Chapter 22 – After

Before heading to my first class, I stop to grab my usual at the coffeehouse, where Landon is waiting for me with a smile. After our hellos, we’re interrupted by a girl asking for intricate directions, and so we don’t get the chance to catch up until we’re walking to our last class of the day. The class that all day I have been dreading, but anticipating.

“How was your weekend?” Landon asks and I groan.

“Terrible, actually. I went to another party with Steph,” I tell him and he makes a sour face and laughs. “I’m sure yours was much better. How is Dakota?”

His smile grows at the mention of her name and I realize that I didn’t mention seeing Noah on Saturday. Landon tells me about Dakota applying to a ballet company in New York and how happy he is for her. All the while, I wonder if Noah’s eyes light up like that when he talks about me.

As we walk into class, he’s telling me how his father and stepmother were thrilled to see him, but I find myself searching the room and not listening very closely to him; Hardin’s seat is empty.

“Won’t it be hard if Dakota is gone so far?” I manage to ask as we take our seats.

“Well, we are already far from each other now, but it works. I really just want the best for her, and if New York is it, that’s where I want her to be.”

The professor walks in, silencing us. Where’s Hardin? He wouldn’t skip class just to avoid me, would he?

We dive into Pride and Prejudice—a magical book that I wish everyone would read—and before I realize it the class is over.

“You’ve cut your hair, Theresa.” I turn around to see Hardin smiling behind me. He and Landon exchange awkward stares and I try to think of what to say. He wouldn’t mention the kiss in front of Landon, would he? Those dimples, deep as ever, tell me that yes, yes he would.

“Hey, Hardin,” I say.

“How was your weekend?” His expression is so smug.

I pull Landon by the arm. “Good. Well, see you around!” I yell nervously and Hardin laughs.

When we’re outside, Landon asks, “What was that about?” obviously catching on to my strange behavior.

“Nothing, I just don’t like Hardin.”

“At least you don’t have to see him often.”

But there is something behind his voice, and why would he say that? Does he know about the kiss?

“Um . . . yeah. Thank God,” is all I can muster.

He pauses. “I wasn’t going to say anything, because I don’t want you to associate me with him, but”—he smiles nervously—“Hardin’s dad is sort of dating my mom.”

What? “What?” “Hardin’s dad—”

“Yes, yes, I got that, but Hardin’s dad lives here? Why is Hardin here—I thought he was British? If his dad lives here, why doesn’t he live with him?” I flood Landon with questions before I can stop myself. He looks confused, but less nervous than a moment ago.

“He’s from London; his dad and my mom live close to the campus, but Hardin and his dad don’t have a good relationship. So please don’t mention any of this to him. We already don’t like each other.”

I nod. “Sure, okay.” A thousand more questions come to my mind, but I stay quiet as my friend goes back to talking about Dakota, his eyes brightening with each word about her.

WHEN I GET BACK TO MY ROOM, Steph isn’t back yet since her classes run two hours past mine. I start to lay out my books and notes to get ready to study, but decide to call Noah instead. He doesn’t pick up, and it really makes me wish he was here with me at college. It would make things so much easier and comfortable. We could be studying or watching a movie together right now.

Still, I know that I’m thinking about this because of my guilt about kissing Hardin is consuming me—Noah is so sweet and he doesn’t deserve to be cheated on. I am so lucky to have him in my life. He’s always there for me, and he knows me better than anyone. We have known each other basically our whole lives. When his parents moved in down the street, I was ecstatic to have someone my age to hang out with, and the feeling only grew as I got to know him and learned he was an old soul like me. We spent our time reading, watching movies, and bringing life into the greenhouse behind my mother’s place. The greenhouse has always been my safe haven; when my dad drank I would hide in there and no one except Noah knew where to find me. The night my dad left was a terrible night for me, and my mother refuses to speak of it, ever. Doing so would shatter the perfect façade she has created for herself, but I still want to talk about it sometimes. Even though I hated him for drinking so much, and for pushing my mother around, I still felt the deep need to have a father. That night, stowed away in the greenhouse while my dad screamed and went wild, I kept hearing glasses shattering in the kitchen, and then, when it stopped, footsteps. I was terrified my father was coming for me, but it was Noah. And I had never been so relieved in all my life to see someone safe. From that day on we were inseparable. Over the years, our friendship turned into more, and neither of us has ever dated anyone else.

I text Noah that I love him and decide to take a catnap before I begin my studies. I pull out my planner and check my work one more time, I can surely fit in a twenty-minute nap.

Not even ten minutes into my nap, there’s a knock at the door. Figuring Steph must have forgotten her key, I groggily pull the door open.

Of course it isn’t her. It’s Hardin.

