarily uncomfortable to discover this woman was Stu’s ex, but then I felt someone tug on the hem of my T-shirt. The little boy was smiling up at me.

  “Hello.” I grinned. “What’s your name?”

  After I spoke he grew shy, burying his face in Alexis’s shoulder. It was pretty much adorable. “This is my son. His name is Oliver.”

  “He’s gorgeous,” I said, while inside I began to wonder if he was Stu’s. It was a sobering thought and must’ve been written on my face because Stu said, “He ain’t mine, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

  “Oh, I wasn’t—”

  “Face like a billboard, I already told you.”

  I blushed and Alexis chuckled. “And thank God for that. I think we’d end up killing each other if we had to raise a child together.”

  Stu shook his head in good humour then set my cocktail down in front of me. I thanked him and took a sip.

  “I’ll be back in a sec. Just want to say a quick hello to Trev,” he said, and I watched as he went to join a group of guys who were surrounding the birthday boy.

  “So, are you really just friends?” Alexis asked once Stu was out of earshot. She sipped on her wine, her son still on her lap. He kept stealing shy glances at me, which again, was adorable.

  “Yes, well actually, I teach at the college he attends. He has to take part in my class as part of his parole. I’m trying to help him but it’s difficult. Whenever I try to discuss anything serious he just changes the subject. If I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure why he asked me here today.”

  Alexis took a moment to absorb everything I’d just told her. Then she shook her head. “Typical Stu. I hope you don’t mind me being blunt, but he probably wants in your knickers. He tends to think with his cock first, then his brain. Don’t get me wrong, the bloke’s got a heart of gold, but he can be a bit full on when he fancies someone. Seems to me you’ve got his attention, and take it from someone who knows, he doesn’t give up easily.”

  “Oh, I’m not sure about that. At first I thought he might be trying to sweeten me up so I’d let him pass the class without putting the work in. Now . . . well, now I don’t know what to think.”

  Alexis mulled it over. “No, I think he likes you. He’s got that look in his eye. Haven’t seen it in a while. Truth be told, he’s not been himself since he got out of prison. We’ve all been worried.”

  I took another sip of my cocktail. Stu was right; he did make a mean Long Island Iced Tea. “How so?”

  “He’s been quiet, introspective. If you knew him before, you’d know that wasn’t like him. Stu’s never been a deep thinker.”

  I thought that was a little unfair, but I didn’t comment on it. “Well, I’m sure prison changes everyone,” I said finally.

  “True.” Alexis nodded just as a redhead pulled up a stool next to her.

  “Hi,” she said, introducing herself to me. “I’m Karla. Lee’s wife. He mentioned you’re a friend of Stu’s?”

  I could tell by the way she didn’t even say hello to Alexis that she was on a mission for information. Lee must’ve put her up to it.

  “That’s right,” I said, keeping my cards close to my chest. I didn’t know these women, didn’t know their intentions.

  “And you’re his teacher?” Karla went on. I opened my mou
th to say something but she interrupted me. “Don’t bother denying it. Trevor’s already filled us in. Little thing you should know about this family. Trev’s the one that can’t keep his mouth shut, so don’t go telling him anything you want to keep on the down-low. Anyway, is it okay for you to see your students? Isn’t that sort of thing frowned upon?”

  Wow, she was certainly direct. I tensed and took a sip of my drink for courage before replying, “Yes, it’s heavily frowned upon. In fact, I’m not allowed to date my students at all because it’s a conflict of interest. But Stu and I aren’t together. I see a lot of untapped potential in him, and I want to help him cultivate it.”

  “Seems like you’re going out of your way to do that,” said Karla, studying me in a detached, almost clinical way.

  “Oh my God, would you leave the woman alone?” Alexis asked, giving me a look of apology. “I’m sorry about my friend. She’s a policewoman. Interrogations are a force of habit.”

  “I just want what’s best for Stu. Lee’s worried he’s heading down a destructive path. He barely talks to him anymore, and when he does he’s grouchy. None of us want him put away again, and we certainly don’t want him getting into a relationship that could be bad for him.”

  “You’re one to talk,” Alexis teased, but I was still hung up on the whole ‘destructive path’ thing. Were they really that worried he’d return to crime? “When you started seeing Lee you were a police constable and he was still stealing cars for a living.”

  This caught my interest, my attention going to Karla, who shot Alexis an annoyed look. “Thanks, Lexie. Just go right ahead and air all my dirty laundry in public, why don’t you?”

  “Don’t act like you don’t deserve it. You’re grilling poor Andie here like she’s a flipping murder suspect.”

  Karla grimaced. “I am, aren’t I?” Then she looked to me. “I’m sorry, I’m being horrible. You seem lovely, really. I suppose I’m worried for you as much as Stu. You don’t want to put your job in jeopardy, believe me, I’ve been there.”

  “Is Stu really acting that differently?” I asked in concern.

  Karla chewed on her lip. “This is going to sound mean, but before he went away nothing really seemed to faze him, and I think it was because he never really thought about things too deeply. I mean, if something bad happened he’d get sad for a little while and then move on. But nowadays he’s been moping, snapping at everyone, basically acting like a depressive when before nothing could ever touch him.”

 
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