Chapter 23 – After

The next day Landon and I meet at the coffeehouse before class to compare notes for Sociology. It took me an hour to get all my notes in order after Hardin’s annoying stunt yesterday. I want to tell Landon about it but I don’t want him to think badly of me, especially now that I know about his mom and Hardin’s dad. Landon must know a ton about Hardin, and I have to keep reminding myself not to ask questions about him. Besides, I don’t care what Hardin does.

The day flies by and finally it’s time for Literature. Per usual, Hardin is in the seat next to mine, but today he doesn’t seem inclined to look my way at all.

“Today will be our last day on Pride and Prejudice,” the professor informs us. “I hope you all have enjoyed it, and since you’ve all read the ending, it feels fitting to base today’s discussion on Austen’s use of foreshadowing. Let me ask: as a reader, did you expect her and Darcy to become a couple in the end?”

Several people murmur or randomly flip through their books like it’ll provide an immediate answer for them, but only Landon and I raise our hands, as always.

“Miss Young,” the professor calls on me.

“Well, the first time I read the novel, I was on the edge of my seat about whether or not they would end up together. Even now—and I have read it at least ten times—I still feel anxious during the beginning of their relationship. Mr. Darcy is so cruel and says such hateful things about Elizabeth and her family that I never know if she can forgive him, let alone love him.” Landon nods at my answer, and I smile.

“That’s a load,” a voice cuts through the stillness. Hardin’s voice.

“Mr. Scott? Would you like to add something?” the professor asks, clearly surprised at Hardin’s participation.

“Sure. I said that’s a load. Women want what they can’t have. Mr. Darcy’s rude attitude is what drew Elizabeth to him, so it was obvious they would end up together,” Hardin says, then picks at his fingernails as if he isn’t the slightest bit interested in the discussion.

“That isn’t true, about women wanting what they can’t have. Mr. Darcy was only mean to her because he was too proud to admit he loved her. Once he stopped his hateful act, she saw that he really loved her,” I say, much louder than I intended.

Much louder. I look around the room and find everyone is staring at me and Hardin.

Hardin exhales. “I don’t know what kind of guys you normally go for, but I think that if he loved her, he wouldn’t have been mean to her. The only reason he even ended up asking for her hand in marriage was because she wouldn’t stop throwing herself at him,” he says with emphasis, and my heart drops. But finally we’re getting at what he’s really thinking.

“She did not throw herself at him! He manipulated her into thinking he was kind and took advantage of her weakness!” I scream, and then the room really, truly goes silent. Hardin’s face is flushed with anger, and I can’t imagine mine looks much different.

“He ‘manipulated’ her? Try again, she is . . . I mean, she was so bored with her boring life that she had to find excitement somewhere—so she certainly was throwing herself at him!” he yells back, his hand gripping the desk.

“Well, maybe if he wasn’t such a manwhore, he could have stopped it after the first time instead of showing up to her room!” After the words leave my mouth, I know that we’ve been exposed, and snickers and gasps are heard throughout the room.

“Okay, lively discussion. I think that’s probably enough on that topic for today . . .” the professor begins, but I grab my bag and run out of the room.

From somewhere behind me in the halls, I hear Hardin’s angry voice yell, “You don’t get to run this time, Theresa!”

I get outside and am crossing the green lawn, about to reach the corner of the block, when he grabs my arm and I jerk away.

“Why do you always touch me like that? Grab my arm again and I will slap you!” I scream. I surprise myself at my harsh words, but I’ve had enough of his crap.

He grabs my arm again, but I can’t manage to follow through on my promise. “What do you want, Hardin? To tell me how desperate I am? To laugh at me for

letting you get to me again? I am so sick of this game with you—I won’t play it any longer. I have a boyfriend who loves me, and you are a terrible person. You really should see a doctor and get some medication for your mood swings! I can’t keep up with you. One second you’re nice, then you’re hateful. I want nothing to do with you, so do yourself a favor and find another girl to play your games, because I’m done!”

“I really do bring out the worst in you, don’t I?” he asks.

I turn away and attempt to shift my focus to the busy sidewalk next to us. A few confused students’ eyes linger on Hardin and me for a beat too long. When I face him again, he’s running his fingers across a small hole at the bottom of his worn black T-shirt.