“Steph isn’t back yet,” I say and walk back to my bed, leaving the door open for him. I’m a little surprised he even bothered to knock, since I know Steph gave him an extra key as backup for herself. I will have to talk to her about that.

“I can wait,” he says and plops down on Steph’s bed.

“Suit yourself.” I groan, ignoring his chuckle as I pull the blanket over my body and close my eyes. Or rather, trying to ignore it. There is no way I am going to be able to sleep knowing that Hardin is in my room, but I would rather pretend-sleep than face the awkward, rude talk we are bound to have. I try to ignore the sound of him gently tapping the headboard of her bed until my alarm goes off.

“Going somewhere?” he asks and I roll my eyes even though he can’t see me. “No, I was taking a twenty-minute nap,” I tell him and sit up.

“You set an alarm to make sure your nap is only twenty minutes?” he says, amused.

“Yeah, I do. So what’s it to you, anyway?” I grab my books and lay them out neatly, in order of my class schedule, and stack the notes for each class on top of them.

“Are you OCD or something?”

“No, Hardin. Not everyone’s crazy because they just like things a certain way.

There’s nothing wrong with being organized,” I snap.

And he laughs, of course. I refuse to look at him, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see him pushing up off the bed.

Please don’t come over here. Please don’t come . . .

And then he’s standing over me, looking down at where I sit on my bed. He grabs my Literature notes and turns them over a couple of times exaggeratedly like he’s staring at a rare artifact. I reach up for them but—like the annoying jerk he is—he lifts them higher, so I stand and swipe at them. But he tosses them in the air and they fall to the ground in a scattered mess.

“Pick those up!” I demand.

He smirks and says, “Okay, okay,” but just grabs my Sociology notes and does the same thing to them. I scramble to pick them up before he steps on them, but that’s only funny to him.

“Hardin, stop!” I yell, just as he does the same with the next stack. Infuriated, I stand up and shove him away from my bed.

“You mean, someone doesn’t like their stuff being messed with?” he asks, still laughing. Why must he always laugh at me?

“No! I don’t!” I yell and go to shove him again. He steps toward me and grabs my wrists, pushing me back against the wall. His face is inches from mine, and suddenly I’m aware I’m breathing way too hard. I want to scream at him to get off me, to let me go, and demand that he put my work back. I want to slap him, to make him leave. But I can’t. I’m frozen against the wall and mesmerized by his green eyes burning into mine. “Hardin, please,” are the only words I finally find. But they are soft. And I’m not sure if I am begging him to let me go, or kiss me. My breathing still hasn’t slowed; I can feel his increasing, the way his chest rises powerfully. Seconds feel like hours, and finally he removes one hand from my wrists, but the other is large enough to hold both.

For a second, I think he might slap me. But his hand moves up to my cheekbone and then he gently tucks my hair behind my ear. I swear I can hear his pulse as he brings his lips to mine—and the fire crackles under my skin.

This is what I have been longing for since Saturday night. If I could only feel one thing for the rest of my life, this would be it.

I don’t let myself think about why I am kissing him again or what terrible thing he will say afterward. All I want to focus on is the way he presses his body against mine when he lets go of my wrists, pinning me to the wall, and the way his mouth tastes like mint again. The way my tongue somehow follows his, and the way my hands slide over his broad shoulders. His hands grip the backs of my thighs and he lifts me up, my legs instinctively wrapping around his waist, and I’m amazed at the way my body somehow knows how to respond to him. I bury my fingers in his hair, gently tugging at it while he walks back toward my bed, his lips still molded to mine.

The responsible voice inside my head finds her way in, reminding me that this is a terrible idea—but I push her back. I am not stopping this time. I pull Hardin’s hair harder, earning a moan from him. The sound elicits one of my own, the two mixing in the most heavenly way. It is the hottest sound I have ever heard and I want to do anything I can to hear it again. He sits back on my bed, pulling me so I’m on his lap. His long fingers dig into my skin, but the pain is wonderful. My body begins gently rocking back and forth on his lap, and his grip tightens.

“Fuck,” he breathes into my mouth, and I experience a sensation I have never felt before as I feel him harden against me.

How far will I let this go? I ask myself, but I don’t have an answer.

His hands find the hem of my shirt, and he tugs at it, pulling it up. I can’t believe I’m letting him, but I don’t want to stop. He pulls away from our heated kiss to get the shirt over my head. His eyes meet mine, then go down to my chest as he takes his lip between his teeth.

“You’re so sexy, Tess.”

