Thief of hearts, p.9
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       Thief of Hearts, p.9

           L.H. Cosway
 

  I frowned as I thought on it. He never seemed particularly depressed in class, but maybe I just wasn’t looking closely enough. Maybe I was too frazzled by his advances to notice.

  “Can I get your number?” I asked Karla. “I’ll keep an eye on him, and if I see him acting strangely I’ll give you a call.”

  She nodded eagerly, and we swapped phones to type in each other’s details. I was relieved that we’d just switched back a minute before Stu returned, his gaze moving between Alexis and Karla in suspicion before his eyes landed on me.

  “You hungry?”

  “Um, sure.”

  He came and helped me down off my stool. “Come on, Lee’s serving up the food. I hope you like Mexican. It’s sort of his speciality.”

  “I love it.” I smiled and he led me over to a long table where everybody was sitting down to eat. Stu introduced me to his youngest brother, Liam, who looked like a less hardened version of Lee. Apparently, he was following in his sister-in-law’s footsteps and joining the police. Stu informed me proudly that he’d just finished his training and passed all his exams with flying colours. We shook hands and exchanged hellos and then Stu ushered me into a seat. The food was delicious, tangy and spicy, and I wondered when I last sat amongst such boisterous chatter.

  Stu’s arm rested against mine, and though I probably should have, I didn’t move. I enjoyed his touch, as much as it was bad for me. Because Karla was right. Putting my job in jeopardy wasn’t worth it, especially since I had a mountain of bills to pay.

  If I lost my job due to any kind of scandal, I’d become unemployable, and then I’d have to file for bankruptcy. The very idea threw a cold bucket of water over my burgeoning feelings for Stu.

  A little while after dinner, Lee emerged from the kitchen with a massive cream cake, twenty-five candles stuck on top, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Trevor, who clearly relished the attention. The man didn’t have a shy bone in his body.

  Looking around the table, one thing was for certain: this was a family that loved each other dearly. It warmed my heart to know that Stu belonged to a group of people who cared about him a lot. How could he feel he wasn’t welcome?

  “You ready to head?” Stu asked, his breath hitting my neck as he leaned into me.

  “I think so. Alfie will be wondering where I am.” As soon as I said it I pulled out my phone, and sure enough there were several missed calls and messages from my cousin, asking me where I was. I suspected Jamie hadn’t had the chance to tell him I left with Stu yet, because if he had I’m sure his texts would’ve been far more panicked.

  “Let’s go then.” Stu took my hand. All three of his brothers, plus Karla and Alexis, seemed fixated by the action. I wanted to let go but Stu held on way too firmly. It was almost like he was trying to make a point. Perhaps he was aware of his sister-in-law’s meddling earlier in the day.

  “You’ve got a great family,” I said on the drive home. Stu had been silent for a couple of minutes and I’d started to grow tense.

  “Yeah, they are; they’re great,” he replied, but he sounded miles away. Where had he gone inside that head of his?

  “Well, I’m really glad you invited me today. I had a lovely time,” I went on, running my fingers up and down the edge of my seatbelt. Several moments of quiet passed.

  “You ever wonder if maybe you’re not such a good person?” Stu asked, breaking the silence.

  Where on earth had that come from? I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Not really. I try to do good every day.”

  He glanced at me, interested. “Yeah?”

  I nodded. “I suppose I’m in the perfect environment for it. Being a teacher puts me in a position to help. I guess it’d be more difficult to be good in other professions.”

  “I’m not a good person,” said Stu. “And even if I had a job like yours, I’d probably twist it, turn it into something bad, find a way to exploit people. You shouldn’t trust me.”

  His tone took me by surprise and I grew concerned. “Where’s all this coming from?”

  He shrugged. “What Alexis said today was true. You’re too good for me. I think it took her saying it for me to realise.”

  “I’m far from perfect, Stu. All of us are. And you are a good person. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be warning me off right now. You’d be taking advantage.”

  His handsome eyes slid to mine, glints of gold shining in the hazel. “That’s the thing, I want to take advantage of you, Andrea. I want to so badly, in so many ways.”

  His statement struck me as odd, because yes, there were sexual undertones that set my nerve endings abuzz, but there was something else, too. Something that had my fight or flight impulse kicking in, telling me I should keep my guard up.

  “Do you always get so introspective after a few drinks?” I asked in an effort to lighten the mood.

  “No, if I was drunk right now I wouldn’t be driving. I’m trying to warn you to stay away from me. I’m not good for you, Andrea. Please remember that, because the next time I try to touch you, if you let me, I won’t stop.”

  His words sunk in, a shiver spreading through me, and not the pleasant kind. Mark had never made me feel this way, possibly because there had been no mystery to him. He was light, honest and kind, a completely open book, while Stu was mostly closed off. There were thoughts inside his head I wasn’t sure I’d ever decipher, and though there was a part of me that desperately wanted to figure him out, there was another that said I should heed his advice and keep my distance.

  I just wondered if I was strong enough.