I expect him to be smiling or laughing, but he’s not. If I didn’t know any better I would think he was . . . hurt? But I do know better and I know he couldn’t care less. “I’m not trying to play games with you,” he says and runs his hand over his head.

“Then what are you doing—because your mood swings give me a headache,” I snap. A small crowd has gathered around us, and I want to curl into a ball and disappear. But I have to know what he will say next.

Why can’t I stay away from him? I know he’s dangerous and toxic. I have never been as mean to someone as I am to him. He deserves it, I know, but I don’t really like being mean to anyone.

Hardin grabs my arm yet again and pulls me into a small alleyway between two buildings, away from the crowd. “Tess, I . . . I don’t know what I am doing. You kissed me first, remember?” he reminds me.

“Yeah . . . I was drunk, remember? And you kissed me first yesterday.” “Yeah . . . You didn’t stop me.” He pauses. “It must be exhausting,” he says. What? “What must be exhausting?”

“Acting like you don’t want me, when we both know you do,” he says, and steps closer.

What? I do not want you. I have a boyfriend.” The words tumble out too fast and reveal their absurdity, making him smile.

“A boyfriend that you’re bored with. Admit it, Tess. Not to me, but to yourself. You’re bored with him.” His voice lowers, and slows to a sensual pace. “Has he ever made you feel the way I do?”

“W-What? Of course he has,” I lie.

“No . . . he hasn’t. I can tell that you’ve never been touched . . . really touched.”

His words send a now-familiar burn through my body. “That’s none of your business,” I say and back away, making him take three steps toward me.

“You have no idea how good I can make you feel,” he says, and I gasp. How does he go from yelling at me to this? And why do I like it so much? I have no words. Hardin’s tone and dirty words make me weak, vulnerable, and confused. I have become a rabbit in a fox’s trap.

“Really, you don’t have to admit it. I can tell,” he says, his voice thick with arrogance.

But all I can do is shake my head. His smile grows and I instinctively back against the wall. He takes a step toward me, and I take a deep, hopeful breath. Not again.

“Your pulse has quickened, hasn’t it? Your mouth is dry. You’re thinking about me and have that feeling . . . down there. Don’t you, Theresa?”

Everything he is saying is true and the more he talks to me like this, the more I want him. It’s strange to crave and hate someone at the same time. The attraction I feel is purely physical, which is surprising considering how opposite he is from Noah. I don’t remember ever being attracted to anyone except Noah.

I know that if I don’t say something now, he will win. I don’t want him to have this power over me and win, too.

“You’re wrong,” I mutter.

But he smiles. And even that sends electricity through me. “I’m never wrong,” he says. “Not about this.”

I step to the side before he fully traps me against the wall. “Why do you keep saying I throw myself at you if you’re the one cornering me now?” I ask, my anger pushing past my lust for this maddening tattooed boy.

“Because you made the first move on me. Don’t get me wrong, I was as surprised as you were.”

“I was drunk and had a long night—as you already know. I was confused because you were being nice to me; well, your version of being nice.” I scoot past him and sit down on the curb so I can get out of his space. Talking to him is so exhausting.

“I’m not that mean to you,” he says, looming over me, but it sounds more like a question than a statement.

“Yeah, you are. You go out of your way to be mean to me. Not just me, but everyone. But it still seems like you are extra hard on me.” I can’t believe I am being this honest with him. I know it’s a matter of minutes before he turns on me.

“That’s just not true. I’m no meaner to you than I am to the rest of the general population.”

I shoot up. I knew I couldn’t have a normal discussion with him. “I don’t know why I keep wasting my time!” I yell. I start walking back toward the main pathway and lawn.

“Hey, I’m sorry. Just come back over here.”

I groan, but my feet react before my brain can catch up, and I end up standing a few feet away from him.

He sits on the curb where I was previously sitting. “Sit,” he demands. And I do.

“You’re sitting awfully far away,” he says, and I roll my eyes. “You don’t trust me?”

“No, of course I don’t. Why would I?”

His face falls slightly as my words hit him, but he recovers quickly. Why would he care if I trusted him?

“Can we just agree to either stay away from each other, or be friends? I don’t have it in me to keep fighting with you.” I sigh, and he moves a little closer.