The idea of dirty talk never appealed to me, but somehow Hardin saying those words becomes the most sensual thing I have ever heard. I never buy any fancy underwear because no one, literally no one, ever sees them, but right now I wish I had something besides this plain black bra. He’s probably seen every type of bra there is, the annoying voice in my head reminds me. To try to get such thoughts out of my head, I rock harder against his lap, and he wraps his arms around my back and pulls my body to his, our chests touching . . .

The door handle jingles. I push myself off Hardin’s lap and throw my shirt on, the trance I was in immediately broken.

Steph steps through the door and stops short when she sees me and Hardin. As she takes in the scene before her, her mouth forms an O.

I know my cheeks are bright red not only from the embarrassment but from the way Hardin has made me feel.

“What the hell did I miss?” she gasps, staring at us both with a huge grin. I swear her eyes are practically clapping with glee.

“Nothing much,” Hardin says and stands. He walks to the door and doesn’t look back as he walks out of the room, where I’m left panting and Steph laughing.

“What the actual hell was that!?” she asks me and then covers her face in mock horror. But she’s too excited by the gossip and pops back quickly. “You and Hardin . . . You and Hardin are like messing around?”

I turn and pretend to look through the stuff on my desk. “No! No way! We aren’t messing around,” I tell her. Are we? No, we just happened to kiss, twice. And he took my shirt off, and I was basically humping him—but we aren’t messing around, like regularly. “I have a boyfriend, remember?”

She comes over to face me. “So . . . that doesn’t mean you can’t mess around with Hardin—I just can’t believe it! I thought you guys hated each other. Well, Hardin hates everyone. But I thought he hated you even more than his normal hatred for people,” she says, then laughs. “When did this even . . . how did this happen?”

I sit on her bed and run my fingers through my hair. “I don’t know. Well, Saturday when you left the party I ended up in his room because this creep tried to hit on me, and then I kissed Hardin. We promised to never speak of it again— but then he came by today and he started messing with me, not in that way.” I point at the bed, which only makes her smirk grow. “Like he was throwing my stuff around and I pushed him and then somehow we ended up on the bed.”

It sounds so bad as I repeat it. I really am acting so out of character, just like my mother said. I put my hands over my face. How could I do this to Noah— again?

“Whoa, that sounds hot,” Steph says, and I roll my eyes.

“It’s not—it’s terrible and wrong. I love Noah, and Hardin is a jerk. I don’t want to be another conquest of his.”

“You could learn a lot from Hardin . . . you know sexually.

My mouth falls open. Is she serious? Is that something she would do . . . wait, has she? Her and Hardin?

“No way, I don’t want to learn anything from Hardin. Or anyone besides Noah,” I tell her. I can’t imagine Noah and I making out like that. My mind replays Hardin’s words: You’re so sexy, Tess. Noah would never say something like that—no one has ever called me sexy before. I feel my cheeks heat up as I think about it. “Have you?” I ask a little sheepishly.

“With Hardin? No.” And something inside me feels better when she says that. But then she continues. “Well . . . I haven’t had sex with him, but we had a little fling when we first met, as embarrassing as that is to admit. But nothing came from it; we were sort of friends with benefits for about a week.” She says it like it’s no big deal, but I can’t help the jealousy that stirs inside me.

“Oh . . . benefits?” I ask. My mouth is completely dry and I find myself suddenly annoyed by Steph.

“Yeah, nothing too big. Just like a few heavy makeout sessions, a grope here and there. Nothing serious,” she says and my chest hurts. I’m not surprised really, but I wish I wouldn’t have asked.

“Does Hardin have a lot of friends with benefits?” I don’t want to hear the answer, but I can’t help asking.

She snorts and sits down on her bed across from me. “Yeah, he does. I mean, not like hundreds, but he’s a pretty . . . active guy.”

I can tell she’s seen how I reacted and is trying to sugarcoat it for my sake. I make the mental decision for what feels like the hundredth time to stay away from him. I will not be anyone’s friends with benefits. Ever.

“He doesn’t do it to be mean or use girls; they pretty much throw themselves at him, and he lets them know from the start that he doesn’t date,” she says. I remember her telling me that before. But it’s not like he said that to me when we . . .

“Why doesn’t he date?” Why can’t I stop asking these questions?

“I don’t know, really . . . Listen,” she says, her voice full of concern, “I think you could have a lot of fun with Hardin, but I also think this could be dangerous for you. Unless you know you will never develop any sort of feelings for him, I would stay away. I have seen a lot of girls fall for him and it’s not pretty.”

“Oh, trust me, I do not have feelings for him. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I laugh, and hope that it at least sounds genuine.

Steph nods. “Good. So, how much trouble did you get into with your mom and Noah?”

I tell her all about my mother’s lecture, minus the part about me promising not to be friends with her anymore. We spend the rest of the night talking about classes, Tristan, and anything I can think of besides Hardin.

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