  Nine

  An entire week passed, and Stu barely spoke a word to me. He sat in class every day, completed the assignments, but never approached me in the way he had before. I wasn’t sure why, but I got the feeling he was wrestling with some kind of internal struggle.

  It concerned me.

  That wasn’t the only thing that was troubling me though, because now that he’d submitted some written work, I knew for certain that he suffered from some form of dyslexia. It wasn’t that he couldn’t read or write, but unlike when we were studying maths and he was faster than everyone else, when the class had written work to complete he was always far slower. His sentences were disjointed and awkward, his syntax off, and he repeatedly misspelled common words.

  I’d tried several times to talk to him about it, but every time I did he put up a wall. He purposely made himself unapproachable, silent and unsmiling, and I was at a loss as to how to deal with him.

  I spoke with my head of the department about possibly providing extra tutoring sessions, and she was all for it. I even asked for advice from Mrs Merrion, the college’s guidance counsellor, and she suggested maybe inviting not just Stu to the sessions, but one or two other students who could use help with their writing, too. This was to ensure he didn’t feel singled out. She was right, because although they didn’t struggle as much as Stu, Mary and Susan could do with some extra tutoring as well.

  Today I was taking the class on a field trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as part of their art history module. The admission was free and I liked to encourage my students to make the most of every educational resource available to them. I was hoping that sometime over the course of the day, I’d summon the courage to talk to Stu again. Perhaps he’d be more inclined to listen outside the classroom environment.

  Everyone was on top form, happy to be spending a day out of class. We completed the short walk to the tube station, and I was aware of Stu trailing behind. Unlike the rest of the students, he didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the trip.

  When we boarded a carriage, I took a seat in between Mary and Kian, while Stu stood next to the opposite window directly across from me. I wore a loose blouse and a long skirt since the weather had picked up. Stu’s gaze travelled down my body, provoking a sense of awareness. He didn’t say anything though.

  “We should do this all the time,” said Kian with a grin. “I love going out and about with you lot. Feels
like I’m back at school.”

  Mary shot him a look. “It wasn’t too long ago that you were at school.”

  “Yeah, but this is better because there aren’t any bullies or dickheads. I can just be myself.”

  I smiled at him, glad that my class was a place where he felt comfortable.

  “How can you enjoy this?” said Stu, addressing Kian. Hearing his voice took me off guard because he’d been so silent lately. “I feel ridiculous walking around in a group of grown adults like we’re a bunch of five-year-olds.”

  “Nobody’s forcing you to be here,” said Mary, clearly annoyed. “In fact, we’d probably all be better off if you weren’t. You’ve been going around with a face like a smacked arse the past week, and I for one am sick of looking at it.”

  Stu stood up taller. “Did I ask for your opinion?”

  Mary folded her arms and levelled him with a hard stare. “No, but you’re getting it. We’re all looking forward to a nice day out and you’re being a moody little prick. Seriously, if you were my son I’d give you a good clip around the ear.”

  “Mary,” I said in reprimand, and she shot me a look that said, he was asking for it.

  Stu’s lips twitched, and I couldn’t tell if he was going to laugh or say something unkind. In an effort to quell the tension, I stood and gestured for him to follow. “Come with me. I need a word.”

  He followed me to the end of the carriage, where there were less passengers and we could have a private conversation. Several of my students watched us curiously, but I wasn’t worried about them becoming suspicious because I often spoke in private with class members when they were having issues or acting out of turn.

  I gestured for him to sit before taking the seat next to him.

  “What’s going on with you?” I asked, eyeing him in concern. “You’ve been behaving differently.”

  He folded his arms, kicking his legs out and crossing one ankle over the other. “Been keeping my head down. Something wrong with that?”

  “Not at all, but you aren’t just keeping your head down. You’ve been gloomy. Are you sure there isn’t something that’s been bothering you?”

  Stu plastered on a fake smile. “Nothing at all, Miss Anderson.”

  I studied him then looked away. Being so close to him had me tensing, like my skin was too tight for my body. My voice was quiet when I spoke again. “I don’t believe you.”

  Stu turned to face me, his eyes raking over me in a blatantly sexual manner. “You been missing my come-ons, is that it?”

  My heart sank. I hated when he deflected like this, trying to make me feel uncomfortable so I’d drop the issue. I also hated that it was working. I let out a sigh, not knowing what to do with him. A few moments of quiet passed before I summoned up the courage to broach a new subject.

  “How have you been finding the assignments? Any difficulties?”

  His face turned hard. “Nope.”

  I studied him, chewing on my lip because his refusal to discuss his problems truly bothered me. You could lead a horse to water . . . For so much potential in Stu to be untapped was beyond frustrating for me. How could he be so indifferent to wanting more for himself?

  “I’ve been thinking of doing some extra tutoring sessions for those in the class who’d like to work on their grammar and writing skills. Both Susan and Mary have expressed an interest, and you’re welcome to join us,” I said, testing the waters.

  “No thanks.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “For crying out loud, Andrea. Will you just say what you’re thinking instead of beating around the bush for once? I can’t write for shit, and my reading is even worse. I know it, and I know you know it. I just don’t care.”