He takes a deep breath before he speaks. “I don’t want to stay away from you.”

What? My heart beats out of my chest.

“I mean . . . I don’t think we can stay away from each other, with one of my best friends being your roommate and all. So I suppose we should try to be friends.”

Disappointment bubbles up from nowhere, but this is what I want, right? I can’t keep kissing Hardin and cheating on Noah.

“Okay, so friends?” I say, pushing down this feeling. “Friends,” he agrees and reaches out his hand for me to shake.

Not friends with benefits,” I remind him as I shake, only to feel the blood rush to my cheeks.

He chuckles and moves his hand to play with his eyebrow ring. “What makes you say that?”

“Like you don’t know. Steph already told me.” “What, about me and her?”

“You and her, and you and every other girl.” I try to fake a laugh but it comes out as a cough, so I cough a little more to try to cover.

He raises his eyebrow at me but I ignore him. “Well, me and Steph . . . that was fun.” He smiles as if remembering something and I swallow the bile rising in the back of my throat.

“And yeah, I have girls that I fuck. But why would that concern you, friend?”

He’s so nonchalant about the whole thing, but I’m in shock. Hearing him admit to sleeping with other girls shouldn’t bother me but it does. He isn’t mine: Noah is. Noah is. Noah is, I remind myself.

“It doesn’t. I just don’t want you to think that I will be one of those girls.”

“Aww . . . are you jealous, Theresa?” he mocks me, and I shove him. There is no way in hell I will ever admit that.

“No, absolutely not. I feel sorry for the girls.”

He raises his eyebrows playfully. “Oh, you shouldn’t. They enjoy it, trust me.” “Okay, okay. I get it. Can we please just change the subject?” I sigh and lift my head back to look at the sky. I need to clear the image of Hardin and his harem out of my mind. “So, will you try to be nicer to me?” “Sure. Will you try not to be so uptight and bitchy all the time?”

Looking at the clouds, I dreamily say, “I’m not bitchy; you’re just obnoxious.” I look at him and start laughing; fortunately he joins in. It’s a nice change from screaming at each other. I know we haven’t really resolved the big issue here, which is the feelings that I may or may not have for him, but if I can just get him to stop kissing me, I can focus back on Noah and stop this terrible cycle before it gets worse.

“Look at us, two friends.” His accent is so cute when he isn’t being rude.

Hell, even then it is, but when his voice is soft his accent makes it so much softer, like velvet. The way words roll off his tongue and through his pink lips . . . I can’t think about his lips. I tear my eyes away from his face and stand up, wiping my skirt off.

“That skirt really is dreadful, Tess. If we’re going to be friends you need to not wear that anymore.”

For a second I’m hurt, but when I look up at him, he’s smiling. This must be the way he jokes; still rude, but I’ll take this over his usual pure malice.

My phone alarm vibrates. “I need to get back and study,” I tell him. “You set an alarm to study?”

“I set an alarm for a lot of things; it’s just something I do.” I hope he just lets this topic go.

“Well, set an alarm for us to do something fun tomorrow after class,” he says.

Who is this and where is the real Hardin?

“I don’t think my idea of fun is the same as yours.” I can’t even imagine what “fun” is to Hardin.

“Well, we’ll only sacrifice a few cats, burn down only a few buildings . . .” I can’t stop the giggle from escaping and he smiles back.

“Really, though, you could use some fun, and since we are new friends, we should do something fun.”

I need a few moments to contemplate whether I should be alone with Hardin before I answer him. But before I can answer, he turns to walk away. “Good, I’m glad you’re aboard. See you tomorrow.”

And he’s gone.

I don’t say anything; I just sit back down on the curb. My head is spinning from the last twenty minutes. First, he basically offered me sex, telling me I have no idea how good he could make me feel; then, a few minutes later, he was agreeing to try to be nice to me; then we were laughing and joking and it was nice. There are still so many questions I have about him, but I think I can be friends with Hardin, like Steph is. Okay, not like Steph is, but like Nate or one of their other friends who hang out with him.

This is really the best thing. No more kissing, no more sexual advances from him. Just friends.

But as I walk back to my room, past all the other kids going about without any knowledge of Hardin or his ways, I can’t quite manage to shake the fear that I just walked into another one of his traps.

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