Chapter 21 – After

Breakfast with Noah and my mother is agonizingly slow. My mother continues to bring up my “wild night” and finds every opportunity to ask me if I am tired or hungover. Granted, last night was very out of character for me, but I don’t really need to hear about it over and over. Has she always been this way? I know she just wants the best for me, but she seems to be worse now that I’m in college; or maybe being away from her for a week has given me a newfound outlook on her.

“Where should we shop?” Noah asks between mouthfuls of pancake, and I shrug. I wish he had just come alone. I would love to spend time with him. I do need to have a talk with him about not telling my mother every detail of my life, especially the bad, and if we were just alone that would be easier, too.

“Maybe we should go to the mall around the block. I’m not really familiar with the area yet,” I tell them, cutting the last few bites of my French toast into pieces.

“Have you thought about where you want to work yet?” Noah asks.

“I’m not sure yet. A bookstore maybe? I wish I could find an internship or something related to publishing or writing,” I tell them, which elicits from my mother an award-winning proud smile.

“That would be great, somewhere you could work until you finish college and that could then hire you full-time,” she says, smiling again.

I try to hide my sarcasm with “Yeah, that would be ideal,” but Noah catches it and grabs my hand to give it a little conspiratorial squeeze under the table.

As I put my fork into my mouth, the metal reminds me of Hardin’s lip ring. And I pause for a moment. Noah catches this, too, and looks at me with questioning eyes.

I need to stop thinking about Hardin. Now. I smile at Noah and pull his hand up to kiss it.

After breakfast my mother drives us to the Benton Mall, which is huge and crowded. “I am going to go into Nordstrom’s, so I’ll call you when I am ready,” she tells us, to my relief. Noah takes my hand again and we browse through a bunch of stores. He tells me about his soccer game on Friday, and how he shot the winning goal. I listen intently and tell him how great it all sounds.

“You look nice today,” I tell him and he smiles. His perfect white smile is adorable. He is wearing a maroon cardigan, khakis, and dress shoes. Yes, he really does wear loafers, but they are cute and somehow fit his personality.

“You do, too, Tessa,” he says and I cringe. I know I look like hell, but he is too unfalteringly kind to tell me so. Unlike Hardin, who would tell me in a heartbeat. Ugh, Hardin. Desperately wanting to get my mind off Mr. Rude, I pull Noah into me by the neck of his cardigan. When I go to kiss him, he smiles but pulls away.

“What are you doing, Tessa? Everyone’s staring at us.” He gestures toward a group of adults trying on sunglasses at a kiosk.

I shrug playfully. “No, they aren’t. And so what?” I really don’t care; usually I would, but I need him to kiss me. “Just kiss me, please,” I practically beg.

He must see the desperation in my eyes because he tilts my chin up and kisses me. It’s gentle and slow, no urgency behind it. His tongue barely touches mine but it’s nice. Familiar and warm. I wait for a fire to ignite within me, but it doesn’t.

I can’t compare Noah to Hardin. Noah is my boyfriend, whom I love, and Hardin is a jerk who has a roster of girls he hooks up with.

“What’s gotten into you?” Noah teases as I try to pull his body against mine.

I flush and shake my head. “Nothing, I just missed you, that’s all,” I tell him. Oh . . . and I cheated on you last night, my subconscious adds. Ignoring that, I say, “But, Noah, could you please stop telling my mother when I do things? It makes me really uncomfortable. I love that you are close to her but I feel like a child when you basically tell on me.” It feels good to get that off my chest.

“Tessa, I am so sorry. I was just worried about you. I promise I won’t do it again. Honestly.” He wraps his arm around my shoulder and kisses my forehead, and I believe him.

The rest of the day is better than the morning, mostly because my mother takes me to a salon and I get my hair trimmed and some layers added into it. It still hangs down my back but with my new cut it has more volume and looks much better. Noah showers me with compliments the entire drive back to my dorm, and everything just feels right. I say goodbye to them at the front door, once again promising to stay away from anyone with a tattoo and within a hundred-mile radius. When I walk into my dorm room, I feel a tinge of disappointment to find it empty, but I’m not sure if I was hoping to see Steph or someone else.

I don’t even bother taking my shoes off before I lie in my bed. I’m too exhausted and in need of sleep. I sleep the night away and don’t wake up until noon. When I wake up, Steph’s asleep in her bed. I go study for the rest of Sunday, and when I return she’s gone. Monday morning she’s still not back, and I start feeling a strong urge to catch up on what she was doing all weekend.

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