  What he said angered me, like really fucking pissed me off. His refusal to work, to accept an offer to grow, was a travesty against himself and I couldn’t stand it.

  “You’re so . . . so difficult sometimes, do you know that?”

  Strangely enough, his expression softened at my show of temper. “I told you not to waste your time on me. I’m not worth it.”

  “Well, I disagree.”

  “That’s only because you don’t know me.”

  “I don’t know you because you keep a wall up, never letting anyone in. I see it when you interact with the others. Whenever any of them try to befriend you, you give them nothing. You don’t even talk to Kian anymore, and I can tell he’s upset by it. He likes you. I think he actually looks up to you.” It bothered me mostly because I’d witnessed him interact with his family, and although he was probably the most reserved of all his brothers, there’d been obvious warmth in him. I saw in his eyes that he loved them, that he valued their friendship, too. So I knew he was capable of being someone other than who he was right now.

  Stu let out a scoff of derision. “Because I’m such a fucking role model.”

  “You’re more than you think, Stu. You’re strong, striking to look at, not to mention you practically ooze cool. To a young guy like Kian, that’s everything. You should talk to him again. He probably thinks he’s done something to upset you.”

  Exhaling heavily, Stu ran a hand down his face, staring out the window as blackness whizzed by. Then he turned to me again. “He’s not done anything. I’m just dealing a lot of shit right now.”

  “So there is something that’s bothering you?” I said, trying to keep my voice soft and non-judgemental.

  Stu’s eyes wandered back and forth between mine, the intensity in them provoking butterflies. He really was incredibly attractive. Sometimes I had to remind myself that he was my student and not some male model who’d lost his way and found himself in my adult education class.

  “You never give up, do you?” he said, voice low. “Relentless.”

  I blinked, about to say something in response when Mary called down from the other end of the carriage that we’d arrived at our stop.

  I stood and gave Stu a serious look. “We’ll continue this another time, okay? Even when you’ve given up on yourself, I won’t give up on you.”

  He seemed to grow uncomfortable at my words, staring the floor as he nodded then followed me off the train. The walk to the gallery didn’t take too long, and when we got inside I guided the class around, making stops at the paintings we’d be studying so that they got the chance to see them in the flesh.

  I paused when we arrived at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, allowing them a moment to take it in before I gave a little background info. “This piece would’ve been completed sometime in the early sixteenth century. It shows the Madonna with an infant Jesus and John the Baptist, alongside an angel. See the wings?” I asked, pointing to the right of the painting at the figure in the blue cloak. “There are actually two versions of this piece, one here and one in the Louvre, this one being the later version. The National Gallery bought it in 1880, and it has been here ever since.”

  I spoke enthusiastically, but I could still see a few of my students weren’t really interested, while others, notably the older ones, were paying avid attention. Often it was difficult to convince my younger students to appreciate art unless there was some kind of nudity involved. It seemed an arse or a pair of boobs would always garner an audience, no matter if the picture was hundreds of years old.

  “Okay, well, this is the final piece on our curriculum. You’re free to go wander around and check out the rest of the gallery yourselves, so long as you meet me back at the lobby in an hour.”

  They all nodded and off they went, while I made my way to the cafeteria to grab a coffee. I waited in line then went to find somewhere to sit. As soon as I found a free table the chair across from mine moved and Stu plopped down onto it.

  “Everything okay?” I asked.

  He nodded. “I’ve just been to see that Van Gogh painting, you know, the one with the sunflowers that people are always harping on about.”

  I took a sip of my latte. “Oh?”

  “Bit of a let-down if I’m honest. I don’t
get what all the fuss is about.”

  I laughed. “I always preferred Starry Starry Night myself.”

  A moment of quiet passed as Stu rubbed the stubble on his jaw. “How much do think someone would get for those sunflowers anyway?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Like on the black market. If someone were to steal the painting, how much would it fetch?”

  I shrugged. “I’ve no idea. Millions, probably.”

  Stu shook his head. “Seems like madness, to pay that much just for a bit of art to hang on your wall.”

  “Well, it’s not just a bit of art, Stu. The works on display here are a part of history. They say so much about the time they were created, about the artist who painted them, and that makes them priceless.”

  He eyed me seriously, chewing on his lower lip, his gaze calculating. “You ever wondered what it would be like to steal something so valuable?”

  I gave him a funny look. “Can’t say that I have.”

  “Really? So you’ve never imagined a scenario where you’ve robbed a bank, or I dunno, stolen diamonds or some shit, and had all your money worries just float away.”

  I glanced at him, my hands cupping the coffee mug as I shifted in my seat, self-conscious. Little did he know, I had money worries far bigger than he would probably imagine. “Well, maybe, but it’s not like I’d ever act on it. You might get rich quick, but then you’d have other things to worry about. I wouldn’t want to live my life constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering if I’d be caught for what I’d stolen.”

  Stu’s gaze was steady on me, his elbows resting on the table as several thoughts flickered in his eyes. “I never used to worry. You know, when I stole.”

 
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